By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Breckenridge football coach Kris Robinson is doing his best to remain guarded despite his team’s history-making run to begin this season.
Like the multiple TV crews that came to practice Tuesday, one from WJRT, a local channel that still is based more than 60 miles away in Flint. The second crew, from Fox Sports Detroit, was putting together a feature for its statewide audience.
And they are just the latest to take note of the undefeated Huskies, who are 7-0 and clinched their first league championship Friday since 1946 after finishing 0-9 last season.
“The atmosphere here Friday night against Merrill was ridiculous. Our student section, the outpouring has been pretty awesome,” Robinson said. “I was always told – our AD Ryan Sklener played basketball here in the (19)80s and he said when our team was good, they would line up four deep around the basketball court. He said that would happen (for football). I was waiting for it. It didn’t happen when we went 5-4, so I’ve been anxious to see it happen. And it sure has.”
The Breckenridge football team is the first Applebee’s statewide Team of the Month for the 2016-17 school year.
The Huskies have the opportunity to become the first Michigan team in the playoff era (beginning in 1975) to follow an 0-9 finish with a 9-0 regular season – not counting Bellaire, which went 0-9 in 11-player in 2010 but then 9-0 in 8-player the following fall. Even if Breckenridge falls short on that goal, it has guaranteed it will become just the eighth team since 1975 to come back from a winless season to make the playoffs the following year.
A “perfect storm” is how Robinson describes how his team has gone undefeated heading into this week’s matchup with Vestaburg. But truly, a number of pieces have fallen into place to help the Huskies make history – with more opportunities to do so on the way.
Robinson is in his fourth year as coach, having taken over a program in 2013 that went 1-8 the year before and hadn’t made the playoffs since 1993 before qualifying this season with a 38-0 win over Carson City-Crystal on Sept. 30.
His first team finished 2-7, and the Huskies improved to 5-4 in 2014. But they felt all the way back to square one last fall with only three seniors on the team and freshmen at quarterback and running back. Breckenridge scored 68 points over nine games and lost all of them by at least 21.
But things were about to change – and quickly.
“They were ticked off, especially that (current) sophomore group,” said Robinson, who previously coached wrestling at the school and as a football assistant at Farwell and Roscommon. “They’ve won at every level, and for them to come out last year and not win a game, there were some moments last year that were really tough on them.”
First, Breckenridge – a Class C school with 235 students – is enjoying a roster of 28 players after finishing last fall with only 12. With that jump in numbers has come the opportunity to fit players at their best-possible positions, and at least half on both sides of the ball are playing only one way. Although this team will graduate 14 seniors, another solid group is waiting that is 4-1 at the junior varsity level with only a two-point loss to Fowler. Of 110 boys in the school, 50 are playing football.
Many also put in the time during the offseason. Robinson credits commitment to the weight room for a lot of this team’s turnaround as well, pointing to players like sophomore Lukas Ebright, who was a good JV player last season but added 25 pounds and increased his vertical jump to 32 inches during the offseason to line up this fall as a 5-foot-5, 155-pound cornerback.
It's also helped greatly that those freshmen playmakers from a year ago have become leading sophomores. Quarterback Carter Staley had run for 773 yards and 10 touchdowns and completed 62 percent of his passes for 711 yards and 12 scores heading into last week’s Merrill game. Including that 12-0 win over the Vandals, Hunter Collins has run for 762 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging more than nine yards per carry. (Click to watch the replay of Breckenridge vs. Merrill on MHSAA.tv.)
In front of them is an offensive line that averages 240 pounds, sizable for sure relative to the size of their school. It’s also been brought up that Breckenridge moved to a league this fall – the Mid-State Activities Conference – that is a better fit, as the Huskies have the third highest enrollment among eight schools in the league compared to when they were the third-smallest of eight schools in the Tri-Valley Conference West in 2015. But that doesn't mean the MSAC is some easy run; Breckenridge included, five of eight teams are 4-3 or better, and four teams are tied for second place in the league at 4-2 in conference games.
The Huskies can clinch the title outright Friday, which would represent another accomplishment – Breckenridge hasn’t won an outright conference championship since 1941.
Trophies celebrating those long-ago league championship seasons are among five total owned by the school – with two others a cup from 1917 and a 1931 trophy with a player kicking a football, except all that’s left is the foot. But that will change shortly, as well.
“We broke the season scoring record in Week 6, and they knew we broke the season scoring record and actually asked me that night if we’ve broken the record for breaking the most records yet,” Robinson said. “So they get it.
“But I don’t think they understand the gravity of the situation. This is older than their grandparents.”
PHOTOS: (Top) A pair of Breckenridge defenders wrap up a Merrill ball carrier during Friday’s 12-0 league title-clinching win. (Middle) Huskies coach Kris Robinson (left) speaks with quarterback Carter Staley. (Click to see more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)
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.)