Gavin Szymansksi was nervous for about two plays.
The junior was making his first start for the Almont football team in Week 3 against Imlay City, replacing injured Cole Willard at left tackle.
Willard had been hurt in the first half of the Raiders’ Week 2 game against Algonac, and while Szymanski had filled in then, there was less pressure, as his team already had a hefty cushion.
But this was different. A first varsity start, on the opposite side of the line from his more familiar right tackle position.
“It wasn’t too scary in that moment (against Algonac), plus I thought he was going to be back,” Szymanski said. “(Week 3) was kind of scary. But the team was pretty supportive, and they didn’t have any doubt I’d be able to fill in. Then we had a TD on like the first or second play in the Imlay game, and I was fine.”
Szymanski filled in seamlessly for the Raiders, which became a theme throughout the season. As players went down with injuries, both short and longterm, their backups filled in without a hitch.
While every team is banged up throughout a season, for a Division 6 school with just more than 30 players on the varsity roster, it’s a remarkable feat to remain competitive, let alone go 8-1 during the regular season, win the Blue Water Area Conference title, and, for the second time in school history, advance to the MHSAA Finals at Ford Field.
“Our motto is ‘next person up,’” Almont coach James Leusby said. “They literally live by that. You never know when your number is going to get called, but they seem to always be ready.”
Szymanski – who is back in the starting lineup for the Raiders, now as a right tackle filling in for the injured Yousif Abu-Joudeh – and his Almont teammates will play Kingsley at 4:30 p.m. Saturday in the Division 6 Final, looking for the program’s first Finals title.
While the Raiders certainly have star power – junior back Chase Battani had rushed for 1,169 yards and 18 touchdowns – it’s been the efforts of a team that has stretched well beyond it’s starting 22 that put them in this position.
The list of injuries, big and small, is extensive.
It started with Willard and ended with Abu-Joudeh, who was injured in Week 9. Fullback Jacob Stewart, who was averaging 15 yards per carry, was injured in Week 6 and missed a stretch. Matthew Bacholzky stepped up in his place, along with Ayden Ferqueron.
Outside linebacker Eric Haddon suffered a high ankle sprain, and was replaced by Jacob Fuller, who had spent most of the season on the offensive side of the ball. Defensive end and tight end Brent Corneau missed a stretch as well, and Nolan Maxlow, who was a split end and defensive back, had to step up in his place.
And that’s just what Leusby could remember off the top of his head late Tuesday night.
“In Division 6, you don’t have much depth, so the backups have to know multiple positions,” Leusby said. “I think it talks highly of our program and our system and the coaches we have in it. In the playoffs, we’ve started two JV kids at defensive tackle. Our motto is, when we bring our sophomores up, the best kids are going to play.”
Because of that program-wide preparation, players are not only ready, but have confidence in one another when it’s someone else’s time to step up.
“I felt confident in him,” Willard said of Szymanski. “A lot of kids get a lot of reps at practice. And we’ve run the same plays for like five years, so everyone knows them.”
Leusby, who took over at Almont in 2015, credited not just his high school staff, but a youth program that’s bursting at the seams with participants.
Almont is a football community, and while there are no Finals titles listed on the city limits sign, it has a very proud history of success, especially lately.
The Raiders have made the postseason each of the past 14 seasons, and 17 of the past 18. The lone miss was 2009, when they were 5-4. Only the pandemic-shortened 2020 season resulted in a record that wasn’t over .500, and even that one ended at 3-3 with a playoff win.
“I think, all in all, the community, they invest a lot of time into the program, and they expect results,” Leusby said. “You ask anybody, Almont is a football town.”
Leusby and his players are expecting that support to result in a lot of orange and black in the lower bowl of Ford Field on Saturday.
“Everybody has our back and wants us to win,” Willard said. “The whole town is travelling down there.”
They did the same in 2019 when the Raiders made their previous run to Ford Field. That ended with a 31-17 loss to Grand Rapids Catholic Central in the Division 5 Final.
“Honestly, when I was there in 2019, I was just thrilled to get to Ford Field,” Leusby said. “Yeah, it was a game and we wanted to win, but it was just cool to get to the Finals. After it was over, I thought, maybe I had sent the wrong messages. This year, we’ve reiterated that we’re going there to come home with the big daddy. Not second place – we want the big trophy.”
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) Senior Isaiah Bankston (59) leads Almont onto the field before last Saturday’s Semifinal win over Ovid-Elsie. (Middle) Chase Battani (32) followers his Raiders blockers during the Regional Final win over Detroit Edison. (Photos by Maureen Flannery Walton.)
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.)