Another 1st-Time Opportunity Awaits as Hart Continues Memorable Playoff Run

By Tom Kendra
Special for

November 1, 2023

HART – When Hart High School constructed a new trophy case last year, football coach Joe Tanis was given the job of organizing it.

West MichiganTalk about adding insult to injury.

Tanis found a home for all 67 of the trophies in the new display case – including District, Regional and state championship trophies from every sport under the sun, from cross country to wrestling to bowling. Every sport, that is, except for football.

“We have a chance to do something very special this Friday night,” Tanis, in his third year as Hart’s head coach, told his huddled team at the end of Monday’s practice. “We have a chance to add the first football trophy to that trophy case.”

Hart (9-1), which qualified for the football playoffs for the first time in school history and became the final Muskegon-area school to earn a playoff berth, then picked up its first playoff win Friday, 44-22, over Kent City in a Division 6 District Semifinal in front of 2,000 fans at Hart.

“Winning a playoff game felt amazing,” said senior quarterback and safety Connor Edwards. “It was so cool to look out at the crowd and see it packed all the way to the concession stand. I’ve never seen that before.”

The Pirates will now play for a coveted District championship trophy this Friday night at Reed City.

“I grew up watching Hart football and never have we ever had a good football team,” said senior cornerback and running back Austin Martinez. “The coolest part is that our grade, since we were little kids playing Bucs football, said we were going to turn it around and now we’re doing it.

“Our team is just a bunch of aggressive guys that don’t back down from anyone.”

 Hart coach Joe Tanis, in his third year, has led the Pirates to a 9-1 record thus far and the school's first-ever playoff victory on Oct. 27 against Kent City. Hart’s football woes go back decades, and many in the town of 2,126 located about 30 miles north of Muskegon were starting to wonder if their Pirates would ever win on the gridiron. In fact, one must understand the depths of despair the Hart football program has endured to appreciate the current level of euphoria.

Before Tanis’s arrived in 2021, the Pirates had won a total of 12 football games over the previous 10 years, with their last winning season coming with a 5-4 mark in 1997.

Tanis’ tenure started off in typical Hart fashion at 2-5, but his team won its final two games in 2021, leading into a 6-3 season last fall and 9-1 this year.

“We have celebrated on 17 of our last 21 Friday nights,” Tanis said.

Hart’s football turnaround is the final piece of the puzzle to complete the school’s amazing sports renaissance.

Hart won five consecutive Finals titles in girls cross country from 2017 to 2021, the boys cross country team won the school’s first boys team championship last fall, girls track has captured back-to-back Finals titles, competitive cheer took fourth in Division 4 last spring, girls basketball made it to the 2023 Division 3 Semifinals and boys basketball finished 20-0 last regular season – winning the school’s first boys basketball conference title in 60 years.

Football started its turnaround with the arrival of Tanis and defensive coordinator Jacob Tumele in 2021 – a coaching duo which has worked tirelessly recruiting, getting kids in the weight room and, as Tanis readily admits, getting a big boost with the realignment of the West Michigan Conference.

The WMC broke into two divisions in 2021, with a larger-school Lakes division featuring powers Oakridge, Whitehall and Montague, and Hart settling into a much more favorable schedule in the smaller-school Rivers division. The Pirates took second in the Rivers this fall, with their only loss coming at the hands of unbeaten North Muskegon.

Tanis also preached an “all-in” mentality, starting with himself.

Tanis, a Grandville native whose last head coaching job before Hart stretched seven years at Muskegon Orchard View, bought a house on Pirate’s Way leading into the town’s academic campus.

“One of the conditions of this job was that I had to move into town,” explained the 41-year-old Tanis. “Well, to get to my driveway, you first have to pull into the school driveway, so I can’t get any closer. And we absolutely love it.”

All five members of the Tanis family could easily walk to school each day. Joe is the dean of students at the high school, wife Jilanna works in the district’s central business office located in the early elementary building, his two youngest kids are in the elementary school and his oldest child is at the middle school.

“There is a Tanis in all four of the buildings,” Tanis said with a smile.

 Hart's senior football players and their coaches take a final walk off the field after defeating Ravenna, 44-0, on Oct. 20 in the final regular-season home game.

On the field, Tanis dug back into football’s past to find Hart’s new offense – the single wing, which features a direct center snap to one of the three backs, a quarterback who blocks more than he throws and an unbalanced line to create mismatches at the point of attack.

Hart, which starts seven seniors on both sides of the ball, is averaging 49 points per game during its current five-game winning streak.

Senior Joseluis Andaverde (known to all his teammates as “Beast Mode”) is the most dangerous offensive weapon with 185 carries for 1,537 yards and 19 TDs. His primary blocker is Edwards, the quarterback, who has rushed for 756 yards and 12 touchdowns while completing 11-of-35 passes for 267 yards, five TDs and one interception.

Five of the Pirates’ six starters on the offensive line are seniors, with the exception of standout sophomore Hollis Rockwell at center – which is a critically important position in the single-wing offense.

Tanis feels the unique offense really benefits his team in the playoffs, when teams have only one week to prepare for it.

That being said, Tanis knows his undersized and inexperienced playoff team will be the underdog this week at Reed City, a perennial playoff team which came within one point of advancing to Ford Field last season, losing 13-12 to Negaunee in a Division 6 Semifinal.

“The major appeal of taking this job was having the opportunity to do things that have never been done here before,” said Tanis. “We have done some of those things, and hopefully there are more to come.

“You have to change the way the kids think, and we’ve done that. Now these kids think of themselves as winners.”

Tom KendraTom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Senior tailback Joseluis Andaverde runs the ball in a game against White Cloud on Aug. 31. (Middle) Hart coach Joe Tanis, in his third year, has led the Pirates to a 9-1 record thus far and the school's first-ever playoff victory on Oct. 27 against Kent City. (Below) Hart's senior football players and their coaches take a final walk off the field after defeating Ravenna, 44-0, on Oct. 20 in the final regular-season home game. (Photos by Harriet Kidder.)

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.)