DETROIT – When Negaunee senior Phil Nelson returned the opening kickoff of the second half Friday and tied the Division 6 championship game at 14, it woke something up inside Ford Field.
Unfortunately for Negaunee, that something was Timmy Kloska.
“I just saw that kick return, and it really fired me up,” the Grand Rapids West Catholic senior running back said. “Our o-line got going, the holes were opening and we just got going.”
Kloska dominated the rest of the game, rushing for 172 yards and four touchdowns during the second half, leading West Catholic to a 59-14 victory. It was the sixth Finals title for West Catholic, and first since 2017.
The Falcons’ 59 points set the record for an 11-player Final, breaking the mark set by both Flint Powers Catholic and Saginaw Nouvel in 2011.
“It’s great,” said Kloska, who finished with 241 yards rushing for the game. “Me and all my friends, and all the players on the team, we’ve worked really hard for this. This has been a dream since we were in seventh grade, watching all those state championships. It’s a great feeling because we’ve worked so hard.”
West Catholic put on an offensive display, gaining 520 yards of total offense and averaging 14.9 yards per play. That number sat at 16.8 yards per play entering the fourth quarter.
The Falcons had five touchdowns of longer than 30 yards, and three longer than 60. They were also remarkably balanced, as they gained 295 yards on the ground and 225 through the air on the arm of quarterback Bernie Varnesdeel.
“Our coaches, all week, have put us in good positions,” said junior receiver Carter Perry, who had touchdown receptions of 72 and 32 yards in the first half. “When you get put in that position, it’s almost easy to make the plays and execute them.”
It started right away, too, as Perry’s 72-yard score came on the first play from scrimmage.
“I knew right before the game he was going to be wide open,” Varnesdeel said. “We were working on that play all week at practice, and he’s been open most of the time. He was the main option right there, so I just hit him and executed.”
Despite the big-play success, West Catholic (13-1) wasn’t able to pull away from Negaunee because it barely had the ball during the first half.
Negaunee (13-1) had a 20:03-3:57 edge in time of possession, and ran 37 plays to West Catholic’s 13. But it took until the final play of the half for the Miners to get on the scoreboard. They scored on a 6-yard pass from Ty Jacobson to Nelson on 4th-and-goal to make it 14-7 at halftime. The scoring toss was set up by a 32-yard pass on a reverse flea flicker from Jacobson to Eli VanBuren on a third down near midfield.
“Our gameplan was really similar from the first half to the second half, but you have to give Negaunee a lot of credit,” West Catholic coach Landon Grove said. “They did a really good job. They slowed the game down. They ate up a lot of clock. That’s credit to them. They got us out of rhythm, and they kind of forced our hand a little bit by not letting us have the football.”
When Nelson ran the kick back to start the second half and tie the game at 14, it seemed as if Negaunee’s strategy was working perfectly.
But West Catholic’s 45 unanswered points to end the game negated all of that.
“We ran out of gas,” Negaunee coach Paul Jacobson said. “We played toe-to-toe with them for a half, Phil had a great return to start the second half. I don’t know if we woke a sleeping giant. It was a combination of that, and we kind of ran out of gas. Then they rolled that second half on us.”
The Falcons scored 31 points in the third quarter, and didn’t take up a lot of time in doing so.
Kloska had touchdown runs of 61, 16 and 3 yards, and Varnesdeel threw his third touchdown pass of the game, a 68-yarder to Andrew McAlary. Carson Beekman added a 31-yard field goal.
Those five drives lasted a total of 4:35.
The difference between the third quarter and the first half, however, was that the West Catholic defense was getting the Negaunee offense off the field.
“Kind of our M.O. this year has been third quarters,” Grove said. “Kind of coming out with our hair on fire and taking over games. That’s what we did again today. That’s a testament to our defensive staff for making those adjustments they needed to make. Then our kids buying into those adjustments and believing in the process.”
Kloska added a 13-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, while Elliot Zainea had a 26-yard touchdown run for the Falcons.
Varnesdeel was 5-of-10 passing on the night for his 225 yards and three scores. McAlary had three catches for 121 yards, and Perry had his two for 104.
Charlie DeBruyn led the West Catholic defense with 10 tackles, including 3.5 for loss, and forced a fumble.
Kai Lacar led Negaunee with 45 yards rushing, and Ty Jacobson was 7-of-12 passing for 78 yards.
“I’m just proud of these guys, the way they battled adversity,” Paul Jacobson said. “They battled a ton of different stuff this year. Just the ups and downs, they were able to stick together. We really preach a family mentality, and they stuck together through and through. I’m proud of these guys.”
PHOTOS (Top) West Catholic’s Carter Perry (13) gets upfield during his team’s Division 6 championship win. (Middle) The Falcons’ Danny Groskiewicz (24) and Joe Debski bring down a Negaunee ball carrier. (Below) West Catholic players celebrate Friday’s win. (Click for more from Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)
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.)