DETROIT – Only a few drives into the MHSAA Division 7 Final, Bennett Lewis came to Saginaw Nouvel coach Mike Boyd with a request.
Give me the ball until Pewamo-Westphalia stops me.
Never happened. The senior running back ran for five touchdowns, and his Panthers scored 56 points – both to set or tie MHSAA Finals records.
And both were accomplished over just two quarters as Nouvel cruised to a 56-26 win and its third football championship.
“I can’t say enough how proud I am of my teammates, especially the offensive line. We’ve been playing together a long time and they really executed in the first half,” Lewis said. “Their defense is one of the defenses we can run our offense against really well. We just executed and made big plays. ”
This championship goes with Nouvel’s back-to-back Division 6 titles in 2006 and 2007, and the Panthers finished 13-0 to match their perfect record in 2006. Pewamo-Westphalia made its first appearance in an MHSAA Football Final and finished 13-1.
The Panthers had scored 63 and 62 points, respectively, during the first two rounds of the postseason. And as Boyd said after, he had an offense built for speedy strikes – especially at an inside venue like Ford Field.
Nouvel blew past the previous MHSAA Finals record of 42 points in one half set by both Farmington Hills Harrison in 2000 and Jackson Lumen Christi in 2001.
“Maybe our third drive, Bennett came off the field and came right up to me and said, ‘I want the football. Until they stop me, give me the football,’” Nouvel coach Mike Boyd said. “I said, ‘Absolutely.’
“Great competitors, great leaders. Just a great group.”
Lewis, the Associated Press’ Division 7-8 Player of the Year this fall, ran 15 times for 200 yards – all in the first half – to push his season rushing total to 2,077. The five touchdowns gave him 36 rushing for the fall. Senior quarterback Joseph Buchalski was 7 for 10 passing for 196 yards and three scores. He also ran five times for 50 yards – again, all in the first half.
“That’s the best team I’ve ever played. The fastest. (And) I don’t hesitate to say Bennett Lewis is the best player I’ve ever played,” P-W senior quarterback/cornerback Justin Thelen said. “We fought, and I’m proud of that. But they had us on our heels right away.”
Thelen was 10 for 21 passing for 176 yards and two touchdowns, and senior Alex Thelen ran 16 times for 77 yards and a score. It was a tough end to a courageous run by the Pirates, who suffered through the death of classmate and baseball teammate Brendon Nurenberg in a car crash earlier this month, but battled through with his memory an additional motivator.
“He was just a fun guy. The guys loved being around him. And the guys rallied around that,” P-W coach Brad Weber said. “They did it for Brendon for the most part. They knew he would have fun, so they did too.”
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.)