Parchment's 1st-Time Football Seniors Writing Unforgettable Story

By Pam Shebest
Special for

October 18, 2022

PARCHMENT — Nothing beats Friday night lights, said Parchment senior Will Kovl.

Southwest Corridor“The fans, the atmosphere, scoring a touchdown, nothing beats it. It’s amazing,” he exclaimed.

What is amazing is that Kovl, who has become one of the Panthers’ top receivers, never played football before this year.

In fact, Kovl is one of nine seniors who are playing their first season of football for coach Brian Huberty.

During the summer, athletic director Brennan Davis heard rumblings about the seniors trying out for the team.

“My initial thought was disbelief because I hear a lot, so my mindset was ‘I'll believe it when I see it,’” Davis said.

“Once football started working out this summer, I heard these kids were actually attending and at that point it became a reality. We have a quality senior group, and those kids have a very strong bond. It is a special group of young people.”

Senior tight end/linebacker Jacob Guzior said it was definitely a group decision.

“At first it was a joke,” he said. “Eventually it turned into ‘We are actually playing football now.’”

The other senior newbies are kicker/cornerback Mason Ragan, wide receiver/linebacker Blake Smith, defensive back Breckyn Bootland, defensive end/tight end Ashtian McClanahan, wide receiver Tanner Slack, kicker McKaylah Shank and team manager McKenna Nunn.

Huberty, who teaches in Plainwell and is the interim coach at Parchment, said he is not sure where the team (4-4 overall, 2-3 Southwestern Athletic Conference Lakeshore) would be without those nine.

“We would have had a team, but we would have been a lot younger and we would have had to pull a few more kids up, and that’s not what you want to do,” he said.

“You don’t want young kids having to come compete against 18- and 17-year-old kids.”

Front, from left: Mason Ragan, Blake Smith. Back, from left: McKenna Nunn, Will Kovl, Jacob Guzior, Breckyn Bootland and Ashtian McClanahan. Kovl said senior quarterback Aaron Jasiak was instrumental in peaking his interest in playing this season after Jasiak scored the winning touchdown in last year’s homecoming game.

“I remember it like it was yesterday; it was awesome,” Kovl said. “The student section was bigger than ever, and I was in the student section.

“We rushed the field. He told me to play football (my senior year), and the story wrote itself.”

One aspect of the game was a bit daunting for Guzior.

“At first (hitting) was hard to get used to. Now I do like hitting people,” he laughed.

“It was a rough first week. By second week we were starting to get the hang of it, and by week three it felt like I’d been playing a while.”

Bootland is using football to help him with hockey.

“Hockey gave me a base idea of hitting in football, but hitting in football is going to take my physicality in hockey to another level, which is my biggest weakness on ice,” he said.

However, “the biggest shock for me was how analytical it is to make plays and how much smarts it is over pure athleticism.”

Huberty said Bootland was a surprise.

“He’s a hockey kid,” the coach said. “He surprisingly adapted well to playing defense. The physical part, it surprised me how he’s embraced it.”

Although she is not on the field, Nunn keeps everyone on time and on task as the team manager.

Her job varies during the week.

“Sometimes I get equipment out for them,” she said. “I’m usually taking pictures because I run our social media pages.”

Huberty said she also keeps him on task.

“She is so amazing to have here,” he said. “I give her a practice schedule, and she lets me know when our sessions are done.

“We have a drone we sometimes run at practice, and she’ll run the drone for us and record practice.”

Ragan, who is Parchment’s leading goal-scorer in soccer, said “I never imagined myself on a football field in my life. I like it. I think it’s really fun.

“Football has definitely helped me with soccer. It’s made me more physical on the field for sure. I think that’s definitely a benefit.”

The Panthers’ Will Kovl attempts to pull away from a Tigers defender. Huberty said Ragan, who booted a 25-yard field goal two weeks ago, “came out just to be a kicker. We got him out playing defense, and he liked it.”

Smith had some experience after playing football in middle school. But after watching the Panthers games, he realized he missed it.

“Wish I had played before,” he said. “I recommend playing football all four years. It’s a great experience.”

Kovl, who pulled in eight catches for 96 yards two weeks ago, said his best game was in a losing effort against Kalamazoo United.

“I had 126 yards, six receptions, two touchdowns,” he said. “It was a tough loss, but it was definitely one of my best games.”

McClanahan spends summers in Tennessee and made the choice to return to Parchment early this time so he could play football.

“I definitely like the energy we get at practices and during games with all my teammates,” he said. “A lot of my friends were coming out, so I decided I’d just hop on the train and come out.

“We’ve been close since sixth grade and anything one does, we all do together. We’re a really close friend group.”

Two more seniors, Slack and Shank, are juggling first-year football with other fall sports and sometimes miss practices.

“(Slack) has really started to emerge as a guy who can contribute to the team,” Huberty said. “He caught a touchdown pass against United and is starting to emerge as a guy who should start getting more playing time.”

Shank is the second-string kicker and also balancing a club commitment this fall.

“She runs cross country, her primary sport, and also does travel soccer in the fall,” Huberty said. “She comes when she can be here.”

As for the veterans on the team, “They have done a great job of embracing those first-year kids,” Huberty said.

“There’s no real wedge between kids who have played in the past and those who haven’t.”

Now that they've tasted success on the football field, the "Senior 9" all agreed on one regret: Waiting until their senior year to play football.

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) Parchment’s Jacob Guzior (83) prepares to defend from his linebacker spot during a 21-17 Week 7 win over Allegan. (Middle) Front, from left: Mason Ragan, Blake Smith. Back, from left: McKenna Nunn, Will Kovl, Jacob Guzior, Breckyn Bootland and Ashtian McClanahan. (Below) The Panthers’ Will Kovl attempts to pull away from a Tigers defender. (Action photos by McKenna Nunn; group photo by Pam Shebest.)

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.)