DETROIT – As much as it hurts Detroit Martin Luther King to lose to Detroit Cass Tech, falling twice to its rival this fall helped the Crusaders win the school’s third MHSAA football championship and second consecutive Friday.
King’s defense was outstanding, as the Crusaders held Walled Lake Western (12-2) to 124 yards in defeating the Warriors 18-0 in the Division 2 Final at Ford Field.
King (12-2) lost to Cass Tech, 31-18, during the regular season and then again in the Detroit Public School League title game at Ford Field, 41-20. King trailed 17-0 at halftime in the first game and 21-0 in the second meeting, and never seriously threatened Cass Tech in either.
First-year head coach Tyrone Spencer was the defensive coordinator before taking over for Dale Harvel, who died on July 22 of a heart attack. Harvel was the defensive coordinator in 2007 under coach Jim Reynolds when King won its first MHSAA title against Midland, 47-21.
“The (players) overcame a lot,” Spencer said. “They overcame adversity. But it’s also how you handle success. That’s why I thought those two losses helped. And I said then that I thought we would peak at the end.
“We think about (Harvel) all of the time. We thought about him yesterday, and we thought about him today. It meant a lot for us to win this. I know he’d be proud.”
King’s dominance on defense not only stuffed Western and an offense that averaged 42.5 points over the first four playoff games, but the unit had four interceptions, two of which went for touchdowns.
King led 6-0 at halftime, then gained just one yard in the third quarter and increased its lead to 12-0.
That’s what an opportunistic defense can provide.
Western began the second half well when quarterback Johnny Tracy completed a 21-yard pass to Justin Thomas to midfield. Jalen Bell then sacked Tracy for a 9-yard loss, and then Tracy attempted a sideline pass that was tipped just beyond the line of scrimmage and intercepted by Jesse Scarber at the King 44. Scarber, a first-year starter, raced down the left sideline to complete a 56-yard scoring play, and King led 12-0 with 10:37 left in the third quarter.
“King was very physical up front,” Tracy said. “They put on some pressure, and they were coming hard.”
For Scarber, it was his second interception of the game and fifth of the season – but this one was special.
“Once I saw it tipped, I just got it and ran for the end zone,” he said.
The defensive line, led by sophomores Tyrece Woods and Bell, have been stubborn against the run all season. It’s the secondary that’s been prone to give up a big play here and there, and Spencer addressed that after the second Cass Tech loss and again this week.
“We put a lot of pressure on our defensive backs,” Spencer said. “We’ve been big on the run, and I told (the defensive backs) you’ve got to step up.”
Using two passers, Western completed 8 of 23 throws for 70 yards with three interceptions. The Warriors were sacked four times.
King was held to 156 yards, but the offense had its moments.
The game was scoreless late in the first half when King took over on the Western 26 after a short punt. It took the Crusaders five plays to score as quarterback Dequan Finn completed a 9-yard touchdown pass to Ambry Thomas with 12 seconds left before the break. Matt Alati blocked the kick conversion attempt, and King led 6-0 at halftime.
Jaylen Wilson led King with 57 yards rushing on nine carries and Finn, a sophomore in his first season as a starter, was 7 of 15 for 68 yards passing.
There was one play, with King nursing that 12-0 lead, when Finn made a play that sometimes can be overlooked. King faced a 2nd-and-6 from its 23 when Finn completed a 31-yard pass to Christian Chatman to get the Crusaders out of a hole. The play came with 6:33 left, and King was able to milk another two minutes off the clock.
“It was a double post,” Finn said. “I saw the corner playing out and we talked about it on the sideline before the play. We all noticed it.
“It’s all about the team. My line did a great job of blocking.”
Jay-Veyon Morton completed the scoring when he returned an interception 66 yards for a touchdown with 2:53 left.
“King played great defense throughout the playoffs,” Western coach Mike Zdebski said. King’s defense allowed 35 points in the five playoff games. “They’re big up front. Cass must be a really good team.”
The MHSAA Football Finals are sponsored by the Michigan National Guard.
PHOTOS: (Top) Detroit King’s Jay-Veyon Morton (22) snags one of his two interceptions as Walled Lake Western’s Cody White works to bring him down. (Middle) King’s Ambry Thomas stretches toward the goal line while two Western defenders, including Jack Dodge (11), attempt to slow him.
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.)