'Next Person Up' Mentality, Super Subs' Success Has Almont Returning to Ford Field

By Paul Costanzo
Special for MHSAA.com

November 24, 2023

Gavin Szymansksi was nervous for about two plays.

Bay & ThumbThe junior was making his first start for the Almont football team in Week 3 against Imlay City, replacing injured Cole Willard at left tackle.

Willard had been hurt in the first half of the Raiders’ Week 2 game against Algonac, and while Szymanski had filled in then, there was less pressure, as his team already had a hefty cushion.

But this was different. A first varsity start, on the opposite side of the line from his more familiar right tackle position. 

“It wasn’t too scary in that moment (against Algonac), plus I thought he was going to be back,” Szymanski said. “(Week 3) was kind of scary. But the team was pretty supportive, and they didn’t have any doubt I’d be able to fill in. Then we had a TD on like the first or second play in the Imlay game, and I was fine.”

Szymanski filled in seamlessly for the Raiders, which became a theme throughout the season. As players went down with injuries, both short and longterm, their backups filled in without a hitch. 

While every team is banged up throughout a season, for a Division 6 school with just more than 30 players on the varsity roster, it’s a remarkable feat to remain competitive, let alone go 8-1 during the regular season, win the Blue Water Area Conference title, and, for the second time in school history, advance to the MHSAA Finals at Ford Field.

“Our motto is ‘next person up,’” Almont coach James Leusby said. “They literally live by that. You never know when your number is going to get called, but they seem to always be ready.”

Szymanski – who is back in the starting lineup for the Raiders, now as a right tackle filling in for the injured Yousif Abu-Joudeh – and his Almont teammates will play Kingsley at 4:30 p.m. Saturday in the Division 6 Final, looking for the program’s first Finals title.

While the Raiders certainly have star power – junior back Chase Battani had rushed for 1,169 yards and 18 touchdowns – it’s been the efforts of a team that has stretched well beyond it’s starting 22 that put them in this position.

The list of injuries, big and small, is extensive.

Chase Battani (32) followers his Raiders blockers during the Regional Final win over Detroit Edison. It started with Willard and ended with Abu-Joudeh, who was injured in Week 9. Fullback Jacob Stewart, who was averaging 15 yards per carry, was injured in Week 6 and missed a stretch. Matthew Bacholzky stepped up in his place, along with Ayden Ferqueron. 

Outside linebacker Eric Haddon suffered a high ankle sprain, and was replaced by Jacob Fuller, who had spent most of the season on the offensive side of the ball. Defensive end and tight end Brent Corneau missed a stretch as well, and Nolan Maxlow, who was a split end and defensive back, had to step up in his place.

And that’s just what Leusby could remember off the top of his head late Tuesday night.

“In Division 6, you don’t have much depth, so the backups have to know multiple positions,” Leusby said. “I think it talks highly of our program and our system and the coaches we have in it. In the playoffs, we’ve started two JV kids at defensive tackle. Our motto is, when we bring our sophomores up, the best kids are going to play.”

Because of that program-wide preparation, players are not only ready, but have confidence in one another when it’s someone else’s time to step up.

“I felt confident in him,” Willard said of Szymanski. “A lot of kids get a lot of reps at practice. And we’ve run the same plays for like five years, so everyone knows them.”

Leusby, who took over at Almont in 2015, credited not just his high school staff, but a youth program that’s bursting at the seams with participants. 

Almont is a football community, and while there are no Finals titles listed on the city limits sign, it has a very proud history of success, especially lately.

The Raiders have made the postseason each of the past 14 seasons, and 17 of the past 18. The lone miss was 2009, when they were 5-4. Only the pandemic-shortened 2020 season resulted in a record that wasn’t over .500, and even that one ended at 3-3 with a playoff win.

“I think, all in all, the community, they invest a lot of time into the program, and they expect results,” Leusby said. “You ask anybody, Almont is a football town.”

Leusby and his players are expecting that support to result in a lot of orange and black in the lower bowl of Ford Field on Saturday. 

“Everybody has our back and wants us to win,” Willard said. “The whole town is travelling down there.”

They did the same in 2019 when the Raiders made their previous run to Ford Field. That ended with a 31-17 loss to Grand Rapids Catholic Central in the Division 5 Final. 

“Honestly, when I was there in 2019, I was just thrilled to get to Ford Field,” Leusby said. “Yeah, it was a game and we wanted to win, but it was just cool to get to the Finals. After it was over, I thought, maybe I had sent the wrong messages. This year, we’ve reiterated that we’re going there to come home with the big daddy. Not second place – we want the big trophy.”

Paul CostanzoPaul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Senior Isaiah Bankston (59) leads Almont onto the field before last Saturday’s Semifinal win over Ovid-Elsie. (Middle) Chase Battani (32) followers his Raiders blockers during the Regional Final win over Detroit Edison. (Photos by Maureen Flannery Walton.)

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.)