By Wes Morgan
Special for Second Half
J.J. Wagner is economical with his words, stoic on the sideline, and not preoccupied with statistical trends. All he really asks of his Three Rivers football players is to play and sacrifice for one another.
It’s been a pretty good recipe throughout his 13-year tenure as the head varsity coach of the Wildcats, at least in the years when the players truly held up their end of the bargain. With an 82-50 career record since 2005, Wagner has seen what can happen when everyone is pulling in the same direction, like a 13-0 run that ended with a loss in the 2009 Division 4 Final.
He’s also witnessed how complacency can cut a program right back down, as was the case in 2010 when an experienced Three Rivers squad went 4-5 and missed the postseason.
The Wildcats have been noticeably hungrier the last two years, with a 7-3 mark in 2016 and an 8-2 record this year as they prepare for Friday’s Division 4 District championship game against Edwardsburg.
Eleven games into the year, Three Rivers has been unable to break out of a Wolverine Conference bubble. The Wildcats went 7-2 in the league, with losses to Dowagiac (Week 2) and Vicksburg (Week 9). Revenge was sweet last Friday as Three Rivers beat Vicksburg in the Pre-District game (20-10).
Now, the difficult task of beating the league’s most dominant team for the second time in one year is what’s required to move on in the playoffs. If Three Rivers can beat the Eddies (after also doing so 21-18 in Week 7), there’s a chance they’ll face Wolverine Conference member Plainwell in the Regional Round.
“You get through the Wolverine (schedule) and then you’re suddenly in a mini Wolverine tournament,” Wagner joked.
There are no secrets in terms of playoff prep against such familiar foes, so it’s all about the basics.
“Our offense has been moving the sticks, our defense has been playing well, our special teams have played well and we play well when we don’t turn the ball over,” he said.
Having played for perennial power Mendon, where he registered 253 tackles as an outside linebacker during the 1987-89 seasons, Wagners’ emphasis on that side of the ball has been a hallmark of the 2017 campaign. Three Rivers has only allowed 11.7 points and 203 yards per game. The Wildcats have stopped opponents on third down 79.8 percent of the time.
A lot of that has to do with big and athletic senior defensive end Tirrell Hausmanis (6-foot-4, 245 pounds), senior defensive tackle Tyler Moore (5-11, 235) and the linebacker duo of senior Chris Morrill (5-10, 160) and Traven Van Oss (6-1, 165). That group alone has accounted for 34.5 tackles for loss this season. Morrill and Van Oss are tied for a team-best 61 tackles.
“Anytime you’re playing good defense, you can take a few more chances on offense,” Wagner said. “I don’t know how many times we’ve gone for it on fourth down this year, but it’s probably more than most (years). You can take a chance at midfield or the 40 that maybe you wouldn’t normally.”
Perhaps no player has embraced Wagner’s rule of doing what’s best for the team more than Hausmanis, who likely would have garnered a lot more attention from college coaches had he stayed at tight end. Instead, he’s anchored both lines the past two seasons.
“We all just do our jobs,” he said. “This happened and we weren’t big enough (on the offensive line) for me to play tight end. They needed me at tackle. At first I didn’t really like it, but I had to get used to it because it was what was best for the team. It helped us succeed and win, so I had to do it.”
His defensive stats might not seem that impressive — 30 tackles with two sacks — but it’s what he’s capable of that impacts the game so severely.
“It helps when you know people are going to run away from (Hausmanis), so you can stunt and play games on the other side that can mess with their protections and blocking schemes,” Wagner said.
Wagner admitted he’s not big on stats, but for those who were wondering about how many times the offense has felt comfortable gambling on fourth down because of a belief in the defense, it’s 27. The Wildcats have converted 15 times (55.6 percent).
Other than knowing the defense could likely bail it out if needed, there’s been plenty of confidence in the offense under the leadership of junior quarterback Jalen Heivilin.
With a 22-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio, an average of 214.6 passing yards per game and a completion rate of 61 percent, the first-year starter has settled in nicely. Classmate Gavin Charvat has been Heivilin’s favorite target as the two have connected 42 times for 562 yards and six touchdowns. Bryce Morlan was next in line with 32 receptions for 549 yards and a team-high 11 TDs, but the senior went down in Week 9 with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Fortunately for the Wildcats they also have reliable receivers in Jett Haifley and Zac Meyer; each has hauled in 23 passes for around 400 yards.
“When we play mistake-free, which is what we harp on, and eliminate pre- and post-snap penalties, you can win a lot of games,” Wagner said. “That’s what we focus on every week. If you can do that, you’re going to keep yourself in a lot of games.”
That was exactly the difference in Three Rivers’ home win against Edwardsburg on Oct. 6, which snapped a 34-game Wolverine Conference winning streak by the Eddies.
“We have to play with that same energy and effort (against Edwardsburg),” Wagner added. “In both of our losses, we came out kind of flat. If I knew why, we wouldn’t do it. We think we can go in there (at Edwardsburg) and play them tough again. It boiled down to mistakes in that (first meeting). We made our extra points, and we held them on all theirs. If we go in there with the same discipline, there’s no reason we can’t beat them again.”
Wes Morgan has reported for the Kalamazoo Gazette, ESPN and ESPNChicago.com, 247Sports and Blue & Gold Illustrated over the last 12 years and is the publisher of JoeInsider.com. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Three Rivers’ defense lines up for a play; it’s been stifling this season giving up only 11.7 points per game. (Middle) Receiver Nolan Mark and quarterback Jalen Heivilin (4) talk things over against Edwardsburg. (Photos courtesy of JoeInsider.com.)
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.)