Drive Complete: 2018 Finals in Review

November 26, 2018

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

There was much anticipation entering the 2018 MHSAA Football Finals, beginning two weeks ago at the Superior Dome at Northern Michigan University and finishing Saturday at Detroit’s Ford Field.

They didn’t disappoint.

This season’s crowning weekends saw five first-time champions, two repeat title winners, two rise to the top for the first time in a while, and to end it all another re-emerging champion topple a 2017 winner in arguably the most awaited game of the entire series.

Second Half covered all 10 championship games last weekend at Ford Field and two weekends ago at the Superior Dome, with quick recaps and links (click on the game scores) to those stories below followed by notations of performances entered into the MHSAA Finals record book and a report on some of the biggest and best stories to emerge from the 2018 Finals.

Finals in Review

11-Player Division 1: Clinton Township Chippewa Valley 31, Clarkston 30

A year after Clarkston edged West Bloomfield by a point to win Division 1, Chippewa Valley claimed its first MHSAA title since 2001 by the same margin over the Wolves. The Big Reds stopped a go-ahead 2-point conversion try by Clarkston with 23 seconds to play to seal the win after previously leading by 14 points three times over the final three quarters.

11-Player Division 2: Warren DeLaSalle 29, Muskegon Mona Shores 16

The Pilots’ lockdown defense proved to have the upper hand against an explosive Mona Shores offense, as DeLaSalle broke away for its second straight Division 2 title after the teams were tied at halftime. Pilots coach Mike Giannone not only is the only coach to win football championships at two schools, but also became the first to win back-to-back at two (after also leading Macomb Dakota to Division 1 titles in 2006 and 2007).

11-Player Division 3: Detroit Martin Luther King 41, Muskegon 25

King finished this season’s Finals by avenging a three-point Week 2 loss to the 2017 champion. The Crusaders didn’t slow Muskegon’s record-setting rushing attack, but outgained the Big Reds in total yardage 400-315 as quarterbacks Dequan Finn and Cameron Martinez showed why they were two of the state’s best this fall.

11-Player Division 4: Edwardsburg 28, Chelsea 7

After falling short against Grand Rapids Catholic Central in 2017, Edwardsburg returned to its second Finals and won its first championship. The Eddies succeeded as they had all season; the offense ran for 382 yards and all four scores, while the defense got its season points allowed average to 9.9 per game after holding Chelsea to its fewest since 2014.

11-Player Division 5: Hudsonville Unity Christian 42, Portland 7

These Crusaders also won their first championship, in their first Finals appearance, finishing a playoff run that saw them defeat three teams ranked among the top six at the end of the regular season. Unity Christian got out to a 28-0 lead and finished with 279 yards rushing while holding the Raiders’ vaunted run attack to only 95.

11-Player Division 6: Jackson Lumen Christi 42, Montague 28

Lumen Christi added a first-time accomplishment to its long history of successes, clinching a three-peat for the first time by holding Montague to 14 points over the game’s first 45 minutes. The Titans ran for 348 yards and senior Nick Thomas gained 249 and scored twice on the ground to go with his team-high 10 tackles and two sacks.

11-Player Division 7: New Lothrop 50, Madison Heights Madison 44

This was not only the highest-scoring Final of the weekend, but of all-time. Neither team had been to a Finals since 2006, and Madison was seeking its first championship. But New Lothrop held on for its second title as quarterbacks Avery Moore and Austin Brown matched scores through much of the second half.

11-Player Division 8: Reading 39, Breckenridge 20

One of these teams was going to end up a first-time and undefeated champion, and Reading led off the 2018 Finals on Friday with the historic accomplishment in large part because of its dominance in the run game. The Rangers gained 296 yards on the ground and held the Huskies to a mere 24 and 198 yards of total offense.

8-Player Division 1: Morrice 44, Pickford 16

This also was going to produce a first-time and undefeated champion regardless of victor. After Pickford scored first, Morrice locked up its first title with 30 unanswered points over the next two quarters. Orioles quarterback Hunter Nowak capped his career with three rushing and one passing touchdown to go with 199 yards on the ground.

8-Player Division 2: Rapid River 30, Onekama 18

In its third 8-Player Finals try, Rapid River came away with its first MHSAA football title. The Rockets held on to the ball for an incredible 33½ minutes by extending drives with 10 third-down and four fourth-down conversions. Onekama was playing in its first Football Final, capping its second season of 8-player after a successful recent run with 11 on the field.

Record Report

Lumen Christi moved up to tied for fifth with its 13th Finals appearance. Muskegon (11th) and King (sixth) also moved up the list, and Warren DeLaSalle joined it by playing in its fifth championship game. Lumen Christi is tied for fourth all-time with 11 championships and became the 10th program to win three or more consecutively.

Three players made the list for longest kickoff return in a Final. New Lothrop’s Aidan Harrison ranks fourth after his 96-yard scoring sprint against Madison, while David Ellis raced 94 yards to the end zone for Chippewa Valley against Clarkston and Jacob Veale scored Portland’s only points against Unity Christian on a 91-yard return.

Tommy Schuster made the records with a perfect 13 of 13 passing for Chippewa Valley against Clarkston, becoming the first player with at least 12 attempts to complete all of his passes in an MHSAA Final.

As noted above, New Lothrop and Madison Heights Madison combined to score 94 points – breaking the previous record for highest-scoring Final of 91 by Belding and Detroit Country Day in the 1994 Class B championship game (a 50-41 Belding win). New Lothrop’s 50 points also tied for fourth most in an MHSAA Final.

That 94-point effort was a result in large part of work done by Madison quarterback Austin Brown and New Lothrop quarterback Avery Moore. Both made the records list with four rushing touchdowns in a Final and also for scoring 26 points (each had a 2-point conversion). Brown also was added for 298 passing yards, and his 403 of total offense tied for fifth. New Lothrop as a team was added for six rushing touchdowns, and Madison Heights Madison was added for total team passing yardage.

Reading’s Elijah Strine was added for becoming the first in Finals history to recover a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown.  

Edwardsburg became the latest to not punt in a championship game, and Chelsea punted only once in their Division 4 Final – their one combined punt tied for second-fewest in a Final.

Lumen Christi kicker Kevin Salazar connected on all six of his extra point attempts, and King’s Jerry Tucker made five of six (with the sixth attempt blocked). Both made the list for most extra points, Salazar tying for fourth most.

Lumen Christi running back Nick Thomas ran for 249 yards, the eighth most in a championship game. Muskegon quarterback Cameron Martinez also made the rushing list with 211 yards.

King quarterback Dequan Finn tied for fifth for touchdown passes with four against the Big Reds. Chelsea receiver Hunter Neff tied for fifth for receptions with 10 against the Eddies.

Morrice made the list for rushing yards as a team in the 8-Player Division 1 Final. The Orioles totaled 317 on 54 carries.

Rapid River made the 8-Player first downs list, moving the sticks 20 times in its Division 2 win.

Stories Behind the Scores

First-time champions: Five of this season’s 10 MHSAA football champions were first-time winners: Edwardsburg, Hudsonville Unity Christian, Reading, Morrice and Rapid River. That’s compared to only two first-time champs a year ago and one in 2016.

First time in a long time champions: Chippewa Valley’s title was its first since 2001, and New Lothrop won for the first time since 2006. Both had been building toward this moment, however. The Big Reds had made the playoffs all but three seasons since claiming the Division 2 title 17 years ago. New Lothrop has made the playoffs 19 straight seasons, and since winning Division 8 in 2006 had reached the Semifinals three times before this fall.

Closer Calls: In six games, teams were within 10 points of each other in the fourth quarter. Mona Shores pulled within five of DeLaSalle with 7:26 to play in Division 2 before the Pilots added a late touchdown. Muskegon pulled within 10 of King with 5:21 to play in Division 3 before the Crusaders scored again, and Onekama pulled within 10 of Rapid River in 8-Player Division 2 less than a minute into the fourth quarter before ultimately losing by 12. New Lothrop didn’t take the lead for good until 3:27 was left in Division 7, and as noted, Chippewa Valley escaped Clarkston by stopping a 2-point conversion try during the final minute in Division 1.

QB power: Elite quarterback play was on display all over the Finals. We talked a lot above about the heroics of Avery Moore and Austin Brown in Division 7 and Morrice's Hunter Nowak in 8-Player Division 1. In Division 3, Muskegon’s Cameron Martinez ran for 211 yards and two scores and threw a touchdown pass, while King’s Dequan Finn threw for 173 yards and four touchdowns and ran for 73 and a score. Tommy Schuster’s numbers for Chippewa Valley included the perfect passing for 205 yards and two touchdowns, and his Clarkston counterpart Jake Jensen ran for 121 yards and a score and completed 10-of-15 passes for 110 yards and a touchdown. Isaac TeSlaa led Unity Christian with 97 yards and two touchdowns on the round and completed 3 of 4 passes for 70 yards and a third score. Carter Staley kept his team in the Division 8 game with 14-of-19 passing for 177 yards and two touchdowns. Nolan Schultz ran for three touchdowns and a team-high 55 yards and completed 8-of-13 passes for 189 and a score for DeLaSalle.

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Inspired by Dad's Memory, Lawrence's Vasquez Emerges After Family Losses

By Pam Shebest
Special for

January 16, 2024

LAWRENCE — While COVID-19 affected many students in different ways, it definitely made an impact on Austin Vasquez.

Southwest CorridorAs 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.

Vasquez works on gaining the advantage in a match against Mendon. 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.

 From left: Lawrence wrestling coach Henry Payne, athletic director John Guillean and football and baseball coach Derek Gribler. 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.”

Vasquez also was a standout on the football field. 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 ShebestPam 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.)