By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
DETROIT – The knowledge gap covering 466 miles between Ishpeming and Detroit Loyola certainly was bridged when the two met in last season’s Division 7 Final.
Ishpeming – winner that day 20-14 – knew what Loyola had coming back this fall, and heard about a new quarterback coming in. The Hematites watched from afar as the Bulldogs continued to dominate against a beefed-up schedule – and laughed perhaps a little anxiously when 50-0 scores regularly showed up among the Friday night results.
Loyola finished the regular season ranked No. 2. Ishpeming was No. 1. Needless to say, the interest continued to intensify.
“We knew they were going to be in the Finals,” Ishpeming senior quarterback Alex Briones said. “Right when they were doing selection Sunday, we saw Loyola on the other side of the bracket and we kept them in the back of our heads. We knew we were probably going to meet up with them. But we had to take care of our business first.”
The Hematites did again Saturday, in much the same way but with a few twists as when they beat Loyola a year ago.
With similar toughness but a little different strategy, Ishpeming came away with its second straight MHSAA title and fourth overall by downing the Bulldogs 22-12.
“It was the same story. From what a lot of people said, we were still the underdog – and rightfully so,” Ishpeming coach Jeff Olson said. “They’re a good team, big and strong. I think it really came down to we made plays.”
Ishpeming displayed the same toughness as in 2012 in standing up against a much larger Bulldogs team that had beaten its previous playoff opponents by a combined score of 205-14.
But how the Hematites made the deciding plays this time was a little bit different. After running for 236 yards and throwing for only 29 in the 2012 win, Ishpeming managed only 146 yards on the ground – but got a key 76 through the air with Briones utilizing play-action to complete six passes including two for touchdowns against a defense stacked for the run.
The first scoring strike, 17 yards to junior Marcus Antilla, came three minutes after Loyola fumbled the opening kickoff. Briones completed a two-yard scoring strike to senior Mitch Laurin seconds into the second quarter and then scored on a two-yard run a little more than halfway through the third to push Ishpeming’s advantage to 22-0.
“Obviously this was a pretty big thing after last year, coming back to this. And when we turn the ball over like that on the opening kickoff, put them in scoring position and they capitalize … it makes it hard to climb out,” Loyola coach John Callahan said. “It’s not that we couldn’t have done it and shouldn’t have done it. It just wasn’t there.”
There was another unfortunate similarity to last season’s Final for Loyola that certainly played a part this time again. During the first series in 2012, the Bulldogs lost towering offensive tackle KaJohn Armstrong for the game with an injury. Saturday, they lost two-way starting guard Anthony Fitzpatrick, which added salt to the wounds of that fumble plus three interceptions.
Ishpeming hadn’t seen much passing during its regular season. But the Hematites were prepared for Loyola’s air game after getting tastes against Lake City and Harbor Beach the last two weeks, respectively.
They also hadn’t had to resort to the pass much themselves during a season that saw only Negaunee and Lake City get within 30 points before Saturday. But when called upon, Briones and his receivers were ready.
“Sometimes, we’re coming out and trying to pass the ball. We’ll incomplete one and Coach says, ‘That’s it. We’re not passing anymore,’” Briones said. “He’s a little stubborn on that subject, … but we were able to execute it today, so that was good.”
Briones also ran for 60 yards total, and senior fullback Adam Prisk ran for a game-high 77. All four Hematites ball carriers Saturday were seniors, as were four of five who caught passes and the team’s top five tacklers. Total, 16 Ishpeming contributors played their final high school game.
“Over the last two years, we’ve developed a brotherhood. We work together, hang out together, laugh together and we even pick on each other,” Prisk said. “That’s what brothers kinda do, and it’s one thing we’re going to miss.”
Bulldogs senior quarterback Garrett Schaller did throw for 201 yards and two scores, both to senior receiver Keith Graves. They are two of 10 seniors on their team, but Loyola should return a number of standouts in 2014 including leading rusher Marvin Campbell and some of its defensive leaders.
“There’s no loser in this game. You’re either a winner, or you learn,” Loyola junior linebacker Darryl Clemons said. “We’ve just got to come back next year and do better.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Ishpeming quarterback Alex Briones attempts to leap two Detroit Loyola tacklers during Saturday's Final. (Middle) The Hematites pose with their trophy after winning Division 7 for the second straight season. (Click to see more from Terry McNamara Photography.)
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.)