A Game for Every Fan: 11-Player Finals

November 24, 2015

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

You’ll recognize many of the teams playing for MHSAA 11-player football championships this weekend at Ford Field.

Of 16 finalists, 11 are previous champions. Seven of the 11 have won at least three titles.

Then there’s Romeo, Chelsea, River Rouge, Clinton and Pewamo-Westphalia. All are seeking their first MHSAA championship in the sport – with Romeo, Chelsea and River Rouge getting the opportunity to play for one for the first time.

See below for a look at all of the finalists who will take the field this weekend. The Division 8, 2, 6 and 4 games are Friday, with the odd-numbered divisions playing Saturday. Tickets cost $10 and are good for all four games on one day. Click for a full schedule.

The first three Friday games will be broadcast live on Fox Sports Detroit’s primary channel (check cable/satellite box listings for your specific channel) with the Division 4 game tape delayed at 11:30 p.m. on FSD but available live on FoxSportsDetroit.com. Saturday's games all will air live on Fox Sports Detroit. Audio broadcasts will be available on the MHSAA Network website.

Rankings below were voted upon by The Associated Press’ media panel but can be used only as a guide; the AP establishes divisions before the season for poll purposes, but many teams ended up in different divisions at playoff selection. Statistics are current unless noted.

Division 1

 12-1, No. 7
Co-coaches: Curt Rienas and Jason Couch, 13th seasons (90-43)
League finish: First in Macomb Area Conference White.
Finals history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Best wins: 26-14 over No. 9 Macomb Dakota, 28-14 over No. 10 Clarkston in Pre-District, 34-14 over No. 8 Lapeer in District Final, 40-29 over No. 6 Detroit Catholic Central in Regional Final, 48-21 over No. 5 Grand Ledge in Semifinal.
Players to watch: QB Paul Hurley, 6-2/190, sr. (1,451 yards/23 TDs passing, 332 yards/3 TDs rushing); SE/DB Brad Tanner, 6-2/180, sr. (701 yards/13 TDs rushing, 564 yards/8 TDs receiving); TE/LB Mitchell Heimbuch, 6-3/220, sr. (676 yards/9 TDs receiving, 53 tackles/4 sacks/4 interceptions); DB Kade Messner, 5-10/175, jr. (62 tackles/2 interceptions).
Outlook: Romeo has advanced to its first MHSAA Final despite facing eight playoff teams and defeating seven – the lone loss was by three to Utica Eisenhower in the regular-season finale. No one’s individual numbers pop out, but as a team the Bulldogs run for 6.2 yards per carry and average nearly 12 per pass while giving up only 9.9 points per game. Heimbuch has reportedly committed to sign with Western Michigan University and is a force on both sides of the ball.

 11-2, No. 4
Coach: Thomas Wilcher, 18th season (141-59)
League finish: Second in Detroit Public School League East I.
Finals history: Division 1 champion 2012 and 2011.
Best wins: 16-10 over No. 9 Macomb Dakota in Regional Final, 48-41 over Canton in Semifinal, 33-8 over Division 2 No. 6 Detroit East English, 27-0 over Southfield.  
Players to watch: QB Rodney Hall, 6-3/215, jr. (2,232 yards/20 TDs passing, 1,053 yards/14 TDs rushing); TE/LB Timothy Walton, 6-2/225, sr. (108 tackles through 11 games); WR/DB Demetric Vance, 6-2/200, sr. (55 tackles/4 interceptions through 11 games); WR Donovan Peoples-Jones, 6-1/195, jr (1,141 yards/17 TDs receiving); RB/SS Jaylen Kelly-Powell, 6-0/190, jr. (53 tackles/2 interceptions through 11 games); OL/DT Michael Onwenu, 6-3/360, sr.
Outlook: Cass Tech is loaded with talent – leading a large group of college-bound players are Onwenu (Michigan), Vance (Michigan State) and Walton (Illinois), and Peoples-Jones and Kelly-Powell will have their picks as well. The Technicians' only losses were to Division 2 finalist Detroit King, twice. But all eyes will be watching to see if Hall trots onto the field – he missed the Semifinal win with an injury that reportedly was season-ending. Sophomore Aaron Jackson stepped in and accounted for three touchdowns.

Division 2

 12-1, No. 4 in Division 3 (regular season)
Coach: Noel Dean, 20th season (201-35)
League finish: First in Ottawa-Kent Conference White

Finals history: Three MHSAA titles (most recent 2009), two runner-up finishes.
Best wins: 49-34 over No. 2 Walled Lake Western in Semifinal, 36-7 over Division 3 (regular season) No. 5 Muskegon in Regional Final, 35-13 over East Grand Rapids, 28-14 over Grand Rapids Christian.
Players to watch: QB Ryan Stevens, 6-2/160, sr. (2,418 yards/31 TDs passing, 945 yards/16 TDs rushing); RB/LB Max Dean, 5-11/185, sr. (1,164 yards/17 TDs, 57 tackles/7.5 sacks); WR/DB Gabe Steed, 6-1/160, sr. (1,058 yards/17 TDs receiving); LB/RB Nathan Stephens, 5-10/185, jr. (55 tackles); TE/LB Alex Anschutz, 6-1/185, sr. (518 yards/10 TDs receiving, 39 tackles/5 interceptions).
Outlook: The Red Arrows are playing for a championship for the first time since finishing runner-up in 2011 and lost only to Walled Lake Western in the season opener – avenging that loss in the Semifinal. The skill positions are dominated by seniors who also helped the team advance to the Regional Final last season and navigate one of the most competitive leagues in the state again this fall – among those opponents, East Grand Rapids, although unranked, made the Semifinals in Division 3.

 13-0, No. 1
Coach: Dale Harvel, seventh season (60-19)
League finish: First in Detroit Public School League East I

Finals history: Division 2 champion 2007, two runner-up finishes.
Best wins: 42-6 over honorable mention Wyandotte Roosevelt in District Final, 12-10 over No. 9 Warren DeLaSalle, 20-15 and 26-12 (Regional Final) over No. 6 Detroit East English, 31-28 and 27-25 over Division 1 No. 4 Detroit Cass Tech.  
Players to watch: QB/LB Armani Posey, 6-1/200, sr. (1,829 yards/19 TDs passing); WR/DB Donnie Corley, 6-3/185, sr. (1,221 yards/14 TDs receiving); WR/DB Dontre Boyd, 5-10/160, sr. (563 yards, 5 TDs receiving); RB Martell Pettaway, 5-10/210, sr. (1,514 yards/22 TDs rushing); WR/DB Lavert Hill, 5-10/175, sr. (11 interceptions through regular season);
Outlook: From the season opener against reigning champion Warren DeLaSalle through last week’s Semifinal against Livonia Franklin, King has been arguably the most impressive team in the state regardless of division. The Crusaders have won big and close – four victories came by a touchdown or less. Hill has at least 13 interceptions and has scored on offense, defense and special teams, and Corley had nine interceptions through the end of the regular season. He’s one of the state’s most pursued college prospects; Pettaway has committed to West Virginia and Hills has committed to Penn State, among others who will play at the next level. 

Division 3

 12-1, No. 9
Coach: Brad Bush, 19th season (149-56)
League finish: Tied for first in Southeastern Conference White.
Finals history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.

Best wins: 35-7 over No. 3 Coldwater in Semifinal, 29-16 over honorable mention Trenton in District Final, 35-12 over No. 10 Allen Park in Regional Final, 9-7 over Ann Arbor Pioneer.
Players to watch: QB Jack Bush, 6-2/175, jr. (1,797 yards/17 TDs passing, 9 TDs rushing); WR Bailey Edwards, 6-3/180, sr. (727 yards/8 TDs receiving); TB Trey Seitz, 6-1/185, sr. (875 yards/9 TDs rushing); OT Jay Packard, 6-3/275, sr.; LB Ryan Stasiak, 6-1/180, sr.
Outlook: Chelsea will play in its first championship game but has long been a contender; this was the 16th season in 17 that the Bulldogs made the playoffs, and they had won at least 10 game five other times over the last 16 seasons before setting a program record for victories this fall. The lone loss, to Ypsilanti Community, cost them the outright league title, but the 34 points given up that game were a season high for a defense allowing only 9.2 per game and held Coldwater’s celebrated running attack to only 119 yards on 37 carries in the Semifinal.

 11-1, No. 2
Coach: George Porritt, 27th season (245-67)
League finish: First in Detroit Catholic League Central.

Finals history: Six MHSAA titles (most recent 2014), six runner-up finishes.
Best wins: 14-7 over East Grand Rapids in Semifinal, 38-0 over Division 2 No. 9 Warren DeLaSalle, 14-7 over Division 1 No. 6 Detroit Catholic Central, 24-12 over Division 7 No. 6 Detroit Loyola.
Players to watch: RB/SS Justin Myrick, 5-10/190, sr. (1,049 yards/13 TDs rushing); RB/DB Ryan Johnson, 5-8/175, jr. (651 yards/11 TDs rushing); QB Brendan Tabone, 6-1/180, sr. (1,036 yards/5 TDs); OL/DL Cameron Kolwich, 6-5/270, sr. LB Josh Ross, 6-1/225, jr.
Outlook: St. Mary’s has rumbled into its fifth final in six years with seven straight wins including the avenging of its lone loss, to Warren DeLaSalle in Week 5. The Eaglets ride a strong running game, although one of three backs may need to take the lead Saturday – Johnson was the leading rusher in the Semifinal with Myrick out with an injury and senior Brandon Adams then also getting hurt during the game. Ross keys a defense that hasn’t given up more than 14 points in a game since the loss, and receiver Kaylee Hamler (569 yards/3 TDs receiving) is another standout junior.

Division 4

 11-2, unranked
Coach: Bob Buckel, fifth season (45-15)
League finish: Second in Saginaw Valley League Blue.

Finals history: Two MHSAA titles (most recent 2011).
Best wins: 41-0 over No. 10 Goodrich in Pre-District, 28-7 over Division 5 (regular season) No. 8 Richmond in the Regional Final, 21-14 over No. 1 Detroit Country Day in the Semifinal. 
Players to watch: QB Noah Sargent, 5-11/175 sr. (1,561 yards/18 TDs passing; 1,020 yards/15 TDs); LB Spencer Gomez, 5-10/195, jr. (69 tackles through 12 games); HB Reese Morgan, 5-10/185, sr. (981 yards/10 TDs rushing); NG Daurel Tolbert, 5-9/252, sr. (72 tackles/3 sacks through 12 games).
Outlook: Powers might not have been regarded as a title contender heading into the playoffs, and again while down two touchdowns in last week’s Semifinal win over Country Day. But the Chargers’ only losses were on opening night to Flushing and then to eventual Division 2 District champ Midland Dow in Week 5, and they’re lead by a championship-winning coach in Buckel, who has 211 wins over 33 seasons at four schools. Powers gave up only 60 points total in its 11 wins this fall.

 13-0, No. 1 in Division 3 (regular season)
Coach: John Shillito, 11th season (110-22)
League finish: First in O-K Green.

Finals history: Three MHSAA titles (most recent 2013).
Best wins: 38-28 over No. 4 Comstock Park, 28-21 over honorable mention Hudsonville Unity Christian in the Regional Final, 46-8 over Ada Forest Hills Eastern in the Semifinal, 42-34 over Oak Park.  
Players to watch: QB/DB Casey Brinks, 6-0/170, sr. (456 yards/4 TDs rushing, 576 yards/7 TDs passing); FB/DB Darius Perisee, 5-9/155, sr. (1,906 yards/29 TDs rushing); HB/LB Tyler Thompson, 6-1/200, sr. (925 yards/19 TDs rushing); HB/DB Dakota Geurink, 6-0/185, sr. (685 yards/8 TDs rushing).
Outlook: After losing to Muskegon in the Semifinal a year ago, West is back to try for its third title – and second perfect season – over the last half decade. The Dux have piled up 5,000 yards rushing with their Wing-T rushing attack, with fullback Perisee getting nearly 40 percent of those yards behind a line averaging 6-foot-1 and 247 pounds. The defense has progressively improved throughout the season and has given up more than one touchdown only once over the last seven games. Shillito is up to 266 wins over 32 seasons and four schools.

Division 5

 11-2, No. 6
Coach: Dan Rohn, ninth season (98-19)
League finish: First in O-K Blue.

Finals history: Three MHSAA titles (most recent 2014), two runner-up finishes.
Best wins: 24-14 over No. 1 Menominee in Regional Final, 42-13 over No. 4 Lansing Catholic in Semifinal, 21-14 over No. 9 Reed City in District Final, 28-14 over honorable mention Muskegon Oakridge in Pre-District, 45-28 over Division 4 honorable mention Hudsonville Unity Christian, 42-35 over Division 4 No. 4 Comstock Park.
Players to watch: QB Gaetano Vallone, 5-10/160, soph. (2,474 yards/28 TDs passing, 814 yards/12 TDs rushing); RB/LB Denny Alt, 5-10/175, sr. (1,364 yards/17 TDs rushing); OL/DL Carl Myers, 6-3/260, sr.; WR/DB Conner Nemmers, 6-1/193, sr. (928 yards/13 TDs receiving).
Outlook: No one can argue West Catholic doesn’t deserve a return to Ford Field after the Falcons downed three top-10 teams and an honorable mention to get to this weekend. This is West Catholic’s fifth straight appearance in a championship game – it is 2-2 with two straight wins over the last four trips. Vallone has continued to impress during his first season as the starter at quarterback, but the Falcons can attack a number of ways with Alt carrying the load and Nemmers a tough matchup on the receiving end of Vallone’s passes.  

 12-1, honorable mention
Coach: Corey Parker, seventh season (55-20)
League finish: First in Michigan Metro Athletic Conference Blue.

Finals history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Best wins: 51-25 over honorable mention Algonac in the Regional Final, 28-26 over No. 5 Ida in the Semifinal, 41-12 over Romulus, 40-34 over Riverview.
Players to watch: QB Antoine Burgess, 5-10/180, sr. (1,484 yards/27 TDs passing, 1,040 yards/11 TDs rushing {rushing total does not include last week}); WR Aaron Vinson, 6-2/190, sr. (513 yards/11 TDs receiving); Alexander Carter, 5-10/205, soph. (1,076 yards/10 TDs through 12 games); OL Julius Laidler, 6-4/300, sr.
Outlook: River Rouge is no longer just a basketball school. The Panthers have been known statewide for hoops success from a half century ago, but they’ve won 10 or more football games three of the last four seasons and made the playoffs six straight, with this their first championship game appearance. River Rouge has its share of playmakers, but perhaps most notable and almost most noticeable are the guys in front of them. The Panthers’ offensive linemen average 6-1, 312 pounds.

Division 6

 13-0, Division 7 (regular season) No. 5
Coach: Scott McNitt, 31st season (195-109-1)
League finish: First in Tri-County Conference.

Finals history: Division 6 runner-up 2013.
Best wins: 14-10 over No. 4 Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central in Pre-District, 43-20 over No. 9 Madison Heights Madison in District Final, 49-20 over honorable mention Jackson Lumen Christi in Regional Final, 42-20 over Division 7 (regular season) No. 8 Grand Rapids NorthPointe Christian in Semifinal, 36-18 over Division 8 honorable mention Ottawa Lake Whiteford.  
Players to watch: RB/LB Mathew Sexton, 5-11/170, sr. (2,247 yards/34 TDs rushing, 212 yards/4 TDs receiving, 99 tackles); QB Kaden Kelly, 6-3/160, sr. (680 yards/8 TDs passing); RB/LB Noah Poor, 5-9/180, sr. (1,029 yards/15 TDs rushing); OL/LB Ken DeShano, 6-0/200, sr. (101 tackles/6 sacks); TE/LB Blake Rogers, 6-0/175, sr. (79 tackles).
Outlook: Clinton’s run to its second championship game appearance rivaled Romeo’s in Division 1; the Redskins defeated the reigning champion in addition to multiple ranked and/or undefeated powers after emerging from a league that put four teams in the postseason. Sexton was the team’s second-leading rusher and tackler in the Final as a sophomore and is the player who receives the most attention, but as a team Clinton has run for 3,979 yards and 59 touchdowns with Kelly making key passes as opportunities have arisen.

 13-0, No. 1
Coach: Terry Hessbrook, 12th season (127-18)
League finish: First in Tri-Valley Conference West.

Finals history: Four MHSAA titles (most recent 2013), one runner-up finish.
Best wins: 56-14 over honorable mention Vassar in Pre-District, 42-6 over No. 6 Sanford Meridian in District Final, 28-19 over Division 7 (regular season) No. 1 Traverse City St. Francis in Semifinal, 38-0 over Division 7 No. 9 Saginaw Michigan Lutheran Seminary.  
Players to watch: OL/LB Jace Demenov, 6-0/205, sr. (153 tackles); QB/DB Jake Smith, 6-1/170, sr. (1,342 yards/24 TDs passing, 1,632 yards/31 TDs rushing); WR/DB Grant Gimmey, WR/DB, sr. (284 yards/6 TDs receiving); WR/DB Spence DeMull, 6-4/175, sr. (364 yards/8 TDs receiving); RB/NG Jonah Loomis, 5-10/180, sr. (850 yards/15 TDs rushing, 84 tackles).
Outlook: A group of 17 seniors have unfinished business at Ford Field after last season’s defeat in the Final by Monroe St. Mary. Smith has been the key player over the last two seasons and took his game to another level this fall. But just as important Saturday could be Demenov, who is charged with leading a defense that must shut down Clinton’s dominating rush attack. DeMull was injured at the start of this season, but has steadily returned to his elite status and could be a tough matchup this weekend. 

Division 7

 13-0, No. 4
Coach: Jeremy Miller, third season (33-5)
League finish: First in Central Michigan Athletic Conference.

Finals history: Division 7 runner-up 2011.
Best wins: 30-0 over Detroit Loyola in Semifinal, 38-28 over No. 7 Saugatuck in District Final, 26-25 over Division 6 No. 9 Madison Heights Madison, 34-7 over Division 8 No. 9 Fowler.
Players to watch: RB/DE Jared Smith, 6-0/205, jr. (3,096 yards/52 TDs rushing); QB Jimmy Lehman, 6-3/200, soph. (654 yards/8 TDs passing through 12 games); FB/LB Nate Jandernoa, 5-11/220, sr. (348 yards/3 TDs rushing through 12 games); OL/LD Matt Fox, 6-1/295, sr.
Outlook: Pewamo-Westphalia is making its second trip to Ford Field in five seasons but this time on the legs of a record-break running back. Smith eclipsed the MHSAA single-season rushing touchdown record two weeks ago and the single-season yardage record last week, and has more than 5,000 yards combined over the last two seasons. Fox leads a line that averages 6-2, 259 pounds, and Jandernoa keys a defense that has given up three points total over the last two weeks and only 9.1 per game despite a schedule with seven playoff opponents.   

 12-0, No. 2
Coach: Jeff Olson, 24th season (182-79)
League finish: First in Mid-Peninsula Conference.

Finals history: Four MHSAA titles (most recent 2013), two runner-up finishes.
Best wins: 22-14 over No. 3 New Lothrop in Semifinal, 20-14 over Division 8 No. 2 St. Ignace, 22-16 over Negaunee, 32-8 over Calumet.
Players to watch: QB/DB Ozzy Corp, 6-5/205, sr. (644 yards/7 TDs rushing, 1,047 yards/7 TDs passing through eight games); RB/LB Isaac Olson, 5-10/175, jr. (662 yards/7 TDs rushing through eight games); TE/DE Thomas Finegan, 5-11/200, sr. (453 yards/3 TDs receiving, 7 interceptions through eight games); FB/LB Halen Carello, 5-8/180, sr.
Outlook: The Hematites are seeking their third MHSAA title in four seasons. Corp led a new group of contributors to Ford Field last season and they came up short against Detroit Loyola, but a number of those players returned to win nine games against playoff teams this fall including a pair each against rivals Ishpeming Westwood and Iron Mountain. Ishpeming played only eight regular-season games because it didn’t have an opponent Week 6, but total has given up 99 points – 8.3 per game – with five players back who had tackles in last season’s Final. 

Division 8

 13-0, No. 3
Coach: Josh Sawicki, third season (30-5)
League finish: First in Detroit Catholic League CD.

Finals history: Division 8 champion 2002, two runner-up finishes.
Best wins: 36-20 over honorable mention Ottawa Lake Whiteford in Semifinal, 32-6 over Division 7 (regular season) No. 9 Saginaw Michigan Lutheran Seminary in Regional Final, 36-10 over Division 4 No. 9 Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood.  
Players to watch: QB Clay Senerius, 6-3/175, sr. (2,913 yards/34 TDs passing); WR/DB Devin Senerius, 6-2/170, sr. (1,288 yards/12 TDs receiving, 39 tackles/4 interceptions); RB/DB Chris Cartier, 6-3/180, sr. (1,264 yards/20 TDs rushing, 395 yards/7 TDs receiving, 66 tackles/4 interceptions); LB/WR Ryan Kostich, 6-1/210, sr. (352 yards/11 TDs rushing, 590 yards/9 TDs receiving, 158 tackles/6 sacks).
Outlook: Our Lady has set a program record for victories on the way back to the Finals for the first time since 2002, with Whiteford last week the first team to come within 25 points. The Lakers are led by their highest-scoring offense ever, with Senerius to Senerius a dangerous passing comboand Cartier and Kostich providing balance on the ground and as additional targets. Kostich, senior Gabe Nickels (147 tackles) and junior Kurt Romkema (74 tackles) do most of the cleaning up for a defense giving up 9.1 points per game.  

 10-2, No. 1
Coach: Steve Czerwon, third season (36-4)
League finish: First in Lakes 8 Conference.

Finals history: Ten MHSAA titles (most recent 2014), three runner-up finishes.
Best wins: 33-20 over No. 2 St. Ignace in Semifinal, 22-12 over honorable mention Frankfort in Regional Final, 48-13 over No. 6 Beal City in District Final, 
Players to watch: RB/DB LaTommy Scott, 5-8/185, jr. (1,191 yards/18 TDs rushing); QB/DB Christian Martinez, 6-2/180, sr. (770 yards/14 TDs passing, 426 yards/10 TDs rushing); RB/DB Logan Helton, 5-7/175, jr. (864 yards/11 TDs rushing); OL/DL Jacob Holt, 6-1/245, sr.; LB Nate Jones, 6-1/205, sr.
Outlook: A 26-game winning streak ended on opening night, but the Crusaders put themselves back into contention for a third straight MHSAA title with losses only to Division 5 honorable mention Muskegon Oakridge that evening and Division 4 No. 1 Detroit Country Day in Week 8. Holt leads the way for a strong set of runners – junior Walker Christoffersen is only the team’s third-leading rusher with 472 yards, but he had 192 and a touchdown in the Semifinal win. Holt and Jones were among contributors on last season’s defense but this fall are leaders of a unit giving up 13 points per game during the playoffs.

The MHSAA Football Finals are sponsored by the Michigan National Guard.

PHOTO: Ford Field has been home to the MHSAA 11-player Football Finals since 2005.


Inspired by Dad's Memory, Lawrence's Vasquez Emerges After Family Losses

By Pam Shebest
Special for MHSAA.com

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.)