As Football Launches Again, Reeths-Puffer Fueled for Fresh Start

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

August 9, 2021

MUSKEGON – A Reeths-Puffer running back tripped and plowed into the Kit Kat-shaped bags he was supposed to be hurdling Monday, and his teammates laughed. The offensive line coach wore a shirt, like line coaches always do, that read “No One Works Harder Than The Offensive Line.” The sun came out about halfway through, but the breeze kept the weather just right, and after a hands-in, all-together “R-P!” someone shouted, “I’ve missed that!”

The setting was as typical as could be for the first day of football practice at any high school across Michigan over the last many years … except for 2020.

Remember a year ago? When COVID-19 precautions meant little to no contact for the most contact-filled sport? When locker rooms were closed and footballs were wiped down after every snap? And the possibility of the season ending at any moment hung in the air?

“I was telling the team (last year) we could play our first game and the rest of the season could get canceled, so you don’t know,” Rockets senior lineman Marco Fields recalled. “The seniors only got to play half their season, and some got hurt.

“Now that we know we have a full senior season ahead of us, for us seniors, all we can do now is stay focused.”

Muskegon Reeths-Puffer footballIndeed, although there’s little debate that COVID-19 is still lingering, just about everything Monday at Reeths-Puffer felt differently from the first day of football practice a year ago. And although varsity head coach Matt Bird thought he might have an answer to what remained the same from 2020 … he really didn’t.

 “The same is … (searching for his thought)

“… that you are … (pause)

“Kids … (trailed off)

“Actually, I don’t feel that anything is the same,” he admitted. “Other than we have a football, and we have some things involved from that standpoint.”

Monday marked a fresh start for high school football across Michigan, after last season included multiple COVID-related delays before finishing up in late January – which followed also an abbreviated regular season during which the conversation was forced at times into much more serious topics than the highlights on the field.

But every first day of practice means starting anew. And when it comes to fresh starts, Reeths-Puffer is a great place to begin Fall 2021.

Start with Bird, something of a master when it comes to building from a clean slate.

Way back in 2000, he was an offensive assistant when Grand Ledge won the Division 1 championship, the only Division 1 title that’s been won by a Lansing-area team. Six years later, he took over the Comets program and debuted with back-to-back 3-6 seasons (which predictably didn’t go over too well) before rattling off 10 winning seasons over the next 12 including a Semifinals trip in 2015. That eventually led to a rarely-seen career move after the 2018 season – leaving an established power for a new challenge, as Bird took the Reeths-Puffer job and took on a program that was coming off a second-straight 5-4 finish but accomplished with just under 30 players on the roster.

Bird led his first Rockets team to another 5-4 finish in 2019 … and then 2020 hit. Reeths-Puffer finished 2-5, but all things considered there were plenty of positives to take away.

When practice started, Bird was just finishing up recovery from COVID-19. And despite the unpredictability the season promised, the varsity still managed to grow to 53 players. 

“As a coach you have to acknowledge it,” Bird said Monday, recalling 2020. “But the thing that is frustrating to me is you want to acknowledge it, but when you look at it everything was done so differently; it didn’t even feel like a season. At times you’d get started, then kicked back, then started and kicked back. We couldn’t do team dinners, we couldn’t do a lot of the bonding things we do as a group, and that hurt us.”

Monday was the beginning of another fresh start for the Rockets. Set aside that the great majority of COVID restrictions are off – the program is still emphasizing a number of hygiene and health-related concepts to help players avoid illness – and the football-related details provide plenty of excitement.

Muskegon Reeths-Puffer footballOn one hand, Reeths-Puffer still plays in the Ottawa-Kent Conference Green – which includes the winningest program in MHSAA history in Muskegon High, back-to-back Division 2 champion Mona Shores and powerful neighbors Zeeland West and East. Grand Rapids Union, Holland and Wyoming all provide some intriguing possibilities as well heading into the new season.

But Bird’s varsity roster looks to push past 50 again, with 20 seniors including four returning senior starters on both sides of the ball. Fields is a Division I-caliber college line prospect, and the sophomore class is shaping up to be special with 6-foot-7 Travis Ambrose of particular note.

“I know every coach says their sport is the best team sport, but there’s something about football where you’ve got 11 guys out there and everybody can contribute,” Bird said. “The 6-5 kid to the 5-7 kid, and you can find a way to make that come together. I’ve always been a big fan, where it’s ‘Tell me that we can’t do something, and let me prove that (we can).’ … We compete using our strengths rather than focusing on some of the things that we don’t have.”

And there are lessons learned last season which, despite its wildness, should pay off. For example, last year teams were forced to focus more on technique with contact cut down substantially, and then rely on technology to cut down on face-to-face conversation. On Monday, Bird was recording his quarterbacks’ footwork with a tablet so he could share the video later over Google Meet, the new norm in communication but something Bird considers a valuable teaching tool brought on by the last 18 months.

The players, for their part, could allow themselves to feel a little lighter than a year ago. Fields and his teammates got to have more fun this time. And they were able talk about the expectations and aspirations that always make the first day a special one.  

“I’ve heard people are expecting a normal Reeths-Puffer, and some say ‘Rocket failure again,’ which is just us going 2-5 or whatever they’re trying to say,” Fields said. “But I think we’re going to take this thing all the way.”

“This is normalcy, to an extent,” was Bird’s take on the day. “And it’s just really nice.”

PHOTOS: (Top) Reeths-Puffer running backs hurdle a series of bags during a busy first practice Monday. (Middle) Clockwise from top: Assistant coaches Jari Brown (left) and Jeff Uganski work with the linemen; senior Marco Fields (front, blue sleeveless shirt) is among those working on his form; varsity coach Matt Bird works with one of his quarterbacks and their receivers. (Below) Bird gathers with his team at the end of their first practice of the season. (Photos by Geoff Kimmerly.)

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.)