By Ron Pesch
Special for Second Half
A state football championship is a dream for many. Fans wait for the day that they can beam with pride as their favorite squad or school hoists the title trophy toward the sky. For coaches and kids, it’s a road to memories never to be forgotten.
Many schools still wait for that day. Others pray for a return to such glory.
Today, we look at return trips to the winner’s circle. It’s filled with fascinating facts.
Ten schools have won three or more consecutive gridiron championship since the arrival of the tournament in 1975 (when titles began being awarded annually in four classifications based on enrollment – A, B, C & D). Grand Rapids West Catholic, Farmington Hills Harrison and East Grand Rapids lead the pack with five successive titles. Muskegon Catholic Central, Detroit St. Martin dePorres and Ithaca each had streaks of four in a row, while Jackson Lumen Christi, Orchard Lake St. Mary’s, Detroit Catholic Central and Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice each had three-peats. Michigan has seen 31 instances of back-to-back crowns in 11-player football, accomplished at least once by 28 schools. To date, Powers North Central is the only squad to repeat since the 8-player playoffs began in 2011.
But what about the span between titles?
Patience is a Virtue
Eighteen schools have seen gaps of 10 or more years between MHSAA football championships. It’s happened twice for both Orchard Lake St. Mary’s and Crystal Falls Forest Park.
St. Mary’s earned its first football title in 1977 under coach Art Paddy. Its second came 17 years later under current head coach George Porritt. The Eaglets have earned eight titles total and have appeared in 14 championship games. Seven of those titles have come under Porritt’s guidance. They went back-to-back in 1999-2000, but then had to wait 11 seasons before winning their fifth title in 2011. In between, they finished as runner-up on five occasions.
Forest Park has appeared in 13 MHSAA Football Finals over the years, including six of the first 10 Class D title games between 1975 and 1984. Led by Upper Peninsula coaching legend Richard Mettlach, the Trojans were winners of the first two Class D titles, when only 16 teams qualified for the postseason. A total of 31 seasons would pass before Forest Park would win its third football championship. In between, multiple alterations were made to the postseason.
In 1977, the playoffs expanded to a three-week format that included 32 participating teams. The tournament grew to 64 qualifiers in 1985, then moved from awarding titles in four classes to eight (AA, A, BB, B, CC, C, DD & D) involving 128 teams, played out over four weeks. In 1999, the postseason was again altered, to a five-week layout including 256 contenders within eight groupings of 32 teams (Division 1 through Division 8), established after the 256 qualifiers were determined.
Bill Santilli, captain and star running back of the Trojans’ 1975 championship squad, took over the program in 1996 and led the Red and Black on seven trips to the Division 8 championship game – the first in 2000, then to six straight appearances in the title game between 2004-2009. Leading 22-14, Santilli’s 2007 team ground the final 6:07 off the game clock to seal their victory over Fulton, ensuring celebration during the Trojans’ eight-hour, 500+ mile trip back to the Upper Peninsula.
Much changed over the following decade at Forest Park. Santilli retired following the 2013 season. He finished with and impressive 171-45 win-loss mark that included 17 straight years in the MHSAA Playoffs. He went out on a high note, posting a 12-1 mark in 2013.
In 2015, following a trend of continued declining enrollments at U.P. schools, the Crystal Falls Forest Park Board of Education chose to move to 8-player football beginning with the 2016 season.
In 2017, seeing a 20-percent increase in the number of schools that chose this option for their student-athletes, the MHSAA expanded the 8-player tournament to two divisions. That fall, under head coach David Graff, the Trojans returned home with the 8-player Division 2 crown, becoming the second team in Michigan to win titles in both forms of the game
So far, Lawrence, is the only other high school to win championships in both 11-player and 8-player ball. The Tigers won their first football title in 1997 in Class DD. In 2014, 17 years later, they trounced Cedarville, 56-12, to pick up their first championship in 8-player.
The Longest Interval of All
Ishpeming fans have enjoyed seven trips to the MHSAA Finals over the years. The Hematites, nicknamed after the reddish-black iron ore that was long mined in the area, waited 33 years between their 1979 title and their 2012 championship. That’s currently the longest span between football championships in Michigan history.
Boasting a strong ground attack, Ishpeming picked up its first state crown in 1975 in an impressive manner, defeating heavily-favored Hudson in a Class C showdown hosted at Central Michigan University. Coach Mike Mileski’s squad rambled to a 24-8 lead by the end of one quarter, then cruised to a 38-22 victory. Hudson hadn’t lost a contest since the 1968 season, and the Hematites’ triumph halted the Tigers’ national win streak at 72-games.
Mileski guided the Hematites to the 1978 Semifinal before departing for Marquette High School to continue his coaching and teaching career. John Croze, an assistant under Mileski, took the reins in 1979 and drove Ishpeming to its second MHSAA title – finishing with a 13-0 victory over Watervliet.
It took 31 years before Ishpeming earned another shot at a crown. The 2010 Division 7 title game was, once again, a showdown between the Hematites and Hudson. This time, Hudson – coached by Chris Luma, the Tigers’ quarterback back in 1975 – won a thriller, 28-26.
A mere two seasons later, Ishpeming was back, this time winning the first of back-to-back titles, both with victories over Detroit Loyola. Those also were the first of four straight visits to the Finals by coach Jeff Olson’s teams. In 2014, the two teams met again, this time with Loyola emerging as victor. Ishpeming won its third title in four seasons in 2015, downing Pewamo-Westphalia, 22-16.
On the coaching side, Rich Hulkow at Marshall waited 13 seasons (1996 & 2009) between championships. Schoolcraft’s Larry Ledlow (1989 & 2001) had a pause of 12 years between celebrations. The aforementioned Porritt at St. Mary’s saw a break of 11 years between title triumphs. Mike Giannone went 10 season between titles at Macomb Dakota (2007) and later Warren De La Salle Collegiate (2017). Even legends Al Fracassa at Brother Rice (1990 & 2000) and George Barcheski (1983 & 1993) at East Grand Rapids had 10-years spans of wonder during their long coaching careers. Pete Kutches won titles in 1980 and 1982 at Muskegon Catholic, then a decade passed before “The Catch” gave his Muskegon Reeths-Puffer squad the 1992 Class A championship.
Don’t Stop Believing
One school with a long streak of waiting remain in the chase during this extended 2020-21 postseason.
Traverse City High School last won a football title in 1988. Coach Jim Ooley’s Trojans finished Class A runner-up in 1975, then rattled off titles in 1978, 1985 and 1988. Named head coach in 1967, he retired following the 1991 season.
In the fall of 1997, the school split into two with the opening of Traverse City West.
Traverse City Central, as the original school is now known, is still chasing its next football championship 32 years later. The Trojans take on reigning Division 2 champion Muskegon Mona Shores in a Semifinal this Saturday.
Ron Pesch has taken an active role in researching the history of MHSAA events since 1985 and began writing for MHSAA Finals programs in 1986, adding additional features and "flashbacks" in 1992. He inherited the title of MHSAA historian from the late Dick Kishpaugh following the 1993-94 school year, and resides in Muskegon. Contact him at [email protected]:void(0);t with ideas for historical articles.
PHOTOS: (Top) Ryan Van Dyke scores one of his two touchdowns in Marshall’s 14-13 win over Kingsford in the 1996 Class BB Final. (Middle) The 1976 Crystal Falls Forest Park team. (Below) The 1979 Ishpeming team. (Photos from MHSAA files; Marshall photo by Gary Shook.)
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.)