Clarkston Kicker Grabs QB Opportunity

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

October 13, 2015

CLARKSTON – This season seemed to be going from bad to worse for Clarkston.

The Wolves were blitzed by Macomb Dakota, 35-10, in the opener and in their third game were tied 14-14 with West Bloomfield when starting quarterback Anthony Reiner suffered a broken hand.

The two-time defending Division 1 champion went on to lose that game, 35-21, to fall to 1-2.

As poorly as Clarkston started the season, its fortunes changed. Alex Kessman, a senior who will in all likelihood be a place kicker at a Division I college next season, got an opportunity he really didn’t expect.

Kessman hadn’t played quarterback since the ninth grade, when he led Clarkston’s freshmen team to an undefeated season. When Reiner went out last month, coach Kurt Richardson went to Kessman – and he’s responded as if he was an experienced quarterback.

Kessman couldn’t rescue Clarkston against West Bloomfield, but the Wolves are 4-0 since with Kessman as the starter. He’s thrown seven touchdown passes including three in a 28-0 over Troy Athens.

If Kessman wasn’t such a fine place kicker and punter he likely would have started the season at quarterback. Instead he was in the secondary, kicked and was Reiner’s backup.

“We wanted to groom (Kessman) during the summer but he was always at kicking camps,” Richardson said. “The other guy was working real hard and we went with (Reiner).

“When Anthony got hurt it was a natural thing. I told him he was our best quarterback. At first it didn’t come quick. He’s gotten better every week. He’s got a very strong arm. We still run the same offense. We’re throwing more (with Kessman).”

Kessman no longer plays defense but he is still kicking, and kicking well. He kicked a 56-yard field goal against Dakota and has since kicked one from 53 yards out.

Kessman made his third visit to University of Pittsburgh last weekend and said the Panthers are at the top of his college list at this point. Mississippi State has offered Kessman preferred walk-on status and other schools such as Michigan, Florida and Tennessee also are in the mix.

Physically, Kessman is not your typical kicker. He’s 6-3 and weighs 185 pounds. He played basketball until his sophomore year, when he decided to concentrate on his kicking.

Kessman started playing football in the seventh grade and was a kicker even back then. As a sophomore he played safety and kicked as a member of the junior varsity. Last season Kessman was the punter and place kicker on varsity but did not play defense.

Now he’s showing he’s more than just a kicker, at least at this level.

“I wasn’t really rusty,” he said. “I was prepared if Anthony went down. I didn’t practice a lot (at quarterback). I threw occasionally. The first couple of plays I was nervous. I got comfortable. It was at halftime of the West Bloomfield game. Thanks to my teammates I have no trouble getting comfortable now.”

As one would guess, one of his biggest challenges was learning an extensive playbook. Richardson’s quarterbacks have much responsibility making proper decisions on read option plays and checking down on second and third receivers.

“I know the ins and outs now,” Kessman said. “That comes from off-the-field stuff. I put a lot of time in on my own. The toughest part is reading the corners and reading the safeties.”

Clarkston is averaging 40 points a game in Kessman’s four starts but it would be unfair to give him all the credit. The five offensive linemen who started in last season’s MHSAA Final graduated, and Clarkston is starting three underclassmen up front including two sophomores. The line struggled early on, but is playing much better now.

Then there’s Nolan Eriksen, a senior running back. Eriksen suffered a high ankle sprain in Clarkston’s inter-squad game during the preseason and made his season debut against Troy Athens. He scored four touchdowns in last week’s 42-0 victory over Troy.

“Eriksen is obviously fantastic,” Kessman said. “I know when I hand it off to him he’ll get at least five yards or take it all the way.”

Tom Markowski is a columnist and directs website coverage for the State Champs! Sports Network. He previously covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Clarkston’s Alex Kessman lines up for a punt during last season’s Division 1 Final at Ford Field (Middle) Kessman signals before another punt. (Below) Kessman is considered a Division I college prospect as a kicker.

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.)