By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half
WYOMING – If opposing teams think it’s going to be easy tackling Thomas Griggs this season, they might want to rethink their approach.
Griggs, a 5-foot-10, 210-pound running back for the Wyoming Kelloggsville football team, is difficult to stop and a load to bring down.
“He was referred to in the South Bend Tribune last year as a bowling ball with legs,” longtime Rockets head coach Don Galster said. “Those kids did not want to tackle him.”
Just a year ago, Griggs blossomed into one of the top running backs in the Grand Rapids area while leading Kelloggsville to a major turnaround.
The Rockets went 3-6 in 2015, but behind Grigg’s breakout season, finished 8-2 while winning the Ottawa-Kent Conference Silver title with an unbeaten league run.
Those eight were the most wins for a Kelloggsville team since 2009, when it went 10-1.
After a wild 50-47 loss to Whitehall in the opener, Kelloggsville reeled off eight straight wins and advanced to the playoffs. Its season, however, ended in Pre-District play against former conference rival Allendale.
“Last year was really good,” said Griggs, a three-year starter. “Everybody didn’t think we were capable of doing what we did, but our senior class last year put in the hard work. Being able to contribute to last year’s success made me feel even better.”
Griggs rushed for nearly 1,400 yards and tallied 20 touchdowns. He averaged 8.7 yards per carry while wreaking havoc on opposing defenses.
“My stats were good as a sophomore, but we didn’t win a lot of games,” Griggs said. “Coming into my junior year I knew I was going to do better because I worked hard over the summer.”
Griggs, a soft-spoken young man with aspirations to play college football, has a valuable skill set. He’s a punishing hard-nosed runner, but possesses other key attributes.
“What makes him special is he’s got great vision, great feet and he reads blocks very well,” Galster said. “He just doesn’t want to go down, and he has learned how to run the ball in our offense, which has been key.”
As evident by his yards per carry average, it typically takes more than one defender to pull Griggs to the ground. He takes pride in his ability to stay on his feet.
“I always want to break at least one tackle every play,” Griggs said. “I don’t want to let that first person tackle me, and I try to get as many yards as I can.”
Galster remembers his first encounter with his standout senior. It was an early glimpse into the future.
“He was in eighth grade and the principal brought him over to introduce me to him,” Galster recalled. “I thought, ‘This is a big kid,’ and he just has a ton of ability. He works hard, and he’s a quiet leader. Every year he’s gotten better, and he makes the other guys better.”
Griggs started playing football when he was 7. He actually started out as a center before moving to fullback.
It was a role he embraced.
“In my head, I think I can do anything. So when they put me at center, I had the mindset of I was going to be the best center,” Griggs said.
The Rockets are expected to compete for another conference crown with a bevy of talent back in the fold.
Griggs is one of three returning to the backfield, including dual-threat quarterback Alex Guzman. The Rockets graduated only two seniors on offense.
“There’s not a lot of jealousy with those guys, and it motivates them to work harder,” Galster said. “We have a lot of weapons, but these guys understand that it all starts with the offensive line. If they open holes for them, then we will have some success.”
Griggs said having multiple options on the ground will make it tough for other teams to game plan.
“It’s better for us as a team because other teams can’t come into the game saying they are only going to stop me and then they are going to win,” he said. “We have other players that are going to show up and do what they have to do.”
Kelloggsville’s senior class is a tight-knit group with the potential to duplicate last year’s run.
“As a group, we’re pretty good, and we have that hate-to-lose mentality,” said Griggs, who also averaged 19 points per game as a starting basketball point guard last winter. “I’m glad people have started to notice us, and now we just have to keep it going.”
Dean Holzwarth covered primarily high school sports for the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years and more recently served as sports editor of the Ionia Sentinel and as a sports photojournalist for WZZM and WOODTV. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Wyoming Kelloggsville's Thomas Griggs runs away from the crowd against Wyoming Godwin Heights. (Middle) Griggs readies to receive a handoff against Belding. (Photos courtesy of the Wyoming Kelloggsville yearbook staff.)
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.)