Prepare to Compare: Clarkston Wins D1

November 29, 2014

By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half

DETROIT — Nolan Eriksen dislikes two things: Losing and comparisons to his older brother, Ian.

He's never had to experience a loss since being promoted to Clarkston's varsity football team before last year's MHSAA playoffs, so that's never been an issue.

But comparisons between the Eriksen brothers are plentiful — and valid.

Nolan, a junior running back, ran 28 times for 172 yards and three touchdowns as the Wolves repeated as MHSAA Division 1 champions with a 33-25 victory over first-time finalist Saline on Saturday at Ford Field.

A year ago, Ian Eriksen ran 32 times for 237 yards and three touchdowns against Detroit Catholic Central, leading Clarkston to its first title.

So, you'd think that Nolan would've leaned upon his brother's advice now that he was the starting running back in the championship game.


"I was just trying to do what I do," Nolan said. "People always try to compare us and stuff, but I just try to play my game and do the best I can for my team. No advice. ... Every now and then we'll talk about it a little bit, but mainly we try to keep it pretty separate. We just do our own thing."

Senior quarterback D.J. Zezula has no problem comparing the brothers. He's got a unique perspective, having handed the ball to each during his three-year career as Clarkston's starter.

"Noah doesn't want to be compared, but they're twins in my eyes," said Zezula, who ran 17 times for 120 yards and a 70-yard touchdown. "They're both hard-hitting football players. Mr. (Mark) Eriksen coached me when I was younger; he's the same way. They're awesome kids. They want what's best for the team. I love both of them. I love Mr. Eriksen. They're great guys. He coached me my first two years of football that I ever played."

While Ian Eriksen was the workhorse for Clarkston's first championship team, Nolan watched from the sidelines, as is typical for junior varsity players who are promoted after the regular season. He said he "got a couple plays" during the 2013 playoff run, but never saw action at Ford Field.

Just being part of the atmosphere last year was beneficial once he stepped onto the field Saturday, Eriksen said.

"We've been here before," he said. "We weren't too shocked looking around. We knew what the deal was. We knew what it felt like to be here. We knew what was riding on it. It was just the experience. It was incredible being able to look up there and see your whole town there and getting it done."

Eriksen had a solid first half, running 12 times for 61 yards and a touchdown, but he was a key reason why Clarkston took over in the second half after trailing 10-7 at halftime. Eriksen ran 16 times for 111 yards and two scores in the second half, as Clarkston scored touchdowns on four of its first five possessions after halftime.

"These guys have taught me something," Clarkston coach Kurt Richardson said. "The old Kurt Richardson would've blown up at half with two turnovers and stuff. We just said, 'Hey, we're fine. We're down three. We didn't play very well. We're getting the ball, so everything's fine.' I learned it from these guys."

Poise comes more naturally when a team has won 27 straight games — now the longest active streak in Michigan following Finals losses this weekend by Ithaca (69) and Ishpeming (33).

The Wolves needed only four plays after the second-half kickoff to take the lead for good on a 52-yard pass from Zezula to Merrick Canada with 10:09 left in the third quarter. A bobbled snap prevented an extra-point kick, leaving Clarkston up by a 13-10 score.

Clarkston's only three-and-out of the second half came on the next series, but the Wolves followed with three straight touchdown drives. A 2-yard run by Eriksen made it 20-10 with 47 seconds left in the third quarter before Zezula kept it and ran 70 yards for a touchdown with 8:17 remaining in the game, expanding the lead to 27-10.

Just before that touchdown, Saline missed a chance to make it a one-possession game. The Hornets had first-and-goal at the 8-yard line, but settled for a 24-yard field goal attempt that was wide left.

Saline also missed a field goal on the first series of the game, as linebacker Cole Chewins blocked the kick. Chewins, who has committed to Miami (Ohio) as a tight end, also batted down three passes.

"With the deflections and stuff, that was just playing the game," Chewins said. "I was able to make plays and just play football."

Saline coach Joe Palka tried to run plays away from Chewins, who had his blocked kick and two of his knockdowns early in the game.

"We had to adjust and go to the other side, just because he can cover so much ground and he's got such good range," Palka said.

Saline cut the deficit to 27-17 when quarterback Josh Jackson scored on a 1-yard run with 5:15 remaining.

Clarkston (14-0) recovered the onside kick, then marched 50 yards in eight plays, the final 22 yards coming on a touchdown run by Eriksen with 1:57 on the clock. The extra point failed, keeping it a two-possession game at 33-17.

That loomed as a potential issue when it took Saline only four plays to reach the end zone on a 2-yard run by Kevin Gross with 1:09 to go. Cameron Cole caught a 2-point pass from Jackson to make it an eight-point game.

Clarkston's Shane Holler recovered the onside kick, allowing the Wolves to clinch the title with two kneel-downs.

Jackson, a junior, was 20-for-31 for 237 yards while running 17 times for 82 yards and a touchdown to lead Saline, which won a school-record 12 games (to finish 12-2) and advanced beyond the Regional Final for the first time.

"It's an amazing thing for Saline football," Jackson said. "It's the best team ever in Saline. That we got to play on this stage was an amazing opportunity. Going into next year, that will just give us fire to come back here and try to win it."

Even though his career ended Saturday after starting at quarterback for teams that went 37-2 over three seasons, Zezula is mindful of what these back-to-back championships will mean for the future of the Clarkston program. The Wolves lost in Semifinals three times in 16 playoff appearances under Richardson before breaking through last year.

"Last year was kind of like breaking the mold, breaking this dark cloud over Clarkston that we could never win, could never get there," Zezula said. "This year was about building a legacy, a tradition here at Clarkston. ...

"It hits home when the little kids, the seventh-graders at our youth camps, wear my jersey and wear No. 5. That's where it really hits home, just to pave the way for the younger kids and start a legacy, start a tradition here that winning is what's got to happen at Clarkston." 

Click for full statistics.

PHOTOS: (Top) Clarkston's Nolan Eriksen takes a handoff as his lineman work to open a gap near the goalline Saturday. (Middle) Quarterback D.J. Zezula looks for a receiver while those on the Saline sideline look on. (Click for action photos and team photos from Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)


GROSS GETS SALINE STARTED - Saline started the scoring in the second quarter against Clarkston with Kevin Gross running it in from 27 yards out.
OH CANADA! CLARKSTON GOES ON TOP - Clarkston took the lead to stay in the Division 1 championship game when D.J. Zezula hit a wide open Merrick Canada on a 52-yard pass.

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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.)