Forest Park Tradition Gains Another Title

November 18, 2017

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

MARQUETTE – Fans wearing black and red chanted “U.P. Power” while their favorite team ran for nearly 500 yards without throwing a pass Saturday at the Superior Dome.

This was Crystal Falls Forest Park football. And it didn’t matter how many players were on the field.

The Trojans, in their second season of 8-player, added a fourth MHSAA football championship running away early and often on the way to a 54-12 win in the inaugural 8-Player Division 2 Final.

The way Forest Park won, it could’ve been Ford Field or Pontiac Silverdome – where the Trojans made most of their first 13 championship game appearances. They gained an 8-Player Finals record 481 yards on 52 carries and set another record with eight rushing touchdowns.

The championship was the program's first since 2007.

“Last week, we watched 2007 states in our class, and (Saturday) was just like it,” Forest Park senior running back Connor Bortolini said. “We just stick to running the ball, and that’s what we do.

“The 2007 guys, some of them came up to us before the game, told us ‘Good luck.’ And now it’s our turn to do that.”

Senior Peter Ropiak had 275 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, sharing the backfield load with Bortolini, who totaled 196 yards and four rushing scores. Junior Calvin Post added the eighth rushing touchdown on a 1-yarder with 6:02 to play.

Bortolini scored the first just 1:47 into the game. Portland St. Patrick scored 1:26 later. And then the Trojans (10-2) put up the next 40 points, with Bortolini scoring four in a row total before Ropiak scored three consecutive.

The Trojans might have been the second or third best team in 8-player last season, but ran into Powers North Central in a Regional Final as North Central was finishing its second straight perfect season. Forest Park opened this fall 1-2, but then won its final nine games to return to the state’s elite.

“These kids don’t know the difference between 8-man and 11-man. They are out there competing. They’re out there being the best that they can be,” Trojans coach Dave Graff said. “For them to turn the page here, and do it in style where you have a sophomore middle linebacker who bench presses 115 pounds and runs a 5.5 40, a corner who’s 5-foot-5 and runs a 5-5 40. We’re doing it with people who are young, inexperienced, and yet they come out and get better every week. And they just have a new tradition, an 8-man tradition at Forest Park, and it’s good for them.”

Bortolini and Ropiak did their damage behind a line of junior guard Jacob Peterson, junior center Hal Hoenig, senior guard Robert Ponchaud and senior tight end Jonah Logan. All four weigh in between 205-240 pounds. St. Patrick has only one player tipping above 190.

“They’ve got some big bodies and they’re pretty simple – they come downhill at you,” St. Patrick coach Patrick Russman said “It’s a great scheme for them. We’ve just got to work on getting a little bigger.”

And the Trojans’ defense cannot be forgotten. St. Patrick gained only 169 yards on 43 plays, and the 12 points were the second-fewest the team scored this season as the Shamrocks averaged 35 per game. The inability to move the ball on offense kept the pressure on the defense – a lot to manage against such a productive attack.

The Shamrocks (11-2) were playing for their first football championship since 1992 and in their first Final since 1997 after reaching the Semifinals for the third time since switching to 8-player in 2012. Their only other loss this fall was to Division 1 semifinalist Bellevue.

“Just being around these kids and the seniors especially, all of them, they’re such great leaders off the field. It’s going to carry over for us,” said Russman, also the school’s athletic director. “They’re really good football players on the field, obviously, but the things they’ve done off the field have just been life-changing for the coaches and kids around it.

“So you hope they continue all those things going into their next sports, and we’ll build on it next year.”

Junior Tanner Lawson threw for 125 yards and a touchdown for St. Patrick, connecting with senior Will Simon on a 19-yard score in the first quarter. Senior Isaiah Smith added a fourth-quarter 1-yard rushing touchdown. Smith had 13 tackles and Simon had 11, while junior linebacker Paul Cook added 10.

Click for the full box score.

The MHSAA Playoffs are sponsored by the Michigan Army National Guard.

PHOTOS: (Top) Crystal Falls Forest Park’s Connor Bortolini charges toward the end zone for one of his four touchdowns Saturday. (Middle) A Trojans defender wraps up Portland St. Patrick’s Ned Smith. (Photos by John Johnson.)

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.)