By Chris Dobrowolski
Special for Second Half
PELLSTON — It’s a story that could easily derive from Hollywood.
Only, this script is being written in Pellston.
Leading up to the 2019 season, the narrative for the Pellston football team has been mostly a tale of woe.
Zero playoff appearances.
Twenty-three years without a winning season.
A .260 winning percentage since 1950.
This year, however, the plot has turned into a feel-good story as the Hornets have put together a season that’s only been dreamed about over the years, posting an 8-1 record and earning their first postseason berth.
“To go 8-1, it was great,” said Pellston head coach Jack Carter, a 1987 graduate of the school. “I knew we had some really good players, some great seniors. Strong leadership on that end. It all kind of came together for us, at least through the regular season. I don’t know if it’s being a miracle worker as much as we’re at the right place at the right time.”
Pellston quarterback Glenn Bonter is one of those seniors. Bonter moved to town two years ago from Grand Haven and immediately found his niche within the confines of the weight room. The other players who were there made him feel welcome, and they quickly became friends. They also filled him in on the school’s history in football.
“(I heard) that it was a struggle,” said Bonter. “That they hadn’t had a whole lot of success. That was something where we looked at it and all of us wanted it to change. Looking around in the weight room, I saw how much hard work and dedication kids were really putting into it. Pretty much the whole entire team would go to weight room in the summer. We would all go out to the field and just pass and do some running. I think it was a whole team thing. We were like, ‘You know what? We want to win, and we’re going to do it.’ We just kind of put our foot down and went for it.”
Carter is in just his third year leading the Hornets, though he is well-versed in how difficult it has been for the school to win on the football field having off-and-on been a part of the program in one capacity or another since 2001. He’s seen players and coaches come and go, working to get things heading in the right direction but often finding that to be an insurmountable hurdle.
“If you look at it strictly from wins and losses, it wouldn’t tell the complete story because we have not been that great,” said Carter. “But we’ve had, every single year, guys that went out there and worked so hard. Played with as much heart and emotion as you could expect. For me, I think that was the template, or the groundwork for us to build off.”
Pellston also laid some of the foundation for this season during last year’s 4-5 campaign. What might seem like a rebuilding year for some was a breakthrough for the Hornets. It was the most wins they had recorded in six years. Three of those wins came in succession, too — the first time the program had strung together consecutive victories since it opened the 2012 season with four straight victories.
That propelled the Hornets into the offseason with a ton of hunger. The team’s four seniors — Bonter, running back/defensive back Lakota Worthington, and linemen Evan Cameron and Joey Rizzardi — spearheaded the team’s participation in summer training. When the full squad met for the first time in August, it came in with good fitness, strength, talent and desire.
“We made sure to make the weight room a thing,” said Worthington. “We made sure to come in during the offseason and put in the work and made sure we worked on our routes.”
It didn’t take long for Pellston to reap the benefits of its hard work as it started the year with six wins in a row — the longest winning streak in school history. Among those victories were dramatic triumphs over Posen (42-38) and Au Gres-Sims (32-30) where the Hornets overcame halftime deficits of 16 and 18 points, respectively, to remain undefeated.
“Normally you just don’t come back from those type of deficits,” said Carter. “This group of guys, they just keep fighting. They keep believing, and they keep their heads up. Their positive outlook and attitude is first rate.”
“For us to rally back and win those games, it was unbelievable,” said Bonter.
Three games into his junior season, Bonter switched from running back to quarterback. He’s been dynamic in running the Hornets’ spread offense, accounting for 16 touchdowns rushing and 13 through the air. Junior David Jamroz, like Bonter, has rushed for more than 1,000 yards. Worthington joins them in a backfield that features a great deal of speed. He also provides electricity in the return game.
“(He’s a) special returner,” Carter said of Worthington, a four-year varsity player. “He’s been that sparkplug and that catalyst that we’ve been needing for quite a while. In 8-man football a lot of times teams choose not to really kick to guys who are like that. It seems like every time a ball did go to him, he made the most of it. If he didn’t get a touchdown out of it, he certainly flipped the field for us and gave us great starting position on offense.”
The Hornets have averaged 46 points per game. The only time they’ve been held under 30 points was a 38-14 loss to Hillman in the seventh week, a game where injuries hampered Pellston’s chances.
“I think we just had an off night,” said Bonter. “They’re a really good football team. A lot of respect to Hillman. They should go far; but yeah, that was a tough loss.”
“We learned that sometimes only going in with 11 players can get you in trouble,” said Carter. “We did get hit with some injuries that night. Secondly, Hillman was the first team that really came out and really played good, sound, hard-hitting football, especially on the defensive side. They have a history of being able to make the playoffs, and they’ve had success in football. They showed why they’re at where they’re at.”
The Hornets were able to rebound and finished the regular season with a pair of convincing wins over St. Helen Charlton Heston and Central Lake.
If the current football playoff system was in place in 1995, Pellston wouldn’t have had to wait until this season to gain its first postseason bid. That year the Hornets went 8-1 but did not qualify because they ultimately didn’t have enough playoff points.
Twenty-four years later Pellston finally buzzed its way into the postseason. It opens the MHSAA 8-player Division 1 tournament with a Pre-Regional on Friday against Gaylord St. Mary.
“I’m so ready. I’m ready today,” said Worthington. “I just want to go out there and show everybody what we can do. I know Gaylord (St. Mary) is pretty good, but I’m ready to get them.”
The Snowbirds come into the game with a 4-5 record, but four of their first six wins were forfeited for using an ineligible player.
“St. Mary is coming in with a really, really good football team,” said Carter. “I look at them as an 8-1 football team, and we have to look at them that way.”
As magical as this season has been for the Hornets, they feel like there is still more of the story to be told and are looking to add a few more chapters in the coming weeks as the playoff scenario unfolds.
“Hopefully we have a good Hollywood ending with it and keep it going into the playoffs,” said Carter.
Chris Dobrowolski has covered northern Lower Peninsula sports since 1999 at the Ogemaw County Herald, Alpena News, Traverse City Record-Eagle and currently as sports editor at the Antrim Kalkaska Review since 2016. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Pellston’s David Jamroz (20) races through the Au Gres-Sims defense during a Week 3 win. (Middle) The Hornets stack the line during a Week 2 victory over Posen. (Photos courtesy of the Pellston athletic department.)
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.)