By Jason Schmitt
Special for Second Half
DETROIT – As the final seconds ran off the clock during the Division 4 championship game Friday night at Ford Field, it all began to set in for Detroit Country Day senior Danny MacLean.
He finally got to see his dad, Yellowjackets’ head coach Dan, win an MHSAA Football Finals championship.
“I’ve been here five times now, we hadn’t won a game at Ford Field,” the younger MacLean said. “I was always the ball boy, the water boy out on the field. Now, senior year, coming out here and getting one for that guy, it means the world to me. It’s the best feeling in the world.”
Country Day defeated first-time finalist Cadillac, 13-0, picking up its third-straight shutout in these playoffs. The Yellowjackets last won a Finals championship in 1999, that coming in MacLean’s second year as the head coach at the school. His teams fell a win short in 2007, 2008, 2012, 2016 and again in 2019.
“I thought I couldn’t win in Ford Field. I was like, ‘Can we get the Silverdome back?,’” MacLean joked after the game. “It is very good to be back (winning). This was wonderful to do this, especially with this group of kids in particular. I said it many times this week. I was a single guy when I started at Country Day 36 years ago, and (Danny) is my youngest child of five, and it’s just a joy.”
MacLean’s children – Jack, Maureen, Mike, Kathleen and Danny – all graduated (or will) from Country Day. Each of the three boys played football for the Yellowjackets.
“He’s built a family around (Country Day),” Danny said.
MacLean and fellow senior Nick Wachol spearheaded a dominant Yellowjackets defense, which limited the Vikings to just 166 total yards. MacLean and Wachol each finished with a team-leading nine tackles. Wachol had three tackles for a loss to go along with two sacks. MacLean had a key interception late in the second quarter, helping to keep Cadillac off the scoreboard just before halftime.
“We’ve been riding our defense all year,” Coach MacLean said. “They just have a tremendous amount of pride, and they just do their job. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my coaches. John Wilson, Steve Mann, who’s been with us a long time. Dave Furlong and Jake Topp, who was really instrumental tonight. He is more of an offensive guy in certain ways, but he designed that scheme to stop their option and the kids executed.”
Cadillac used five running backs in the game, along with junior quarterback Aden Gurden, who led the team with 14 carries. Junior Collin Johnston led the Vikings with 53 yards rushing, while sophomore Kaleb McKinley and Gurden added 39 and 37, respectively.
Coach Cody Mallory’s team moved the ball at times against Country Day’s stout defense, but couldn’t finish when it needed to.
“Their defense is very good; they’re very physical,” Mallory said. “I felt like this was the first time all year that we haven’t been able to move the ball. Even in our losses prior to this, we were able to get things going on offense. Country Day was extremely physical up front and very fast on the back end.”
Country Day opened its scoring with a pair of Graham Doman field goals in the second quarter. The first came with 11:09 to play in the half, as Cadillac’s defense turned the Yellowjackets away and forced them to settle for a 19-yard field goal. Same thing happened later in the second quarter, as the Vikings’ red-zone defense forced Country Day to kick a 26-yard field goal with 3:42 left before the break.
The Yellowjackets’ offense scored its lone touchdown of the game with a 12-play drive which took 6:33 off the clock to open the third quarter. Four Country Day players ran the ball, with freshman Gabe Winowich capping things off with a four-yard touchdown to give his team a 13-0 lead.
From there, the defense took over for the Yellowjackets. Cadillac had just six possessions in the game. The Vikings punted twice, turned the ball over on downs twice, threw the interception to MacLean, with the sixth possession ending at halftime. Senior Joe Miller collected eight tackles in the win, while juniors Caleb Mathis-Miller and Brandon Mann each added six.
Offensively, Country Day just wore Cadillac down. Junior Parker Yearego had 12 carries for 71 yards, and Mann had 11 more for 40 yards. In all, the Yellowjackets rushed the ball 36 times. Mann was also 11-for-14 passing for 106 yards.
“If you can keep the ball away from them, then they get frustrated,” MacLean said. “They like to bleed the clock. We kind of flipped the script on them. The key was our defense allowed us to get them off the field at times.”
While Country Day was making its ninth trip to the championship game, it was Cadillac’s first time playing for a title. Mallory was proud of the way his team battled Friday night and excited his program could proudly represent northern Michigan.
“I feel like football up north does get overlooked a bit,” Mallory said. “I’m really happy our conference had two teams go deep in the playoffs. That says a lot about where football is up there.”
Mallory said it was a great learning experience for his team.
“It takes failure for you to grow,” Mallory said. “While there were a lot of successes to get us to this point, in this game, we fell short and we’re going to have to grow.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Danny MacLean raises the trophy as Detroit Country Day celebrates its Division 4 championship Friday. (Middle) Country Day’s Caleb Mathis-Miller (48) helps drive Cadillac’s Collin Johnston out of bounds. (Click for more from Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)
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.)