By Doug Donnelly
Special for Second Half
ADRIAN – It’s always fun to be first.
Tonight, when the Division 6 football game between Adrian Madison and Quincy ends, one of the two teams will walk off the field by enjoying its first-ever playoff win.
For the Madison Trojans, it’s been a dream season. As they get set to host their first playoff game in school history, however, the team isn’t just resting on its 5-1 record and best season since 1974.
“We’re certainly not just happy being in the playoffs,” said head coach Taz Wallace. “We’re going to enjoy it, but it’s time to get to work.”
Madison is making just its third football playoff trip ever, and first since 2009. But the school certainly is familiar with athletic success, across a variety of sports.
The track & field teams both have long Tri-County Conference winning streaks. In fact, the current senior class of boys was in grade school the last time Madison wasn’t the TCC track champion. The boys basketball team won three league titles between 2013 and 2016 and contended almost every year since. The volleyball team won its fifth-straight league title this fall. The golf teams have won multiple titles. Madison’s girls basketball team is the perennial league favorite having won eight titles over the last nine seasons.
Football success, however, has eluded the school. The last winning record for the Trojans was 6-4 by that 2009 playoff team. They’ve sent multiple players into the college ranks the last couple of years, but a winning record on the field just hasn’t been in the cards.
This year, something is different. Wallace says the Trojans are playing for each other like never before.
“They’ve always had the ability,” Wallace said. “The difference is they believe in themselves. They hold each other accountable.”
The season started when Madison beat Ottawa Lake Whiteford, a Division 8 powerhouse in recent years. Madison won 42-24, breaking a string of losses against the Bobcats that dated back to 1980. It was a monumental win for the program.
“It was huge for our kids,” Wallace said. “To go out and win that game started all of it. In that moment, our kids realized they could play at that level.”
Although Madison lost in Week 2 to still-undefeated Erie Mason, the Trojans have won four straight games since to finish 5-1 and earn the No. 3 seed in their Division 6 District.
“For us, it doesn’t change,” said Wallace. “It’s about our kids and how we execute. We need to keep getting better.”
Madison’s done it this season with a superior ground game. Three Madison backs have run for at least 200 yards in a game. Rovahn Roberts is averaging an amazing 23.5 yards per carry with 446 yards in just 19 attempts. Dante Cerasuolo was leading Lenawee County in rushing at one point before hurting his foot. Now, Isiah Casarez-Ruiz leads the team in rushing and is second in the county.
Sophomore center Xavier Soss, senior guard Robert Gauna and senior tackle Davion Wheeler have led the Trojans up front.
“Davion is our energy guy,” Wallace said. “He plays with great emotion. They all feed off each other.”
End Marcel Theriot, linebacker Vince Williams and the electric Roberts lead the Trojans on the defensive side of the ball.
Wallace is a Madison graduate, having moved to Adrian from Tuscaloosa, Ala., while in high school. He was a multi-sport athlete at Madison and went to Adrian College, where he grew into an All-American linebacker. After four outstanding seasons with the Bulldogs, he earned a tryout with the Detroit Lions as an undrafted rookie free agent and survived several cuts before ultimately his NFL dream ended.
He is the student success coach at Madison and in his ninth season as varsity football coach. In August, Wallace announced he was stepping down as head coach saying he felt it was just time. When the MHSAA announced football was going to re-start in September, school officials went to Wallace and asked that he stay on for the season.
This season, the hard work has paid off and Wallace has Madison on the brink of its best-ever finish.
“It’s never been about me,” Wallace said. “I love all of these kids. It’s about them. As soon as I was back, it was all-in. There’s no other way to approach it.
“I love our kids like they are my own. Once I came back, I gave these kids everything I had. There’s no other way to do it. I love these kids. They deserve the best.”
Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Adrian Madison coach Taz Wallace, far left, confers with Ryan Fisher (58) and Mario Garcia (27). (Middle) Wallace this fall has led the Trojans to their best football season in more than a decade. (Photos by Mike Dickie.)
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.)