'All Together' Onekama Seeks 1st Football Title

November 16, 2018

By Chris Dobrowolski
Special for Second Half

ONEKAMA — The Upper Peninsula is soon to be invaded by Portagers.

The village of Onekama, meanwhile, might resemble a ghost town.

A large and loyal following for the Onekama football team is geared up for a trip to the Superior Dome in Marquette, site of Saturday’s 8-Player Division 2 Football Final, where the Portagers (10-2) are taking on Rapid River (9-3) in their quest for the school’s first MHSAA football championship.

“It’s really energized the community,” said Onekama head coach John Neph. “I’m so happy that our local community has responded so well. It means so much to have this special event going on.”

Yard signs and window decorations have sprung up all over town. Residents have stepped forward to find out how they can aid the team during its journey to the championship game, while fans have shown up to games in droves as the team has advanced farther in the postseason, past the likes of Marion (22-6), Brethren (52-0) and Portland St. Patrick (28-14).

“Everyone’s supporting us. The community here is amazing, especially for the football program,” said running back/linebacker Ben Acton. “We had the most people we’ve ever had for our games in the playoffs this year. It’s awesome seeing everybody out there in the stands and after the games.”

The Portagers have given their fans plenty to cheer about. The program had four playoff wins all-time entering this season, and they have nearly doubled that total with this playoff run.

Getting to the championship game wasn’t at the forefront of Onekama’s goals this season, but it hasn’t come as a complete shock, either. The Portagers had five seniors and three top juniors returning to a squad that went 9-2 in 2017.

“We thought we could be pretty good,” said Neph. “Then we had a really good preseason camp, and we got better. We were very pleasantly surprised with the overall development of our players. Our guys have gotten better and better as the season has gone on.”

It’s a squad that has embraced the team aspect of the game. Sure, there are standouts — Acton and  junior running back/linebacker Aaron Powers have been playmakers on both sides of the ball, senior Rylan Clarke has led from his tight end position, and senior Wyatt Lawson and junior Wade Sedlar anchor the offensive and defensive lines, respectively — but the Portagers relish functioning as one cohesive unit.

“This isn’t one person’s team. Or the coaches’ team. It’s our team,” said Neph. “It’s all of us together. That has made a huge difference with the morale, and the long run we’ve had. Sometimes at the end of a season you can get tired of going to practice, and I don’t think we’ve ever experienced that. It’s a group of guys that like coming out here, enjoy working with each other. We have some fun, and we’ve been winning, which helps.”

Onekama has proven it can score points, having topped the 50-point plateau four times. The Portagers like to be known as a stout defensive team, though. They’ve backed that up by shutting out four teams this year, not counting two forfeit victories.

“We really take pride in our defense,” said senior defensive back Ben Johnson, one of four defensive players to receive accolades on the all-Midwest Central Michigan Conference West teams. “We’re a defensive team but our offense — when it clicks, it clicks too.”

The Portagers finished third in the West after they had tough losses to league champion Wyoming Tri-unity Christian (28-26) and runner-up Suttons Bay (13-8). Neph felt like the loss to Suttons Bay, which came two weeks before the start of the postseason, ignited Onekama’s push through the playoffs.

“We lost it late in the game on a long pass,” said Neph. “It felt like we were about to win the game, and to have it taken away from us like that, that was tough. I’m extremely proud of our guys. That’s where the upperclassmen stepped forward and said, ‘We lost today, but we’re going to bounce back and keep going.’ I would say that was a significant turning point for us. We got back to work and moved forward from there.”

The Portagers have reeled off four straight wins and whipped the entire school and community into a frenzy.

“It’s great,” Clarke said of the atmosphere at school. “Our math teacher looked at us today and said, ‘I still can’t believe you guys are going to the Finals.’ Our student support is tremendous. For a small community like us, this is great.”

Advancing this deep into the postseason has created a lot of additional planning and extra responsibilities for Neph and his staff, including making arrangements for hotel accommodations, transportation and meals for the team. He wouldn’t want to have it any other way, with the opportunity to win a Finals championship.

“It would just be an unbelievable, historical moment for our school to win the state championship,” he said. “It would be the crowning event of a lot of people putting hours and hours and hours of work into the football program. For the players, it would be the ultimate experience for them. Something that will last the rest of their lives.”

Win or lose, this season and this playoff performance already has created a deep bond among the 18 players on this year’s Onekama squad.

“We’re brothers,” said Clarke. “We’ll probably be brothers for the rest of our lives. We’ll probably all be coaching our kids together when we’re 30 and 40.”

Chris Dobrowolski has covered northern Lower Peninsula sports since 1999 at the Ogemaw County Herald, Alpena News, Traverse City Record-Eagle and currently as sports editor at the Antrim Kalkaska Review since 2016. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Onekama’s Ben Acton (5) finds an opening among four Portland St. Patrick defenders during last week’s Semifinal win. (Middle) Luke Mauntler (7) drags along two Manistee Catholic Central defenders during a Week 6 victory. (Photos courtesy of the Onekama athletic department.)

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.)