By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
The "Drive for Detroit" will take one last turn this weekend on the way to the final destination for 16 teams fortunate enough to finish this fall at Ford Field.
We're expecting great weather across most of the state, so find a seat in the bleachers and root on your favorite team. 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 unless noted. “Drive for Detroit” is powered by MI Student Aid
Belleville (12-0) vs. Brighton (10-2) at Howell High School
For the second straight season, Belleville is one more win from reaching the Finals for the first time. Junior quarterback Christian Dhue-Reid (2,706 yards/33 TDs passing) has led a return Semifinal march that’s seen the Tigers go unbeaten since falling in last year’s Semifinal to eventual champion Clinton Township Chippewa Valley. Brighton also is playing to reach its first championship game in this sport and also follows a dynamic quarterback in senior Colby Newburg (1,140 yards/17 TDs rushing, 1,319 yards/17 TDs passing).
Davison (10-2) vs. Sterling Heights Stevenson (8-4) at Troy Athens
The Cardinals are playing in their fifth Semifinal and for their first trip to a championship game. Davison is riding the arm of another quarterback getting a lot of attention – junior Brendan Sullivan has thrown for 2,635 yards and 31 touchdowns and run for eight more scores. Stevenson will be the third team from the vaunted Macomb Area Conference Red to see Davison this playoffs. The Titans are one of the state’s best comeback stories coming off three straight sub-.500 seasons. They have a number of versatile weapons, among them senior running back Nick Wingfield (1,018 yards/15 TDs rushing), as they seek their first Finals trip since 2009.
Walled Lake Western (11-1) vs. Muskegon Mona Shores (10-2) at Okemos
The Warriors are a Week 3 three-point loss to Orchard Lake St. Mary’s from undefeated this fall as they seek their second trip to Ford Field in four seasons. Quarterback Zach Trainor (2,685 yards/32 TDs passing) to receiver Abdur-Rahmaan Yaseen (1,443 yards/18 TDs receiving) has been one of the state’s top scoring combinations. Mona Shores will need to slow Western down to return to Ford Field after finishing Division 2 runner-up a year ago. The Sailors will counter with an attack led by running back Tre Hatcher (1,257 yards/12 TDs rushing) and veteran quarterback Caden Broersma (406 yards/10 TDs rushing, 908 yards/11 TDs passing).
Detroit Martin Luther King (10-2) vs. Birmingham Seaholm (9-3) at Novi, 3 p.m.
Despite moving back to Division 2 after winning Division 3 a year ago, King will play in its fifth straight Semifinal and is riding a 10-game winning streak after early losses to Detroit Catholic Central and Muskegon. Freshman Dante Moore (2,240 yards/30 TDs) has more than fulfilled preseason media build-up, and senior Peny Boone (903 yards/15 touchdowns) is regarded as one of the top backs in the state. Seaholm is seeking its first championship game berth and playing its first Semifinal since 1997. Chaz Strecker has carried the load with 1,493 yards and 20 touchdowns for a Maples team approaching nearly 4,000 yards on the ground.
Muskegon (12-0) vs. DeWitt (10-2) at East Kentwood
Muskegon has appeared on a mission since falling to King in last season’s Division 3 Final, and senior quarterback Cameron Martinez (1,735 yards/32 TDs rushing, 1,122 yards/10 TDs passing) again has led the charge. The only team to come within 20 points of the Big Reds this season was East Grand Rapids in Week 3, and Muskegon won the rematch last week 49-10. But DeWitt as a program has more experience at this level of the playoffs than most in the state, and the Panthers are coming off a 35-14 win over Edwardsburg that ended the reigning Division 4 champion’s winning streak at 25. The Panthers haven’t given up more than 15 points in a game since Week 5, and senior quarterback Andrew Schorfaar leads the team both in passing (1,458 yards/18 TDs) and rushing (1,058/14).
Chelsea (12-0) vs. River Rouge (11-1) at Dearborn
Chelsea has advanced to MHSAA Finals in both Divisions 3 and 4 over the last five years. The Bulldogs have won three games by seven points or fewer this playoffs to come within another victory of a second-straight trip to Ford Field after finishing Division 4 runners-up a year ago. A steady defense gives up just more than 12 points per game, while running back Brennan Van Riper (952 yards/13 TDs rushing) is among a number of offensive options. Rouge has won 11 straight since falling by three in its opener to Division 4 contender Grand Rapids Catholic Central and will play in its fourth Semifinal in five years. Running back Deandre Bulley (1,820 yards/20 TDs) has been tough to bring down at 6-foot-2, 245 pounds, and quarterback Mareyohn Hrabowski has reached 1,000 yards both rushing and passing. Meanwhile, the defense is giving up just 8.3 points per game.
Grand Rapids Catholic Central (11-1) vs. Hudsonville Unity Christian (9-3) at Jenison
The Cougars are playing in their fourth-straight Semifinal and seeking their third championship game trip during this string after missing out last year with a two-point loss to Edwardsburg. GRCC is unbeaten in-state this fall, with its lone loss to a team from Illinois. Quarterback Joey Silveri drives the offense, throwing for 2,491 yards and 31 touchdowns and running for 704 yards and 13 scores. But Unity Christian has plenty of experience at this level too coming off last season’s Division 5 championship. Running back Malekhi Obande is averaging nearly 10 yards per carry (1,311 total, with 14 TDs rushing), and like GRCC the Crusaders won their first three playoff games all by at least three touchdowns.
Detroit Country Day (12-0) vs. Flint Powers Catholic (10-2) at Howell Parker Middle School
The Yellowjackets are playing in their fourth Semifinal in six seasons and advanced after handing Milan its only loss this season last week. The defense shined again, giving up just six points, which actually upped its average to 5.6 points given up per game. On the other side of the ball, running back Anthony Ammori (822 yards/14 TDs) leads a rushing attack that’s gained more than 2,200 yards. Powers’ defense during the regular season against much larger opponents in the Saginaw Valley League Blue didn’t stand out, but during the playoffs the Chargers have given up only 28 points over three games. Quarterback Luke Phillpotts has run and passed both for more than 700 yards to lead the team in both categories.
Kingsley (12-0) vs. Lansing Catholic (11-1) at Greenville
Kingsley has won all of its games by double digits including in Week 7 against Division 6 semifinalist Maple City Glen Lake, and eliminated unbeaten Muskegon Oakridge in a 17-point win two weeks ago. Running backs Ayden Mullin (1,451 yards/21 TDs rushing) and Owen Graves (713 yards/12 TDs) are both averaging more than nine yards per carry as the team works toward making the Finals for the first time since 2005. But Lansing Catholic, now free of rival Portland after falling to the Raiders the last two District Finals, is aiming for its first Ford Field trip since 2014 with its most productive offense since that season. Quarterback Zach Gillespie has thrown for 2,247 yards and 24 touchdowns and run for another 18 scores.
Almont (12-0) vs. Detroit Denby (10-2) at Walled Lake Central
The Raiders have put together a 22-1 run over the last two seasons as they seek their first trip to the Finals. Almont long has been known for defense, and this year’s unit is giving up just 10 points per game. But the offense has reached 500 points for the first time since 2014 with four rushers gaining at least 500 yards and quarterback Josh Hellebuyck providing a nice complement with 1,194 yards and 22 TDs through the air. Denby also is seeking its first Finals berth, while playing in its first Semifinal, and has lost this season to only King, twice. The Tars have given up only 97 points this season – and subtract the King losses, they are allowing only 3.8 points per game.
Maple City Glen Lake (11-1) vs. Montague (10-2) at Clare
Glen Lake’s only defeat this season was to Kingsley, as noted above, and the Lakers are seeking their second trip to Ford Field in four years. After dominating most of the regular season, Glen Lake has won close the last three weeks – with that experience possibly paying off in what’s sure to be a challenging matchup with last season’s Division 6 runner-up. Quarterback Reece Hazelton towers over most defenders at 6-6 and has thrown for 1,012 yards and 14 touchdowns, with Jonathan Wright adding 1,112 yards and 17 scores on the ground for the Lakers. Montague quarterback Drew Collins started during last season’s run and is starring with 2,354 yards and 27 TDs passing and 663 yards and 14 scores rushing.
Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central (10-1) vs. Onsted (10-2) at Ypsilanti Lincoln
The Falcons opened this decade with three Semifinal appearances over the first five years, and will close with one more thanks in part to a defense that hasn’t given up more than 16 points since Week 3. St. Mary also has scored its most points since its championship season of 2014 despite playing one fewer game so far than the last two years (because of an open date). Alex Morgan leads that effort with 1,571 yards and 16 touchdowns rushing. Onsted has made its first Semifinal since 1993 by avenging losses to Blissfield and formerly-undefeated Hillsdale during the playoffs. The Wildcats finished only 3-6 a year ago but have rebounded in part because of a ground attack featuring two 1,000-yard rushers, Travis Hill (1,312 yards/14 TDs) and Rourke Barth (1,025/16).
Iron Mountain (12-0) vs. Pewamo-Westphalia (12-0) at the Superior Dome, 7 p.m. Friday
Pewamo-Westphalia will see its second-straight undefeated opponent after handing the first and only loss of the season last week to reigning champion New Lothrop. Iron Mountain won a league that sent four teams total to the playoffs and also has won all of its playoff games by at least two scores. Caleb Evosivich-Hynes is the team’s leading rusher (1,289 yards/12 TDs) and receiver (435/8), catching passes from quarterback and also basketball standout Marcus Johnson (1,037 yards/14 TDs passing). The Pirates got up big on New Lothrop before holding off the Hornets down the stretch to win by a point 36-35, but otherwise P-W has locked down all of its opponents, giving up only 56 points on the season. Expect to see the ball often in running back Tanner Wirth’s hands, as he has run for nearly 10 yards per carry and 1,499 and 24 touchdowns overall.
Jackson Lumen Christi (11-0) vs. Cass City (11-1) at Novi, 11 a.m.
The Titans have won 24 straight games and the last three Division 6 championships, and they impressed in a major test last week holding off Schoolcraft 35-30. It’s hardly a surprise that Lumen Christi runs the ball well – the latest in its string of star runners is Walker Plate, who has rushed for 2,279 yards and 31 touchdowns. Cass City is playing in its first Semifinal boasting a defense that has given up only 52 points all year – and just two over three playoff games. The Red Hawks have given up more than eight points only once, in a two-point opening-night loss to Montrose.
Beal City (11-1) vs. Ubly (10-2) at Mount Pleasant
Both of these teams have reached the Semifinals previously this decade, Beal City most recently in 2014 and Ubly in 2016. Both also bounced back from late losses this time to make their runs – Beal City against McBain and Ubly to Cass City (see Division 7 above). Beal City has gained more than 3,200 yards this season showing impressive balance with no one rushing for more than 750 or throwing for more than 450. Ubly has four backs with at least 600 yards rushing, but the main ball carrier for an offense with nearly 4,300 yards total is Carson Heleski (1,447 yards/19 TDs rushing).
Reading (11-1) vs. Fowler (11-1) at Battle Creek Harper Creek
There are a lot of similarities in how these two small-school powers conduct business on the field. Fowler, in its first Semifinal since reaching the Division 8 championship game in 2011, has for decades been known for its powerful running. This season that’s come in the forms of Kyle Snyder (1,481 yards/21 TDs rushing) and Caiden Pung (1,222 yards/21 TDs). Reading rode the same to last season’s Division 8 title and is back in the hunt led by Hunter Midtgard (1,212 yards/15 TDs) among others running behind 6-3, 307-pound Nick Affholter. The key may be who stops whom; the Rangers have given up only 79 points, and the Eagles only 137.
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PHOTO: Beal City's Logan Chilman (10) breaks away from an Ishpeming's Dawson Delongchamp during last weekend's Division 8 Regional Final win. (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.)