Resilient, 'Grounded' North Muskegon Building on 2022 Breakout with Superb Start

By Tom Kendra
Special for

September 7, 2023

To appreciate Landon Christiansen’s euphoria Thursday night, you have to understand the depths of his despair last fall.

West MichiganNorth Muskegon enjoyed a breakout football season in 2022 – going unbeaten in conference play to win the West Michigan Conference Rivers title – but Christensen missed almost all of it with a knee injury.

But he has returned with a vengeance, leading the Norse to a 2-0 start, hauling in six passes for 260 yards and four touchdowns in a 41-21 win at Muskegon Catholic Central last week.

“I felt like I was due for something good to happen,” said Christensen, a 6-foot, 170-pound senior. “That game kind of made up for last season, in a way. It was such a great feeling.”

North Muskegon (2-0), which is in Division 7, is no longer flying under the radar after back-to-back wins over state powerhouses – a thrilling, 17-14 win in the opener against Pewamo-Westphalia and then the air show at MCC.

The leader of the Norse is junior James Young (6-3, 195), a third-year starter with a Division I college arm and pocket presence.

North Muskegon coach Larry Witham said after Thursday’s big win at MCC that he has given Young “the keys to the kingdom” – referring to the dizzying number of playmakers he has all around him.

While Christensen was the man against MCC – scoring on touchdown passes of 59, 32, 12 and 78 yards – in future games the leading role could go to junior wideout TJ Byard, senior slot Alec Newville, senior running back Ben Meyers or junior H-back Drew Bartos.

“I have a lot of skill guys to throw to, and the chemistry is great,” said Young, who completed 70 percent of his passes for 2,022 yards and 26 touchdowns in nine games last season. “We’ve been playing together since we were little kids.”

That special bond was apparent from the emotion displayed by Young and other teammates after Christensen’s return to glory Thursday.

North Muskegon senior receiver Landon Christensen hauls in a pass during last week's win. He caught six for 260 yards, including TD receptions of 59, 32, 12 and 78 yards. “Getting him the ball and then watching him do his thing was honestly very emotional for me and a lot of the guys on the team,” said Young, who was near perfect against MCC, finishing 19-of-20 for 391 yards and four touchdowns.

Witham said this year’s 26-member Norsemen team is incredibly humble, unselfish and grounded – characteristics that could be attributed to the injuries and health issues the team has endured.

Christensen was just one of many injured players for the Norsemen last season, joined by leading rusher Denny Belmonte (knee) and Young, who had a torn labrum which required surgery after the season.

The team also has dealt with more serious life-threatening issues, with Tate Pannucci and Ethan Bates battling cancer (Pannucci has returned to the field) and senior Mitchel Peterson hospitalized much of last season with blood clots.

“These kids are very grounded, and they keep each other in check,” Witham said.

North Muskegon starts WMC Rivers play this week at Mason County Central.

While the Norse broke through with an 8-1 regular season last year, the playoffs haven’t been kind. NM hasn’t advanced out of Districts since 2006, when it lost to Saginaw Swan Valley in a Division 5 Regional Final. The Norse were eliminated by Pewamo-Westphalia in 2019 and 2020, then lost low-scoring Pre-District games to Ravenna the past two years.

Witham said his team learned valuable lessons during those losses.

“We know that we have to be balanced and have to be able to run the football,” said Witham, a 1980 North Muskegon graduate who is in his eighth year as head coach. “Wintertime approaches early in the state of Michigan. We are not going to live and die throwing the football when it’s 32 degrees and snowing.”

With those early playoff exits in mind, Christensen and his teammates are putting in extra practice time on a daily basis.

“None of us are comparing stats,” said Christensen. “We all have different strengths, and that’s what makes it hard for teams to guard us. We just want to win games and make it as far as we can.”

Tom KendraTom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.

PHOTOS (Top) North Muskegon junior quarterback James Young drops back to pass at Muskegon Catholic Central on Aug. 31. Young completed 19-of-20 passes for 390 yards and four touchdowns in the Norsemen's 41-21 victory. (Middle) North Muskegon senior receiver Landon Christensen hauls in a pass during last week's win. He caught six for 260 yards, including TD receptions of 59, 32, 12 and 78 yards. (Photos by Mike Banka.)

Inspired by Dad's Memory, Lawrence's Vasquez Emerges After Family Losses

By Pam Shebest
Special for

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.)