Playoffs Packed with Livonia Power

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

October 25, 2017

LIVONIA – Let the good times roll.

Football fans in Livonia have been blessed recently with the success of Livonia Public Schools’ football programs, and this season is no exception. 

Churchill, Franklin and Stevenson all qualified for the MHSAA playoffs, and glancing at the pairings all have a reasonable shot at winning their Pre-District games and perhaps a District title as well.

Churchill and Franklin are both 7-2 and open Division 2 play as visitors, Churchill at Pinckney (8-1) and Franklin at Walled Lake Western (8-1). Stevenson will compete in Division 1 and, even though the Spartans are 5-4, will play host to Detroit Catholic Central (5-4). All three games are Friday at 7 p.m.

All three are members of the Kensington Lakes Activities Association. Franklin has made the playoffs three consecutive seasons and reached a Division 2 Semifinal in 2015. Churchill has qualified for the playoffs five of the last seven seasons and Stevenson, the most consistent program of the three, is in for the fifth time in the last six seasons. (Livonia Clarenceville, another public school in Livonia, is not part of the Livonia Public School system and did not make the playoffs this fall.)

The three head coaches agree that the source of this recent success is a thriving little league program, the Livonia Junior Athletic League. Four teams compete in the league – the Blue Jays, Eagles, Falcons and Orioles – and players range in age from 6 to 13. Those 6 and 7-year-olds compete in flag football.

The LJAL is the lifeline to the high schools because Livonia Public Schools does not sponsor middle school or junior high football.

“We’ve always had a strong little league program,” Franklin coach Chris Kelbert said. “With the little league program, our feeder program, we’ve worked hard to develop a system for them to do what we do.”

The Livonia schools haven’t always been so successful. Franklin, for example, won the first Class A title in 1975, then went 30 years before making its next playoff appearance. Stevenson made the playoffs just once in the first 19 seasons of the MHSAA tournament. But since 1993, the Spartans have qualified 16 times highlighted by a Division 1 championship game appearance in 2007 and a Semifinal appearance the following season.

Then there’s Churchill. The Chargers made the playoffs in 1979, then seemingly disappeared. Not only did they not make the playoffs again until 2004, the Chargers had one of the poorest runs in terms of victories in state history. From 1990-96 they won one game. At one point Churchill lost 34 consecutive. Following those rugged years the Chargers finished 2-7 five straight season (1997-2001).

Times have changed. John Filiatraut, now the head coach at Dearborn Divine Child, helped guide the Chargers out of those rough times as they won the school’s first District title in 2004 and finished 8-4. Except for a 1-8 season in 2005, Churchill has remained competitive since that bounce-back season.

Bill DiFillipo was an assistant under Filiatraut and is in his fifth season as Churchill’s head coach. He said talent in his program keeps improving and he credits the coaches, on his team and within the LJAL, for that progress. He also said the healthy rivalry that exists between the three schools has sparked enthusiasm and an increase in competitiveness.

“This is Churchill’s best run,” he said. “You have to have good feeder teams. We’ve done a good job of developing kids. Our senior class was 0-9 as freshmen, and they were 2-7 on the JV. Over at Franklin, Chris has done a good job. When Randy (Micallef) took over, Stevenson was down. Randy and his staff have done a good job of getting them back.”

Stevenson won just five games combined in 2010 and 2011. The Spartans made the playoffs in 2012 and missed the playoffs the following season, but then rattled off three straight appearances and will make it four straight this weekend.

The three programs annually play for a city championship. Stevenson has won the last two defeating Churchill and Franklin in each of the last two seasons.

Franklin’s only losses this fall were to Churchill and Stevenson, and the Patriots have won five straight since the second of those defeats.

Kelbert and his staff have done a remarkable job this season. Running back Isaac Moore was a part-time starter last season, and none of the other 10 starters on offense had started even one game. Franklin returned three starters on defense.

“We have a young offensive line,” Kelbert said. “We have two seniors there, and neither one played offense line before. But we’re clicking now. It’s been frustrating at times. We knew we had some good players coming back. After the Howell game (a 21-0 Franklin victory in Week 5), we saw some improvement. Our defense has been lights out all season. We adopted a new philosophy on defense. We wanted to be more athletic and have more speed. When Romeo won (the 2016 Division 1) title, they won it with small linemen who couldn’t be blocked. We figured we could use that philosophy. The game has changed dramatically in the 19 years I’ve coached in high school.”

Kelbert faced a different test this season. He’s starting his son, Jacob, at quarterback, and he’s just a sophomore. Jacob Kelbert played on the freshmen team last season after going through Livonia’s little league program.

“It has its challenges,” Kelbert said of coaching the eldest of his three sons. “I forget he’s young sometimes. I expect him to play like a senior.”

DiFillipo also has a first-year starter at quarterback, but at least this one was on varsity last season as a back-up. Junior Drew Alsobrooks has played well this season, and he’s benefitted from an experienced offensive line. Four seniors start on the offensive line and the lone junior, Ethan Gyurnek, started last season as a sophomore.

DiFillipo adds that it’s been a team effort.

“Our defense has played the best in the 10 years that I’ve been here,” he said. “We’re giving up 14 points a game.

“Franklin and us have had the best two defenses in our division (KLAA Gold). Grand Blanc has the best offense, and we held them to nine points. Franklin shut them out.”

It’s been a different season for Stevenson. The Spartans started 4-0, then lost three straight. They beat Salem, 31-10, in Week 8 before losing to Franklin, 35-21, in a KLAA crossover.

Micallef said he’s noticed an improvement in the level of skilled athletes to come through the three programs. Specifically in his program, players like quarterback Parker Graham, all-purpose athlete George Ferguson and two-way back Devin Dunn all have had experiences in other sports as well that have contributed to their competitive nature.

“The coaches have become progressively better across the board,” Micallef said. “And some of the kids who might have gone to private schools now are staying put. Catholic Central moving from Redford to Novi has had a hand in keeping some of the Livonia kids here.

“We have some really good athletes this season. Parker was a running back last year, and we played him in the secondary, too. But with him moving to quarterback, I’ve kept him off the defense. But I had him at linebacker last week, and he had like seven or eight tackles. Both him and Ferguson play basketball and baseball, and Devin is a multi-sport athlete, too. In crunch times, these kids have played in so many big baseball games or big basketball games that they’re not afraid to make the big play. They embrace that.”

Tom Markowski is a columnist and directs website coverage for the State Champs! Sports Network. He previously covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Clockwise from left, Churchill’s Martell Dooley, Stevenson’s Parker Graham and Franklin’s Isaac Moore are among standouts for the Livonia Public Schools’ three playoff-bound varsity teams. (Middle top) Churchill junior quarterback Drew Alsobrooks has stepped in well as the starter this fall. (Middle below) Senior linebacker Jacob Mass helps key a more athletic Franklin defense this season. (Below) Senior George Ferguson is one of the multi-sport athletes making major contributions to Stevenson’s success. (Photos courtesy of the Churchill, Stevenson and Franklin football programs.)

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.)