Driven by 2022 Semifinal Loss, GR Catholic Central Reclaims Top Spot in D5

By Tom Kendra
Special for

November 26, 2023

DETROIT – Corunna coach Steve Herrick’s final words at the postgame press conference pretty much summed up his team’s struggles in Sunday’s Division 5 title game.

“It’s tough to prepare for a team like Grand Rapids Catholic Central,” explained Herrick, whose school was playing at the Finals for the first time.

“We took care of preparing for their receivers and linemen pretty well, but No. 7 and No. 23 were hard for us to mimic at practice. We don’t have anyone like them.”

With that, Herrick and his players exited the interview area just as GRCC’s No. 7, senior quarterback Connor Wolf, and No. 23, senior running back Kellen Russell-Dixon, squeezed past them, the stars of the Cougars’ 21-7 victory.

Wolf scored all three touchdowns for GRCC, on a pair of 1-yard runs in the second quarter and a 10-yard burst in the fourth quarter, as the Cougars won their eighth Finals title in 10 championship game appearances.

Russell-Dixon didn’t get in the end zone, but was the game’s leading rusher with 20 carries for 133 yards, to go with two receptions for 19 yards.

Both senior leaders said it was a devastating loss to eventual champion Gladwin in last year’s Semifinal, 28-21, which fueled the team’s desire to get back to the mountaintop.

The Cavaliers’ Wyatt Bower (4) and Dayne Zeeman work to bring down GRCC’s Lucas Thelen short of the goal line. “That loss last year showed us we still had so much work to do to be our best,” said Wolf, who completed 10-of-22 passes for 82 yards and rushed 11 times for 78 yards and the three scores.

Added Russell-Dixon: “I remember watching the Division 5 championship game on TV last year, and just thinking about how we had it in our hands and we weren’t focused and we let it slip away.”

GRCC, which finished 13-1 after a season-opening home loss to powerhouse Chicago Loyola, was focused and prepared Sunday, mixing up the pass and run exquisitely to take a 14-0 halftime lead.

Corunna, also 13-1, averaged more than 41 points per game coming in, but struggled in the first half against the experienced Cougars.

“I felt like they were more physical than us,” said Corunna senior quarterback and defensive back Wyatt Bower. “I felt like all year we didn’t get the respect we deserved, but we battled those guys in the second half.”

The Cavaliers did exactly what they had to do coming out of halftime, taking the third-quarter kickoff and marching 67 yards in 14 plays, capped with a 7-yard burst up the middle by Bower on a 4th-and-goal play, that cut the lead to 14-7.

That score brought a sizable group of black-and-gold clad fans from Corunna, a community of about 4,000 people between Lansing and Flint, to its feet.

However, that turned out to be as close as Corunna would get against a quick and hard-hitting GRCC defense.

The Cougars added an insurance touchdown in the fourth quarter after a short punt gave them the ball at Corunna’s 35-yard line. Eight plays later (six of those runs by Russell-Dixon), Wolf took it the final 10 yards to ice the win.

“It never gets old,” explained 12th-year GRCC coach Todd Kolster, who has guided the Cougars to titles in four of the past five years and six of the last eight. “One of the things I cherish the most from the Finals is the team photo we take down on the field. I never get in those photos. Then when I get a moment, I can look at all those kids who worked so hard and gave so much.”

Brayden Sweeney (6) and Derek Weiss (30) wrap up Corunna’s Parker Isham.GRCC, which held a 315-239 edge in total yardage, made Corunna work for every yard Sunday.

Senior linebacker Austin Baxter (6-foot, 185 pounds) set the tone for the Cougars’ defense with eight tackles. Adam Whalen and Derek Weiss made six tackles apiece, and Mill Coleman III added five tackles and the game-clinching interception in the end zone with five minutes remaining.

Wolf said family ties drive the Cougars’ year-in, year-out success – the connections to both his football brothers and his actual biological family.

“My dad, grandparents, uncles, they all went to Catholic Central,” said Wolf, a 6-3 dual threat QB who passed for more than 2,500 yards with 23 TD passes and only two interceptions. “This means a lot to all of us, to continue the Cougar tradition.”

Corunna, which was led all season by Wyatt Bower and his identical twin brother, Tarick (one of his favorite receiving targets), got a strong final game from senior fullback/linebacker Jaden Edington, who made a game-high 10 tackles and rushed 14 times for 70 yards.

The Bower twins, sprinters who helped Corunna win the Lower Peninsula Division 2 Track & Field championship last spring, finished their football careers in style. Wyatt completed 6-of-16 passes for 123 yards, no touchdowns and one interception, while making eight tackles on defense. Tarick made two catches for 69 yards.

Kaden Cowdrey and Dayne Zeeman each made eight tackles for the Cavaliers.

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS (Top) Grand Rapids Catholic Central’s Kellen Russell-Dixon (23) prepares for contact with Corunna’s Kaden Cowdrey (8) during Sunday’s Division 5 Final. (Middle) The Cavaliers’ Wyatt Bower (4) and Dayne Zeeman work to bring down GRCC’s Lucas Thelen short of the goal line. (Below) Brayden Sweeney (6) and Derek Weiss (30) wrap up Corunna’s Parker Isham. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)

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.)