Suttons Bay is, well, playing the numbers game.
Not by choice. It’s been by necessity — since a painful football decision was made in September 2016. Many of Michigan’s smaller schools have made a similar decision.
Most of the numbers, the Norsemen can use just one hand to count. Some take two hands. Others you can’t use your hands. We’re not talking illegal use of the hands either.
The first number is 11, the healthy and available Norsemen for their third game of 2016, their last season of 11-man football.
Hand counting starts now with 1. The 2016 quarterback and only football player to join the soccer team, Jack Pasche, actually kicked off to start of the Norsemen’s homecoming game win that season against Glen Lake. Suttons Bay, known as NorthBay through a co-op with Northport and Leelanau St. Mary’s, beat Glen Lake 4-0 as the soccer match took center stage for homecoming due to the tough decision to forfeit the remaining seven games on the 2016 football schedule.
Move on to the number 8. The Norseman started competing in 8-player football in 2017 and went the playoffs, losing to eventual champion Central Lake. Fast forward to 4. Garrick Opie took over the head coaching duties and just completed his fourth season.
Now to 5. Suttons Bay, which also co-ops with Leelanau St. Mary’s for football, has lost only five games total over Opie’s four seasons. Back to one … just one loss in regular season. The other four came during the MHSAA Playoffs.
Before getting to 3 – perhaps the most notable number – count to 14. That’s the number of players on the 2021 Suttons Bay football roster – and six of them were seniors.
“We’re going to have to fill some shoes on defense especially,” said assistant coach Stan Pasch. ‘We’ve got some good offensive lineman coming back. We’ve got to fill some shoes on our offensive ends too.”
Hand counting becomes more challenging now, starting with 47.
Pasch has coached football for 47 years. He has a long history with Suttons Bay and Leelanau St. Mary, including providing guidance in basketball, volleyball and track. He’s also been on the sidelines for Beal City and Traverse City St. Francis.
He’s had long stints as an assistant for legendary coaches Larry Sellers of St. Francis and Joe Trudeau of Suttons Bay. He was with St. Francis when they won the Class C championship in 1992.
Among those coached by Pasch on that ‘92 Gladiators team was Mark Bramer, a four-year letterman with St. Francis and the father of Shawn Bramer. The younger Bramer scored the game-tying touchdown in Suttons Bay’s 42-36 overtime win against Rudyard in the Division 1 Semifinal three weeks ago.
The junior running back Bramer, who attends St. Mary, was one of three Norsemen named first-team all-state. The other two were wide receiver Brayden Opie and defensive lineman Cam Alberts.
Mark Bramer has been thrilled to have his son play under his former coach and enjoy the playoff runs the past three seasons.
“Coach Pasch still has the passion and the spark and everything,” Mark Bramer said. “He hasn’t really changed, and it’s a good thing.
“I know the excitement as an athlete and now watch it as a parent – it is a great community thing,” he continued. “As a player back then, you never really knew that side of it, and now on the flip side you get to see the excitement of the community.”
Pasch came back to the Suttons Bay coaching staff in 2000 and has been there since. He credits Opie’s leadership for the Norsemen reaching championship games each of the last three seasons.
“Garrick does a great job of leading the team,” Pasch said. “He has really worked hard to solidly the passing game with the kids and getting the kids to believe in themselves.
“He has done a lot of good things and really opened up the offense,” Pasch continued. “When you need a big play – which the kids have done quite a bit – the kids pull it off because they had fun with it in practice.”
Opie, who previously coached all his players in Pop Warner football, has compiled a 43-5 record at Suttons Bay. He too is thrilled to have Pasch and his experience on the sidelines with him.
“I can’t do it without Stan,” he said. “Not only is he my right-hand man … he brings so much experience from his St. Francis days and his 260-plus games with Suttons Bay.
“His experience and way he deals with young men … Stan is invaluable.”
Now back to the number 3. The head coach’s sons Bryce, Braden and Grayson, have all played for Suttons Bay during playoff runs. Grayson will be back next year as the Norsemen strive to make another.
Football fans know the history of John Elway losing his first three Super Bowls, and the Buffalo Bills losing their four straight from 1991-94. But the Norsemen players aren’t really aware of it.
“They’d be lucky if they remember Brett Favre,” joked the Mark Bramer. “I have to tell them about Barry Sanders!”
Opie can laugh about it too as he knows the Norseman can rebuild again. Mike Lodish, a personal friend of Opie and former all-state player with Birmingham Brother Rice, held the record for most Super Bowl appearances with six until Tom Brady broke it. Lodish played his first four with the Bills and then won two with Elway. He played five years with the Bills under coach Marv Levy, and six with the Broncos.
“You can call me Marv Levy,” Opie said with a laugh. “You can call me whatever you want as far as that’s concerned.
“Every year it is our intentions to get to the state finals and win one,” he continued. “Is it a prediction? No. I never do that.”
Opie and Pasch will work in the offseason that number 1. They’ll use a familiar formula.
“I never make any assumptions about any season no matter what players we have,” Opie said. “We’ve had a lot of talent, but we’ve also been able to place kids in the spots (where) they will best succeed.
“We never want to put them in a spot where they will fail,” he went on. “Our goal is to find where each young man can succeed, and we’ve been very fortunate we’ve been right many of the times the last four years.”
Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. 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) Suttons Bay coach Garrick Opie hugs his son Brayden at midfield after Brayden caught the game-winning touchdown pass in the Semifinal. (Middle) Shawn Bramer outruns his stunned teammates on his way to the game-tying score during the final seconds of regulation against Rudyard. (Photos by Mike Spencer.)
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.)