By Wes Morgan
Special for Second Half
Getting to the postseason wasn’t the issue for the Cassopolis varsity football program, which is currently ranked No. 6 in the latest Associated Press Division 7 poll and has earned playoff berths 11 times since 2000.
It was taking that next step.
Now in his fifth year guiding the program, head coach Dan Purlee, a Cassopolis graduate, former athlete and longtime assistant coach, helped push the school past that barrier. And 2016 was the program’s banner year.
The Rangers ripped through all their opponents last season except for a talented Buchanan squad in Week 5. Throughout their 8-1 run during the regular season, the Rangers were on the right side of a 365-130 scoring differential. They went on to outscore their first three playoff foes 141-49.
Cassopolis, which also boasted a 4-0 mark to win the Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph Conference Red championship, finished last year 11-2 with a 54-22 loss to Detroit Loyola in the Division 7 Semifinals.
Just a year earlier, Cassopolis recorded a 9-3 record in 2015, falling to Pewamo-Westphalia in the Regional round. The Rangers’ 48-14 victory against Bridgman that fall earned the program its first District championship.
“We’ve put together a few good years here,” said Purlee, whose team, led by six returning seniors, is 6-0 heading into Friday’s game against Southwest 10 Conference opponent Hartford. “We’re playing pretty good football, but you always feel like there’s room for improvement, and there is. But we like where we’re at this year, and we’re proud of our success and accomplishments over the previous few years.”
Purlee doesn’t easily accept the credit. He promptly shifted the focus to the student-athletes and his astute assistants, including Michigan High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame inductee Jim Myers, who has 42 years of coaching under his belt and previously was the head coach at Niles Brandywine. And there’s also Steve Green, who has been coaching alongside Purlee at Cassopolis the last 18 years.
“We’ve done it together,” Purlee said. “Your coaching buddies — it goes beyond coaching. They’re like your brothers.”
Cassopolis athletics director Matt Brawley had high praise for Purlee.
“He’s a professional,” Brawley said. “He’s extremely detailed and has a game plan for every situation. He’s very impressive to watch.”
Brawley also pointed out that, with a current team grade-point average of 3.40, a second consecutive academic all-state award is on the horizon.
Running the full house T formation offense, no one player has had to carry the load. Statistical information was only available through the Rangers’ first five games, but senior Brandon Anderson and junior Tyrese Hunt-Thompson had combined for nearly 500 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns. Senior quarterback Xander Smith had rushed for more than 250 yards with a couple passing touchdowns as well.
Junior Hunter Parsons had rushed for 266 yards through five contests, and quarterback Dylan Green has been responsible for four passing TDs. Keep in mind, most of the starters have watched the second half from the sideline most of the year with games well in hand.
“We have the ability to run a little shotgun spread,” Purlee said. “We’re pretty diverse offensively. Teams were really loading up the box on us and we’re not traditionally very big up front, so we realized we were going to need to counter that with spreading the field a little bit.
“We’ve just had a stretch here where we’ve had some kids who are extremely athletic and can catch the ball and quarterbacks that can throw the ball. We can pound it up the middle and also spread you out.”
Defensively, freshman outside linebacker Ahsan Hart boasts 33 tackles and a pair of sacks, senior Kyjuan Lanier, a captain at middle linebacker, has 29 tackles, two sacks and two fumble recoveries; and junior defensive end Skyler McKee has recorded 28 tackles with two sacks.
“We’re all comfortable with each other,” Lanier, a three-year varsity player, said. “It’s trust. I feel like if I don’t make a play, I’ve got Hunter Parsons right next to me coming up to make the tackle. Our secondary likes to come up and make plays. Our lines are disciplined.
“When I was younger, it was more coming downhill, filling holes and blitzing. As I’ve gotten older, it is recognizing where the ball is going, watching linemen, seeing what they’re doing, watching a pulling guard … getting smarter rather than just running to the play.”
The Rangers, who have given up only 28 points all year, pin their ears back and keep the pressure on every snap.
“I think there are several factors,” Purlee said of his program’s building success. “We’ve had some really good players over the past few years, and we have some athletic and tough kids. When you have that, you can put together a pretty good football team. I feel like our coaches have done a great job in helping instill discipline. It’s a team that executes in all phases of the game. We work hard, and we’re well prepared. It’s a collaborative effort between good players, good coaches and the right type of kids.”
Instead of being content, having tasted this kind of success has only intensified the team’s appetite.
“They have been a committed group. They’re extremely focused,” Purlee added. “Obviously, we’re proud of what we’ve done the last two years, but we want to go further. We’re not going to limit our goals. The next step for us is to play in Ford Fieldhouse.
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) Casspolis' Tyrese Hunt-Thompson (2) follows his blockers into the line against Marcellus last week. (Middle) Rangers coach Dan Purlee confers with one of his linemen on the sideline. (Photos by Billie Austin.)
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.)