Pennfield Football 'Family' Ready for Kickoff with New Coach, New Home

By Pam Shebest
Special for

August 22, 2023

BATTLE CREEK – New coach, new stadium, new attitude.

Southwest CorridorThe Pennfield football players cannot wait to start restoring Panther Pride.

After suffering through an 0-9 season last year, “All the varsity players who have been here through the bad were skeptical – including myself – of new coaches, new everything, basically,” senior outside linebacker/wide receiver Thomas Kurtz said.

“But once we got familiar with the coaches and got to know them more, it felt like they were always here. It felt like their impact was so profound that it felt right. Me, personally, I’m loving every second of it.”

Architect of the new-look Panthers is head coach Robbie Hattan, who is also loving every second of his new position.

If enthusiasm can inspire players, Hattan’s the guy.

He led Colon to the MHSAA 8-player Division 1 title in 2019 and was named Coach of the Year for the division by the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association. Over his seven years at Colon, Hattan’s Magi also were 2021 Division 2 runners-up and made Regional Finals or Semifinals three more seasons.

He hopes that success translates to Pennfield, which has hovered around .500 most of the last decade after several previous impressive finishes.

A key, Hattan said, is leading with love.

“I’ve always led with love,” he said. “It’s gotten hard to get these kids used to another man telling them, ‘Hey, I love you.’

“We define family in our program as ‘Forget about me, I love you.’ Love is sacrifice. If we can get our kids to be able to sacrifice themselves for the team, for the family, we’ll be very successful.”

Players were a bit skeptical at first, said Hattan, who started work as the district’s facilities and maintenance director Jan. 27.

“I went the first two weeks before (players) would talk to me,” he said. “They kind of gave me the cold shoulder. Then they got to know me a little bit.”

Kurtz said he was “a little scared because this is the new head coach. The more I got to know him, the more approachable he seemed and the more friendly he seemed.”

Interactions with players were important to Hattan when choosing his assistants.

 From left: Thomas Kurtz, coach Robbie Hattan and senior Daniel Wells stand together in the team’s new stadium. “I need to know, do you love kids, do you love athletes and building a positive culture,” he said. “You can be the best Xs and Os guys, but if you’re not great for kids, I don’t want you.”

Two assistants are Pennfield legends Chris Lok and Jason Livengood, both members of the last Panthers football team to win a state championship. That was in 1991.

“Pennfield has a rich tradition of being successful,” Hattan said. “From 1973 to 2013, they didn’t have losing seasons.

“The history is here; the fans want to support. It’s getting the kids to feel like somebody loves them.”

Talking about Lok and Livengood, “They bleed Pennfield,” said Hattan, who also kept Matt Merlington and Chris Minor from last year’s staff.

The coach has one other legend connection on the team.

Senior Daniel Wells is the grandson of “legendary Pennfield coach Dave Hudson, who coached all those winning seasons,” Hattan said.

Wells said his grandfather is “excited to see that someone with a lot of knowledge is coming in and really trying to educate us on the game of football like if we haven’t seen it before.”

Hattan named Jason Porter, who coached at Kalamazoo College and Kalamazoo Loy Norrix, as his defensive coordinator. Hattan also brought two assistants with him from Colon: Joe Sweeter and Zach Doerr.

“Any school I’ve been at, I’ve asked (Sweeter) to come with me,” Hattan said. “He was with me at Litchfield, he was with me when I coached semi-pro football (Battle Creek Coyotes), he helped me at Gull Lake for a year, he was with me at Colon.”

Doerr lives in Battle Creek, and when the commute to Colon became a bit much, he stepped away. Now he is back with a much shorter drive.

Talking about that makes Hattan laugh since he currently lives in Colon and makes the drive to Battle Creek each day.

“My kids still go to school (at Colon) while we look for houses in Battle Creek,” Hattan said.

“We want to be in this community, because for me building a family and a culture that kids want to be a part of requires around-the-clock availability as a football coach.”

And experience abounds among the leadership.

“I look at my offensive staff and we have guys who have 25, 30 years coaching experience,” Hattan said. “When you add all of the years our staff has coaching, I don’t think there’s a staff in the state that has as much credentials as this staff has.”

Community & Communication

The first year Hattan was at Colon, the team played 11-player football. The Magi then switched to 8-player for the last six.

Going back to 11-player is much easier, Hattan said.

“The biggest difference is the speed,” he said. “In 8-man, if you are fast, you can be good, where 11-man, there are more guys. Yes, it’s good to be fast, but you also have to have some size to make some holes.

“Eight-man’s tough because you’re always like, ‘I wish I had one more player. If I have one more player, I could fill that hole better or I could do this.’”

One highlight this season is a brand-new football stadium and Hattan said he was amazed watching every step of the artificial turf installation.

“It was an incredible process,” he said. “Once the different shades of green were rolled out, all the white was cut in. The numbers, the lines, the hash marks, the logo, the letters were cut in and sewn in by this crew.

“There’s also new bleachers, track, lights, concessions. It’s going to be a wonderful complex for our community.”

Hattan added that everything but the field itself was a small part of a $30-million bond passed in 2020. The turf will be paid for through fundraising efforts.

Hattan noted the field also has lines for lacrosse and soccer sewn in, and an eight-lane track will be installed.

“Our band is going to be able to be out here. We’re putting in a video board, so maybe we can do some movie nights out here. There are a lot of different things we can do for our community.”

Isaiah Adams, carrying the ball, works to get to the edge with a defender in pursuit.The football team is also a community, Wells said.

The biggest difference this year is “community and communication,” the senior linebacker/guard said. “A lot more conversation with coaches.

“This year I’ve already talked to Coach more than I talked to my last coach in three years. The communication is on a whole new level.”

As for learning a new system, “It’s pretty tough having to relearn everything including the basics, but it’s not hard as long as you are willing to constantly learn more and better yourself as a team,” Wells added.

Communication and love were on display early.

When an upperclassman wanted to join the team late, Hattan allowed the players to decide.

When some of the players balked, Kurtz spoke up.

“I believe that everybody deserves a chance to do something they love,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to deny somebody the chance of making memories and maybe even creating new bonds with people they never would have imagined they would.”

The player is on the team and fitting in well.

“That really moved me,” Hattan said. “That’s how you build culture.  As you get kids to understand that, at the end of the day, if you can say, ‘Forget about me, I love you.’"

Players had their first taste of competition during a non-scored scrimmage at Sturgis.

“I think we competed very well,” Hattan said. “Our kids were flying around the field and very enthusiastic about football. Our defense was a very strong point of our team.

“Kids were rallying to the football and trusting their teammates to do their job. Offensively, we looked like we were new to the system we are just putting in. We had some hiccups but had a lot of positive things.”

Pennfield begins the season Thursday at Lake Odessa Lakewood. Home opener is Sept. 8 against Parma Western.

“We might be tightening down a couple screws (at the new stadium) Sept. 7,” Hattan said. “But we’ll be ready to play.”

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) Jabrael Powell cuts into an opening during Pennfield’s intrasquad scrimmage this month. (Middle) From left: Thomas Kurtz, coach Robbie Hattan and senior Daniel Wells stand together in the team’s new stadium. (Below) Isaiah Adams, carrying the ball, works to get to the edge with a defender in pursuit. (Action photos courtesy of Pennfield Sports Nation; stadium 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.)