OTTAWA LAKE – Jason Mensing believes high school football can happen this year safely.
Monday was the first official practice of the 2020 high school football season across Michigan. Thousands of athletes put helmets on and started the journey, including Mensing’s Ottawa Lake Whiteford Bobcats.
Like any other year, Mensing said early-season practices are about finding out the personality of his team and what motivates them.
“Every year is different, without question,” Mensing said. “Every year is a new challenge.”
The start of practice this year is certainly unlike any other. While welcoming players, Mensing was busy going through MHSAA safety protocols, including asking a series of health questions and taking the temperature of every player and every assistant coach. With Covid-19 and the worldwide pandemic on everyone’s mind, the football season still started.
“I think the kids just want to be together,” Mensing said. “That’s the biggest thing. A lot of their travel teams that they played on this summer in other sports, those kids might be friends, but those aren’t their classmates. It’s different.”
While practice started Monday, there are still some questions about the upcoming season. For one, teams won’t be able to put on shoulder pads and equipment other than helmets until Aug. 17. In normal years, shoulder pads and then full pads are added gradually during the first week.
Week 1 games this season are scheduled for the final weekend of August, but the MHSAA has not announced yet if competition is cleared to resume. That announcement will be made by Aug. 20.
As a member of the MHSAA’s Representative Council, Mensing has been part of this summer's discussions about Fall sports moving ahead. He’s also part of the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association, serving as its awards chairperson.
He’s a firm believer in football happening this fall.
“It extends beyond football practice,” Mensing said. “It extends to the school experience, to school sports. We know from the last six months that socially and emotionally kids need this outlet. They need to connect. They need to be with one another and with people for their development.”
Mensing points to research that suggests two-thirds of youth today are depressed.
“That’s not acceptable in my world and I think a lot of others,” he said. “We can address that with outlets like arts and athletic programs.”
Playing high school sports, he said, can help teach student-athletes to be safe, to wash their hands, to wear masks during a pandemic and to social distance – in other words, to take the necessary steps to stop the spread of the virus.
“It’s been very, very apparent to me that our young people, out of their need to socialize and engage with one another, are going to,” he said. “What’s concerning me when it comes to the virus and the transmission of it, is that it’s our job to mitigate that and reduce it so it doesn’t get spread. When there isn’t structure and protocols in place and there isn’t an education about why those structures are necessary, the spread is only going to get worse.
“Through sports and our arts programs, we can establish safe routines to educate people on why we need these protocols and why we need to mitigate and slow the spread of the disease.”
Coaches have a unique opportunity to instill the message into their team members.
“It’s a challenge every day because it’s not what they are doing outside of this,” he said. “It’s definitely a challenge. It’s not natural for people to stay six feet apart or wear a facial mask.”
The Tecumseh native played college football at Adrian College, coached for one year at both Adrian College and Siena Heights University and has been a head coach at Addison, Grayling, Owosso, Tecumseh and is starting his ninth year at Whiteford. His Bobcats won the 2017 Division 8 championship after finishing runners-up the season before.
Among changes to this preseason is the elimination of the scrimmage at the end of the second week of practice. Mensing was fine with that move, he said, because it gives the coaching staff a little more teaching time.
“From an instructional standpoint, I think we can have a little more patience,” he said. “We’re not in such a hurry. Our pace can be a little more reserved. We are three weeks out from playing anyone.”
The Bobcats will be young this season after finishing 5-5 a year ago and making the playoffs for the eighth straight season. They do return three of their top four rushers from last season in senior Devon Shaw (883 yards) and juniors Cole Giesige (668 yards) and Levi Hillard (132 yards). Other returning starters include sophomore quarterback Shea Ruddy, tight end Luke Masserant and all-state offensive lineman Noah Bauman.
“We have a long way to go,” Mensing said.
Returning starters and numbers aside, Mensing is optimistic the season will go forward.
“As long as it’s driven by the science and it’s based around us making sure we are following protocols, yes,” he said. “Ultimately if teams aren’t having transmission of the virus, we will have a safer society. Can it happen? Sure.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Ottawa Lake Whiteford football coach Jason Mensing, right, takes the temperature of Cole Giesige prior to the start of Monday’s first practice of the 2020 season. (Middle) Mensing fills in a questionnaire with Devon Shaw. (Photos by Doug Donnelly.)
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.)