The joke wasn’t incredibly original, nor was it incredibly funny, especially if you had any connection to the Goodrich football program.
But when you suffer through a winless season like the Martians did in 2016, people are going to have jokes.
This one was a knock-knock joke, and Owen was at the door. Owen Nine.
Goodrich senior defensive back and captain Ryan Aylmer can at least smile now when he tells it, because with the Martians having just completed an 8-1 regular season, there are no more jokes.
“This year, people go through the school and they talk about who we got next week, and what we’re looking like in the playoffs,” Aylmer said. “Now teachers are talking about the games in school, and I’ve got little kids recognizing who I am. People are back into the program now that we’re succeeding. It feels great, especially after last year when it felt like we were nothing, that forgotten team. But now we’re back in the community.”
This isn’t a story of some moribund program finally finding its way to the postseason. In fact, when Goodrich hosts Pontiac Notre Dame Prep on Friday in the first round of the MHSAA Division 4 playoffs, it will be in a familiar spot.
From 2008 through 2015, Goodrich qualified for the playoffs six times, and had a losing record just once.
The question in Goodrich was how does 0-9 happen?
“That team we had last year, they weren’t an 0-9 team,” Goodrich coach Tom Alward said. “I should have done a better job last year, and we should have won several games. It just didn’t happen. This year, kids are making things happen that we couldn’t make happen last year.”
Alward took over the Goodrich program in 1993, and in 1995 led the Martians to the postseason for the first time ever. His 146 wins since are the most in program history, and he already has been inducted into the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
Despite all of that previous success, a moment at the end of last season led Alward to say he had never been more proud of any team he had ever coached.
“After our ninth game last year at St. Johns, when we just got beat 52-0 to finish an 0-9 season, that entire team stayed on the St. Johns football field for probably a half hour, 40 minutes just talking to one another, hugging one another -- they knew it was the end,” Alward said. “They played their tails off all year. I can’t say enough about them. I just feel so bad that they have that 0-9 stigma. I’ve got that stigma myself from when I played at Tampa on the 0-14 team (for the NFL’s Buccaneers in 1976). But I just feel bad, because they didn’t deserve that.”
Alward and his staff didn’t panic and make drastic changes following the winless season, but in his 25th with the Martians, he was able to look at all aspects of the program, including himself, to see where things needed to be different.
“We did exit interviews at the end of last year, because we were concerned about the culture,” Alward said. “We’ve been able to win here for a number of years, and we didn’t want to all of the sudden have kids thinking that they couldn’t win because we went 0-9. We wanted to address that part of it, so we did exit interviews, we did a lot of offseason bonding exercises, team building and all of that stuff. This team is pretty close. We were fortunate to get off to a good start, and the rest has kind of just taken care of itself.”
That bond, players say, is what has sparked the rebound.
“We would go out to dinner together, we would do everything together all summer long,” senior defensive lineman and captain Sebastian Foglio said. “We would work out together, we would push each other. There’s no age, there’s no ‘freshmen get the water,’ none of that stuff. We just came together and did what we had to do. Everybody is close with everybody, nobody dislikes anybody. If we do, we’ll talk and change that.”
And the start, well, it couldn’t have been much better.
In Goodrich’s opening game against Burton Bendle, freshman Tyson Davis returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown. It was an immediate announcement that the 2017 season would be different.
“It was a sigh of relief,” Aylmer said. “Last year we scored (66) points all year. Seeing, literally, the first play of the brand new year getting taken back, and scoring (44) points our first game, it was just a sigh of relief getting that out of the way and realizing that we can do that this year.”
Goodrich rolled to a 3-0 start, outscoring opponents by a combined score of 132-12 before falling 20-7 in Week 4 against Genesee Area Conference Red rival Lake Fenton. But a resounding 42-0 win the next week against Otisville-LakeVille started a five-game winning streak to end the regular season for the Martians, who outscored opponents by an average of nearly 26 points on the year.
Suddenly all of the social media chatter from the area was gone, along with the jokes. But the lessons learned from an 0-9 season were not.
“There’s been a chip on our shoulder,” Aylmer said. “It seems like every week these guys last year thought we were bad, or we played them last year and they beat us. We had a chip on our shoulder and everybody has taken it to heart, and it seems like we’ve been fighting every week as an 0-9 team, but we’re really a good team this year.”
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) Goodrich celebrates seeing itself on the playoff bracket during Sunday’s selection show on FOX Sports Detroit. (Middle) Goodrich freshman Tyson Davis contends for a loose ball during the season opener against Burton Bendle; he returned the opening kickoff that game for a touchdown. (Top photo by Paul Costanzo; bottom photo by Terry Lyons.)
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.)