By Chris Dobrowolski
Special for Second Half
GAYLORD — After the first three weeks of the football season, it didn’t look like anyone was going to be able to stop Gaylord St. Mary.
The Snowbirds, after all, had scored 215 points over three convincing victories during their first season since making the move to compete as an 8-player team.
But that high-powered, explosive offense was ground to a halt over the last two weeks. It wasn’t because of a sudden lack of execution by St. Mary. Nor was it due to a stout defense rising to the occasion. Rather, it was back-to-back forfeits by opponents who weren’t able to field teams that sidelined the Snowbirds’ dynamic attack with an unwanted midseason break.
“Our kids want to play, but unfortunately it is what it is,” said Gaylord St. Mary head coach Kevin O’Connell. “It stunk for the kids because I know they really wanted to look forward to Friday nights, especially homecoming.”
St. Mary tried to turn the two-week pause into a positive. They hit the reset button and went back to focusing on fundamentals, with short periods of live contact during quick, but effective practices.
“Our practices have been nothing short of awesome,” said O’Connell.
St. Mary will find out this week against Suttons Bay if the time off disrupted its offensive flow. But the players are confident the break was not a hinderance.
“I don’t think it broke our rhythm. I think it brought us closer together,” said quarterback Brady Hunter. “We were able to bang heads with each other, get some frustration out.”
Hunter is one of a multitude of weapons the Snowbirds have in their veer option attack. The senior quarterback is joined by a stable of talented running backs in seniors Steven Koscielniak and Logan Murrell, and juniors Christopher Koscielniak and Dominic Keister. Senior center Rory Curran anchors the offensive line.
“I like this offense,” said Steven Koscielniak. “This is what our team is about, quick and fast.”
While the Snowbirds’ scoreboard numbers are eye-popping, the team’s individual stats are more modest – partly because those main threats didn’t play in second halves of two games St. Mary was thoroughly dominating. Also, there is enough talent on board to share the wealth and not miss a beat.
“It’s everybody. There’s not just one player who runs it. It’s the whole team,” said Steven Koscielniak.
As the quarterback, however, Hunter is thrust into the important role of leading the group, a task he does well. The three-sport standout, who also excels at basketball and baseball, fittingly, has his pilot’s license.
“He’s one of the best leaders,” Steven Koscielniak said. “No doubt about it. He pushes us to the next level. He pushes us in practice, when we’re lifting.”
“He conducts himself the right way in everything,” O’Connell said of his signal caller. “He conducts practices. He speaks respectfully. He’s a great leader.”
Each of St. Mary’s skill players are returning starters, but it’s been a completely different experience this season for the Snowbirds, who were depleted by injuries and suffered through a 2-7 grind a season ago.
“We took our lumps,” said O’Connell, in his seventh year in charge of the Snowbirds. “A lot of that had to do with we were senior-laden the year prior and then a lot of the seniors last year didn’t get quality reps the year prior. High school football is extremely cyclical.”
Still, St. Mary had a good outlook for 2019. It had speed, athleticism, leadership and experience all on its side, plus a better fit as an 8-player team for a school its size.
“We definitely saw it coming,” said Hunter. “Last year we had a little bit of a rough season. Coming into 8-man we had all of our skill players returning. We knew this offensive power was here.”
The offense has been so impressive that it overshadows what the defense can do, but St. Mary is tough on that side of the ball as well. The Snowbirds’ depth allows them to have only a few players who play on both sides of the ball. Kyle Murphy and Chris Grody are disruptive on the defensive line, while Murrell leads the defensive backfield and Christopher Koscielniak – who his coach lauds for his toughness – is an all-state caliber linebacker.
“He’s not physically imposing, but he is so tough,” said O’Connell. “He’s disciplined. He’s good.
“We’re not big in stature. We just have a lot of tough kids.”
The astonishing thing is the Snowbirds have only started to tap their potential on offense. The team hasn’t even utilized some of its capabilities yet.
“We like to spread ourselves so we’re very diverse. If a team comes and stops our run, we’ve got a great spread offense, a great wing set and a lot of stuff we can throw at them,” said Hunter.
The time to introduce some of that could be coming as the schedule ramps up considerably when St. Mary finally steps back onto the field. The matchup at Suttons Bay is a showdown between unbeaten teams and is followed by contests against a pair of current 4-1 teams in Vestaburg and Mio — the latter a rematch from a 48-32 Week 2 game — and 3-2 Brethren.
“It’s definitely going to be fun,” said Hunter. “Those blowout games aren’t really fun for anyone. Suttons Bay’s a great team. Mio, (Vestaburg and Brethren) — they’re all great teams. It’s going to be a good battle towards the end of the season, and it’s really going to prepare us for playoffs.”
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) Gaylord St. Mary’s Logan Murrell (7) follows Steven Koscielniak (1) and another blocker around the edge during a Week 3 win over Central Lake. (Middle) The Snowbirds bring down the Trojans' T.J. Schultz. (Photos by Sports in Motion.)
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.)