By Doug Donnelly
Special for Second Half
PITTSFORD – There’s nothing quite like the return of high school football each new season to small towns in Michigan.
There’s something about the way a town buzzes when students, parents and fans put on the spirit wear and make the journey to watch kids they’ve all known since they were born put on the helmet and play football against – usually – a neighboring school district.
Pittsford is one of those towns, and Jake Burger is one of those kids.
If it seems like Burger has been around Pittsford football forever, it’s because he has been around it for all of his life. He is two games into his senior year playing quarterback for the Wildcats – his third season as a starter – but his roots go much deeper. His grandfather, Bob Clement, coached at Pittsford for three decades. His father, Mike Burger, has been the head coach since 2010.
“I used to hang around the sidelines,” Jake said. “I’d be with my friends, and we’d be having fun. But, I wanted to be out there, to be on the field.”
These days, Burger’s grandfather usually watches games from above the Pittsford press box. His uncle, Frank Clement, another longtime Pittsford coach, is closer to the action as the Wildcats’ special teams coach. Burger’s cousin Jesse Clement is a senior linebacker. Burger’s dad – also a teacher, boys basketball coach and athletic director at Pittsford – calls the plays that Burger tries to execute on the field.
“Jake really understands the game,” Mike Burger said. “He grasps concepts quickly, and then is able to put them into action. He just wants to win, and winning with his buddies makes it that much more gratifying.”
Pittsford is coming off a 9-2 season in which it qualified for the playoffs for the 12th time in the last 14 seasons. The Wildcats are members of the Southern Central Athletic Association and reigning league champions after a year when four of the five teams in the conference reached the playoffs.
Pittsford is a community of about 1,500 people and has just 186 students in its high school. Nineteen play football including 11 seniors – an unusually large class.
“I think that helps a lot because we all have a lot of experience,” Jake Burger said. “We grew up together, playing football and basketball. We all just love sports.”
The Wildcats opened the 2018 season by shutting out 2017 playoff qualifier Morenci 28-0, and then shut out Petersburg-Summerfield 10-0 on Thursday. Burger – who also starts at safety – made a key play in the end zone late in the fourth quarter to stop a potential Summerfield touchdown.
“Early season wins are so important in getting to the playoffs,” Burger said. “I think we are going to have a really good year.”
Burger was a tight end in grade school but shifted to quarterback around fifth grade. He’s played the position ever since.
“The coach moved me to quarterback,” he said. “I love the position. I like being the field general – sort of the coach on the field. I like how you get to make decisions on the fly. Hopefully, I make the right decisions.”
Burger’s decisions are usually spot-on. He was an honorable mention choice on last year’s Associated Press Division 7-8 all-state football team after throwing for more than 1,300 yards. He already holds several Wildcats records and entered Thursday’s game with 2,910 career passing yards.
At 6-foot-4, 195 pounds, Burger said he’s also not afraid to take on a would-be tackler. He has more than 1,000 career rushing yards.
“I’m not a traditional type of quarterback,” he said. “I like to pass the ball and move the ball downfield, but I’ll also run the ball. I usually don’t run out of bounds. I’m not going to juke anybody out. I’ll lower my shoulder and take on someone and try and fight for those extra yards.”
Burger grew up about five minutes from Pittsford, which is in Hillsdale County, only a few miles from the Ohio state line. The Wildcats won the 1996 Class DD championship under Clement. With the return of Burger and much of the offense and defense from last year’s playoff team, there are high hopes this season as well.
Mike Burger said it’s been a blessing to coach his son.
“Coaching your son is a tremendous experience,” he said. “I have had such a great time being able to be part of this process. Sure, it can be stressful at times with all the pressures that go with being a varsity coach and coach’s son, but it has been far more rewarding than I could ever had imagined.”
His son agrees.
“He’s always explained things to me,” Burger said of his dad. “It’s been great having him there with me. He’s a great coach. I’m grateful he is my coach.”
The two also have that bond during basketball season. This past spring, Jake developed a routine in which he would get to school by 6:30 a.m. to work on basketball, then go back to school at night to work on quarterback fundamentals. He played AAU basketball this summer and maintains a 3.7 grade-point average. He’s unsure of his college plans at this point but would entertain the idea of playing either sport at the next level – as long as the college he chooses “feels like home,” he said.
“Jake's work ethic is off the charts,” Mike Burger said. “He is a great example of someone who plays multiple sports rather than concentrate on one. I am not sure which sport he loves the most, but I can say he loves playing both games and he plays both with a real joy.”
For Jake Burger, being part of the hometown football and basketball teams seems second nature. He wouldn’t want it any other way. Cars start filing into Pittsford football games early on Friday nights, some fans hopeful for a spot in the front row overlooking the west end zone.
“For our first game, we had a ton of people in our stands,” he said. “It’s a great atmosphere in Pittsford, no matter what sport. For basketball games, the parents and fans will get into the game and cheer and the football games are loud with a lot of fans. It’s a great place to be around.”
Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Jake Burger prepares for Thursday’s game against Petersburg-Summerfield. (Middle) Burger follows through on a pregame pass. (Photos by Doug Donnelly.)
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.)