Harper Woods Stops Record-Setting South Christian on Final Play to Clinch 1st Title

By Paul Costanzo
Special for MHSAA.com

November 25, 2023

DETROIT – Carson Vis had been getting away all afternoon. 

The Grand Rapids South Christian quarterback had smashed Finals records for passing yards and total offense in Saturday’s Division 4 Final against Harper Woods, mostly by evading pressure and finding his senior receiver Jake Vermaas for big plays.

So, when the Sailors needed just three yards to tie the game with three seconds to play, Harper Woods made sure they knew where Vermaas was, and that Vis didn’t get away one more time.

Defensive end Javonte Lee-Forbes put immediate pressure on Vis, draping himself on his legs and forcing the 6-foot-4 junior to attempt to fit in a pass – not to Vermaas. Keyontae Wilson broke it up, preserving a 33-27 victory for the Pioneers and giving them the first Finals title in program history.

“We were keying on two things, No. 2 (Vermaas) and No. 5 (Vis),” Harper Woods coach Rod Oden said. “First we needed to identify where (Vermaas) was, and two, we needed to cup the pocket and keep (Vis) inside, and he almost still got outside. Once we were able to contain the quarterback, we knew he had to try to just make a play, and we made a play. We made one more play than they did.”

In a game that featured 1,030 yards of total offense (533 from South Christian, 497 from Harper Woods), the second-most in Finals history, it’s not exactly fitting that the defense won the deciding play.

But it was something Oden knew his team would need, eventually.

“I’m glad it came down to the end,” he said. “Our defense, we knew it would come down to them for us to win the championship. The offense has kind of been consistent all year, and (the defense) had an opportunity to go out there and make a play, and they made it.”

South Christian's Carson Vis (5) unloads a pass as the Pioneers' Johnny Nelson (21) and Javonta Lee-Forbes (28) apply pressure.Both offenses spent most of the game making plays, led by Vis’ record-breaking performance.

He threw for 441 yards on 30 of 44 passing with two touchdowns and one interception. His passing yards broke the record previously set by Armani Posey of Detroit Martin Luther King in 2015 (383). His 30 completions were also a record, breaking the previous mark of 26 set by Cooper Rush of Lansing Catholic (2011) and AJ Westendorp of Holland Christian (2008).

Adding in his 72 rushing yards, Vis finished with 513 yards of total offense, well ahead of Westendorp’s 426, which was the previous record. And all of that – plus a little more – came in the final three quarters, as he had negative-6 total yards through the first 12 minutes.

“I would say it was first-quarter nerves,” Vis said. “I wasn’t being myself out there. Not relaxed and not getting into it. We started getting some easy completions, we were trying to take shots early on. I started getting into a rhythm and started getting it to my guys who were getting open. Definitely (I can appreciate how well I played), but I feel for my guys, my seniors. Some of them, this is our last time playing. So I’m just going to try my best to love on them and be with them.”

Harper Woods didn’t set any records, but had multiple big-time offensive performances, as well, despite losing 1,000-yard rusher Colby Bailey on the second play of the game.

Donald Adams took on the rushing load for the Pioneers (11-3) and starred, rushing for 174 yards on 17 carries. Quarterback Nate Rocheleau had 210 yards and two TDs on 10-of-17 passing. Dakota Guerrant had four catches for 84 yards and a score, while Ramonty Houze had a single catch that went 90 yards for a TD.

“On the one to Ramonty, I had been trying to get it all game,” Rocheleau said. “It was man-to-man press with no high safety, and Ramonty is the fastest guy on the field, so we wanted to take that shot and it worked. The one to Dakota, we worked on that all week in practice where we’re in trips and we stack it, he popped wide open.”

The TD to Houze had the feeling of a back-breaker, as it put Harper Woods up 27-7 early in the third quarter. More so than the lead, it came after South Christian had made its way deep into Harper Woods territory with a chance to make it a one-score game. But Corey Bailey forced and recovered a fumble to end the threat.

Dwight Houston (3) gets ready to make his move as South Christian's Austin Tiesma (7) gets into position to make the stop.It was the second time in as many South Christian possessions that a chance to pull within a single score had ended in a turnover. On the final play of the first half, Wilson intercepted a Vis pass in the end zone after the Sailors had made their way to the Harper Woods 9.

But none of it fazed the Sailors (10-4), who were seeking their second-straight Finals title.

Following Houze’s TD, South Christian finally did pull to within one score at 27-20, getting TD runs from Charlie Schreur (1 yard) and Vis (22 yards).

Harper Woods stretched it back to a 13-point lead with a 10-play, 85-yard drive, capped off by a 1-yard TD run by Stephone Buford.

But when Noah Funk scored on a 12-yard pass from Vis less than two minutes later, South Christian had again pulled to within a score, and a defensive stop set up the final drive, and the late-game drama.

“The message at halftime was, ‘We’ve been resilient, and nothing you ever do in life, when you’re chasing success, is going to be easy. There’s going to be adversity,’” South Christian coach Danny Brown said. “And that was the message. These are a bunch of great guys that do things the right way. If there was ever a time to come and climb that mountain of a little adversity, the second half was that time. They fought like crazy, and I’m proud of them to keep swinging, and we almost had it.”

Harper Woods jumped out a 14-0 lead with first-quarter TD runs by Buford and Dwight Houston. A 39-yard TD pass from Vis to Vermaas put the Sailors on the board in the second quarter, but Guerrant’s 27-yard TD catch had the Pioneers up 20-7 at the half.

Houston finished with 62 yards rushing for the Pioneers, while Buford had 46 to go along with two TDs.

Austin Tiesma had eight catches for 120 yards for South Christian, while Funk had five for 61.

Click for the full box score

PHOTOS (Top) Harper Woods raises its first football championship trophy after winning the Division 4 Final on Saturday. (Middle) South Christian's Carson Vis (5) unloads a pass as the Pioneers' Johnny Nelson (21) and Javonta Lee-Forbes (28) apply pressure. (Below) Dwight Houston (3) gets ready to make his move as South Christian's Austin Tiesma (7) gets into position to make the stop. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)

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.)