By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half
Muskegon Oakridge had an extra reason to celebrate in the rain on Friday night.
It was about more than just overcoming sloppy conditions and the never-say-die Montague Wildcats in a matchup of No. 1 vs. No. 2 in The Associated Press’ Division 5 rankings. There was more to it than getting a leg up in the West Michigan Conference race with a thrilling 15-13 overtime win.
This was about overcoming two of the most heartbreaking losses imaginable one year ago – and dedicating the win to those who never got a shot at redemption.
“That win was for those seniors from last year,” said Oakridge running back Leroy Quinn, a four-year starter who rushed for both of his team’s touchdowns and a game-high 144 yards, putting him over 4,000 rushing yards for his career. “I love those guys, and I miss them. We all grieved together last year, and now we’re celebrating for them.”
Oakridge led Montague in their 2018 meeting 24-10 with 3:45 remaining, when the Wildcats roared back with two touchdown passes and then a game-winning, 2-point conversion run by Sebastian Archer with no time on the clock for a 25-24 win.
It was the type of gut-wrenching loss which is hard to shake off.
“It’s a helpless feeling,” said Oakridge senior nose guard and offensive tackle Will Scraver. “The only thing you can do is try to forget and focus on the next game.”
Unfortunately, less than one month later, Oakridge would experience an even more bitter defeat. The Eagles’ second loss had finality as it came in the MHSAA District championship game, as they squandered a seemingly safe 35-8 halftime lead in a stunning 40-37 loss to Hudsonville Unity Christian. Adding salt to the wound was having to sit home and watch Unity then roll over its next three opponents en route to the Division 5 championship.
“Sometimes it’s hard to put those losses behind when you have umpteen people coming up to you at the store or the gas station asking you what the heck happened,” said Harger, who is in his ninth year as the Oakridge coach after serving for 16 years under Jack Schugars, the all-time winningest coach in Muskegon-area football history.
“All we can do, as coaches and players, is to learn from our mistakes and to take care of all the little things so that we win those kind of games.”
Oakridge, 5-0 and now No. 1 in Division 5 in the latest Associated Press poll, has been focused and motivated this fall – starting with a tough road test at Belding and most recently with the big revenge win at Montague.
Oakridge and Montague were scoreless through three quarters and tied, 7-7, after regulation. Quinn scored from three yards out in overtime, then added what proved to be the game-winning 2-point conversion run. Montague answered with a 10-yard pass from Drew Collins to Brennan Schwarz, but Nate Fair and Corey Vanderputte stuffed the 2-point conversion attempt.
Quinn, a 6-foot-1, 233-pound battering ram, has led the way with 465 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. He now has 4,065 career rushing yards, eclipsing David Nelson’s previous school record, and needs five more rushing TDs to pass Jamie Potts for that school mark.
Quinn’s play thus far has been no surprise, but how quickly others have stepped up in the backfield and on the line is the reason why Oakridge is back to No. 1 in the state.
Junior quarterback Ethen Dailey (5-11, 145) has done a solid job managing the Eagles’ offense, and speedy sophomore Vanderputte has emerged as the breakaway threat.
But it was the play of the offensive line, where Fair is the only returning starter, that keyed the win at Montague.
Oakridge, which lined up in a double tight end, full-house backfield look most of the game and threw only two passes (completing none), finished with a 222-70 edge in rushing yards.
“With the tradition out here, there are always new players ready to step up,” said Fair, who also starts at inside linebacker. “We might not have a lot of big names on the line, but we knew we were going to be good.”
Four of the Eagles’ five interior linemen are seniors, with the lone exception sophomore center Derek Driscoll. The guards are seniors Josh Havermans and Jason Pego and the tackles are Fair and Scraver. Starting at tight end are junior Luke Martin and sophomore Ethan Josza.
Harger is not ready to start talking about avenging last year’s playoff loss, as his team still has tough games remaining at North Muskegon in Week 7 and the final two weeks of the regular season at home against Ravenna and first-time opponent Traverse City St. Francis.
Oakridge could also have a couple of new playoff challenges close to home. While the Eagles appear a lock to be in Division 5, they may be joined by resurgent neighbor Muskegon Orchard View (on the bubble of Division 4 and 5) and Montague (on the Division 5 and 6 bubble).
“Our motto this year is: ‘Exceed Expectations’ and, considering the group we lost last year, these guys have done that so far,” said Harger, who is 75-16 and has made the playoffs in each of his first eight years as head coach.
“This is not a real rah-rah group of kids. I think they just love to play football and with the way last year ended, they are thankful for the opportunity to come out and play again.”
Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) The Oakridge sideline celebrates late in the Eagles' 15-13 overtime win at Montague. (Middle) Oakridge senior Leroy Quinn, who became the school's all-time leading career rusher earlier this season, runs through a big hole into the end zone for a touchdown. (Photos by Tim Reilly.)
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.)