Two top-ranked teams and four of the best from metro Detroit highlight tonight's Prep Zone football games streamed live on FoxSportsDetroit.com.
This is the final week of home field advantage for any opponent. Next week’s Semifinals and 8-player Final all will be played at neutral sites. The winners of two of tonight’s Prep Zone games will meet in a Division 1 Semifinal on Nov. 19.
Here’s a preview of all four Prep Zone games. All kick off at 7 p.m., and all also will be archived for on-demand viewing at MHSAA.tv. (Rankings below by The Associated Press' panel of media voters.)
DIVISION 1: Walled Lake Central (8-3) at Utica Eisenhower (10-1)
Utica Eisenhower entered the postseason ranked No. 3 and is playing in its second straight Regional Final, with its best offensive output since finishing MHSAA runner-up in 2003. That 30-points-per-game effort is led by a pair of juniors – quarterback Joe Zerafa has thrown for 1,301 yards and 12 touchdowns, and junior running back Shane King has rushed for 687 yards and 12 scores. But the Eagles’ strength might be on defense. They haven’t given up a point since the first weekend of October, and have five shutouts total this season with senior linebacker Ray Shepler just two tackles from 100. Unranked Walled Lake Central, meanwhile, might be one of the surprises of this round after knocking out reigning state champion Lake Orion and then No. 8 Clarkston to open the playoffs. But remember, the Vikings did make the Division 2 Semifinals last season. And they are led again by senior quarterback Zac Leimbach, a master running the team’s option offense. He’s rushed for 1,610 yards and 21 touchdowns and thrown for 931 yards and six more scores.
DIVISION 1: Detroit Cass Tech (8-3) at Warren DeLaSalle (9-2), at St. Clair Shores Lake Shore
Considering five Cass Tech defensive players have committed to sign with Division I college programs in February – including hard-hitting linebacker Royce Jenkins-Stone (Michigan) – it’s not surprising that the Technicians haven’t given up more than 18 points in a game since opening night, or more than seven in a game since mid-October. DeLaSalle’s records aren’t always flawless like others going into the playoffs, thanks in part to a tough Catholic League schedule. But the Pilots are playing in their fourth-straight Regional final and were ranked No. 5 in the final Division 2 regular-season poll before moving into Division 1 for the postseason. Those losses came to still-alive Detroit Catholic Central and Orchard Lake St. Mary, so guys like senior quarterback Shane Morris (1,658 yards, 19 TDs passing) and senior running back/safety Mike Abiragi (the team's leading rusher and tackler) have seen their share of star-studded opponents.
Click to read more from Mlive.com.
DIVISION 5: Dowagiac (10-1) at Lansing Catholic (11-0), at Holt Junior High
Lansing Catholic senior quarterback Cooper Rush continues to ascend MHSAA records lists in just about every passing category. His 2,792 yards this fall are good for 17th for one season, and his 33 touchdown passes are tied for 16th. Senior receiver Matt Macksood has caught 69 of those tosses for 1,094 yards and 15 touchdowns, and run for 750 yards and 10 more scores. Both have done that damage in 10 games, with the top-ranked Cougars’ 11th win a forfeit. Dowagiac’s defense could be up to the challenge though – the No. 9 Chieftains haven’t given up more than 14 points in a game this season. They’ve doubled their win total from 2010 and hit double-digit victories for the first time since 1996. Although leading tackler D.J. Hunt has missed all but the beginning of the playoff run with an injury, defensive ends Dontrell Tucker and Carl Grant combined for five sacks against Hopkins last week. They’ll be counted on to keep the rush on Rush.
DIVISION 7: Harbor Beach (11-0) at Saginaw Nouvel (10-0)
Top-ranked Nouvel is off to its strongest effort since winning back-to-back MHSAA titles in 2006-07. The Panthers are averaging 48 points per game and scored fewer than 40 only twice, keyed by a pair of seniors – running back Bennett Lewis has rushed for 1,463 yards and 22 touchdowns, and quarterback Joe Buchalski has thrown for 1,000 yards and 18 scores. Harbor Beach, tied for the No. 7 spot, comes in with much less fanfare. But the Pirates have been here before, winning 12 games in 2007 and 10 in 2003. Junior Sloan Klaski will be a focal point – he leads the team with 146 tackles, and also 1,011 yards and 19 touchdowns running the ball. As a team, Harbor Beach averages 262 yards on the ground and could ride that in an attempt to keep Nouvel's offense off the field. The Pirates rise at crunch time: four of their last seven wins were by 12 points or fewer.
(Photo courtesy of 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.)