Garber Standout VanSumeren Does it All

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

September 13, 2017

Ben VanSumeren doesn’t get much rest during Essexville Garber football games.

Not that he wants or needs it.

“I worked out twice a day throughout the summer because I knew I would be playing every down,” the do-it-all senior said. “I think I’ve sat out two plays the whole season. One, I had a 60-yard touchdown, then I ran in the two-point conversion, and I’m the kicker, so they didn’t have me kick (the ensuing kickoff).

“I just love playing football.”

VanSumeren is going to have plenty of opportunity to continue playing the game he loves. He‘s a Division I tight end and linebacker prospect with scholarship offers from 11 college programs – Central Michigan, Western Michigan, Cincinnati, Air Force, Columbia, Eastern Michigan, Harvard, Missouri, Navy, Yale and Minnesota.

He’s had significant interest from others, including Purdue, where he plans to take an official visit in the coming weeks.

His combination of size (6-foot-3, 228 pounds) and athleticism (a 4.56-second 40-yard dash and a 40-inch vertical jump) make him an obvious DI candidate, and in case you wondered if those numbers were inflated, his Nike SPARQ score (rating his athleticism based on a series of fitness tests) of 127.74 ranks him No. 10 in the nation among all prospects and No. 1 among tight ends.

“The first thing that comes to mind on Ben is he’s a freak athlete,” Garber coach Jake Coquillard said. “I think being at a small school and in mid to northern Michigan doesn’t do him justice or get his name out there the way other people would downstate. I think he would have more schools on him, to be honest.

“But his work ethic is absolutely off the charts. He has a constant will to be better, which as a coach, I don’t know if I’ll ever have another kid that works and wants to have perfection as much as him, and that means in the game of football, in the weight room or in life. He’s a special, special young man.”

Coquillard believes VanSumeren’s greatest potential is on the offensive side of the ball, as he fits the mold of a prototypical receiving tight end. But defense, which is fairly new for him this season, has come pretty naturally, too.

“A lot of the big Power 5 schools have wanted him for defense,” Coquillard said. “He didn’t play much defense last year and he didn’t even have film. But they look at him at 6-3, 224 to 230 and they’re thinking backer. This year he is playing outside linebacker for us and doing a good job. He’s definitely not afraid to come get you.”

Playing at the Division I college level is something VanSumeren has known he was capable of since the sixth grade – not because of anything he had done, but because it was something he decided he wanted to do.

“It was just something I wanted, and once I get something in my head that I want, I’m going to work endlessly to get there,” he said.

His first offer came from Western Michigan University this past February, and he committed to sign with the Broncos shortly after. He de-committed in the spring after recording his jaw-dropping SPARQ score, telling MLive at the time that he wanted to evaluate all of his options and be up front with the Western coaches.

Offers started trickling in throughout the spring and summer, and college coaches were going out of their way to find the 550-student school in Bay County and pay him visits. There they were able to watch him on the baseball diamond, where he’s a standout centerfielder.

“It’s really humbling to know that six months ago I was without any offers or much college attention,” VanSumeren said. “Now I have the No. 1 SPARQ score and people are looking at Essexville Garber -- coaches are coming in asking where Essexville is.”

VanSumeren and Coquillard also have been proactive in contacting college coaches.

“We’ve contacted about every coach and program that we possibly could,” Coquillard said. “I think him being the No. 1-rated tight end as far as scores go at the Nike Opening (combine) put his name out there. We sent tape or tried to get with (coaches) on the phone to get his name out there. He is from a small school. We always say that if you’re good enough, they’ll find you. But sometimes they get lost in the shuffle, too.”

With him trying to raise his profile, one could forgive VanSumeren for focusing solely on tight end and linebacker in his senior season. He’s done anything but that, however.

He’s played quarterback and running back for the Dukes (1-2). He’s also the kicker and the punter. 

“That’s the type of person he is,” Coquillard said. “A couple games ago, we had him at quarterback and running back to try and get him the ball. He even said, ‘Coach, I think you need to move me around. I’m a team guy, and we need to get the other guys the ball, too.’

“He’s a very unselfish young man. He’s about the team, and he loves playing all the different positions. As athletically gifted as he is, I think it’s an awesome thing on his part to be willing to do that.”

In VanSumeren’s eyes, moving from position to position is a win-win.

“I’m just about the team, and if the team is going to benefit from it and if the defense can’t adjust, that’s what I’m going to do,” VanSumeren said. “And I think colleges like seeing that. I think versatility is big for colleges.”

Paul 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) Essexville Garber’s Ben VanSumeren follows his blockers during a Week 2 loss to Bridgeport. (Middle) VanSumeren makes a move upfield. (Photos courtesy of the Essexville Garber football program.)

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

By Pam Shebest
Special for

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.)