DETROIT – Rhett Roeser and his Warren De La Salle Collegiate teammates weren’t fond of the feeling they walked away with a year ago following the MHSAA Division 2 Football Final.
They acted in quick and ruthless fashion Friday to make sure history didn’t repeat itself.
Led by junior quarterback Brady Drogosh’s four touchdowns and 316 total yards, the Pilots cruised to a 41-14 victory against Traverse City Central at Ford Field, claiming the fourth Finals title in school history.
“This is a great feeling,” said Roeser, a sophomore running back. “This is what we’ve been working for and what we’ve been striving for. After we lost last year, we knew we were going to be in the same place and we were going to be on the other side of the ball with this one.”
The Pilots were Division 2 runners-up last season, losing in the Final against Muskegon Mona Shores. They responded with the first unbeaten season in school history, and first title since 2018.
“We had high expectations for this group and the program,” De La Salle coach Dan Rohn said. “We lost last year in the Finals, and it kind of left a little mark on us. We kind of weren’t ready, and that was a great Shores team; they did some great things. Playing Traverse City Central and getting the opportunity to come back here and compete at the highest level, that was important. But our goal was not to get here, it was to win it, and it’s awesome that we played so well and got off to a quick start.”
Rohn became the third football coach in MHSAA history to win a Finals title with two schools, as he led Grand Rapids West Catholic to championships in 2010, 2013, 2014 and 2015. Pete Kutches (Muskegon Reeths-Puffer and Muskegon Catholic Central) and Mike Giannone (Macomb Dakota and De La Salle) are the others.
“To take a little time off and reflect on things, then to get embraced by a community like De La Salle, it means a lot,” Rohn said. “Some people don’t get a chance to come and do this, and I’ve been fortunate to be here seven times and win a number of them. It’s not just about me, it’s about the guys that I surround myself with – the coaches and these players. We have some tremendous kids, tremendous support, and we hope that we can build something really special at De La Salle.”
De La Salle controlled the game from the outset with a suffocating defense and a balanced offense. Traverse City Central was held to 31 total yards in the first half, and gained 100 of its 149 yards for the game on a pair of drives in the fourth quarter after De La Salle had built a 41-0 lead.
“Coming in they averaged 50-some points per game, so we knew we had to get off to a good start and punch them in the mouth from the beginning,” said De La Salle senior linebacker Will Beesley, who led the team with eight tackles. “Our motto this week was bring the wood, be the most physical team on every play, and I feel like we did that today.”
Drogosh had accumulated a solid game’s worth of stats by the time the first half ended. He was 14-of-17 passing for 142 yards and three touchdowns, and he added 128 yards on the ground, including a 45-yard touchdown. He didn’t add to his passing total in the second half, but finished the game with 174 yards on the ground.
“I’ve been saying all year long that Brady Drogosh is probably the best athlete on the football field,” Rohn said. “There’s a number of positions he could play, and I think a lot of teams would probably play this kid on defense, too, because he runs so well. We’ve played some great competition all year long and he hasn’t hesitated, he hasn’t backed off. We got our passing game going, we got our quick game going and I think that just opens up so many more things for us.”
The Pilots (13-0) scored on all five of their possessions in the first half, and dominated the time of possession, holding the ball for 17 minutes, 11 seconds and putting together three drives that lasted more than five minutes apiece.
Roeser opened the scoring with a 1-yard run, closing out a 13-play, 80-yard drive. The Pilots went 62 yards on 12 plays on their second drive, ending with a 20-yard touchdown pass from Drogosh to Triston Nichols. The third touchdown drive was much quicker, as its second play was Drogosh’s 45-yard touchdown run.
Nichols and Drogosh combined again for a 13-yard score during the final 30 seconds of the second quarter, and following an interception by Devin Schmelter, the Pilots struck again when Drogosh hit Alton McCullum for a 24-yard score. The lone blemish for the Pilots in the first half was a 15-yard penalty following that score which pushed back the extra point try, which missed wide left.
“Our receivers, they’ve been starting for two years, so we put the ball in their hands a little bit and let them take advantage, and Brady distributed the ball, we didn’t turn it over and we didn’t have penalties,” Rohn said. “When you do all those things and put it together, you’re going to win some football games. We grinded it out a little bit. We didn’t force and try to get big plays. We stuck with the game plan and took what they gave us early, and kind of put them in a position they haven’t been in.”
DeNiro Johnson added a 1-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter for the Pilots. Jamari Allen set up the score with an interception and return deep into Traverse City Central territory.
Jack Yanachik led De La Salle receivers with seven catches for 64 yards, while Nichols had five catches for 50 yards. James Milkey finished with 1½ sacks for the Pilots.
Josh Burnham put the Trojans (12-2) on the board midway through the fourth quarter with a 5-yard touchdown run. Joshua Klug scored on a 24-yard run with 1:28 to play.
Klug had nine tackles to lead the Trojans, while Burnham had eight. Reed Seabase led the Trojans offense with 56 yards on five carries.
“These guys mean a lot to me, our staff and our program – and the Traverse City community,” Traverse City Central coach Eric Schugars said. “These guys have just buckled in and committed to the process. They’ve played a lot of football. When you think about it, we played in January last year, and you don’t take off. You take a little bit of time for other sports, but these guys have been with us, they’ve committed to the process and done everything possible.
“I couldn’t be prouder. Obviously, we didn’t play our best game tonight. I really believe we have a best game in us still, and we didn’t play it tonight, and that’s a credit to De La Salle.”
PHOTOS (Top) De La Salle’s Brady Drogosh (12) breaks into the open Friday, with Central’s Brayden Halliday (20) in pursuit. (Middle) The Pilots’ Devin Schmelter (18) helps bring down Trojans quarterback Josh Burnham (8). (Photos by 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.)