Reading 'Nightmare' 2-Way Gamechanger

November 8, 2019

By Doug Donnelly
Special for Second Half

READING – Nick Affholter didn’t score a point for the Reading Rangers this season. No touchdowns, no extra points, no 2-point conversions.

But, when it came time to vote for the Most Valuable Player in the Big 8, the conference coaches left no doubt that Affholter – an offensive and defensive lineman – was the best player in the conference.

“As a coach, he has been my nightmare,” Concord coach Max Clark said.

“When game-planning for the last three years, we’ve had to begin our planning based on how we can avoid him,” said Matt Schwartzkopf, head coach at Springport.

Frank Keller of Jonesville recalled a specific play that painted the picture of Affholter’s impact.

“I remember one time we ran a sweep on the other side of the field, and he tackled our running back for a two-yard loss – on a sweep,” Keller said. “He was just dominant on both sides of the ball. He’s the best kid on the field.”

Those coaches are happy they won’t have to worry about Affholter anymore. Tonight, he’ll lead his 9-1 Rangers in a District Final against the undefeated Cassopolis Rangers. For Reading, it’s a chance to continue a journey that could the program back-to-back Division 8 championships. Both coaches will tell you the game starts up front, and that’s where Affholter excels.

“He’s been dominant the last couple of years,” Reading head coach Rick Bailey said. “I think last year our running back (Ethan LoPresto) stole a lot of the spotlight, but people knew how good Nick was. He’s the most dominant one-on-one football player that I’ve ever seen at the high school level. This is the first time I can remember in my 35 years that an offensive lineman was selected the league MVP.”

Affholter is a multi-sport, four-year varsity football player, a class officer at Reading – where he carries a 4.0 grade point average – and a member of the National Honor Society and leader of the school’s chapter of Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

“He’s humble and kind,” Bailey said. “He’s a total team player.”

Clark also saw something else in Affholter.

“He has never been anything but an amazing sport and leader,” the Concord coach said. “He stayed after, cleaning up the bench after a basketball game at our court when most of his team was all out chatting with family and friends.”

Reading is in the midst of a dominant run in football. When Affholter was a freshman, the Rangers had their second consecutive 3-6 season. As a sophomore they improved to 8-3, before bowing out of the Division 7 playoffs with a loss to Cassopolis. Last season, Reading ran the table, going 14-0 while scoring 678 points and giving up just 114 in finishing the season at Ford Field.

This year, Reading had to replace last year’s league MVP in LoPresto and started the season with a 14-0 loss to 2018 Division 7 champion Pewamo-Westphalia. Since then, however, the Rangers have been incredible, winning nine straight games while shutting out four opponents and outscoring all of them by a combined 449-38. Reading averages 420 yards rushing a game.

Affholter is a two-way starting lineman. On offense, he plays tackle and gives Bailey the closest thing to a sure thing.

“We’ve been able to dominate teams on his side. We just count on Nick’s block as a win,” Bailey said. “His technique is good, but I think people would be surprised of how athletic he is. If they watch him, they’ll see he can run. People are always surprised with his quickness and foot speed. It’s hard to simulate what he’s going to do.”

Affholter is also a difference-maker on defense.

“Two of our opponents simply chose not to run the football, and only a few tried to run it on his side,” Bailey said. “One team just lined up and threw the ball on every single play, except the last play of the game when they ran the ball when he was out.”

Clark said Concord tried something completely different against Reading.

“I showed up to Reading with a completely different offense because of him and his brother,” Clark said.

Reading still pulled out a 44-12 win.

Affholter has taken the postseason accolades in stride.

“I worked really hard for it,” he said. “It’s nice to see offensive lineman get some love. Just because we don’t touch the ball doesn’t mean we aren’t impacting the game.

“I don’t know how many offensive linemen get recognized like that. I figured I’d get all-conference, and that would be that. Seeing other people notice me and not just a running back or quarterback is pretty awesome.”

Affholter said he is 6-foot-3, 300 pounds, which makes him a half-inch taller and 20 pounds heavier than his twin brother Ben.

“I love playing football with my brother,” Nick said. “We do everything together. My little brother is up on the team now. He’s 6-foot, 230. He’s still growing.”

Their dad was an All-American offensive lineman at Hillsdale College, and their mom played volleyball there. Nick started playing football in grade school, where his grandfather began teaching him footwork.

“I love finishing my blocks,” he said. “I get excited when I get a pancake block. That was always special to me.”

He’s a student of the game, too, spending hours each week studying film of his opponent.

“I watch a lot of film of the defensive linemen or the offensive linemen,” Affholter said. “You can figure out what they are going to do in certain situations, see what their favorite move is. You know what to look for when the play starts. It definitely gives you an edge.”

Reading is sure to lean on Affholter tonight. The visiting Rangers have been just as stout as the home Rangers, outscoring opponents 403-17 this season.

“It’s going to be a great game,” Bailey said. “They are a big play waiting to happen.”

Affholter says the Reading home crowd will be rocking at Barre Field.

“Being out there on the football field is home,” he said. “It’s amazing. Every Friday night the stands are always full. I think it rivals any small-town football community anywhere.”

Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

FOOTBALL: (Top) Reading’s Nick Affholter lines up against Mendon during last week’s 38-0 playoff win. (Middle) Affholter, who also has a twin and younger brother on the varsity. (Photos courtesy of the Reading 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.)