By Rob Kaminski
MHSAA benchmarks editor
How’s this for a new reality/espionage TV series? Participants have just hours to exchange valuable video to counter-intelligence representatives at random drop points along state highways, then return to home base, study the footage and devise an action plan that same day.
Oh, and there are no cell phones or any other form of portable communication should plans go awry en route.
For longtime Escanaba High School football coach Dan Flynn, it’d be like watching reruns of his days as an assistant coach for the Eskymos. As one of the largest schools in the Upper Peninsula, Escanaba’s road through the MHSAA Playoffs almost always meant facing opponents from below the bridge, which made film exchange a challenge to say the least.
“I’ve logged thousands of miles, maybe more than anyone ever, exchanging film, tapes and DVDs with our opponents during the MHSAA Playoffs,” Flynn said.
“Being in Region 1 geographically, we knew we’d travel,” Flynn added. “And you couldn’t afford to just look at anyone and everyone that you might play. You had to do your homework to narrow down possible opponents if you wanted to go and scout.”
Today, with the MHSAA publishing Football Playoff Points on a weekly basis following Week 4, much of the guesswork as to potential first-round opponents has disappeared.
Additionally, most schools upload game footage to the web within 24 hours following each contest. On Selection Sunday, within minutes after a school’s Pre-District foe is announced, a coaching staff and players can be watching video of their opponent.
“We’d started calling coaches or they’d call me in Week 8 or 9, looking at possible matchups and also planning a place to meet to exchange film,” Flynn said.
Plans had to be firm and communications had to be clear, because once hitting the road, there was no way to contact one another.
“This was before cell phones,” Flynn explained. “I had one of first cell phones, which actually was an old bag phone. I’d accumulate outrageous rates for roaming charges going tower to tower.”
Old-school video exchange might be a thing of the past, but a generation of high school football coaches will never forget gas stations, fast-food joints and 24-hour stores nestled off exit ramps across Michigan.
“On that Sunday night, I’d get in the car, and typically drive to Gaylord, or maybe Grayling. In Gaylord it would be the McDonald’s. In Grayling, it’d be Glen’s Food Market. You’d try to arrange to meet at a place that was open 24 hours,” Flynn recalled. “I always got in the car understanding the meeting would be below the (Mackinac) Bridge. Sometimes we’d get lucky and the meeting place would be the Shell gas station just below the bridge on the Mackinaw City side.”
The 200-mile drive to Gaylord routinely took four hours. The further Escanaba advanced in the playoffs, the more times Flynn wore down the tread on his tires. He specifically recalls a hectic weekend in 1979, when Escanaba traveled to Lansing Sexton and defeated Livonia Stevenson in the MHSAA Semifinals to earn a berth in the Finals the following weekend vs. Detroit Catholic Central. Part of the reward for Flynn was another trip to McDonald’s.
“We came from behind in that Semifinal, and we were thrilled that we were going to the Finals. We got back home late Saturday night, then I got in the car the next morning to meet the Catholic Central coaches at 1 p.m.,” Flynn said.
“Coach (head coach Jerry) Cvengros had a meeting set for 5 or 6 that night. I made it back in time, but our guys were still feeling good about the win, so I suggested we hold off a day before showing them the CC film (16 mm film, by the way). Those guys were pretty good.”
Indeed they were, winning the Class A title the following weekend. The Eskymos, however, would return to the Final in 1981, winning the crown, 16-6 over Fraser, as Flynn no doubt logged more miles in preparation.
The most pressing concern today might be quality of the online video, lighting at the fields, or angle of the camera.
Back in the day, just getting a tape felt like victory.
“One year, I traveled all the way to the southeast part of the state, and the opposing coach simply wouldn’t exchange,” said Flynn, explaining that playoff film exchange at the time was only a recommendation, not a regulation. “I learned later that the coach had video of us from a friend who lived in Escanaba. I left on Saturday morning and came back Sunday night. We did eventually get some film later in the week. We lost by two points, but as coaches we didn’t make it a big vendetta and were up front with our kids.”
The MHSAA Representative Council, which included Flynn at the time, upgraded film exchange from a recommendation to a playoff policy in 1990, when schools were required to supply one another with the two most recent game films.
Even so, and as 16 mm film evolved to VHS tapes and then DVDs, coaching delegates still had to make itineraries for October and November weekends. Sometimes twice in the same weekend.
“Even with advancements in technology as we progressed from DVDs to digital, you still need people to operate the devices,” Flynn said. “I met another coach at the Shell station at the Bridge, but he said our software wasn’t compatible with theirs. I drove back the next day, pushed a button, and it worked. I drove all that way to push a button; 16 mm film would have been better.”
Today’s coaches might be a bit more well-versed in technology than those of Flynn’s era, and it’s a good thing. They likely need MapQuest and a GPS to traverse the regions in Northern Michigan that Flynn and his cohorts knew like the back of their hands.
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.)