Drive for Detroit: 11-Player Semis Review

November 20, 2017

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

Five of Saturday’s 11-player Semifinals were decided by seven points or fewer.

Four reigning champions earned opportunities to repeat as champions.

Three teams advanced to the Finals for the first time.

Two of the five winningest coaches in MHSAA history – and the top two among active coaches – will make the trip again.

One more weekend remains to decide the last of this season’s football champions.

The countdown is on for our annual voyage to Detroit’s Ford Field. West Bloomfield, Saginaw Swan Valley and Edwardsburg earned first-time MHSAA Finals berths Saturday, while a handful of surprises also helped shape an intriguing championship field.

Below is a glance at all 16 Semifinals, plus links to coverage both print and broadcast. The MHSAA Playoffs are sponsored by the Michigan Army National Guard, and “Drive for Detroit” is sponsored by MI Student Aid.

Division 1

Clarkston 27, Detroit Catholic Central 7

The Wolves (11-2) held the reigning Division 1 runner-up Shamrocks (8-5) scoreless until late in the third quarter to earn their return to Ford Field looking for a third title in five seasons after winning Division 1 back-to-back in 2013-14. Click for more from the Oakland Press.

West Bloomfield 9, Detroit Cass Tech 7

West Bloomfield (11-2) held off the reigning champion Technicians (9-3) to advance to the MHSAA Finals for the first time, with Nick O’Shea kicking a 31 and two 26-yard field goals. Click for more from the Detroit News.

Division 2

Livonia Franklin 20, Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central 0

Franklin (11-2) earned its first Finals berth since the first year of MHSAA playoffs in 1975, shutting down a Forest Hills Central offense that averaged 38 points per game during a 12-0 start. Click for more from Observer & Eccentric.

Warren DeLaSalle 14, Detroit Martin Luther King 13

In a matchup of Detroit area powers, Catholic League Central champion Warren DeLaSalle (11-2) edged Public School League champion and back-to-back Division 2 title winner King (11-2); the Pilots will be going for their second title in four seasons after winning Division 2 in 2014. Click for more from the Macomb Daily.

Division 3

Muskegon 42, Battle Creek Harper Creek 0

This Muskegon playoff drive is becoming legendary; the Big Reds (13-0) haven’t given up a point in their last two games and this time handed Harper Creek (12-1) its first and only loss of the season. Click for more from the Muskegon Chronicle.

Farmington Hills Harrison 21, Riverview 0

Likewise, Harrison’s run is becoming something of a storybook end for a program guided by the newly-anointed all-time winningest coach in state history that will also will play only one more season as the school will close in 2019. The Hawks (10-3) earned their second shutout of the playoffs as well, this time as Riverview (11-2) was averaging 35 points per game. Click for more from Observer & Eccentric.

Division 4

Grand Rapids Catholic Central 24, Escanaba 0

The reigning champion Cougars (13-0) ran into one of few opponents that has slowed down its offense; GRCC scored fewer than 32 points for the first time since Week 2. But Escanaba (10-3) didn’t manage a point for the first time since last year’s Regional Final, when GRCC downed the Eskymos 34-0. Click for more from the Grand Rapids Press.

Edwardsburg 32, River Rouge 21

Edwardsburg (12-1) scored the final 14 points of the game to earn its first trip to the MHSAA Finals and tie a program record for most wins in a season with last year’s semifinalist team. River Rouge (10-3) was playing in a Semifinal for the third straight season and hadn’t lost to an instate opponent since opening night. Click for more from the Niles Daily Star.

Division 5

Saginaw Swan Valley 29, Reed City 14

Both teams were playing to make the MHSAA Finals for the first time, and Swan Valley (12-1) earned the trip while also tying a program record for wins in a season. Four rushing touchdowns including two by Chase Mendoza doomed the Coyotes (11-2), who won a program-record 11 games for the second straight season. Click for more from the Saginaw News.

Grand Rapids West Catholic 25, Frankenmuth 21

Four-time reigning champion West Catholic (11-2) came back from a 21-0 deficit to clinch a sixth straight MHSAA Finals appearance, holding off the Eagles (12-1) as they attempted to reach the Finals for the first time. Click for more from the Grand Rapids Press.

Division 6

Ithaca 27, Traverse City St. Francis 0

Most of the time, Ithaca’s offense is cast in the starring role. But the Yellowjackets (13-0) have two shutouts this playoffs and are giving up only 7.8 points per game – and St. Francis (11-2) hadn’t been held scoreless since 2013. Click for more from the Mount Pleasant Morning Sun.

Jackson Lumen Christi 44, Warren Michigan Collegiate 12

Reigning champion Lumen Christi (11-1) earned a shot at its first repeat title since winning two straight in 2003-04. The Titans put up 38 points in the first half and held Michigan Collegiate (12-1) to its fewest since opening night 2016. Click for more from the Jackson Citizen Patriot.

Division 7

Pewamo-Westphalia 51, Lake City 8

The reigning champion Pirates are headed back to the Finals after holding Lake City scoreless until the final minutes. Over four playoff games, P-W (12-1) has outscored its opponents 158-29. Lake City did set a program record for wins in finishing 12-1, making the Semifinals for the first time and all after going 2-7 a year ago. Click for more from the Lansing State Journal.

Saugatuck 14, Madison Heights Madison 7

The Indians (10-3) earned their first Finals berth since 2010 with a third straight playoff win by seven points or fewer – an incredible showing of perseverance considering also that this run has come after they missed out on a league title because of a Week 9 loss. Madison (12-1) entered the postseason with the highest playoff point average in the division by a large margin, but couldn’t get an offense going that averaged 33 points heading into the weekend. Click for more from the Holland Sentinel.

Division 8

Saginaw Nouvel 17, Iron River West Iron County 14

Nouvel (13-0) outlasted a physical West Iron front on both sides of the ball and made a third-quarter field goal stand for 22 minutes to reach the Finals for the first time since winning Division 7 in 2011. While West Iron (11-2) did hold the Panthers to their season low points, the Wykons also scored their fewest since Week 5. Click for more from the Saginaw News.

Ottawa Lake Whiteford 50, Mendon 21

This shouldn’t be called an upset, but Mendon (12-1) had to be considered the Division 8 favorite by at least a few after eliminating reigning four-time champ Muskegon Catholic Central in the District Final. Instead, reigning runner-up Whiteford (13-0) scored 50 points for the 10th time in 11 games, those points accounting for 39 percent of all the points the staunch Hornets gave up this season. Click for more from the Monroe Evening News.

Second Half’s weekly “Drive for Detroit” previews and reviews are powered by MI Student Aid, a part of the Student Financial Services Bureau located within the Michigan Department of Treasury. MI Student Aid encourages students to pursue postsecondary education by providing access to student financial resources and information, including various student financial assistance programs to help make college more affordable for Michigan students. MI Student Aid administers the state’s 529 savings programs (MET/MESP) and eight additional aid programs within its Student Scholarships and Grants division. Click for more information and connect with MI Student Aid on Facebook and Twitter @mistudentaid. 

PHOTO: Muskegon quarterback La'darius Jefferson breaks into the second level of Harper Creek's defense Saturday as a pair of tacklers work to wrap him up. (Photo by Tim Reilly.)

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.)