DETROIT – It had been a while Saturday since the New Lothrop offense had made a big play.
The Hornets had seen a 28-point lead shrink to seven and were staring down another big third down. In need of a spark, they turned to the player who had given them so many earlier in the game, and once again, Julius Garza delivered.
Garza converted the third down, and eventually scored his fourth touchdown to help seal New Lothrop’s 42-35 victory over Traverse City St. Francis in the Division 7 Football Final at Ford Field.
“Their backers were keying on (Will) Muron all night, so I knew when they flew up, Julius would come open,” New Lothrop senior quarterback Cam Orr said. “I knew if I threw him the ball, he’d catch it no matter where it was.”
Garza scored four touchdowns in the game – two rushing, one receiving and one on a kick return – to tie him for fourth in MHSAA Finals history for touchdowns in a game. He had 139 yards receiving on four catches and 26 yards rushing on four carries.
It was his 3rd-and-6 conversion with his team in its own territory and clinging to a seven-point lead, however, that was likely his biggest play of the game. His 26-yard reception on the next play was also in the running, as was the nine-yard touchdown run that put New Lothrop up 42-28 with 2 minutes, 26 seconds to play.
“It means everything,” Garza said. “It’s kind of taken a little bit to settle in. I feel like I’m on top of the world right now. It’s really exciting. All the work we put in, and everything we do, for it to pay off, it means the world.”
The title was the Hornets’ third, and first since 2018. If not for a one-point Regional Final loss a year ago against eventual champion Pewamo-Westphalia, the program could be celebrating a three-peat.
“We’ve always had tremendous community backing. We’ve always had tremendous kids that have put in the same amount of work these guys have,” New Lothrop coach Clint Galvas said. “We were just unfortunately not able to get over that hump. Obviously in (2018) we were able to get over that hump and win a state title. Maybe that gave us the confidence we need moving forward as a program, like, ‘Hey, we can do this now.’ Winning a couple is special, but I’m not taking anything away from the previous teams we had, because we had some pretty darn good teams walk through these halls and wear the New Lothrop helmet, and they put in the work, too.”
At halftime, it looked as though New Lothrop (11-0) would be cruising to title No. 3, as it built a 35-7 lead, using explosive plays. Muron scored on the Hornets’ second offensive play with a 27-yard run, and after St. Francis answered with a three-yard Gabe Olivier touchdown run, Garza returned the ensuing kickoff 83 yards for a score.
Garza added a 65-yard touchdown reception from Orr and a three-yard touchdown run, before Orr closed out the half with an 11-yard rushing score.
“Is Julius Garza having a heck of a day surprising? Not at all,” Galvas said. “Those of you who have been around and watched this kid, he was a two-way starter two years ago on the 2018 title team. The kid’s always been a player. … I think they came into the game like a lot of teams, they want to stop Cam and they want to stop Will on the edge. And I think if you do that, sometimes you forget about Julius Garza. We were able to get him a lot of one-on-one matchups with some backers and things, and he’s going to win those pretty much 10 out of 10 times. He’s a heck of an athlete.”
St. Francis (9-3) clawed back into the game in the second half, however, shutting the New Lothrop offense down and getting its own offense going – albeit in a different manner than the Hornets. The Gladiators power run game started to lean on New Lothrop and scored on its next three possessions prior to Garza’s late-game heroics, to nearly erase the deficit.
Aidan Schmuckal closed out a nine-play drive with a two-yard touchdown run midway through the third quarter, and Charlie Peterson scored on a one-yard sneak early in the fourth to close out a 14-play drive. Schmuckal’s second score, also a two-yard run, came with 6:46 to play and immediately followed a blocked punt by St. Francis’ Jimmy Muzljakovich.
“I felt like we played a doubleheader today,” St. Francis coach Josh Sellers said. “The score of the first game was 35-7, and the score of the second game was 28-7. Unfortunately, the math didn’t work out in our favor. We let too many big plays go in the first half, obviously. At 35-7 in the locker room, I told them, ‘You’ve got two choices: you can just pack up the tent stakes and go home now, or go out and try to win the second half,’ and they did. They won the second half with great effort, great belief in one another, and we just fell a little bit short today.”
St. Francis didn’t go away after Garza’s final touchdown, either, scoring with a seven-yard pass from Peterson to Josh Grove with 1:07 to play. New Lothrop recovered the onside kick, however, and after running three plays, Orr ran off the final seven seconds of the game by rolling to his left and throwing the ball high into the air down the field.
“We like to pride ourselves in our never-giving-up mentality,” Schmuckal said. “We’ve been a team that has been known to battle back and never give up. Going into that second half, I knew that we were never going to give up and we were going to fight to the bitter end, and that’s what we did.”
Schmuckal led St. Francis with 101 yards rushing, while Owen Mueller had 71 and Olivier had 69. Joey Donahue led the St. Francis defense with eight tackles, while Schmuckal had seven, including three for loss.
Orr led the Hornets in passing and rushing, throwing for 222 yards on 11-of-15 passing, and running for 122 yards on 17 carries. Alec Mangino led the New Lothrop defense with 12 tackles, while Garza had nine. Muron and Bryce Cheney each had an interception.
PHOTOS: (Top) New Lothrop’s Julius Garza looks to make one of his many big plays Saturday at Ford Field. (Middle) Hornets quarterback Cam Orr reaches the end zone as Traverse City St. Francis’ Gavin Nickodemus (15) and Gabe Olivier (20) bring him to the turf. (Click for more from 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.)