Pickford Prepping for Next Chance to Shine

October 10, 2018

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

The Pickford football team has relished the opportunity to learn the last two seasons.

The Panthers’ 2016 run ended in the 8-Player Semifinals with a loss to eventual repeat champion Powers North Central. Last season, Pickford didn’t lose a game until the 8-Player Division 2 Semifinals – when it fell to eventual champion Crystal Falls Forest Park by a mere two points.

“There was a point in (last year’s) game where if we could’ve gotten the ball back, we had a chance to win that game,” Pickford coach Josh Rader said. “We know sometime during the season, it’s going to be on the line, and we’re doing our best to prepare for that moment. We put ourselves in different situations in practice. We practice those specific moments … that (are) going to propel you to the next level.”

All signs point to the MHSAA/Applebee’s “Team of the Month” for September being well on its way.

After finishing 11-1 a year ago, Pickford is off to a 7-0 start this fall. A 38-20 Week 3 win over Forest Park was the only game where Pickford didn’t score at least 52 points. And the defense has given up 69 points total.

Pickford’s program is the reason the MHSAA introduced 8-player football playoffs in 2011. The school, located on the eastern end of the Upper Peninsula about 25 miles south of Sault Ste. Marie, has roughly 130 students. The varsity has 14 players – with only two seniors and just one sophomore.

Three juniors were on varsity for all of last season, and two more played several games with the top team. “The last few years we’ve had a good group of guys; they work together, they trust each other and they’re just playing good football because of that,” Rader said. “They build on each other.”

Five players have run for at least three touchdowns this season, with junior running back Stephen LaMothe finding the end zone a team-high 10 times to go with 539 yards on the ground – at 10.2 per carry. Junior Matthew Bush has run for a team-high 613 yards – at 9.6 yards per attempt.

But making this Pickford team even more dangerous is junior quarterback Jimmy Storey, a threat both on the ground and through the air. He also averages 10 yards per carry, with 414 yards and 10 touchdowns rushing. He’s completed 63 percent of his pass attempts for 1,043 yards and 23 scores – without an interception. Junior Nicholas Edington is his leading receiver with 18 catches for 469 yards and 11 touchdowns.

And then there’s the defense. Pickford has seven interceptions and seven fumble recoveries – an average of two takeaways per game. Junior Isaiah May has a team-high 61 tackles, and junior Sam Burton has eight sacks. Bush is the team’s second-leading tackler.  

How do the Panthers’ pull this off with just 14 players? They stress daily improvements in practice and bringing physicality against opponents. A few defensive stops followed by quick scores, and Pickford is rolling.

Rader joined the staff in 2003 as defensive coordinator and took over as head coach a year later. The Panthers made the 11-player playoffs in eight of 12 seasons with him on staff or leading it, and are 34-7 in 8-player since making the switch in 2015.

But they’re hoping for more this fall. Pickford is prepping for that next step after building up the schedule with seven 2017 playoff teams. After so much success, the Panthers are getting everyone’s best shot, all the saved-up trick plays – and Rader likes that as well. All of it helps his team prepare for next month.

And the community is excited to support another run. Pickford’s best-known sports legend is a boys track & field program that won 27 straight Upper Peninsula Finals from 1952-78. The football program has made four MHSAA Semifinals total over the years and is eyeing a possible championship game trip to Northern Michigan University’s Superior Dome.

“We tried to step that (schedule) up to prepare for those playoff moments and those tough type of games,” Rader said. “(It’s) ‘Let's play this as a playoff game’ – so when we are in the playoffs, hopefully we’ll be battle tested.”

Past Teams of the Month, 2018-19

August: Northville girls golf – Read 

PHOTOS: (Top) Pickford quarterback Jimmy Storey breaks free during his team’s Week 6 win over Stephenson. (Middle) Panthers senior Mitchell Miller leads the team onto the field this season. (Photos courtesy of the Pickford football program.)

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.)