By Bill Khan
Special to Second Half
DETROIT — The Grand Rapids South Christian community wouldn't allow Derek Woltjer to feel nervous or unsure of himself.
As soon as it became apparent that he would start for injured star quarterback Jon Wassink in the MHSAA Division 4 championship game, Woltjer was bombarded with encouraging messages from fans, teammates and friends.
Wassink broke his collarbone a week ago in a Semifinal victory over Comstock Park. Later that night, Woltjer was told he would start the title game against Detroit Country Day on Friday at Ford Field.
"I felt awful that he couldn't play," Woltjer said. "He's one of the biggest parts of our team, but I was ready to step up. I had people calling me, giving me texts that night, telling me they believe in me, telling me they have full confidence, telling me they stand behind me. I was very blessed with the people in the community."
That kind of support had a calming effect on Woltjer, who accounted for four touchdowns in South Christian's 40-7 victory over Country Day.
Woltjer, a senior who played sparingly at quarterback this season, was 7 for 7 for 88 yards and two touchdowns, while rushing 15 times for a game-high 136 yards and two scores.
"If I wouldn't have had all that (encouragement), my nerves today would've been just off the charts," Woltjer said. "I slept a good 10 hours last night. I wasn't nervous up until the kickoff today. With people behind you like that, it takes the nerves away from you quite a bit."
There was no need to shake off any rust for Woltjer, who marched the Sailors down the field on their opening drive and scored on a 13-yard run with 3:21 left in the first quarter. It became 14-0 when Woltjer hit Jason Miller for a 41-yard touchdown pass on South Christian's second drive with 9:13 left in the second quarter.
"I knew he had it in him," South Christian coach Mark Tamminga said. "I talked to Derek before the game, just me and him, and I said, 'Derek, you don't have to win this football game for us. Play within yourself and make the plays you know you can make.' That's what he did. He did a tremendous job."
The Sailors' coaching staff made sure the team didn't get down over the loss of Wassink, a sophomore who threw for 3,400 yards and rushed for more than 700 this season.
"I knew we could win this without Jonny," said senior receiver Austin Diekevers, who scored two touchdowns. "Our coach has been telling us all week that Jonny is only one person. We've got 57 kids on this team. It takes more than one person to win a football game."
The Sailors kept Wassink's injury under wraps all week. Country Day prepared to face a South Christian team that would throw the ball all over the field, but instead got a squad that ran 39 times for 291 yards.
"We kind of prepared for No. 12 (Wassink)," Country Day coach Dan MacLean said. "We've been in that situation. Once several years ago, our quarterback broke his arm in the Semifinals and we won a thriller. Credit to those kids. They showed a lot of resolve and I think they kind of play up for the guy who goes down. They played very well. We obviously didn't, but a lot of that was attributable to them."
Country Day's only touchdown was a 54-yard pass from Tyler Wiegers to Maurice Ways with 3:40 left in the first half, cutting the margin to 14-7.
The Sailors took that lead into the break, but seized control of the game with two touchdowns in a 1:28 span of the third quarter. Woltjer hit Diekevers with a 20-yard touchdown pass on a corner route to make it 21-7 with 7:54 left in the third. Chad Sterk, who ran 11 times for 103 yards, made it 27-7 after a quick three-and-out by the Yellowjackets when he took a punt 31 yards to the end zone. On the punt return, he was aided by a devastating block by Seth VanEngen, a block that elicited some "ooohs" when it was replayed on the large screens at Ford Field.
The rout was on when Woltjer broke free for a 69-yard touchdown run with 2:24 left in the third quarter and Diekevers scored on a 6-yard run with 8:00 to go in the game.
"We probably ran the ball more than we've run the ball all year, there's no doubt about it," Tamminga said. "Derek ran the ball. Our running backs, our line played phenomenal tonight. They opened up holes for our backs and Derek."
It was the second MHSAA championship for South Christian, which also won the Division 4 title in 2002. The Sailors started the season 4-3 before winning their final seven games.
"I didn't think we'd win by this much, but I'm not surprised that we did win," Woltjer said. "We did very well today."
PHOTOS: (Top) Grand Rapids South Christian quarterback Derek Woltjer rushes for some of his 136 yards during Saturday's Division 4 Final. (Middle) South Christian players celebrate their MHSAA championship. (Click for more from Terry McNamara Photography.)
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.)