MASON – The drone lightly buzzing overhead during the final hour of Mason’s first practice was providing coaches another point of view as another season got underway Monday evening.
But those shouldn’t be the only eyes watching the Bulldogs these days.
Two years ago, the Bulldogs started grabbing attention with a run of eight straight wins that landed them a first Regional championship with a stunning 20-17 win over frequent contender Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice.
A statewide audience began focusing in last season on the 8,200-resident town just south of Lansing as Mason returned to the Division 3 Semifinals and finished 12-1, setting a school record for wins with the only loss coming to eventual champion Detroit Martin Luther King for the second-consecutive season.
The Bulldogs return nine starters on offense and eight on defense this fall, led in part by two four-year varsity players and three in their third seasons on the top squad. Not tuning in would be a mistake – and mean missing out on potentially another historic effort.
“It started when we beat the Brother Rice team two seasons ago. That kinda kicked off a little bit of a spark for us here at Mason, and the energy just became the difference,” said senior lineman Nick Saade, one of those three-year varsity standouts. “You could just tell. All of our coaches have been at the weight room every day, giving us harder workouts as each year progresses. We’ve increased everything. The energy is there, all the seniors are back. We’re ready to go.”
Practices in nine sports started for an estimated 95,000 athletes across 750 MHSAA member high schools Monday. And Mason football got a running start. On what felt like the most comfortable first day of practice weather-wise in recent memory, there was no sign the Bulldogs were aiming to sit comfortably after what they’d accomplished the last two seasons.
So many experienced returnees means less to teach the greater group and an opportunity for coaches to start game-planning and focusing on details they might not get to usually until the first third of the season is done.
The program has had plenty of success over the years, including a stretch of 14 winning seasons over 15 from 2002-16. But the combined 39-6 record over the last four seasons is unmatched in Bulldogs history and made Mason a place to be for local media Monday as expectations – and anticipation – likely have never been higher.
“Expectations are high, no question about it – and it’s exciting,” said seventh-year coach Gary Houghton, whose only sub-.500 finish came his first season in 2017. “These guys love a challenge, our coaches love a challenge. … We feel like we have a blueprint that leads to success, and we’re going to stay to that blueprint.
“We’ve tweaked some little things, but the core of what we do, we’re going to continue to do. With the added experience we have coming back, I think we have an opportunity to take it to another level.”
Mason took a solid offense to nearly unstoppable last season, upping its per-game scoring average 12 points to 43 per game. Junior Cason Carswell should begin approaching Mason career passing records in his third season as the starter after setting single-season school records with 2,403 yards and 34 scores through the air last fall in making the Division 3-4 all-state second team.
The Bulldogs return all but one receiver among last year’s starting skill players, with senior running back AJ Martel entering his fourth season on varsity after running for 1,273 yards and 20 scores a year ago behind a line that returns Saade among three starters.
The defense was two points better per game last fall than in 2021 while facing another tough playoff slate, giving up 15 points per game. The entire linebacking group returns, with senior Kaleb Parrish having been named the Lansing State Journal Defensive Player of the Year last season. Senior Derek Badgley and junior Logan Doerr also received postseason all-area recognition at linebacker, as did seniors Tyler Baker and Cole Ries in the defensive backfield and senior Grant Gilchrist and junior Sam Corey up front. Junior Collin Winters, also a soccer player, was an all-area kicker last fall.
The energy Monday was undeniable. Houghton loves the chemistry this group has developed over the last three seasons, starting as a young team grew together during that 2021 run. He credits rebuilding the program’s culture, undertaken in several ways purposefully, as putting this team in this position to put the last two years of experiences and learning toward another championship opportunity.
“Just stay confident. Know you can get the job done. Just trust your teammates,” Carswell said he has learned most.
“We all have huge hopes. A couple of years ago, it was like, ‘Let’s make the playoffs. Let’s make a big run.” Now it’s let’s go for it all.”
Geoff Kimmerly joined the MHSAA in Sept. 2011 after 12 years as Prep Sports Editor of the Lansing State Journal. He is a senior editor of MHSAA.com's editorial content and has served as MHSAA Communications Director since January 2021. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Barry, Eaton, Ingham, Livingston, Ionia, Clinton, Shiawassee, Gratiot, Isabella, Clare and Montcalm counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Linemen work on one-on-one drills during Mason’s first football practice Monday evening. (Middle) Third-year starting quarterback Cason Carswell lines up under center. (Photos by Geoff Kimmerly.)
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.)