IDA – As the greatest football season in Ida High School history rolls into the second week of the MHSAA playoffs, it could be said that winning isn’t even the best thing the Bluestreaks have done this year.
Winning certainly hasn’t been the most important thing they did this season.
With the community strongly backing the program throughout its undefeated season to date, which continues tonight in a Division 5 District Final at home against Dearborn Heights Robichaud, the team has given back – while building a collection of memories they will cherish no matter how long this history-making trip rolls on.
From hosting a fundraiser that hit much closer to home than they anticipated, to welcoming back a beloved member of the program after a health scare – and all while putting together the most successful run in school history – Ida has had a season to remember, even as it works to add more moments before the run is done.
Supporting a new teammate
The regular-season finale was designated as a fundraiser for childhood cancer awareness, and the game against rival Erie-Mason raised more than $4,000 for the St. Baldrick's Foundation, a private institution in California that gives grants to children who are battling cancer.
“I had seen something on Facebook and looked into it and decided that we needed to do something other than just get ready for football games,” Ida coach Tom Walentowski said. “We scheduled our Game 9 as a gold-out game with one of our rivals, Erie-Mason, and we raised money for childhood cancer awareness. The kids got big into that.”
Unknown at the time of the decision to raise funds for childhood cancer awareness, Chloe Arnold, a 5-year-old resident of the Ida community, was battling leukemia.
The close-knit Bluestreaks had room in their hearts to join another team. They joined Team Chloe. And in the regular-season finale, Team Chloe also was able to raise money through sales of merchandise.
One unique item was a helmet that had an Ida decal on one side and an Erie-Mason decal on the other. Players from both teams signed the helmets, which then were donated to Team Chloe for a silent auction that raised $665. A total of $2,315.42 was raised that night for Team Chloe.
“Gold is the color for cancer childhood awareness, and gold is in our school colors and it’s also in Erie-Mason’s school colors, so that’s why we decided that would be the game to do the gold-out,” Walentowski said. “We sold over 500 T-shirts. The kids were really into it.”
The greatest season
Entering the 2011 season, Ida had made the playoffs just three times and finished a regular season undefeated just once – in 1971. The Bluestreaks suddenly have made making the postseason a habit, going 6-3 before losing in the first round in 2011, just missing the postseason at 5-4 in 2012 and then returning to the playoffs each of the past three seasons. Last year, the team finished 8-3, tying the program record for victories with its most since 1991.
That is quite a turnaround for a program that had just three winning seasons from 1999-2010. The reversal of fortunes has been impressive. Prior to 2013, Ida had never scored more than 259 points in a season. The Bluestreaks scored 346 in 2013 and 349 in 2014, and they already have scored 428 this year.
This isn’t just an offensive juggernaut, either. Ida has allowed only 87 points through 10 games.
When asked what has made the difference, Walentowski opened the door to the weight room, where the players were busy doing their lifting on a Monday afternoon, and simply said, “These guys.”
Ida steamrolled its first seven opponents by a combined score of 310-40. Then, in the eighth week, Ida was tested. The Bluestreaks trailed Hillsdale 7-0 at halftime and pulled out a 20-17 victory in double overtime.
“I think when you come out at halftime and you’re down 7-0 and you win the game, obviously that helps your confidence,” Walentowski said. “They never got rattled, they just went about their game.
“When you do that, it just reaffirms to them that you just keep playing your game and things will be fine.”
Ida completed the perfect regular season with a 63-7 victory over Erie-Mason and then won its first playoff game 35-23 over Ann Arbor Father Gabriel Richard. It was just the second home playoff game in school history, and tonight’s game will be the third.
“I love hearing all of our fans roar when we get a first down or a touchdown,” senior quarterback David Kolakowski said.
Needless to say, the Ida community has gotten behind the winning football team in a big way.
“We hear from a lot of coaches from other teams that they have never known a football team that had such a good community like we do,” senior guard/linebacker Mike Zlonkovicz said. “We drove into town on playoff day, and there was the score from every game on the light posts.
“It was really touching to see that. We’re not only representing the entire school but the entire town.”
The Bluestreaks run an odd-front defense and an offense that so heavily relies on the running game that Walentowski said the old saying of “three yards and a cloud of dust” offense applies to this team in phrase only.
“We don’t like three yards, though,” he said. “We prefer to average eight or nine.”
Ida boasts a pair of 1,000-yard running backs in Eric Bugg and Nick Levicki. Bugg broke the single-season rushing record and also has scored the most touchdowns in school history. Levicki is second on the all-time touchdown list.
“Eric is, I guess for lack of a better term, he’s the poster boy of this team,” Walentowski said. “He is really a good young man. He’s a 3.5 student, he’s solid in the classroom, he’s a great citizen, he’s humble, he just works hard. He doesn’t particularly care for all the fanfare.”
Bugg said the pressure from last season’s success weighed on his mind this season.
“I didn’t know how to live up to it since we did so well last year,” he said. “We’re just trying to beat how we progressed last year, and so far we have.
“We have to get past districts and keep doing what we’re doing.”
Brick by brick
Defensive line coach Gary Deland delivers a motivating speech prior to every game. His topic this week was “brick by brick.” The players listen to him, and that message had extra importance because Deland is experiencing it in his personal life.
Midway through the season, Deland had to undergo emergency triple-bypass heart surgery, but he is back on the sidelines coaching the team and progressively getting better from week to week. In his words, he is improving brick by brick.
“He didn’t know it at the time, but in the first half of our first game against Jefferson, he was having a heart attack,” Walentowski said of Deland. “He got through the game and said his chest was bothering him, but he thought it was indigestion.
“A couple of weeks later it was still kind of bothering him on and off, and he said he should get it checked. We were getting ready to play Blissfield, which was Game 4, and he went to the hospital on Wednesday morning, and they said you’re not leaving, you are having open-heart surgery Thursday morning.”
A week after triple-bypass heart surgery, Deland was back, giving a motivational speech to the players.
“It was a great talk,” Walentowski said. “He has quite a personality, and the kids love him. For us, it was like we hadn’t better screw anything up before Coach D gets back here. I think we all had that attitude.
“The following week, he was back on the sidelines.”
It seemed like nothing was going to keep Deland from returning to his boys.
“It was a blur,” Deland said. “I was less than a few weeks out of surgery, and I was back on the sidelines. My doctor did not approve, but he knew I was going to be on the sidelines and he wasn’t going to be able to stop me.
“I was there; I was with my team. These are a great group of kids. They work hard, and they deserve everything the coaching staff can give them, and that’s why I wanted to be there for them. They have been there for this school and this community all year long.”
Although Deland said he blocks out thinking about his health on the sidelines, the players remain very aware of it.
“The kids have gone out of their way to protect me on the sidelines,” he said. “When a play is coming out of bounds, I have to get out of the way. I cannot get run over. So they do protect me on the sidelines so I don’t get run over by any play out of bounds.
“The doctor doesn’t want me to get too excited, and I try not to. Each week I can feel the momentum of my strength coming back, and I get a little more vocal and a little more animated on the sidelines.
“I have a passion for football, and the kids know it. They know I can blow up at any time, or I can be the grandfather for them.”
And, every week, he is the motivator with his speeches.
“From that very first practice in the summer to the last game as a senior, everything is built brick by brick,” Deland said. “I can draw a correlation between that and my recovery, what I’ve gone through. It’s the same thing. It’s brick by brick.
“You might take two steps forward, and you think you’re getting on to where you want to be as a team, and I might be getting on to how I want to feel, and the next thing you take that giant step backwards. You don’t feel so great, or all of a sudden you were praised by the coach the day before and now you’re screwing up every which way.
“But you’re still going forward, and that is how I paint my recovery, brick by brick, the same as this team. They will progress in the season and the playoffs brick by brick.”
Nobody knows how the season will end, but it already is the greatest football season in school history. The Bluestreaks are giving back to the community with their work for childhood cancer awareness, and they are banding together to win football games.
It is the time of their young lives.
“Being a quarterback was not always my intention,” Kolakowski said. “I was a wide receiver, but in my JV season I had to play quarterback. Then, in the playoff game, I was like, ‘It would be so sweet to be able to run this offense,’ and now I’m getting to live out my dream, which is awesome.”
It is a season that has been building, excuse the expression, brick by brick.
“I think these guys have had a lot of goals,” Walentowski said. “Six of the seniors were with us as sophomores, and there were two freshmen who were with us back then, so those eight kids, they’re still here, and they’ve been building every year.
“They expected to work hard and do well, and that’s what they’re doing. They don’t just like to play football, they like to play football together. There’s a big difference.”
Chip Mundy served as sports editor at the Brooklyn Exponent and Albion Recorder from 1980-86, and then as a reporter and later copy editor at the Jackson Citizen-Patriot from 1986-2011. He also co-authored Michigan Sports Trivia. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Ida running back Nick Levicki attempts to run through tacklers during his team's win over Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard last week. (Middle) Head coach Tom Walentowski, far left, and assistant Gary Deland talk things over with the team looking on. (Below) Fans hung a sign supporting Deland upon his return. (Top and middle photos by Ray Leighton. Bottom photo by Kim Farver.)
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.)