The year was 1989, and Dutch Essenberg was a freshman at Ellsworth High School. Playing football simply was not an option.
His Lancers hadn’t fielded a team in years.
Little did he know that he would get the opportunity to play football his junior and senior years thanks to the vision of Hugh Campbell and Denny YoungeDyke.
Campbell, a renowned community member of Ellsworth, and YoungeDyke, then the football coach at Central Lake, started discussing a co-operative agreement between the two schools – located just seven miles apart – about the time Essenberg was entering high school.
Also at that time, Jack Roberts became the MHSAA’s executive director, a post he held for 32 years. If you ask Campbell, Roberts got there just in time. Roberts is credited with developing plans for smaller schools to sponsor cooperative teams, and his legacy also includes being a champion of 8-player football.
The co-op produced great results immediately. The Trojans went undefeated the first year and suffered only two losses the second.
Today, without a co-op and the 8-player format, student-athletes at Ellsworth and Central Lake would not be playing high school football.
That’s something of which Daryl Purdy is extremely aware. He was a senior lineman at Central Lake when the schools started playing football together in 1991. Today his son Garrett is a senior at Central Lake playing for the Central Lake/Ellsworth Trojans. And, Daryl serves as assistant coach for the team.
The Trojans share the honor of the longest-running football co-op in Michigan history with Manistee Catholic Central/Mason County Eastern, which also participates in 8-player. Central Lake/Ellsworth moved to 8-player in 2017, and immediate captured the Division 1 championship.
The Trojans are hosting Homecoming and Bellaire, a big rival, tonight on the gridiron.
“Without the co-op today, we would not have football in Central Lake - period,” Daryl Purdy pointed out. “Even with the two schools combined, we have to go 8-man to be competitive.
“As much as it meant to me to play football, it means even more to me to watch my son play and be able to help assistant coach … and be there with him and share the experience with him — it is just mind-blowing to me.”
The co-op is extra special for Garrett, knowing his Dad played on the first team and competed against the Lancers in other sports right after.
“It is special, that’s for sure,” the senior center and nose guard said. “I am pretty good friends with everyone from Ellsworth.
“We all have a bond that lasts after football season too,” he continued. “We are still a family after football.”
Purdy, the coach, agrees.
“That’s what amazes me the most … the kids even then and today,” he said. “We are a family and friends during football season.
“And then we go turn back to warriors again during basketball and baseball season,” he added. “It also makes it more special and even more competitive.”
YoungeDyke, now retired, coached 17 years total at Central Lake. He was assisted in the successful co-op launch by Campbell, then the Lancers’ basketball coach and now president of the Ellsworth village council.
YoungeDyke cites Campbell as the key to all of the co-op’s success today. As a basketball coach, Campbell welcomed the additional training the boys could get in the fall.
“He’s kind of Mr. Ellsworth,” YoungeDyke said. “His whole life has been dedicated to kids of Ellsworth.”
YoungeDyke insisted Campbell come on board for the first season to help the community buy-in process.
“(Campbell) goes, ‘Ah, I am not a football coach,’” YoungeDyke recalled. “I said, ‘You know what Hugh, you’re a coach. A coach is a coach. It’s the only way it’s going to work.’”
Campbell, who remained the assistant coach for nearly a decade, credits Roberts with making the co-op a reality.
“Denny (YoungeDyke) and I and some others in Central Lake had been talking about (a co-op) for a while,” Campbell said. “We didn’t get anywhere until the new MHSAA director (Roberts) came from Wisconsin, and he liked co-ops. It’s really helped a lot of kids.”
The blessing of the co-op by the MHSAA led to a new helmet melding the Ellsworth Lancers and the Central Lake Trojans featuring a Trojan sword crossing an Ellsworth lance. It was designed by the co-op’s first manager, 11-year old Drew YoungeDyke, the coach’s son.
Drew went to play quarterback in the fall of 1996 and 1997 for the Trojans, alongside Nick Hopp, the Trojans’ current athletic director.
The younger YoungeDyke recalls his father wanting to make sure the Ellsworth players felt welcomed in the co-op and thought a new helmet design would extend the welcome mat.
“The two mascots — the Lancers and the Trojans — just made it real simple,” Drew said. “I just took a lance and I took a Trojan’s broadsword, and I just crossed them.
“I was 11, and it wasn’t like I was a design expert then,” he continued. “I remember sketching it out in my little like Trapper Keeper. It’s pretty cool to see that years later.”
Many like Drew believe football in the two communities would have ended within five years had the co-op not been created.
Central Lake/Ellsworth is 1-3 this fall after a 44-40 loss to Pellston last week, but also will be added to the MHSAA record book when this season is done after combining with Indian River Inland Lakes for the highest-scoring 8-player game in state history. The teams combined for 152 points Sept. 11 in Inland Lakes’ 86-66 win.
Today’s coach, Chase Hibbard, is thrilled to have nine Ellsworth student-athletes on the 23-player roster.
“If it wasn’t for Ellsworth, we would not have a team,” Hibbard indicated. “Every year the pool from Ellsworth is growing.”
Essenberg, who played receiver, quarterback and running back, liked the idea of playing for the Trojans even if only to get him in better shape for his junior basketball season with the Lancers.
Now Essenberg hopes the co-op will provide his son Nolan with a chance to play high school football. Nolan is 11.
“We were all kind of nervous because you know it was a rival town,” Essenberg said. “I remember coach YoungeDyke saying ‘if you don’t like it, you can leave.’
Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Central Lake/Ellsworth’s receivers line up during a Week 4 game against Pellston. (2) Coaches (from left) Hugh Campbell, Denny YoungeDyke and Matt Peters talk things over with quarterback Drew YoungeDyke during the 1997 season. (3) Daryl, left, and Garrett Purdy. (4) Drew YoungeDyke’s helmet logo design remains a symbol of the community’s football cooperation 25 seasons later. (Photos courtesy of the Central Lake/Ellsworth football program.)
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.)