By Chris Dobrowolski
Special for Second Half
It seemed appropriate that the first game T.J. Schultz played his senior season for the Central Lake/Ellsworth football team was also the program’s fourth annual Veterans and First Responders Appreciation Night.
Schultz, a starting linebacker and running back in his third year with the Trojans, had the beginning of his final year on the gridiron delayed until the third week of the 2019 campaign — the game that paid homage to those who have served in the military — as he was completing basic training for the National Guard.
Enlisting in the Split Training Option program gave Schultz the opportunity to do basic training during the summer before his senior year. He reported to Fort Sill in Oklahoma on June 25 and spent the next 10 weeks going through the rigors of the military. It’s part of an eight-year contract with the National Guard that includes six years of active service, followed by two more years of inactive duty.
“It just gave me a head start, instead of graduating and then doing basic,” said Schultz. “The advantage of doing split op is I can come back and finish high school and take a little break, then go back down.”
Schultz quickly found out how demanding the military can be for a new recruit during basic training.
“They give you near-impossible tasks and if you can’t do them, you do push-ups or exercises,” he said. “Sometimes you’d have to go upstairs and change into a new uniform in less than 30 seconds. If you can’t do that, you’re coming downstairs and doing push-ups.”
To make matters even more challenging, the 240-member unit did the brunt of their training in the heat of the southern Oklahoma summer, where temperatures often reached into triple digits.
“They said it was one of the hottest summers there in a long time,” said Schultz. “We had to wear Kevlar helmet, bulletproof vest. They added 30 pounds to us. We were out there in the heat. It was just insane. We didn’t have (air conditioning). What we had were these big fans that sprayed mists of water. They were big, powerful fans, but unless you were really close to them they didn’t work very well.”
Not only did Schultz manage to make it through those hardships that he faced during basic training, but he came out of graduation with high praise from his drill sergeant.
“His drill sergeant had nothing but good things to say about him,” said Schultz’s mother, Mary Drenth, also a veteran of the National Guard. “He did great on everything. He was one of six in the whole unit to shoot expert on the rifle range. He was second. There was one kid who got 38 out of 40, and he got 37 out of 40. We’re incredibly proud.
“We have four boys. When we found out he was graduating a week into school, we chose to let the kids all miss that first week of school and took a trip out to Oklahoma. So, they all got to witness their brother graduate. That was an amazing experience. It was really, really cool.”
Like his first experience in the military, Schultz also can hold his own on the football field, where he has been a fixture at linebacker since taking over a starting spot as a sophomore in 2017 — the year the Trojans went 13-0 and captured the MHSAA 8-player Division 1 championship. It was his first season playing football after moving from Cheboygan the previous year.
“It was funny because I was thinking of doing football in Cheboygan and I never really committed to it because I was hockey, hockey, hockey. I love hockey,” said Schultz, who started playing hockey as a 4-year-old. “Then I came here and thought, ‘I’ll give football a try. Might as well.’ I love those guys. It was just so fun. Everyone was so confident. Going into a game we didn’t expect to lose. We were just going out there and having fun.”
Central Lake/Ellsworth defensive assistant coach Jarod Steenwyk has come to rely on Schultz’s toughness and tenacity at the heart of the Trojans’ defense for the past couple years, so he was excited to finally have Schultz return from basic training. Schultz also is getting an increased role at running back this season after serving as a backup at that position the last two years.
“He brings some size at linebacker for us and having that other running back,” said Steenwyk. “He’s got some speed, but he’s willing to hit somebody — lower the shoulder.”
“He started for us on the state championship team and even in that (championship game) he made some pretty big plays. He really came through for us.”
Steenwyk has noticed that Schultz seems to be more focused in the short time he’s been back with the team. Drenth, likewise, said the experience of basic training changed her son in a good way.
“It was good for him,” she said. “He’s definitely matured a lot. He has the self-discipline. He’s a different kid now.”
After Schultz finishes the school year in the spring, he will return to the National Guard for Advanced Individual Training — eight weeks of hands-on instruction at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas with a Military Occupational Specialty as a construction equipment repairman.
“Right after high school I’ll go to AIT, finish up there and then come back with some good certificates that will get me a head start, and it will look good on my resume,” said Schultz. “So far I’m not regretting anything.”
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: Central Lake/Ellsworth’s T.J. Schultz tries to cut past a Gaylord St. Mary defender during their Week 3 meeting. (Middle) Schultz takes down a Wyoming Tri-unity Christian ball carrier. (Photos courtesy of the Antrim County Review.)
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.)