Aaron Klama sat in the stands in 2008 watching his brothers play for Ubly in the Division 7 championship game at Ford Field.
Klama was 10, and Ubly was at the peak of the strongest decade in program history. Even though his brothers and their teammates lost against Traverse City St. Francis, Klama remembers wanting to be like them. Wanting to have the same opportunity to play on that field.
There’s plenty of work for Klama and his Ubly teammates left to do, but after some rough years for the program, the Bearcats are 11-0 and two wins from getting back to the pinnacle of high school football in Michigan.
“I feel like it’s amazing just being able to possibly be in the same shoes as my brothers,” Klama, a senior offensive and defensive tackle for Ubly, said. “Hopefully I’ll be able to push my team further than they even went. But everything has just been amazing this year.”
Ubly is in the middle of its best season since 2010. It will play at 1 p.m. Saturday against New Lothrop at Chesaning High School in a Division 7 Regional Final. A win sends the Bearcats to the Semifinals for the first time since 2009 and the fifth time in school history. All four of the previous trips came between 2003 and 2009, during a 12-year playoff streak for Ubly that stretched through 2012.
That streak ended in 2013, when the current seniors were freshmen. Ubly was 3-6 during both the 2013 and 2014 seasons.
“We had a couple years where numbers were really down,” Ubly coach Dave Kaufman, who took over the program in 2011, said. “In (2013 and 2014), we were playing with 14 to 16 kids. We had some small senior classes.
“It was tough. We’re used to being in the 20s, and the first couple years our numbers were pretty good. We had some small senior classes, and the injury bug kicked our butt, too. When you’re down in numbers as it is, that’s when you’re starting to bring up freshmen and sophomores.”
That included running back Derek Brown, who started as a freshman for the Bearcats and has rushed for 1,000 yards in each of his four seasons. It included Klama, running back and defensive back Nate Keller and several others who were playing at the varsity level as sophomores.
As much as it may have hurt at the time, getting that experience is paying dividends now.
“I think (having players play as underclassmen) helped,” Kaufman said. “I think it also helps that we have a really good senior group. Some of these kids have been playing for three or four years, and that definitely helps.”
In 2015, Ubly was back in the postseason, finishing the year 7-3 and turning the program back in the right direction. What happened between the end of that season and the beginning of this one is what Ubly’s players credit for their current success.
“Everybody was in the weight room all winter, and everybody wants to win on the team,” Keller said. “We didn’t just have two guys in the weight room; it was 15 or 16 guys in there, busting their butts.
“We had guys that would be telling everybody to get into the weight room, because we want to win more than anybody. We had a few leaders that told everybody to get in there.”
After struggling as underclassmen, turning things around in 2015 and setting the tone with a strong offseason prior to this fall, Ubly had high hopes entering its Week 1 game against a tough Unionville-Sebewaing opponent.
Then the Bearcats fumbled on their first offensive play.
“It was kind of like, ‘We can only go up from here, I guess,’” Keller said. “I think that just fueled the fire. We were ready to play from there.”
Ubly responded, and won 28-18, showing its coach something in the process.
“That could have went the wrong way there,” Kaufman said. “That told me a lot about my team right there.”
His team showed him more in a 21-16 win against Cass City, a game in which the Bearcats trailed during the second half. A 54-34 win against Vassar had Ubly sitting at 3-0 after a stretch Kaufman said he would have been happy to finish 2-1.
Ubly rolled through the Greater Thumb Conference East, outscoring opponents by an average of 37.4 points per game. It has picked up playoff wins against Elkton-Pigeon-Bay Port and Unionville-Sebewaing, setting itself up for the matchup with a tough New Lothrop team.
Ubly is back where it expects to be, and it has done it the same way it did during the 2000s, by wearing on its opponents with a strong run game out of the T-formation and a strong defense.
Ubly has rushed for 3,500 yards and 51 touchdowns this season, taking advantage of an offensive line (including tight ends) that features five seniors. Brown has led the way with 1,188 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground, while senior Jonathon Brandel has 861 yards and 14 touchdowns -- adding four receiving scores plus two interception returns and one punt return for touchdowns. Keller and junior quarterback Matt Maikzrek have combined for nearly 1,000 yards and 14 more rushing touchdowns.
“We have no problem chugging away, eating up clock,” Kaufman said. “When teams haven’t faced (the T-formation) in a little bit, they struggle a little bit with the keys. We try to hide the football as well as we can, and we’re happy getting three, four or five yards a crack. There’s not a better defense than an offense that stays on the field.”
Ubly’s offense is a lot like its attitude through the rough times – just keep moving forward.
“As we walk through the locker room every day, we have a little billboard that says, ‘Those who stay will become champions,’” Klama said. “We slap it on the way out. The coaches even told us that if we stay and work hard, we weren’t going to regret it. They always taught us about loyalty and determination.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Ubly's Casey Sweeney breaks through a pack against Unionville-Sebewaing this season. (Middle) Jonathan Brandel carries the ball for the Bearcats. (Photos courtesy of the Ubly yearbook staff.)
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.)