'Game Changers' Making Major Strides to Revive Atherton Football

By Paul Costanzo
Special for MHSAA.com

September 15, 2021

Terrieon Robertson had a choice to make this spring. The Burton Atherton senior could leave his school for an opportunity to play football elsewhere, or he could stay and risk the chance that Atherton’s low numbers would lead to a cancellation of his final season.

After meeting with new Atherton coach Randy Young, that decision was easy.

“I was planning on leaving toward the end of my junior year, because I didn’t know if football was going to be a thing,” said Robertson, who noted that he didn’t want to leave. “In my head I was like, ‘We’re not going to have enough kids.’ I was working out and getting better, and I planned on transferring. (Young) came in and he graduated from Atherton, he was like ‘Everything is going to be different and better, just trust me.’ I did, and I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Robertson was one of just four players who planned to play football when Young took over the program in June. That number doubled through the summer, and eventually the Wolverines were able to get to 11 players for their first game of the season against Kinde North Huron.

Now, after a 2-1 start, the locker room is overflowing.

“We’re actually out of helmets and uniforms for the kids,” Young said. “I can’t sustain any more new kids.”

Football success has been scarce at Atherton, with the program winning just two games over the previous four seasons. The program has one playoff appearance (2014) and seven winning seasons during the playoff era (since 1975). Young was part of one of those winning seasons during his junior year in 1987.

“I’ve forever followed Atherton," Young said. "Since I graduated, I’ve always kept up with them. It was disheartening to see my school falling by the wayside. My senior year, we were 2-7 and we lost our JV program. It kind of fell down from there.”

Burton Atherton footballDespite that, Young jumped at the chance to take a job at his alma mater.

“The chance to go back to your high school and possibly change it around – I'm blessed to be back there,” he said. “It felt like with me and my staff, we were up for the task. I’ve worked with most everybody on my staff before. We mesh well. Even through the summer, ever since I left Bentley (as an assistant), we’ve been working toward something like this. We were confident in the work we were going to put in.”

Young’s excitement did not reflect the situation he was entering. As wins dried up and numbers dropped, Atherton moved to 8-player football in 2019, despite having more than 215 students enrolled and hence not being eligible for the postseason. (Only schools with 215 or fewer can qualify for the 8-player playoffs, and Atherton’s count is 254.) That year, the Wolverines were 1-8, and in 2020, they started 0-2 before forfeiting their final two games and ending the season early.

“Oh my goodness, the image has been terrible,” senior Tra’Jen Adams said. “I had a terrible image of it before I even went there. When people play Atherton, they knew it was going to be an easy win. Even before this season, there were so many jokes around Flint. Now, it’s quieted down a little bit, but it’s still there.”

Before changing minds in the area, Young and his players had to change minds in the school. That included Adams, a basketball player the Atherton staff recruited out of their own gym. Like many of the athletes in the school, Adams was also contacted by Robertson, who himself had turned into a recruiter.

“Every single kid that I knew wanted to play or looked like they could play, I contacted them,” Robertson said. “Probably 80 percent of kids on the team right now got a text from me to come out for the team. Some people were like, ‘OK, we’re on the way.’ Most kids didn’t even know football was happening. Some kids were still against Atherton saying that Atherton isn’t good and we shouldn’t play. Once we won the first game, more kids came out. We won the second game, and more kids came out.”

The Wolverines lost their opener against North Huron but impressed their coach and opened some eyes by playing tough against the returning Division 2 semifinalist in the 30-20 defeat. 

Atherton has rolled in its past two games, defeating International Academy of Flint 44-18 and New Haven Merritt Academy 49-14. As the team racks up wins, the players are putting up huge numbers.

Burton Atherton footballJunior receiver and running back Romiel Clausell is averaging 16.8 yards per touch (386 yards on the ground, 134 receiving) and has seven touchdowns. Robertson has hauled in 12 catches for 143 yards and three touchdowns, and sophomore quarterback Demontrey Davis is 18 of 27 passing for 297 yards and six touchdowns, and has rushed for 215 yards and four scores.

Defensively, the Wolverines are causing plenty of havoc, led by Adams’ seven tackles for loss and four sacks. Clausell (six TFL) and Te’Shawn Stevenson (five TFL) have chipped in as well.

“Every day (they surprise me),” Young said. “Not because they’re not talented, but they’ve grown up. They’ve grown up so much before our eyes. It’s almost like having a child and having them outdo what your expectations for them are. I’m surprised, and every day there’s something new that brings a smile to my face.”

They’re also surprising their classmates and creating an excitement around the program that hasn’t been present for a long time. 

“People were really doubting us at first all over social media,” Clausell said. “After our first three games, I haven’t heard anybody talk since. We love to see it, and we hope we can continue it.”

With no postseason available to them, the Wolverines have different goals than most. They play in the North Central Thumb League Stars division, so a league title is a possibility. Of course, to do that, they would need to overcome 8-player powerhouses Morrice and Deckerville, who have each won a Finals title. 

But games against that type of competition do give Atherton a chance to prove how far they’ve come.

“We have a lot to prove,” Young said. “We want to prove that we’re worthy of being in a playoff situation. We want to show everybody that we’re not the Atherton you think we are. We’re going to play with something to prove.”

A longterm goal is to get the program back into 11-player football and postseason eligible. Young said that’s probably a couple years away, but with the early success and growth in participation among his underclassmen, that feels attainable.

While Robertson and his classmates won’t be around to experience that, they’ll certainly be remembered as the ones who made it happen.

“Me knowing that I’m a part of that – in 20 years when they say, ‘In 2021, that class, they were the game-changers,” Robertson said. “I’ll keep it as an achievement in my life.”

Paul CostanzoPaul 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.

PHOTOS: (Top) Atherton quarterback Demontrey Davis readies for the snap during this season’s win over New Haven Merritt Academy. (Middle) Davis makes a move as a defender approaches. (Below) Terrieon Robertson (6) and Romiel Clausell (10) enjoy a celebratory shoulder bump. (Photos by Mandi Withey.)

Constantine Football All-Stater, Wrestling Champ Aiming for Grand Finale

By Scott Hassinger
Special for MHSAA.com

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.)