By Jason Schmitt
Special for Second Half
DETROIT – DeWitt head football coach Rob Zimmerman had every right to talk about how good it felt to capture his school’s first-ever MHSAA Finals football championship Saturday night at Ford Field.
But all he wanted to talk about after DeWitt’s 40-30 victory over River Rouge in the Division 3 Final was the character and drive of his players. That’s what was first and foremost on his mind.
“It’s unbelievable, but I think the greatest part of it all is this is such a great group of kids,” said the veteran coach, who previously has coached four Finals runners-up, the most recent in 2013. “I’ve been saying it all year long, but their character is unbelievable – the motivation, the drive, the leadership. If there’s a group of kids who deserve to win a state championship, it’s this group. I’m so happy for them.”
Total, the program was making its sixth championship game appearance, seeking its first title.
And it didn’t take long Saturday for Zimmerman and his group to take steps toward earning it.
Junior quarterback Tyler Holtz broke open a scoreless game at the 5:50 mark of the first quarter, connecting with senior Blake Beachnau for a 15-yard touchdown to make it 7-0.
River Rouge would answer back early in the second quarter, as senior Mareyohn Hrabowski would find junior Jalen Holly for a 52-yard touchdown. A two-point conversion pass from Hrabowski to freshman Nicholas Marsh gave Rouge an 8-7 lead.
But it was at that point that the DeWitt defense stepped things up. And it also was the point when Holtz began to take over the game. The Associated Press’ Player of the Year in Divisions 3 and 4 threw two more touchdown passes before halftime, then added another midway through the third quarter to help his team to a 27-8 lead. All three scores went to different receivers – eight yards to senior Andrew Debri, 35 yards to senior Nick Flegler and 25 yards to junior Thomas McIntosh.
“That’s why he’s the player of the year,” Zimmerman said of his junior signal caller. “He was front and center today, and his composure was unbelievable. He’s just off the charts, and he was the difference-maker in this game.
“We felt that we had the matchup advantage in the passing game going into this because our receivers are very good. We felt like we could throw the ball, too. We just had to mix in the run enough to take some shots without them just playing pass the whole time like they did against (Detroit Martin Luther) King (in the Regional Final).”
Holtz finished the game 12-of-16 passing for 177 yards and four touchdowns. He also rushed the ball 15 times for a game-high 118 yards – and another score. River Rouge head coach Corey Parker admitted his team couldn’t find a way to stop Holtz.
“(Holtz) is able to throw the ball on the run, and that creates threats to a defense like no other,” Parker said. “Throwing the ball on the run, that’s truly a dual-threat guy. He didn’t really run the ball on the perimeter, he ran the ball on the interior and he was able to throw the ball real well.”
Hrabowski did his best to keep his team in the game. A four-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter and a 12-yard touchdown pass to Marsh early in the fourth helped keep it a two-touchdown game. He also added a three-yard touchdown run and ensuing two-point conversion to cap off a game in which he threw for 227 yards and ran for another 94, while accounting for all of his team’s touchdowns.
“They didn’t give up. Their kids played hard,” Zimmerman said of Rouge (9-2). “They’re the defending state champs so we knew they weren’t going to go easy. We kept scoring and they kept coming back. I’m just so proud of our kids.”
Rouge defeated Muskegon, 30-7, in last year’s Division 3 Final. Hrabowski returned this season, but many of the players on this year’s roster were new.
“Our goal is to get here (every year),” Parker said. “If you’ve got young guys making plays like that, you know exactly what your future looks like, so I’m pretty excited about what we’re going to do moving forward.”
DeWitt (12-0) capped off a magical season which saw its offense put up nearly 500 points in 11 games played, while its defense was dominant, allowing just 78, including Saturday’s Final. Flegler and fellow seniors Grant Uyl and Cooper Brumfield all led the team with 10 tackles each.
“We have unity, no matter what, on defense,” said Flegler, who also handled all the kicking duties for the team. “Our mindset is always, ‘What the next play? What’s the next play?’ We don’t linger on failure and we’re always looking to improve on the next play, and I think that’s what brings us success.”
PHOTOS: (Top) DeWitt junior Thomas McIntosh (10) looks back to see if defenders are closing in as he makes his way toward the end zone Saturday. (Middle) DeWitt quarterback Tyler Holtz breaks into the open. (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.)