After Lean Years, Ubly Returns to Regional

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

November 9, 2016

Aaron Klama sat in the stands in 2008 watching his brothers play for Ubly in the Division 7 championship game at Ford Field.

Klama was 10, and Ubly was at the peak of the strongest decade in program history. Even though his brothers and their teammates lost against Traverse City St. Francis, Klama remembers wanting to be like them. Wanting to have the same opportunity to play on that field.

There’s plenty of work for Klama and his Ubly teammates left to do, but after some rough years for the program, the Bearcats are 11-0 and two wins from getting back to the pinnacle of high school football in Michigan.

“I feel like it’s amazing just being able to possibly be in the same shoes as my brothers,” Klama, a senior offensive and defensive tackle for Ubly, said. “Hopefully I’ll be able to push my team further than they even went. But everything has just been amazing this year.”

Ubly is in the middle of its best season since 2010. It will play at 1 p.m. Saturday against New Lothrop at Chesaning High School in a Division 7 Regional Final. A win sends the Bearcats to the Semifinals for the first time since 2009 and the fifth time in school history. All four of the previous trips came between 2003 and 2009, during a 12-year playoff streak for Ubly that stretched through 2012.

That streak ended in 2013, when the current seniors were freshmen. Ubly was 3-6 during both the 2013 and 2014 seasons.

“We had a couple years where numbers were really down,” Ubly coach Dave Kaufman, who took over the program in 2011, said. “In (2013 and 2014), we were playing with 14 to 16 kids. We had some small senior classes.

“It was tough. We’re used to being in the 20s, and the first couple years our numbers were pretty good. We had some small senior classes, and the injury bug kicked our butt, too. When you’re down in numbers as it is, that’s when you’re starting to bring up freshmen and sophomores.”

That included running back Derek Brown, who started as a freshman for the Bearcats and has rushed for 1,000 yards in each of his four seasons. It included Klama, running back and defensive back Nate Keller and several others who were playing at the varsity level as sophomores.

As much as it may have hurt at the time, getting that experience is paying dividends now.

“I think (having players play as underclassmen) helped,” Kaufman said. “I think it also helps that we have a really good senior group. Some of these kids have been playing for three or four years, and that definitely helps.”

In 2015, Ubly was back in the postseason, finishing the year 7-3 and turning the program back in the right direction. What happened between the end of that season and the beginning of this one is what Ubly’s players credit for their current success.

“Everybody was in the weight room all winter, and everybody wants to win on the team,” Keller said. “We didn’t just have two guys in the weight room; it was 15 or 16 guys in there, busting their butts.

“We had guys that would be telling everybody to get into the weight room, because we want to win more than anybody. We had a few leaders that told everybody to get in there.”

After struggling as underclassmen, turning things around in 2015 and setting the tone with a strong offseason prior to this fall, Ubly had high hopes entering its Week 1 game against a tough Unionville-Sebewaing opponent.

Then the Bearcats fumbled on their first offensive play.

“It was kind of like, ‘We can only go up from here, I guess,’” Keller said. “I think that just fueled the fire. We were ready to play from there.”

Ubly responded, and won 28-18, showing its coach something in the process.

“That could have went the wrong way there,” Kaufman said. “That told me a lot about my team right there.”

His team showed him more in a 21-16 win against Cass City, a game in which the Bearcats trailed during the second half. A 54-34 win against Vassar had Ubly sitting at 3-0 after a stretch Kaufman said he would have been happy to finish 2-1.

Ubly rolled through the Greater Thumb Conference East, outscoring opponents by an average of 37.4 points per game. It has picked up playoff wins against Elkton-Pigeon-Bay Port and Unionville-Sebewaing, setting itself up for the matchup with a tough New Lothrop team.

Ubly is back where it expects to be, and it has done it the same way it did during the 2000s, by wearing on its opponents with a strong run game out of the T-formation and a strong defense.

Ubly has rushed for 3,500 yards and 51 touchdowns this season, taking advantage of an offensive line (including tight ends) that features five seniors. Brown has led the way with 1,188 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground, while senior Jonathon Brandel has 861 yards and 14 touchdowns -- adding four receiving scores plus two interception returns and one punt return for touchdowns. Keller and junior quarterback Matt Maikzrek have combined for nearly 1,000 yards and 14 more rushing touchdowns.

“We have no problem chugging away, eating up clock,” Kaufman said. “When teams haven’t faced (the T-formation) in a little bit, they struggle a little bit with the keys. We try to hide the football as well as we can, and we’re happy getting three, four or five yards a crack. There’s not a better defense than an offense that stays on the field.”

Ubly’s offense is a lot like its attitude through the rough times – just keep moving forward.

“As we walk through the locker room every day, we have a little billboard that says, ‘Those who stay will become champions,’” Klama said. “We slap it on the way out. The coaches even told us that if we stay and work hard, we weren’t going to regret it. They always taught us about loyalty and determination.”

Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Ubly's Casey Sweeney breaks through a pack against Unionville-Sebewaing this season. (Middle) Jonathan Brandel carries the ball for the Bearcats. (Photos courtesy of the Ubly yearbook staff.)

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

By Scott Hassinger
Special for

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.)