By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Teams that reach the MHSAA Football Finals have been running around in helmets and pads for just short of four months, starting when we’re keeping an eye out for high temperatures and finishing as we watch the snow fall.
Plenty of notable moments fill those four months. A final game at the Superior Dome or Ford Field becomes a memory to cap them all – and these last two weekends again provided an unforgettable ending to those who took the field, the communities that supported them, and the rest of us who watched and enjoyed the best of 2019.
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 2019 Finals. See also below highlights from the weekend from State Champs Sports Network, and keep an eye on Second Half for a schedule of replays of the 8 and 11-Player Finals on FOX Sports Detroit.
The two first-time Finals qualifiers helped fill most of Ford Field’s lower bowl Saturday, and Davison emerged with its first championship. The game was highlighted by the play of standout quarterbacks Brendan Sullivan of Davison and Colby Newburg of Brighton, who both were added to the MHSAA record book for their performances (see more below).
11-Player Division 2: Muskegon Mona Shores 35, Detroit Martin Luther King 26
The Sailors earned the first of the weekend’s “upsets,” never trailing against the 2018 Division 3 champion Crusaders. For the second-straight week, back-up quarterback Brady Rose led the way with all-stater Caden Broersma injured. After King came within two points early in the fourth quarter, Rose led another scoring drive to put the game away.
11-Player Division 3: River Rouge 30, Muskegon 7
River Rouge suffered only one loss this season and played a solid group of opponents, so calling this an upset is tough – but likely still accurate as Muskegon had been considered the state’s best regardless of division (especially after defeating Mona Shores 53-0 during the regular season) and had received national recognition. Rouge scored the final 30 points after an early deficit.
11-Player Division 4: Grand Rapids Catholic Central 44, Detroit Country Day 0
When these two met in the 2016 Final, they combined to score 17 points. This rematch saw many more, at least for GRCC as it scored 44 of the 111 total points Country Day gave up this season. Cougars quarterback Joey Silveri, just a sophomore, cemented himself as a player to watch over the next two years as well, and receiver Jace Williams tied a Finals record as GRCC won its third title in four seasons.
11-Player Division 5: Lansing Catholic 31, Almont 17
The Cougars came back from a bit of an ugly first half offensively to claim their first championship since 1985. Lansing Catholic scored the final 24 points of the game, also earning coach Jim Ahern his first Finals title of a career that began 50 years ago. This was the third Cougars team he had brought to Ford Field this decade, while Almont was making its first Finals appearance.
11-Player Division 6: Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central 7, Maple City Glen Lake 0
The Falcons scored their first Finals championship since 2014 in one of the lowest-scoring title games in 45 seasons of MHSAA Football Playoffs. SMCC put the game’s only points on the board on quarterback Wyatt Bergmoser’s six-yard TD run with 7:17 to play in the first half. The Falcons otherwise dominated defensively and controlled the clock to secure the win.
11-Player Division 7: Pewamo-Westphalia 14, Jackson Lumen Christi 0
The arguably most power-packed of the weekend’s Finals saw Pewamo-Westphalia win its third championship in four seasons and end a 35-game winning streak for Lumen Christi, which had won three straight Division 6 titles. Both teams had fewer than 120 yards of total offense, but P-W was able to get into the end zone with three seconds left in the first half and again during the game’s final minutes to finish an unbeaten fall.
11-Player Division 8: Reading 33, Beal City 6
The Rangers opened the weekend with a repeat championship in Division 8, moving to 27-1 over the last two seasons with only a 14-0 Week 1 loss this fall to Pewamo-Westphalia breaking up the perfection. Reading scored the final 19 points and outrushed Beal City 260-42. The Aggies were playing in the Finals for the first time since 2013 and coming off two-straight sub-.500 seasons.
8-Player Division 1: Colon 26, Suttons Bay 14
Colon also won a Division 1 matchup of two teams seeking their first championship, following two-way standout Brandon Crawford to victory at the Superior Dome. The game was tied into the final minute of the third quarter, but the Magi scored the final 12 points to finish off an undefeated season and their closest of 13 wins.
8-Player Division 2: Pickford 48, Portland St. Patrick 15
The Panthers returned to the 8-Player Finals and claimed their first championship after finishing Division 1 runner-up in 2018. Quarterback Jimmy Storey closed his high school career running for three touchdowns and throwing for two more, helping hand the Shamrocks their second runner-up finish in three seasons and only loss of this fall.
Star quarterbacks found the spotlight at both the 11 and 8-Player Finals. The Division 1 game saw Brighton’s Colby Newburg (332 yards) and Davison’s Brendan Sullivan (330) both make the all-time 11-Player Finals record list for total offense and passing yards as well with 290 and 249, respectively. Grand Rapids Catholic Central’s Joey Silveri is ranked 10th in Finals total offense after his 375 yards (236 passing, 139 rushing) in Division 4, and Pickford’s Jimmy Storey ranks sixth on the 8-Player Finals list with 298 totals yards after passing for 152 and running for 146.
Silveri also made the 11-player passing touchdowns list with four, and Jace Williams was the main beneficiary. He tied the 11-Player Finals record with three touchdown catches and was the first to catch that many since 2013.
Colon’s Brandon Crawford made the 8-player records twice for rushing – his 205 yards were the third-most in 8-Player Finals history, and his 94-yard touchdown run was the longest rushing play. Colon as a team ranked fifth with 340 yards rushing.
Muskegon Mona Shores kicker Keegan DeKuiper and Davison kicker Trennor Rhodes both were added to the 11-player list for most extra points in a Final, both connecting on all five of their respective attempts.
Brighton, while in defeat, made the 11-Player Finals list with 23 first downs against Davison. Detroit Martin Luther King and Muskegon Mona Shores in Division 2 joined Hartford and Onsted from the 1993 Class CC Final as the only opponents to go an entire championship game without punting.
Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central became one of eight teams to win a championship by scoring seven points or fewer.
Both Grand Rapids Catholic Central and Reading tied for second on the first downs allowed list giving up only four apiece.
Lansing Catholic’s Zack Stone and Zach Gillespie both snagged two interceptions, joining 31 others tied for third for most interceptions in one championship game.
There previously was not a category for most extra-point attempts blocked, but it was impossible to not add one after Detroit Country Day blocked five tries by Grand Rapids Catholic Central.
Stories Behind the Scores
First-time champions: They reigned again, with Davison, Muskegon Mona Shores, River Rouge, Colon and Pickford matching last season’s total of five first-time winners. That makes 10 first-time champions over the last two seasons, compared with a combined three in 2016 and 2017.
Defense wins championships: After no Finals shutouts in 2018 and just one apiece in 2017 and 2016, this season’s Finals saw Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central, Grand Rapids Catholic Central and Pewamo-Westphalia all hold their opponents scoreless. Total, the 10 runner-up teams scored an average of 11 points. River Rouge saw its season defensive points allowed average fall to 7.6, GRCC’s fell to 8.8, P-W’s to 4.5 and Reading’s to 7.4 points per game. Colon finished the season giving up just 5.5 points per game – perhaps even more notable given the wide-open offensive attack characteristic of 8-player.
Unsung no more: A pair of previously or at least little-known quarterbacks before last week’s 11-Player Finals will certainly be well-known entering next fall. As noted above, Mona Shores junior Brady Rose was forced into action early in his team’s one-point Semifinal win over Walled Lake Western, and he finished an incredible two weeks running for 90 yards and three touchdowns, completing 8-of-11 passes for 122 yards and a score and making a team-high 10 tackles with an interception against King. River Rouge junior Mareyohn Hrabowski burst onto the statewide scene in the weekend’s final game with 175 yards and three touchdowns on the ground and 45 yards passing against Muskegon.
Ahern’s work rewarded: As noted above, Lansing Catholic coach Jim Ahern finished with a Finals championship for the first time, a well-deserved achievement for an architect of multiple programs that have had elite success. Ahern ranks 13th in MHSAA history with a 301-152-6 record at three in-state schools beginning in 1969 (and not counting his seasons coaching in Florida during the end of the last decade). In addition to bringing the Cougars to Ford Field three times over the last nine years, Ahern led Ithaca’s program from 1972-2003. Among his standouts there was current Yellowjackets coach Terry Hessbrook, who is the first to credit Ahern with building the foundation that has led to Ithaca’s five Division 6 titles and two runner-up finishes over the last decade. Ahern pioneered the spread offense in this state, writing a book nearly 20 years ago teaching the scheme that is now used all over the country.
Fun with numbers: Friday’s four-game attendance was just 17,971 fans – the lowest of the decade for one day at Ford Field. But Saturday’s four-game attendance of 30,466 was the highest since 2010 for one day. Together, the 48,437 fans for the weekend fell in line with the five-year average for the 11-Player Finals.
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PHOTOS: (Top) Davison and Brighton fans helped fill the lower bowl of Ford Field on Saturday. (Middle) Pickford celebrates its championship at the Superior Dome two weekends ago. (Top photo by Paige Winne; middle photo by Cara Kamps.)
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.)