Belleville Finds Championship Formula, Completes 1st Finals Run

By Scott DeCamp
Special for

November 27, 2021

DETROIT – Belleville’s football team found Ford Field after a series of near-misses in recent seasons. The Tigers found it much to their liking, too.

Belleville put its speed, athleticism and depth of talent on full display in a 55-33 runaway victory over Rochester Adams in the MHSAA Division 1 title game Saturday. The fast track and climate-controlled environment were ideal for the Tigers in their first-ever Finals appearance.

Freshman quarterback Bryce Underwood passed for 284 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions, three of the scores to senior Jeremiah Caldwell as the Tigers (13-1) came within a point of tying a record for most scored in a Finals game.

“You get a bunch of athletes on a fast track and without the elements, you know, it was going to be some opportunities for Bryce …,” said Belleville coach Jermain Crowell, the former Detroit Cass Tech assistant, who is now 72-10 in seven years with the Tigers program.

The 6-foot-2, 180-pound Underwood, who is only 14 years old, finished 12-of-21 passing. He capped Belleville’s scoring with a 30-yard run in the fourth quarter when he delivered a forceful stiff-arm in the backfield to a would-be tackler.

The 6-3, 175-pound Caldwell was on the receiving end of only four passes, but the playmaker converted them into a whopping 204 yards. Underwood connected with the lanky, speedy senior on scoring strikes of 56, 64 and 72 yards, all in the first half, as Belleville entered the locker room with a 21-20 edge.

“I would say I wasn’t that nervous, I just knew that I had to come out and execute our plan and finish the football game,” Underwood said.

Belleville took control in the third quarter, when the Tigers converted two Adams turnovers into touchdowns – one on a blocked punt and the other on a fumble recovery. They led 35-20 entering the fourth quarter, and that margin never dipped below 14 points the rest of the way.

Six different players scored TDs for Belleville, illustrating Crowell’s point in the postgame press conference that it was a team effort. The Tigers had no turnovers.

“It was the team. I mean, to be honest with you, it was the team,” said Crowell, whose squads lost semifinal heartbreakers to eventual 2020 state champ West Bloomfield (35-34 in double-overtime) and Brighton in 2019 (22-19). The Tigers also lost in the 2018 semifinals to eventual state champ Clinton Township Chippewa Valley.

“All the other years, it was always about this individual guy, that individual guy, that individual guy, and it’s not high school football. That’s not how it’s supposed to be. It’s not supposed to be that way.”

Division 1 Football FinalEven though Belleville’s defense surrendered 33 points, the Tigers made enough plays on that side of the ball and they did it with several players contributing.

Seniors Cameron Dyson and JaShawn Greene led Belleville’s defense with eight tackles apiece. Greene also had a forced fumble and sack, while Caldwell picked off a pass.

As much as Crowell stressed “team,” it was hard to ignore the individual talents of Underwood and Caldwell.

“I feel like it’s amazing because he’s so young,” Caldwell said about Underwood. “Once he gets to my age as a senior, it’s going to be, like, ‘Wow!’ Like, he’s doing this as a freshman now, so when he becomes a senior, it’s going to be mind-boggling.”

Said Adams coach Tony Patritto about Underwood: “His resume was pretty strong before he even got to Belleville. He can really sling it and, you know, his receivers made some big plays and a lot of yards after the catch. A lot of that’s on us.”

Adams (13-1), which went unscathed through the rugged Oakland Activities Association as well as a challenging playoff road, made some plays on Saturday, too.

Senior QB Parker Picot completed 8 of 21 passes for three TDs, four of his completions going to 6-6, 215-pound sophomore Brady Prieskorn for 117 yards and two scores.

Like Underwood, Picot was recognized at a young age for his athletic talents. He committed to University of Alabama for baseball as a freshman, but he also poured everything he had into this football season.

“Well, when it’s football season, it’s football season and this year we definitely had something special,” Picot said. “All of us players were all, you know, some of the best friends. At the start, every day (of) summer workouts, we knew we had something special and it was going to be really fun this year and I think we really held onto (it).”

Adams was seeking its first state title since 2003, which was Patritto’s first season at the helm, when the Highlanders captured the Division 2 championship.

On Saturday, it was Belleville’s time.

“I mean, it means a lot, especially to the community of Belleville,” said Caldwell, whose receiving TDs and receiving yards ties him for second in both categories in Finals history.

“It’s a new Belleville this year, so everything that happened in the past years was not happening this year. We all came together and made a change as a whole.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS (Top) Belleville’s Jeremiah Caldwell (2) prepares to make his move as Rochester Adams’ Marco Dicresce (4) looks to make a stop. (Middle) The Tigers’ Davieon Pitchford (20) attempts to run past Adams’ Parker Picot (11). (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)

Inspired by Dad's Memory, Lawrence's Vasquez Emerges After Family Losses

By Pam Shebest
Special for

January 16, 2024

LAWRENCE — While COVID-19 affected many students in different ways, it definitely made an impact on Austin Vasquez.

Southwest CorridorAs 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.

Vasquez works on gaining the advantage in a match against Mendon. 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.

 From left: Lawrence wrestling coach Henry Payne, athletic director John Guillean and football and baseball coach Derek Gribler. 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.”

Vasquez also was a standout on the football field. 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 ShebestPam 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.)