And then there were 32. That's all that remains from the original 256 MHSAA playoff football teams heading into Saturday's Semifinals.
This week's Prep Zone games feature three top-ranked contenders and four that remain 12-0 with only two possible games left in this season. Next weekend, it's off to Ford Field and the Finals.
Here's a look at some of what you'll see. (Rankings below are by The Associated Press' panel of media voters.)
DIVISION 1: Rockford (11-1) vs. Detroit Catholic Central (11-1)
Battle Creek Central’s C.W. Post Field
These two entered the postseason ranked Nos. 1 and 2, respectively. Oddly, this will be just the second time these powers will meet, and first since DCC’s 27-23 win over the Rams in the 1998 Class AA Final. The Shamrocks’ only loss this fall came to Orchard Lake St. Mary in Week 8, and DCC avenged it with a 21-7 win seven days later. Not much has changed during the postseason, aside from the Shamrocks’ defense getting a little bit stingier – they’ve given up 20 points total in three playoff games. Rockford has done a little more surviving, advancing with two wins by seven points or fewer. The Rams always run the ball hard, and both Brady Gent and Ryan Hartley have had 100-plus yards in playoff games so far. This game also pits two of the winningest coaches in MHSAA history – DCC’s Tom Mach has 314 victories since 1976 and Rockford’s Ralph Munger has 271 since 1980.
DIVISION 3: Mount Pleasant (12-0) vs. East Grand Rapids (9-3)
Ferris State University’s Top Taggart Field
The top-ranked Oilers have played their part in East Grand Rapids’ 28-game playoff winning streak, getting knocked out by the Pioneers two of the last three seasons. But this is the third straight Mount Pleasant team to post at least 11 wins, and might be the best of this recent run. Sophomore running back Michael Tweh is the name to know on offense, with 1,726 yards and 24 touchdowns rushing this season, while senior Dustin Lee has run for 14 touchdowns and scored four more on passes. As for No. 9 East Grand Rapids, it could well end up the final team standing again. The Pioneers have avenged two of their losses since the start of the playoffs – against Grand Rapids Christian and Holland – and have scored at least 42 points four weeks in a row. David Drummond has run for 1,739 yards and 16 touchdowns, and Travis Palmer has 15 TD passes.
DIVISION 3: Battle Creek Harper Creek (12-0) vs. Orchard Lake St. Mary (10-2)
Jackson Withington Stadium
Orchard Lake St. Mary, ranked No. 4, is used to reaching this round, going for its fourth Finals appearance in five seasons and third straight. At least defensively, this might be the best of those Eaglets teams – linebacker James Ross, who has committed to sign with Michigan this winter, is arguably the top defensive player in the state. This will be a much newer experience for No. 3 Harper Creek, which is in its first Semifinal since 1999 but also set a school record for wins. But the Beavers’ game is a great fit on what should be a chilly afternoon on fast turf – Harper Creek runs behind a massive offensive line, led by 6-foot-4, 300-pound Kelby Latta. He blocks for an offense averaging 41 points a game.
DIVISION 8: Mendon (12-0) vs. New Lothrop (12-0)
Howell High School
Top-ranked Mendon’s run through the playoffs has included a win over co-No. 1 Muskegon Catholic and another last week against No. 8 Climax-Scotts. But this might be the toughest test of all. The Hornets have given up fewer than four points a game this fall, and no more than eight since opening night. Oh, and they also score 52 points per game, led by multi-talented junior quarterback Austin Newman. Mendon keeps on trucking in its bid for a fifth MHSAA championship in 11 years. Junior Tyler Harris is up to 1,623 yards and 22 touchdowns running the ball, and two more teammates are over 900. Harris ran for 253 yards and four scores in last week’s Regional final.
(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.)