By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
This season’s “Drive for Detroit” is in its final stretch as 32 teams prepare to play in 11-Player Semifinals on Saturday.
Of those 32, only 11 made it this far a year ago – and we’re guaranteed at least three new champions next week at Ford Field.
As always, we encourage you to bundle up and grab a seat in the stands. But if you’d rather watch from the comforts of home, this weekend we again will have all 16 Semifinals available, either on FOXSportsDetroit.com or MHSAA.tv. (Click for the full schedule.)
All games are 1 p.m. Saturday. “Drive for Detroit” is powered by MI Student Aid
Clarkston (10-2) vs. Saline (11-1) at Okemos
The reigning Division 1 champion Wolves have given up a combined 13 points over three playoff games, and 6-foot-5, 270-pound sophomore Rocco Spindler is among the leading tacklers with 76 from his defensive tackle spot. Saline has been similarly stifling giving up 26 points total in its playoff wins and has a reliable runner in senior Brendan Munday (1,160 yards/ 14 TDs rushing).
Belleville (12-0) vs. Clinton Township Chippewa Valley (12-0) at Troy Athens
Belleville built on its second straight perfect regular season by making the Semifinals for the first time with a sophomore, Christian Dhue-Reid, running the show at quarterback. Chippewa Valley’s first Semifinal run since 2003 has been keyed in part by senior signal-caller Tommy Schuster (1,480 yards/21 TDs passing).
Midland (9-3) vs. Muskegon Mona Shores (11-1) at Grand Ledge
Mona Shores’ only loss this fall came to Division 3 contender Muskegon, and senior running back/linebacker Sincere Dent (1,228 yards/24 TDs rushing, 8.8 yards per carry) is among the standouts leading the way. Senior running back/linebacker Christian Gordon (1,408/20/7.2) provides similar impact for Midland.
Birmingham Groves (10-2) vs. Warren DeLaSalle (10-2) at Hazel Park
Junior quarterback Markis Alexander (1,337 yards/13 TDs passing) has Groves on a 10-game winning streak and playing its second Semifinal in three seasons. Reigning Division 2 champion Warren DeLaSalle has locked down its three playoff opponents to a combined 20 points. Senior Evan Vaillancourt scored in last year’s Final and leads the team with 576 yards and 12 TDs rushing.
Zeeland East (11-1) vs. Muskegon (12-0) at Grand Haven
The reigning Division 3 champion Big Reds have marched again with junior quarterback Cameron Martinez (2,177 yards/33 TDs rushing, 610 yards/11 TDs passing) taking over where last year’s star La’Darius Jefferson left off. But Zeeland East hardly can be overlooked; the Chix are playing in their first Semifinal since 1989 (which was prior to the opening of Zeeland West) and with their only loss by four to reigning Division 4 champion Grand Rapids Catholic Central. Senior quarterback Gabe Taylor and senior running back Joshua Fusco have combined to run for 3,162 yards.
Detroit Martin Luther King (10-2) vs. DeWitt (12-0) at Brighton
King senior quarterback Dequan Finn is considered one of the state’s most unstoppable with 1,086 yards and 19 touchdowns rushing and 1,787 yards and 20 TDs passing. The Crusaders are playing in their fourth straight Semifinal, with the last three in Division 2. DeWitt emerged from its third straight Regional Final to make the Semifinals for the first time since 2013. Senior quarterback Blake Gatfield has thrown for 1,226 yards and 14 scores and is the team’s second-leading rusher with 503 yards plus 12 scores.
Grand Rapids Catholic Central (11-1) vs. Edwardsburg (12-0) at Vicksburg
This is a rematch of last season’s championship game, won by GRCC 42-31. Edwardsburg will look to avenge with senior fullback Caden Goggins (1,185 yards/20 TDs rushing) pacing the Eddies’ powerful run-based attack. Many names are different for GRCC, which has lost only to Division 1 contender Saline. Senior quarterback Joe Collins has stepped in with 2,215 yards and 27 touchdowns through the air.
Chelsea (9-3) vs. Williamston (10-2) at Walled Lake Northern
Both have navigated some close ones this run, with Chelsea winning two playoff games by seven points apiece and Williamston with one seven-pointer. Chelsea is back in the Semifinals for the first time since 2015, with senior quarterback Quinn Starkey throwing for 2,091 yards and 22 touchdowns. Williamston is returning to the Semifinals for the first time since 2010. Hornets senior quarterback Austin Stiffler has been nearly identically effective, throwing for 2,181 yards and 22 scores.
Hudsonville Unity Christian (10-2) vs. Saginaw Swan Valley (12-0) at Greenville
Last year’s Division 5 runner-up Swan Valley is coming off its closest game this season, a 36-28 win over Reed City, a win which also was its first decided by single digits since Week 1. Senior quarterback Alex Fries ran the show last season as well, and he’s thrown for 1,547 yards and 22 touchdowns. Unity Christian is playing for its first trip to the Finals and relies on a rushing attack that’s gained more than 3,700 yards. Junior Hayden Large has gained 1,143 of them and run for 12 scores.
Marine City (10-2) vs. Portland (12-0) at Howell
Portland’s strength has been a defense giving up 7.7 points per game, but the Raiders are also coming off one of their highest-scoring outputs in a 40-6 win over Frankenmuth in the Regional Final. Senior Jacob Veale leads the strong ground attack with 1,505 yards and 24 touchdowns. Marine City chews up yards on the ground as well with junior Aren Sopfe (1,087 yards/14 TDs) and senior Jack Kretzschmar (901/11) carrying the load. The Mariners have had two of their four highest-scoring games over the last two weeks.
Montague (10-2) vs. Traverse City St. Francis (12-0) at Mount Pleasant
These two have combined for an 82-11 record over the last four seasons, and both are seeking to make the Finals for the first time since 2009. Senior Bryce Stark has shouldered much of the rushing load for Montague with 1,422 yards and 24 touchdowns. Senior Danny Passinault leads a similarly strong run attack for the Gladiators with 1,201 yards and 18 scores.
Montrose (10-2) vs. Jackson Lumen Christi (11-0) at Novi
The Rams are seeking to reach their first championship game since 2002 and will take on the reigning Division 6 champion Titans with a balanced attack led by senior Devante Bedford (1,617 yards/26 TDs rushing) and sophomore quarterback Bobby Skinner (1,431/20 passing). Lumen Christi still does what it’s done to win the last two championships and three over the last decade – combine tough defense with a dominating rush attack, led this season by senior Nick Thomas (1,634 yards/29 TDs).
New Lothrop (11-1) vs. Lake City (12-0) at Clare
Fresh off eliminating two-time Division 7 champion Pewamo-Westphalia, New Lothrop takes on another undefeated contender in Lake City. Junior quarterback Avery Moore is dangerous in multiple ways with 1,375 yards and 20 touchdowns rushing and 1,452 yards and 20 more scores passing for the Hornets. Lake City, which fell to P-W in a Semifinal a year ago, has already outscored last year’s team and is giving up half as many points through just one fewer game. Lake City also has a multi-talented quarterback – senior Matt Holt has run for 1,496 yards and 18 scores and thrown for 1,550 yards and 17 TDs.
Cassopolis (12-0) vs. Madison Heights Madison (12-0) at Jackson
One of the state’s most impressive defenses from Cassopolis will take on a high-flying offense from Madison. The Rangers are outscoring opponents by an average of 46-4, with senior running back Tyrese Hunt-Thompson the team’s leading rusher (859 yards/19 TDs) and receiver (314/6). Madison’s average margin of victory is a little less at 39-9 but has come mostly against much larger schools. Senior quarterback Austin Brown has thrown for 1,766 yards and 21 scores and run for 1,696/29.
Breckenridge (12-0) vs. Harbor Beach (11-1) at Chesaning
The Huskies have stretched their best season ever to their first Semifinal with a stalwart defense giving up four points per game. Senior dual threat quarterback Carter Staley leads with 926 yards and 10 touchdowns passing and also a team-best 882 yards rushing with 12 scores on the ground. Harbor Beach is back in the Semifinals for the fourth time this decade coming off its third shutout in five weeks. Junior running back/linebacker Devin Pfaff is key on both sides of the ball, rushing for a team-high 1,234 yards and 20 scores.
Holton (8-4) vs. Reading (12-0) at Battle Creek Harper Creek
Holton’s memorable run began after the team lost its last three regular-season games but made the playoffs as an additional qualifier. After reaching the postseason for the first time since 2007, the Red Devils have won their first District and Regional titles. Senior Aaron Herron has run for 1,548 yards and 19 touchdowns. Next up is Reading, coming off its sixth shutout of the season and averaging 50 points per game. Senior fullback Ethan LoPresto is tough to bring down; he’s averaging 12.6 yards per carry with 2,209 plus 26 TDs total on the ground.
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PHOTO: Portland's offense lines up during last week's Division 5 Regional Final win over Frankenmuth. (Click to see more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)
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.)