Drive for Detroit: Playoff R3 Preview

November 10, 2016

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

The best have risen to the occasion this MHSAA Football Playoffs. But this weekend's 11-player Regional Finals and 8-player Semifinals are guaranteed to be the final stop for a handful of teams that haven't experienced a loss this fall.

Of 20 teams still undefeated, 12 will face each other in six games over five divisions, with two matchups coming in Division 8.

Most of those matchups are among games highlighted in this week's "Drive for Detroit" preview powered by MI Student Aid. Read on for details on one game from each 11-player division and both 8-player matchups, and remember to visit for the full schedule, scores this weekend as they come in and next week's matchups as they're determined.

Also, tune in for eight games this weekend, four tonight and four Saturday, either on or Click for that schedule

All games below are Friday unless noted.

Division 1

Detroit Cass Tech (11-0) at Saline (11-0)

This will be the third playoff collision in five seasons for these powers; Saline won the most recent, a 2014 Semifinal. The Hornets’ last three wins were over teams that finished a combined 25-7, and last week they hung on for a 37-31 victory over Canton despite giving up more than two touchdowns for the first time since Week 3. Cass Tech’s last three wins were over teams a combined 26-2, and its defense has been even more stifling allowing only a touchdown apiece to Dearborn and Dearborn Fordson the last two weeks and 8.8 points per game total this season.

Other Regional Finals: Romeo (8-3) at Clarkston (9-2), Southfield Arts & Technology (8-3) at Utica Eisenhower (11-0), Grandville (10-1) at Detroit Catholic Central (11-0) on Saturday.

Division 2

Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central (9-2) at Lowell (11-0)

Lowell doesn’t lose often; the Red Arrows haven’t had more than three defeats in a season since 1999. So Forest Hills Central had to be smarting for a while after letting a 17-point fourth-quarter lead disappear in its 41-37 loss to Lowell in Week 7. Lowell has cruised through back-to-back 42-17 wins the last two weeks over Greenville and Traverse City Central as it seeks to return to Ford Field for the second straight year, but no doubt expects a closer game with the Rangers seeking their first Regional title since 1995.

Other Regional Finals: Grosse Pointe South (8-3) at Birmingham Groves (10-1), Fenton (9-2) at Walled Lake Western (10-1) on Saturday, Temperance Bedford (9-2) at Detroit Martin Luther King (9-2) on Saturday.

Division 3

Edwardsburg (11-0) at Chelsea (11-0)

The Eddies are 66-11 over the last seven seasons and 32-3 over the last three but are coming into a Regional Final undefeated for the first time during this run. It’s hard to not point at an incredible defensive average of giving up only 5.2 points per game with five shutouts. But it’s also hard to imagine Chelsea being held scoreless; that would be a first since a 2014 Regional Final loss. The Bulldogs also can equal last season’s school record for wins by earning this one.

Other Regional Finals: Byron Center (10-1) at Muskegon (10-1), Orchard Lake St. Mary’s (7-4) at DeWitt (10-1), Dearborn Divine Child (9-2) at Allen Park (11-0).

Division 4

Lake Odessa Lakewood (10-1) vs. Hudsonville Unity Christian (9-2) at Jenison

It was fair to predict last week that neither of these teams would still be playing today, but they’ve certainly earned the opportunity. Lakewood downed Lansing Sexton by eight to advance and Unity Christian got past undefeated Benton Harbor in overtime, and both now can win a Regional title for the first time. Both also have set program records for wins this fall, and Lakewood’s Pre-District victory was its first ever in the playoffs.

Other Regional Finals: Adrian (7-4) at River Rouge (10-1), Escanaba (9-2) at Grand Rapids Catholic Central (10-1) on Saturday, Corunna (9-2) at Detroit Country Day (11-0) on Saturday.

Division 5

Menominee (10-1) at Reed City (11-0), Saturday

The Coyotes have been poised for a run like this for a while, with four 10-1 finishes over the last five seasons but this only the second Regional Final appearance in program history. A sterling average of 8.3 points given up per game was hurt only a little by Remus Chippewa Hills’ 28 last week. But Reed City’s defense has arguably its toughest challenge in the Maroons. Menominee has cleared 10 wins for the fifth straight season and saved its usually eye-popping offensive numbers for the last month – it has scored at least 50 points three of the last five weeks and put up 61 on Grayling in the District Final.

Other Regional Finals: Ida (10-1) at Algonac (10-1), Frankenmuth (10-1) at Ithaca (11-0) on Saturday, Grand Rapids West Catholic (9-2) at Berrien Springs (8-2) on Saturday.

Division 6

Detroit Central Collegiate (7-4) at Millington (10-1)

We’re used to seeing Detroit Public School League leaders Cass Tech and Martin Luther King this deep into the playoffs, and at times the former Crockett-now-East English as well. But Detroit Central has come back from a 1-4 start to reach a Regional Final for the first time since 2010. Millington, meanwhile, has 10 wins for the first time since 2011 and is looking for its first Regional title since 2010. The Cardinals will aim to continue a stifling defensive effort that has given up only 8.3 points per game.

Other Regional Finals: Maple City Glen Lake (9-2) at Calumet (10-1) on Saturday, Leroy Pine River (8-3) at Ravenna (9-2) on Saturday, Napoleon (9-2) at Jackson Lumen Christi (9-2) on Saturday.

Division 7

Pewamo-Westphalia (11-0) at Traverse City St. Francis (11-0), Saturday

This is familiar territory for both programs: St. Francis will play in its fourth Regional Final in six seasons, while P-W will play in its sixth straight this decade. We've talked about record-setting running back Jared Smith this week (click for more), but the Pirates will take advantage of a variety of offensive weapons to try to break through a Gladiators defense giving up only 5.6 points per game. 

Other Regional Finals: Concord (9-2) vs. Cassopolis (10-1) at Decatur, Detroit Loyola (9-2) at Hudson (10-1), Ubly (11-0) vs. New Lothrop (10-1) at Chesaning on Saturday.

Division 8

Frankfort (11-0) at Muskegon Catholic Central (11-0), Saturday

Frankfort gets another chance to take down perennial power MCC after falling to the Crusaders 22-12 in the Regional Final in 2015. But this is a stronger Panthers team that has scored nearly 100 more points but also knows how to win close, as it has done twice including last week against Lincoln Alcona. Frankfort will need all of its expertise against the reigning three-time Division 8 champion, which is also putting up even better numbers than a year ago and hasn't let an opponent within two touchdowns this fall. 

Other Regional Finals: Climax-Scotts (11-0) at Ottawa Lake Whiteford (11-0), Norway (9-2) at St. Ignace (10-1) on Saturday, Royal Oak Shrine (9-2) at Saginaw Michigan Lutheran Seminary (9-2) on Saturday.


Pickford (10-1) at Powers North Central (11-0)

Pickford, in its second season of 8-player, has reached the Semifinals for the first time since 1991. The Panthers last week avenged their only loss this season by edging Engadine in a Regional Final, and now will attempt to hand reigning champion North Central its first loss also in two seasons of 8-player. This Jets team is reminiscent of last year's champion and also the back-to-back Class D boys basketball champions, mostly because it is led by senior quarterback Jason Whitens. He's thrown for 2,170 yards and 40 touchdowns and run for 15 more scores.

Wyoming Tri-unity Christian (11-0) at Deckerville (10-0), Saturday

Tri-unity's first playoff run is now only one more win from the championship game, and the Defenders have made it by following senior quarterback Brayden Sherrod (2,104 yards/37 touchdowns rushing, 1,610 yards/21 TDs passing.) Deckerville has owned the line of scrimmage and dominated as a result, running for nearly 3,000 yards and holding its opponents to 323 and only 44 points – 150 fewer points than at this point when it won the MHSAA title in 2012.

Second Half’s weekly “Drive for Detroit” previews 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: Menominee and DeWitt met in Week 8 (the Panthers won 48-14) and both will play in Regional Finals this weekend. (Click to see more from

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.)