Northmen Stadium Opens to Excitement, 'Awe'

September 1, 2016

By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half

PETOSKEY – Petoskey kicked off a new era in football last Thursday with the unveiling of Northmen Stadium, a multi-use facility that will be home for football, soccer, lacrosse, band and track & field.

More than 4,000 spectators turned out on a beautiful late August night to watch Petoskey open its season against Ada Forest Hills Eastern. School officials believe it was the largest home football crowd in Petoskey history.

Even a 35-14 setback could not dampen the enthusiasm and pride displayed by those in attendance.

“To see the stadium from the road is one thing – and that excited people,” Superintendent John Scholten said. “But once they got inside and saw it first-hand, there was an awe factor. It was like, ‘Wow!’”

Northmen Stadium replaces Curtis Field, which was built in 1927 and served as the home for Petoskey football for 88 years.

“Our community is very tradition-oriented, very values-oriented,” Dan Ledingham, president of the football boosters, said. “Curtis Field means a lot to us. It’s very symbolic – the roots from where we started. Multiple generations played on that field. I know families who go three to four generations deep. But it was time.”

“It’s time” was actually the theme for the $10 million bond proposal that the electorate approved by a 64 to 36 percent vote in 2014.

“It (Curtis Field) served the community well, but it was pretty tired,” Scholten said.

In addition to the $10 million bond, the school received significant donations and coordinated efforts with other sinking fund projects.

“The whole (campus) renovation is closer to $15 million,” Scholten said.

The project includes the stadium, reconstruction of six tennis courts, a rebuilt softball field, two new soccer practice fields, and a cross country 5K trail that ties into a community walkway and includes three culvert tunnels under realigned Northmen Drive.

It’s all part of a concerted effort to bring the school’s athletic facilities – once scattered around the city – to the campus location. The school had already built a stunning new high school gymnasium and an on-site baseball field.

“When I moved up here (from Maple City Glen Lake) two of the old icons from the Glen Lake days, Denny Dame and Ivan Ford, said you’re moving to the nicest gym in the north,” Scholten said. “I’m a little biased, but I think we now have one of the nicest football facilities in the north, too.”

The stadium is the centerpiece of the latest project. The property’s topography featured a “semi-natural bowl” on the southeast side. Construction workers moved 300,000 cubic yards of dirt to build up the other side, creating a complete bowl appearance.

“The fact it sits down in a bowl makes it unique,” athletic director Dave Smith said. “There are lots of places that have nice stadiums, but they’re flat and the bleachers go up. With this, there’s not a bad seat in the house because it sits down in that bowl.”

The main entrance is near the mezzanine in the north end zone, which is where the concessions and restrooms are located. It features a plaza that overlooks the field. A tunnel runs underneath the mezzanine where the players and band enter and exit the field.

“It’s a very cool place to see a game,” football coach Kerry VanOrman said. “When the band marches through the tunnel, it’s like you’re at Michigan State or Michigan.”

Team rooms, a training room and an officials room are located off the tunnel.

A 40-foot video scoreboard anchors the south end zone. There’s also a messaging board attached to the mezzanine.

The synthetic turf is lined for football, soccer and lacrosse. The soccer team opens its home season Tuesday.

The stadium seats 2,950, but there is additional lawn seating on the hillside. Plus, based on opening night, fans seem to enjoy watching from the mezzanine.

“That elevation overlooking the field gives you the best view,” Ledingham said. “You can see everything, and you can feel the energy coming from the crowd.”

Workers scrambled to get the stadium ready for opening night. In fact, just 48 hours beforehand Ledingham wondered if it would be game ready.

“There were tractors and trucks, concrete and tiles,” he said. “Everything was everywhere. It looked like a true construction site that maybe in a month would be close (to done). I was wondering, ‘What’s Plan B?’ Kent (Cartwright, the school’s chief financial officer) said, ‘There is no Plan B. We are on this field.’ It was neat to see it all come together.”

Smith agreed.

“It was unbelievable the number of people there, from the construction crew to the subcontractors, working extra hours, late hours, that last month to make sure we could get in there and play on that (Thursday),” he said. “Two days out, I was also wondering how this is going to happen. But it did.”

The school received a temporary occupancy permit to open the stadium. Finishing touches were still being completed this week.

The opening culminates nearly 10 years of work. A bond proposal to fund separate football and soccer stadiums was rejected by voters in 2007.

“We had a nice plan,” Scholten said, “but it was just when the recession was starting. We did all the pre-work with the surveys and it looked like the confidence was there, but when the economy went south, (the vote) went south, too.”

Officials regrouped and, after the lingering recession ended, pared back the plan and took it to the voters.

“It was unfortunate timing (in 2007),” VanOrman said. “They were smart in waiting for things to pick up. They did a good job planning it, locating it and even tying it into the city walkways. It kind of includes everybody into it.”

Officials changed the location of the stadium, building it on what was two practice fields so it could utilize existing locker rooms and showers at the school. Two additional locker rooms will be added.

“We listened to the community,” Scholten said. “We were a little extravagant (in 2007) so we came back with a different plan. We worked real hard to say, ‘We listened to you, we trimmed it back, we feel we’re being responsible.’ We worked hard to build that confidence back up.”

The cross country trail will facilitate skiers as well as runners and walkers. The new eight-lane track replaces the outdated six-lane version at Curtis Field.

“We couldn’t host anything big because of that,” Scholten said.

Scholten expects the new facility will make Petoskey an attractive choice for hosting MHSAA tournaments.

Parking, an issue at Curtis Field, was addressed, too. Spectators can now use the high school and middle school lots, as well as new parking spaces near the stadium.

The improvements now leave hockey and downhill skiing as the only sports played off campus, Smith said.

“From an athletic director’s standpoint, I love how most of our facilities are now on school grounds,” he said.

He also loves the positive buzz the stadium’s generated. Ledingham called opening night “surreal.”

“It was amazing to see our community come together to enjoy it,” he said.

The unveiling attracted fans from nearby communities as well.

“The energy and support was great,” junior kicker Noah Ledingham said. “You run on to that field, see the lights, see (the crowd) and it just makes you want to play harder.

“To be the first team to play on that field is an amazing feeling because it’s a new chapter (in Petoskey football) and you know you’re making history.”

The Northmen, with just two key returnees back, struggled early, falling behind Forest Hills Eastern 28-0 before rallying to make it a game.

“I was pleased with the way we played in the second half,” VanOrman said. “It was 28-14 with 3:30 left in the game. We went for an onside kick and it blew up in our face. They recovered and ran it back to our 15 and then scored. (Eastern’s) a good football team. It was a good measuring stick for us to see where we have to get better.”

The night might also pay dividends. Forest Hills Eastern officials are talking about extending the two-year deal with Petoskey that is set to expire after the Northmen travel down there next season.

“They liked it so much they want to come back in two years,” Smith said. “I would say that’s a compliment right there.”

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) Petoskey's stadium, at dusk, hosted Ada Forest Hills Eastern for its debut. (Middle above) The Northmen take to their new field for the first time. (Middle below) Fans packed the home stands, which are part of a "bowl" circling the playing surface. (Below) The new football field is just one part of the renovated Petoskey athletic complex. (Aerial photos by Charles Dawley/Up North Imaging. Game photos by Scott Moore.)

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.)