QBs Shine as West Catholic Earns 3-Peat

November 28, 2015

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

DETROIT – Grand Rapids West Catholic might have won its third straight Division 5 championship Saturday night with either sophomore Gaetano Vallone or junior David Fox playing every snap at quarterback.

But it was impossible to argue the duo’s effectiveness as they worked together to keep the Falcons ahead of a River Rouge comeback attempt led by another quarterback putting up near-record numbers.

Fox, the starter when the season began, and Vallone – who took over when Fox was lost with a shoulder injury in Week 3 – combined for 288 yards rushing and 106 passing as West Catholic held on for a third straight Finals win, 40-34, despite the heroics of Panthers senior signal-caller Antoine Burgess.

“We’re both athletic, we’re both physical and I guess Coach (Dan) Rohn says we’re playmakers, so we’re playmakers,” Vallone said. “It definitely helped because we’re both gamers, and that’s what it takes. With two of us back there … it really can spread things out and get them confused.”

The Finals appearance was West Catholic's fifth straight, but Vallone was among players who had significant impacts for the first time this fall.

Fox ran for 152 yards and three touchdowns from his “scat” quarterback position, while Vallone ran for 115 yards and threw for 84 and a score despite being limited by an ankle injury sustained during last weekend’s Semifinal win over Lansing Catholic.

Fox’s third touchdown run just 16 seconds into the second half gave West Catholic (12-2) a seemingly comfortable 21-6 lead.

But that would’ve counted River Rouge out far too early. 

Burgess brought the Panthers back within seven with a 63-yard touchdown pass to senior Aaron Vinson with 3:56 left in the third quarter, then responded to Vallone’s 9-yard scoring pass with a 1-yard touchdown run 1:06 into the fourth. 

The teams traded scores four more times, the last a 2-yard run by Burgess with four seconds to play. An onside kick was covered by the Falcons, denying Burgess one last chance at another deep toss to tie the score.

“I just told (my teammates) not to give up yet and play hard. It wasn’t over,” Burgess said. “Like I saw yesterday, King came back and won the (Division 2) game. I told them we could do that too. I continue to fight no matter what.” 

A few more key plays figured into the final score, notably a tackle for a safety by West Catholic senior Conner Nemmers with 7:15 to play, followed by a 31-yard field goal by sophomore Liam Putz that made the Falcons’ lead 12 with 4:13 left in regulation. And while it didn’t lead to a score directly, Fox’s 22-yard pass to senior Billy Kral on a fake punt helped the Falcons drain a few more seconds off the clock – and ended up setting up the safety when Fox drilled a 53-yard punt to the River Rouge 3-yard line five plays later.

For the game, Burgess threw for 354 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 70 yards and two scores – missing the MHSAA Finals record for total yardage by only two and approaching the record of 383 passing yards set by Detroit Martin Luther King’s Armani Posey in the Division 2 Final on Friday. 

But Burgess and his teammates made it a memorable night for a community that had six straight sub-.500 seasons before coach Corey Parker took over in 2009. The Panthers set a record for wins this fall in making the Finals for the first time and finishing 12-2.

“I think we’ve arrived, to a certain extent, in reference to the way my kids handled things,” said Parker, who has led his teams to a combined 40-7 record over the last four seasons. “To watch them manage this process, it tells me a lot about my guys and what we’ve developed as far as a foundation. 

“Most press writers thought they were going to bail us out 50-something to zip. But my guys looked at that opportunity and said hey, let’s see how good they really are.”

Burgess completed 13 of 19 passes, with Vinson grabbing four for 162 yards, sophomore Giovanni Turner catching four for 95 and a score and senior Ashawnti Howard pulling in three for 84 yards and a touchdown. Junior Aaron Hall caught West Catholic’s lone touchdown pass, and junior Sam Neville had the team’s final points on a 3-yard run with 1:27 to play. 

Fox, also a safety, led the Falcons with eight tackles, and senior lineman Carl Myers had seven. Sophomore safety Reggie Pearson had 10 for River Rouge, and senior defensive end Jamal Bonner also had seven.

West Catholic defeated three top-10 teams and a fourth that earned an honorable mention in the final statewide media poll to get back to Detroit, before downing River Rouge, another honorable mention. Not bad for a team that started 1-2, lost a starting quarterback and had another on a sore ankle the last two weeks. 

“We had a small senior class, and I think a lot of people doubted this group since they came in as one of our smallest classes in history. But for them to be here four years is pretty remarkable,” Rohn said. “All along we knew we had a tough early schedule. … We just said, let’s just stick to our guns. We’ve been 1-3 and 1-4 in recent years and we’ve still been able to make it back down here. So the kids buy into the scheme, continue to work hard and believe in the coaches. Because a lot of people would quit at 1-2. Not this group, not this community.”  

Click for the full box score.

The MHSAA Football Finals are sponsored by the Michigan National Guard.

PHOTOS: (Top) West Catholic’s David Fox (4) and Gaetano Vallone (6) celebrate a touchdown during Saturday’s Final. (Middle) River Rouge quarterback Antoine Burgess breaks away from a tackle.

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.)