Defensive Duo Spurs PHN's Historic Run

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

November 7, 2018

Gameplanning around Braiden McGregor seemed like a no-brainer coming into the season for Port Huron Northern’s opponents.

While avoiding the 6-foot-5, 250-pound junior linebacker and defensive end is still pretty wise, it’s not exactly working thanks to the emergence of senior defensive lineman Maurice Powell and an overall outstanding supporting cast.

“I think it’s just the whole team – I don’t think it’s one person or anything like that. It’s just us working together as a team every day and every game,” said McGregor, who has 16 Division I college offers, including from the Big Ten’s elite and Notre Dame. “I don’t think they can really gameplan around one person, because we have another person that steps up and makes plays.”

The Huskies will play for their first Regional title Friday night at home against Warren DeLaSalle. With a pair of playoff wins and a Macomb Area Conference Blue title already under their belt, this already has been the most successful season in program history regardless of what happens against the reigning Division 2 champion.

That success can be attributed in large part to the Northern defense, which is allowing 11.6 points per game, its best effort since 2010 when the team allowed a paltry 9.8 per contest. 

“It’s been truly energetic throughout the whole wave of the defense,” Powell said. “We all feed off of each other’s energy, and we work hard in practice every day. We don’t give in, and we play hard every game.”

Powell has been a problem for opposing offenses all fall, as he racked up 75 tackles with 16 tackles for loss, 6½ sacks, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries (including one returned for a touchdown) during the regular season.

His outstanding season has led to interest from Division I and II collegiate programs. While he doesn’t have an offer yet, he has taken recent trips to Eastern Kentucky and Eastern Michigan University. He’ll head to Northwood for an official visit in December.

“It’s been nice, of course to have the talent with those kids, and also the supporting cast they have around them,” Northern coach Larry Roelens said. “Those two guys right there are leaders, too. They come out and work just as hard as anyone else, if not harder than anyone else, and kids see that and they feed off it. It’s been amazing. The kids are buying in and feeding off each other, and the school and the staff and the students, it’s been phenomenal.”

Both players are versatile, and defensive coordinator Brett VanDrew has used Powell all over the defensive line, while using McGregor essentially everywhere but cornerback. Their abilities, along with the emergence of players like middle linebacker Austin Eagle (who had the game-clinching interception in overtime of the District title game against St. Clair Shores Lakeview), has made gameplanning that much more difficult for opposing offenses.

The defense’s play as a whole, meanwhile, has made things easier for Roelens, who calls the offensive plays.

“Knowing you have a good defense and knowing we run the ball 70 percent of the time, it helps control the game and dictate the clock, and that’s kind of how we’re built,” Roelens said. “We just kind of methodically make our way down the field and put some points on the board, and know our defense is going to hold strong. If we just keep chewing clock and playing field position, we’ll be all right.”

Neither player has shied away from the spotlight their success, and that of the team, has brought upon them. When asked if they have to block out all of the eyes that now are watching them on the field, both smiled and laughed it off.

“Whatever happens, happens,” Powell said. “You just have to make it happen. … You have to have fun while you’re playing.”

Both also realize the eyes on them aren’t just those of college scouts, but a younger generation of players in Port Huron. They’re excited to help show them the way.

“All this recruiting stuff has really helped out with bringing football back to Port Huron, especially with the younger kids like TAFL (Thumb Area Football League, the area’s youth program),” McGregor said. “My mom and dad’s friend, he’s a coach there and they all just want to be like No. 17 (McGregor), I guess. I went to a couple of their practices, and it’s cool, but I’m just happy that football is starting to pick up in the area again. I hope that next year, we can be a pretty big powerhouse again, then keep it going.”

The attention given highly-recruited prospects and a winning program also benefits the other current players on the team.

“Everything goes hand in hand,” Roelens said. “The more football games you win, the more exposure you’re going to get, and you have a good supporting cast of the other kids on the team that just keep working in the weight room in the offseason and the winter time, because they never know when they’re going to get seen, too.”

Northern’s next opponent – DeLaSalle – is no stranger to the spotlight winning and top recruits can bring to a program. The Pilots ended Northern’s season in the District Final a year ago and will be considered favorites by most Friday night, despite having to travel to Northern’s home field.

After spending the entire season playing as if everyone was watching, the Huskies feel they’re ready for the spotlight.

“We’re not afraid of anybody,” Powell said. “We’ll play anybody – we're not scared of anybody. We play with heart night in and night out, and we won’t back down from a challenge. We love challenges, and we live for stuff like this.”

Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTO: Port Huron Northern’s Braiden McGregor (17) and Maurice Powell celebrate a big play during the Oct. 5 21-14 win over Port Huron. (Photo by Delta Imaging.)

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.)