By Bill Khan
Special to Second Half
DETROIT — Thomas Wilcher is a former Detroit Public School League football star who has become one of the most successful coaches in the state.
Perhaps such a future awaits the city’s brightest current star, Detroit Cass Tech quarterback Jayru Campbell.
Wilcher raved about his sophomore signal caller’s mental grasp of the game after the Technicians became the first PSL team to win back-to-back MHSAA football championships with a 36-21 victory over Detroit Catholic Central on Saturday at Ford Field.
Campbell has orchestrated the offense during both championship runs, each of which ended with a dominant performance against perennial power Catholic Central. Cass Tech routed the Shamrocks 49-13 in last year’s title game, as Campbell threw for five touchdowns.
Campbell’s stats weren't as gaudy this time around (4 for 12, 154 yards, one touchdown), but it’s not his physical gifts that drew high praise from Wilcher after the game.
“I told him on the telephone one night, ‘I don’t care about your arm right now. I just love the way you think on the football field,’” Wilcher said. “That’s what makes him so important to me right now. We’re teaching.”
As a freshman, Campbell was given limited ability to change plays at the line of scrimmage. As a 10th-grader who has already started 28 varsity games, he has earned more trust from his coaching staff than many seniors.
“They gave me more of a green light this year,” Campbell said. “Last year, they pretty much told me I could change the play from left to right; that was the most green light I had. This year, I’m changing passes to runs, runs to passes. It’s not getting difficult, but it’s more responsibility on me. I’m up for the challenge.”
Campbell altered the original call on two of Cass Tech’s biggest offensive plays.
On the Technicians’ first play from scrimmage, he audibled senior receiver Jourdan Lewis from a stop route to a go route. Lewis made a leaping catch between two defenders along the left sideline and took off for an 89-yard touchdown to open the scoring with 9:31 left in the first quarter.
“It was supposed to be a stop,” Campbell said. “The corner was playing so far up, I knew Jourdan Lewis was going to get around him. I just told him to go ahead and do what you do.”
In the fourth quarter, with Cass Tech trying to put the game away, Campbell changed a pass to a draw play to running back Mike Weber on fourth-and-10 from Catholic Central’s 30-yard line. Weber exploded 26 yards to the 4-yard line, setting up a 3-yard touchdown run by Campbell that expanded the lead to 29-7 with 7:59 remaining.
“I saw they had only one linebacker in the back,” Campbell said. “Coach Wilcher really believes in me. He knows I will get the job done. He really trusts me.”
Catholic Central came in looking to avenge last year’s 36-point loss in the Final, but the Shamrocks fell behind 12-0 in the first five minutes on the 89-yard catch by Lewis and a 58-yard fumble return by 260-pound defensive tackle Kenton Gibbs.
The Shamrocks (9-5) slowed the momentum and got back in the game at 12-7 on an 18-yard pass from Garrett Moores to Zach Bock with 2:02 left in the first half. The Technicians (12-2) tacked on a 31-yard field goal by Ken Snapp to take a 15-7 lead into halftime.
A 57-yard run by Weber on third-and-17 set up a 30-yard touchdown run by Deon Drake Jr. on the following play, giving Cass Tech a 22-7 lead on the first series of the third quarter.
“We knew going in from last year’s experience that we can’t make mistakes, because they capitalize well on mistakes, but we did,” Catholic Central coach Tom Mach said. “They made a great throw and catch on the first touchdown. Then we made a couple of mistakes that they capitalized on. We found ourselves in a hole and had to try to get out of that hole. We were doing a good job of that, I thought. Then they exerted themselves and put another touchdown in.”
It became a 29-7 game when Cass Tech went 79 yards in 16 plays, taking 7:14 off the clock before Campbell scored on his 3-yard run with 7:59 left in the fourth quarter.
Catholic Central twice made it a two-possession game in the final 5:57 on touchdown passes by Moores, but the Technicians had an 84-yard interception return for a touchdown by Delano Hill in between them.
“It was no different than last year,” Catholic Central senior running back Anthony Darkangelo said. “We knew last year they were a fast team and we had to keep contain on the edges outside. They executed their game plan and we didn't execute the plan we had for the game.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Detroit Cass Tech David Dawson hoists quarterback Jayru Campbell (10) during Saturday's Division 1 Final. (Middle) Cass Tech running back Mike Weber runs into a crowd of Detroit Catholic Central defenders including Sean Birney (18) and Dylan Roney (89). (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.)