By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
DETROIT – Half of Portland’s division of the Capital Area Activities Conference has made it to the MHSAA Finals over the last three seasons.
So before bringing the Raiders to Ford Field this week, coach John Novara spoke with 2011 Division 5 runner-up coach Jim Ahern of Lansing Catholic, 2010 Division 4 runner-up coach Steve Kersten of Williamston, and a number of others who had occupied the spot he was about to step into Saturday afternoon.
They gave him plenty of advice. But one piece was offered by them all: Stay true to yourself and what you do.
Most of the Raiders’ 90 wins in Novara’s 14 seasons have been more a result of force over fancy: tough running and physical defense, with just a little flare mixed in. So it only seemed right that Portland’s first MHSAA football championship – and team title in any sport – would come with a semi-ugly 12-9 win over Grand Rapids West Catholic that did well in representing the legacy of those who brought the program to the brink.
“We worked hard just like they taught us, and they were in the weight room 24/7, and we looked up to those guys,” Portland senior guard/linebacker Adam Goodman said of his predecessors. “We all had brothers and sisters who went to this school, and we were close with the others guys. They told us to go in the weight room, and we listened to them. They set the foundation for Portland football.”
This is the 10th straight season Portland (13-1) finished with a winning record, but the first time it had won more than one playoff game. By also beating Flint Powers Catholic, the Raiders defeated both the 2011 and 2010 Division 5 champions on the way to this title. West Catholic was that 2010 champ – and beat Portland in the District Final that season.
In fact, three of Portland’s last four playoff losses came to teams that ended up at Ford Field.
“ We've been close every year,” Raiders senior guard/linebacker Dylan Carroll said. “We always face the state champion or runner-up every year, and we finally pulled through.”
The Final played out like much of Portland’s season. The defense, with 10 seniors, often set the tone as the offense – which should return eight starters in 2013 – learned on the fly. West Catholic (10-4) became the seventh opponent to score in single digits. But that was necessary; the Raiders scored their 12 points over the game’s first 15 minutes, and struggled to do much more during the final 23 as West Catholic held them to a season low.
“Our defense has been stepping up all throughout the playoffs, so we knew they were going to give us another chance to get something going on offense,” Falcons junior running back Andy Corey said. “We couldn’t ask for anything more.”
West Catholic’s first score didn't come until Corey’s eight-yard run with 1:02 to play in the third quarter. The other two points came on a safety 2:13 into the fourth. Total, West Catholic had 13 possessions. But three ended with interceptions and two more on turnovers on downs.
Still, the Falcons had one last opportunity to take the game during the final three minutes. After recovering a fumble at their 32-yard line and converting one fourth down, West Catholic had first down and goal to go from Portland’s 10.
But the Raiders stepped up this time, holding the Falcons to one yard total on three straight runs. After a five-yard penalty, West Catholic completed a screen pass that was stopped well short by Portland senior Jeffrey Feldpausch with 50 seconds to play.
“With the playmakers they have, you’re always wondering if you’re going to get them stopped one more time,” Novara said
Portland’s scores came on a one-yard run by junior quarterback Tanner Allison, and then one of the most memorable plays of Finals weekend. Allison took the snap at his 6-yard line, faked two handoffs and spun nearly all the way around as West Catholic tacklers began to pull him to the ground. Right before they succeeded, he launched a seemingly no-look pass into the left middle of the field that somehow got past everyone. Junior Auston Brandt ran under it and turned it into a 94-yard touchdown catch – the third longest in MHSAA Finals history.
“I saw the blitz. I knew the play was getting blown up right away,” Allison said. “I was getting tackled, and I was actually trying to throw the ball away, and he just happened to be there. I saw him, and I was just trying to throw the ball close, and out-throw him a little bit just to get the pass off.”
Allison completed 7 of 16 passes total for 214 yards, with four of those for 178 yards to Brandt. Corey ran 26 times for 146 yards, and sophomore quarterback Travis Russell completed 20 of 39 passes for 209 yards for the Falcons
Carroll had a game-high 13 tackles for Portland. Senior defensive back Joe Harmon had 11 tackles for West Catholic, and junior linebacker Max Boorsma had 10.
“When you take a group of football kids like we did this year – we had six sophomores who started for us, an entire new defensive coaching staff, a new offensive line coach, new running backs coach – and you kinda rally together and you end up playing in a state championship game, the entire coaching staff, the entire program did something right.” West Catholic coach Dan Rohn said. “We’ll be back. We set the goal in January to be back here, and we hope we will.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Portland football players hoist their Division 5 championship trophy after winning their first title Saturday. (Middle) Portland quarterback Tanner Allison (5) holds tight to the ball as Grand Rapids West Catholic tacklers begin to surround him. (Click for more from Terry McNamara Photography.)
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.)