New Coach Takes Next Step at Escanaba

September 1, 2015

By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half

ESCANABA – When school ended in early June, Dave Howes took a vacation trip to Florida and began thinking about his upcoming fourth season as junior varsity football coach at Escanaba High School.

Within a month he had become the school's varsity head coach, a position he had never thought about taking on.

"To tell you the truth, I never wanted to be a head football coach," Howes said in the Eskymos’ lockerroom before the start of a recent practice. "It just kind of fell in my lap."

Escanaba had a 10-17 record over the last three seasons under previous coach Jim Hansen, who was dismissed in June, but opened this fall with a 21-7 win over Alpena on Thursday. The Eskymos travel to Petoskey on Friday. 

When Howes was contacted about moving up from the jayvees, he said, "I had to make up my mind. Do I want it? It happened real fast. I wasn't expecting it. It just happened."

He was encouraged to apply by several people, including an Escanaba High School administrator, and was given the blessing of his wife, Holly, to pursue the position. He is the second coach in four years to direct the Eskymos, who during the previous 50 years had just two head coaches, Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame inductees Jerry Cvengros and Dan Flynn.

When Howes first joined the Eskymos’ coaching staff in 2005, he said Flynn asked if he ever wanted to become the school's head coach. "I said, I don't know," said Howes. "I didn't envision it. Now I'm more than happy."

Howes said he has received excellent support from family, friends, players, coaches and the community during the short time he has been in charge.

"I want our fans to know that our kids are going to be competitive, and they are going to work hard. They will see there will be an edge about them," he said.

About 100 students came out for the three football levels, with 48 on varsity. Howes didn't have any preseason contact until after July 4, about a month behind the normal period. A big plus in the transition was all the previous assistant coaches stuck with the program, and they have all moved up a level in the process.

"They have all the kids they had in previous years, and we're running the same system," Howes said.  "It has been an easy transition. Knowing the kids and knowing the coaches was easy. We had the same kids, the same coaches, the same philosophies. It's made practice easier."

Athletic director Nick Nolde brought the coaches and players together and provided the introductions, which weren't really necessary because of the carry over. "It's been smooth sailing ever since," said Howes of the best-case scenario coming together.

Nolde said given the way "everything went down, it has been a seamless transition. He is familiar with the kids, and he is familiar with the program."

Howes is a native of neighboring Gladstone, graduating in 1993 and playing against Escanaba teams in football, basketball and baseball. "It's weird. As a kid, I hated Escanaba with a passion. Now, here I am," said Howes, whose older brother Dave is an assistant varsity coach with former Escanaba player Don Koish and former Gladstone athlete Jason Micheau.

"It is so funny how things happen," said Howes, who also coached subvarsity football in Gladstone and Beal City following his 1998 graduation from Northern Michigan University and before coming to Escanaba in 2005.

He does not feel any pressure taking over the tradition-laden, highly-respected program spotlighted by the MHSAA Class A championship in 1981 and 1979 runner-up finish.

"To me, it is just a game and we're going to be competitive and try our hardest," Howes said. "We are moving forward. Every day we come in here and see the (old) pictures. It is a great tradition with great pride. But the focus is now. Everything is about the present."

He already has noticed the difference of being in charge of the whole program, from dealing with the news media to handling financial situations and MHSAA rules and regulations. "There is a lot more on my plate. Instead of being in charge of 30 kids, you are the boss of the whole program grades 7-12," he said.

He has also installed his own touch, starting with practice sessions. "The last couple of years we have had super-paced practices. This year we're doing more teaching in our practices," he said. "We are keeping it as simple as possible and putting kids in position to succeed. We're getting more done in a shorter amount of time."

He is not worried about matching X's and O's against such legendary Upper Peninsula coaches as Chris Hofer at Kingsford or Joe Noha from Menominee, nor is he concerned about the imprint made by Cvengros and Flynn, or even his high school coach, the highly-regarded John Mileski.

"I can't follow in their footsteps," he said. "They are irreplaceable. We've just got to move on."

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) Escanaba High School football coach Dave Howes makes a point to members of the Eskymos recently at Escanaba Athletic Field. Howes took over the tradition-laden program in July and is the second head coach in the past four years, after the late Jerry Cvengros and Dan Flynn served as the only head coaches during the previous 50 years. (Middle) Howes encourages his football team during a practice session.

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.)