Ogemaw Heights Makes Nemesis Latest Hurdle Conquered During Memorable Run

By Tom Spencer
Special for MHSAA.com

November 3, 2023

Ogemaw Heights found itself in an all too familiar position when the football playoffs opened up last week.

Northern Lower PeninsulaThe Falcons were trailing Gladwin – this time by three touchdowns. Gladwin, the 2022 Division 5 champion, had knocked off Ogemaw Heights 35-20 last year on the way to the title. Gladwin also had topped the Falcons to open this season 42-28.

But this rematch didn’t stay familiar, as things changed fast. The Falcons cut the lead to just one score by halftime and went on to win 28-23.

Another difference is the Falcons (9-1) were at home — the two previous meetings in less than a year were on the Flying Gs’ field. The Falcons are staying home again this weekend, hosting Kingsford at 1 p.m. Saturday with a District title on the line.

Getting a win over Gladwin did not come as a surprise to the Ogemaw’s head coach, Chad Miller, now in his fifth year at the helm. Strong senior leadership has set the tone, and a talented group of underclassmen has arrived to bolster the lineup.

“We were down 21-0 with three minutes left in the first half and scored twice in that three minutes, and then dominated the second half,” Miller said. “We were good last year losing to a very good Gladwin team in a pretty close game in the first round of the playoffs.

“We knew if the sophomores came around we’d be OK this year.”

The Falcons utilize two of the sophomores at fullback, Calvin Marshall and Conner Lambert. Lambert is also the safety on defense, and Marshall plays defensive tackle.

The other sophomores are Eion Jones, Ethan Hock and Jace Peters. Jones starts at tight end and plays a little defense. Hock is the left guard, and Peters plays everywhere, Miller pointed out.

Xander Kartes (9) tips a pass intended for Eli Graves. Karter Schmitt is a four-year starter. Week after week, he leads the team in rushing and tackles as a linebacker. Xander Kartes, in his second year as quarterback and third year starting at safety, is the playmaker and game manager, Miller said.

Schmitt started the comeback against Gladwin with two second-quarter touchdowns. The latter was set up by a Lambert interception.

“We don’t come back from 21 down unless our leaders make great plays,” Miller noted.

The Falcons have 11 other seniors on the roster. Multi-year starters are providing a ton of experience.  This year’s seniors missed the playoffs only once during their careers. The other seniors starting again this year are right guard Mason Dunn, left tackle Ty Neubecker, linebacker Jack Fachting, and center/defensive tackle Andrew Christner.

Ogemaw Heights clinched the Northern Michigan Football Conference’s Legends title with a 35-12 win over Kingsley in Week 7. Schmitt ran 27 times for 149 yards to lead Ogemaw to the school’s first football league title since 2009. It was also the Falcons’ final game in the NMFC as they will join the Jack Pine Conference – which includes Gladwin – next fall.

That win over the Stags, also hosting a playoff game this week in Division 6, came in the program’s annual Purple Game. The Falcons wore purple jerseys against the Stags instead of their traditional brown as each player displayed a family member or friend’s name on the back of the uniform in honor of someone fighting cancer.

The Purple Game originated after the loss of previous coaches and community members to cancer, Miller indicated. The game date is set in advance of the season, just like Homecoming.

“We dedicate one game to anybody with or who has cancer,” Miller said. “The players choose someone in their lives, and we wear purple jerseys with the person’s relative or family name on the back and we present it to the family afterwards.

“It was a big night,” Miller continued. “Kingsley is a machine.”

Kingsford also will bring a 9-1 record over the Mackinac Bridge and down I-75 to the West Branch exit. The Flivvers’ only loss was 13-12 at Negaunee, a team battling this weekend for a District championship in Division 6.

“Kingsford is a very good team with a running back that has over 900 yards and 17 touchdowns the last three games,” Miller said of his team’s next opponent. “He’s probably the best running we’ve seen this year — he is going to be an issue.

“We won’t back down from anything,” Miller added. “The kids are cornfield tough – they are tough guys, man.”

Tom SpencerTom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. 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) Ogemaw Heights’ Karter Schmitt is tackled by Gavin Dear and Gavyn Merchant during the Falcons’ win over Kingsley this season. (Middle) Xander Kartes (9) tips a pass intended for Eli Graves. (Photos courtesy of the Traverse City Record-Eagle.)

Constantine Football All-Stater, Wrestling Champ Aiming for Grand Finale

By Scott Hassinger
Special for MHSAA.com

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.)