'Game Changers' Making Major Strides to Revive Atherton Football

By Paul Costanzo
Special for MHSAA.com

September 15, 2021

Terrieon Robertson had a choice to make this spring. The Burton Atherton senior could leave his school for an opportunity to play football elsewhere, or he could stay and risk the chance that Atherton’s low numbers would lead to a cancellation of his final season.

After meeting with new Atherton coach Randy Young, that decision was easy.

“I was planning on leaving toward the end of my junior year, because I didn’t know if football was going to be a thing,” said Robertson, who noted that he didn’t want to leave. “In my head I was like, ‘We’re not going to have enough kids.’ I was working out and getting better, and I planned on transferring. (Young) came in and he graduated from Atherton, he was like ‘Everything is going to be different and better, just trust me.’ I did, and I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Robertson was one of just four players who planned to play football when Young took over the program in June. That number doubled through the summer, and eventually the Wolverines were able to get to 11 players for their first game of the season against Kinde North Huron.

Now, after a 2-1 start, the locker room is overflowing.

“We’re actually out of helmets and uniforms for the kids,” Young said. “I can’t sustain any more new kids.”

Football success has been scarce at Atherton, with the program winning just two games over the previous four seasons. The program has one playoff appearance (2014) and seven winning seasons during the playoff era (since 1975). Young was part of one of those winning seasons during his junior year in 1987.

“I’ve forever followed Atherton," Young said. "Since I graduated, I’ve always kept up with them. It was disheartening to see my school falling by the wayside. My senior year, we were 2-7 and we lost our JV program. It kind of fell down from there.”

Burton Atherton footballDespite that, Young jumped at the chance to take a job at his alma mater.

“The chance to go back to your high school and possibly change it around – I'm blessed to be back there,” he said. “It felt like with me and my staff, we were up for the task. I’ve worked with most everybody on my staff before. We mesh well. Even through the summer, ever since I left Bentley (as an assistant), we’ve been working toward something like this. We were confident in the work we were going to put in.”

Young’s excitement did not reflect the situation he was entering. As wins dried up and numbers dropped, Atherton moved to 8-player football in 2019, despite having more than 215 students enrolled and hence not being eligible for the postseason. (Only schools with 215 or fewer can qualify for the 8-player playoffs, and Atherton’s count is 254.) That year, the Wolverines were 1-8, and in 2020, they started 0-2 before forfeiting their final two games and ending the season early.

“Oh my goodness, the image has been terrible,” senior Tra’Jen Adams said. “I had a terrible image of it before I even went there. When people play Atherton, they knew it was going to be an easy win. Even before this season, there were so many jokes around Flint. Now, it’s quieted down a little bit, but it’s still there.”

Before changing minds in the area, Young and his players had to change minds in the school. That included Adams, a basketball player the Atherton staff recruited out of their own gym. Like many of the athletes in the school, Adams was also contacted by Robertson, who himself had turned into a recruiter.

“Every single kid that I knew wanted to play or looked like they could play, I contacted them,” Robertson said. “Probably 80 percent of kids on the team right now got a text from me to come out for the team. Some people were like, ‘OK, we’re on the way.’ Most kids didn’t even know football was happening. Some kids were still against Atherton saying that Atherton isn’t good and we shouldn’t play. Once we won the first game, more kids came out. We won the second game, and more kids came out.”

The Wolverines lost their opener against North Huron but impressed their coach and opened some eyes by playing tough against the returning Division 2 semifinalist in the 30-20 defeat. 

Atherton has rolled in its past two games, defeating International Academy of Flint 44-18 and New Haven Merritt Academy 49-14. As the team racks up wins, the players are putting up huge numbers.

Burton Atherton footballJunior receiver and running back Romiel Clausell is averaging 16.8 yards per touch (386 yards on the ground, 134 receiving) and has seven touchdowns. Robertson has hauled in 12 catches for 143 yards and three touchdowns, and sophomore quarterback Demontrey Davis is 18 of 27 passing for 297 yards and six touchdowns, and has rushed for 215 yards and four scores.

Defensively, the Wolverines are causing plenty of havoc, led by Adams’ seven tackles for loss and four sacks. Clausell (six TFL) and Te’Shawn Stevenson (five TFL) have chipped in as well.

“Every day (they surprise me),” Young said. “Not because they’re not talented, but they’ve grown up. They’ve grown up so much before our eyes. It’s almost like having a child and having them outdo what your expectations for them are. I’m surprised, and every day there’s something new that brings a smile to my face.”

They’re also surprising their classmates and creating an excitement around the program that hasn’t been present for a long time. 

“People were really doubting us at first all over social media,” Clausell said. “After our first three games, I haven’t heard anybody talk since. We love to see it, and we hope we can continue it.”

With no postseason available to them, the Wolverines have different goals than most. They play in the North Central Thumb League Stars division, so a league title is a possibility. Of course, to do that, they would need to overcome 8-player powerhouses Morrice and Deckerville, who have each won a Finals title. 

But games against that type of competition do give Atherton a chance to prove how far they’ve come.

“We have a lot to prove,” Young said. “We want to prove that we’re worthy of being in a playoff situation. We want to show everybody that we’re not the Atherton you think we are. We’re going to play with something to prove.”

A longterm goal is to get the program back into 11-player football and postseason eligible. Young said that’s probably a couple years away, but with the early success and growth in participation among his underclassmen, that feels attainable.

While Robertson and his classmates won’t be around to experience that, they’ll certainly be remembered as the ones who made it happen.

“Me knowing that I’m a part of that – in 20 years when they say, ‘In 2021, that class, they were the game-changers,” Robertson said. “I’ll keep it as an achievement in my life.”

Paul CostanzoPaul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Atherton quarterback Demontrey Davis readies for the snap during this season’s win over New Haven Merritt Academy. (Middle) Davis makes a move as a defender approaches. (Below) Terrieon Robertson (6) and Romiel Clausell (10) enjoy a celebratory shoulder bump. (Photos by Mandi Withey.)

Inspired by Dad's Memory, Lawrence's Vasquez Emerges After Family Losses

By Pam Shebest
Special for MHSAA.com

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.)