By Ron Pesch
Special for Second Half
The word has always been a complex recipe of conviction, trust, belief and loyalty. Sometimes it brings ecstasy, while other times it brings heartbreak. Sometimes it carries surprise.
On a beautiful autumn day 10 seasons ago, Muskegon Big Reds football players, coaches, and fans found their faith tested to the extreme.
Some fans simply couldn’t stand to watch, and departed early, heading to the parking lots surrounding Michigan State University’s Spartan Stadium in East Lansing to get a jump on west-bound traffic. A colossal upset, it seemed, was no longer in the making. Rather, the outcome appeared obvious.
The 2007 regular season was an impressive one for Muskegon. For the first time the Big Reds were competing in the Red division of the Ottawa-Kent Conference, comprised of the largest league schools based on enrollment and considered by many the toughest football league in the state. The reigning MHSAA Division 2 champion, Muskegon rolled to eight straight victories, earning the No. 1 ranking in the Detroit Free Press. Most of the wins were in dominating fashion, included a stunning 52-0 win over No. 2-ranked Hudsonville in the seventh game of the season.
The streak set the stage for a battle with once-beaten Rockford at historic Hackley Stadium in the final game of the regular season before the cameras of NFL Films. It ended in shattering disappointment as the favored Big Reds lost a lead and fell, 28-21, to the Rams. The following week, Muskegon barely slipped past unranked Grand Rapids Ottawa Hills in the final seconds, 38-35, in the opening round of the MHSAA Playoffs, then melted down in a rematch with Hudsonville as the Eagles thumped the Big Reds, 41-7, in the postseason’s second round.
With 18 graduating starters, many questions hovered as the team hung up the pads and headed into basketball and the winter sports schedule. Among those who would graduate were a pair of Associated Press all-state selections, quarterback Chris Crawford, a three-year starter who had guided the Big Reds to the 2006 title, and offensive lineman Carlin Landingham. The Free Press had named Landingham to its statewide Dream Team, and added line mate Mac Parker to its Division 2 selections.
In February, an even bigger question surfaced: “Who will coach the Big Reds?” Coach Tony Annese announced his decision to resign as head coach, noting his desire to spend more time with his family.
But when possible replacements turned down the job, Annese decided to return. Writing in the Free Press prior to the start of the season under his alias, the ‘Son of Swami’, veteran sports writer Mick McCabe joked that “when Annese’s family found out, they huddled and told him they liked him better when he was bugging other people’s kids and made him return to coaching.” In his preseason announcement of the state’s top 25 prep teams, McCabe recognized that 2008 would be a rebuilding year, ranking the Big Reds No. 22. “Although inexperienced, this is a bright group that has run the system at lower levels.”
Muskegon kicked off the new season with a pair of nonconference contests against top-tier schools. The opener, played at Eastern Michigan University as part of the Big Day Prep Showdown, pitted Muskegon against Detroit Martin Luther King, the 2007 Division 2 champ. A dream matchup based on past performances, in reality, the game featured two teams in the throes of renewal. King, like Muskegon, had been hit hard by graduation. Among the departures were defensive standout Nick Perry, a future No. 1 pick of the Green Bay Packers, and Darrin Williams, who had rushed for more 5,600 yards during his days at King. The Crusaders had failed to make McCabe’s preseason rankings.
Still, the Big Reds were impressive. Led by quarterback Elan Banks, who was starting his first varsity game, and the one-two punch of Jason Hannett and Anthony Davis in the backfield, the Big Reds rolled to an impressive 35-0 win. The Crusaders had difficulty adjusting to Muskegon’s quick no-huddle option offense. Will Gardner highlighted the day with a 91-yard touchdown on a kickoff return.
Week 2 of the season brought perennial state powerhouse Birmingham Brother Rice to Muskegon for a Saturday afternoon contest. Playing in the always-tough Detroit Catholic League, the Warriors had advanced to the MHSAA Division 2 championship contest in five of the previous 10 seasons. Coached by the legendary Al Fracassa, Brother Rice had won six state titles, earning two since 1999. McCabe had the Warriors ranked No. 3 in the preseason. Victorious in Week 1, Brother Rice was favored to win, but once again, the Big Reds cruised to victory, 42-27.
With the wins, Muskegon quickly jumped in the weekly polls to No. 4 in Division 2 and No. 7 in McCabe’s Super 10 – a ranking of all schools, regardless of enrollment classification. Next up was the second year of conference play against O-K Red opponents. Holland West Ottawa (49-14) and Grand Haven (43-6) both were defeated easily. Grandville was defeated 28-14.
All eyes quickly focused on the team’s game with Hudsonville. Led by powerful running back and linebacker Jordan Jonker, the Eagles had a single loss to Rockford, 15-12 in Week 4, then rolled to a 44-17 win over East Kentwood. Jonker had 323 yards in the contest against the Falcons.
The Big Reds didn’t make it easy on themselves, turning over the ball four times in the first half. But Banks was spectacular at quarterback, throwing for a school record 318 yards (the total still stands today) and a pair of touchdowns. He finished with 22 completions on 31 attempts without throwing an interception in the 29-26 win.
“Defensively, the Big Reds did an exceptional job against Hudsonville’s Jonker,” wrote McCabe in Sunday’s Free Press, “but not until after he scored on a 67-yard run on the team’s first possession. Jonker finished with 95 yards on 12 carries and added a touchdown on a 72-yard fumble recovery.”
East Kentwood was next on the Muskegon schedule, and was defeated 42-0. Week 7 brought the top-ranked team in Division 1, the Rockford Rams, with the contest to be played at Rockford. For the state’s game of the week, a crowd of 13,657 packed Ted Carlson Memorial Stadium.
“(Muskegon’s 34-6) victory over Rockford wasn’t a stunning upset because the Big Reds were also 7-0 and ranked No. 2 in Division 2,” wrote McCabe in his Free Press coverage of the game. “But what was stunning was Rockford’s minus-44 yards rushing. Nobody does that to Rockford. It is a victory that will catapult the Big Reds to the No. 1 spot in both our Super 10 and Division 2 rankings this week.”
Muskegon’s 64-22 win over Jenison boosted the team’s record to 9-0, earning the Big Reds outright possession of the O-K Red title in only their second year of competition in the league. It also gave the subs the opportunity to gain additional game experience before the postseason.
Holland, earning a spot in the playoffs for the first time in school history, was Muskegon’s first-round postseason opponent and was quickly disposed of, 49-13. That set the stage for a rematch with Hudsonville.
Played on a muddy, rain-soaked Hackley Field, the first half of the game saw the Big Reds score twice by converting a pair of Hudsonville interceptions into touchdowns. Just before the half, the Eagles recovered a Muskegon fumble at the Big Reds 9-yard line and threatened to put points on the board, but a Hudsonville fumble on the 2-yard line with 28 seconds left to play was snagged by Muskegon’s Carleton Johnson. The Big Reds ran out the clock, and the teams headed to the locker room with Muskegon up 12-0.
Hudsonville regrouped and responded with an 84-yard, 12-play drive. A 49-yard screen pass from QB Casey Blackport to tight end Christian Prince set up a two-yard romp into the end zone by Jonker late in the third quarter to pull the Eagles within a touchdown, 12-6. Hudsonville’s defense provided the opportunity for a win by shutting down the Big Reds offense on fourth down in each of Muskegon’s next four possessions. Following a huge stop of Hannett on a 4th-and-inches play at the Hudsonville 19, the Eagles gained control of the ball with 3:18 to play.
Blackport again went to work, throwing a 17-yard strike to Jordan Keur, then finding Prince, who broke a tackle and dashed down the right sideline for a 50-yard gain to the Muskegon 11. Still, the Big Reds defense held steady, and facing fourth down with 1:14 remaining, Hudsonville lined up for a final shot at the end zone. Blackport’s pass deep in the corner went through the hands of Keur and fell incomplete. Muskegon took over on downs and ran out the clock to advance with a second close win over the Eagles.
The third week of postseason play brought the undefeated Red Arrows of Lowell. While the Free Press had Muskegon at No. 1 at the end of the regular season, the final Associated Press poll showed Lowell at No. 1 in Division 2 with the Big Reds second in the rankings. Based on strength of schedule, Muskegon edged out the Red Arrows in MHSAA playoff points; hence, the Big Reds held home field advantage. Since Hackley Field was in rough shape after the Hudsonville game, Muskegon officials chose to move the contest to the field turf of Grand Haven’s Buccaneer Stadium. Although Big Reds fans were not pleased with giving up home field advantage, Muskegon excelled on the artificial surface, and at halftime held an overwhelming 27-point lead. At game’s end, the Big Reds had scored a 49-14 victory over Lowell before a crowd of 8,500.
Jason Hannett had a career game, running for 183 yards on 15 carries. Defensively, he set the tone with a 4th-and-1 stop of Lowell quarterback Kyle Nichol at the 43 late in the first half.
“Muskegon (12-0) dominated in every facet of the game,” wrote McCabe, “except punting, because the Big Reds didn’t have to punt. They scored the first six times they had the ball …
“’I just know what our kids have done to some other teams this year,’ added Lowell coach Noel Dean. ‘And to be on the other end of that tells you how good (the Big Reds) really are.’”
With the District trophy in hand, Muskegon prepared for Davison in the Regional title game to be played as part of a doubleheader at Michigan State University’s Spartan Stadium. A 25-19 winner over Midland, Davison arguably had played the toughest non-conference schedule in the state, beating Orchard Lake St. Mary’s and Holt late in the year, but losing to Lowell in Week 1, Rockford in the second week and Lansing Sexton in Week 5.
Muskegon was still the overwhelming favorite entering the game. Two years previous, Muskegon had soundly defeated the Cardinals 43-21 in a Semifinal contest at Midland on the way to an undefeated season and the 2006 championship.
Indeed, the Big Reds opened the contest strong, scoring on a 49-yard run by Banks for a 7-0 lead with just under two minutes gone in the first quarter. Following a stop by the defense, it looked like Muskegon would go up 14-0, but a fumble by Banks at the goal line on Muskegon’s second possession halted the drive. The Cardinals took advantage of the miscue when sophomore QB Jake Thompson connected with Ron Silver on a 70-yard touchdown pass to tie the game at 7-7 with 2:25 left in the first quarter. On Muskegon’s next possession, Davison’s Adam Green picked off a pass and returned it 69 yards to the Muskegon 1, setting up a one-yard TD run by the Cardinals’ Oliver Saylor. Suddenly, Davison held a surprising 14-7 lead with 1:57 to play in the first.
The Cardinals capitalized on another Muskegon fumble late in the second quarter, scoring on a 27-yard toss by Thompson to Dan Thwing, increasing the lead to 21-7 with 1:09 to play in the half. This time, however, the Big Reds responded immediately, showing their explosiveness with a 15-yard TD toss from Banks to Karey Webb as time expired in the first half. The kick failed but, to the relief of Big Reds fans, Muskegon had pulled within eight, 21-13. After a disastrous first half, the Big Reds entered the locker room with some momentum.
But that energy was quickly lost. Two muffed punts by Muskegon in the third quarter led to a 35-13 Cardinals lead with 4:45 to play in the third quarter. Following a 55-yard dash by Hannett, Anthony Davis scored from a yard out for the Big Reds with 1:54 left in the quarter, but the extra point attempt again failed and Muskegon trailed, 35-19.
Time rapidly became Muskegon’s biggest enemy when Davison’s Kevin Yoesting stopped Davis on a 4th-and-1 with less than nine minutes to play in the fourth quarter. A time-consuming Cardinals drive, highlighted by a pair of long runs by Saylor, set up a Davison first down at the Muskegon 20 with just over five minutes to play, Many Big Reds fans headed for the exits, shaking their heads in disbelief. Cardinals fans celebrated during a timeout in what appeared to be certain victory.
But a huge stop by the Muskegon defense began a comeback unseen in MHSAA playoff history.
“It started after Banks and Karey Webb hooked up on a 77-yard TD pass to pull Muskegon within 35-25 (with 4:31 remaining),” wrote Mike Mattson in the Muskegon Chronicle. Yet on the 2-point conversion attempt, Yoesting again came up big for Davison, tackling Banks just short of the end zone and the Big Reds still trailed by 10 points, needing two possessions for victory.
Jubenal Rodriguez, who had never played football until the third game of the 2007 season, laid down a successful onside kick that was recovered by Dominique Maybanks.
“Seven plays later,” continued Mattson, “Banks and Maybanks connected on a 27-yard TD pass to trim the deficit to 35-31 at the 2:33 mark.”
“The next onside kick didn't travel 10 yards, but hit a Davison player,” wrote Bill Khan of the Flint Journal. “Maybanks again recovered, this time at the 46-yard line. The winning drive was a six-play, 54-yard march, all on the ground. On the winning touchdown, (slot receiver Greg) Wickliffe took a pitch from Banks on the left side, got some blocks and went into the end zone untouched with 42 seconds on the clock. Rodriguez made the extra point to make it a three-point game.”
Davison drove to the Muskegon 32 with 11 seconds remaining, but a pass to the middle of the end zone was picked off by Banks, sealing the astonishing 38-35 comeback win and starting a wild celebration by the players, coaches and the Big Reds fans who had remained to the end.
"I was running as fast as I could,'' Wickliffe said to Mattson during the postgame on-field party. "I saw daylight and just took off as fast as I could. This is amazing.''
“I always say one of the five have to be a fortunate victory,” Annese said to McCabe about the five-game path to a state title. “You’re going to have one of those games – it happens every year. In 2006 it was the final game. In 2004 it was Bay City Western.”
The trip to Ford Field came next.
“Muskegon's (34-14) rout of (Warren DeLaSalle) looked similar to its season-opening 35-0 whitewash of Detroit Martin Luther King back in August,” wrote Shawn Liverance in the Chronicle’s coverage of the Division 2 title game. “A tough-as-nails defense and an offense filled with playmakers was too much for DeLaSalle as it was for Muskegon's 13 other opponents this year.”
Ten years later, Muskegon and Davison again line up for another shot at glory in the 2018 edition of the MHSAA playoffs. There is no chance for a rematch, as the Cardinals compete in Division 1 and Muskegon plays in Division 3.
Only one sure thing has been revealed in more than 100 years of prep football in Michigan. The game’s not over until it’s over. Who knows what twists and turns the 2018 postseason might bring?
Ron Pesch has taken an active role in researching the history of MHSAA events since 1985 and began writing for MHSAA Finals programs in 1986, adding additional features and "flashbacks" in 1992. He inherited the title of MHSAA historian from the late Dick Kishpaugh following the 1993-94 school year, and resides in Muskegon. Contact him at [email protected] with ideas for historical articles.
PHOTOS: (Top) The Detroit Free Press captured the postgame celebration by Muskegon’s players after their comeback win over Davison in 2008. (Middle top) The 2008 Muskegon team, top, and the 2008 Davison team. (Middle) The Flint Journal captured the action, including Jake Thompson’s run, as Davison jumped out to a big lead. (Middle below) Davison players suddenly saw their season come to a close at Spartan Stadium.
LAWRENCE — While COVID-19 affected many students in different ways, it definitely made an impact on Austin Vasquez.
As a freshman at Lawrence High School during the pandemic, Vasquez lost his grandmother Theresa Phillips to cancer on March 25, 2021.
Two days later, on March 27, his father Tom Vasquez, died of complications from COVID. And on April 19 that spring, his grandfather Darrell “Gene” Phillips also lost his fight against the coronavirus.
“There is no way (to cope). You just have to keep on moving,” Austin said. “It’s what (my dad) would want me to do.
“He was my biggest (influence) in sports. He talked to me about never giving up – leave everything you’ve got.”
That is just what Vasquez is doing in the midst of his three-sport senior year.
He is the top wrestler at the school, competing at 175 pounds with a goal of making the MHSAA Tournament. He was a versatile contributor on the football field this past fall, and he’s planning to join the baseball team this spring.
He’s 8-3 with six pins on the mat this winter after a busy summer of camps and tournaments. Those experiences helped lessen the nerves he’d felt during matches previously, and now he’s wrestling with an outlook of “everything to gain and nothing to lose.”
And Vasquez said he feels his dad’s presence as he prepares for competition.
“Before every match, before every game, I just think about what my dad would be telling me,” he said. “Everything he’s always told me has taught me to get better.
“In life, I still remember everything he taught me. He was definitely a great man, and I want to be like him someday.”
Wrestling also has made Vasquez more in tune with his health.
His sophomore season he went from 230 pounds to 215, and by his junior year was down to his current 175.
“I just wanted to be healthier, not just for wrestling,” he said. “I started going to the gym every night, watched my calories, and from there grew (taller).
“Now I’m at 6-(foot-)2, and I don’t know how that happened,” he laughed.
Lawrence coach Henry Payne said Vasquez always has a positive attitude and helps the other wrestlers in the program.
“When he notices a kid next to him doing a move wrong, he’ll go over and show him the right way,” Payne said. “We have a lot of young kids that this is their first year, and he’s been a good coach’s helper.”
The coach’s helper gig will continue after graduation.
"Next year we’re hoping to open up a youth program here, and I got him and an alumni that graduated last year and is helping the varsity team this year (Conner Tangeman) to take over the youth program for us,” Payne said.
On the football team, Vasquez was a jack of all trades.
“He started at guard, went to tight end, went to our wingback, went to our running back. He was trying to get the quarterback spot,” football coach Derek Gribler laughed.
Vasquez said there is no other feeling like being on the field, especially during home games.
“Wrestling is my main sport, but I’d do anything to go back and play football again,” he said. “I just love it.”
Although the football team struggled through a 1-8 season, “It was still a really fun season,” Vasquez said. “Everybody was super close. Most of us never really talked before, but we instantly became like a family.”
Vasquez had the support of his mother, Heather, and four older sisters: Makaylah, Briahna, Ahlexis and Maryah. He also found his school family helped him get through the end of his freshman year.
“(My friends) were always there for me when everything was going on,” he said. “I took that last month off school because it was too hard to be around people at that time.
"Every single one of them reached out and said, ‘Hey, I know you’re going through a rough time.’ It really helped to hear that and get out of the house.”
The family connection between Vasquez and Lawrence athletic director John Guillean goes back to the senior’s youth.
“I was girls basketball coach, so I coached his sisters,” Guillean said. “I remember him when he was pretty young. I knew the family pretty well. I knew his dad. He was pretty supportive and was there for everything.”
Vasquez said that freshman year experience has made him appreciate every day, and he gives the following advice: “Every time you’re wrestling, it could be your last time on the mat or last time on the field. Treat every game and every match as if it’s going to be your last. If you’re committed to the sport, take every chance you have to help your team be successful.”
Gribler has known Vasquez since he was in seventh grade and, as also the school’s varsity baseball coach, will work with Vasquez one more time with the senior planning to add baseball as his spring sport.
“When we talk about Tiger Pride, Austin’s a kid that you can put his face right on the logo. His work ethic is just unbelievable,” Gribler said. “Everything he does is with a smile. He could be having the worst day of his life, and he’d still have a smile on his face. He pushes through. It’s tough to do and amazing to see.”
The coach – who also starred at Lawrence as an athlete – noted the small community’s ability to rally around Vasquez and his family. Lawrence has about 150 students in the high school.
“It goes beyond sports,” Gribler said. “Austin knows when he needs something he can always reach out and we’ll have his back, we’ll have his family’s back. It’s not so much about winning as it is about the kids.”
Vasquez is already looking ahead to life after high school. He attends morning courses at Van Buren Tech, studying welding, and returns to the high school for afternoon classes.
“I’d like to either work on the pipeline as a pipeline welder or be a lineman,” he said, adding, “possibly college. I would like to wrestle in college, but let’s see how this year goes.
“I’m ready to get out, but it’s going to be hard to leave this all behind.”
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Lawrence senior Andrew Vasquez, right, wrestles against Hartford this season. (2) Vasquez works on gaining the advantage in a match against Mendon. (3) From left: Lawrence wrestling coach Henry Payne, athletic director John Guillean and football and baseball coach Derek Gribler. (4) Vasquez also was a standout on the football field. (Wrestling and football photos courtesy of the Lawrence athletic department. Headshots by Pam Shebest.)