Menominee Follows Winning Formula

October 29, 2015

By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half

MENOMINEE – Explaining the continued success of football at Menominee High School is not difficult.

"Football is just work. The kids are willing to work," fourth-year coach Joe Noha said of a simple explanation of a premier program for decades.

The Maroons (9-0) host Grayling (6-3) Friday at venerable Walton Blesch Stadium in a Division 5 opener. Noha, a former Menomninee player and assistant coach under legendary head coach Ken Hofer, is 45-4 since taking over the program.

Menominee was Division 5 runner-up under Noha in 2013 and reached the MHSAA Semifinals the other two seasons. Under Hofer, with Noha as the top assistant, the Maroons won Division 5 titles in 2006 and 2007 and Class BB in 1998.

There is more to this amazing success than simply hard work, something every successful program can also claim.

"We try to put our guys in the best position to have success," Noha said. "We can do a lot of different things."

Again, all successful teams can make that claim.

The Maroons also can point to stability in the coaching staff. Hofer, who retired after the 2011 season, is the all-time leader in victories among Upper Peninsula coaches with a 313-141-2 record. Noha, who graduated from Menominee in 1983 and then played football at Saginaw Valley State University, joined Hofer's staff in 1994.

Assistants like Ron "Satch" Englund, Jamie Schomer, Dave Mathieu, Nathan Linsmeier, Lucas Chouinard, Tyler Uecke, Bill Schwanz and Mark Klapp have also been part of the program for many years, providing stability to that success. Many of them also played for Hofer.

"After every practice we evaluate and look at ways to get better," said Noha, mentioning something else that of course is done across the sports universe.

Noha noted successful operations, referring to Fortune 500 companies, as he said, "everyone has core values. We put kids first, teach them hard work and responsibility (and discipline). Our teaching staff, our community; it is all part of what we do. We always have a support staff to lean on. Our kids know that. They know what the Menominee standard looks like."

He also pointed out, "There is a lot of pride there. We talk about giving back to what was given to you."

Noha also notes a "family mantra" in Menominee. "There is definitely family here, there is definitely community support here, the school supports us. There is not a lot of turnover here. We stick together, we work well together. A lot of people maintain the standard.

"A lot of people have a vested interest."

Again, nothing different from other successful programs.

But here's what is different: The Menominee Maroons do all of those things, and most importantly, perhaps, is it has been like that for nearly half a century.

One other explanation could also be how the Maroons operate on the gridiron. They are one of the very few remaining teams who use a single-wing offense, which makes it difficult for potential playoff opponents to prepare for since it is tough to emulate in practice.

Familiar Upper Peninsula opponents such as Escanaba, Kingsford, Gladstone and Marquette get to see the single-wing every year, as well as at the freshmen and jayvee levels. Grand Rapids West Catholic, which beat the Maroons in the 2013 title game and the 2012 semis, also has a good idea of the single-wing intricacies.

"West Catholic has beaten us because they were better," admitted Noha. "Trying to replicate it in practice is very difficult. You have to execute. It comes down to putting kids in good spots."

The Maroons have obviously modified the single-wing through the years, from fullback spinners to jump passes to bubble screens and fly patterns for receivers. "We can spread it out and we can pound it, but the single-wing concepts are still there,” Noha added.

"Everybody puts their tweaks on everything. If you are defending us, you better know the top three plays in our formations. Everyone's film is your DNA, your template. It is not brain surgery by any means."

It still comes down to other areas. "You have to have the kids, the coaches, and the kids have to be resilient," Noha said. "You can have any system you want."

Talent also comes in handy, and the Maroons again are blessed in that department. Led by quarterback/running back Nathan Nowack, the Maroons fill six defensive positions and five offensive positions on the Great Northern Conference all-star team this fall.

Nowack, who scored seven touchdowns against Gladstone this year, is the GNC's offensive player of the year, and lineman Adam Beyersdorf is the GNC's defensive player of the year.

Noha said changes have been made throughout the 35 years he has been associated with the program, some mandated by the MHSAA such as the reduction of contact in practice and the emphasis on concussions.

"The practices and the schemes stay the same. We look at nutrition more and we don't hit nearly as much as we used to," said Noha, who also indicated weight training has been emphasized much more since he was a player.

"The kids are bigger, stronger, faster and more physically fit. The game is faster, the kids are more skilled and get out in space more," Noha said.

While the Maroons usually boast good size in the line, Noha said the Maroons look more at body composition and how it best suits the players and positions. Many of the players go around the 180-190 pound area and are well-conditioned, solid athletes, he said.

Noha noted the first three playoff games are usually held outdoors, and then the Maroons usually play in the Superior Dome at Northern Michigan University and then hit Ford Field if they reach the title game. He said heavier kids may wilt under the indoor conditions. "We want kids that can run and move," he said.

Menominee's future may look even brighter. After not having a freshmen football team the past four years, Noha said that level will resume in 2016 as 30 freshmen players are anticipated. There were 22 freshmen on the 2015 junior varsity team.

Football is played to be fun for the Maroons, and it is always more fun when you can enjoy success like the Maroons experience. What it all comes down to in Menominee, Noha said, is "the scoreboard never defines us. We try to use football to get us to a better place."

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.

PHOTOS: (Top) Senior Nathan Nowack (36) follows two of his blockers during this season's game against Marquette. (Middle) Hunter Hass works to avoid a Marquette defender on a rainy night. (Below) A Menominee ball-carrier holds onto the ball as two Marinette, Wis., players tackle him. (Photos courtesy of Val Ihde.)

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.)