Central Lake/Ellsworth Remains Model of Football Cooperation

By Tom Spencer
Special for MHSAA.com

September 24, 2021

The year was 1989, and Dutch Essenberg was a freshman at Ellsworth High School. Playing football simply was not an option. 

His Lancers hadn’t fielded a team in years.

Little did he know that he would get the opportunity to play football his junior and senior years thanks to the vision of Hugh Campbell and Denny YoungeDyke. 

Campbell, a renowned community member of Ellsworth, and YoungeDyke, then the football coach at Central Lake, started discussing a co-operative agreement between the two schools – located just seven miles apart – about the time Essenberg was entering high school.

Also at that time, Jack Roberts became the MHSAA’s executive director, a post he held for 32 years. If you ask Campbell, Roberts got there just in time. Roberts is credited with developing plans for smaller schools to sponsor cooperative teams, and his legacy also includes being a champion of 8-player football. 

The co-op produced great results immediately.  The Trojans went undefeated the first year and suffered only two losses the second. 

Today, without a co-op and the 8-player format, student-athletes at Ellsworth and Central Lake would not be playing high school football.

Central Lake/Ellsworth footballThat’s something of which Daryl Purdy is extremely aware. He was a senior lineman at Central Lake when the schools started playing football together in 1991. Today his son Garrett is a senior at Central Lake playing for the Central Lake/Ellsworth Trojans. And, Daryl serves as assistant coach for the team.

The Trojans share the honor of the longest-running football co-op in Michigan history with Manistee Catholic Central/Mason County Eastern, which also participates in 8-player. Central Lake/Ellsworth moved to 8-player in 2017, and immediate captured the Division 1 championship.

The Trojans are hosting Homecoming and Bellaire, a big rival, tonight on the gridiron.

“Without the co-op today, we would not have football in Central Lake - period,” Daryl Purdy pointed out. “Even with the two schools combined, we have to go 8-man to be competitive.

“As much as it meant to me to play football, it means even more to me to watch my son play and be able to help assistant coach … and be there with him and share the experience with him — it is just mind-blowing to me.”

The co-op is extra special for Garrett, knowing his Dad played on the first team and competed against the Lancers in other sports right after.

“It is special, that’s for sure,” the senior center and nose guard said.  “I am pretty good friends with everyone from Ellsworth. 

“We all have a bond that lasts after football season too,” he continued. “We are still a family after football.”

Purdy, the coach, agrees.

“That’s what amazes me the most … the kids even then and today,”  he said. “We are a family and friends during football season. 

“And then we go turn back to warriors again during basketball and baseball season,” he added. “It also makes it more special and even more competitive.” 

Central Lake/Ellsworth footballYoungeDyke, now retired, coached 17 years total at Central Lake. He was assisted in the successful co-op launch by Campbell, then the Lancers’ basketball coach and now president of the Ellsworth village council.

YoungeDyke cites Campbell as the key to all of the co-op’s success today. As a basketball coach, Campbell welcomed the additional training the boys could get in the fall.

“He’s kind of Mr. Ellsworth,” YoungeDyke said.  “His whole life has been dedicated to kids of Ellsworth.”

YoungeDyke insisted Campbell come on board for the first season to help the community buy-in process.

“(Campbell) goes, ‘Ah, I am not a football coach,’” YoungeDyke recalled. “I said, ‘You know what Hugh, you’re a coach. A coach is a coach. It’s the only way it’s going to work.’”

Campbell, who remained the assistant coach for nearly a decade, credits Roberts with making the co-op a reality.

“Denny (YoungeDyke) and I and some others in Central Lake had been talking about (a co-op) for a while,” Campbell said. “We didn’t get anywhere until the new MHSAA director (Roberts) came from Wisconsin, and he liked co-ops. It’s really helped a lot of kids.”

The blessing of the co-op by the MHSAA led to a new helmet melding the Ellsworth Lancers and the Central Lake Trojans featuring a Trojan sword crossing an Ellsworth lance. It was designed by the co-op’s first manager, 11-year old Drew YoungeDyke, the coach’s son. 

Drew went to play quarterback in the fall of 1996 and 1997 for the Trojans, alongside Nick Hopp, the Trojans’ current athletic director.

The younger YoungeDyke recalls his father wanting to make sure the Ellsworth players felt welcomed in the co-op and thought a new helmet design would extend the welcome mat.

Central Lake/Ellsworth football“The two mascots — the Lancers and the Trojans — just made it real simple,” Drew said. “I just took a lance and I took a Trojan’s broadsword, and I just crossed them.

“I was 11, and it wasn’t like I was a design expert then,” he continued. “I remember sketching it out in my little like Trapper Keeper. It’s pretty cool to see that years later.”

Many like Drew believe football in the two communities would have ended within five years had the co-op not been created. 

Central Lake/Ellsworth is 1-3 this fall after a 44-40 loss to Pellston last week, but also will be added to the MHSAA record book when this season is done after combining with Indian River Inland Lakes for the highest-scoring 8-player game in state history. The teams combined for 152 points Sept. 11 in Inland Lakes’ 86-66 win.

Today’s coach, Chase Hibbard, is thrilled to have nine Ellsworth student-athletes on the 23-player roster.

“If it wasn’t for Ellsworth, we would not have a team,” Hibbard indicated. “Every year the pool from Ellsworth is growing.”

Essenberg, who played receiver, quarterback and running back, liked the idea of playing for the Trojans even if only to get him in better shape for his junior basketball season with the Lancers.

Now Essenberg hopes the co-op will provide his son Nolan with a chance to play high school football.  Nolan is 11.

“We were all kind of nervous because you know it was a rival town,” Essenberg said. “I remember coach YoungeDyke saying ‘if you don’t like it, you can leave.’

“Nobody left.”

Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. 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) Central Lake/Ellsworth’s receivers line up during a Week 4 game against Pellston. (2) Coaches (from left) Hugh Campbell, Denny YoungeDyke and Matt Peters talk things over with quarterback Drew YoungeDyke during the 1997 season. (3) Daryl, left, and Garrett Purdy. (4) Drew YoungeDyke’s helmet logo design remains a symbol of the community’s football cooperation 25 seasons later. (Photos courtesy of the Central Lake/Ellsworth football program.)

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.)