Drive for Detroit: Playoff Week 2 Preview

November 7, 2019

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

First-round games, and with them often familiar opponents, are out of the way as we move into District Finals for 11-player and Regional Finals for 8-player teams still alive in the MHSAA Football Playoffs.  

This weekend, in most cases, we’ll get a stronger indication how those that have done well near home match up among contenders on a statewide scale.

Below is again a look at a game in each division that particularly jumps off the page, in many cases because it provides one or both teams an opportunity to show they are built for bigger games and less familiar opponents ahead as we roar toward the end of November.

"Drive for Detroit" is sponsored by MI Student Aid.


Division 1

Belleville (10-0) at Brownstown Woodhaven (10-0)

The Warriors have made the second round of the playoffs three times over the years, and a big performance tonight will not only send them to the third round for the first time but make another statement for a Downriver League that has had plenty of success over the last two decades. Belleville is playing in its third-straight District Final and for its second straight title at this level. Merely coincidentally, both of these teams have won all of their games by double figures except one – both had one-point wins against the second-place finishers in their respective leagues.   

Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Plymouth (9-1) at West Bloomfield (9-1), Davison (8-2) at Lapeer (9-1), Detroit Cass Tech (6-4) at Dearborn Fordson (9-1).

Division 2

Midland Dow (7-3) at Muskegon Mona Shores (8-2)

The Sailors got past Midland by seven a week ago and now must also eliminate the other co-champion from the Saginaw Valley League North in neighboring Dow. The Chargers opened last week edging Big North Conference champion Traverse City Central by three. This could shake out as another close but low-scoring District Final, with both teams averaging just over 30 points per game but far fewer against playoff teams this season.

Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central (8-2) at Portage Northern (9-1), Fenton (9-1) at Walled Lake Western (9-1), Birmingham Seaholm (7-3) at Brimingham Groves (8-2).

Division 3

Edwardsburg (10-0) at Zeeland West (9-1)

Moving back into Division 3 for these playoffs means a different set of challengers for the reigning Division 4 champion Eddies. Zeeland West is seeking its first District title since 2015 after losing in this round the last two years, and can be considered as close to undefeated without being so as its only loss was by a point to still-unbeaten Byron Center. Running has long been the name of the game for both of these programs, and this could be another low-scoring matchup with West giving up 17 points per game and Edwardsburg just 7.4.  

Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Coldwater (9-1) at Chelsea (10-0). SATURDAY Cedar Springs (9-1) at Muskegon (10-0), Flint Kearsley (8-2) at Orchard Lake St. Mary's (9-1).

Division 4

Sparta (9-1) at Grand Rapids Catholic Central (9-1)

Sparta surely was considered capable of winning last week’s opener against Muskegon Orchard View. But after the Spartans shut out the previously-undefeated Cardinals 35-0, it no doubt opened up a few more eyes as the team also reached nine wins for the first time since 1953 (per Catholic Central annually is a formidable challenge, having made the Semifinals the last three seasons. GRCC’s only loss this fall was to a playoff team from Illinois.  

Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Ortonville Brandon (8-2) at Pontiac Notre Dame Prep (9-1), Marshall (6-4) at Paw Paw (9-1), Romulus Summit Academy North (8-2) at Milan (10-0).

Division 5

Muskegon Oakridge (10-0) at Kingsley (10-0), Saturday

Oakridge is playing in its eighth District Final this decade and has won three of the first seven, with two of the four losses to teams that ended up reaching the MHSAA Finals – including by just three points to last season’s Division 5 champion Hudsonville Unity Christian. Kingsley won its first District title last year since 2005, traveling a different road playing in Division 6. Whichever team emerges from these paths crossing could be a serious contender to keep on rolling all the way to Detroit.

Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Almont (10-0) at Marine City (10-0), Lansing Catholic (9-1) at Portland (8-2), Clawson (7-3) at Detroit Denby (8-2).

Division 6

Ravenna (8-2) at Montague (8-2)

Three West Michigan Conference teams are still alive – these two joining Oakridge noted above – and Ravenna won the first meeting 17-7 in Week 6. How much has changed in just over a month? The Wildcats since then can boast an 18-14 win over Portland, last season’s Division 5 runner-up. Ravenna, meanwhile, hasn’t given up a point since falling to Oakridge by seven in Week 8.

Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Constantine (8-2) at Hillsdale (10-0), Warren Michigan Collegiate (9-1) at Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central (8-1). SATURDAY Menominee (7-3) at Calumet (9-1).

Division 7

Beaverton (10-0) at New Lothrop (10-0)

New Lothrop has become one of the scariest contenders in arguably the most competitive division, and not just because it’s the reigning champion. That unexpected underdog role could play well for the Beavers, who have reached 10 wins for the first time and last week gave up their first points – but only six – since Week 5. Beaverton’s 5.8-points-per-game defensive showing overall this season has come against a schedule featuring six playoff opponents, including three playing for District titles this weekend.

Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Lawton (10-0) at Schoolcraft (9-1), Elkton-Pigeon-Bay Port Laker (7-3) at Cass City (9-1). SATURDAY McBain (6-4) at Traverse City St. Francis (7-3).

Division 8

Cassopolis (10-0) at Reading (9-1)

This matchup has two years of recent history providing some additional build-up. These teams met in a Division 7 District Final in 2017, won by Cassopolis 31-16. Reading marched to the Division 8 title unbeaten last season – but Cassopolis was still in Division 7 and missed making that Final with a three-point Semifinal loss to Madison Heights Madison. Now these two meet again, both in Division 8, both scoring more than 40 points per game and both with incredible defensive numbers – Reading giving up 5.2 points per game and Cassopolis having given up 17 points this entire season.

Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Beal City (9-1) at Johannesburg-Lewiston (10-0). SATURDAY Ubly (8-2) at Harbor Beach (10-0), Flint Beecher (6-3) at Fowler (9-1).


Division 1

Martin (10-0) at Colon (10-0), Saturday

This will be the greatest challenge this fall so far for both teams. It’s tough to say Colon has been challenged yet – the Magi have scored 40 points in all but one game and average 52.2 per game, and have given up 38 total with six shutouts. Martin stacks up impressively scoring 38.6 points per game and giving up 10.8, but with a pair of single-digit wins over Bellevue and Climax-Scotts. Those could be interesting indicators for Colon, which beat both by at least 35.

Other Regional Finals FRIDAY Gaylord St. Mary (5-5) at Suttons Bay (10-0), Kingston (8-2) at Mio (9-1), Morrice (9-1) at Deckerville (10-0).

Division 2

Pickford (9-1) at Powers North Central (10-0)

This rematch has been highly-anticipated since Week 3, when Powers North Central handed Pickford its only loss, 20-14, in what also turned out to be the Jets’ only close game this season. Pickford, last season’s Division 1 runner-up, did end up in Division 2 this time and brings back a team loaded with playoff experience. We’ll see how much difference that might make, although the Jets did gain a valuable boost as well in last week’s win over Crystal Falls Forest Park, its first over the Trojans in the first round in three seasons.

Other Regional Finals FRIDAY Cedarville (6-4) at Hillman (9-1), Onekama (7-3) at Climax-Scotts (8-2). SATURDAY Kinde North Huron (7-3) at Portland St. Patrick (10-0).

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PHOTO: Muskegon Oakridge edged Montague 15-13 in Week 5; both are playing this weekend for District championships. (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.)