New Coach, Same Standard for SMCC

By Chip Mundy
Special for Second Half

August 27, 2015

By Chip Mundy
Special for Second Half

MONROE – It would be understandable if first-year Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central head football coach Adam Kipf felt like he was taking over for University of Michigan legend Bo Schembechler a year after the Wolverines won the national championship.

Kipf, a graduate of SMCC, said he doesn’t feel that way at all as he replaces his former coach and mentor Jack Giarmo, a local icon who retired after 17 seasons leading the Falcons, including last year when they won the MHSAA Division 6 title.

“I feel I’m replacing Coach Giarmo after a state title,” Kipf said with a laugh. “Coach Giarmo is a good coach. He spent 17 years here, and I spent 11 years of my life with him on a football field.

“It’s certainly not an easy task, but I’m not trying to be Coach Giarmo. I’m trying to be the best version of myself.”

SMCC got off to a winning start Thursday night with a 62-39 victory at Tecumseh, but it will need more than a season-opening victory to live up to the standard that was introduced by the former coach.

Giarmo’s teams were 144-54 in 17 seasons, made the MHSAA playoffs 13 times and captured five Huron League titles. The Falcons made the MHSAA Semifinals eight times and played for the championship four times, finally winning it all last year – when, at Ford Field, they also ended Ithaca’s national-best 69-game winning streak.

Then, Giarmo decided to step down, and Kipf was chosen as the new head coach.

“It wasn’t a total surprise,” Kipf said of Giarmo’s decision. “He had sort of let on that he might be thinking about it, so when it came out, I wasn’t surprised at all.”

“I don’t think there is any other job out there that would mean as much. There are other jobs that would have a lot of meaning to them, but coaching at your alma mater and having the tradition that we have here – having the success we have here – I think that’s just awesome. It’s tough for me to even put into words what it means to me being back at my alma mater coaching football.” – Adam Kipf

It certainly was not an automatic choice for SMCC to promote Kipf from the head coach on the junior varsity to head coach of the varsity. He went through several interviews before landing the job.

“They asked me, ‘How do you determine success?’ ” Kipf said. “I said, ‘There are two ways. One is wins and losses, and that’s OK. But the other way is seeing what kind of men they become, five, 10, 15, 20 years down the road.”

Kipf, a social studies and religion teacher at Monroe Catholic Elementary School, did not set out to become a coach and teacher. He went to Western Michigan University to play football and was pursuing another field, but he left after one year.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, and then I got involved in coaching in 2003 with one of my former coaches,” Kipf said. “He was coaching his son in the Monroe Catholic Youth Organization, and he got me into it, and I enjoyed it. The next year, he went to Monroe High as an assistant and I went with him, so I ended up coaching two years there.

“One Friday night after a game at Monroe, two coaches talked me into going into coaching. They said teaching was going to be my best bet to get into coaching.”

With that in mind, Kipf went back to school and attended Eastern Michigan University. In 2010, he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in secondary education. By that time, he was back with SMCC coaching the offensive and defensive lines on the junior varsity.

Kipf had been an offensive lineman and defensive tackle from 1998-99 at SMCC. He played for Giarmo and then joined his coaching staff in 2006, giving him a unique insight into the mind of the man who was most responsible for building the successful program.

“He was a stickler for details,” Kipf said. “He coached every last little detail, and I am finding myself on offense doing the same thing. Jack and I will talk, and I will seek advice on plays and blocking and things like that. We talk probably once a week football-related, and we will talk more than that about other things. We still talk football.

“He isn’t going to distance himself from the program. He has strong roots here. I think he misses football. I don’t know if he would admit it, but he misses football.”

“We’ve basically kept the same concepts that Coach Giarmo kept, but we’ve added a lot of new traditions into it. We’re getting new traditions. We’ve got a couple of new decals on our helmets, and originally we had our straight gold helmets.” – senior running back Justin Carrabino

When Kipf played at SMCC, the helmets were green with decals of yellow birds on them. Lately, the helmets have been without decals, but the birds have returned this year.

“To me, that bird, I worked so hard when I was a freshman to get that bird when I got to varsity,” Kipf said. “It was a thing of honor because you took those birds off at the end of the year and kept them. I still have them in scrapbooks.

“We have brought those back. With the gold helmet we’ve got green birds, but we didn’t put them on until two days before the first game.”

The decals on the helmets might be the easiest change to notice, and Kipf said there won’t be a lot of others made right away.

“I don’t know that I want to bring a whole lot different to the program,” he said. “I’ve added a few things here and there that are a little different than last year, but I’m not prepared to share that.

“We might throw the ball more, but finding people to catch and throw isn’t an easy task, especially since in the last 14, 15 years in the system it has been 95 percent run. I’m a big proponent of, ‘If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.’ ”

Not every change is going to be related to strategy or scheme. Everyone has a different personality, and Kipf’s high-intensity style could light a spark under the Falcons.

“He’s very vocal and gets into it with the players a lot,” senior guard/linebacker Hunter Coombe said. “He gets us hyped. He’s very intense. It’s good.”

The word intense seems to go hand-in-hand when describing Kipf.

“Practices are run with a lot of intensity,” Carrabino said. “There is a lot of physicality, but there is with a lot of defenses. You can tell by the tone of practice that it’s a lot different.”

“I don’t feel pressure coming off a state title because I know what we have and what we are capable of. People have high expectations and expect success. To me, success is more than a state title. If we go 14-0 but don’t get better, it’s a state title but it’s not successful. I want kids who are going to compete and get better every day, and at the end of the season, if they are better football players, better student-athletes, better Catholics, better Christians, than we’ve done our job. That’s success.” – Adam Kipf

Success breeds expectations, and MHSAA championships sometimes breed unrealistic expectations. Teams don’t win an MHSAA title every year.

The Falcons have made the playoffs 14 of the past 16 years with double-digit win totals during nine of them. The program has become not just recognized regionally, but statewide.

The players reflect the attitude of a new season and a new challenge and said they refuse to look back.

“We have to totally forget about last year,” Coombe said. “This is a new team with the same goal, obviously, but we aren’t thinking about it. We’ll just go week-by-week and game-by-game.”

Carrabino, who rushed for 1,300 yards and 17 touchdowns last season, echoed those comments.

“I think you have to prove yourself every year,” Carrabino said. “Nobody has a set spot. You just have to give your all in practice.”

Senior quarterback/defensive back Austin Burger feels the same way.

“We feel no pressure at all,” he said. “We feel like we’re a different team from last year, but we are trying to keep the tradition.”

Tradition is important at SMCC. Giarmo was a player on the 1980 team that went 9-0 but failed to land a spot in the playoffs.

Kipf is one of three brothers who played football for the Falcons. It’s family.

“We’ve got 12 years in my family of playing football at this school, and now this will be my 10th of coaching football at this school,” he said. “Twenty-two years I’ve been a Falcons football supporter either through my family or myself, so it certainly means a lot to me.”

Maybe it’s the tradition – or maybe it’s the “band of brotherhood,” as Burger called it – but something special seems to happen to a bunch of young football players who don’t necessarily look like they should be championship football players.

“We don’t always have the best athletes or the biggest athletes or the fastest athletes, especially in this day and age,” Kipf said. “We have kids who are undersized for the most part, but they have heart and they work hard, and that’s what made our program successful over Coach Giarmo’s tenure. Between him and (former defensive coordinator) Scott Hoffman, they brought out the best in guys.

“They had guys on the field you would think had no business being on a football field. They bring out the best in our kids, and our kids give them everything they’ve got in order to succeed.”

Chip Mundy served as sports editor at the Brooklyn Exponent and Albion Recorder from 1980-86, and then as a reporter and later copy editor at the Jackson Citizen-Patriot from 1986-2011. He also co-authored Michigan Sports Trivia. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Monroe St. Mary’s coach Adam Kipf and his captains stand together earlier this month (from left to right): Hunter Coombe, Justin Carrabino, Kipf, Riley Woolford, Mitchell Poupard and Austin Burger. (Middle) The Falcons’ helmets will feature decals again after going without during the program’s recent past.

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.)