Neighbors Rally, Revive 'Community' Stadium

August 31, 2015

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

MOUNT PLEASANT – Josh Wheaton stood admiring the Community Memorial Stadium grass a little less than a year ago, and he knew what was coming next. 

The weeks of trampling to come would produce the same result as every year beginning in mid-September.

“I’m looking at it and thinking, I can’t believe a week ago it was exactly the way you’d want your yard to look,” said Wheaton, a varsity assistant coach for Mount Pleasant’s football team. “And now, it’s this. It’s the same every year. I knew it was coming – and by weeks 7, 8, 9, we were going to be playing in a mud pit.” 

But less than a year later, as the team prepared for its first game last week, Wheaton and his Oilers – and co-tenant Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart as well – all were enjoying something that defied any expectation: a project pulled off so quickly, it spoke well to the name of the stadium the schools share.

In less than a year, supporters of Mount Pleasant High and Sacred Heart Academy raised $600,000, secured another $300,000 in donated work, and assisted in the transformation of the stadium from an aging landmark built 50 years ago to what should again be one of mid-Michigan’s athletic jewels for years to come.

The schools reopened the stadium Friday for a doubleheader. Sacred Heart fell to rival Beal City in the opener, and Mount Pleasant then defeated Midland Dow to finish a night that saw more than 5,000 fans pass through the new gates and witness the official debut of stunning two-tone green turf that served as the main focus of a renovation that has only just begun.

“It is a community that believes in young people and certainly believes in athletics,” Mount Pleasant athletic director Jim Conway said. “I think being in a college town (with Central Michigan University), there’s that collegiate portion to it where the kids start (here), and many end up matriculating over there. And we sit right here in the middle of the city, and being the shared facility, that is kind of the focal point. We were able to use that and people latched on and wanted to be a part of it, and we’re still going.”

If you rebuild it …

Community Memorial Stadium opened in 1965 as the shared home of the Mount Pleasant High and Sacred Heart football and track and field programs. Prior to its construction, the programs had a variety of homes – CMU’s Alumni Field for the Oilers and at times the Irish, who also played at Fancher Field and at Island Park going back to at least the mid 1930s.

The new stadium construction was funded solely by the community and opened Sept. 25, 1965, for what ended as a 26-26 tie between Mount Pleasant and East Lansing. The field has remained a point of local pride since, with junior high games and the town’s rocket football teams also taking regular turns on the grass.

Most weeks during the fall see the stadium host three or four games. But Wheaton said last fall there were three weeks during which 11 games were played.

It’s not that all the activity tore up the field. But it didn’t allow the grass time to regrow after the older kids did their damage on Fridays and Saturdays.

All of that caused Wheaton to casually suggest last fall to Oilers coach Jason McIntyre that the grass should be replaced with synthetic turf. Never will happen, McIntyre responded. That conversation had been had before – including briefly when a bond was passed eight years ago that led to the repair of the locker rooms, concession stand, press box and track at the stadium – and talks about going to turf had never progressed past the idea stage.

Wheaton told his boss he’d take care of it, but nothing more was said on the topic for a couple weeks … until someone else brought it up, and McIntyre joked that Wheaton was all over it.

This time, he ran with it.

In October, Wheaton formed a committee made up of supporters of both schools. They decided they would need to raise all of the money for turf over six months – by April 1 – and split into sub committees to handle fundraising and construction.

“When I first heard about it, I was a little skeptical,” said Sacred Heart athletic director and football coach Rick Roberts, who like McIntyre is a second-generation football coach in the 26,000-resident town and has led his program for 23 years.

“I wasn’t sure we could raise that much money in that short of a time; the economy isn’t the greatest at the moment. But when I went to a meeting, and saw the energy that was around the table, I knew it was going to happen.”

Pillars of the Community

Mount Pleasant High is a Class A public school with about 1,070 students. Sacred Heart is a Class D Catholic school with about 140 enrolled. In those ways, they couldn’t be more different.

But kids at the schools grow up playing Little League baseball or youth basketball together, and a number of Mount Pleasant High families attend Sacred Heart Parish.

And there was plenty of work for all to do, and do quickly.

With money rolling in, the old grass field would need to be dug out to eight inches below the surface. Materials would need to be brought in to refill the base where the synthetic surface would be laid. 

Pennsylvania-based ProGrass did the turf work, but the rest was done with local hands and equipment.

Wheaton made contact with the Isabella County-based Morey Foundation, which pledged to match $200,000 in donations from the community. Committee member Doug Moore is a president with Fisher Companies, which does concrete and asphalt work as well as construction transportation in mid-Michigan, and his company contributed much of the $300,000 in in-kind work.

McGuirk Sand-Gravel, which had also contributed when the stadium originally was built, hauled out the old field, while Malley Construction built the concrete curbs and long jump pits. Contractor Eric Borodychuk constructed the new entrance. Straus Masonry continues to build the wall of bricks and pillars purchased by donors, and other volunteers landscaped the hill near the front gate.

“If you don’t have those kind of people in your community, this doesn’t even get off the ground,” Wheaton said.

“We thought that was there,” Conway said of the support. “This is proof.”

Still work to do 

Oilers senior Zach Heeke remembers teammates turning ankles on the old practice fields in holes left over from shot put tosses the previous spring.

Those are more or less a memory now – the varsities for both schools practice daily at the stadium, sometimes splitting the field down the middle. The subvarsity teams still practice on other fields, but the track and field throwing areas are inside the stadium as part of the new construction.

Heeke is more connected to athletics than a typical high schooler – his dad Dave Heeke is CMU’s athletic director – and Zach appreciates greatly what’s gone into his team’s new home field.

“It’s an honor, for sure. It gives us a lot of motivation,” Heeke said. “All the people who donated money to have this happen, we have to show them that we’re good enough and we want to play here, and we’ve got to play for them. It’s awesome to think of all the people who come to our Friday night games, and maybe they’re not showing up in the stands, but they’re on the wall and they’re thinking about us.”

Two members of the original 1965 stadium committee attended a celebration of the new field Thursday. Roberts, who remembers the stadium’s initial construction, believes the original contributors who have since died would be “thrilled” with how the current community has taken up their work and improved upon it.

Bricks and pillars continue to be sold, for as little as $250 and as much as $25,000, as part of the Pillars for the Community fundraising group the renovation committee set up. That money will fund a phase two that likely will include replacing original concrete and possibly adding new bleachers. Both schools are contributing together annually to a fund that will allow for the necessary regular maintenance and then replacement of the turf in 10-12 years. 

“(The committee) all wanted the same thing. And when you get a bunch of ex-athletes in a room who all want the same thing for kids in the community, it goes pretty well,” Conway said. 

“It’s just been a Mount Pleasant family, if you will."

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) The Community Memorial Stadium turf includes the logos of both its home teams, the shamrock for Sacred Heart and the oil derrick for Mount Pleasant High. (Middle top) Supporters have given to the stadium and the schools' players in multiple ways, from buys bricks and pillars to hanging signs. (Middle below) Sacred Heart runs a play against Beal City during Friday's game. (Bottom) Mount Pleasant High and Midland Dow players warm up before their game Friday night.

A new gate at the north entrance welcomes fans to Mount Pleasant's Community Memorial Stadium. The gate is anchored by pillars highlighting some of the project's largest donors.






The parking lot-side of the stadium pressbox, like field below, includes banners of both teams that share the field.







The uprights are padded specific to the team on the field; red for Sacred Heart's Irish and dark blue for Mount Pleasant High's Oilers.









More than 5,000 fans filled the stadium for Friday's doubleheader, these mostly supporters of Mount Pleasant High after the Sacred Heart game against Beal City had ended.








Inspired by Dad's Memory, Lawrence's Vasquez Emerges After Family Losses

By Pam Shebest
Special for

January 16, 2024

LAWRENCE — While COVID-19 affected many students in different ways, it definitely made an impact on Austin Vasquez.

Southwest CorridorAs 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.

Vasquez works on gaining the advantage in a match against Mendon. 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.

 From left: Lawrence wrestling coach Henry Payne, athletic director John Guillean and football and baseball coach Derek Gribler. 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.”

Vasquez also was a standout on the football field. 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 ShebestPam 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.)