Climax-Scotts '11' Playing for 1 More Run

By Pam Shebest
Special for

October 16, 2018

CLIMAX — Braden Butler plans to make history twice at Climax-Scotts High School – and he is already halfway there.

Butler and his teammates are part of the last 11-player football team at the school.

Next year, the underclassmen will make their debut in 8-player football, a first for the small school.

With just 148 students in grades 9-12, the Panthers are the smallest public school in Michigan to field an 11-player team.

Only the Detroit Catholic League’s Waterford Our Lady and Clarkston Everest Collegiate have smaller enrollments.

“I’m blessed to be in the position of being on the first 8-man team for next year,” said Butler, who was tagged with the nickname ‘Shakespeare” by coach Kevin Langs after the 20-year coach’s former nickname for him morphed from “2 B” to “2 B or not 2 B.”

“I’m very happy with my teammates, with my coaches, with how we’ve all planned this out. It’s going to be a very eye-opening experience for the rest of my life.”

Although the school is small, it has been successful, qualifying for the playoffs the past 15 years. But Climax-Scotts faces a must-win scenario this week to earn one more trip before next year’s switch.

The Panthers take a 3-4 record into their final regular-season game, a four-plus hour journey to Lincoln Alcona on Friday. With a 4-4 record, the team would have a chance at an at-large playoff berth. The field will be announced Sunday night.

“Fortunately, because of a couple of generous donors, we will travel on a charter bus for that trip,” Langs said.

“If we can get playoffs, our season will go down in history,” Butler said. “We played the top teams in the state, top-ranked teams. We’ve played teams that have gone undefeated until now, and we’ve competed against all of those teams which is honestly the best part of the season.”

The Panthers defeated Martin (26-0), Adrian Lenawee Christian (62-20) and Athens (28-14), and lost to Sand Creek (27-16), Clarkston Everest Collegiate (44-38 in 2OT), Pittsford (17-16) and Breckenridge (19-0). Pittsford and Lenawee Christian joined Climax-Scotts in sharing the Southern Central Athletic Association title, and Breckenridge and Everest Collegiate won their respective leagues as well.

Sand Creek, Martin and Athens can clinch automatic playoff berths with wins this weekend.

Langs, who is also athletic director, said the school has been preparing the athletes and the community for the switch to 8-player for three years.

“It’s been a process,” Langs said. “Twenty-10 was the MHSAA’s first year going 8-man. We’ve been across the state talking to the U.P., all over, trying to see what we could do to save small-school 11-man. And lost that fight.

“About three years ago, we had a community meeting because we could see this coming. We just said, ‘Hey, listen. We’re going to try to hold out through this year, 2018, and after that financially, physically, mentally, emotionally, we’re going to go 8-man.’”

The 18 seniors on this year’s team were a big reason the Panthers kept 11-player this year.

“When you go to 8, you lose six starters,” Langs said “Those are a lot of young men who couldn’t have played. 

“So we were willing to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to do it so these young men still get to play instead of taking their spots away.’”

Senior defensive lineman/fullback Hunter Mejeur has mixed feelings about missing a chance to play next year.

“I think it would be unique to play 8-man,” he said. “I’ve never done it before, but I think it’s cool to leave a legacy as the last 11-man team.”

He said there are both advantages and disadvantages to small school 11-player football.

“There’s no backup really. There’s one backup lineman, a couple running backs,” he said, adding, “The best part is getting to play a lot.”

Butler said going to 8-player will be nothing new for most of the underclassmen.

“Our first year of 8-man in junior varsity, we only lost one game out of eight,” he said. “Hopefully that transitions into varsity so next year we hopefully see the same outcome. I’m really excited for it.”

Climax-Scotts is just one of four teams playing 11-player in the 15-school SCAA.

The others are Athens, Adrian Lenawee Christian and Pittsford.

Switching to 8-player, the Panthers will renew their rivalry with Battle Creek St. Philip.

“They’re our archrivals and we haven’t played them in seven or eight years, so we’re excited to play them again,” Langs said.

With just three league games, Langs had to find six more opponents – resulting in just one home game this season, the win over Lenawee Christian. 

The Panthers suffered a blow during that game.

“(Senior quarterback) Jake Lane, a three-year starter, on a two-point conversion, hurt his shoulder, so he’s out,” Langs said. 

“We lost our center, (senior) Noah Gray, too. It’s like losing your middle infield. Hopefully, it’s like the old saying, ‘Next brother up, next man up.’”

With an unfilled Week 4, Climax-Scotts will finish the regular season with only eight games.

 “We have been so blessed to have some successful teams over the last 20 years, so people always remember that,” Langs said. “So, when you go to schedule, they’re hesitant, which I understand.

“What happens is, if they’re willing to play you, they’re going to be really, really good or a lot bigger than you, and then they say you’ve got to play us at our place.”

Langs said the team worked hard the last 20 years to become one of the better 11-player programs in the state.

“So now, old dog, new tricks,” he said. “What can we do at 8-man? We don’t know. So we’re going to find out.

“I think the biggest transition is going to be the vertical spacing of the game. There’s a little bit more space for people to run and you can’t cover.”

He compares the change to math.

“For two years I said 11-man is algebra; 8-man is geometry. They’re both math, but there’s a conceptual difference.

“I’ve noticed that I’ve had to get used to that, and we’re slowly starting to figure out the geometry thing a little better.”

Other seniors on the team are Luke Mobley, Brock Borden, Zachary Sleeman, Jordan Tutt, Cole Eshuis, Sabdiel Escobedo, David Arnett, Erik Reyes, Dylan Peck, Alec Roggow, Michael Minne, Cooper Simmons, Jason Myers, Andrew Elenga and Todd Sims.

Juniors include Blake Borden, Lane Glover, Johnny Hunter, Josiah Kenney, Geano Royle, Jackson Ling, Alexandro Rojas and Ethan Huff.

The five sophomores are Ernesto Escobedo, Nathan Peck, Cole Newton, Andrew VanMiddlesworth and Ian Strong. Jackson Lawrence is the lone freshman.

Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Climax-Scotts’ defensive front breaks toward the play during a Week 1 win over Martin. (Middle) From top, coach Kevin Langs, junior Branden Butler and senior Hunter Mejeur. (Below) The Panthers’ offense is on the move against Athens in Week 7. (Action photos by Mary Longman; head shots by Pam Shebest.)

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.)