DETROIT – You could not have written a better script for Ubly’s football program and its tight-knit Thumb community Saturday at Ford Field.
The Bearcats captured their first Finals championship, avenged last year’s title-game loss to Ottawa Lake Whiteford, and sent head coach Eric Sweeney into retirement a champion with a 21-6 victory over the Bobcats in the Division 8 title game.
Might Sweeney consider an encore and coach another year?
“No!” Sweeney quickly responded with conviction, prompting laughter among attendees of the press conference and even his own players before adding another “no.”
Sweeney served as Ubly’s head varsity coach for only four seasons, but he compiled a 48-5 overall record. He led the Bearcats to the top of the mountain after the program had made several title pursuits prior to Saturday, including a last year’s which ended with a 26-20 loss to Whiteford and a 2020 Finals run that concluded with a 22-0 defeat to Centreville.
“You know, I’m done. I’ve coached for 23 years at every level there is. No, this makes it easier to walk away,” Sweeney said. “I loved coaching all these years. I got to coach these guys (referring to his players at the press conference) for four years at the varsity level. I coached them in seventh-grade basketball. I know these kids pretty good.
“My kids are all well out of high school, and there’s just other things I want to do in life. I’m just proud I’m leaving the program in the condition that it is.”
It may be impossible to leave it better than Sweeney and the Bearcats did Saturday and throughout their perfect journey in 2023.
Ubly completed this run with a 14-0 record and did it the Bearcat way – with physicality at the point of attack, a clock-grinding, ball-control offense; and a very stingy defense. The Bearcats outscored their opponents this season by a combined 596-134 margin.
“It means a lot. Like, last year, we lost here and we felt terrible for the seniors, the way we went out, basically on a last-second thing,” said Ubly senior Evan Peruski, who also started at quarterback in the Bearcats’ 2022 and 2020 Finals losses.
“It means everything. I mean, a lot of us up here, we’re friends with kids that played 10, 20 years ago. I saw about 30 of them in the crowd, people I knew that played 20, 30 years ago. They’re there supporting us.”
Whiteford, which was seeking its third Division 8 title since 2017, saw a 27-game winning streak end and closed the season with a 13-1 record – a tough conclusion to a tremendous two-year run.
“I’ve been coaching football a long time. I don’t think I’ve ever had an experience of a senior group like these guys that we have,” said Todd Thieken, who finished his second season as Whiteford’s head coach but has been in the game since the late 1980s with various stops in Michigan and Ohio.
“A couple of seniors came up to me after the game and they said, ‘I’m sorry, coach.’ I just said to them, ‘I’m just sorry that I don’t ever get to coach you again,’” Thieken added, getting a bit choked up. “I’m still going to be around and in their lives and making sure that they continue to get through school and be successful young men.”
Well-executing Ubly and Whiteford squads engaged in a game of keep-away, both aiming to possess the football and keep it out of the opponent’s hands.
Ubly won that battle, possessing the ball for nearly a 2-to-1 margin (31:51-16:09). The Bearcats nearly doubled up the Bobcats in total offense as well, 310-165, led by an overwhelming advantage in rushing yardage (281-60).
Senior Seth Maurer led Ubly with 138 yards on 27 carries, highlighted by his 4-yard touchdown run that drew the teams even with 1:31 left in the first half before senior Brett Mueller hammered through the ensuing PAT for a 7-6 edge.
Whiteford had struck first in the contest. Ubly’s game-opening, 16-play, 79-yard drive that consumed 8:01 of the clock was stopped just shy of the goal line after a review determined Peruski’s knee was down inside the 1. Whiteford then marched 99 yards the other way and got into the end zone on a 4-yard scoring pass from freshman Tre Eitniear to senior Hunter DeBarr. The two-point conversion pass failed, but the Bobcats led 6-0 with 8:11 left in the second quarter.
Ubly’s defense settled in after that, allowing only 66 yards the rest of the way.
Meanwhile, Ubly’s offense continued to move the ball. The Bearcats extended their lead to 14-6 on Peruski’s 11-yard TD pass to senior Ryan Learman on 4th-and-goal from the 11. Junior Luke Volmering all but put the game away with his 3-yard scoring run with 6:13 remaining.
“I think our line does a great job. The big fella here (pointing to 6-foot-3, 270-pound senior lineman Mitchell Foote) had a heck of a game today,” Sweeney said. “When you’re running our offense, it’s an offensive line game. I’m an offensive line coach, so you know, it’s kind of my kind of game. I’m not smart enough for all this fancy passing stuff.
“We’ve got to play the game at the line of scrimmage, and I thought defensively our D-line made some big plays as it went on and the secondary did a great job, too. … The game was won at the line of scrimmage.”
Peruski did enough to keep Whiteford’s defense honest. He ran six times for 32 yards and completed 2 of 3 passes for 29 yards. Volmering ran 16 times for 77 yards. Ubly senior Canden Peruski led the defense with 11 tackles.
Whiteford senior Jake Iott was all over the field, registering 18 tackles. Bobcats senior Kolby Masserant made 13 stops, while senior teammate Ryin Ruddy notched 11 tackles. Eitniear was 6-of-11 passing for 78 yards, while Ruddy went 3-of-4 for 27 yards. Iott led his team on the ground with 37 yards on 12 carries.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity. You know, I’ve been starting for four years on varsity,” DeBarr said. “I’m glad the coaches and some of my teammates could make me a better player for those four years. We won a lot of big games and, you know, you lose a couple of big games. It was fun.”
Saturday marked Ubly’s fourth Finals appearance. The Bearcats also had lost to Traverse City St. Francis in the Division 7 Final in 2008.
Sweeney attributed much of Ubly’s success over the past couple of decades to his cousin, former head coach Bill Sweeney. The Bearcats have won 10 Regional titles over the last 20 years.
Eric Sweeney also credited the unwavering support of Ubly’s community and that of the Bearcats’ rival schools along the way. Ubly spent the week practicing indoors at the Laker Legacy Center of rival Elkton-Pigeon-Bay Port.
“It’s not as much for me personally. It’s for our community,” Sweeney said. “The support we get from the Thumb area is unreal. It just means a lot.”
Said Foote: “It just means the world. Best coach I’ve ever had. He’s always pushed us. (They) just had to make him go out with a state championship. It would be a shame to not give him one.”
PHOTOS (Top) Ubly coach Eric Sweeney presents the Division 8 championship trophy to his team Saturday morning at Ford Field. (Middle) The Bearcats’ Seth Maurer (30) follows teammate Canden Peruski’s block into a small gap in the Whiteford defense. (Below) Mitchell Foote (76) brings down the Bobcats’ Ryin Ruddy. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)
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.)