Beecher Becoming a Football School Too

November 14, 2012

By Bill Khan
Special to Second Half


FLINT — Basketball is a source of pride at Flint Beecher, with a tradition of excellence that includes four boys and two girls MHSAA championships.


Courtney Hawkins is as proud as anyone, having played on the 1984-85 and 1986-87 championship teams.


But hoops mania is also a source of frustration for Hawkins, the school's football coach and athletic director.


Where basketball is king, other athletic programs can sometimes suffer, as more and more kids are persuaded into specializing in one sport and playing in travel leagues outside of their high school season.


If you want to get Hawkins up on his soap box, ask him about the effect AAU basketball has had on the overall athletic program at Beecher.


Mr. Hawkins, the floor is yours ...


"It kills me to watch some kids who, you know just from the stuff they can do athletically, would be a heck of a football player or could contend for the state championship in the 100 meters or high jump," Hawkins said. "It's absolutely sickening. There are only so many basketball scholarships. They still haven't figured it out. Every year when basketball season is over, there are a number of kids who won't get scholarships, because there are so few. Every single year, there's a handful of boys -- every year -- who come to me and say, 'Coach Hawkins, I wish I would've played football and track.' It's happened seven years in a row and it will happen this year.


"AAU basketball is great. It makes everything seem so good. They get to travel across the country. AAU basketball is big business. It's not the best for every kid, especially when they tell these kids they're going to be the next LeBron James and the next year I see them at the store."


Hawkins needs only to offer up himself as an example of how an athlete can have success beyond high school while still playing multiple sports as a prep. He was an all-stater in football, basketball, and track and field before focusing on football at Michigan State University. Hawkins went on to play nine seasons as a wide receiver in the NFL. He was a key member of MHSAA championship teams in basketball and track.


Beecher's reputation as a basketball school may finally be changing, albeit slowly.


Hawkins has only two members of last year's Class C championship basketball team on his football roster, but hopes that the team's first-ever run to the MHSAA Semifinals opens some eyes among hoopsters around school.


Beecher (8-4) will face Detroit Loyola (12-0) at 1 p.m. Saturday in a Division 7 Semifinal at Fenton High School. The Buccaneers get a Second Half High 5 this week after overcoming a 3-4 start to make the playoffs as an additional qualifier at 5-4 before winning three postseason games for the first time.


Beecher hopes to become only the fourth team with four losses to win an MHSAA championship. The Buccaneers can look to nearby Flint Powers Catholic, last year's Division 5 champion, for proof that it can be done.


"I didn't want to tell the team that, because they don't like other teams, but I looked at Powers coming in 5-4 and thought, 'Why can't we do the same thing?'" said senior Kermit Craig, a defensive end and tight end.


Beecher is in the playoffs for the sixth straight year, but this was the most unlikely team to advance this far. Beecher's other playoff teams won at least six games, including a 9-0 squad in 2009 that was bounced in the first round.


"Yeah, I'm surprised, but one thing we do is work hard every day," said senior Eric Cooper, a wide receiver and free safety. "I just came to practice every day motivating all the guys to work hard, keep their heads up, and we're going to get a blessing. That's what we got."


The Buccaneers squeaked out a 21-20 victory over Mt. Morris on Oct. 12 to begin their current five-game winning streak. Their crowning achievement so far was knocking off defending Division 7 champion Saginaw Nouvel in the Regional Final, 19-15. Now they're one victory away from a trip to Ford Field.


"I guess with the youth and the fact we snuck in at 5-4, it's surprising that we went this far," Hawkins said. "But with that being said, the way that they've worked and the way they've stayed committed, it's been one of my best groups from that standpoint. I've had some groups that had more success early in the season. This team has great senior leadership. We have some young kids who are just phenomenal in terms of following the senior leaders. They're very coachable, very good kids. This is my first year of having some kids who don't want to play basketball. My starting quarterback, (freshman) Marcus Wright, said, 'Coach, I'm a football player.' We don't get many of those here at Beecher."


There was a time when playoff appearances, let alone trips to the Semifinals, seemed more unlikely than what this 5-4 team has achieved in this postseason.


Hawkins returned to his alma mater in 2006 to take over a program that had 11 straight losing seasons. After a 2-7 inaugural season that saw considerable improvement, Beecher has gone 45-20 while playing as the smallest school in the Genesee Area Conference's Red Division.


"We had to change the attitude," Hawkins said. "There were a lot of people who were, 'We play basketball at Beecher.' That was the approach. Then there was the losing attitude throughout the whole football program. The first year, we were 2-7. We were in a lot of games, but you could see the losing attitude from being beat down all those years. We as a coaching staff stayed on them."


The fact that Hawkins would return to the community after an NFL career gives him considerable credibility with his players.


"That means a lot," Craig said. "Most people look up to him as a father. He came to build the program and led us to where we are now. I learned a lot from him. As a young man, I look up to him. If I have problems, I go to coach Hawkins and talk to him about it. He's more a man than a football coach. He leads you to the right way."

PHOTO: (Top) Beecher linebacker Tyrik Wicks (20) wraps up Saginaw Nouvel's Ryan Sullivan (4) as sophomore Mike Herd (15) also pursues during last weekend's Regional Final. (Middle) Flint Beecher coach Courtney Hawkins, who also played at Michigan State and in the NFL.  (Click to see more from the Regional Final at

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.)