By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
GREENVILLE – The photos Powers North Central football players took Friday night after winning the first MHSAA championship trophy in program history were finishing touches on arguably the most impressive run yet during the short history of 8-player football in this state.
Although the 8-player format is only half a decade old, it’s fair to surmise Michigan may not see an offense as potent as North Central’s for years to come – at least until the Jets take the floor this basketball season.
Sure, North Central was held to its season low in points Friday. But given the opponent and the stage, the Jets did more than enough to impress in defeating previously-undefeated Battle Creek St. Philip only 58-33 after scoring at least 64 points in every other game this fall.
North Central (13-0) ended this season, it’s first as an 8-player program, averaging 70.4 points per game. That was only half a point less than the basketball team, featuring many of these same players, averaged in winning the Class D title in March.
“When you go into a season, you know what you have and you know what you need to work on,” said junior quarterback Jason Whitens, who also was the basketball team’s leading scorer last winter. “With the group of guys we’ve got, we all love each other, we’re close-knit just like basketball, and we love to work hard. We come out here and perform and just work hard.”
North Central finished 13-0. Before St. Philip came within 25 points, no opponent had come closer to the Jets than 48.
A few key decisions gave them the momentum for such a dominating run.
First came the decision to move to 8-player. North Central had had recent success in 11-player, making the playoffs three of the last five seasons and finishing 8-3 in 2013. But enrollment dropping to 119 students this fall justified the move.
Then came another switch. Whitens, a receiver last season, moved to quarterback to take over for his graduated cousin Rob Granquist after formerly serving as one of Granquist’s top targets.
Whitens threw for 217 yards and two touchdowns Friday, giving him 2,532 yards and 45 touchdown passes without an interception this fall. It’s a good argument, which was more incredible – the zero interceptions or that 25 percent of his 179 passes went for scores.
His development was quickened by work with cousin Granquist, but also by another sharp decision by coach Kevin Bellefeuil, who decided to keep the same offense as when the team was 11-player but drop the tackles and a slot receiver.
Still, St. Philip nearly wrote its own storybook ending as it sought its first football title since 1985.
The Tigers scored first – the first time North Central had trailed this season – and led by as many as nine points before a pair of plays changed the game’s course.
Holding a 21-20 lead with 2:15 left in the first half, St. Philip chose to go for a first down on 4th-and-1 from North Central’s 34 yard line – and was stuffed for a 3-yard loss by junior Tanner Poupore with help from a few teammates.
On the next play, Whitens dropped a 63-yard touchdown pass just over the shoulder of junior running back Bobby Kleiman, who outran a defender for the go-ahead score.
“We’ve got a couple of guys, and we can just call their number and it seems to go for us every time,” Bellefeuil said. “We set up a couple of plays, and then we waited and waited and waited. And then we hit with that big pass to Bobby down the middle and it was just what we hoped would happen.”
Less than two minutes later, junior Dawson Bilski intercepted a fourth-down St. Philip pass again in North Central territory. With 30 seconds left in the first half, Whitens led a 56-yard drive that included 28 and 34-yard passes to Kleiman and ended with Whitens scoring on a 1-yard run with a second left in the half.
“They just had a ton of weapons and speed that we couldn’t contain, and that was the ballgame,” Tigers coach Dave Downey said. “Once we get down, we’re pressing. We’re throwing the ball a lot more than what we probably should have. We like to run the ball a little bit more. When we went to the air, they defended the pass pretty well and they got to our quarterback quite a few times, and that was the difference too.”
The North Central defense did give up a season high in points, but those 33 were also a season low for the Tigers. St. Phil did end up with 380 total yards – senior running back Brayden Darr ran for 104 and two touchdowns despite plenty of North Central attention, and senior quarterback Brendan Gausselin threw for 172 and two scores – but St. Philip couldn’t make up for a pair of interceptions and the Jets’ 572 yards of offense.
Darr also had 13 tackles to lead the Tigers, and Bilski had a team-high 12 for North Central.
Kleiman rushed for 205 yards on only 21 carries, good for an average of nearly 10 yards per attempt. He ran for five touchdowns to go with the sixth through the air.
Bilski and Kleiman are two more of six starters on the Jets’ offense who have another season to play. After averaging 70 points a game and dominating most of all 13 wins, what could be next?
“Keep working hard and just have fun,” Whitens said. “We’re in high school, having the time of our lives right now and doing things we love. We’re ready for next year, and I’m very excited.”
PHOTOS: (Top) North Central quarterback Jason Whitens runs toward the end zone while St. Philip’s Trevor Searls (70) and Grayson Obey (16) give chase. (Middle) St. Philip quarterback Brendan Gausselin moves upfield while the Jets’ Taylor Belongia (79) and Zach Estrada (68) close in. (Below) North Central’s Bobby Kleiman hauls in a 63-yard scoring pass during the second quarter. (Photos by John Johnson.)
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.)