Two straight trips to 8-Player Semifinals
Three straight seasons where the only loss on the field came in the playoffs to the eventual Division 1 champion.
Martin’s football team had come so close a few times to earning the ultimate prize in Michigan high school football. And finally, this fall, it was the Clippers’ turn.
Paced by 11 seniors, the MHSAA/Applebee’s “Team of the Month” for November claimed the 8-Player Division 1 championship at the Superior Dome in Marquette – the Clippers’ first Finals title since 1987 – with a 74-24 win over previously-undefeated Merrill.
“This is the most seniors we’ve ever had, as long as I’ve been coaching here,” said Martin coach Brad Blauvelt, a 2003 graduate of the school who just finished his fifth season leading the program after serving as an assistant coach nearly as long before taking over. “Program kids – from rocket football to middle school, all the way up, they’ve been committed to the program the whole time.”
Martin has an interesting recent history as a program, to say the least. After five straight winning seasons from 2003-07, the Clippers didn’t win a game from 2008-2013. They got back on the plus side at 6-4 in 2018, then made the move to 8-player – where they’ve gone a combined 40-6 over the last four seasons.
This one started with a 30-28 win over Mendon – the eventual 8-Player Division 2 runner-up – and over 13 games Martin averaged 54 points while giving up only 14.5. There were a pair of losses along the way – to Grand Rapids NorthPointe Christian and Bridgman, which both finished 9-0 but have enrollments too high to qualify for the 8-Player Playoffs. Those losses helped Martin move forward, especially the 35-34 defeat against Bridgman in the regular-season finale.
“The biggest thing was being OK with a loss, because we were so used to winning … not being OK with it, just understanding we’ll get better from it,” Blauvelt said.
The Bees were able to get their playmakers outside on the Clippers – which generally means big plays in the 8-player format. So Martin’s coaches made a sharp adjustment heading into the postseason, putting all-state safety Sam Jager at one outside linebacker, and moving middle linebacker (and all-state quarterback) JR Hildebrand outside on the other side.
So while Hildebrand was able to continue leading the offense to totals of 68, 56, 42 and 74 points over the four playoff games, the Clippers during the playoffs gave up just 52 points total – and held a two-time reigning champion Adrian Lenawee Christian team averaging 48 points per game to just 14 in a 59-14 Regional Final win.
The Cougars had eliminated Martin from the playoffs the last two Semifinals on the way to those two straight Division 1 championships. In 2019, Martin lost to Colon in a Regional Final, and the Magi went on to claim the Division 1 title.
“The last couple of years, we lost the last game of the season, and you can’t do anything about it,” Blauvelt said. “Losing in-season, we were able to fix and change some things around that I think ultimately helped us.”
Hildebrand was one of the state’s best at his position this fall, rushing for 1,340 yards and 23 touchdowns and throwing for 1,234 yards and 25 scores. He owns two school records on offense, and also led the team with 90 tackles, to go with four sacks and seven more tackles for loss.
Jager caught seven of those touchdown passes and was the best blocker for a team that ran for more than 2,600 yards. He had 51 tackles and five interceptions, including one he brought back for a score. Another senior, Karter Ribble, topped 300 yards rushing and receiving, with a combined 12 touchdowns, plus scored twice on kickoffs and again on a punt return. He also made 90 percent of his extra-point tries and set a school record with a 43-yard field goal.
They were part of that senior class that, although graduating, has helped bring a buzz and momentum that Blauvelt hopes carries over into other sports, academics and the community as a whole.
“They come to morning workouts, they come to all the summer stuff, and they do the extra work to push themselves over the hump,” Blauvelt said. “They’re so talented athletically too, that doing that pushed them over the top even more so.”
Past Teams of the Month, 2022-23
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.)