By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
DETROIT – Christian Martinez ran for 45 yards Friday morning according to the Division 8 championship game box score, but crisscrossed his backfield for at least a few hundred more just trying to stay on his feet.
Muskegon Catholic Central’s senior quarterback didn’t find many opportunities to move forward during the day’s first MHSAA Final at Ford Field – but took advantage when a title-deciding opening finally came.
In a game surprisingly dominated by defense, Martinez scored the only points with 10:21 to play in a 7-0 victory over undefeated Waterford Our Lady that gave MCC its third straight championship.
The teams entered the Final averaging a combined 78 points this season. But four turnovers by the Lakers and a number of stops by both defenses kept the scoreboard blank for the first three quarters.
“I was wondering when we were finally going to bust loose and score,” Martinez said. “They were just well-coached. They read their keys well. They had a really good inside linebacker; he broke on the ball. And then they had some really big defensive linemen who stopped a lot of plays up front before they even started.”
Martinez was complimentary of the Lakers’ defense for good reason. Both defenses shined – Our Lady held MCC to 215 yards and allowed only five third-down conversions in 12 tries. The Crusaders held the Lakers to 241 yards, but intercepted four passes and allowed Our Lady only four first downs on 12 third-down attempts.
Our Lady hadn’t been shut out since 2011. MCC had been held to single digits only one other time over the last three seasons – by Division 4 semifinalist Detroit Country Day in Week 8 of this fall.
All of the offense MCC could muster came together as the third quarter turned into the fourth. Our Lady looked to have another stop in hand with the Crusaders facing 3rd-and-4, but Martinez followed his blockers for a 14-yard gain down to the Lakers' 32-yard line. Senior Walker Christoffersen followed with a 24-yard run to the 8. Martinez then watched towering offensive tackle Jacob Holt block two defenders to set the edge, and followed for an 8-yard scoring run.
MCC (11-2) entered this season on a 26-game winning streak and abruptly lost in Week 1 to Muskegon Oakridge. After two seasons of complete dominance, three games this fall were decided by 14 points or fewer – which may have paid off when it mattered most.
“I was extremely happy that we were able to gut it out,” MCC coach Steve Czerwon said. “We’ve been in quite a few close games this year, maybe some more than past years. A lot of grit, a lot of integrity out of these guys.”
And a great strategy on his staff's part. The Crusaders played with four defensive backs deep to try to contain an Our Lady offense keyed by senior quarterback Clay Senerius, who had thrown for 2,913 yards and 34 touchdowns entering the day.
Christoffersen had two interceptions, including one in the end zone as Our Lady drove for a tying score with 3:21 to play. Senerius still finished 17 of 27 passing for 193 yards, but the Lakers had difficulty stringing enough positive plays together to get other drives rolling.
Our Lady did try a field goal midway through the first quarter but missed left from 35 yards out. The Lakers gained first downs on two fourth-down conversions, but their one failed fourth-down attempt came later in the first quarter when an incomplete pass ended a drive at MCC’s 16-yard line.
“The play at the end (of the game) is the one everyone is going to remember, but we had our shots there in the first half,” Our Lady coach Josh Sawicki said. “We’ve been aggressive all year. We’ve gone for it on fourth down all year. We don’t change our strategy and who we are and what we do just because of the big stage.
“Most of the time we come up with those big plays on fourth down. That’s when we bear down. It just didn’t go our way today.”
Our Lady, back in a Final for the first time since 2002, allowed only one opponent this season to come within 25 points. The Lakers (13-1) finished with their most wins and points (542) in school history.
Clay’s brother Devin, also a senior, caught six passes for 72 yards, and senior linebacker Ryan Kostich and junior defensive back Isaac Oliver led the team with seven tackles apiece.
Holt had 6.5 tackles and senior linebacker Nathan Jones and junior linebacker Andrew Schulte both had six for MCC. Christoffersen ran for 113 yards to go with his interceptions.
“We’ve had really good coaching. We had good players run routes on us, really good teaching throughout the week, and it resulted in a really good play I made in the state championship,” Christoffersen said. “I knew that was a really big play, and I was really happy I could make a play for my team.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Muskegon Catholic Central’s Walker Christoffersen snags one of his two interceptions in the Division 8 Final. (Middle) MCC quarterback Christian Martinez works to break away from an Our Lady defender.
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.)