Gaylord's Teams Pursue Return to Elite

September 23, 2015

By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half

GAYLORD – Gaylord High School is in the midst of a football revival.

Gaylord St. Mary is hoping it can say the same in a few years.

Gaylord High is 4-0 and, among various media polls, ranked as high as No. 4 in Division 3. The senior-laden Blue Devils will be put to the test Friday, facing another unbeaten, Traverse City Central, on the road.

St. Mary, challenged by numbers, is 0-4. With just five seniors on the 25-player roster – there’s no junior varsity team – the Snowbirds are building for the future behind a "solid" sophomore class.

"We realize we're behind the eight ball in terms of numbers," St. Mary coach Kevin O'Connell said. "But we're very encouraged about what's coming up.

"We start six to seven sophomores on each side of the ball, plus a freshman. We're very young. We're a JV team playing on Friday night. We're OK with that because over the next two or three years we anticipate being very competitive."

Gaylord coach Will Cleaver can relate to that. Two years ago, in his first season back after a five-year hiatus, the Blue Devils started 0-8 before closing the campaign with a win over Alpena.

"That was a grind, a tough season," Cleaver said. "Our kids really had to learn a lot of things. We just weren't competitive."

But those underclassmen in 2013 stepped up, leading the Blue Devils to a 5-4 mark and near-playoff berth last season.

"The thing I was most proud about in 2014 was that we were competitive in every game," Cleaver said. "There were no blowouts, like in 2013. We were making progress."

The progress has continued. With the senior class leading the way, Gaylord football is returning to where it was when Cleaver first ran the program from 2000 to 2007. The Blue Devils went 55-24 during those eight years.

"It's exciting to be in the situation we're in now," Cleaver said. "We're pleased with how our kids are progressing and responding. We've got some pretty good players. That makes it easier."

One of those players is senior running back/safety Shane Foster, who rushed for 148 yards and four touchdowns in last week's 52-8 win over Ogemaw Heights. Foster was on the varsity as a sophomore in 2013 – a time when success was elusive. Gaylord slipped to 7-38 in the five years after Cleaver left following the 2007 season.

"It's all about mindset really and that (2013) team didn't have a good mindset,” Foster said.

That's changing now.

"Last year we went 5-4," Foster said. "Obviously, we want to do better than that and make the playoffs. We realize we have to come together and work as a team to make that happen."

Gaylord’s athletic director Christian Wilson has watched his school’s progression – and it puts into perspective what St. Mary is going through. Those sophomores who had to play in 2013 have continued to work hard, especially in the weight room, he said, and now are reaping the benefits.

"Sometimes you have those years when you've got a lot of young kids playing," Wilson said. "But it's difficult to win games, especially in the Big North Conference, when your key players are sophomores or even juniors. You need to have senior leadership. We've been blessed with that this year."

"So goes your seniors, so goes your season, as a general rule," Cleaver added.

Seniors dominate the line on both sides of the ball for the Blue Devils. Foster is the leading ground gainer. Another senior, Jacob Freeman, is a threat, too. He returned a kick 60 yards for a score, hauled in a 37-yard touchdown pass from Nick Rowley and completed a 34-yard pass to Rowley on a trick play in the win over Ogemaw.

Rowley, a sophomore, gives the Blue Devils balance. He completed 12 of 15 passes for 170 yards in a Week 3 win over Escanaba.

"Our kids have caught on as to what it takes to win ... what it takes to play at a high level," Cleaver said. "It all has to come together. We have great kids, and I have a staff that does a great job with those kids. It's been very rewarding."

Foster credits the staff for turning the team's fortunes around. It all starts with Cleaver, who left in 2007 to work as a defensive line/quality control coach under Butch Jones at Central Michigan University. He spent the next season coaching inside linebackers at Liberty High School in Frisco, Texas, before returning to Gaylord and helping out in the youth football program.

Cleaver, a financial adviser, said he didn't expect to return to the sidelines at the high school given the commitment it would take to rebuild the program. But his two sons, who were playing in the system, "begged" him to consider it. So a family meeting was called.

"I told them that if I'm going to do this, it's going to take a lot of work and you need to be on board," Cleaver said. "If everyone is not all in, it's not going to be worth it. Everybody voted and said 'Let's do it.'"

Gaylord started 4-0 last season, but a loss to Traverse City Central spiraled into a 1-4 finish.  

"After that (loss to Central), it didn't go the way we planned," Foster said.

That's why Friday's showdown is critical for the Blue Devils.

"We're trying to make our statement here for the Big North Conference (title)," Foster said.

At St. Mary, there is no league title to play for this season. The goal is long range – boost numbers in the program. With Manistee Catholic Central switching to 8-player this fall, St. Mary is now the smallest Catholic school playing 11-player football in the northern Lower Peninsula. In fact, the Snowbirds, who co-op with Alba, are the sixth smallest program in the state with 133 high school students – 91 at St. Mary, 42 at Alba.

With three Ski Valley Conference members – Bellaire, Pellston and Onaway – playing 8-player, there was talk in the community about making that switch, too. But that's all it was – talk. Since then the school's made a commitment to 11-player by joining the Northern Michigan Football League, with play starting next season.

"We feel there's a good future here," new athletic director Jeff Hunter said. "We obviously have to work at increasing our numbers. The economy really hurt us for several years. It hurt everybody. This is a choice for people to send their kids here. We've seen our numbers go from the mid-60s (three years ago) to back into the 90s. I would like to see us with 150 kids in this high school in the next five years. We're working really hard."

Five of the 25 players on the roster are from Alba. Hunter said he's looking at other "co-op opportunities" as well in order to strengthen the program, although he did not want to elaborate at this time.

"Everybody wants us to be competitive, most everybody wants us to stay 11-man," he said. "I have some things in the works I'm pushing hard to try and get."

St. Mary has a proud tradition. The Snowbirds went 85-22 over a stretch from 1999 to 2009. They won 10 or more games five years in a row. Twice, in 1999 and 2002, St. Mary finished 13-1, falling in the MHSAA Division 8 Final, first to Mendon (7-6) and then to Waterford Our Lady of the Lakes (13-10).

Cleaver was the coach of the 1999 squad.

Hunter is certain St. Mary has the right coach in O'Connell to bring the Snowbirds back.

"Our current football staff is out of this world, entirely committed," he said. "We're not far from being competitive – three or four athletes. We're in most of these games. There's a lot to come, and Kevin is the guy to lead us."

St. Mary suffered two eight-point losses to start the season – 35-27 to Oscoda and 22-14 to Central Lake. O'Connell would like to have those games back.

"You can't turn the ball over five times one week and four the next and expect to win," he said.

The Snowbirds then ran into two of the area’s powerhouse teams, unbeaten and state-ranked St. Ignace and Johannesburg-Lewiston.

"We're taking our lumps right now, but we're definitely headed in the right direction," O'Connell insisted.

"We have a solid group of athletes in our sophomore class. They're physically big enough to play. And we have a nice eighth grade class coming up."

O'Connell is putting added emphasis in a strength and conditioning program for all high school athletes, regardless of sport.

"We're making great headway and our kids, boys and girls, are getting on board with it," he said. "We want to be able to jump higher, run faster and be more explosive. Last I knew, those (concepts) applied to every sport."

With such a young roster, O'Connell admits he and his staff are spending more time teaching fundamentals than in the past when the school had a JV team. They're also trying to develop the mental aspects of the game, such as working with players in analyzing situations in order to slow the speed of the action down so it's not overwhelming.

O'Connell feels for the younger players who are not ready for varsity, but are thrust into competing with older players. He said they miss out "on those formative years" at the JV level where they can grow, learn the fundamentals, gain confidence and get game repetitions while playing opponents the same age.

Hunter hopes this is just a blip.

"Our intent next year is to have a JV team," he said.

With several smaller schools, especially in the northern Lower Peninsula, turning to 8-player to keep programs alive, O'Connell is concerned about the future for those who elect to stay in the 11-player game. As more Division 8 schools make the switch, more Division 7 schools drop down to create equal numbers for the playoffs – widening the enrollment gaps within the division.

But St. Mary is moving forward, ready to tackle the challenge. Hunter, a pilot for Southwest Airlines, thinks the program is ready to take off.

"Kevin believes we can be successful," he said. "A quality football program is one of the cornerstones to a growing school. A lot of people don't like (to hear) that, but I think it's true. A great athletic program is a draw.

"I'm hoping next year you're writing a different article, and that article will say here's the way to success."

Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Gaylord defenders stack up an Ogemaw Heights ball carrier during last week's win. (Middle top) Gaylord coach Will Cleaver addresses his team after a victory. (Middle below) St. Mary junior Josh Nowicki looks upfield for an opening. (Below) Older brother Adam Nowicki, a senior, turns the corner during the Snowbirds' game against Central Lake. (Gaylord photos by Rob DeForge/RD Sports photo; St. Mary photos by Bill Serveny/Gaylord Herald Times.) 

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.)