8-Player Takes Flight in Upper Peninsula

September 28, 2017

By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half

ESCANABA – Three yards and a cloud of dust. That was the highly successful version of football applied by veteran Ohio State coach Woody Hayes as big bruisers dominated the game.

It certainly is not the preferred style on the fields of 8-player football. Nope, this version is much more open-field and definitely more exciting, full of big plays and a ton of scoring.

Take Powers North Central as the prime example. The Jets have won the last two 8-player MHSAA championships with back-to-back 13-0 seasons, piling up yards and points in their first two seasons in the 8-player game with a large group of skilled athletes.

Their winning streak ended at 27 games earlier this season, but the style they displayed with exceptional athleticism led by Jason Whitens and Bobby Kleiman has caught on with many other programs.

The Upper Peninsula, at the forefront of the 8-player game due largely to decreasing enrollments, has been lighting up the scoreboards this year. Teams like Pickford and Cedarville, Rapid River and Stephenson, Ontonagon and Crystal Falls Forest Park are progressing with the same formula as North Central by featuring explosive offenses.

Citing some 8-player detractors who don't think the game is real football, veteran Cedarville coach Scott Barr said, "I don't think anyone can argue that it (8-player) has not been healthy for football. It has been healthy."

The game is thriving in small schools because the 8-player version simply has allowed football to remain in the athletic program despite shrinking enrollments across the state.

"It has allowed us to keep football," said veteran coach Steve Ostrenga of Rapid River, who led the Rockets into 8-player Finals in 2011 and 2013 and into the playoffs every season since making the switch after going 1-7 in 11-player in 2010.

"We did it out of necessity. We may have waited too long," added Ostrenga, recalling that last year of 11-player football when only one sub was available at several games.

Veteran Pickford skipper Josh Rader has an idea why the 8-player game has met approval at so many small schools. "It is a high-octane game. It is a lot of fun to watch," he said. "It puts a lot of pressure on defenses because it is such a wide open game. It makes it exciting for the fans."

No longer do fans have to squint and squirm in their seats to see what is happening among the goliaths in the line. Now the football is visible in the wide open spaces as skilled athletes display dazzling moves, whether the team favors the extremely popular spread offense or uses the more familiar run-oriented approach.

"It is more a one-on-one oriented game now," said coach Ben Mayer of Ontonagon, whose program has consolidated with neighboring Ewen-Trout Creek, which yearly battled small player turnouts just to keep the game alive. Fifteen E-TC students are playing football at Ontonagon, with six on the varsity, highlighted by 6-foot-7 receiver Jacob Witt, who caught MHSAA 8-player record 24 touchdown passes last season.

"Without 8-player, we would have gone under a while back," said Mayer, who played for U.P. Sports Hall of Fame coach Bob "Cubby" Carlson at Ontonagon. He said the Gladiators were forced to use four freshmen and had 130-pound athletes on the line in past years.

"Football has changed a lot in the last four years," he said of the time since the Gladiators moved to the 8-player game. "The ball is in the air. It is fun to watch.”
Mayer said 8-player also enables his program to offer junior varsity football to younger students, instead of having them compete against older, bigger and stronger players with the potential to increase injuries.

"There is not as much violence between the tight ends now because we don't play in those tight spaces," said Mayer.

He also recalls putting "wildly undersized kids in the line against bigger schools with monsters from legitimate programs, with kids getting stepped on and squashed on.

"You do have a lot of choices in 8-man. I can put smaller kids somewhere and they will be all right, and we can still play football."

Ostrenga said it seems injuries, especially of the serious variety, have also seemed to decrease. "We used to hit a lot more in practice. Now we do a lot of teaching and drill work and conditioning," he said, adding MHSAA officials have been in the forefront of trying to reduce injuries with new regulations.

Ostrenga said in the 11-player version, many times it came down to "men playing against boys."

He did say, however, that under the 8-player game coaches "can tend to overuse a player. You get a really good athlete and use him as a crutch in a game."

Ostrenga said it took time to support the change to 8-player football. "I was against 8-man football at first. Now it has made me more open-minded and allowed me to become more understanding." He said 8-player athletes need to have speed, strength, balance and shiftiness.

"Some big guys can't move that well," he said, indicating this version of football requires more agile and nimble athletes to cover the wide-open spaces. "The big thing is understanding you have to get your athletes on the field. You just have eight guys on the field and you are (more) exposed. In 11-man you can hide someone. In 8-man, coaches will find your weaknesses."

Rader agreed, noting, "It puts a lot of pressure on the defense because the game is so wide open. There is a little different strategy. It is a disadvantage for the defense because (the field) is so wide open and there is not a lot of help. You want to take the advantage your offense has over the defense in one-on-ones.

"We like to run the ball and throw the ball, so our athletes can utilize the open field.”
Barr said 8-player quarterbacks are more difficult to contain than typical pocket passers. "They are more elusive," he said, recalling how the 6-foot-4 Whitens could take the direct snap, survey the field and decide whether to throw or run the ball himself.

In the 2016 MHSAA title game, Whitens ran 17 times for a record 352 yards and six touchdowns as the Jets beat Deckerville 58-22. The Jets ran for 469 yards that night.

"You rarely see teams ground and pound," Barr said of the8-man game, noting he began to rely on the spread offense in 11-player football as he tried to figure out how to match up with the over-powering tailback-oriented rushing attack of perennial power Forest Park, which began playing 8-player football in 2016.

Barr said the kicking game is of vital importance now and that secondary tackling is a tough transition because of the explosive offense athletes.

He said "the hybrid player who has size and speed" is featured in 8-player "and it can eliminate the real big kids," which he said are seldom a factor for small schools anyway.

Another plus for the 8-player game comes in scheduling, where Class D schools no longer have to face larger Class C programs and can also find opponents in northern Wisconsin, which also has declining enrollments. 

Bark River-Harris and Lake Linden-Hubbell are the only Class D schools still fielding 11-player football teams in the Upper Peninsula. Three other schools, Class D Wakefield-Marenisco and Bessemer and Class C Ironwood have formed a cooperative program, Gogebic Miners, for football purposes.

Denny Grall retired in 2012 after 39 years at the Escanaba Daily Press and four at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, plus 15 months for WLST radio in Escanaba; he served as the Daily Press sports editor from 1970-80 and again from 1984-2012. Grall was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and serves as its executive secretary. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Upper Peninsula.

PHOTOS: (Top) Crystal Falls Forest Park downed Powers North Central 66-58 in Week 2 as the teams combined to score more than 100 points for the third time in two seasons. (Middle) Ewen-Trout Creek’s Jacob Witt, here against Carney-Nadeau last season, caught 24 touchdown passes in 2016 and is playing as part of a co-op team with Ontonagon this fall. (Photos by Paul Gerard.) 

Constantine Football All-Stater, Wrestling Champ Aiming for Grand Finale

By Scott Hassinger
Special for MHSAA.com

April 30, 2024

CONSTANTINE – Bennett VandenBerg has earned many accolades over the last four years as a three-sport athlete at Constantine.

Southwest CorridorBut the awards aren't what the 6-foot-3, 240-pound standout will remember most when reflecting on his memories as an all-state football player, state champion wrestler and record-breaking throwing specialist on the Falcons' track & field squad.

"I'll remember how I represented our school and pushed myself to be the best I could be in each sport that I played," said VandenBerg, who has earned 12 varsity letters.

VandenBerg has evolved into one of the most accomplished athletes in the state this school year as a senior, especially standing out among those from smaller communities.

This past fall he was named first-team Division 5-6 all-state at defensive end in football before winning the Division 3 Individual Finals wrestling title at 285 pounds in early March at Ford Field.

VandenBerg's final goal is to win the discus title at the Lower Peninsula Division 3 Finals on Saturday, June 1, in Kent City to end his Constantine career all-state in all three sports.

He broke the school record in the discus his junior year with a throw of 158 feet, 1 inch; the previous mark of 156-6 had been held by Doug Polasek since 1986. VandenBerg has eclipsed his school record twice this spring, most recently with a personal-best toss of 170-9 in a Southwestern Athletic Conference double dual meet with Schoolcraft and Kalamazoo Christian. He ranks No. 4 statewide in the event regardless of enrollment division. Lawton junior Mason Mayne at 175-4 is the only Division 3 competitor with a better throw than VandenBerg.

"It's really cool to have your name up on the school record board, but I'd like to make that mark more untouchable before I'm done," VandenBerg said. "My goal is to be a state discus champion. I've put in the necessary work for it. It would be nice to end my career that way."

Kyle Rimer, Constantine's veteran boys track & field coach, is most impressed with VandenBerg's leadership and presence in working with the Falcons' younger athletes.

VandenBerg, top position, battles Wyatt Spalo in their Division championship wrestling match at 285 pounds in March at Ford Field. "Bennett loves to compete. Ever since he was a freshman, we've also had him on our 400-meter relay team. That's something he really enjoys doing. He's not just a thrower, but a good overall athlete with lots of drive,” Rimer said. “There's a lot of individuality in track & field, but I think he does a great job of leading the younger kids. He has the drive, accountability and technique to achieve his goal of being a state champion in his throwing events.”

VandenBerg is already a two-time Finals placer in the discus, earning sixth as a junior and seventh his sophomore year. He admits being a little disappointed with his distance at the 2023 state meet.

"In that particular event (discus) you need lots of focus and determination because there are a ton of tiny things you can mess up on that affect your throw. To become better you need to be consistent, show up every day and be willing to put in the work," VandenBerg said. "Right now I'm working on my speed in the circle and quickness in my follow-through."

VandenBerg also has been pleased with his improvement this spring in the shot put. He's increased his distance by over five feet and hopes to break the school record in that event as well. John Kampars (1967) holds Constantine's shot put record at 54-8¼, and VandenBerg's personal best is 48-10 in a double-dual meet this season against Parchment and Centreville.

"Shot put is a difficult event. You need power, but your form has to be top-notch – otherwise it's tough to move that 12-pound ball," VandenBerg said. "I would love to qualify for state in both the discus and shot put and be all-state in each. That would be amazing if I could be a state champion in either of those events."

VandenBerg has put in extra work in the offseason with special instruction from Bill Griffey of Next Throw in Plainwell, along with working with Constantine assistant track & field and head football coach Shawn Griffith.

"Bennett puts a lot of time into working on his throwing. He spends a lot of time in the weight room, and he's a bigger kid who is not afraid to be coached and listens to what other people tell him," Griffith said. "We're excited to see what he can do now that we've had warmer weather recently."

VandenBerg (34) carries the football during a 2023 regular-season home game against Schoolcraft.VandenBerg's motivation this spring follows a tremendous wrestling season that saw him finish 54-0 and capture the 285 championship with a 3-0 win in the title match over Reed City junior Wyatt Spalo.

"I gained 20 pounds of muscle and did everything you need to do to become a better athlete to wrestle the heavyweight division. Winning the title was overwhelming. It was everything I ever wanted, and the first 20 minutes after winning it was relief, especially after losing in the Finals as a junior. I just went into that last match and wrestled smart and confident," VandenBerg said. "My speed and strength gave me an advantage over the bigger heavyweights I faced this year."

Vandenberg, 188-22 with 104 career pins, became the 10th Finals champion in Constantine wrestling history and the first to achieve the feat since Kevin Watkins won a 152-pound crown in 2000.

VandenBerg competed at 189 as a freshman and sophomore. He was a Regional qualifier as a freshman and finished sixth in Division 3 as a sophomore before ending his junior campaign as the Finals runner-up at 215. 

"Bennett is a competitor who hates to lose, and if he does he learns from it. He had a lot of good practice partners on the team his first three years, and he wasn't going to be denied after losing in the Finals as a junior," said Constantine wrestling coach Dale Davidhizar Jr.

VandenBerg played on Constantine's varsity football team for four years. He got a lot of extra playing time as a freshman when Constantine reached the Division 6 Semifinals during in the COVID-shortened season. He led the Falcons in rushing as a sophomore before switching to tight end as a junior. Out of necessity, VandenBerg returned to lead Constantine in rushing and scoring again as a senior.

"Bennett learned a great deal from the older guys on the team his first three varsity seasons. He learned leadership qualities and is a very unselfish kid who is willing to do what's best for his team," Griffith said.

VandenBerg is most proud of Constantine winning a District crown last fall, especially after his senior class went 0-5-1 as eighth graders. VandenBerg posted 164 solo tackles at defensive end during his final high school season and was Constantine's main offensive weapon with 1,354 yards and 16 touchdowns rushing on 186 carries.

"Winning Districts as seniors in football was a special moment. As eighth graders, we weren't exactly the most athletic team, but we put in the work as we got older to become successful," VandenBerg said.

VandenBerg has been invited to play for the West team at the annual Michigan High School Football Coaches Association's East-West All-Star Game this summer.

College coaches have shown interest in VandenBerg in all three sports, especially football and wrestling. VandenBerg, who carries a cumulative GPA of 3.989 and scored 1110 on his SAT, is weighing his options in athletics but knows he wants to study either ecology or forestry in college.

"I love being outdoors and doing what I love to do," VandenBerg said.

Scott HassingerScott Hassinger is a contributing sportswriter for Leader Publications and previously served as the sports editor for the Three Rivers Commercial-News from 1994-2022. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Constantine’s Bennett VandenBerg competes in the discus during a home meet his junior season. (Middle) VandenBerg, top position, battles Wyatt Spalo in their Division championship wrestling match at 285 pounds in March at Ford Field. (Below) VandenBerg (34) carries the football during a 2023 regular-season home game against Schoolcraft. (Photos by Brandon Watson/Sturgis Journal.)