'Coaching Bug' Still Drives St Mary's Porritt

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

August 19, 2015

ORCHARD LAKE – George Porritt never seriously considered entering the coaching profession when he graduated from Hillsdale College in 1979 with a degree in both parks and recreation and physical education.

At age 14 he had worked part time in the parks and recreation department in Independence Township, a few miles south of Clarkston where he grew up. With that experience, Porritt thought he had found a career path.

But a year after graduating from college, Porritt, like most in their early 20s, was looking for work – any kind of work. During the fall of 1980, Dan Fife, the head varsity boys basketball coach at Clarkston, hired Porritt as his freshmen coach. The next school year he became an assistant football coach, along with current head coach Kurt Richardson, under Walt Wyniemko at Clarkston.

“I got the coaching bug,” Porritt said.

And he’s been a coach ever since.

Competing in the Detroit Catholic League Central, considered by many the state’s best football conference, is a challenge every year. Butting heads with legendary coaches such as Al Fracassa (now retired) at Birmingham Brother Rice and Tom Mach at Detroit Catholic Central is a daunting task, but Porritt and St. Mary’s have proved worthy adversaries.

The Eaglets are coming off a 12-2 finish and Division 3 title, their fifth under his leadership.

Most who follow high school sports link the name Porritt with football. It’s understandable.

In 1986, St. Mary’s hired Porritt as a teacher, and that summer he became a varsity assistant football coach under Rob Haeger.  Porritt replaced Haeger in 1989.

His record heading into this season is 234-66, which ranks 10th among active coaches. Since 2006, St. Mary’s has reached the MHSAA finals six times. He’s coached 15 players who have gone on to play in the NFL.

There’s more. His brother Rich is the offensive coordinator at Clarkston. His uncle, Bob Porritt, coached at Okemos and a cousin, Rob Porritt, coached at Haslett and Perry.

George Porritt loves coaching football, and it’s likely he’ll coach few more seasons.

But there’s something Porritt loves more than football, and that’s being a part of St. Mary’s.

He’s been the school’s athletic director since 1989, and the year before he was hired as the varsity basketball coach. He coached basketball for 22 seasons (he took six years in the mid-90s off to help his wife, Terry, raise their three children) before he retired from that position this past July.

Porritt’s success in football often overshadowed his success as a basketball coach. He coached the Eaglets to the Class B title in 2000, they reached the Class A Semifinals in 2006 and his teams won 10 Catholic League Central titles, six league championships, 12 district titles and six regional titles. His career record is 336-180.

When asked why he stepped away from basketball, Porritt said he pondered that move two years ago but continued on because of his relationships with the coaching staff and, of course, the players.

In the end he got out of coaching basketball to spend more time with his family. His son Kenny lives in Maryland and he and his wife are expecting their third child. His daughter, Marilyn, graduated from University of Oregon and recently moved to Nashville, Tenn., to begin working for Vanderbilt University. The Porritts’ third child, Mason, is a senior at Grand Valley State University.

Terry Porritt travelled from Maryland and Tennessee earlier this month to visit her children, leaving her husband at home to coach football. Family time is precious, and the Porritts plan to spend more time with their family in the years to come.

But don’t expect George Porritt to leave St. Mary’s. Though he’s not coaching basketball, he’ll be at every home game because of his duties as athletic director. And aside from long road trips, he’ll be at the away games, too.

“I enjoyed my coaching at Clarkston,” he said. “And I wanted to get a teaching job there. But getting into education was tough then, as it is now.

“I love St. Mary’s. When you drive on this campus, it’s an awesome place to be. I want to work here as long as I can. I’ve met so many great people. Msgr. (Stanley) Milewski was awesome. (Headmaster) Larry Reeside has been tremendous. He inspired me and taught me so much. Then there’s the kids.”

Porritt mentioned one player, in particular, on the team this season as being a special person. His name is Josh Ross and his brother, James, plays for University of Michigan. Josh Ross is a 15-year-old junior but one of the team leaders, and he's already received scholarship offers from Michigan State, U-M and Notre Dame. Porritt said Ross is a no-nonsense type of player and one who helps maintain discipline, on the field and off.

Total, the Eaglets will return five starters on both offense and defense. Senior quarterback Brendan Tambone is back and joined by returning starting running backs Brandon Adams and Justin Myrick; Adams scored the lone touchdown in last season's MHSAA Final. Others of note include junior receiver/defensive back Kaylee Hamlee, who has offers from a handful of Big Ten programs, and 6-foot-5, 275-pound two-way lineman Cameron Kolwich, who will sign with Northwestern this fall. 

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 but also contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Orchard Lake St. Mary's football coach George Porritt huddles with one of his players during last season's Division 3 Final. (Middle) Porritt watches a play unfold against Coopersville during his team's 2000 championship game win. (Below) Porritt receives last season's champion's trophy from Muskegon running back and MHSAA Student Advisory Council member Jared Pittman and the Representative Council's Orlando Medina, athletic director at Harrison Township L'Anse Creuse. 

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.)