Chesaning Turnaround Ahead of Schedule with League Title, Playoff Return

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

October 25, 2023

Brayden Florian knew this was coming eventually.

Bay & ThumbThe Chesaning junior running back and middle linebacker was sure the coaching staff and players were in place for a program turnaround.

But this fast?

“No,” Florian said matter-of-factly. “I definitely saw the progress, and we had gotten better and better since my freshman year. We just kept getting better. I didn’t expect it to happen this fast.”

Chesaning is 8-1 in its second year under head coach Matthew Walter, won the Mid-Michigan Activities Conference for the first time, and – not counting the 2020 COVID season when every team was added to the playoffs – qualified for the postseason for the first time since 2007, playing host to Central Montcalm on Friday.

It’s the best regular season for the program since 2001, the year Chesaning won its second MHSAA Finals title in four years.

You can forgive Florian for not expecting this to happen this quickly. Even his coach had a more long-term plan in place.

“When I took over, my plan was more to build the program than just wins and losses,” Walter said. “Numbers were dwindling. I felt like the community was not happy. I know that winning solves a lot of problems, but when I came in I wanted to make sure I built a program from the bottom up. We brought back (youth) tackle football. We have (youth) flag in the fall and spring. That’s kind of where you have to start. Once you do that, you have people buy in up higher and higher into middle school, then high school. I didn’t expect it to be this quick. I kind of had like a five or six-year plan, just trying to generate some excitement.”

It didn’t take long, however, to realize that maybe his timeline wasn’t accelerated enough.

Ben Fowler (63) prepares to lead his team onto the field. In Year 1, Chesaning went 5-4, its first winning record since 2014. And while some of the losses were lopsided, Walter said people both in and out of the program noticed that things were looking up.

So, heading into this season, there was complete buy-in all around. And while Walter had been laying a foundation for future success, his 5-6 year plan was becoming a 2-year one.

“We have a great group of kids right now,” he said. “They work really hard, and they bought in right away.”

Chesaning players were so bought in, that not even a Week 1 loss to Bath could deter them. In fact, when Walter was cleaning up in the locker room following the game, he found that his team had left him – and themselves – a note on the whiteboard.

“It said, ‘The 1998 team started 0-1,’” Walter said. “I was like, ‘Wow, they know that?’”

The 1998 team won Chesaning’s first Finals title, rattling off 12 straight wins after dropping its opener against then arch-rival Millington.

Like this year’s version of Chesaning, the 1998 team had much of its production come from a stellar junior class. Walter said he’s also been told of the extreme competitiveness of that team, something he sees while watching his current players not only on the field, but when they’re in practice, or even coaching youth flag football against one another.

While Walter wants his team to create its own identity, the comparisons certainly aren’t a bad thing.

“We talk about it – about our history and how much history we’ve made and our team has made,” senior receiver and defensive end Keighan Stoddard said. “It’s a really big inspiration, honestly.”

Wherever the inspiration came from, it worked. After the loss against Bath, Chesaning rattled off eight straight wins with an average margin of victory of 24.8 points per game.

Chesaning knocked off rivals New Lothrop and Montrose – both on the road – for the first time since 2005.

Those wins came behind a dynamic run game, led by Florian. He finished the regular season with 1,689 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground. He did so behind linemen Seth Schlicht, Braden Burtch, Ben Fowler, Braydn Wendling, and John Talbot. Only Fowler is a senior.

Brayden Florian (11) gets to the edge against Ovid-Elsie.Junior quarterback Max Volk threw just 100 passes on the year, but he accumulated 801 yards and 14 TDs. Florian caught five of those touchdowns, as did 6-foot-6 senior wideout Mason Struck. Stoddard, an all-state selection at receiver a year ago, is also an option and has a pair of touchdown grabs. But his focus has been shifted more toward defensive end, a new position in which he’s flourished with 58 tackles, 12 for loss, and six sacks.

“Anything to help my teammates,” he said. “Anything to help the team out, I’ll do anything. As long as we get that win, it doesn’t matter.”

With 2023 giving off feelings of 1998 and 2001, the Friday night atmosphere from those days has also come back to Chesaning.

It’s been evident on game nights, and even during the playoff selection show, when a team trip to the Riverfront Bar and Grill turned into a community event.

“I told the families that we were going to (be there) at 5, and at 6 they were more than welcome to come down and join us,” Walter said. “By 5:30, that place was packed. There were no spots; it was standing room only.”

So when Chesaning hosts a playoff game Friday night for the first time since 2001, the anticipation is an atmosphere not seen since.

“It’s the first playoff game in a long time, and one we actually earned,” Florian said. “I think it’s going to be a big-time atmosphere.”

Paul CostanzoPaul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Chesaning’s Mason Struck (27) goes high to get his hands on the ball in the end zone during his team’s win over Durand. (Middle) Ben Fowler (63) prepares to lead his team onto the field. (Below) Brayden Florian (11) gets to the edge against Ovid-Elsie. (Photos courtesy of the Chesaning football program.)

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.)