Northern Schools Find Solution in NMFL

September 6, 2019

By Chris Dobrowolski
Special for Second Half

With 17 schools spread across 11 counties, the Northern Michigan Football League has created an indelible footprint since it was born into existence five years ago.

The conference, made up of three divisions of schools in varying size, has been able to sustain and evolve despite an ever-changing football landscape up north that has made for a revolving door of membership from year to year.

“It continues to morph,” said Frankfort athletic director Dave Jackson, the conference’s commissioner and one of the founders of the league.

From the biggest schools in the Legends division — Benzie Central, Boyne City, Cheboygan, Grayling, Kalkaska, Kingsley and Traverse City St. Francis — to the smaller schools in the Leaders (Charlevoix, Elk Rapids, Frankfort, Mancelona and Maple City Glen Lake) and Legacy divisions (Harbor Springs, East Jordan, Inland Lakes, Johannesburg-Lewiston and St. Ignace) the NMFL has provided easy avenues for scheduling as well as good, competitive balance for the programs that call it home.

“The scheduling aspect is where I go back to it,” said Johannesburg-Lewiston football coach and athletic director Joe Smokevitch. “It’s just been huge for us. Going into 2020 and 2021 my schedule is full, basically with teams from within the conference. They’re not all division games. I am crossing over and playing those other schools. It’s really helped with scheduling. Not having to go far away to play somebody. You look at our schedule. We play some quality opponents. I think the conference is very strong from top to bottom.”

The idea for the league was hatched in 2012 between schools in the Lake Michigan and Northwest conferences. Both leagues were seeing problems from smaller schools trying to compete with larger ones, and neither side benefitting from the affiliation. So, the two merged as a 13-team league comprised of two divisions of similar-sized enrollments.

The league has rarely stayed intact from year to year, switching to the three-division alignment with the growth to 20 teams in 2016 when it absorbed the remaining teams in the Ski Valley Conference, as well as withstanding the loss of six schools to 8-player football in the span of four years.

“We’ve taken schools in the league that didn’t last very long,” said Jackson. “We took in Newberry and they lasted just a year, then suddenly they’re 8-man. We took in Gaylord St. Mary. We took in Central Lake. Those teams were just a year or two and suddenly they’re gone. Our constitution calls for a two-year process of getting out, but those teams that had to go 8-man, they’re out for the next year. So, suddenly you’re scrambling again, which is the one thing we were trying to keep from having to do because there is no planning when that last-minute 8-man decision comes along and schools decide to make that plunge. There’s nothing you can really do when a school says they’re going to do that. You can’t say, ‘Well, the constitution says … .’ They’re going to do what they need to do.”

Fortunately for the league, it has been able to find suitable replacements at every turn. In fact, Ogemaw Heights and Sault Ste. Marie are set to join in 2020 to become part of the Legends division, bolstering the league to a robust 19 schools. Kalkaska and Boyne City will slide over to the Leaders division and Frankfort — one of the smallest 11-player football teams in the state — is moving to the Legacy division.

“It made sense to apply,” said Ogemaw Heights athletic director Jon Studley, noting four future conference foes already are on this year’s schedule. “We’re very excited about the opportunity to be a part of that. We’re going to be able to create some rivalries.

“I think fans of northern Michigan football benefit the most. They’re seeing competitive football week in and week out.”

As the NMFL has shown, the quality of football being played within the conference is at a high level, too. At least one team from the league has reached the Semifinal round of the MHSAA playoffs every season. Boyne City was a semifinalist in Division 6 in 2014, while St. Francis has represented the league in the Semifinals in 2015, 2017 and 2018. In 2016 two teams advanced that far — St. Ignace in Division 8 and Maple City Glen Lake in Division 6 — with Glen Lake reaching the Finals before falling to Jackson Lumen Christi 26-14.

“I think we’re really starting to get some respect,” said Glen Lake coach Jerry Angers. “I’ve talked to the teams downstate that we’ve played, they want to come up and play us. They’re not saying, ‘This is going to be an easy game.’ They’re saying, ‘This is going to be a fun game, and they’re going to give us something.’”

There remains the possibility the league will undergo more changes before it more comfortably stabilizes. Some schools have expressed interest in joining, and the threat of losing members to 8-player football remains for a few of the smallest schools. It’s nothing the league hasn’t dealt with before, however. Jackson said it comes down to maintaining a commitment to the schools that are in the conference and carefully examining any growth that could occur.

“We had our big meeting in December, and one thing we talked about is how we have to look out for each other,” said Jackson. “We’re trying to guarantee that the league will provide eight of your nine games. In most cases the league is providing all nine of the games. So, you know you’re going to have somebody to play and you’re not going to have to go looking. There’s a time we may control 11-man football for everything north of Lansing. I don’t know. It continues to grow because teams are looking for that stability and consistency year in and year out, so they know who their games are with and they know who they play.”

Chris Dobrowolski has covered northern Lower Peninsula sports since 1999 at the Ogemaw County Herald, Alpena News, Traverse City Record-Eagle and currently as sports editor at the Antrim Kalkaska Review since 2016. 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) Charlevoix, carrying the ball, opened this season with a 40-26 win over Elk Rapids. (Middle) East Jordan got a step on Harbor Springs on this play last week, but the Rams emerged with a slim 34-33 win. (Photos by Sports in Motion.)

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.)