By Ron Pesch
Special for Second Half
This weekend’s MHSAA 11-Player Football Finals at Ford Field will conclude another decade for the most played and watched high school sport in Michigan.
We’ll roll into this year’s games remembering some decade-enders of the past from 1979, 1989, 1999 and 2009.
The 1979 season marked the first playoff appearance for Norway, which had failed to qualify for the MHSAA postseason in 1975 and 1976 despite undefeated seasons.
However, the scoreless first half of the Knights’ Class D championship battle with Schoolcraft wasn’t proceeding as planned.
“We went into the locker room at halftime and made a few offensive changes,” said Norway coach Bob Giannunzio. “Our running game wasn’t working, so we decided we would pass more in the second half.”
The Norway defense forced six second-half turnovers that led to three touchdowns and a 21-6 win over Schoolcraft. Quarterback Chuck Soderlund connected on 6-of-14 passes for 110 yards including a 45-yard TD pass to Gregg Noordhoff to break the scoreless deadlock. Nordhoff added a second score from four yards out early in the in the fourth quarter for a 14-6 lead. Soderlund added a game-sealing TD on a QB sneak with 1:30 remaining.
It was the first of back-to-back titles for Giannunzio and the little Upper Peninsula school located near Iron Mountain. Since that season, Norway has advanced as far as the Semifinal round twice, in both 2002 and 2006
“We said if we ever got here we’d win it, said Giannunzio to the Detroit Free Press. “We wanted to start off right for the U.P. It’s a big burden playing for the whole Upper Peninsula.”
In Class B in 1989, Farmington Hills Harrison scored a 28-27 victory over DeWitt in what many still consider one of the greatest games of the MHSAA’s 45-year playoff history. The reigning Class B champion and top-ranked Hawks had their hands full. Tied 7-7 after one quarter, the Panthers grabbed a two-touchdown lead in the second quarter on 32-yard run by fullback John Tellford and a 35-yard pass play from Tellford to John Cowan. Harrison responded with a Matt Conley one-yard run to cut the margin to 21-14 at the half.
Hawks quarterback Mill Coleman knotted the score at 21-21 with a dazzling 16-yard run early in the fourth quarter, but DeWitt stormed back again driving 75 yards on 13 plays. The series was highlighted by tight end Dave Riker's 24-yard, one-handed catch to the Hawks’ 3-yard line. Two plays later, quarterback Chris Berkimer slipped over from the 1, and DeWitt again took the lead 27-21.
With 2:12 remaining and the ball at the Harrison 33, Coleman went to work. Three quick completions moved the ball to the DeWitt 16, and then Coleman let his legs do the rest. Following a Hawks timeout, Coleman dashed right for seven more yards to the Panthers’ 9. Facing a 2nd-and-3, Coleman dropped back to pass, escaped the rush at the DeWitt 17, then scampered up the middle and dove into the end zone for the tying points. Steve Hill added his fourth PAT of the game with 1:34 remaining for the final margin, then secured the victory with an interception on the next series.
Charles Rogers, perhaps the most electrifying high school receiver to ever touch the carpet at the Pontiac Silverdome, caught a single pass in the 1999 Division 2 title game, but he was the difference maker in Saginaw’s 14-7 win over Birmingham Brother Rice. The reception, defended by a single back, was a 60-yard touchdown reception from Brandon Cork on Saginaw’s first possession. Rogers broke a pair of tackles on the way to the end zone to open the scoring. The point-after attempt was blocked.
It was one of only six pass attempts by Saginaw on the day, and the only completion. But after that, as Mick McCabe of the Detroit Free Press wrote, “If Rogers would have gone up to the concourse for a hot dog, I’m sure a couple of Rice defensive backs would have been there to wipe the mustard off his chin.”
“He’s a big-time player, he should be in the NFL,” Rice coach Al Fracassa told McCabe. “He reminded me of Randy Moss. He’s always a threat just having him out there.”
A Saginaw fumble on the first play of the second half was recovered by Rice’s Tony Gioutsos at the Trojans’ 31. Eight plays later, Gioutsos scored from five yards out. Ross Ryan added the extra point for a 7-6 Rice lead.
Saginaw’s defense was aggressive, with constant pressure on Rice quarterback Mark Baker, sacking him twice while holding the Warriors to 78 yards rushing on 36 attempts.
Saginaw took advantage of the extra attention received by Rogers. Terry Jackson pounded out 106 yards on 18 carries, including 60 of Saginaw’s 84 yards on their game-winning drive in the fourth quarter. With Rogers drawing triple coverage, Jackson dashed opposite side for a 17-yard TD with 7:03 to play. Jackson also added the 2-point conversion for the game’s final margin.
A Wild Ride
Farmington Hills Harrison picked up its 10th state title with a 42-35 win over Grand Rapids Creston in a 1999 Division 3 championship game filled with wide-open play. Creston opened the title contest with a recovered onside kick and then drove 49 yards in five plays, ending with an Andrew Terry’s touchdown from a yard out. Harrison rebounded with a field goal, followed by a three-yard TD run by Kevin Woods off a pass interception for a 10-7 lead.
Creston responded with a four play, 79-yard touchdown drive that consumed a little over two minutes. Featuring a 41-yard pass play from QB Carlton Brewster to Lanard Latham near the end of the first quarter, the Polar Bears opened the second with a 25-yard run to the end zone by Terry. Odene Pringle’s extra point gave Creston a 14-10 lead.
Harrison then went 68 yards in six plays and under three minutes as Woods scored again from a yard out to regain the lead for his team 17-14.
The fireworks continued following another pass interception by the Hawks and another three-yard TD by Woods that upped the lead to 24-14. By halftime it was 27-21.
Harrison’s lead was short-lived as coach Charles “Sparky” McEwen’s Creston squad went 80 yards in 2:27 following the kickoff, capped by a Brewster to Latham 11-yard scoring strike. Pringle’s kick made it 28-27.
The Hawks responded on the next drive. It was 35-28 at the end for three quarters, then 42-28 when Woods scored again near the beginning of the fourth. In total, he would finish with 153 yards on 33 carries and four touchdowns, tying then-Final scoring marks for touchdowns and points.
Creston struck again with a 56-yard touchdown pass to Richard Gill from Brewster with 7:00 remaining to pull within a seven, 42-35. The Polar Bears regained the ball with 57 second remaining, but a final Hail Mary fell incomplete, ending one of the tournament’s most entertaining games.
In 2007, the East Grand Rapids-Orchard Lake St. Mary’s championship battle was a 5 OT affair.
In 2009, it was again anybody’s guess who would emerge as the winner between the schools. The Pioneers entered undefeated, while Orchard Lake St. Mary’s carried four losses into the contest. They began the year with two defeats for the first time since 1991. The first was to this same East team, 21-7. Two others were to Division 1 Detroit Catholic Central, 27-0 and then 7-0.
The opening quarter of the Division 3 Final was scoreless. Orchard Lake opened the scoring early in the second. Quarterback Robert Bolden hit Gary Hunter for a 49-yard completion, and three plays later Bolden broke a pair of tackles to ramble across the goal line from 13 yards out. The Pioneers tied the game at 7-7 with 30 seconds remaining before the intermission, when 6-foot-7 Colin Voss caught a five-yard pass from Ryan Elble and snaked the last two yards into the end zone. St. Mary’s nearly answered in the time remaining as Hunter returned the kickoff 63 yards to the Pioneers’ 24. A false start penalty sent the ball back to the EGR 29, but then Bolden completed a pass to Allen Robinson for 28 yards to the Pioneers’ 1-yard line. Two rushing attempts by St. Mary’s were stopped at the goal line as time expired in the half, the last by Bolden that was ended by East’s Joshua Laarman.
Orchard Lake had opened a 21-17 lead with 9:12 remaining in the game following a three-yard TD by Cortez Riley and an extra point by Nathan Perry. With 4:01 left, that score still stood as the Pioneers took possession at their own 13 following an Eaglets punt. Kirk Spencer dashed for 38 yards to the Orchard Lake 49 on the first play. But with 2:49 remaining, East faced desperation at 4th-and-14. The ensuing pass, intended for Voss, slipped off his fingertips, but was caught by Spencer for a gain of 27 yards to the St. Mary’s 26. With 1:14 to play, Elble found Deon Jobe in the end zone from 15 yards out. Bobby Aardema’s kick gave East Grand Rapids a 24-21 lead.
“But it wasn’t quite over until we heard from Laarman and Spencer one more time,” wrote McCabe about play after the touchdown. “Bolden completed two passes to get to East’s 44 when he took off running. Earlier he scored on a breathtaking 83-yard keeper (giving St. Mary as 14-10 lead in the third quarter).
“The first thing Laarman thought of when he saw Bolden take off was: here we go again.”
Laarman caused a fumble on his attempted stop, and Spencer came up with the ball to seal victory. The win gave East Grand Rapids its fourth consecutive championship. East Grand Rapids would win five straight Division 3 titles between 2006 and 2010.
Ron Pesch has taken an active role in researching the history of MHSAA events since 1985 and began writing for MHSAA Finals programs in 1986, adding additional features and "flashbacks" in 1992. He inherited the title of MHSAA historian from the late Dick Kishpaugh following the 1993-94 school year, and resides in Muskegon. Contact him at [email protected] with ideas for historical articles.
PHOTO: Farmington Hills Harrison scored late to edge DeWitt 28-27 in the 1989 Class B Final. (Photo courtesy of the Lansing State Journal.)
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.)