By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
DETROIT – The Pewamo-Westphalia football program finished a second straight season hoisting a championship trophy at Ford Field on Saturday, thanks to the “next man up” … and the next man … and the next man after that.
They got back to Ford Field in large part on the running and passing skills of senior quarterback Jimmy Lehman. And then Lehman potentially broke his left hand in the second quarter and didn’t play the final two.
In both instances, and a few more this fall, someone stepped right in. This time, the Pirates weathered the loss of Lehman and stood strong as Saugatuck’s offense caught stride to close with a 21-0 win that proved once more P-W’s teams of the last two seasons were even better than the sum of some truly elite parts.
“We had a lot of people that just really felt like they had to step up,” Lehman said. “We lost our first game (28-21 to Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central) and that was some of the adversity we had to go through all year – how were we going to respond from that? We just made sure we took every day and made it the best we could, and just improve from there.”
That loss to the Falcons was P-W’s only defeat of the last two seasons, and they improved to 40-3 over the last three years after also finishing Division 7 runner-up in 2015.
The “next man up” success sort of began in last season’s championship game, when Smith served as a tremendous decoy running for 48 of his 8,182 career yards while Lehman and others starred in a 28-14 win over Detroit Loyola.
Lehman took the reins fulltime this fall and threw for 1,627 yards and 20 touchdowns, running for 728 yards and 16 scores – and while starting as a forceful 6-foot-4, 215-pound defensive end as well.
His late first quarter touchdown run from 12 yards out said it all as Lehman broke two tackles and dragged three more defenders into the end zone. He stayed in the game at first after injuring the hand on P-W’s final possession of the first half, throwing a 12-yard touchdown pass to senior Peyton Heckman to finish his day.
The Pirates threw only one pass during a scoreless second half. Junior Noah Spitzley stepped in and helped that effort on the defensive side, tying for third on the team with six tackles.
“It says a lot about the other guys on the team, the other guys in the program that are just continually working and waiting for an opportunity,” P-W coach Jeremy Miller said. “Cameron Wirth started for us all year at fullback and linebacker, and we lost him on the opening kickoff of the Semifinal. Justin Pohl, who hadn’t played a whole lot, stepped in and did a great job at fullback for us today. So we always have the ‘next man up’ mentality, and these guys are constantly ready. And I think it says a lot about them.”
Saugatuck’s run this fall said plenty as well. The Indians this spring graduated Blake Dunn, the eighth-leading rusher in MHSAA career history. But they made it to Ford Field for the first time since finishing Division 8 runner-up in 2010, ironically after seeing perfect seasons end against P-W in District Finals the last two years in losses of 10 and six points.
“It’s been our dream forever to get here, and the first thing yesterday when we first walked in here, it was amazing – it just opened up,” Saugatuck senior linebacker Reece Schreckengust said. “It’s a great stadium, a great atmosphere. Losing hurts, but to get all the way here, it was a great season. I’m proud of every one of my teammates, my coaches, and myself and everyone else in our community for getting here. … To go out at Ford Field is probably the second best, besides winning it.”
After struggling during the first half, Saugatuck (10-4) took its shots at making it close during the second.
The Indians drove to P-W’s 18-yard line on their second possession of the third quarter, but sophomore linebacker Jacob Pung ended that rally with an interception at the 11.
Saugatuck then drove to the Pirates’ 3-yard line early in the fourth quarter, before having first and second-down runs stopped for a one-yard loss and no gain, respectively, seeing a third-down pass fall incomplete and getting sacked on fourth down for a 16-yard loss by Spitzley and senior Damon Schneider.
Total, P-W (13-1) held Saugatuck to 147 yards of offense. The shutout was the Pirates’ second of the playoffs and sixth this season, not including a 2-0 forfeit win in Week 7.
“They’re just a big, physical, fast team,” Saugatuck senior quarterback Jackson Shriver said. “That’s what makes a great defense. They follow their system and play hard. They have a great team, and it was hard to play against them.”
Saugatuck’s defense deserved praise as well. The Pirates’ 21 points were their fewest since that opening-night loss.
“We had our moments when we could’ve come back, and unfortunately it didn’t happen,” Indians coach Bill Dunn said. “To hold a team like that to 21 is a good credit. A couple of those came off miscues either offensively, or a turnover. Our defense was exceptional considering the opponent. They were just a little bit better today.”
Senior Bryce Thelen added 92 yards rushing on 14 carries and scored P-W’s first touchdown midway through the first quarter. Schneider paced the defense with eight tackles including two sacks.
Schreckengust, who will graduate as Saugatuck’s career tackles record holder, had nine more, as did senior Connor Carper.
“They always play hard, and so respectful,” Thelen said of what’s become an annual meeting between the programs. “It’s always a hard-nosed game, always close, always super physical. They’re just fun games to play in that come down to a couple plays throughout the game that tilt the game one way or the other.”
The MHSAA Playoffs are sponsored by the Michigan Army National Guard.
PHOTOS: (Top) P-W quarterback Jimmy Lehman charges upfield during the Division 7 championship game. (Middle) Bryce Thelen eludes the grasp of a Saugatuck defender.
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.)