Community Backs Maple Valley's Surge

August 13, 2015

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

VERMONTVILLE – It’s almost with disbelief that first-year coach Marty Martin considers the recent history of his once-feared Maple Valley football program.

“It’s been nine years since we’ve had a winning season,” said Martin, who was part of the team’s first outright league title as a senior in 1983. “It gives me goose bumps to think about that.”

But he’s had similar reactions to the outpouring of neighborly support his program has received as it works to start a revival.

Members of the community, made up of about 3,500 residents, have donated $46,000 to go with $15,000 allocated by Maple Valley's school board for the purchase of new equipment that will be used this fall. Some was necessary to fit an influx of players, but the additional funds allowed the program to update and replace some of its older gear as well. 

Confidence. Comfort. Swagger. The players anticipate a little more of all three when Maple Valley opens against Fowler on Aug. 28 outfitted in new uniforms over new shoulder pads and with new helmets topping them off.

Those good feelings come with heightened expectations, of course – which are welcomed by a program that made the playoffs seven of eight seasons and played in an MHSAA Final during the stretch preceding its recent struggles.

“It’s coming back. You can feel it,” Maple Valley senior Isiah Garn said. “On the field, the coaches are expecting more … not letting you short yourself. And the community is jumping in on us; there is so much support there. Everyone wants us to be a success again.”

Dressed to impress

Martin is deeply rooted in the school. His father was a 1953 graduate of the former Vermontville High and started middle school basketball and football and summer league baseball programs in the community before also coaching at the new Maple Valley High School after it opened in 1963. Marty played football for Dan Watson on the Maple Valley varsity after playing junior varsity for Guenther Mittelstaedt, who followed Watson and led the varsity to a 173-70 record over 24 seasons through 2008.

After playing two years of baseball in junior college, Martin came back to the community to work as a postal worker and coach, and under Mittelstaedt helped the Lions to their first playoff appearance, in 1987. He remained on Mittelstaedt’s staff through 2000, then coached a year at Battle Creek St. Philip, four years at Battle Creek Lakeview where he also taught after earning his degree, then with Mittelstaedt again for two years at Lakeview in Montcalm County.  

Martin returned to teach at Maple Valley a year ago and became only the third varsity football coach in 30 years during this offseason.

Maple Valley is a little different place than even a decade ago. The school’s enrollment briefly passed 500 during the 2007-08 school year but fell to just over 370 students as of this spring – and Martin said there are fewer than 70 seniors in this fall’s class. The community’s economics also have changed, he added, with fewer families farming or enjoying jobs with General Motors in Lansing or Kellogg in Battle Creek.  

Near the top of his to-do list was simply getting more players back into the program. Maple Valley had 40 last year, which at least worked for the amount of equipment the school had in stock.

But 69 students signed up to play this fall and 54 ended up at practice this week – good news, except for the helmet supply.

In addition to new helmets to outfit the new players, Martin also surmised eight more would need to be replaced at the end of this season, followed by 12 more needed after 2016 and 13 after 2017.

Instead, Martin began investigating if his program could get a better price by replacing the entire supply in bulk. After considering two helmets, he worked with his Riddell representative to get a deal on the helmets that included discounts on shoulder and girdle pads as well. The school board responded with its contribution – and then the community came on strong to help the rest of the way.

Martin was called out of class one day to receive a $5,000 check. Then came $1,500 from one family and $3,500 from another. He was at a graduation open house this spring when someone placed a $1,000 check in front of him. Longtime residents, some retired, gave $100; some who had graduated from Vermontville High or the other former school in Nashville, donated a few hundred as well.  

Martin’s team spent parts of the summer (and will this Saturday as well) providing muscle to local service projects, but he’s never asked the community for financial help for the program. It just made sense to provide, said 1992 grad and former player and assistant coach Paul Adrianson, whose local business Hickey Electric was among the first to contribute.

“We want people to see the game of football doesn’t just necessarily survive. We think it can thrive if you put safety first or good fundamental education on it,” Adrianson said. “It can be a great sport for our future. … We really feel that if we get all behind and lead as a district and doing safety first, we think that’s going to set a positive trend for the game of football.”

Safety first

Maple Valley is one of 70 high schools statewide taking part in a pilot sideline concussion testing program sponsored this school year by the MHSAA. The Lions will work with XLNTbrain Sport, which incorporates baseline testing done at the start of the season to assist in return-to-play decisions after possible head injuries at practices and during games.

In addition, the Riddell SpeedFlex helmets Maple Valley purchased include the InSite Impact Response System, a series of sensors that alert sideline staff after a player’s helmet sustains what is considered a significant impact. That player will then be evaluated by training staff; Maple Valley also has a trainer this fall for the first time in 15 years, Martin said.

“That was our initial thing. We want our kids to be the safest kids,” Martin said. “We want to be one of those leaders; we want to get this district, this community, out front so everyone in the state of Michigan and the United States knows in this area that people care about their kids to the extent they’re willing to invest $27,000 in purchasing helmets.”

The helmets require reconditioning each offseason and new batteries for the InSite sensors – to the tune of $2,200. But another donor stepped in with $22,000 – enough to keep the new helmets ready to wear for a decade.

“This community identifies with this football team,” Martin said. “So they were ready for a change, and they were looking for this opportunity. I’m very blessed and humbled to think they’re showing trust in my leadership and my coaching staff and in the fact we can turn things around.”

His players have heard the stories of successes past, some before they were born. They’ll try to extend the “look good, feel good” cliché into their play on the field this fall as they work to write a restart into Maple Valley’s winning history that goes with the other renovation projects that are popping up at the school and on its grounds.

“I think there’s going to be tons of people coming out,” senior Brock Weiler said. “It’s the new coach, everything getting re-done in the school. I think the pride’s coming back.”

PHOTOS: (Top) Maple Valley huddles during offensive drills at Wednesday afternoon’s practice. (Middle) Coach Marty Martin leads the Lions through agility work. (Below) Maple Valley will wear new helmets this fall thanks in part to community donations.

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.)