Pivotal Playmaking Puts King Back on Top to Close 2021 Season

By Scott DeCamp
Special for MHSAA.com

November 28, 2021

DETROIT – Past disappointments tucked away in his mind, Dante Moore knew what he needed to do with an elusive Finals title on the line Saturday night at Ford Field.

Detroit Martin Luther King’s junior quarterback needed to make a play to put the game away. And that’s exactly what he and senior receiver Chansey Willis Jr. did.

Pinned against their own goal line, Moore and Willis converted a big third-down play to seal King’s 25-21 victory over last season’s MHSAA Division 3 champion DeWitt in a hard-fought title game.

It was the first Finals championship for Moore, the highly recruited 6-foot-2, 195-pounder, who after the game was presented the State Champs! Mr. Football award. Facing 3rd-and-6 from his own 5 and with his team holding a four-point lead, Moore hit Willis on a 7-yard play to move the chains and enable the Crusaders (13-1) to run out the clock.

Moments earlier, King’s defense stuffed DeWitt (12-2) on 4th-and-goal from the 1 in the back-and-forth contest.

“I just say, ‘Hey,’ I looked at Chansey – how we’ve been all year – ‘I’ll lead my guy, let’s get this pass. They don’t have any more timeouts. We can win this game,’” Moore said. “I gave him my trust throwing him the ball, and he’s going to do what he do: Catch the ball, get down and get the first down.”

The championship was King’s first since 2018 and fourth in seven years.

During Moore’s freshman year in 2019, King lost to Muskegon Mona Shores, 35-26, in the Division 2 Final. Last year, the Crusaders fell in the Regional to River Rouge, which lost a 40-30 shootout to DeWitt in the Division 3 championship game.

“Blessings. Ever since we lost my freshman year to Mona Shores, a shot at that great team; last year we lost in the Regionals to River Rouge. I mean, we’ve been hungry for it,” said Moore, who finished 18-of-24 passing for 228 yards with an interception.

“A lot of seniors on this team have got rings, but a lot of juniors, sophomores and freshmen were really hungry for it. After the start of conditioning in the summer time and being out here right now, we’ve just been really hungry for this moment and we appreciate it.”

King played like it early.

Division 3 Football FinalThe Crusaders scored in the game’s first minute, as senior Terrence Brown sprinted for a 51-yard touchdown run. They made it 13-0 just 1:18 into the second quarter when junior defensive end Kenny Merrieweather tipped a pass and turned it into a 45-yard pick-six.

“Just being a ball player, trying to just make plays to try to win the game for me and my teammates,” the 6-4, 245-pound Merrieweather said about his interception return.

That was the start of a wild quarter when the teams combined for 33 points. Despite trailing 19-7 with three minutes left in the half, DeWitt stormed back to take a 21-19 lead into the break.

Senior QB Ty Holtz, who led the Panthers to the title last year, sandwiched 6- and 15-yard TD passes to seniors Bryce Debri and Tommy McIntosh, respectively, around a 6-yard scoring run by King’s Brown. Then, in the closing seconds of the half, Holtz electrified the DeWitt crowd by intercepting Moore and returning it 69 yards for a TD.

That put DeWitt in front by two at halftime, a lead the Panthers held until junior Sterling Anderson Jr. scored on a 3-yard run with 8:22 remaining in the game to put the Crusaders back in front, 25-21.

Holtz finished 10-of-18 for 153 yards with two picks. Six of his completions went to McIntosh, the University of Wisconsin commit, who finished with 90 receiving yards.

Holtz guided DeWitt deep into King territory during the game’s final minutes, as the Panthers had 1st-and-goal from the 10, but they could not punch it in.

“I mean, Ty Holtz, I want to give him a shoutout on defense, first of all,” Moore said. “I mean, him being a quarterback and being at safety, eyeing me wherever I go. … He was throwing the ball around to Tommy and the other teammates. It was a great team, a great coaching staff. They were here last year, they won it, so big shoutout to them.”

Brown led all rushers with 113 yards on 11 carries. Willis caught four passes for 111 yards. Senior Blake Bailiff led King with 10 tackles, including stops on each of DeWitt’s final four offensive plays.

It wasn’t Moore’s best game statistically, but King coach Tyrone Spencer was impressed with the way he ran the team.

After losing at Carmel (Ind.), 42-40, on a Hail Mary in the season opener, the Crusaders finished the year with 13 straight wins.

“I just love the way that kid (operates); he’s so poised,” Spencer said about Moore. “He throws an interception, he’s in the locker room, I mean, it doesn’t faze him. He comes back out and he does what he needs to do. They were taking the pass away from him. They had safeties all over the top, bailing out late and we had to stick to the run game. Sometimes, that’s going to take away from what you can do in the air, and that’s fine. We got a win. He found a way for us to win.”

For DeWitt, senior Nicholas Flegler paced his team with 11 tackles and 69 rushing yards.

He is one of 21 Panthers who will graduate in the spring and also played a significant role on last season’s champion.

“They grew up together and played together. They’ve won for a long period of time and they learned from the previous group, and I think that’s something that’s just carried on,” DeWitt coach Rob Zimmerman said. “We’ve got young kids coming up that want to be just like these guys.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS (Top) Detroit King’s Sterling Anderson Jr. (23) jets down the sideline as a DeWitt defender works to wrap him up. (Middle) Chansey Willis Jr. (2) prepares for contact as the Panthers’ Bryce Debri (21) pursues. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)

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

By Pam Shebest
Special for MHSAA.com

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.)