By Chris Dobrowolski
Special for Second Half
HARBOR SPRINGS — This isn’t your brother’s Harbor Springs football team.
This year’s Rams are putting together a season on the gridiron that hasn’t been seen here in quite some time.
They are off to a 6-0 start, their best since 1999, and with that has come talk of ending some long, infamous streaks in the school’s football history.
“For me, as a player, honestly it’s been really cool because we’ve never been able to do this before,” said senior running back Jackson Wells. “Harbor Springs has been known for bad football in the past. Now, everyone is like, ‘Congratulations, how does it feel to be 6-0?’ We’re the first team to do this in decades, and it’s really cool.”
Even with three weeks to go in the regular season, Harbor Springs’ six wins have matched its most for a season since 2000. While their unblemished record has already earned the Rams a third trip to the postseason in the past four years, they aren’t satisfied by simply being a postseason participant.
There are bigger goals still to achieve, and longstanding barriers to break down.
Consider this: The last Harbor Springs team to capture a conference title was the 1987 squad that went 7-2 overall and 6-1 in the Ski Valley Conference to share the championship with Indian River Inland Lakes. Then there is the playoff drought, as the Rams are 0-5 all-time in the postseason.
“It’s a sticking point in everybody’s mind,” said senior tight end Brett Vandermus of trying to get a playoff win. “We clinched a spot, but now we’re worried about getting another win this week.”
On Friday, Harbor Springs faces Johannesburg-Lewiston in a matchup that could end the Rams’ 31-year conference title dry spell. The two teams square off in a battle of undefeated teams atop the Northern Michigan Football League Legacy division. The Cardinals come in having won five straight games, but must travel to Harbor Springs’ Ottawa Stadium. A Rams’ win would earn them a share of the championship.
“A conference title would be awesome,” said Vandermus. “I’ve had four older brothers play, and none of them (won a conference title). We just have a more solid roster than what’s been at Harbor’s disposal, and we have a lot of discipline.
“Hopefully it’s just packed, because normally we’re not used to coming out and having huge home crowds.”
Excitement definitely is building around school and across town for the Rams, who finished 4-5 a season ago as a young team.
“I wouldn’t say I expected this, but we had a really good summer and the guys worked really hard,” said head coach Rob Walker, who is in his eighth year.
The Rams have been motored by a quick, veteran backfield of Wells, Connor Williams and Jeep Damoose. That trio has been a three-headed monster in Harbor Springs’ wing-T offense, sharing the workload and limelight, while making it difficult for opponents to try and game plan to slow down all three. Jason Proctor, Matt Walker, Vandermus, and fellow tight end David Harrell are among the key cogs on the offensive line. Sophomore quarterback Grant Richardson has been a huge addition since the season began. The first-year signal caller has not only brought athleticism to the position, but he’s also injected an aerial aspect with seven touchdown passes to an offense that traditionally likes to establish the running game.
“He just keeps getting better and better,” Walker said of his quarterback. “There have been games where he’s the best athlete on the field.”
If there was a defining moment for Harbor Springs, it came in the second week of the season in a 14-7 victory over Frankfort — a team that has rightfully earned a reputation as a football powerhouse.
“I would say that was definitely an eye-opener for us to show we could beat a big-time team like that,” said Wells, who set the tone when he scored on a 75-yard run on the first play from scrimmage. “That was definitely a momentum booster right there. It showed we have the talent and that we can work as a team to beat some big-time teams in our area.”
This year it’s the Rams that are looking like one of those elite teams. It’s put them in a spot they’ve dreamed of but aren’t necessarily accustomed to — as the squad gunned for by every opponent.
“I feel like momentum is piling on, which is a motivator,” said Vandermus. “But at the same time, it puts a target on our backs for the other teams we have coming up.”
Chris Dobrowolski has covered northern Lower Peninsula sports since 1999 at the Ogemaw County Herald, Alpena News, Traverse City Record-Eagle and currently as sports editor at the Antrim Kalkaska Review since 2016. 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) Harbor Springs players salute the crowd after a victory this fall. (Middle) Grant Richardson takes off running against Newberry in Week 3. (Below) Center Matt Walker is set to snap the ball during a Week 1 win over East Jordan. (Photos courtesy of the Harbor Springs 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.)