Harbor Springs Earning Historic Opportunities

October 5, 2018

By Chris Dobrowolski
Special for Second Half

HARBOR SPRINGS — This isn’t your brother’s Harbor Springs football team.

This year’s Rams are putting together a season on the gridiron that hasn’t been seen here in quite some time.

They are off to a 6-0 start, their best since 1999, and with that has come talk of ending some long, infamous streaks in the school’s football history.

“For me, as a player, honestly it’s been really cool because we’ve never been able to do this before,” said senior running back Jackson Wells. “Harbor Springs has been known for bad football in the past. Now, everyone is like, ‘Congratulations, how does it feel to be 6-0?’ We’re the first team to do this in decades, and it’s really cool.”

Even with three weeks to go in the regular season, Harbor Springs’ six wins have matched its most for a season since 2000. While their unblemished record has already earned the Rams a third trip to the postseason in the past four years, they aren’t satisfied by simply being a postseason participant.

There are bigger goals still to achieve, and longstanding barriers to break down.

Consider this: The last Harbor Springs team to capture a conference title was the 1987 squad that went 7-2 overall and 6-1 in the Ski Valley Conference to share the championship with Indian River Inland Lakes. Then there is the playoff drought, as the Rams are 0-5 all-time in the postseason.

“It’s a sticking point in everybody’s mind,” said senior tight end Brett Vandermus of trying to get a playoff win. “We clinched a spot, but now we’re worried about getting another win this week.”

On Friday, Harbor Springs faces Johannesburg-Lewiston in a matchup that could end the Rams’ 31-year conference title dry spell. The two teams square off in a battle of undefeated teams atop the Northern Michigan Football League Legacy division. The Cardinals come in having won five straight games, but must travel to Harbor Springs’ Ottawa Stadium. A Rams’ win would earn them a share of the championship.

“A conference title would be awesome,” said Vandermus. “I’ve had four older brothers play, and none of them (won a conference title). We just have a more solid roster than what’s been at Harbor’s disposal, and we have a lot of discipline.

“Hopefully it’s just packed, because normally we’re not used to coming out and having huge home crowds.”

Excitement definitely is building around school and across town for the Rams, who finished 4-5 a season ago as a young team.

“I wouldn’t say I expected this, but we had a really good summer and the guys worked really hard,” said head coach Rob Walker, who is in his eighth year.

The Rams have been motored by a quick, veteran backfield of Wells, Connor Williams and Jeep Damoose. That trio has been a three-headed monster in Harbor Springs’ wing-T offense, sharing the workload and limelight, while making it difficult for opponents to try and game plan to slow down all three. Jason Proctor, Matt Walker, Vandermus, and fellow tight end David Harrell are among the key cogs on the offensive line. Sophomore quarterback Grant Richardson has been a huge addition since the season began. The first-year signal caller has not only brought athleticism to the position, but he’s also injected an aerial aspect with seven touchdown passes to an offense that traditionally likes to establish the running game.

“He just keeps getting better and better,” Walker said of his quarterback. “There have been games where he’s the best athlete on the field.”

If there was a defining moment for Harbor Springs, it came in the second week of the season in a 14-7 victory over Frankfort — a team that has rightfully earned a reputation as a football powerhouse.

“I would say that was definitely an eye-opener for us to show we could beat a big-time team like that,” said Wells, who set the tone when he scored on a 75-yard run on the first play from scrimmage. “That was definitely a momentum booster right there. It showed we have the talent and that we can work as a team to beat some big-time teams in our area.”

This year it’s the Rams that are looking like one of those elite teams. It’s put them in a spot they’ve dreamed of but aren’t necessarily accustomed to — as the squad gunned for by every opponent.

“I feel like momentum is piling on, which is a motivator,” said Vandermus. “But at the same time, it puts a target on our backs for the other teams we have coming up.”

Chris Dobrowolski has covered northern Lower Peninsula sports since 1999 at the Ogemaw County Herald, Alpena News, Traverse City Record-Eagle and currently as sports editor at the Antrim Kalkaska Review since 2016. 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) Harbor Springs players salute the crowd after a victory this fall. (Middle) Grant Richardson takes off running against Newberry in Week 3. (Below) Center Matt Walker is set to snap the ball during a Week 1 win over East Jordan. (Photos courtesy of the Harbor Springs football program.)

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.)