By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half
ST. IGNACE – Tradition and excellence are distinctive parts of the athletic program at LaSalle High School at this eastern tip of the Upper Peninsula.
Located at the north end of the Mackinac Bridge, St. Ignace has won five MHSAA girls basketball championships since 1999, and the school's football team won the 1983 Class C title. The football team also is currently preparing for its third MHSAA Semifinal appearance since 2011.
When the Saints face two-time defending Division 8 champion Muskegon Catholic Central on Saturday at Thirlby Field in Traverse City, they will have an extra player in their huddle.
Mitchell Snyder, a three-year starter at center, was killed in a car accident following the school's homecoming in October when he was struck by an alleged drunk driver.
"Since his death, the team has really come together as a unit," said veteran St. Ignace News sportswriter Dave Latva.
Head coach Marty Spencer, in his 19th season at the helm, agreed. "This has been a rallying point for us," said Spencer, noting the Snyder family has become an integral part of every football game.
"This has brought us closer; it has brought his family closer to us. We have rallied around him. He is with us. He is on our shoulders. He is in our huddle."
Snyder's father, Brent, wears his son's No. 69 jersey to every game, and the players reach out and touch the jersey as they leave the locker room for the field. His number also appears on the back of each player's helmet.
In the first game after the accident, against Ironwood and played in Gladstone, Brent Snyder asked the Saints what they thought Mitchell would want them to do. Snyder told them Mitchell loved to play football, and they should continue to play the game.
The Saints ran their opening two plays against Ironwood with just 10 players, in memory of their deceased teammate. "Mitchell was there blocking for us," said Spencer.
Spencer said the coaching staff and players talked extensively about the tragic accident. "It was tough that first week. We struggled," said Spencer. "We talked a lot trying to find answers, and you never can answer those questions.
"We had to do that for our well-being, for us to survive. As he helps us through each game, it gets better and better for us. Not just for us, for the whole community."
Spencer has guided St. Ignace to an 11-1 record. Its only loss was 20-14 to unbeaten Ishpeming, which is in the Division 7 Semifinals for the fourth straight year. Last week the Saints beat perennial Division 8 power Crystal Falls Forest Park 22-8.
"Our kids are pretty resilient," said Spencer. "He (Mitchell Snyder) has been our backbone for this run. It could have destroyed us all. Mitchell's dad said there should be no more crying. Mitchell is not crying. He wants you to play football."
Because the Saints have played such powerful foes as Ishpeming and Forest Park, they will not be intimidated going up against a team the stature of Muskegon Catholic Central. "They are bigger than us, they have size and speed," said Spencer. "Our kids are confident. We have played some good teams (including also Fowler and Johannesburg-Lewiston). We are ready."
Leading the Saints is senior Gage Kreski, an all-state prospect in football and basketball and highly-sought college recruit in both sports. Kreski is the team's quarterback and was the Upper Peninsula's defensive player of the year (small school division, as voted by media) as a back. He also does the punting and returns punts.
"He does so much," said Spencer, noting Kreski had 11 interceptions as a sophomore and this year has scored off two of his three interceptions as offenses steer away from him. "He is a constant athlete who keeps working. He can play anywhere. He could be one heckuva wide receiver," said Spencer.
Kreski has rushed for 851 yards and added another 1,235 yards passing. He has solid backfield support from Mitchell Peterson, Andrew Goldthorpe and Dave LaVake, with linemen Cole Garen and Jared Helms setting the interior tempo for the two-time Ski Valley Conference champions.
Spencer said the heavily balanced Saints have emphasized defense this year with a 52 alignment (five linemen, two linebackers). "Against the run, this is the best it has ever been," he said.
The narrow loss to Ishpeming provided a confidence boost for the Saints, who have a fully home-grown coaching staff under Spencer, a downstate native. Spencer coached nearly every assistant coach when they played and said having St. Ignace grads on the staff "helps continue the legacy that has been built."
Two of the aides are volunteers who moved back home this fall, Chase and Zach Pierson, the sons of legendary St. Ignace football standout and coach Barry Pierson.
"It is nice having people who know the tradition here, the ins and outs of what the program means to people," said Spencer.
Denny Grall retired in 2012 after 39 years at the Escanaba Daily Press and four at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, plus 15 months for WLST radio in Escanaba; he served as the Daily Press sports editor from 1970-80 and again from 1984-2012. Grall was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and serves as its executive secretary. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Upper Peninsula.
PHOTOS: (Top) St. Ignace players all wear a decal on their helmets in memory of late teammate Mitchell Snyder. (Middle) A Saints defender stacks up an Indian River Inland Lakes ball-carrier earlier this season. (Below) St. Ignace huddles during a break in play. (Photos courtesy of Kristi Gustafson.)
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.)