Britton Deerfield Finding Fast Success After Move to 8-Player Football

By Doug Donnelly
Special for

September 28, 2021

BRITTON – Britton Deerfield’s football team is learning to win again.

The Patriots have transitioned from 11-player to 8-player football this season in a big way. Playing their first season under Michigan’s 8-player format, the Patriots are 5-0 through five weeks and already clinched the program’s first league championship since 2000.

“I think it’s been great for our program,” said senior quarterback Nicolas Johnson. “We’re having a lot of success. I think the team is really focused. All I care about is us winning.”

After struggling mainly due to low numbers at the varsity, junior varsity and middle school levels the last several years, BD is doing a lot of winning this year. In fact, the Patriots have been dominant. After accepting a forfeit in Week 1, BD has won by scores of 64-8, 38-12, 68-0 and 54-16. They are 3-0 in the new Tri-River 8 Conference with one league game remaining. Every other team has at least one loss, meaning they can do no worse than share the league title.

“The league championship is nice,” he said. “I think some of our guys kind of forgot what it felt like to be a contender.”

The last time BD won a league championship was during a run of three straight Tri-County Conference titles from 1998 to 2000. 

Technically, this is the first conference championship in school history. 

Britton and Deerfield are two small communities in Lenawee County. The Deerfield school building opened in 1874 and the Britton building in 1893. They were two distinct school districts for more than 100 years.

Britton Deerfield footballDuring the early 1990s, both schools were struggling with low participation in some varsity sports. In 1993-94, the varsity football and track teams formed co-ops and played as Britton-Deerfield. The Britton-Deerfield football program had some outstanding teams, winning multiple conference titles and sending several players into the college ranks. Two of those are head coaches at Division III Michigan colleges today – Dustin Breuer at Albion and Dan Musielewicz at Olivet College – and several others are head coaches at the high school level. 

As more and more sports became co-op programs, the schools continued to operate separately until 2011 when the school boards of both communities voted to adopt a shared service plan. On July 1, 2011, just before Independence Day, voters in the two communities approved consolidation of the two schools into one – Britton Deerfield. 

Erik Johnson took over the BD football program in 2017. The Patriots went 1-8 in back-to-back years but made the playoffs in 2019. Last year BD went 1-6. Soon after the season ended, school officials announced the team would be moving to 8-player football this year.

“I spent most of the winter watching YouTube videos and talking to 8-man coaches,” Johnson said. “I love information. I was curious about how some schools ran practices and what offenses they run and what the difference was on the 40-yard-wide field. I talked to coaches all over the place, asking questions.”

BD had played a couple of seasons of 8-player junior varsity football because of low numbers, but the varsity level was all new this year.

“We hit the ground running,” Johnson said. “It was great to have the summer workouts where we could build some camaraderie. We had some new guys that we needed to get up to speed. We had some six-on-sixes and seven-on-sevens too. That helped.”

BD committed to two years of 8-player football, and then will evaluate the program and where it is headed. Johnson said it all depends on numbers.

“If we get to a point where we are back to a 20-25 player roster, 11-player is what we’ll play,” he said. “But if we only have 12-13 kids in the entire middle school program, we won’t be playing 11-man. That’s not feasible.”

While trying to build a schedule from scratch, Johnson found other schools in the same boat. Five decided to form the Tri-River 8 Conference – Britton Deerfield, Concord, Vandercook Lake, Grand Rapids NorthPointe Christian and Vermontville Maple Valley. 

Playing nine new opponents added an extra dimension to preparation for the season. 

“I watched a lot of film, but it was from previous years,” Johnson said. “I just tried to learn as much about the opponents as I could.”

Britton Deerfield footballThe season got off to a slow start when BD’s first opponent – an Ohio school – canceled due to lack of available players. Since then, the Patriots have been unstoppable, rolling to four on-the-field wins. They have had several big moments, but last week’s performance by Nicolas Johnson was eye-popping. 

The quarterback ran for 251 yards and four touchdowns and passed for 101 yards and another score. Over four games, he has 623 yards rushing and 375 passing. He’s accounted for 17 touchdowns. 

Nicolas, known as “Nico,” is the son of Erik – who also serves as athletic director - and BD superintendent Stacy Johnson. Nico’s brother Carson is a sophomore on the Patriots JV team, and his grandfather John is an assistant coach. John and Erik have coached together for nearly 20 years. 

Nico is a three-sport star at BD and a member of the MHSAA’s Student Advisory Council. 

“It’s always fun to watch him,” Erik Johnson said. “I thought he would have a really good year. Once he gets in the open, he can make guys miss.”

Nico said the biggest difference between 11 and 8-player football is having room on the field to run.

“Once you beat the linebacker, there is usually no one else behind them,” he said. “I feel I have the ability to see the cutback lanes better. It’s a lot different.”

Johnson hopes to play college football. 

“My passion is definitely football,” he said. “That one thing I have talked to (college) coaches about is whether or not playing 8-player affects my chances of playing in college, and they say no.”

Coach Johnson said when it comes down to it, football is football – no matter how many players are on the field. 

“It’s still blocking and tackling,” he said. “It comes down to execution on offense and defense and being prepared in all three phases of the game.”

Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Britton Deerfield quarterback Nico Johnson launches a pass during a Week 4 win over Vandercook Lake. (Middle) Johnson and BD head coach Erik Johnson (also his father) discuss strategy. (Below) Nico Johnson follows his blockers against the Jayhawks. (Photos by Deloris Clark-Osborne.)

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.)