Talented QB, Veteran Lineup Elevating Churchill Into League, D2 Challenger

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

September 22, 2021

The first item on the docket when one assesses the first half of the season for the Livonia Churchill football team is its 28-21 victory over Belleville on Sept. 10.

But turn back the pages and you'll find the success coach Bill DeFillippo and his Chargers are experiencing began during the pre-pandemic season of 2019.

Churchill (4-0) is expected to be tested again Friday when it travels to Dearborn High (3-1) in a Kensington Lakes Activities Association East game. Dearborn's loss was to Belleville (49-0). Churchill is tied with Dearborn Fordson (4-0) for first place at 3-0 in the East. Belleville (3-1) and Dearborn are a game back.

Two years ago DeFillippo started eight sophomores on a team that lost to Belleville 35-14 and finished 7-5 after a 1-4 start. Churchill was 6-3 during last year's COVID-shortened season, and expectations were high heading into this fall – especially with the return of quarterback Taj Williams.

Considered one of the top offensive-minded coaches in the Detroit area, DeFillippo is in his ninth season as Churchill's head coach. The previous five seasons he was the program's offensive coordinator under coach John Filiatraut. DeFillippo cut his teeth as the offensive coordinator at Ann Arbor Huron (1990-99) under coach Paul Verska. The 1997 Huron team reached the MHSAA Class AA Final before losing to Detroit Catholic Central, 23-7.

DeFillippo continues to run the offense, and his specialty is working with quarterbacks. With Williams, he has another in a long line of talented ones.

Beginning with Seth Suda in 2011, DeFillippo coached five quarterbacks who went on to play in college (one, Drew Alsobrooks, is on the Central Michigan baseball roster). Williams is quite possibly headed toward becoming his sixth.

Williams started a few games as a sophomore at Churchill. Before his junior season, his family followed a job move to Stockbridge, Ga., (Stockbridge High School), where Williams started three games before suffering a broken collarbone.

He's recovered well from that injury and has shown improvement in his return to Churchill, particularly in the passing game. Simply, Williams makes the offense go.

Livonia Churchill footballAt 5-foot-11 and 205 pounds, Williams has always been a strong runner. This season he's become a true dual threat throwing for 10 touchdowns and just one interception. He's also rushed for three touchdowns, and his completion success is a tad under 70 percent.

In addition to his growth physically, Williams is playing with a chip on his shoulder. As a freshman he attended Belleville, where he was a starter on the junior varsity before transferring to Churchill. There were those who muttered that Williams feared the competition he faced at Belleville, and thus the transfer. The truth is, his family simply moved to Livonia.

“I have a lot to prove to a lot of people,” Williams said. “People doubted me. (People) said I left Belleville because I wouldn't play there.”

Williams owes his development to a handful of coaches, DeFillippo obviously included. Williams also credits his Stockbridge coach for assisting in his improvement as a pocket passer. Then there's Terrance Williams, Taj's uncle, who's the running backs coach at Churchill and has served as another mentor.

On a day-to-day basis, at practice or at home, Williams confides in DeFillippo. Take a Saturday afternoon for example. Both will be at their homes watching a college game, and they'll compare notes as to what type of offense a particular team is running. One will see a play work, and that'll start a conversation on what they can do to expand Churchill’s offense.

“(DeFillippo) has been very helpful,” Williams said. “He teaches me about the game. He breaks it down – how to learn my progressions.”

DeFillippo's shotgun spread scheme features Williams and his versatility, but there's much more to this offense that's averaging 42 points per game. Running back Boston Clegg is one of eight three-year starters, and his power running style allows Williams room to maneuver on the perimeter. Clegg started at linebacker his sophomore and junior seasons, but DeFillippo has limited his play on defense this season to keep him fresh on offense.

Josh Brown and Bailey Brooks have big-play potential at the receiver spot. The left side of the offensive line is anchored by tackle Matt Landis (6-4, 240) and guard Lawrence Nash-Martin (6-3, 285).

The defense allowed 54 points over the first two games, but has played well since. The line is loaded with experience as Demarius Gibson-Wells (DT), Kameron Balhorn (DE) and VJ Ragland (DE) are all three-year starters. Brown starts at cornerback and also returns kicks.

There are no big-time college recruits in the mix, but many of the seniors are being recruited by Division II and FCS schools.

“We have a lot of very good high school players,” said DeFillippo, a teacher in the Livonia school system since 1994. “We're a blue-collar community. We have a lot of kids who need football and love the sport.”

Churchill is ranked No. 2 in Division 2 according to the latest Associated Press poll, and DeFillippo is quick to point out that two KLAA East teams – Belleville and Fordson – are ranked in the top 10 in Division 1.

Belleville (3-1) remains the measuring stick for teams in the KLAA. The Tigers reached the MHSAA Division 1 Semifinals both of the past two seasons, losing to eventual champ West Bloomfield 35-34 in double overtime to cap last year’s extended run.

“It's (was) our fourth time playing them since they entered the KLAA four years ago,” DeFillippo said of this season’s Belleville win. “The first time we led at halftime, then lost. They jumped us in 2019 when we had all those sophomores and it was 21-14 in the fourth quarter last season.

“We have played them as well as anyone in our league. We gained a lot of confidence with that win. We executed, and our players played out of their minds.

“We know we have the target on our backs after that.”

After this week, Churchill has Livonia Franklin, Fordson and Livonia Stevenson left to play in the division before ending the regular season with a KLAA crossover. As the smallest school by enrollment in the KLAA and one of two teams (Franklin is the other) that does not compete in Division 1, Churchill is sure to benefit from the tough schedule as it prepares for the postseason.

Tom Markowski primarily covered high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. He also is a former correspondent and web content director for State Champs! Sports Network. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Taj Williams (7) and his Churchill teammates take the field this season. (Middle) Williams’ return to the field this fall has been a big part of his team’s 4-0 start. (Photos courtesy of the Livonia Churchill football program.)

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.)