DETROIT – Battling back to overcome a slow start was a theme to Jackson Lumen Christi’s football season.
After starting the fall 0-3, Lumen Christi rattled off 10 straight wins to advance to Saturday’s Division 7 championship game.
So when the Titans faced a 12-point, fourth-quarter deficit against Traverse City St. Francis, there was no panic on the sidelines – just motivation to overcome it.
“Everybody, we just don’t give up,” Lumen Christi running back Derrick Walker said. “We all know the work we put in, and everything we did in the offseason and throughout the season. There were not too many people that believed in us, but we believed in ourselves. I told them that we’re not out of this game until the clock hits zero.”
Walker and his teammates had one more comeback in them, rallying for a 15-12 victory against the Gladiators to claim the school’s 12th Finals title, and first since 2018.
The win avenged one of those three losses from the beginning of the season, as St. Francis topped Lumen Christi 42-35 in Week 2.
“It was so motivating,” Lumen Christi quarterback Joe Lathers said of the early-season loss. “That’s the one thing that we were talking about all week, that we played them and lost to them earlier in the season. Also, we had an 0-3 start and faced so much adversity. A lot of people doubted us.”
Being doubted isn’t something Lumen Christi (11-3) has been able to claim often, especially not during the more than 40 years coach Herb Brogan has been in charge. Saturday’s victory was his 395th leading Lumen Christi, compared to 94 losses. It was also his 10th Finals title, breaking a tie for second most by a coach with former Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice coach Al Fracassa. Former Farmington Hills Harrison coach John Herrington holds the record with 13.
“It’s the same as the other nine (titles),” Brogan said. “It’s just great for the kids. Because no matter how many we’ve had before, they haven’t had one. That’s where the focus is at.”
Getting to No. 10 was a grind, not only in navigating the 0-3 start to the season, but in getting anything going against the Gladiators’ defense.
Lumen Christi had just 64 yards of offense at halftime, as it trailed 12-0. Eventually, though, the Titans began to find some success, specifically on the ground with Lathers. Lumen rushed for 112 yards in the fourth quarter as it mounted its comeback. Lathers had 89 of those fourth-quarter yards, and finished the game with 115 yards on the ground and 99 through the air.
Lathers scored Lumen Christi’s first touchdown on an 18-yard run 50 seconds into the fourth quarter, while Walker scored on a 2-yard run with 7:05 to play. An extra point by Andrew Salazar, and a two-point fumble recovered in the end zone by Conor Smith, ended up making the three-point difference.
“I think one of the things, I think that hurt them, is they’re so good they didn’t have to play many four-quarter games,” Brogan said. “Then you move from the up north environment to indoors and it gets hot like it did, I think they wore down a little bit.”
St. Francis (13-1) would get the ball just once more after Walker’s score, and that drive ended on an interception by Lumen Christi’s Alex Pastoriza.
Lumen Christi took over with 6:21 left on the clock and ran it all the way down by getting four first downs. The biggest was the first, as Walker converted a 4th-and-1 from the Lumen Christi 46-yard line.
“I had confidence that we were going to be able to get it,” Brogan said. “Too many bad things happen when you punt the ball. We struggled with the snap a few times. They came close to blocking the one. I felt good about our chances.”
The play was close, but Walker was sure of it before he hit the ground.
“The line had a great push,” he said. “I knew I had it. I was screaming, ‘Yes sir,’ as I was going down. Great push.”
While Lumen Christi’s offense was getting going, its defense was standing firm. St. Francis gained just 29 yards in the second half, after going for 200 in the first. The Gladiators also barely had the ball, as they ran just 12 second-half plays.
“We won the first half and lost the second half,” St. Francis coach Josh Sellers said. “We didn’t play how we typically play, but a lot of that had to do with the way Jackson Lumen Christi played us today. It’s a bitter pill to swallow for sure, especially because a lot of these guys were in the same position a couple of years ago, and had the intent of righting that runner-up finish with a championship. We just couldn’t get it done today.”
St. Francis built its lead with a pair of rushing touchdowns in the second quarter. Joey Donahue had the first with a 1-yard run, while Wyatt Nausadis had the second with a 9-yard run.
Nausadis finished with a team-leading 77 yards rushing. Donahue and Josh Hagelstein each had 13 tackles for the Gladiators, with Hagelstein adding a pair of interceptions. Garrett Hathaway had eight tackles, including four for loss and two sacks.
Smith and Devian Franklin led the Lumen Christi defense with seven tackles apiece.
PHOTOS (Top) Lumen Christi quarterback Joe Lathers (12) charges toward the end zone during the fourth quarter of Saturday’s Division 7 Final. (Middle) The Titans’ Derrick Walker (4) and Conor Smith (99) celebrate Walker’s fourth-quarter touchdown. (Below) Britton Hampton (3) makes his move during the kickoff return. (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.)