With Help, Football Returns to Carney

August 25, 2016

By Dennis Grall
Special to Second Half

CARNEY — The football players dutifully go through their drills in blistering heat, showing energy and enthusiasm as they tackle what is basically a brand new sport.

Carney-Nadeau High School returns to the high school gridiron tonight for the first time since 1973, with an assist from some Upper Peninsula schools and another team known for its green and gold colors, the Green Bay Packers.

The 8-player team visits Ewen-Trout Creek for the first of eight road games this season. The small northern Menominee County school does not have a football field.

Actually, until around Thanksgiving 2015, the school did not have a team. Some parents approached the school about instituting football last fall, with the recent inception of the 8-player game playing a big role.

Helping fuel that fire was neighboring Powers North Central, which switched from 11-player to 8-player for the 2015 season and romped to the division’s MHSAA championship to complete a 13-0 season.

Jim Belec, who helped bring the football idea to school officials, became head coach and quickly picked up Dan Koffman as an assistant for the self-funded program.

Then the work began. And as the pieces started falling together, C-N students began showing interest in playing the sport.

Belec, who coached the youth football Sharks in nearby Stephenson, said, “You’ve got to have a lot of patience” working with players who have little or no experience. “You have to remember it is their first time out here, but at the same time you’ve got to remember you have to catch them up.”

He installed a basic offense and defense. “If you can’t do the basics, you don’t have much to stand on,” said Belec as he watched his players run through various drills. “They’ve got the want-to.”

He said basic drills included safety features such as keeping the head up while going in for a tackle and reminding defenders to wrap their arms around the ball carrier. “You can definitely tell the kids who have played in the past and who haven’t,” he said.

About half of the 17 players have some experience, including three who played at North Central under a co-op arrangement.

“I’m realistic. Starting off we have a lot to learn,” said Belec. “I hope we are far enough along to be competitive right off the bat.”

That wasn’t the case when the Wolves played 11-player football from 1970-73, when they posted only one win before dropping the sport. They played the 8-player game for a couple of years before that period, before those opponents also moved to 11-player football.

“Our first goal is to have fun,” said Belec, noting some players expressed playoff hopes while some hoped for perhaps two wins. “There are wins on the schedule to be had as long we work hard.”

The hard work and dedication have been on display since preseason practice began, but it will take live action to see how much progress has been made. At the outset Belec said, “They would come off the ball and they would all stand up right away. Little things like that can be taught.”

The Wolves received some equipment and uniforms from nearby Menominee High School and from Rock Mid Peninsula High School, which dropped 8-player football after the 2013 season.

Most obvious is the equipment and gear donated by the NFL’s Green Bay Packers. Brand new gloves bearing names like Randall Cobb arrived along with shoes, shoulder pads, pants, thigh pads, knee pads, girdles and state-of-art helmets. “The ones (pants) with blood stains were valuable,” said Koffman.

The items were arranged for by Belec’s wife Cindy, who attended school in Stephenson with Sandy Roubal, who is the corporate giving coordinator for the Packers.

“It’s been motivating and exciting to have the Packers involved,” said Koffman. “They gave us sizes that would fit our kids (along with some shoes that were much too large).”

The self-funded program has hooked up with Donors Choose, a fund-raising operation that enables people to make donations toward specific areas. Sixteen new helmets were paid for right off the bat from those donations.

“Financially we are viable,” said Koffman, noting everything on their wish list has been donated. “We didn’t have to do anything. We’re still in awe. Everybody has been outfitted. We have just been thrilled.”

C-N superintendent Adam Cocco was sporting a huge grin while watching his new squad practice recently. His dad, Robert, was quarterback of the school’s last team.

He said it “seemed insurmountable” when Belec first asked about fielding a team last fall. “The more we looked at it, the more we chipped away. It kind of came together. It is all self-funded. That speaks to the level of support from the community.”

Tight end John Berg, one of the seniors, figured, “I might as well go for it because it is my last year of school.” 

Tailback Dylan Kuehl said, “It was hard at first but we’ve pulled together, and the practices have gotten a whole lot easier.” A wrestler with the Bark River-Harris High School team as part of another co-op, Kuehl added, “We are setting high expectations for each other. It would be pretty cool if we could win four games.”

Fullback-linebacker Kyle Hammerberg played Pop Warner and junior varsity football at North Central. “I like helping everyone on the line fire off the ball,” he said. “I tell them to look at the ball and not listen to the count. If you watch football you feel it is a lot easier, but once you’re in the game it is a lot harder than you think.”

Denny Grall retired in 2012 after 39 years at the Escanaba Daily Press and four at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, plus 15 months for WLST radio in Escanaba; he served as the Daily Press sports editor from 1970-80 and again from 1984-2012. Grall was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and serves as its executive secretary. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Upper Peninsula.

PHOTO: (Top) Carney-Nadeau work on agility during a recent practice. (Middle) Assistant coach Dan Koffman shows some of the donated equipment provided by the Green Bay Packers. (Below) The first Carney-Nadeau football team since 1974 will take the field this season as a self-funded program. The team includes: front row from left, Hunter DuPont, David Green, Alex Rhode, Bryce Montague, Arturo Rangel and Dylan Kuehl; middle, assistant coach Dan Koffman, Kyle Hammerberg, Brett LaFord, Norman Collins, head coach Jim Belec; back, James Imhoff, Jordan Belec, Calvin Haddock, John Berg and Jordan Lindstrom. (Photos by Dennis Grall.)

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.)