DETROIT – Ty Hudkins and his Forest Hills Central teammates were not going to be denied Sunday in the Division 3 Football Final.
Not even if it meant – in Hudkins’ case – having to drag a Mason defender 20 yards for a touchdown.
Not after coming up one win short of bringing their program its first Finals title a year ago.
And certainly not in the final game of their coach Tim Rogers’ career.
So Hudkins dragged that defender, the Rangers got that last win, and they sent Rogers out a winner, defeating Mason 27-10 at Ford Field.
“We’ve been talking about this since sixth grade,” Hudkins said, before pointing to his teammates assembled at the press conference. “We’ve been playing for each other since we can remember. All our dads have been the coaches – coach’s kid, coach’s kid, coach’s kid, coach’s kid – it’s just been a real blessing. (Rogers) has been around with us the entire time, as well. It’s just a great way to end. We’ve been talking about it since sixth grade, and the fact that it finally came true is just crazy. It’s a blessing.”
Forest Hills Central had lost to Warren De La Salle Collegiate in the Division 2 Final a year ago. After that game, Rogers told the assembled media that the Rangers would be back, and he was proven correct.
This year, he made another major statement following the game, when he announced that he had just coached his final game at Forest Hills Central, calling it the “worst-kept secret in the state.”
“It’s tough,” Rogers said before taking a moment to collect himself. “Their fathers are dear friends, my assistant coaches. There’s been plenty of inquiries if I was stepping down this year, and the last thing I wanted to be was a distraction to our team. So, do what we always do, put our head down and grind. I feel great. I watched these kids grow up. I think I’m leaving it better than I found it. These assistant coaches I have are fantastic – great fathers, great people, great husbands. So, it was great in our final game to do that. Send them off the way they deserve to be sent off. This community has waited a long time for something like this, and they’re fantastic. The student body was fantastic, our administration was very supportive. Storybook ending for my career to finish with these guys and do what we just did today.”
The Rangers (13-1) did it with defense, holding Mason to 36 yards rushing and 4.3 yards per play. They also forced three turnovers, including a pick-six from linebacker Drew Fortino with 7 minutes, 13 seconds to play, which made the score 27-10 and essentially put the game away.
“I saw the guy across the field, and I saw him coming across, and I kind of just stuck my hand out and was like, ‘Shoot, I got the ball,’” Fortino said. “The whole team blocked really well, and I was able to get into the end zone and they were all in there celebrating with me.”
Mason coach Gary Houghton called the Rangers’ front seven the fastest his team had seen this season, including that of Detroit Martin Luther King, who the Bulldogs played in the Semifinal. As the Bulldogs struggled to find room to run – both with and without star running back AJ Martell, who had eight carries for 14 yards before leaving the game with an injury – that became more and more apparent. But Rogers said it went beyond his team’s athleticism.
“They’re talented for sure,” Rogers said. “But they’re smart. They do so much. The offense gets so much credit for checks at the line of scrimmage and all the things they do. We do that all the time on defense. If you watch me and you knew our signals, half the time you’d just think I was calling base. But these guys check everything at the line of scrimmage. It’s a testament to their football IQ, how they get us in the right play all the time on defense, and just a relentless pursuit of the football.”
JT Hartman led the defense with an interception, a sack, two tackles for loss and eight total tackles. Brady Drueke had a team-high 12 tackles, Fortino added a sack and Hudkins had a diving interception.
The defensive performance was a far cry from a year ago, when the Rangers allowed 52 points in the loss to De La Salle.
“We knew we had to be better, just this offseason, so we worked extra hard in the weight room,” Hartman said. “I think all the extra work made us better players and better people. That translated out on the field.”
While the Mason defense had a fine day itself, holding the Rangers to fewer than 300 yards of total offense and 5.5 yards per play, Central was able to break the game open in the second half thanks to a max-effort play from Hudkins. The Purdue commit hauled in a pass from quarterback Mason McDonald at the 28-yard line and was latched onto at the 20 by a Mason defender. Hudkins stayed on his feet, however, and powered his way into the end zone, diving for the pylon and giving his team a 20-3 lead.
“Just a touchdown in and of itself is a big deal, but to see the will – he was not going to be denied,” Rogers said. “With that, you could literally see the whole sideline just start to elevate. Ty was going to put us on his back literally and figuratively, and he wasn’t going to be denied.”
Hudkins finished the game with 115 yards on six receptions. McDonald led the Forest Hills rushing attack with 74 yards on 21 carries, while Hartman had 68 yards and a touchdown on the ground. Kicker Alex Moeller had a pair of field goals (35 and 27 yards).
For Mason (13-1), it was the end of its own storybook season, even if it didn’t come with the ultimate happy ending. The Bulldogs were playing in their first Final after knocking off King, the team that had ended their previous two seasons in Semifinals.
They had served as a rallying point for a community in mourning following the passing of classmates Lillian Klages and Amanda Blue, who died in an August car crash.
Mason players ran onto the field led by players carrying flags bearing their names.
“We gave it our best shot,” Mason senior receiver Kaleb Parrish said. “It wasn’t the outcome that we wanted, but we tried for the community. We knew this game was bigger than just a football game. At the end of the day, we all tried. When I looked up in the beginning, it was great to see all of the community that showed up. It was thousands – probably most of our community showed up.”
Parrish had a big day receiving in his final game at Mason, hauling in eight catches for 102 yards. Derek Badgley, who scored the Bulldogs’ lone touchdown on a 2-yard run late in the third quarter, added 71 yards on eight catches. Quarterback Cason Carswell was 22 of 40 passing for 229 yards. Kicker Collin Winters connected on a 26-yard field goal during the first quarter.
PHOTOS (Top) Forest Hills Central coach Tim Rogers holds up his program’s first championship trophy Sunday at Ford Field. (Middle) Ty Hudkins (5) hauls in a catch down the sideline for the Rangers. (Below) Jacob Harleton (22) breaks up a Mason pass at the goal line. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)
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.)