Moment: The Final Thrill

December 16, 2020

By John Johnson
MHSAA Director of Broadcast Properties

Over the course of nearly 34 years on this job, you often get asked what single championship game you would rank at the top of your list. You could ask that question to 100 people and get 100 answers – and guess what? They’d all be right. Such is the beauty of high school sports.

Which is why, after all these years, my game for the ages is one that has stood the test of time in my mind for over 30 years. It had everything you would want in a high school game – fantastic competition – great plays – and when it was over, some of the best sportsmanship I’ve ever seen – NO – make that THE best sportsmanship I’ve ever seen. To be on the field, you’d have a hard time telling who won and who lost by the way the players from both teams hugged and shook hands and sincerely congratulated each other. Which is how it should be after every – single – game.

And what topped it all off after that was the winning team making a trip to a pep assembly at the other team’s gym the following week to thank them for a great game, and present a banner signed by every member of the team.

That game was the 1989 Class B Football Playoff Final. The last year that four divisions were conducted in that postseason tournament. The last game played in that format.

Farmington Hills Harrison and DeWitt. The powerful, dominant Hawks and even legendary at that time coach John Herrington – and the All-America quarterback in Mill “The Thrill” Coleman; against the pride of the Ingham County League, the Panthers of DeWitt, from what was an old farming bedroom community north of Lansing transforming into a new money suburb of the Capitol City.

The Hawks, the reigning Class B champs after winning the third of their state-record 13 titles against St. Joseph the previous November, were heavy favorites. DeWitt was making its fourth Playoff appearance and moving up in class after reaching the Semifinals in 1988, only to lose to powerhouse Detroit St. Martin dePorres.

The underdogs used an efficient running attack to take a 21-14 halftime lead on Harrison. John Telford, who rushed for 153 yards in the game, had two of the scores. Harrison tied the game early in the final period on the first of two scoring runs by Coleman, this one from 19 yards out.

DeWitt then put together a grinding drive, culminated by quarterback Chris Berkimer sneaking it from one yard out. Harrison blocked the extra point and DeWitt led 27-21 with 2:20 on the clock.

That left way too much time for Coleman. He engineered a 67-yard, five-play drive to tie the game. It didn’t even take a minute off the clock.

“When they scored I looked at the clock and knew we had enough time and all three of our time outs,” Coleman told the Detroit Free Press after the game. “I kept thinking back to that drive John Elway had against the Browns a couple of years ago in the playoffs when he had to go 98 yards.”

Three straight passes to Mike Saputo, Steve Hill and Greg Piscopink got Harrison down to the DeWitt 16; and Coleman then rolled out on a Student Body Right for another seven yards.

At the DeWitt 9, Coleman dropped back for what appeared to be another pass, but the Panthers' pressure forced The Thrill to run. Coleman eluded five tacklers along the way, finally diving into the end zone to score. 

“We knew he (Coleman) was good, and we just tried to contain him,” DeWitt coach Gail Thornton told the Lansing State Journal after the game.  “But every once in a while he would get loose for a big one.”

Steve Hill kicked the extra point and Harrison was back in the lead, 28-27. Hill would then intercept Berkimer on DeWitt’s first play after the ensuing kickoff to seal the deal.

PHOTO: Farmington Hills Harrison's Mill Coleman rolls left at the start of what would be the game-winning run for his team in the 1989 Class B Football Final. (Photo by Gary Shook). 

Inspired by Dad's Memory, Lawrence's Vasquez Emerges After Family Losses

By Pam Shebest
Special for

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.)