Building Beginning as Okemos Follows 1st-Year Coach Scott-Emuakpor

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

August 9, 2022

OKEMOS – The football lay on the turf, landing there before the play had really begun, and the most booming voice from the tallest man on the field yelled a reassuring, “It’s OK. Let’s go,” followed the next play by “Go again,” and then “Figure it out.”

Mid-MichiganAn hour earlier, first-year Okemos varsity football coach Efe Scott-Emuakpor had been on the phone asking a parent to bring the helmet and practice jersey one of his players had left at home. Nearby, another small group also stood helmetless as they hadn’t yet gotten the pre-participation physical required to join their friends on the field.

Those are typical first-day glitches no matter the school, and fall practices for all sports began Monday at 750 high schools across the state.

But those relatively minor symptoms are what Scott-Emuakpor is focused on treating in the immediate term as he takes on one of the most serious rebuilding efforts in Michigan high school football.

“This is progress,” Scott-Emuakpor said halfway through his team’s first practice, looking out at 39 players on Okemos’ game field – 33 more than showed up for his first offseason workout.

“We’d like to have everything right now. But it’s growing. It’s slowly growing.”

And after Monday, Okemos is one step closer to what would be an incredible turnaround story.

The Wolves have not won since Week 2 of the 2019 season, a stretch of 23 games. After scoring on an 84-yard run during the first quarter of last fall’s opener against Mason, Okemos didn’t score again the rest of the season.

Standing 6-foot-3, and still only a few years from his last college game as a receiver at Ball State University, Scott-Emuakpor looks capable of stepping back into a huddle at a moment’s notice. A little more than a decade ago, in 2011, he was beginning a senior season at East Lansing that would see him cap his varsity career in the MHSAA record book with 134 catches, gaining 1,624 yards, over three seasons. He also was an all-leaguer in basketball and Finals placer in high jump before joining the Cardinals.

Okemos footballAfter graduating from Ball State with a computer science bachelor’s degree, and on the way to earning his master’s in business from Saginaw Valley State University, Scott-Emuakpor came home and has worked nearly six years as a business systems analyst with Red Cedar Solutions Group on efforts including the MI School Data website.

But that’s just his fulltime job. Scott-Emuakpor also co-founded a clothing line, Live For Today, and over the last five seasons served as a volunteer assistant coach with his hometown Trojans – who have made the MHSAA Playoffs six seasons running.

He'd never applied for a head coaching job. He’d never really considered coaching at that level. In fact, he was pretty happy with how assisting at East Lansing for longtime coach Bill Feraco fit into his schedule and other pursuits.

But Scott-Emuakpor also is a studier. And as a past rival and co-member of the Capital Area Activities Conference Blue, he and East Lansing saw Okemos plenty.

The Wolves had made the playoffs as recently as 2018, and won their first playoff game that season since 2011. Scott-Emuakpor had played against Okemos’ Taylor Moton, now considered one of the NFL’s top offensive tackles. And the school has had loads of success in other sports, annually ranking among the Lansing area’s best in just about all of them and coming off a statewide Division 1 championship in boys soccer from last fall.

“I paid attention to how things have been around here. And I know what they could be capable of,” Scott-Emuakpor said. “This program was once a good program that was very well-respected; I respected them playing against them in high school. They had great athletes. I think my senior year we beat them by one point (20-19 in 2011). So we had good battles.

“I just saw where they’re at. … We have some good kids around here, and I know there’s more in the school not playing. Maybe when they’re sophomores, juniors, they’ll come out. I think I’m capable of getting that interest up, getting them out on the field and just building something.”

Okemos footballRaj Singh is a senior this fall, one of only five or so Scott-Emuakpor is expecting to come out this week. He’s also a near all-A student, will play some quarterback and safety along with his receiver spot, and was the guy bringing carloads of classmates to workouts over the summer as he joined his coach in recruiting prospective players.

Singh is following his older brother Joe Singh, an admittedly “smaller than everyone” offensive lineman who earned all-league honors as a senior in 2017. When Joe Singh told his younger brother that playing under the lights on a Friday night is a feeling unlike any other, the idea stuck – which is why it made sense when Raj Singh fractured his wrist in Week 2 last season but was back by Week 7 despite a cast covering one hand.

Watching Singh catch passes one-handed last season during East Lansing’s 49-0 win over Okemos stuck with Scott-Emuakpor. Joe Singh had told his little bother that all that matters is having more heart than his opponent and a fighting spirit – in other words, being the type of player Scott-Emuakpor will rely on to get Okemos up and succeeding again.

“I’ve been playing football since I was 6 years old. It’s just been a dream of mine to be at this moment,” Raj Singh said.

“Coach Efe is bringing in a lot of new aspects, and that’s been very helpful to make it different than last year – make us feel a little more at home this year. Compared to last year, he’s brought a lot of structure. We’ve been really coming together as a family … and it just shows Coach Efe wants to build a community around here.”

The process is about more than building stronger, faster bodies and learning football skills and technique. The Wolves aren’t talking a lot about last year, but there’s something there to overcome – and Scott-Emuakpor started working on that soon after he was hired at the end of March.  

Okemos football“In the springtime, we were fortunate enough to get in the weight room and I was able to see kids put up good weight and do some things. I’d tell them, ‘You’re actually strong. You’re actually a fast kid,’” Scott-Emuakpor said. “But when you’re not successful for so long, and the way they were losing last year, it was easy for them to not feel confident, not feel they were able to ultimately get the job done. And so I was just there working on minds.”

Last season was going to be uphill for Okemos no matter what. A mid-summer coaching change brought on by a major fulltime job promotion for the former coach led to an interim staff, players leaving the program, and an applaudable effort to just keep teams on the field.

Scott-Emuakpor has surrounded himself with a staff that includes a pair of his past coaches growing up in East Lansing, past players from when he was coaching there and others with winning experience playing at DeWitt and Williamston.

In addition to what he learned playing and coaching under Feraco, Scott-Emuakpor brings a ton of insight from his experiences at Ball State; he had only one catch during his college career while battling injuries, but he spent that time on the sideline observing his coaches and taking mental notes. Just Sunday, he was pulling from the 2012-13 Ball State football handbook a few details to incorporate into his work in progress with the Wolves.

Okemos will have varsity and freshman teams this fall, and the majority of players at Monday’s combined practice were juniors and sophomores – so recruiting remains ongoing. But Singh said the number of classmates who did come out Monday exceeded his expectations – and that just added to the excitement of starting again.

“If you walk through the school, you’ll see some guys, you’ll (say), ‘OK, what does that guy do?’ You find out he plays (only) lacrosse, or only wrestles, where in other areas, other schools, they might do everything because that’s what they do, what they’ve grown up doing” Scott-Emuakpor said. “I’ve been trying to rebuild that connection, that love for football. A lot of them are very intrigued; I feel like some of them are kinda peeking and saying, ‘What’s going on? This new coach seems to be young and interesting.’ And I’ve just been trying to stay focused on the process and not get too far ahead of myself.”

Geoff Kimmerly joined the MHSAA as its Media & Content Coordinator in Sept. 2011 after 12 years as Prep Sports Editor of the Lansing State Journal. He has served as Editor of Second Half since its creation in January 2012, and MHSAA Communications Director since January 2021. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Barry, Eaton, Ingham, Livingston, Ionia, Clinton, Shiawassee, Gratiot, Isabella, Clare and Montcalm counties.

PHOTOS (Top) First-year Okemos varsity football coach Efe Scott-Emuakpor, middle, huddles up his players during Monday's first day of practice. (2) Scott-Emuakpor confers with senior Raj Singh on blocking from his receiver position. (3) The Wolves work on offense during the first part of their Monday session. (4) Scott-Emuakpor speaks with his team at the start of the workout. (Photos by Geoff Kimmerly.)

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.)