Constantine Celebrates 100th Season, Renowned for Continuity & Signature Wing-T

By Scott Hassinger
Special for

September 6, 2023

CONSTANTINE – Bennett Vandenberg and Cohen McGee are just like any other high school football players.

Southwest CorridorBoth Constantine seniors have high aspirations of winning a fifth-straight Southwestern Athletic Conference Lakeshore title and reaching the postseason.

But Vandenberg and McGee, along with their Falcons teammates, will be celebrating more than victories and a potential playoff appearance this fall.

Constantine, a community located in southern St. Joseph County, is observing the 100th season of the school's football program.

The Falcons (1-1) will commemorate the occasion Saturday, Oct. 7, with a home game against SAC Lakeshore foe Kalamazoo United. Kickoff time from Sweetland Stadium is 1 p.m. The game will be followed by a community luncheon and program in the high school at which time past coaches, players and the program's biggest accomplishments will be recognized and celebrated.

Vandenberg, a starting fullback/tight end and outside linebacker, and McGee, an offensive lineman and linebacker, are both looking forward to the rest of the season and continuing Constantine's strong tradition on the gridiron.

"We have a huge football tradition here at Constantine. This year we're celebrating the 100th year, and we have some of the oldest living players coming back to help celebrate after that game with United,” said Vandenberg, a three-year starter and Finals placer his junior year in wrestling and track & field. “Our community is all about football. We know we have to go out there and represent our school and community the right way."

McGee is following in the footsteps of his older brother Carter.

"There are lots of things that people who follow Constantine football don't see, like the hours of dedication and work we put in during the offseason. That's where we make our strides and become better as a program," McGee said.

The football stadium at Constantine is named after Dr. George Sweetland, a physician in the community, who donated money for a football stadium to be built with a hill completely circling the facility.

A trio of Constantine defenders pursue Orchard Lake St. Mary’s Phil Martin (4) during the 1994 Class CC Final.Sweetland, who moved to Constantine in 1916 to take over his brother's medical practice after the latter was killed in a car crash, reportedly allowed patients to work off their medical bills by helping with the stadium's construction.

Constantine, which played its first football game in 1924 and finished as county champs at 4-2 under coach Lew Lake, sports an all-time record of 481 wins and 221 losses with 11 ties. During that span, the Falcons have enjoyed 11 unbeaten seasons, including Robert Finlay's 1937 squad that went 8-0 and was unscored upon.

Coaching longevity is one of the biggest factors allowing Constantine to be as successful as it has been, especially during the program's modern era. The Falcons have had just four head coaches since 1964.

Mike Messner, a three-sport athlete and 1965 Constantine graduate, later served as the school's athletic director from 1992-2016.

Messner pointed to Meredith 'Spud' Huston, Constantine's football coach from 1958-1961, as one of the first individuals influential in setting the wheels in motion for the program's future success.

Huston guided the Falcons to their first league title in 1961.

Constantine's four winningest coaches – Dave Horn, Tim Baker, Ken Rimer and Shawn Griffith – are all honorary members of the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association's Hall of Fame.

Horn, who died earlier this summer, served two stints as Constantine's head coach from 1964-1981 and 1987-1989 while compiling a 116-65-4 record.

Baker (129-30) coached Constantine for 15 seasons and guided the Falcons to a record of 129-30. Under Baker, the Falcons were Division 6 champs in 2004 and Finals runners-up in 1994 (Class CC) and 2002 (Division 5).

"Dave (Horn) was a genuinely great person who coached 21 years. He could get upset at you on the field, but he was a very kind, storyteller and a thoughtful guy who really cared about others," Messner said.

Mike Messner"In the modern coaching era, Tim (Baker) really believed in lifting weights, making kids stronger and developing kids into good football players. He was diligent, hardworking and put a lot of time into the program while missing a lot of family functions. He concentrated on doing the best job he could. Ken (Rimer) was right there in the same mode as Tim. When they started coaching together, they wanted a program that kids at Constantine could be proud of. Things started really happening, and ever since then the program has been strong. We have coaches who want Constantine to be successful on the field."

Rimer spent 28 years as an assistant coach under Baker and current head coach Shawn Griffith. Constantine compiled a win-loss mark of 242-70 with Rimer as an assistant.

Griffith, who took over as Constantine's head coach in 2005, is the Falcons’ all-time winningest coach at 156-53. Under Griffith's tutelage, the Falcons have made 17 playoff appearances, with back-to-back Division 6 runners-up finishes in 2011 and 2012.

"The history of Constantine football kind've coincides with everything else here in the community. This is my 32nd year overall as a coach in this program. But I also have several memories from when I was in high school at Mendon as a player going up against Constantine," Griffith said.

"When you talk about any community our size, you immediately look at family names. We have another Stears (Lucas) on this year's team. Mike (Messner) told me there have been over 20 from the Stears family that have worn the Falcon uniform. It doesn't stop there. I look at the number of kids we have in the locker room this year, and I realize that I've coached many of their brothers, fathers and uncles. We look at the program as one big family. This program has helped to raise a lot of young men in the area these last few years. The community has been extremely supportive of the program as well."

Constantine won 19 league championships as a member of the St. Joseph Valley League from 1952-2007. That league consisted of Constantine, White Pigeon, Schoolcraft, Centreville, Colon, Climax-Scotts, Burr Oak and Mendon. Bronson and Battle Creek St. Philip became members later after Climax-Scotts and Burr Oak left to join the Southern Central Athletic Association. Eventually, the SJV disbanded due to conference realignment and declining enrollment among its smaller schools.

Current Constantine head varsity coach Shawn GriffithAt one time, Constantine played in one of the longest-running rivalries in state football history. The Falcons and archrival White Pigeon began playing one another in 1924 and Constantine held a 47-35-6 in the rivalry, with wins in the final 17 meetings before the series ended after the 2007 season.

Messner recalls the 1981 meeting between White Pigeon and Constantine as one of the most memorable. The game was played at the Sweetland Stadium in Constantine, and there were more than 5,000 people in attendance.

"White Pigeon came into that game unscored upon and ranked No. 1 in the state. We were undefeated, but nobody was saying anything about us, but they were really talking (White Pigeon) up," Messner said. "(White Pigeon) had brought over 1,000 balloons with them and hid them behind the bleachers. They were going to launch them every time they scored. They never scored, and we beat them 21-0. It was such a sad moment for both schools when they had to stop playing one another in football."

After the SJV dissolved, Constantine and Schoolcraft became members of the Kalamazoo Valley Athletic Association from 2008-2014 before leaving to join the Southwestern Athletic Conference for the 2015 season. Constantine begins its ninth season competing in the SAC Lakeshore against the likes of Watervliet, Allegan, Kalamazoo United, South Haven and Parchment.

Messner also lists several playoff games as big moments in Constantine's football history.

"Our first playoff team (1991) was a big year, and our first state finals appearance (1994) was another," Messner added.

Constantine lost to Orchard Lake St. Mary's (35-7) in the 1994 Class CC Final, but knocked off heavily-favored Fennville (50-0) in their Pre-Regional and Whittemore-Prescott (54-6) in a Semifinal to get there.

"Both teams were considerably bigger than us up front on the line. Fennville had a really good quarterback (Frank Alfieri) and Whittemore-Prescott had a great tailback (Tom 'Touchdown' Tyson) that our much smaller guys managed to shut down," Messner said. "Then there was a 13-7 win we had in the 2002 Regional Finals over heavily-favored Muskegon Oakridge."

But perhaps the 2004 Semifinal deemed 'The Miracle in Marshall' will go down as the most memorable game in Constantine history. In that contest, Constantine trailed Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central 27-14 with a little more than six and a half minutes to go in the fourth quarter.

The Falcons scored twice during those last few minutes, including a last-second 32-yard TD pass from Aaron Baker to Sean Wolf caught in the end zone that tied the game at 27-27 with one second left. Jordan Williams booted the PAT as time expired, giving the Falcons a 28-27 win.

Constantine went on to defeat Suttons Bay 34-13 in the Division 6 Final the following week.

The 2004 “Miracle in Marshall” remains one of the most memorable games in Constantine football history. From 1991-2015, Constantine attained at least seven wins for 25 consecutive years, which is a state record. The Falcons made 18 consecutive playoff appearances from 1999-2016 before suffering their most recent losing season in 2017, when they finished 3-6.

Constantine's overall playoff record stands at 49-25 with 26 total appearances.

It was Griffith, who played his high school football at Mendon for Class D championship-winning coach Roger Smith and his then-assistant John Schwartz (who would later lead the Hornets to 10 more Finals titles) who convinced Baker the Falcons should transition from the I-Formation to the Wing-T offense.

After much discussion and argument among the coaching staff, Baker reluctantly agreed to Griffith's idea.

"I joined the coaching staff in 1992 as offensive coordinator. As a coaching staff, we really came into our own and made our first run to the Finals in 1994. In the late ’90s we had some really good teams, but still didn't quite have a real identity. During that time we ran into some really good Wing-T football teams," Griffith said.

"We started noticing that we had a real hard time stopping these teams that ran the Wing-T like Muskegon Orchard View, Hopkins and Battle Creek Pennfield. So I came to Tim (Baker) after the 2001 season with the idea of changing the offense. We knew we had a tremendous group of running backs coming up through the program for the next seven or eight years. I approached him about running the Wing-T. He wasn't real receptive at first about running it. But after sitting down with other Wing-T coaches like John Shilito (Muskegon Orchard View) and Irv Sigler (Belding), he agreed to give it a try."

Constantine began running the Wing-T at the start of the 2002 season.

"Once you get known for running an offense like this, it kind've becomes your niche. I get emails from people all over the United States wanting me to come teach them this offense at camps. Here at Constantine, we've been fortunate to rack up quite a few wins since we installed this offense. Our kids can really talk the Wing-T game, and we didn't really have that before when we were running our I-formation and single-back stuff," Griffith said.

"The blocking schemes have become ingrained in our kids. They do a great job of knowing where they are supposed to be and who they are supposed to block. Another thing I really like about the Wing-T is it's a lineman's offense. Our linemen get a lot of credit, which they deserve. There is a certain toughness to this offense as well. It's allowed us to use kids who might be smaller and less athletic, but still allows us to be successful because they have developed a certain toughness."

Griffith credits a lot of that toughness to his players who compete on the Falcons' wrestling team during the winter sports season. Constantine’s wrestling program also has enjoyed a long run of success, including a Class C-D title in 1993 and Division 3 runner-up finish in 2002. The Falcons have won Team Regional titles three straight seasons.

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 players celebrate near the end of their 2004 championship win at Pontiac Silverdome. (2) A trio of Constantine defenders pursue Orchard Lake St. Mary’s Phil Martin (4) during the 1994 Class CC Final. (3) Longtime Constantine athletic director Mike Messner. (4) Current Constantine head varsity coach Shawn Griffith. (5) The 2004 “Miracle in Marshall” remains one of the most memorable games in Constantine football history. (Finals photos from MHSAA archive. “Miracle in Marshall” photo by Dick Carter. Messner and Griffith photos gathered by Scott Hassinger.)

Ubly Offense, Kicker Pile Up Record Book Listings During Championship Run

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

April 12, 2024

Ubly finished a combined 27-1 over the last two seasons, following up a Division 8 runner-up run in 2022 with its first MHSAA Finals championship this past November. And the Bearcats stacked plenty of record book performances along the way.

Individually, senior Brett Mueller made the single-season extra point list again this past season with 76 in 81 tries, and he set the MHSAA career record with 220 extra points over 232 attempts, 40 games and three seasons. He has signed with Saginaw Valley State.

As a team, Ubly was added to the record book 13 times for achievements over the last two years, most notably in the rushing game. The Bearcats topped 5,200 total yards both seasons, and also made the rush yardage list twice including with a sixth-best 5,148 in 2022. Their 90 touchdowns in 2022 rank seventh all-time, and their 85 this past fall tied for 13th, and they tied the record with 10 rushing touchdowns in a 2022 win over Reese and set another record with 84 rushing touchdowns total that season.

See below for more recent record book additions in 11-player football, and click the heading to see the record book in full:

11-Player Football

Dundee’s Ben Miller has a pair of basketball record book entries, and he’s also been added in football for scoring seven touchdowns in his team’s 72-36 win over Erie Mason on Oct. 20, 2017. A senior that season, he ran for five scores and caught two touchdowns passes.

Nearly four decades later, Howard City Tri County’s Mike Wagoner has reached the record book for his work on defense in 1985. A junior that season, Wagoner returned three interceptions for touchdowns – 65, 55 and 35 yards – which would have been second on the list at the time and remains tied for third-most for one season.

Jaxon Lippert tops the list of 21 who have returned kickoffs 99 yards. Lippert, now a senior at Walled Lake Western, joined the list against Davison during his junior season.

A handful of records from Warren De La Salle Collegiate’s recent run of Ford Field teams and also one from decades ago were added. Jake Badalamenti was added three times for kickoff returns between 96-99 yards, one as a junior in 2016 and two as a senior the following fall, and Marty Wyzlic was added for his 95-yarder in 1976. Mason Muragin is the new leader for tackles for loss in a career with 71 over three seasons, and he also was added to the single-season list with 31 as a junior in 2021, as was Will Beasley for 38 as a junior in 2020. Wayne Wright was added for his 16 sacks over nine games as a senior in 1984, and Josh Cox was added for his 100-yard interception return as a senior in 2012. Muragin plays at Illinois, Beesley plays at Princeton, Cox played at Central Michigan, and Badalamenti played baseball at Wayne State.

Pinckney junior Nolan Carruthers caught 16 passes during a 13-7 loss to Jackson on Sept. 15, good to tie for ninth-most in one game and breaking the Livingston County record of 14 by Hartland’s Greg Matthyssen in 2007 – a listing that also was added.

Ethan Wissner did some major lifting, or rather carrying, during Elkton-Pigeon-Bay Port Laker’s 28-14 District Final win over Montrose in 2022. The then-senior ran 42 times to make the record book, for 289 yards and three touchdowns. He’s continuing at Siena Heights.

Senior quarterback Andrew Schuster and junior receiver DeShaun Lanier formed a game-changing pass-catch combo this past season for Clinton Township Chippewa Valley, with Schuster finishing his career with nine record book listings and Lanier totaling six with a season to play. Schuster most notably was added for 212 completions on 301 attempts for 2,766 yards and 28 touchdowns this season, and 321 completions and 4,199 career yards over two years and 22 games. Lanier was added in part for 73 receptions for 1,132 yards and 15 TDs this fall. Junior kicker Juliano Haddad also earned impressive mentions with 10 field goals and 50 extra points – and he’ll carry a streak of 35 straight extra points into next fall. Schuster has committed to Grand Valley State.

Fulton’s Evan Barton has been added to the single-game touchdowns list after catching four scoring passes Sept. 8, 2017, against Potterville. He was a senior that season.

Saginaw Heritage’s Braylon Isom completed his career this past fall as arguably the most accomplished receiver in MHSAA history. His name is listed in the record book eight times, with career records of 3,837 receiving yards and 52 touchdowns over 34 games and four seasons, and with a single-season record 26 touchdowns this past fall over 12 games. His 91 career receptions rank fifth, and he’s also listed for 82 catches and 1,617 yards (seventh-most) as a senior and 1,428 yards and 18 touchdowns as a junior. He will continue at Miami (Ohio).

Evart’s 24-8 run over the last three seasons has been its most successful of the MHSAA playoff era, and senior quarterback Preston Wallace has played an enormous part. He finished his 33-game career in the fall – he came up for one game as a freshman – on record book lists twice for single-season passing yards and touchdowns and on career lists for 662 attempts, 421 completions, 6,955 yards and 88 passing touchdowns over those 32 games and three seasons. The yardage ranks 15th all-time, and the touchdowns are tied for sixth-most for one career.  

The 2005 Midland Bullock Creek team was added for scoring 547 points over 12 games. The Lancers finished 11-1, their only loss in a Division 5 Regional Final.

PHOTO Ubly's Seth Maurer (30) carries the ball during the Division 8 championship win over Ottawa Lake Whiteford in November.