By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
DETROIT – A trio of running backs who played major roles in Muskegon Catholic Central’s last three MHSAA championships closed their high school careers celebrating the school’s fourth straight title Friday.
Along the way, they also handed off the program’s future.
Seniors LaTommy Scott, Logan Helton and Walker Christofferson had become Ford Field fixtures the last few seasons, and each contributed to their combined four touchdowns in this Division 8 Final. But the fifth score of MCC’s 35-6 victory over Ottawa Lake Whiteford was scored by a freshman who will take over from here – and showed the promise that makes the Crusaders look good to continue these annual trips to Detroit.
Splitting time at quarterback with senior Trenton Bordeaux, freshman Cameron Martinez ran for a team-high 154 yards and a touchdown and threw for 61 yards and a score to help MCC pull into a tie for second all-time with its 12th MHSAA football title.
Although a freshman, the scene wasn’t entirely unfamiliar for Martinez; his brother Christian had quarterbacked the team to its 11th title last year as a senior.
“Every time we made it, I was watching from the crowd. I couldn’t wait to put on the gold helmet and bring this team back again,” Cameron Martinez said. “I love this group of seniors. I’m going to miss them, and that’s what I wanted to do – give them their fourth straight title.”
With four straight, the Crusaders (14-0) are now one shy of the MHSAA record of five consecutive titles shared by the Farmington Hills Harrison teams from 1997-2001 and East Grand Rapids’ teams from 2006-10. With 12 championships total, MCC is tied with now-closed Detroit St. Martin dePorres for second most in the sport, one behind Harrison’s record 13 football titles.
Martinez entered the Final third on the team with 614 rushing yards, tallying 12 touchdowns on the ground, and second to Bordeaux with 540 passing yards plus nine scoring passes. Also a starting linebacker, he didn’t play offense in MCC’s 35-0 Semifinal win over St. Ignace last week. But he was impacting the Crusaders’ offense by the end of Friday’s first quarter.
Martinez’ first carry came on the final play of that quarter, for three yards, and he opened the second with a 26-yard run. He also had a 19-yard run and 23-yard pass to set up Helton’s five-yard scoring run that put the first points on the board with 9:05 to go in the first half.
After coming up shy on another drive late in the half and then pushing the score to 14-6 on a 35-yard Helton run to cap its first possession of the second, MCC made it 21-6 with 3:08 to play in the third quarter with a drive that included 55 rush yards on five Martinez carries, including the final one for three yards into the end zone.
“Anytime you have a running quarterback, you have to defend 11 and not 10; it’s just simple math sometimes,” MCC coach Steve Czerwon said. “Having somebody in the backfield as dynamic as Cameron, with the ability to make plays … people are like, ‘He’s a freshman.’ Well, he’s a freshman, fine. But he doesn’t play like a freshman.”
MCC welcomed its captains from the last three seasons to Thursday’s practice, and after, Czerwon asked Christian Martinez if he was nervous for his brother. Christian’s response to Czerwon: “Nah, he’s made for these big moments.”
“After he said that – and he knows him a heck of a lot better than I do – I felt good about using him today,” Czerwon added. “And I thought he performed very well.”
So did those seniors. Helton ran seven times for 67 yards and those two scores, and Scott ran eight times for 69 yards and scored on the 25-yard touchdown “pass” which was more of a front pitch on a sweep around the left side. Christofferson, who ran for 200 yards and three touchdowns in the Semifinal win, added the day’s final score with 1:04 to play.
Helton, also a linebacker, had 10 tackles and Christofferson, a defensive back, had seven to follow up all-state senior linebacker Andrew Schulte's team-leading 13. The Crusaders never trailed this season, and the defense was a big reason why; including 13 points surrendered over five playoff games, MCC allowed only 77 points this fall (5.5 per game).
But Friday’s score didn’t tell well how close this matchup was for most of it. Whiteford had six turnovers on downs, falling short of first downs by only a yard four times. Twice, MCC sophomore defensive back Dawson Steigman made rally-ending stops. Three of the fourth-down misses came in Crusaders territory.
Whiteford junior quarterback Thomas Eitniear was especially impressive, completing 7 of 10 passes for 96 yards and running nine times for 111 yards including the team’s lone score, an 81-yard sprint around the left end that made it 7-6 with 2:37 to go in the first half.
“Coming into halftime, that was the exact kind of game we were looking to play – to chew clock, and we just didn’t articulate a couple of our possessions into scores,” Whiteford coach Jason Mensing said. “Second half, they found some things offensively against us and took advantage. And on top of that, we didn’t articulate our drives as well.
“Overall, I’m pleased with the effort and passion, and probably the thing I’m most proud of was I didn’t feel like the moment was too big for our kids, which oftentimes you get into this type of stage, the moment can be a little large. I thought our kids handled themselves with great composure, and that’s one of those attributes for life that really matters.”
Whiteford made its first appearance in an MHSAA Final, following up its second straight – and second ever – Semifinal appearance. The Bobcats finished 13-1.
“Me and a bunch of the senior guys, we dreamed about this since freshman year,” said senior running back Jesse Kiefer, who finished as the school’s career record holder in rushing yards, points and total offense. “Coming in and being able to play on this field, it’s just not real to me. Obviously, we wanted it to come out a different way than this, but it’s still an experience I’ll never forget.”
Kiefer had seven tackles at linebacker, following senior safety Herbie Bertz’ 13 and junior tackle Jared Atherton’s eight. Kiefer also broke up three passes.
With it being their last, MCC’s seniors asked to not come out of this game early as they have most of this season with the Crusaders beating all of their opponents by at least two touchdowns.
But as they left Ford Field once more, surrounded by 13 underclassmen, they were confident with who might lead MCC back next time.
“Handing it off the Cameron, our program is in good hands,” Helton said. “I don’t expect anything less than what we’ve been doing.”
The MHSAA Football Finals are sponsored by the Michigan National Guard.
PHOTOS: (Top) Muskegon Catholic Central’s Cameron Martinez stretches toward the goal line for a score late in the third quarter. (Middle) Martinez works to elude Whiteford’s Hunter Lake.
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.)