A Game for Every Fan: Playoffs Week 3

November 12, 2015

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

Through the rain, and fog, and in some places up north a few flakes of snow, we see the MHSAA Football Finals finally approaching – even if predicting which teams will be playing is still no easy task.  

Plenty of opponents facing off this weekend have seen each other at this late date before. For a handful of others, this has been a wild first-time ride.

Here’s a look at what might be the most intriguing of this weekend’s 11-player Regional Finals, plus a longer glance at both 8-player Semifinals. All games are tonight unless noted.

Division 1

Detroit Cass Tech (9-2) at Macomb Dakota (9-2)

It’s hard to believe Macomb Dakota hasn’t played in an MHSAA championship game since 2007, but the 2010 and previously-undefeated 2013 teams both saw their seasons end in Regional Finals against Cass Tech. The Technicians, led by standout quarterback Rodney Hall, have lost only to Detroit Martin Luther King this season, twice. They are playing to make a third straight Semifinal – and get a shot at getting back to the championship game for the first time since 2012.

Other Regional Finals: Rockford (8-3) at Grand Ledge (11-0), Detroit Catholic Central (9-2) at Romeo (10-1), Canton (9-2) at Saline (10-0).

Division 2

Muskegon (9-2) at Lowell (10-1)

Muskegon’s path has been such that every week’s game has been one of the state’s most anticipated. After eliminating previously undefeated Traverse City Central and Muskegon Mona Shores in the District, the Big Reds must hit the road again to take on a Lowell team that is only two three-point losses from perfection. Not that this is an unfamiliar position for either program – although they didn’t meet last year, Lowell and Muskegon ran across each other in the playoffs six straight seasons from 2008-13.

Other Regional Finals: Midland Dow (10-1) at Walled Lake Western (11-0), Livonia Franklin (8-3) at Berkley (9-2), Detroit East English (9-2) at Detroit Martin Luther King (11-0), Saturday.

Division 3

Coldwater (11-0) at St. Joseph (10-1)

This trip into uncharted waters keeps getting longer for the Cardinals, who won their first playoff game ever two weeks ago. Although this level of the tournament is new, St. Joseph isn’t a completely unfamiliar opponent – the Bears beat Coldwater on opening night 2013. St. Joseph has downed league champions three of its last four games and is seeking its first Regional title since 2007.

Other Regional Finals: Chelsea (10-1) at Allen Park (10-1), East Grand Rapids (8-3) at Mount Pleasant (9-2), Saturday; St. Johns (8-3) at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s (9-1), Saturday.

Division 4

Flint Powers Catholic (9-2) at Richmond (10-1)

The first game between these schools features two programs looking to get over the Regional hump. Powers has fallen in two Regional Finals in three seasons since winning Division 5 in 2011. Richmond lost in the Regional Final last year after falling in District Finals both of the two seasons prior; the Blue Devils are trying to make their first Semifinal since 2003. After winning its playoff games by a combined eight points, Richmond will have to contend with a Chargers defense that hasn’t given up a point in these playoffs and has six shutouts total in 11 games.

Other Regional Finals: Remus Chippewa Hills (9-2) at Ada Forest Hills Eastern (10-1), Hudsonville Unity Christian (8-3) at Zeeland West (11-0), Milan (9-2) at Detroit Country Day (10-1), Saturday.

Division 5

Grand Rapids West Catholic (9-2) at Menominee (11-0), Saturday

This has become an annual game at some stage of the playoffs. Saturday will mark the sixth straight postseason meeting between these two, including Semifinals last season, 2010 and 2012 and the 2013 Division 5 Final. The Maroons usually can take advantage of opponents not familiar with their single-wing offense, but West Catholic should be plenty familiar; what Menominee can boast this time is its most impressive defense since the back-to-back undefeated seasons of 2006 and 2007.

Other Regional Finals: Lansing Catholic (10-1) at Freeland (11-0), Buchanan (11-0) at Ida (11-0), Algonac (10-1) at River Rouge (10-1).

Division 6

Boyne City (10-1) at Traverse City St. Francis (11-0)

The first battle between these rivals this season wasn’t much of one by the end, with St. from running back Malik Smith, and fumbled three times – which makes it feel like this rematch will be much closer if the Ramblers keep mistakes to a minimum. It’s fair to say St. Francis creates its own opportunities, though; the Gladiators have five shutouts in 11 games.

Other Regional Finals: Laingsburg (8-3) at Ithaca (11-0), Jackson Lumen Christi (8-3) at Clinton (11-0), Constantine (7-4) at Grand Rapids NorthPointe Christian (11-0), Saturday.

Division 7

Sandusky (11-0) at New Lothrop (11-0)

Sandusky is stacking accomplishments like no football team at the school before. The Redskins have more than nine wins for the first time and won a District title for the first time, and now will take on the powerhouse Hornets for the first time. Few teams in Michigan have put together a run over the last six seasons like New Lothrop, which is 65-5 during that span. But the Hornets have been stopped short of the MHSAA championship game all of those seasons, and surely would like a first Finals appearance since 2006 to add to its recent local dominance. 

Other Regional Finals: Cassopolis (9-2) at Pewamo-Westphalia (11-0), Dansville (10-1) at Detroit Loyola (9-2), McBain (8-3) at Ishpeming (10-0).

Division 8

Crystal Falls Forest Park (7-3) at St. Ignace (10-1)

In pursuit of its third Regional title in five seasons – and really, in pursuit of its first MHSAA Final appearance since 1985 – St. Ignace has shown well against the toughest competition of its season. Three of the last four games, all four against playoff teams, have been decided by eight points or fewer, and the Saints came back from a second trip to rival Johannesburg-Lewiston last week with a second win over the Cardinals. Forest Park has no losses left to avenge after winning rematches the last two weeks against the two in-state teams it fell to during the regular season. But the Trojans did fall to St. Ignace in their last meeting, a 2011 Regional Final.

Other Regional Finals: Ottawa Lake Whiteford (9-2) at Climax-Scotts (11-0), Saturday; Muskegon Catholic Central (8-2) at Frankfort (9-2), Saturday; Saginaw Michigan Lutheran Seminary (10-1) at Waterford Our Lady (11-0), Saturday.


Cedarville (9-2) at Powers North Central (11-0)

North Central is led by a talented quarterback making the entire state take notice – junior Jason Whitens is up to 41 touchdown passes without an interception to go with his 10 scores on the ground, and junior running back Bobby Kleiman has run for 17 touchdowns and caught 14 of Whitens’ scoring tosses. But Cedarville doesn’t give up too many scores. The Trojans handed Owendale-Gagetown and Posen their only losses of the season the last two weeks, giving up only 48 points total over those two games – a respectable total in the wide-open 8-player format.

Deckerville (10-1) vs. Battle Creek St. Philip (11-0), Saturday at Battle Creek Central

St. Philip got past rival Lawrence one final time last week, but the path to Legacy Field remains blocked by another past champion. Deckerville avenged its lone loss of the season by doubling up Morrice last week and has run over opponents for nearly 3,400 yards, with senior Jared Philpot and juniors Austin Fritch and Brandon Pattullo combining for 2,300 yards and 37 touchdowns on the ground. The Eagles have thrown only 48 times, but St. Philip is much more balanced. The Tigers have nearly the same rushing and passing yardage totals this season – within 77 yards – with senior Brendan Gausselin throwing 35 touchdown passes and senior Brayden Darr running for 23 scores and catching 14 touchdown passes.

PHOTO: Traverse City St. Francis, here against Elk Rapids, is 11-0 for the first time since its undefeated season of 2009. (Photo courtesy of St. Francis athletic department.)

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.)