DETROIT – To the casual observer, Grand Rapids Catholic Central’s fifth MHSAA football title in six years may seem a little ho-hum.
Don’t tell that to John Passinault. This one was special – way different than what he may have envisioned at the start of the season.
The senior quarterback connected with Notre Dame commit Nolan Ziegler on a pair of second-half touchdown passes, and the GRCC defense did the rest in a 31-7 victory over Marine City in the Division 5 Final on Saturday at Ford Field.
Joey Silveri, GRCC’s three-year starting QB, suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 4. That’s when Passinault, a 6-foot, 180-pound converted receiver, switched to the signal-caller position. Passinault picked up where Silveri left off and helped lead the Cougars to a second-straight Division 5 title, their sixth championship in the last dozen years and seventh overall.
“Well, it’s surreal. Before the season, if you would have told me this was going to happen, I would have told you you’re crazy,” said Passinault, who finished the game 15-of-28 passing for 221 yards with one interception.
“A bad thing happened to a really good kid, Joey Silveri, and that’s just the mindset of the team to step in where it’s needed. I went from wide receiver to quarterback and it’s pretty easy to do that when I have guys around me like Nolan, Ronin Russell-Dixon, Devin Fridley-Bell, Luke Kuzner, Jack Rellinger. I have all those guys around me, it’s easy to step into that role and just settle in.”
GRCC (14-0) completed its third perfect season in the last five years, but Marine City (13-1) made the Cougars work for it for the better part of three quarters Saturday.
GRCC led 10-0 in the second quarter after a 29-yard field goal by junior John Meyer and a 2-yard TD run by Rellinger, a senior. Marine City hung in there, however, and pulled within 10-7 on junior QB Jeff Heaslip’s 3-yard scoring pass to senior Charles Tigert with a little more than three minutes left in the half.
The score remained that way until the closing seconds of the third quarter. Ziegler, a 6-4, 210-pound receiver and linebacker, caught a pass over the middle from Passinault, turned the corner and raced down the sideline for a 59-yard scoring play.
That seemed to ignite the Cougars’ offense a bit.
“My team, they blocked well, it was a great pass by John,” Ziegler said. “We were just kind of playing backyard football out there honestly, and we just got things going. I got a good block from the receivers, and I just got down and got it in.”
The Passinault-to-Ziegler connection struck again four minutes later, this time on a 17-yard TD play, as the Cougars began to pull away. Ziegler finished with seven receptions for 136 yards, plus he notched a game-high 13 tackles in displaying his Power Five college football credentials.
Senior linebacker Jack Klafeta put the exclamation point on the victory for GRCC with a 34-yard scoop-and-score midway through the fourth quarter. Klafeta notched nine tackles, as did junior Jack Cook.
“Just their athleticism all over the field, their physicality up front, made things very difficult,” said Marine City coach Daryn Letson, whose team allowed no more than 14 points in a single game this season prior to Saturday.
“You know, our defense played their hearts out. I think our whole team played their hearts out,” Letson said. “You know, they have those kids and we just weren’t able to do enough offensively when we needed to.”
GRCC finished with a narrow edge in total offense, 228-215. The Mariners outrushed the Cougars, 77-7.
Heaslip was 14-of-22 passing for 138 yards. Senior Wyatt Walker led Marine City defensively with nine tackles.
This was the sixth state title in 10 seasons overall for GRCC coach Todd Kolster, who is now 112-12 at the Cougars’ helm. They also won titles under him in 2010, 2016, 2017, 2019 and 2020. GRCC’s first came in 1987.
Kolster said the Cougars made great strides from the start of this season.
“It’s a pretty surreal thing for these guys up here – just unbelievably proud of them for so much that they’ve accomplished this year,” he said. “This team probably has come as far as any football team in a season that I’ve coached.
“Just coming together, learning what it takes, getting experience, understanding each other, fighting, competing. That’s a process and we were far, far away with them at the beginning of the season. To come here and be able to get this done, the credit goes 100 percent to our seniors.”
It was an emotional farewell for Passinault. He carried on the strong QB play provided by Silveri, who is a college prospect and led the Cougars to Finals titles in 2019 and 2020.
As a passer, Passinault proved more than capable in his own right. He threw for 2,307 yards and 37 TDs this season.
“This is it. That will probably be the last time I ever play football, so it’s just crazy to think that that’s the last time I’ll play specifically with these people,” Passinault said. “ … It’s just crazy. As a kid, you just dream about this. And to have it happen, it’s just a surreal feeling – and having dreams come true, it’s crazy.”
PHOTOS (Top) Grand Rapids Catholic Central’s Will Smith (73) hoists teammate Nolan Ziegler as they celebrate during Friday’s Division 5 championship win. (Middle) A host of GRCC and Marine City players stack up to a standstill. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)
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.)