The entirety of 2020 thus far has been a matter of conjecture. Trying to predict anything with any degree of certainty – including the sporting world – has proved to be a worthless expenditure of time.
That the Sturgis High School varsity football team would have as many victories in the first two weeks of the season as it had in the previous two years certainly wouldn’t have been the most absurd thought for Trojans fans. But based on recent history, it surely didn’t seem like the most likely scenario.
And it wasn’t the kind of lofty expectation anyone wanted to throw on the back of first-year head coach Chance Stewart, who was hired June 4.
The 2-0 start is the first for Sturgis since 2003. The 25-21 win over rival Three Rivers to start the year broke a seven-game losing streak for the Trojans, who finished 4-23 over the last three years.
Toss in the fact that the season itself almost didn’t materialize due to COVID-19 restrictions in the state, and that like every other program in Michigan, Sturgis will participate in the playoffs following an abbreviated regular season – and there’s a much louder buzz around town these days.
It will be only the Trojans’ third postseason appearance since Stewart’s final prep game at quarterback in Orange and Black in 2013 — a 16-0 Pre-District loss at St. Joseph. He went on to a brief stint at Western Michigan University and a phenomenal career at Hillsdale College, which yielded a G-MAC Player of the Year award, a single-season school and league record of 3,588 passing yards en route to a conference championship in 2018 and finishing with a school-record 10,064 passing yards. Stewart also recorded 73 career touchdowns in his 41 games played for the Chargers.
At just 24 years old, he’s not that far removed from the young men he’s now charged with overseeing at Sturgis. And in such bizarre times with protocols no one could have imagined just a year ago, Stewart is obviously pleased with how September unfolded.
“These kids are playing extremely hard right now,” Stewart said following the team’s 36-6 win over Allegan this past weekend. “The effort has been outrageously great for us the last two weeks. Finally getting the opportunity to come back after football was taken away from them, the effort was one thing we were hoping we wouldn’t have to worry about. And we didn’t have to. They came out ready to get after it.”
A total of 15 seniors are on the squad this year, but the roster changes weekly as Stewart has given junior varsity players an opportunity to play their way into Friday night spots with the new five-quarter rule instituted by the Michigan High School Athletic Association. Still, it’s the veteran group that mostly has fueled Sturgis so far.
“We have a great senior class here that’s leading the way for the rest of the guys, saying this is how things are going to be done now,” Stewart said. “That senior class really wants to go out on top and they really set the tone the first two weeks.”
Captains Rylee Cain (tight end/linebacker) and Brady Webb (quarterback, linebacker) were selected by their peers, and their production on the field has been solid. Webb threw for 81 yards and two touchdowns in the opener against the Wildcats. Defensively, Webb has logged 11.5 tackles (four for loss), and Cain has 13 tackles (four for loss) and an interception through the first two weeks, which included limited time on the field as the Trojans downed Allegan 36-6. Webb’s 28-yard hookup with Xander Cosby was a game-winner with 43 seconds remaining against Three Rivers.
Stewart also pointed out the crucial play of senior Julian Alldridge, a right guard who will begin lining up at right tackle, and Jaden Bodi, who prepared in camp to play receiver and linebacker but was moved to right guard and defensive end.
“Alldridge has done a phenomenal job so far with helping out,” Stewart said. “From three weeks ago to now, (Bodi) is in two new positions with no questions asked. He just wants to do whatever he can to help the football team.”
Following Jimmy Lamb’s resignation from the head coaching position last year to focus on his new duties in an administrative role in the district, Sturgis athletics director Mark Adams believed Stewart, despite being green behind the ears, had enough experience on the field and the leadership skills to take over.
“That’s something you really need if you’re going to be a good coach,” Adams said. “When my son was growing up, Chance had his own football league at his house and teams from around (St. Joseph County) would come to it. He’s just that kind of guy. He’s organized, he’s imaginative, and talking to him in his interview about his X’s and O’s, I learned a lot of football from him then. He’s young and energetic and has a lot of great ideas, not just for football, but for the community and other things.”
Stewart always hoped to get an opportunity like this, he just didn’t expect it to come so quickly.
“It was special (playing quarterback here),” he said. “It’s special because my dad got to do it back in the 80s. Playing out here, wearing the Sturgis jersey has been really special to us.
Bigger than that, I think was just what the program was able to do for me to help me grow from just a 14-year-old scrawny kid into the person I am now. It’s because of those relationships I created out here. I was lucky enough to play for two coaches that really cared about their players in Coach (Bill) Keim and Coach Lamb — two guys to this day I still look up to. Now I get to give back in that same role that those guys were able to help me.”
Wes Morgan has reported for the Kalamazoo Gazette, ESPN and ESPNChicago.com, 247Sports and Blue & Gold Illustrated over the last 12 years and is the publisher of JoeInsider.com. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) A Sturgis ball carrier follows his blocks in Allegan territory during Friday’s win. (Middle) Chance Stewart has returned home to coach the high school program for which he starred at quarterback less than a decade ago. (Top photo by Scott Rains; middle by Wes Morgan.)
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.)