Offseason Work Begins as Gobles Continues Building on Successful Reboot

By Pam Shebest
Special for

November 14, 2023

GOBLES — Football season may be over for players at Gobles High School, but the Tigers do not have much time to relax.

Southwest CorridorFor coach Greg Eichler, the season never really ends.

The Tigers made it to the MHSAA 8-player Division 1 Regional Finals before losing to reigning champion Martin two weeks ago.

While some of his athletes are preparing for their various winter sports, Eichler has been sitting down with players and coaches to “identify what went well, what didn’t go well this season and what are we going to do to address those things.

“For our kids, it’s setting goals athletically and academically. What are they looking to do the rest of the school year in their other sports and classroom and as individuals, as human beings? Our goal is to make sure that they grow in that aspect more than anything.”

Eichler also will talk with his coaches to “figure out what our shortcomings were and how we can improve on that in the offseason and make 2024 even better.”

That’s just the beginning for the third-year coach.

“In November and December, it’s equipment and helmet reconditioning, our banquet, sending out thank yous to our sponsors,” Eichler said.

“I’m going to communicate with our alumni. I always send out a state of the program, a whole write-up of what we’ve done and where we’re going.”

With his coaches, Eichler will evaluate game film and break it down, finalize stats and plan offseason workouts with the Tigers’ two strength and conditioning coaches.

“In January and February, there’s a whole bunch of other stuff,” he said. “That’s clinic season, that’s going to listen to other coaches, visit other staff, learn new things we can bring back to Gobles among a million other things.”

Starting from scratch

When Eichler – who is also the district’s K-12 assistant principal – took over the 8-player football program in 2021, he had just 10 varsity players. 

The team folded after seven weeks.

Clockwise from top left: Gobles coach Greg Eichler, Geiger, Mason Mansfield and Nathan Ray. “We had to start from scratch as far as building a winning mentality,” he said. “It started with getting in the weight room and lifting, getting bigger, getting stronger, getting faster. Building that winning mentality so that when we step on the field, we expect to win.

“Our kids had to learn how to raise the bar against those better opponents.”

This year’s team, with 24 players, made strides toward the ultimate goal – a state championship to go with the program’s 11-player Class D title won in 1984.

The Tigers finishing 8-3, defeated Mendon for the first time since 2005 and advanced a round further in the playoffs after losing in a Regional Semifinal a year ago.

“Progress is being made,” Eichler said. “It didn’t end the way any of us really wanted, but it’s going to make us stronger, make us better. It’s going to motivate us going into 2024.”

Building on experiences, setting examples

One player who brings MHSAA Finals experience to the team is junior Mason Mansfield. He placed eighth at the Division 4 Individual Wrestling Finals last season at Ford Field.

“Wrestling actually prepares you for football,” said Mansfield, whose winter season starts this week. “You’ve got to be tough in wrestling – six minutes tough. You’ve got to be tough to wrestle, especially to place and finish in the top of the top at Ford Field.”

While he wrestled at 150 pounds last year, he has moved up to 165 for this season. Eichler said Mansfield is one of the top athletes at the school.

“He is energetic and brings that into our locker room and our team,” he said. “Other kids feed off that.

“He’s very positive and brings an attitude of ‘we can overcome any challenge.’ He enjoys facing really good competition, and I think that wears off on the rest of the team and helps us elevate our play.”

Mansfield, left, wrestles during the first round of last season’s Individual Finals at Ford Field. Another junior, Jackson Geiger, will begin practice on the varsity basketball team next week.

“I feel like right now I’d rather be playing football because I have two weeks to spare until basketball starts,” said Geiger, who expects improvements from this season’s basketball team coming off of a 4-19 finish.

“Last year (basketball) was more of a bonding experience,” he said. “We played really well in practice, but at game time didn’t really show up.”

As for football, Eichler said Geiger embodies the "Tiger Way."

“Jack is an extremely hard worker,” he said. “He really dedicated himself to the weight room, so I thought he brought that work ethic.

“He leads by example. He’s great in the classroom. Not only on the field, but off the field, he’s a great role model.”

After playing varsity football this season, sophomore Nathan Ray will play junior varsity basketball. He started the 2022 football season on the junior varsity before being called up to varsity for the last two games of the season.

“The players (on varsity) are a lot stronger and faster,” he said. “It’s a different level of athleticism, but the game is still the same.”

Eichler said Ray is very coachable.

“Nathan puts his head down and works,” the coach said. “He’s great on and off the field and great in the classroom. He’s dedicated himself to the weight room and has committed to making himself better every day.”

Looking back on the football season, Eichler said: “I’m really proud of how far our program has come.

“If you look back two years ago, we barely could field a team. And now we’re a Regional finalist.”

Pam ShebestPam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Gobles junior Jackson Geiger (74) squares up to make a block during his team’s game against Concord this season. (Middle) Clockwise from top left: Gobles coach Greg Eichler, Geiger, Mason Mansfield and Nathan Ray. (Below) Mansfield, left, wrestles during the first round of last season’s Individual Finals at Ford Field. (Top photo by Kathie Brown/Creative Photography. Head shots by Pam Shebest. Wrestling photo by High School Sports Scene.)

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.)