North Central's Jets Take Off in 8-player

October 1, 2015

By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half

POWERS – Fielding Yost and his "Point-A-Minute" University of Michigan football powerhouse of more than a century ago had nothing on the supersonic Jets of Powers North Central.

In their first season of 8-player football, the Menominee County team is averaging a meteoric 73.6 points a game during a 5-0 start. The Jets, who play Eben Junction Superior Central on Saturday, have outscored their opponents 368-70.

This team is playing at a level not seen in Powers since, well, last March when the boys basketball team won the Class D championship with a 27-0 record. Six members of that team, led by all-state basketball guard and quarterback Jason Whitens, play football. 

"When you are winning and you are playing good, it is always fun," said Whitens, a junior who was a wide receiver/defensive back on last season's 3-5 team. "When you come to practice, it is nice to know what it feels like (to win)."

In both sports, Whitens has the ability to adjust and adapt as the game situation dictates. "It is nice to know you can change what you want and get the best possible result," he said. 

Coach Kevin Bellefeuil, in his 11th season during a tenure that includes four winning seasons and one postseason victory, said the transition from 11-player to 8 has been seamless and timely.

The Jets have been battling small football turnouts for years, with as few as 13 players available a few seasons ago. This year there are 18 players, which enables full-scale scrimmages under the 8-player version. 

"In reality, we're just this little school of 120 kids," Bellefeuil said, noting more students came out for football this season with the change to the 8-player game. The shift also allowed the Jets to retain a junior varsity program, which is playing seven games under the 11-player format and the final two in the 8-player version.

Football began in 1972 at North Central, and the program has just 23 winning seasons. Of those, only nine ended with two or fewer losses, including a 9-0 run in 1980. 

Athletic director Joe Pontbriand said, "there were two keys" to installing the 8-player game: number of participants and maintaining a jayvee program. "I think the process is working," he said.

"It becomes unhealthy," Pontbriand said of the injury factor caused in part by fatigue that occurs with small numbers of athletes trying to play 11-player football. "It is not all about winning. Eleven-man with no numbers means a long season." 

Bellefeuil said the jayvees haven't played more than three games in any of the past five years, noting several players have been elevated to varsity to replace injured players.

The Jets use basically the same offense this season. Rob Granquist, now the starting quarterback for Concordia University in Chicago, earned all-Upper Peninsula Class D honors last season. Whitens this season has completed 42 of 53 passes for 939 yards and 17 touchdowns while directing a ground attack that has gained 1,297 yards in 129 attempts for a whopping 9.88 average. 

The Jets have scored on every offensive possession in the first half this season, a staggering statistic. "The first half of a game we're pretty much 50-50 (run-pass)," said Bellefeuil, noting it is run-oriented in the running clock second half.

Bellefeuil, who calls the plays, indicated the Jets likely would be using more no-huddle offense this season to take advantage of their speed and overall athleticism. He said only five players would be considered linemen. 

"We run the same things we have done before," said Bellefeuil. "We play the pistol, shotgun offense. It is a lot of fun calling plays. Having the kind of athletes we have, we can move in-and-out and out-and-in, whatever we want.

"We just dropped the tackles and the slot receiver for eight-man. It has not been different from what we did already. It has not been much of a transition." 

Whitens said "we're having a lot of fun. We are all enjoying it."

Senior captain and tight end Brett Baird, who only plays football, said he enjoys the 8-player game more. "Once you get through the first two weeks and know the plays and how everything works, it is just football." 

He said the 11-player game is harder because "there are a lot more linemen and there are bigger guys. The eight-man game has more (playing) room. There are strengths and weaknesses both ways. Football is football; it doesn't matter."

The 8-player game is a better fit for the Jets because now they are playing comparable-sized teams and schools. Under the 11-player version the Class D school had games against such Class C opponents as Norway, Manistique, Munising and Newberry. 

The change has also been beneficial for the students. Bellefeuil said Morgan Cox, a tight end-defensive end who also plays basketball, has embraced the new format and gained confidence and maturity this year after the MHSAA title run in basketball. "Now he is one of the guys out in front for the drills. He is definitely a leader," said Bellefeuil.

"We talked about going eight-man for a couple of years," he added, noting now the Jets do not have to elevate freshmen or sophomores to the varsity. "You are asking 14-15 year old kids to tackle 18-19 year old kids. They were not ready for that, and it is dangerous." 

He said practice does not "seem like drudgery to them" under 8-player football. "They like playing the football brand of basketball they play because it is familiar to them," noting the fast-break basketball style and up-tempo football approach.

Having more depth allows the Jets to have fresh players available for more plays, which also fits the up-tempo style. "Now we get to play all of our kids and we wear teams out, like teams used to wear us out," said Bellefeuil. "A lot of injuries happen when you are tired and fatigued." 

Although the Jets are having success in their first season of 8-player, Pontbriand admits the change has not been totally accepted in the school district.

"Not everyone is buying in, but we have to do what is best for the kids," he said. "The varsity team has really bought in." 

The carryover from the phenomenal basketball season has also been important. "Carrying that attitude and enthusiasm over to the grass sport can be a deadly combination," Pontbriand said. "Those six kids (from basketball) are born leaders, and the other kids who sit in the front row cheering section now get to be part of that on the front line.

"It definitely sets a tone" in the classroom and community, he said of that success to start the school year. "It builds confidence and gives the kids a sense of entitlement and a chance to succeed. If you're the best on the field, you want to be the best in the classroom."

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) Members of the North Central football team go through blocking and tackling drills at practice Wednesday in Powers. (Middle) North Central football coach Kevin Bellefeuil indicates a pass route he wants his receivers to take. (Below) Like North Central's helmets indicate, the Jets are flying high in their first season of 8-player, off to a 5-0 start while averaging 73.6 points a game. (Photos by Denny Grall.)

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.)