Pennfield Football 'Family' Ready for Kickoff with New Coach, New Home

By Pam Shebest
Special for

August 22, 2023

BATTLE CREEK – New coach, new stadium, new attitude.

Southwest CorridorThe Pennfield football players cannot wait to start restoring Panther Pride.

After suffering through an 0-9 season last year, “All the varsity players who have been here through the bad were skeptical – including myself – of new coaches, new everything, basically,” senior outside linebacker/wide receiver Thomas Kurtz said.

“But once we got familiar with the coaches and got to know them more, it felt like they were always here. It felt like their impact was so profound that it felt right. Me, personally, I’m loving every second of it.”

Architect of the new-look Panthers is head coach Robbie Hattan, who is also loving every second of his new position.

If enthusiasm can inspire players, Hattan’s the guy.

He led Colon to the MHSAA 8-player Division 1 title in 2019 and was named Coach of the Year for the division by the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association. Over his seven years at Colon, Hattan’s Magi also were 2021 Division 2 runners-up and made Regional Finals or Semifinals three more seasons.

He hopes that success translates to Pennfield, which has hovered around .500 most of the last decade after several previous impressive finishes.

A key, Hattan said, is leading with love.

“I’ve always led with love,” he said. “It’s gotten hard to get these kids used to another man telling them, ‘Hey, I love you.’

“We define family in our program as ‘Forget about me, I love you.’ Love is sacrifice. If we can get our kids to be able to sacrifice themselves for the team, for the family, we’ll be very successful.”

Players were a bit skeptical at first, said Hattan, who started work as the district’s facilities and maintenance director Jan. 27.

“I went the first two weeks before (players) would talk to me,” he said. “They kind of gave me the cold shoulder. Then they got to know me a little bit.”

Kurtz said he was “a little scared because this is the new head coach. The more I got to know him, the more approachable he seemed and the more friendly he seemed.”

Interactions with players were important to Hattan when choosing his assistants.

 From left: Thomas Kurtz, coach Robbie Hattan and senior Daniel Wells stand together in the team’s new stadium. “I need to know, do you love kids, do you love athletes and building a positive culture,” he said. “You can be the best Xs and Os guys, but if you’re not great for kids, I don’t want you.”

Two assistants are Pennfield legends Chris Lok and Jason Livengood, both members of the last Panthers football team to win a state championship. That was in 1991.

“Pennfield has a rich tradition of being successful,” Hattan said. “From 1973 to 2013, they didn’t have losing seasons.

“The history is here; the fans want to support. It’s getting the kids to feel like somebody loves them.”

Talking about Lok and Livengood, “They bleed Pennfield,” said Hattan, who also kept Matt Merlington and Chris Minor from last year’s staff.

The coach has one other legend connection on the team.

Senior Daniel Wells is the grandson of “legendary Pennfield coach Dave Hudson, who coached all those winning seasons,” Hattan said.

Wells said his grandfather is “excited to see that someone with a lot of knowledge is coming in and really trying to educate us on the game of football like if we haven’t seen it before.”

Hattan named Jason Porter, who coached at Kalamazoo College and Kalamazoo Loy Norrix, as his defensive coordinator. Hattan also brought two assistants with him from Colon: Joe Sweeter and Zach Doerr.

“Any school I’ve been at, I’ve asked (Sweeter) to come with me,” Hattan said. “He was with me at Litchfield, he was with me when I coached semi-pro football (Battle Creek Coyotes), he helped me at Gull Lake for a year, he was with me at Colon.”

Doerr lives in Battle Creek, and when the commute to Colon became a bit much, he stepped away. Now he is back with a much shorter drive.

Talking about that makes Hattan laugh since he currently lives in Colon and makes the drive to Battle Creek each day.

“My kids still go to school (at Colon) while we look for houses in Battle Creek,” Hattan said.

“We want to be in this community, because for me building a family and a culture that kids want to be a part of requires around-the-clock availability as a football coach.”

And experience abounds among the leadership.

“I look at my offensive staff and we have guys who have 25, 30 years coaching experience,” Hattan said. “When you add all of the years our staff has coaching, I don’t think there’s a staff in the state that has as much credentials as this staff has.”

Community & Communication

The first year Hattan was at Colon, the team played 11-player football. The Magi then switched to 8-player for the last six.

Going back to 11-player is much easier, Hattan said.

“The biggest difference is the speed,” he said. “In 8-man, if you are fast, you can be good, where 11-man, there are more guys. Yes, it’s good to be fast, but you also have to have some size to make some holes.

“Eight-man’s tough because you’re always like, ‘I wish I had one more player. If I have one more player, I could fill that hole better or I could do this.’”

One highlight this season is a brand-new football stadium and Hattan said he was amazed watching every step of the artificial turf installation.

“It was an incredible process,” he said. “Once the different shades of green were rolled out, all the white was cut in. The numbers, the lines, the hash marks, the logo, the letters were cut in and sewn in by this crew.

“There’s also new bleachers, track, lights, concessions. It’s going to be a wonderful complex for our community.”

Hattan added that everything but the field itself was a small part of a $30-million bond passed in 2020. The turf will be paid for through fundraising efforts.

Hattan noted the field also has lines for lacrosse and soccer sewn in, and an eight-lane track will be installed.

“Our band is going to be able to be out here. We’re putting in a video board, so maybe we can do some movie nights out here. There are a lot of different things we can do for our community.”

Isaiah Adams, carrying the ball, works to get to the edge with a defender in pursuit.The football team is also a community, Wells said.

The biggest difference this year is “community and communication,” the senior linebacker/guard said. “A lot more conversation with coaches.

“This year I’ve already talked to Coach more than I talked to my last coach in three years. The communication is on a whole new level.”

As for learning a new system, “It’s pretty tough having to relearn everything including the basics, but it’s not hard as long as you are willing to constantly learn more and better yourself as a team,” Wells added.

Communication and love were on display early.

When an upperclassman wanted to join the team late, Hattan allowed the players to decide.

When some of the players balked, Kurtz spoke up.

“I believe that everybody deserves a chance to do something they love,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to deny somebody the chance of making memories and maybe even creating new bonds with people they never would have imagined they would.”

The player is on the team and fitting in well.

“That really moved me,” Hattan said. “That’s how you build culture.  As you get kids to understand that, at the end of the day, if you can say, ‘Forget about me, I love you.’"

Players had their first taste of competition during a non-scored scrimmage at Sturgis.

“I think we competed very well,” Hattan said. “Our kids were flying around the field and very enthusiastic about football. Our defense was a very strong point of our team.

“Kids were rallying to the football and trusting their teammates to do their job. Offensively, we looked like we were new to the system we are just putting in. We had some hiccups but had a lot of positive things.”

Pennfield begins the season Thursday at Lake Odessa Lakewood. Home opener is Sept. 8 against Parma Western.

“We might be tightening down a couple screws (at the new stadium) Sept. 7,” Hattan said. “But we’ll be ready to play.”

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) Jabrael Powell cuts into an opening during Pennfield’s intrasquad scrimmage this month. (Middle) From left: Thomas Kurtz, coach Robbie Hattan and senior Daniel Wells stand together in the team’s new stadium. (Below) Isaiah Adams, carrying the ball, works to get to the edge with a defender in pursuit. (Action photos courtesy of Pennfield Sports Nation; stadium photo by Pam Shebest.)

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.)