DETROIT – The wait is over for Muskegon.
The Big Reds lost in MHSAA Division 3 Finals four of the last five seasons. And when Ben Williams of Farmington Hills Harrison returned Saturday’s opening kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown, the hearts of Muskegon fans sank a bit.
No reason to be concerned. Senior quarterback La’Darius Jefferson did what he’s done all season. Jefferson scored four touchdowns, and the defense allowed just three points as the Big Reds defeated Harrison, 28-10, in the weekend’s final championship game at Ford Field.
Muskegon (14-0) won its first title since 2008, and it helped take away some of the sting that lingers from last season’s 29-28 Division 3 Final loss to Orchard Lake St. Mary’s – a game where the Eaglets went ahead on a touchdown pass in the closing seconds.
That final score was posted in the Muskegon locker room all season. Every player and every coach saw it every time they walked in.
Not anymore. Coach Shane Fairfield will take that down now that the journey to the championship is over.
“It’ll be all white now,” Fairfield said. “We’ll start all over again with a clean slate.”
This is Fairfield’s first title as Muskegon’s coach. Expectations are high at Muskegon. Fans and alumni expect nothing less than a title, and close doesn’t count.
“I got it off my back,” Fairfield said. “I get to continue what I love to do.”
The Big Reds answered Williams’ kickoff return with an 80-yard, 13-play drive to tie the score at 7-7. Jefferson ended the drive with an 8-yard touchdown run.
Harrison regained the lead, 10-7, on David Hiser’s 26-yard field goal on the last play of the first quarter.
The Big Reds took their first lead during the second quarter on a 69-yard, two-play drive. Jefferson ran 55 yards on the first play, then scored from 14 yards out with 4:29 left in the half.
“We did well with that start,” Harrison coach John Herrington said. “But when you go against that type of size, you get worn down. I thought our defense played well. Passing is not our thing, and they did a good job of stopping our run.”
Muskegon held Harrison (10-4) to 61 yards rushing on 23 attempts., and also just 53 yards on nine completions through the air. The Hawks were held to 42 yards in the second half as Muskegon imposed its will.
Jefferson scored on short runs in the third and fourth quarter, and the defense did the rest.
He rushed for 245 yards on 32 carries, and his four touchdowns upped his total to 33 on the ground this season. He also threw 21 touchdown passes. On this night he didn’t have to throw much; he attempted only two passes, without a completion.
“We’ve gone against some great players here like (Birmingham Brother Rice quarterback Alex) Malzone and (Brother Rice receiver Grant) Perry. I was just hoping our guys could handle it and they did,” Fairfield said.
“La’Darius? What an amazing young man. I watched him play since he was in the seventh and eighth grades. He’s a selfless kid who loves his family. He wants all the kids (in Muskegon) to experience what he and his team have.”
As he has done many times this season, Jefferson went to the opposing team’s huddle at the end of the game to congratulate them on their play. In particular, he went to Harrison’s outstanding linebacker/tight end Ovie Oghoufo, who is committed to Notre Dame, and offered some advice.
“I told him to cherish this moment,” Jefferson said. “Not everyone is going to play in college. Not everyone is going to Notre Dame. Be thankful.”
Herrington, the state’s winningest coach, completed his 48th season at Harrison. The school is expected to close after the 2018-19 school year, and he said he’d be back for the finale.
The last time Harrison was in an MHSAA Football Final was 2010, when the Hawks won their state record 13th title with a 38-28 victory over Lowell in Division 2.
Harrison was one of only two teams to hold the Big Reds to fewer than 35 points this season, giving them their second-closest game of the fall and closest of a playoff run that saw Muskegon beat five opponents by an average of 37 points.
“Nobody stopped Muskegon all year,” Herrington said. “It was one of the better seasons we’ve had in a while. I enjoy them all. I can’t point out one more than the others.
“We have a few guys coming back. We’ll have 25 or so and go at it again.”
The MHSAA Playoffs are sponsored by the Michigan Army National Guard.
PHOTOS: (Top) Muskegon quarterback La’Darius Jefferson slices into the Harrison defense during Saturday’s Division 3 Final. (Middle) Muskegon coach Shane Fairfield hands off the championship trophy as his players begin to celebrate.
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.)