By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half
Muskegon High School’s offensive line sustained some BIG losses after last season.
Four of the starting five offensive linemen from that MHSAA Division 3 runner-up team, totaling 1,245 pounds in weight – and including 6-foot-5, 360-pound right tackle Anthony Bradford, who is now playing at Louisiana State University – are gone.
The lone returning starter is senior center D’Andre Mills-Ellis, which makes it all the more impressive the way the Big Reds dominated two-time reigning Division 2 champion Warren De La Salle Collegiate, 41-7, during Friday’s Xenith Prep Kickoff Classic at Wayne State University.
“All summer long, we were hearing that we weren’t going to be anything with all of the big boys gone,” said Mills-Ellis, who is certainly a big boy himself at 6-0 and 305 pounds. “We’re not as big, but we’re more athletic.”
Mills-Ellis and the young Big Reds’ linemen certainly made a statement Friday, posting a 285-94 edge in rushing yards against the Pilots, who feature 6-7, 320-pound senior two-way lineman Grant Toutant, an Ohio State commit.
Muskegon (1-0) has no time to sit back and enjoy its big season-opening win, as the Big Reds face another long road trip and another monumental challenge this Friday night at Detroit Martin Luther King (0-1) – a rematch of last year’s Division 3 championship game, which King won, 41-25.
The Big Reds will be out for revenge, led by senior quarterback and returning MLive Michigan Player of the Year Cameron Martinez (6-0, 190), who also has verbally committed to Ohio State. Martinez carried the ball 21 times for 184 yards and three touchdowns against De La Salle, while completing 6-of-11 passes for 57 yards.
Martinez is the latest of an incredible stretch of quarterbacks at Muskegon – most recently bolstered by Kalil Pimpleton, now a starting slot receiver at Central Michigan, and then La’Darius Jefferson, now a major contributor at running back at Michigan State.
“We’ve been blessed with great quarterbacks here lately, but it all starts with D’Andre getting the ball to them,” said 10th-year Muskegon coach Shane Fairfield, who has guided the Big Reds to MHSAA Finals six times in the past seven years and led them to the Division 3 title in 2017.
Mills-Ellis said it’s an honor to block for such talented runners.
“The thing is, you don’t have to get pancakes with backs like that,” said Mills-Ellis, a college prospect who currently has offers from Judson (Ill.) and Northwood and wants to major in biology. “All those guys need is a little bit of room and they’re gonna go.”
The center always plays a critical role on the offensive line, getting to the ball first, surveying the defense and making sure that everyone up front knows their assignments. Mills-Ellis is used to that job, but he has become much more vocal in it with two sophomores and one junior starting alongside him.
The only other senior up front for the Big Reds is left tackle Billie Roberts (6-3, 255), a converted tight end who Muskegon offensive line coach Matt Bolles says has Division I skills. Starting next to Roberts is junior guard Tayvid Elmore (5-11, 280), while the right side has a pair of sophomores in guard Jamarrius Dickerson (5-10, 295) and tackle Duane Anderson (6-1, 285).
“It’s different for him this year because now he’s our rock, our leader up there,” explained Fairfield. “He’s always kinda been the comedian, but he’s had to scale that back a little, so that when it’s time to get serious the other guys will listen to him.”
The senior is known for his steady snaps, as the Big Reds line up almost exclusively in the pistol formation, with Mills-Ellis initiating every play with a quick snap back to Martinez. While his center is pretty much automatic these days, Muskegon offensive coordinator Brent White said that wasn’t always true.
“We converted him from tackle, and he was a little rocky with his snaps at first,” said White, who gave credit for his improvement to snapping to Jefferson, who is nicknamed ‘Sippy’ because he’s from Mississippi. “Sippy didn’t like bad snaps and he had a way of letting him know that, so he got better in a hurry.”
Mills-Ellis, who is one of the strongest players in West Michigan with a squat of 675 pounds, is also starting for the first time this season at defensive tackle.
Fairfield said during the preseason that he believes his team will be much improved on defense, and it certainly appeared that way in the opener as tackles Mills-Ellis and Roberts completely stuffed any interior running plays.
Muskegon limited De La Salle to just one touchdown, but a bigger defensive challenge awaits this week against a Detroit King team packed with Division I prospects – notably battering-ram running back Peny Boone (committed to Maryland), receiver Rashawn Williams (Indiana) and freshman quarterback Dante Moore, who already has an offer from Michigan.
King shredded Muskegon through the air and on the ground in November’s championship game at Ford Field, but Mills-Ellis said the Big Reds are determined to not let that happen again.
“We couldn’t overlook De La Salle, because they have a great program, but deep down inside, the game we all want and that we’ve been talking about all summer is King,” said Mills-Ellis. “You have to understand, us seniors here aren’t used to losing. This is our chance to make up for that loss.”
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) Muskegon center D'Andre Mills-Ellis throws the key lead block as quarterback Cameron Martinez scores a touchdown during the Big Reds' 45-22 Division 3 Semifinal victory over Zeeland East last season at Grand Haven High School. (Middle) Mills-Ellis talks to Muskegon offensive line coach Matt Bolles during last year's Division 3 championship game at Ford Field. (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.)