By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
HASLETT – The sound of cleats on pavement. He and his teammates, hand in hand, walking toward the field together minutes before kickoff. Manowar’s “Heart of Steel” ringing in their ears from a few minutes before.
Justin Kuchnicki gave himself goose bumps Monday describing Haslett’s weekly pregame ritual, which the senior lineman will take part in again beginning Aug. 26 when the Vikings open this season against Remus Chippewa Hills.
They’ll certainly be revved up – and especially to lay some big hits after saving them up during three weeks of non-collision practices.
Haslett has one of the most successful football programs in the Lansing area, with two trips to MHSAA championship games and 14 playoff appearances total over the last 18 seasons. The Vikings finished 6-4 a year ago against a schedule featuring four eventual playoff teams.
The program also might be the first in all of Michigan high school football to fully eliminate full-speed hitting at practice, something Haslett has moved toward over the last few seasons before longtime coach Charlie Otlewski decided to knock it out of his practice plans completely this fall in large part to keep his players healthier for when it matters most.
“It gives you the edge when it gets to game day. You practice all week and you’re not really hitting or doing anything like that, and you get to game day … and everyone’s ready to just go out there and fly around and make plays,” Kuchnicki said. “You’re not really worried about kinks and stuff in your body that you’d have from practices, so you just go out there and lay it on the line.”
Friday was the first day Michigan high school players were allowed to practice in full pads. Storms drenched mid-Michigan that afternoon, so Haslett’s first day in full gear was Monday. And from a distance, it sounded like any other full-contact practice with the normal hoots and hollers and smacking of pads.
But on closer look, it was anything but. Lineman worked against blocking dummies on a sled or teammates holding hand pads. When the offense came together to run plays, linemen blocked against overturned plastic trash barrels. On the opposite end of the field, subvarsity players worked on defensive pursuit angles but again without hitting. Under a set of uprights laid an old gymnastics mat used to soften the fall during tackling drills, which players again did against standup dummies instead of their teammates.
Reducing collisions – that is, live, game-speed, player-vs.-player hitting – remains the focus of most conversations on health and safety in football. Much of the discussion is centered on reducing concussions, and MHSAA rules changes that took effect beginning with the 2014 season limit teams to one practice per day during the preseason (when teams frequently practice twice) where collisions can take place. During the regular season, teams can have collisions during practice only two days per week.
Otlewski – who formerly coached St. Ignace from 1990-93 before taking over at Haslett in 1994 – said his practices used to follow what could be considered a traditional after-school plan: individual position drills for an hour or more followed by 11-on-11 full contact team practice for 30-40 minutes, twice a week.
But a handful of reasons, chiefly the desire to avoid injuries, started his program on a different path five years ago.
“Nobody wants injuries, but you surely don’t want them in practice. Then the concussion thing started to happen. (But) we didn’t do it because of concussions; we did it because of general overall injuries,” Otlewski said.
“If we lose a guy in Thursday’s scrimmage, or next Thursday in a game, OK, that’s football. But what we don’t want to do is lose someone in practice, because that seems unnecessary.”
The initial changes Haslett began to make to practices that fall of 2011 became drastic two years later, when he and his staff went to a different practice model completely. The Vikings now break every practice into 10-minute sessions alternating between team time and position drills, so position coaches can work with players individually before and after seeing how they perform when all 11 are running plays together.
This new breakdown brought the amount of player-on-player contact at practice down significantly as much more time was dedicated to learning proper footwork, blocking and tackling techniques and other fundamentals. Players on Monday worked at 50-percent speed, at most, against teammates either in front of them and also not moving at game speed, or against others holding pads and dummies.
The last two seasons, the only full-contact session during practices came during preparation for goalline situations; Otlewski and his staff decided to eliminate those this fall as well.
“We’re OK with a certain level (of contact). But we never want to go on the ground; we always want to stay up,” he said. “We want to go fast enough so where we have to use the perfect technique to get there footwork-wise. But we’re trying to eliminate the physicality part.”
To be clear, eliminating all collisions/contact is not required by the MHSAA. And there are probably more than a few in the coaching fraternity who would think Haslett is making a massive mistake.
But the Vikings’ no-contact strategy follows a way of thinking made popular in part by coaches like Dartmouth College’s Buddy Teevens, whose team hasn’t tackled during practices in six years. The Ivy League as a whole adopted a policy of no tackling in practice for the regular season beginning this fall.
Otlewski said teaching to tackle without contact allows his players to practice the same technique-building drills during four-player offseason workouts, his team’s no-pads summer camp and then while wearing pads during the season. His defense doesn’t face a live offense during the week, but he doesn’t think his players lose out because they can gain just as much from watching film and working on pursuit angles and recognizing formations. Same goes for his offense, which can still practice skill work and the passing game full-speed while lineman go half-speed working on footwork and blocking technique.
And he sees 37 players on his varsity roster, with that total remaining consistent over the last many seasons – while three opponents on this year’s schedule don’t have junior varsities and a fourth won’t field a freshman team.
His players three seasons ago didn’t really like the idea of not hitting in practice at first. But they’ve since bought in. He hasn’t heard a ton from parents either way; but he taught a class on football for local moms over the winter, and they seemed to like the idea as well.
“On one hand, I’m a little apprehensive,” Otlewski said. “OK, we haven’t gone full go. Is there a difference all of a sudden when it’s live Thursday against (Grand Rapids) Christian? Are we going to be up to speed?
“I think I still worry about that a little bit. But once we get into it, it’s fine.”
Kuchnicki is just as confident. Contact doesn’t bother this guy. He’s 6-foot-6 and in the neighborhood of 320 pounds. Sure, he’d love to have one contact practice this year so he and his teammates can back up some of the trash-talking they do to each other on the field.
But he’s fine with saving his biggest hits for opponents – and especially those who might think Haslett won’t be prepared for a physical game.
“They’d probably think we’re soft,” Kuchnicki said. “But when it comes game day, they change their minds instantly. I’ll tell you that.”
Geoff Kimmerly joined the MHSAA as its Media & Content Coordinator in Sept. 2011 after 12 years as Prep Sports Editor of the Lansing State Journal. He has served as Editor of Second Half since its creation in Jan. 2012. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Barry, Eaton, Ingham, Livingston, Ionia, Clinton, Shiawassee, Gratiot, Isabella, Clare and Montcalm counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Haslett lineman work on blocking during Monday's practice. (Middle) Vikings coach Charlie Otlewski instructs his players on one of the team's blocking schemes. (Below) Backs work on the option with barrels serving as the defensive front.
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.)