DETROIT – Orchard Lake St. Mary’s has been bitten before by teams that made last-second winning plays.
This time St. Mary’s bit back.
Ky’ren Cunningham’s 18-yard touchdown reception with four seconds left gave the Eaglets a thrilling 29-28 victory over Muskegon in the Division 3 Final on Saturday at Ford Field.
St. Mary’s (10-4) began its last drive on its 20-yard line with 1:55 left. A pass interference penalty by Muskegon and Rashawn Allen’s 22-yard run placed the Eaglets in a good position to go for the winning score.
On 3rd-and-3 from the 22, quarterback Caden Prieskorn scrambled for four yards and a first down. An incomplete pass preceded the winning score.
“It was a pistol right,” Prieskorn said. “All we knew was we were going to have man-on-man coverage.”
Make no mistake. This was desperation, and it was a makeshift play. Cunningham is a starting running back. The last time he lined up as a receiver was in the first game this season against Macomb Dakota. Coach George Porritt ditched that plan afterward. Cunningham would stay in the backfield.
But not this time. St. Mary’s had five wideouts and to confuse matters more, Cunningham went to the slot, then switched spots with Clay Antishin, with Antishin moving inside.
“I play running back,” said Cunningham, a junior. “It was one-on-one and the safety didn’t come over the top. Caden just threw it. He just made the read.
“My body felt so weak (when I caught it). I don’t remember much.”
If Cunningham was stunned, Muskegon was more so.
The only loss the Big Reds (12-2) had this season was to a team from Illinois (Lincolnshire Stevenson). They rolled through the playoffs with their Semifinal game against Edwardsburg (19-8) the only close one.
“I just didn’t do a good enough job of teaching coverage,” Muskegon coach Shane Fairfield said.
“People say we can’t win the big one," he added. "We won a lot of big games to get here. The football game doesn’t define you. It’s what you do and the way you act afterwards that defines you.”
It was Muskegon’s fourth loss in a Final since winning its last title in 2008. Meanwhile, the championship was St. Mary’s third straight and eighth overall.
Muskegon took a 21-20 lead on its second possession of the second half. It took the Big Reds 1:48 to go 50 yards with senior quarterback/running back Kalil Pimpleton going the final 18 to give Muskegon the lead with 11:21 remaining.
St. Mary’s then went on one of its patented long, time-consuming drives to retake the lead. The Eaglets took 12 plays to go 47 yards, and Ben Fee set an MHSAA Finals record with a 49-yard field goal to give his team a short-lived 23-21 lead with 4:47 left.
Clinton Jefferson, Jr., returned the ensuing kickoff 49 yards to midfield to give the Big Reds great field position, and they made it count. Jefferson carried five times on the drive for 32 yards, including the last three for a touchdown with 1:55 left.
As it turned out, that was too much time to leave for St. Mary’s.
“Cade made some big throws against DeWitt (in a Regional Final),” St. Mary’s coach George Porritt said. “What amazes me is we were 5-4 at one point, and we battled back.”
St. Mary’s is the fifth team to win an MHSAA football title having lost four games.
Muskegon led 14-13 at the end of an entertaining first half.
The Big Reds went 70 yards during the opening drive and took a 7-0 lead on Pimpleton’s 18-yard touchdown run. Pimpleton’s 27-yard pass to Jefferson helped set up the score.
St. Mary’s then went 69 yards, but its drive stalled and Fee kicked a 32-yard field goal.
La’darius Jefferson took over at quarterback for Pimpleton in the second quarter, and Muskegon increased its lead to 14-3 as Jefferson completed an 80-yard drive with a 2-yard touchdown run. He carried five times on the drive for 25 yards. His 54-yard pass to Pimpleton was the key play.
After another Fee field goal, Muskegon had possession late in the half. But on 3rd-and-9 Jefferson handed off to Pimpleton, who threw a halfback pass that was intercepted by Shermond Dabney, who returned it 30 yards to the Muskegon 30. On St. Mary’s 3rd-and-9, Prieskorn threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Antishin, who made a diving catch in the end zone with 35 seconds left before the break.
Allen was a workhorse in the backfield, and ran with determination. A junior, he rushed for 136 yards on 25 carries, and Cunningham had 15 carries for 46 yards. Prieskorn was 13 of 21 passing for 200 yards and two touchdowns.
For Muskegon, Pimpleton had three receptions for 88 yards, was 3 of 4 passing for 58 and rushed nine times for 56 yards and two touchdowns.
The MHSAA Football Finals are sponsored by the Michigan National Guard.
PHOTOS: (Top) St. Mary’s Ky’ren Cunningham (12) celebrates his game-winning touchdown. (Middle) Muskegon’s La’darius Jefferson breaks around his blocker Saturday.
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.)