By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
It's part of the intrigue of high school football: At no other level of the sport is there as much roster turnover from year to year, or so many teams with the potential to shine when August begins.
The latest proof? Last season's MHSAA finalists (11 and 8-player) went a combined 9-9 last weekend in their first games of this fall.
Not that those results will mean much by the time November rolls around. But this week, we'll find out a little bit more about which could be in the mix as league races ramp up in September.
Remember to visit the MHSAA Score Center early and often on game nights for updated scores and standings, and eventually playoff points as soon as results come in.
These are the games you should go see first – something within somewhat close proximity, no matter where in Michigan you call home.
(All are tonight unless noted. Go to Score Center for additional dates and kickoff times.)
Zeeland West (0-1) at Zeeland East (1-0)
West leads this rivalry 5-2 since the schools split in 2005, with a 26-21 win last season on the way to winning the MHSAA Division 4 title. But the Dux lost Friday for the first time since 2010, 59-58 to Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central, and the Chix appear to have another high-powered offense after putting up 64 points in an opening-night win over Holland Christian.
Others that caught my eye: Grand Rapids Catholic Central at Muskegon Catholic Central, East Grand Rapids at East Kentwood, Comstock Park at Grand Rapids West Catholic (Fri.), Grand Rapids Christian at Cincinnati (OH) Moeller (Sat.)
Southwest and Border
Schoolcraft (1-0) at Constantine (1-0)
These former St. Joseph Valley rivals came to the Kalamazoo Valley Association together in 2008, and Constantine has continued to own this matchup with seven straight wins including two last season – both by seven points, in the regular-season finale and then the District Final on the way to finishing Division 6 runner-up. But the Eagles’ Benny Clark III made some of the largest waves in the state last week with 215 yards rushing and four touchdowns in a win over Parchment, and he should be tough to stop.
Others that caught my eye: Sturgis at Mattawan, Kalamazoo Central at Kalamazoo Loy Norrix, Fenton at Adrian, Battle Creek Harper Creek at Stevensville Lakeshore.
DeWitt (1-0) at Lansing Everett (1-0)
These are arguably the top two teams in the Greater Lansing area, and this should be much closer than last season’s 48-7 Panthers win. DeWitt’s newest group of standouts – led by sophomore quarterback Jacob Johnson – showed they’re up to the usual tasks last week with a 38-14 win over reigning Division 3 runner-up Mount Pleasant. But the majority of Everett’s lineup has started for three seasons and appears ready to shine, led by quarterback Lucas Barner, receiver Jaleel Canty (Cincinnati University prospect) and linebacker James Mills.
Others that caught my eye: Rockford at Holt, Chelsea at East Lansing, Laingsburg at Fowler, Haslett at Okemos, Jackson Lumen Christi at Jackson (Fri.), Flint Powers at Mount Pleasant (Fri).
Detroit East English (0-1) at Detroit Martin Luther King (0-1) (Fri.)
These two lost by a combined eight points in their games at last weekend’s Prep Kickoff Classic at Wayne State University, but both should finish among the best in the Detroit Public School League. East English is a new school replacing Crockett and Finney, and the former especially had been a strong playoff contender of late. King fell last week by a point to a solid Southfield team, but might rival Cass Tech again to be called best in the city led by standout quarterback Da'Vaun Williams. Winning tonight will go a long way toward giving the Crusaders that opportunity.
Others that caught my eye: Brighton at Canton, Dearborn Fordson at Redford Thurston, Oxford at North Farmington (Fri.), Farmington at Southfield (Fri.), Detroit Catholic Central at Toledo Whitmer (Fri.).
Bay and Thumb
Davison (1-0) at Midland (1-0)
Both needed overtime last week to start with a win – Davison against Lapeer West and Midland against Canton – but both also stand as potential favorites in their divisions of the newly-split Saginaw Valley League. Davison’s opening-night victory avenged one of its six 2011 losses, and the SVL South stacks up well for the Cardinals to get back to their usual playoff ways. Midland will likely have a little tougher road in the North, but set the tone by beating the frequently highly-ranked Chiefs. A win in this one would provide another boost of momentum.
Others that caught my eye: Cedarville at Deckerville, Midland Dow at Flushing, Croswell-Lexington at Richmond, Lansing Catholic at Saginaw Nouvel.
Newberry (1-0) at Iron Mountain North Dickinson (1-0)
Newberry made this the game to watch with last week’s 34-6 rumbling over Rudyard, which hadn’t lost on opening night since 2003. The Indians are in their first season in the Mid-Eastern Conference after previously playing in the Straits Area Conference, and can make a strong impression by beating the reigning MEC champ Nordics. This is the first of a tough three-game string for North Dickinson, which next faces 2011 league third-place Munising and runner-up Stephenson over the following two weeks, respectively.
Others that caught my eye: Mancelona at Rudyard, Negaunee at Calumet, Traverse City Central at Escanaba, Lake Linden-Hubbell at Hurley (WI) (Fri.).
Lower Up North
Marquette (1-0) at Cheboygan (1-0)
These teams have met five times over the last 13 seasons, including in each of the last three. The three times Cheboygan won, it made the playoffs, and the two times the Chiefs lost to the Redmen, they didn’t qualify. That’s probably just an odd coincidence. But Cheboygan can start 2-0 for the first time since 2009, its last playoff year. That won’t be easy, as Marquette is coming off a solid 34-12 win over Detroit Denby.
Others that caught my eye: Pellston at Gaylord St. Mary, Kent City at Boyne City, Bay City John Glenn at Cadillac, Kingsley at Elk Rapids.
PHOTO: Detroit Martin Luther King quarterback Da'Vaun Williams (14) prepares to hand off during last week's 21-20 overtime loss to Southfield. (Click to see more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)
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.)