Fracassa's Remarkable Records Still Rule

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

June 24, 2020

As a senior at Sterling Heights Stevenson during the 2009 season, Jason Fracassa lit up the high school football world with his aerial display.

Fracassa shattered the MHSAA career totals for passing yards and touchdowns held by Mill Coleman of Farmington Hills Harrison. Fracassa also etched his name into the national record book in three career passing categories before the remarkable run ended with a 31-21 loss to Detroit Catholic Central in the Division 1 Final at Ford Field.

The numbers he posted at Stevenson indeed were staggering. And just more than a decade later, after securing two undergraduate degrees and a masters in finance from Walsh University in Ohio, Fracassa lives in Auburn Hills and continues to crunch numbers – now for a development company in Birmingham – while also planning for a Sept. 12 wedding to fiancé Kelsey Torzy.

Fracassa has always been a highly-motivated person, and that held true in the classroom and as a three-sport varsity athlete and continues now in the business world. But while driven by success, Fracassa doesn’t dwell on what he accomplished in the sports world – which also included Division II college careers in both football and baseball. What was important then remains so now, and those are the relationships he built through trust, hard work and having a little fun.

“I miss going to practice each day and hanging out with my friends,” he said. “Just walking around school and trying to set an example to the kids, that’s what was important. I’ll go to the golf course now and I’m with all of my friends. That’s what it’s all about. That was the best part. We had the best relationships, no matter if we won or lost. Playing for Coach (Rick) Bye and your friends, that’s the best memories I have.”

A four-year varsity starter for Bye, Fracassa led Stevenson to a combined 23-3 record over his last two seasons, culminated by that fourth trip in program history to an MHSAA Final.

During his junior season, Fracassa threw for 3,353 yards and 34 touchdowns over 12 games. He then took aim at Coleman’s career passing records for touchdowns (77) and yards (7,464), records that had stood for 20 years.

Fracassa and his teammates put on a show that 2009 season as he threw for 4,433 yards and 44 touchdowns. His career (10,615) and single season (4,433) passing yards remain MHSAA records, the career total by nearly 2,000 yards. Fracassa also continues to own the records for career passing attempts (1,104) and completions (656), accrued over 44 games, and he briefly held the MHSAA record for career TD passes with 97 before it was broken in 2013. The career attempts and yards and senior-season yardage all rank in the National Federation record book as well.   

Fracassa credits the coaching staff at Stevenson for the success he and his teammates enjoyed. He couldn’t have imagined playing for anyone but Bye and his staff. Fracassa said he’s spoken with many of Bye’s former players, and they all agree playing for Stevenson and Bye was a phenomenal experience.

Like Fracassa, Bye – who retired after 2009 with a record of 268-94 over 35 seasons – also keeps tabs of his cronies by playing golf once a week with former assistants like Ken Fiott, Jerry Lajeunesse, Larry Zimmerman, Joe Emanuele and D.J. Hill among others. Bye is quick to point out that many of his former players, including Fracassa, keep in touch on a regular basis.

“I saw (Fracassa) at a Stevenson playoff game,” Bye said. “He calls me at least once every two months or so to see how I’m doing. I appreciate that. He was always a highly-respected kid. He’s not a kid anymore.”

Bye recalls hearing about Fracassa when Fracassa was in the eighth grade at St. Lawrence in Utica. Fracassa enrolled at Davis Junior High, Stevenson’s feeder school, for his ninth grade and tried out for the football team not knowing whether he’d make the varsity or not.

“His dad wasn’t pushy one bit,” Bye said. “(Rick Fracassa) asked if Jason was going to be on the JV. A big reason he wanted his son to come (to Stevenson) was Joe Emanuele, who was our baseball coach, and Rick knew Joe had a good program. He wanted Jason to play baseball, too.

“Jason came out and won the (quarterback) job. He proved himself. And he had to win over our seniors.”

Jason Fracassa said that was the hard part – convincing a group of seniors that a freshman could come in, start at quarterback and lead the team can be daunting.

“I knew I could compete at that level,” Fracassa said. “It was more of my getting to associate myself with the older players. That was the most difficult part. The coaches were always there to back me.”

Stevenson made the playoffs that 2006 season finishing 5-5. The next season was rough as the Titans lost a number of close games and finished 2-7. Stevenson improved substantially to 10-2 in 2008, losing to Lake Orion, 38-36, in a Regional Final.   

That all built up to the memorable 2009 season, which included a tense Semifinal game against Clarkston won by Stevenson 37-35 on a Fracassa scoring pass on the final play.

Emotions also ran high the game before when Stevenson took on Detroit Public School League power Detroit Southeastern, led by Michigan State-bound and now-NFL defensive end William Gholston. Fracassa threw for a career-high 494 yards, and Stevenson defeated Southeastern, 38-32.

After a busy and accomplished prep career, Fracassa maintained a hectic athletic schedule in college first at Northwood University – where he started on the baseball team for three seasons and was a member of the football team for two.

After sitting out a term, Fracassa transferred to Walsh, located in North Canton, Ohio. There he revived his football career starting at quarterback his last two years. Walsh, then a recent addition to the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, nearly upset conference power and undefeated Ferris State in Fracassa’s final game. Fracassa threw his second touchdown pass of the game to give Walsh a 42-32 lead with 9:38 left before Ferris State came back with two touchdowns, the second with 36 seconds left, to win 46-42.

Fracassa hasn’t completely abandoned football since his last game at Walsh. He and his father coached the Oakland University club team in 2018 and that team reached a championship game. Jason was the offensive coordinator, his father the head coach – branches from the coaching tree rooted with Jason’s grandfather Al Fracassa, the second-winningest high school football coach in MHSAA history and Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice legend.

Jason’s competitive juices continue to flow. 

“We had a great run,” Fracassa said, “and any other year could have taken the championship trophy.”

Made in Michigan 2020

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Tom Markowski is a correspondent for the State Champs! Sports Network and previously directed its web coverage. He also covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Jason Fracassa rolls out during the 2009 Division I championship game at Ford Field. (Middle) Fracassa and fiancé Kelsey Torzy. (Below) Fracassa drops back to pass while playing for Walsh. (Middle and below photos courtesy of Jason Fracassa.)

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.)