Champions representing five regions of our state. The fifth to win three-straight MHSAA titles. Two more repeat champions, and three teams that hoisted trophies for the first time. Plus four games decided by a touchdown or less, including a Final won on an overtime field goal.
The 2012 MHSAA 11-Player Football Finals gave us just about everything this weekend at Ford Field.
Second Half covered all eight games, with links to each below followed by some of the most notable record performances and a handful of stories we’ll remember long after the helmets and pads are put away.
Finals in Review
D1 – Detroit Cass Tech 36, Detroit Catholic Central 21 – This was closer than the 2011 championship game matchup between the teams. But it played out similarly because the Technicians were simply too speedy and broke off a number of big plays. Cass Tech quarterback Jayru Campbell added another touchdown pass to the five he threw in the 2011 Final. Click to read more.
D2 – Birmingham Brother Rice 35, Muskegon 28 – There weren't many firsts left to accomplish in coach Al Fracassa’s 44 seasons leading Brother Rice, but the Warriors accomplished another with their first back-to-back titles under the state’s winningest football coach. The wrinkle that ended up deciding the game was a cross-field lateral on a kick return that turned into a touchdown with 2:13 left to play. Click to read more.
D3 – Grand Rapids Christian 40, Orchard Lake St. Mary’s 37 (OT) – Record-setting performances by St. Mary’s running backs and Eagles receiver Drake Harris capped the weekend and sent this thriller to overtime. See more on those below. Joel Shipper kicked a 28-yard field goal with four seconds left in regulation to send the game to the extra period, and after St. Mary’s didn't score in overtime he nailed a 27-yarder for the win. Click to read more.
D4 – Grand Rapids South Christian 40, Detroit Country 7 – With back-up quarterback Derek Woltjer moving over to fill in for injured standout Jon Wassink, the Sailors opened up the run game a bit more after being mostly a passing offense this fall. Woltjer responded by leading his team to its first title since 2002. Click to read more.
D5 – Portland 12, Grand Rapids West Catholic 9 – After defeating reigning champion Flint Powers Catholic along the way, the Raiders beat the 2010 champion too thanks to a defense that held on long enough after the offense scored twice early. The Raiders had played in one of the first Semifinals, in 1975, but had never played in a championship game. Click to read more.
D6 – Ithaca 37, Constantine 27 – In a repeat of last season’s Final, Ithaca again beat Constantine for the championship. The Yellowjackets extended their win streak to 42 including the last three titles, and this time did so with a back-up quarterback in Logan Hessbrook after all-stater Travis Smith went out with an injury on the team’s first possession. Click to read more.
D7 – Ishpeming 20, Detroit Loyola 14 – This qualified as the biggest upset of the weekend, as Loyola came into the game undefeated and ranked No. 1. But the Hematites, despite a sizable size disadvantage, never let that be a deciding factor in going on to win their first MHSAA title since 1979. Click to read more.
D8 – Harbor Beach 35, Beal City 10 – Despite losing its top player for the season on opening night, Harbor Beach marched on to its first MHSAA championship. The Pirates set the tone quickly with two touchdown passes of at least 50 yards in the first quarter. Click to read more.
A total of 24 entries – 16 for individuals and eight for team accomplishments – have been added from the weekend’s games to the MHSAA record book Finals section. Below are some of those that ranked highest on the lists. Click to check out the entire Finals record book.
Scoring at will: Well, not quite. But in the Division 3 Final, Orchard Lake St. Mary’s and Grand Rapids Christian combined for a Finals record 1,033 yards, with St. Mary’s setting the single-team Finals mark of 579 total yards and tying the most first downs with 29. Most came on the second-most rush attempts in a championship game, 65, for 459 yards on the ground. Parker McInnis ran for the fourth-highest total by one player, 269. Grand Rapids Christian had the fourth-most passing yards, 307 by quarterback Alex VanDeVusse. Drake Harris broke the championship game record for receiving yards by 39 with and incredible 243, and his kicker Schipper tied the record for most field goals with two.
Go long: Teams threw the third and fourth-longest passes in MHSAA Finals history, both for scores. In the Division 1 Final, Campbell hit Jourdan Lewis for an 89-yard touchdown pass that was the third-longest for a few hours. That afternoon, in the Division 5 Final, Portland's Tanner Allison connected with Auston Brandt for a 94-yard scoring strike. Brandt finished with the fifth-most receiving yards for a Final, 178.
In the long run: Cass Tech’s Kenton Gibbs tallied the third-longest fumble return, 58 yards, for a touchdown against Detroit Catholic Central. Birmingham Brother Rice’s Jason Alessi had the fourth-longest kickoff return, 91 yards, after taking a cross-field lateral and returning it for a score against Muskegon.
Stories behind the scores
The streak: Ithaca became just the fifth team to win at least three straight MHSAA championships, a streak that began with the Yellowjackets’ first Finals appearance in 2010. Farmington Hills Harrison (1997-2001) and East Grand Rapids (2006-10) are tied for the longest title streaks at five seasons.
The repeats: Both Detroit Cass Tech in Division 1 and Birmingham Brother Rice in Division 2 won titles for the second straight year. The Technicians made their first final in 2011, while the Warriors now have won eight championships.
The first-timers: Harbor Beach in Division 8, Portland in Division 5 and Grand Rapids Christian in Division 3 all won their first championships – Portland and Christian in their first Finals appearances. Harbor Beach had played in one other championship game, in 1991.
No stopping Drake: Although final season stats are being confirmed, it’s fair to say Grand Rapids Christian receiver Drake Harris completed the finest receiving season in MHSAA history. His eight catches for 243 yards and a touchdown in the Division 3 title game put his season totals at 91 catches for 2,015 yards and 25 scores. The yardage is the most in MHSAA history for one season by 119 and would rank 12th nationally for one season (his yards per game rank fourth and yards per catch sixth on the NFHS lists). Harris, who has committed to Michigan State, also ranks fourth for catches in one season and second for touchdown catches on the MHSAA lists.
The replacements: South Christian's Woltjer and Ithaca's Hessbrook probably aren't the names most had associated with their schools. But the back-up quarterbacks – who also started at other positions – moved over to run the show and led their teams to championships. Woltjer, usually a starting flanker and cornerback, ran for 136 yards and two touchdowns and completed all seven of his pass attempts for 88 yards and two more scores – while also making four tackles and intercepting a pass. Hessbrook, also a starting defensive back, ran for 113 yards and two scores and threw for 104 yards and two more TDs and also made four tackles.
Coach’s last stand (?): It was tough to tell from Brother Rice coach Al Fracassa’s remarks after his team’s Division 2 title win if he would return in 2013. But the 80-year old legend would leave with an MHSAA record for wins and a career record of 416-117-7.
Dedication fulfilled: There has been much sadness in the Ishpeming football program over the last two years, with the death of coach Jeff Olson’s son and former Hematites quarterback Daniel Olson, the death of current quarterback Alex Briones’ older brother and former player Derrick and the death also of youth player Christopher Croley in October. Those memories surely weighed on the players’ hearts and minds as they upset top-ranked Detroit Loyola in the Division 7 Final to give the Upper Peninsula its first champion since 2007.
Go to MHSAA.tv for replays of all eight 11-Player Finals and the 8-Player Final at Greenville High.
PHOTOS: (Top) Eight champions celebrated MHSAA titles over Friday and Saturday at Ford Field. (Click to see more from Terry McNamara Photography). (Middle top) Brother Rice players listen to their coaches during halftime of the Division 2 Final. (Middle) A Cass Tech band member prepares to take the field during the Division 1 Final. (Middle below) An Ithaca fan roots on his team in a costume made of Duck Tape, (Click to see more like the middle photos on the MHSAA Instagram page.)
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.)