Clarkston Surges by Kicking it Forward

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

October 27, 2016

CLARKSTON – Coach Kurt Richardson held a disdain for kickers. He didn’t trust them. He contends that a poor kicking game cost his Clarkston football team the 2000 Division 1 Semifinal, a 17-15 loss to eventual champion Grand Ledge.

Three years before, Clarkston had lost one-point games to Rochester (20-19) and Troy (21-20) that cost the Wolves an opportunity to play in the playoffs. Again, the kicking game had let him down.

“We didn’t have kickers,” Richardson said. “We made kickers. We tried a soccer player once back then, and it didn’t work.”

Enter the Breen brothers, Andrew and Ryan. Andrew Breen was Clarkston’s kicker in 2003. Ryan Breen followed and was the kicker in 2005 and 2006. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but Clarkston hasn’t missed the playoffs since 2002. You won’t get Richardson to say that.

Andrew Breen went on to kick for Tiffin University (Ohio), and every place-kicker since has gone on to college as a kicker – including his brother, Ryan, who went to Penn State.

The others include Alex Barta, who went on to kick for the U.S. Naval Academy. Then there’s Shane Hynes, the place-kicker on the 2013 Division 1 championship team, who is currently Kent State’s place-kicker. Alex Kessman was the place-kicker on the 2014 Division 1 title team, and he’s at Pittsburgh after graduating from high school this past June.

Zach Mansour is Clarkston’s place-kicker this season. And although he hasn’t decided what college he will attend next year, rest assured Mansour will be on a roster somewhere, whether it’s at the Division I level or below.

“Andrew kind of broke up the ice,” Richardson said. “It’s made a big difference. What also comes out of making field goals and having good kickers is now we’re kicking the ball in the end zone and teams are starting from their 20.”

Ryan Breen doesn’t remember exactly when it happened, but his life changed when he was a freshman at Clarkston High.

Breen and his brother were soccer players throughout their childhood. Then his freshman year his brother was a senior and Clarkston’s kicker, and something clicked. Ryan was just having fun working with his brother, shagging footballs, when he got the urge to try it.

Something clicked for the Clarkston football program as well.

“Coach Kurt realized, after a while, that kicking is so much part of the game,” Ryan Breen said. “He started to trust me my junior and senior years. He’d been let down so much (by kickers). It’s frustrating.

“It opened his eyes that (Clarkston’s) kicking game could be so good.”

Ryan gives credit to his brother for starting what has become a fraternity of kickers at Clarkston. And it continues today with Ryan Breen giving back – or paying it forward, if you will.

Clarkston is a sports-crazed community with football and basketball taking the lead. The fan support these teams receive is as fervent as any in the Detroit area. When an athlete experiences success at a school like this, often that person is motivated to give back. That’s what Breen has done.

“My brother kind of got me into it,” Ryan said. “We were athletes first. My freshman year I’d help him, chasing the footballs after he kicked them. I figured I’d do it for him. I never thought I’d kick. We never thought we’d kick.”

At first, his experience in college led Ryan to go back to Clarkston and share his expertise with the next kicker in line, Barta.    

“I got with Alex and his dad,” Ryan said. “I tried to lend the knowledge I had.”

After coaching as a volunteer, Ryan came on staff at the junior varsity level for three seasons. He was there to start this season, but was forced to leave due to the time commitment he had with his business in Oakland County. He’s hoping that soon, perhaps in a year or so, his business will become less demanding and he’ll return to Richardson’s staff.

But he’s left his mark, and others have picked up his lead. Those who have followed, like Mansour, are reaping the benefits.

Mansour handles the place kicking and kickoff duties for Richardson, and he’s 5 of 7 on field goal tries with a long make of 45 yards. A junior, Jermaine Roemer, is the punter and, at this point, it appears he will replace Mansour as the team’s place-kicker next season.

“I was close with Shane (Hynes) and Alex (Kessman),” Mansour said. “I got a ton of knowledge from them. And Shane learned from Barta. I’m close with Jermaine. And Tristan Mattson is on (junior varsity). I’ll be working with him after the season.

“We’ve gotten so good with our kicking. It puts us ahead of other teams. When I worked with Shane and Alex, they were brutally honest. They’ll break you down. They yelled at me. It’s not to hurt your feelings. It’s all for the game.

“Paying it forward? It’s kind of my job. Jermaine and I developed a good relationship. We’ve had that reputation of having good kickers, and we want to keep it that 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) Zach Mansour kicks off Clarkston's season against Lapeer on Aug. 26 at Michigan Stadium. (Middle) Shane Hynes follows through on a kick during the 2013 Division 1 Final at Ford Field. (Click to see more of top photo from

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.)