After Slight Delay, Veteran Spring Lake Impresses in Long-Awaited Launch

By Tom Kendra
Special for

September 9, 2021

Spring Lake returned 17 starters and, understandably, couldn’t wait to get this season started.

But just as the Lakers were revving up their engine for takeoff, they were idled for another week.

Spring Lake picked up a forfeit victory in Week 1 after Muskegon Orchard View decided to not field a varsity team this fall, so the Lakers put in another week of practice and then unleashed all of their pent-up energy on Zeeland East last Thursday.

Christian Folkert rushed 11 times for 211 yards and four touchdowns as Spring Lake sprinted to a 42-0 halftime lead and then cruised to a convincing 56-21 nonleague victory.

“We were so excited and pumped,” said Folkert, a 5-foot-11, 195-pound senior. “We wanted to go out there and send a message and show everyone what we have this year.”

After the Lakers’ front line and Folkert established itself in the first quarter, senior quarterback Jackson Core (6-1, 170) did his thing in the second quarter, connecting on touchdown passes to senior Joe Westhoff and junior Derrick Paggeot.

Core finished 6-of-7 passing for 90 yards, and Paggeot had four catches for 71 yards. SL piled up 401 total rushing yards, with eight ball carriers.

The final score was a surprise to many throughout West Michigan, considering Zeeland East plays in the larger Ottawa-Kent Conference Green and has qualified for the playoffs 10 straight seasons. About the only people not surprised were Spring Lake’s 19 seniors, who are used to winning – and winning big.

Spring Lake footballThe Lakers’ senior class went undefeated in seventh grade, lost one game in eighth grade (to Hudsonville Unity Christian), then went unbeaten as freshmen and sophomores – despite having five of the best players from the class playing on the varsity as sophomores. Those five who were called up in 2019 were Folkert, twin brothers and linemen Travis and Hunter Throop, RJ Lisman (C/LB) and Ty French (H-back/DE).

“Our senior class is used to winning, and that gives us confidence,” explained Core, whose father, Bill, is Spring Lake’s longtime basketball and softball coach. “It’s not just a couple of us seniors, we have a lot guys who can play and push each other. I guess that’s why we’re so excited for this season.”

Spring Lake broke through last season and beat Fremont (48-0) in a Division 4 District opener, snapping a 12-game playoff losing streak dating back to 2001, before falling to Ada Forest Hills Eastern (28-21) in the District Semifinal.

The bulk of that 5-3 team is back, led by Folkert, who combines size and speed – and now another intangible, according to sixth-year Lakers coach Dan Start.

“In the past, Christian was more of a battering ram who ran people over,” explained Start, a former player at Grandville, who coached football in Florida before taking the Spring Lake job in 2016. “He can still do that, for sure, but he’s learned how to make them miss, too. His change of direction and vision is much-improved.”

Folkert is also a leader of the Lakers’ 4-2-5 defensive look from his defensive end position. With Folkert and French setting the edge at the two defensive end spots and the Throop brothers plugging up the middle, Zeeland East was unable to run the ball.

Spring Lake begins league play in the rugged O-K Blue this week at Holland Christian. The real test comes over the final four weeks of the conference season at home against Hudsonville Unity Christian and Coopersville, at Grand Rapids West Catholic and at home against Allendale – all of whom are 2-0 thus far.

“We’ve only won one game, so we obviously have a long way to go,” said Folkert, who also gave a shout out to his school’s student section, which was loud and raucous for the Zeeland East game, clad in matching black shirts. “You never know what is going to happen. We have a lot of good players, but we have to go out there and ball and get it done. I mean, everyone said we were going to lose to Zeeland East and that didn’t happen.”

Spring Lake footballSpring Lake has had two undefeated teams during the playoff era, in 1980 and 1982, but neither qualified for the playoffs – which at that time included just 32 teams in the entire state, broken into four classes. The 1982 team was a particularly hard-luck story, posting eight shutouts in nine games and outscoring its opponents by a combined score of 266-6.

The Lakers’ best playoff run came in 2000, when they made it all the way to the Division 5 championship game at the Pontiac Silverdome, losing to Jackson Lumen Christi, 42-15.

Spring Lake reached the second round the following year, but before last fall, the Lakers went “one and done” in the playoffs 11 straight times.

After snapping that skid, this year’s senior-laden Lakers squad is focused on making a long playoff run.

Spring Lake is the largest school in Division 4 with 825 students, which means many of its conference opponents could become early-round playoff foes as well.

“First off, we do play in a very difficult conference,” said Start, whose assistants include offensive coordinator Kyle Jewett and defensive coordinator Aaron West. “So we feel like if we can do well in our conference, then we can do well in the playoffs.

“But honestly, that is so far away. Our goal right now is to get one percent better every day. If we actually do that, the results will take care of themselves.”

Tom 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) Spring Lake senior running back Christian Folkert breaks through a huge hole on a 57-yard touchdown run in the first quarter of the Lakers' 56-21 win over visiting Zeeland East on Sept. 3. Joe Westhoff (24) and Hunter Throop (77) provide additional blocking for Folkert, who finished with 11 carries for 211 yards and four touchdowns. (Middle) Spring Lake senior quarterback Jackson Core launches a pass during his team's win over Zeeland East. He completed 6-of-7 passes for 90 yards and two touchdowns. (Below) Spring Lake coach Dan Start, now in his sixth season, addresses his team before the start of last Thursday’s game. (Photos by Kelly Gates.)

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.)