Resilient, 'Grounded' North Muskegon Building on 2022 Breakout with Superb Start

By Tom Kendra
Special for

September 7, 2023

To appreciate Landon Christiansen’s euphoria Thursday night, you have to understand the depths of his despair last fall.

West MichiganNorth Muskegon enjoyed a breakout football season in 2022 – going unbeaten in conference play to win the West Michigan Conference Rivers title – but Christensen missed almost all of it with a knee injury.

But he has returned with a vengeance, leading the Norse to a 2-0 start, hauling in six passes for 260 yards and four touchdowns in a 41-21 win at Muskegon Catholic Central last week.

“I felt like I was due for something good to happen,” said Christensen, a 6-foot, 170-pound senior. “That game kind of made up for last season, in a way. It was such a great feeling.”

North Muskegon (2-0), which is in Division 7, is no longer flying under the radar after back-to-back wins over state powerhouses – a thrilling, 17-14 win in the opener against Pewamo-Westphalia and then the air show at MCC.

The leader of the Norse is junior James Young (6-3, 195), a third-year starter with a Division I college arm and pocket presence.

North Muskegon coach Larry Witham said after Thursday’s big win at MCC that he has given Young “the keys to the kingdom” – referring to the dizzying number of playmakers he has all around him.

While Christensen was the man against MCC – scoring on touchdown passes of 59, 32, 12 and 78 yards – in future games the leading role could go to junior wideout TJ Byard, senior slot Alec Newville, senior running back Ben Meyers or junior H-back Drew Bartos.

“I have a lot of skill guys to throw to, and the chemistry is great,” said Young, who completed 70 percent of his passes for 2,022 yards and 26 touchdowns in nine games last season. “We’ve been playing together since we were little kids.”

That special bond was apparent from the emotion displayed by Young and other teammates after Christensen’s return to glory Thursday.

North Muskegon senior receiver Landon Christensen hauls in a pass during last week's win. He caught six for 260 yards, including TD receptions of 59, 32, 12 and 78 yards. “Getting him the ball and then watching him do his thing was honestly very emotional for me and a lot of the guys on the team,” said Young, who was near perfect against MCC, finishing 19-of-20 for 391 yards and four touchdowns.

Witham said this year’s 26-member Norsemen team is incredibly humble, unselfish and grounded – characteristics that could be attributed to the injuries and health issues the team has endured.

Christensen was just one of many injured players for the Norsemen last season, joined by leading rusher Denny Belmonte (knee) and Young, who had a torn labrum which required surgery after the season.

The team also has dealt with more serious life-threatening issues, with Tate Pannucci and Ethan Bates battling cancer (Pannucci has returned to the field) and senior Mitchel Peterson hospitalized much of last season with blood clots.

“These kids are very grounded, and they keep each other in check,” Witham said.

North Muskegon starts WMC Rivers play this week at Mason County Central.

While the Norse broke through with an 8-1 regular season last year, the playoffs haven’t been kind. NM hasn’t advanced out of Districts since 2006, when it lost to Saginaw Swan Valley in a Division 5 Regional Final. The Norse were eliminated by Pewamo-Westphalia in 2019 and 2020, then lost low-scoring Pre-District games to Ravenna the past two years.

Witham said his team learned valuable lessons during those losses.

“We know that we have to be balanced and have to be able to run the football,” said Witham, a 1980 North Muskegon graduate who is in his eighth year as head coach. “Wintertime approaches early in the state of Michigan. We are not going to live and die throwing the football when it’s 32 degrees and snowing.”

With those early playoff exits in mind, Christensen and his teammates are putting in extra practice time on a daily basis.

“None of us are comparing stats,” said Christensen. “We all have different strengths, and that’s what makes it hard for teams to guard us. We just want to win games and make it as far as we can.”

Tom KendraTom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.

PHOTOS (Top) North Muskegon junior quarterback James Young drops back to pass at Muskegon Catholic Central on Aug. 31. Young completed 19-of-20 passes for 390 yards and four touchdowns in the Norsemen's 41-21 victory. (Middle) North Muskegon senior receiver Landon Christensen hauls in a pass during last week's win. He caught six for 260 yards, including TD receptions of 59, 32, 12 and 78 yards. (Photos by Mike Banka.)

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.)