Northern Powers Building on Tradition

October 28, 2016

By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half

TRAVERSE CITY – Matt Stapleton jokes when he talks about his 19-year run as the Frankfort football coach.

“If you ask how many games we’ve won while I’ve been here, the answer would be, ‘Not enough,’” he quipped. “And if you ask how many we’ve lost, it would be “Too many.’”

Well, nobody is asking that second question, particularly this season. Frankfort heads into tonight’s MHSAA Division 8 playoffs with a perfect 9-0 record. The Panthers are one of two unbeaten in the northern Lower Peninsula. Traverse City St. Francis is the other.

That should come as no surprise to those who follow football in the north. The two schools are the winningest programs, percentage-wise, in the area. St. Francis ranks seventh in the state with a winning percentage of 76.8 percent since the school started playing football in 1951. Frankfort ranks 24th with a 71.4 winning percentage since 1950.

St. Francis, which has won six MHSAA championships, just put together back-to-back unbeaten regular seasons for the second time in school history. The 1991-92 teams also accomplished the feat. Gladiators head coach Josh Sellers played on the 1991 team as did offensive line coach Aaron Biggar and offensive coordinator Scott Doriot, who was also the quarterback on the 1992 Class C title squad.

“After (last Friday’s win) I told the team, ‘Hey, welcome to the club, guys,” Sellers said.

“They took it in stride, but they should be happy and excited about it,” Doriot added. “It’s super special, a heck of an accomplishment.”

Frankfort, meanwhile, completed its first 9-0 regular season since 2004.

Now the two programs are back in familiar territory – the playoffs. St. Francis, which hosts Harbor Springs on Saturday in a Division 7 contest, is in the postseason for the 30th time since 1983. During one stretch, the Gladiators, who have reached the MHSAA Finals nine times, qualified 22 years in a row. Frankfort, which hosts Evart tonight, is in the playoffs for the 28th time in the last 32 years. The Panthers own two MHSAA crowns, and during one six-year stretch played for the title five times.

Maintaining that tradition is a powerful motivator at the two schools.

“It’s a ‘your turn’ mentality,” Stapleton said. “Each team has its own identity, but the goals remain the same. For this team, it’s our turn, our opportunity.”

The same holds true at St. Francis.

“We want to follow in the footsteps of the guys before us,” senior back Gabe Callery, a water boy on some previous MHSAA championship teams, said. “That’s why we set our goals so high, because we’ve seen what those teams did. Now we want to taste it for our own.”

Like many, Callery had an older brother play in the Gladiators program. So he and his teammates know the bar is set high.

“It’s expectations,” Sellers said. “The coaches don’t have to push (playoffs) as one of our goals. It’s engrained in the kids, especially in the multi-generational families that have been a part of the program here.”

St. Francis and Frankfort made strong playoff runs last season. The Gladiators reached the Division 6 Semifinals before losing to eventual champion Ithaca. Frankfort fell to Division 8 champion Muskegon Catholic Central in the Regional. St. Francis and Frankfort led those games in the second half.

Both teams have had just one tight game this season, and it came at home with Maple City Glen Lake. St. Francis downed the Lakers 21-13 in Week 2, while Frankfort rallied for a 26-21 triumph in Week 6. Those were the only two losses Glen Lake, a Division 6 qualifier, suffered during the regular season.

For the Panthers, that game was a defining moment. Not only did it put Frankfort in position to win the Northern Michigan Football League Leaders division, but it proved the Panthers could play with character and toughness under fire.

“That was an incredible (game), a good test for us to see if we could play at a high level for four quarters,” Stapleton said.

It helped to create an identity, he added.

“In those (pressure) situations, do you crumble or step up?” he said. “We stepped up pretty well.”

The players thought so, too.

“After that game, we thought, ‘Wow, we could make something happen this year,’” Panthers senior quarterback Tige Stockdale said.

“It meant a lot to us,” junior running back/linebacker Griffin Kelly added. “That was one of our goals – to beat Glen Lake. We worked hard and (played) with a lot of heart. We were the underdogs. I don’t think they expected it.”

St. Francis, meanwhile, cruised to the Northern Michigan Football League’s Legends crown, taking the title outright with a 22-0 win over Boyne City last Friday.

The Gladiators are an experienced team with 19 seniors on the roster.

“Experience is our strength,” Sellers said. “A good number of our seniors were on varsity as sophomores, especially up front on the offensive line. We have two juniors on the front seven, and one is a third-year varsity starter.”

St. Francis lost some key cogs to graduation in the backfield, but Callery returned for his third varsity season.

“He didn’t get a lot of touches last year,” Sellers said, “so he’s making up for lost time.”

Callery leads the ground game with 891 yards in eight games (one win was a forfeit), averaging 9.1 yards per carry. Tim Bott’s average is even better at 12.5 yards per carry. He’s picked up 401 yards on just 32 carries. Joey Muzljakovich has 390 rushing yards.

Sophomore quarterback Danny Passinault, who won a three-way battle for the job, oversees the offense, which averages 40 points per game. He’s completed 26 of 44 passes for 509 yards and 12 touchdowns. Chris Kolarevic (seven) and Michael Hegewald (four) have caught 11 of the 12 TD passes.

“We’ve been on an upward trend (offensively) the last four or five games, although I didn’t think we played our best against Boyne,” Doriot said.

Defensively, the Gladiators are limiting opponents to six points and just under 170 yards in total offense per contest. Ryan Lints, Kolarevic, Muzljakovich and Matt Biggar are the team’s leading tacklers. Lints, a lineman, has five sacks, Callery three interceptions.

The Gladiators are relatively healthy entering the postseason.

“We had a hold-your-breath moment against Cheboygan when we lost (back) Connor McGee,” Sellers said. “He dislocated his elbow, and we thought he would be out five to six weeks. But we found out today (Monday) he’s back. He missed two games.”

At Frankfort, Stapleton’s been pleased with his squad’s consistency in improving every week. He said that loss to Muskegon Catholic last November was a “springboard” for his players.

“Our kids were like, ‘We just went toe-to-toe with the team that won the last three (Division 8) state championships,’” Stapleton said. “Our kids felt disappointed because we could have won that game. We just didn’t finish.”

And that’s been the mindset this season.

Unlike St. Francis, the Panthers are not senior heavy. At times, Stapleton’s started four seniors on offense, four on defense.

Kelly is the sparkplug. He’s rushed for 1,250 yards on 132 carries (a 9.5-yard average) in eight games (one win was a forfeit).

“What’s nice about Grif is that he’s not consumed by statistics,” Stapleton said. “There’s only been three games he’s had carries in the fourth quarter.

“He’s a special player. He makes calling plays pretty easy. You want the ball in his hands. If he gets stuffed one play, he’s going to make something happen the next.”

Kelly runs behind a line that features 6-foot-3, 300-pound junior tackle Matt Stefanski, a “legitimate” college prospect, Stapleton said. The Panthers start three seniors and two juniors up front.

“I have a lot of trust in them,’ Kelly said of his line. “They’re outstanding.”

Stockdale is another weapon. He’s rushed for nearly 600 yards and passed for 300. He’s accounted for 15 touchdowns. Junior receiver Matt Loney is averaging 16 yards a reception for an offense that is scoring 43 points a game.

Kelly leads the defense with 85 tackles. Stefanski anchors the middle with seniors Colton Ryder and Wil Darling providing the pressure from their end positions and channeling plays to the interior.

Not unexpectedly, the future continues to look bright at St. Francis and Frankfort, too. The Gladiators junior varsity team finished unbeaten for the third year in a row, while the Frankfort JV team went 8-1, on the heels of two unbeaten campaigns.

For now, though, it’s a one-game-at-a-time mantra in the playoffs.

“We have one week guaranteed,” Frankfort’s Kelly said. “You never know if you’re going to have practice (the following) Monday.”

At St. Francis, Callery, for one, is savoring the final stretch of his high school career.

“Maybe it’s the weather getting cold, but it’s a different feel,” he said. “And if you don’t feel different during the playoffs, something’s wrong with you. It’s a special time.”

Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Frankfort quarterback Tige Stockdale prepares to pitch during an Aug. 26 win over Manton. (Middle) St. Francis' Chris Kolarevic works upfield during his team's win over Cheboygan on Oct. 7. ( Below) Griffin Kelly (4) hurdles a would-be tackler for a touchdown against Central Lake on Sept. 2. (Photos by Amy Plumstead [Frankfort] and Leslie Julian [St. Francis].)

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.)