Leader Re-Energizes Past Power Stevenson

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

November 22, 2019

Regardless of how one looks at it, Justin Newcomb is the right person for the right job at the right time.

Newcomb, 33, is one of the youngest head football coaches in the Detroit area, and he’s causing a stir. He’s in his second season at Sterling Heights Stevenson and the person most responsible for the Titans playing in an MHSAA Division 1 Semifinal on Saturday for the first time in a decade.

Stevenson (8-4), as an additional playoff qualifier, has played the underdog role to a T throughout the playoffs. There’s an advantage to that role, and Stevenson will take it up again when it takes on Davison (10-2) at Troy Athens at 1 p.m.

Once a football power, Stevenson fell back to the middle of the pack in the highly competitive Macomb Area Conference Red from 2010-18. Four times previously the program had reached an MHSAA Final, the last in 2009 when the Titans lost to Detroit Catholic Central, 31-21, in the Division 1 title game.

That was Hall of Fame coach Rick Bye’s 35th and final season at Stevenson. Since then, the Titans qualified for the playoffs three times and didn’t win a playoff game. That is, until this season.

“You’ve got goals,” Newcomb said. “You set goals at the start (of the season), and you just want to get the most out of (your) team.”

When Newcomb took over, the program had won just three games over the previous two seasons. The Titans were 4-5 overall in 2018, and just 1-4 in the MAC Red, which was won by eventual Division 1 champion Clinton Township Chippewa Valley. The average margin of defeat in those four league losses was 25.5 points.

“We took our lumps (in the MAC Red),” Newcomb said. “The challenge was getting kids to come out. When we first came in there was some interest lost. We had to beg some to come out. Now that we’re winning, kids are saying they want to come out.”

Despite his young age, Newcomb has coached high school football for 14 seasons. He started as an assistant under Mike Powell at Warren Cousino in 2006 when Newcomb was a student at Wayne State University. For 10 seasons he was the head varsity baseball coach at Cousino, but he gave that up when he took over for Powell as Cousino’s head football coach in 2017.  

Though Newcomb finds himself in the right position at Stevenson, don’t view Stevenson’s sudden success as luck. Newcomb possesses an insatiable appetite for knowledge. If there’s a clinic to attend, you’ll likely find Newcomb there. And his ego doesn’t prevent him from talking to more experienced coaches to pry loose valuable information. Most often you’ll find Bye on the Stevenson sideline, not as an assistant but someone there whom Newcomb can confide in.

“Justin is positive and energetic,” Bye said. “He’s definitely not a guy who thinks he knows it all. He’s bought into everything, the Stevenson history, everything. He’s up on technology, much more so than I ever was. And he doesn’t let little things bother him. His practices have a tempo, and there’s little time wasted.”

Not lost in Newcomb’s system is his military background. After graduating from Wayne State with a teaching degree, he joined the U.S. Army Reserve in 2011. He continues to serve today in the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR).

“It has a lot to do with the way we coach,” Newcomb said of his military experience. “(Coaching) is a lot more than just what goes on on the field. There’s (teaching) leadership roles and being responsible. In our culture, it’s all about winning. It’s all about playing time. The kids get caught up in that.

“Their attitudes have changed. We had to address the group as a whole. We had guys that first year that said that they play linebacker, and that’s it. Others came in saying they just play one way. That’s not how we do it. You’re here to help the team. Now the kids are doing whatever we need them to.”

A prime example is junior Giovanni El-Hadi. A college prospect (committed to University of Michigan), El-Hadi had been told, by some outside of the program, that he was an offensive lineman and wouldn’t play defense. This season El-Hadi is starting on defense for the first time and said earlier this fall that his time spent on the defensive side has helped improve his speed.

Another two-way starter on the line is senior Sal Madonna. Madonna is a two-year starter, and he and his brother, sophomore Biagio Madonna, are the sons of assistant coach Carmine Madonna – who played for Bye during the late 1990s.

“For me, I’ve been a part of Stevenson football for a long time,” Sal Madonna said. “Last year’s team wasn’t as connected as much. This year we bonded together. We trusted Coach Newcomb’s style. Even last year as juniors (we knew) to be successful, we had to buy in. We didn’t have the same mindset last year. We’re playing with a lot more confidence now.

“This means a lot to me. I remember being in the stands (at Troy Athens) when Jason Fracassa threw a touchdown pass in the (2009) Semifinals. Just like this team, that team never gave up.”

This team rebounded from a 2-3 start with a 13-7 comeback victory over Utica in Week 6. That game, more than others, was the turning point of the Titans’ season. Newcomb made a switch at quarterback, moving Biagio Madonna from linebacker and switching fellow sophomore Jordan Ramsey from quarterback to slot receiver and running back. With Ramsey, Newcomb was running a zone read offense. With Madonna, Stevenson is running an option attack.

In the victory over Utica, Stevenson used a trick play to score the winning touchdown. Last week in the 9-7 Regional Final victory over Detroit Cass Tech, the Titans had a goal-line stand in the first half and scored the winning touchdown on a double pass. Madonna threw to Dylan Kleinedler, who threw to Ramsey for a touchdown early in the second half. A Ramsey interception ended the game with 14 seconds left.

The previous week against Macomb Dakota, Newcomb decided not to go for the tying field goal from 40 yards out, and instead called on Madonna to throw the winning touchdown pass to Ramsey with a minute to play. Stevenson won 38-35 against a team it had lost to, 40-14, during the regular season and before Newcomb had made the quarterback switch.

“We’ve been fortunate the last few weeks with trick plays,” Newcomb said. “(But) getting here is a testament on just how hard these kids have worked.”

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) Sterling Heights Stevenson players hoist their Division 1 Regional championship trophy after defeating Detroit Cass Tech last week. (Middle) Jordan Ramsey (5) breaks into the open against the Technicians. (Photos courtesy of the Stevenson 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.)