Pellston Writing Unforgettable Story

November 1, 2019

By Chris Dobrowolski
Special for Second Half

PELLSTON — It’s a story that could easily derive from Hollywood.

Only, this script is being written in Pellston.

Leading up to the 2019 season, the narrative for the Pellston football team has been mostly a tale of woe.

Zero playoff appearances.

Twenty-three years without a winning season.

A .260 winning percentage since 1950.

This year, however, the plot has turned into a feel-good story as the Hornets have put together a season that’s only been dreamed about over the years, posting an 8-1 record and earning their first postseason berth.

“To go 8-1, it was great,” said Pellston head coach Jack Carter, a 1987 graduate of the school. “I knew we had some really good players, some great seniors. Strong leadership on that end. It all kind of came together for us, at least through the regular season. I don’t know if it’s being a miracle worker as much as we’re at the right place at the right time.”

Pellston quarterback Glenn Bonter is one of those seniors. Bonter moved to town two years ago from Grand Haven and immediately found his niche within the confines of the weight room. The other players who were there made him feel welcome, and they quickly became friends. They also filled him in on the school’s history in football.

“(I heard) that it was a struggle,” said Bonter. “That they hadn’t had a whole lot of success. That was something where we looked at it and all of us wanted it to change. Looking around in the weight room, I saw how much hard work and dedication kids were really putting into it. Pretty much the whole entire team would go to weight room in the summer. We would all go out to the field and just pass and do some running. I think it was a whole team thing. We were like, ‘You know what? We want to win, and we’re going to do it.’ We just kind of put our foot down and went for it.”

Carter is in just his third year leading the Hornets, though he is well-versed in how difficult it has been for the school to win on the football field having off-and-on been a part of the program in one capacity or another since 2001. He’s seen players and coaches come and go, working to get things heading in the right direction but often finding that to be an insurmountable hurdle.

“If you look at it strictly from wins and losses, it wouldn’t tell the complete story because we have not been that great,” said Carter. “But we’ve had, every single year, guys that went out there and worked so hard. Played with as much heart and emotion as you could expect. For me, I think that was the template, or the groundwork for us to build off.”

Pellston also laid some of the foundation for this season during last year’s 4-5 campaign. What might seem like a rebuilding year for some was a breakthrough for the Hornets. It was the most wins they had recorded in six years. Three of those wins came in succession, too — the first time the program had strung together consecutive victories since it opened the 2012 season with four straight victories.

That propelled the Hornets into the offseason with a ton of hunger. The team’s four seniors — Bonter, running back/defensive back Lakota Worthington, and linemen Evan Cameron and Joey Rizzardi — spearheaded the team’s participation in summer training. When the full squad met for the first time in August, it came in with good fitness, strength, talent and desire.

“We made sure to make the weight room a thing,” said Worthington. “We made sure to come in during the offseason and put in the work and made sure we worked on our routes.”

It didn’t take long for Pellston to reap the benefits of its hard work as it started the year with six wins in a row — the longest winning streak in school history. Among those victories were dramatic triumphs over Posen (42-38) and Au Gres-Sims (32-30) where the Hornets overcame halftime deficits of 16 and 18 points, respectively, to remain undefeated.

“Normally you just don’t come back from those type of deficits,” said Carter. “This group of guys, they just keep fighting. They keep believing, and they keep their heads up. Their positive outlook and attitude is first rate.”

“For us to rally back and win those games, it was unbelievable,” said Bonter.

Three games into his junior season, Bonter switched from running back to quarterback. He’s been dynamic in running the Hornets’ spread offense, accounting for 16 touchdowns rushing and 13 through the air. Junior David Jamroz, like Bonter, has rushed for more than 1,000 yards. Worthington joins them in a backfield that features a great deal of speed. He also provides electricity in the return game.

“(He’s a) special returner,” Carter said of Worthington, a four-year varsity player. “He’s been that sparkplug and that catalyst that we’ve been needing for quite a while. In 8-man football a lot of times teams choose not to really kick to guys who are like that. It seems like every time a ball did go to him, he made the most of it. If he didn’t get a touchdown out of it, he certainly flipped the field for us and gave us great starting position on offense.”

The Hornets have averaged 46 points per game. The only time they’ve been held under 30 points was a 38-14 loss to Hillman in the seventh week, a game where injuries hampered Pellston’s chances.

“I think we just had an off night,” said Bonter. “They’re a really good football team. A lot of respect to Hillman. They should go far; but yeah, that was a tough loss.”

“We learned that sometimes only going in with 11 players can get you in trouble,” said Carter. “We did get hit with some injuries that night. Secondly, Hillman was the first team that really came out and really played good, sound, hard-hitting football, especially on the defensive side. They have a history of being able to make the playoffs, and they’ve had success in football. They showed why they’re at where they’re at.”

The Hornets were able to rebound and finished the regular season with a pair of convincing wins over St. Helen Charlton Heston and Central Lake.

If the current football playoff system was in place in 1995, Pellston wouldn’t have had to wait until this season to gain its first postseason bid. That year the Hornets went 8-1 but did not qualify because they ultimately didn’t have enough playoff points.

Twenty-four years later Pellston finally buzzed its way into the postseason. It opens the MHSAA 8-player Division 1 tournament with a Pre-Regional on Friday against Gaylord St. Mary.

“I’m so ready. I’m ready today,” said Worthington. “I just want to go out there and show everybody what we can do. I know Gaylord (St. Mary) is pretty good, but I’m ready to get them.”

The Snowbirds come into the game with a 4-5 record, but four of their first six wins were forfeited for using an ineligible player.

“St. Mary is coming in with a really, really good football team,” said Carter. “I look at them as an 8-1 football team, and we have to look at them that way.”

As magical as this season has been for the Hornets, they feel like there is still more of the story to be told and are looking to add a few more chapters in the coming weeks as the playoff scenario unfolds.

“Hopefully we have a good Hollywood ending with it and keep it going into the playoffs,” said Carter.

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) Pellston’s David Jamroz (20) races through the Au Gres-Sims defense during a Week 3 win. (Middle) The Hornets stack the line during a Week 2 victory over Posen. (Photos courtesy of the Pellston athletic department.)

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.)