Rice Sends Out 'Coach' on Winning Note

November 29, 2013

By Bill Khan
Special to Second Half

DETROIT — What do you get the football coach who has everything? 

How about a perfect 14-0 season?

Better yet, how about a third straight MHSAA championship as a nice going-away present? 

Al Fracassa had accomplished just about everything during his legendary 45-year career at Birmingham Brother Rice, but his final three teams embraced the school's tradition and elevated it to an even higher level.

Brother Rice won its ninth MHSAA title — all under Fracassa — with a 38-21 victory in a rematch against Muskegon in the Division 2 championship game on Friday at Ford Field. 

Before this current run, Brother Rice hadn't won back-to-back MHSAA championships. The school record for victories was set by the 2000 team, which went 13-1. The school's last undefeated team was in 1983. The Warriors' 23-game winning streak is one short of the school record set from 1976-78.

"I wish I was young enough to coach some more," said Fracassa, 81. "When you love something so much, it's very difficult to leave. I'm going to still love football; it's done a lot for me." 

Fracassa finished his career with a 430-117-7 record, ranking first in Michigan history and sixth nationally in victories. That included eight seasons at Royal Oak Shrine before he was hired as Rice's head coach in 1969.

"I'm glad I made it," Fracassa said. "Now I can rest easy. I'll probably be very sad for awhile, and hopefully I'll be strong enough mentally to handle this." 

Friday's game was such a special occasion that even his wife, Phyllis, was in the stands.

"My wife never comes to games," Fracassa said. "She used to come, but she'd be so nervous that she'd beat everybody up next to her. Today, she came with my daughter, who flew in from Omaha. It was nice for her to see us play and have a great victory. I can't wait to see her." 

Whoever takes over at Brother Rice has an excellent chance of extending the Warriors' championship and winning streaks.

Brother Rice will return junior quarterback Alex Malzone, who has been outstanding in two MHSAA Finals appearances. Malzone completed his first nine passes against Muskegon, finishing 20 for 24 for 263 yards and four touchdowns. In two title games, he is 28 for 34 for 430 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions. Malzone was in a rotation last year with Cheyne Lacanaria.

Malzone also ran 17 yards as the holder on a fake field goal attempt with 4:33 left in the game. 

"For him to go out with what we've done is an overall great feeling," Malzone said. "It's going to be different without him on the field every practice. He's the best coach I've ever had. I'm going to miss him a lot."

Corey Lacanaria caught 10 passes for 125 yards and a touchdown, while Grant Perry had five catches for 91 yards and two touchdowns. 

The teams picked up where they left off in their wild finish in 2012, when a 91-yard kickoff return by Jason Alessi off a lateral gave Brother Rice a 35-28 victory.

Last year, they combined for 42 points during the final 13 minutes and 58 seconds after staging a defensive battle most of the way. On Friday, they scored on the first four possessions of the game, creating a 14-14 deadlock with 1:09 left in the first quarter. Going back to last year, that added up to 70 combined points in only 24:49 of playing time. 

Malzone started out 9 for 9 for 125 yards and two touchdowns, hitting Damaris Woods with a 16-yard touchdown pass on the first series of the game and Perry on a one-handed 34-yard grab with 4:24 left in the first quarter.

Muskegon responded to each of those scores with touchdown runs by quarterback Deshaun Thrower, whose 6-yard run capped the Big Reds' first drive and whose 16-yarder tied the game at 14-14 on the next possession. 

Perry's second touchdown catch, an 18-yard play with 1:07 left in the first half, gave Brother Rice a 21-14 halftime lead.

The key to the game was that Brother Rice shut down Muskegon's ground game after halftime. Thrower ran 12 times for 117 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, leading a rushing attack that piled up 216 yards on 21 carries. In the second half, Thrower was held to minus-18 yards on 10 carries. As a team, the Big Reds had minus-9 yards on 13 carries in the second half. 

Muskegon didn't have the ball beyond its 36-yard line in the second half until 3:30 left in the game when Thrower hit Justin Foster with an 86-yard touchdown pass. But by then Brother Rice had extended its lead to 38-14 on a 21-yard touchdown pass from Malzone to Lacanaria and Malzone's 17-yard touchdown run on the fake field goal.

"They changed defenses in the second half," Thrower said. "A couple of missed opportunities set us back. We couldn't get in a rhythm again." 

Muskegon has five MHSAA titles, but has been denied a sixth by Brother Rice two years in a row. The Big Reds last won the championship in 2008.

"I'm going to go back and evaluate what we're doing wrong in the championship game," Muskegon coach Shane Fairfield said. "It's my responsibility and my duty to put these kids in the right position and give them a better chance to win a state championship. It must be something I'm doing. These kids played a heck of a game. They fought through a lot. They're tough as nails. They played 28 games for our fans the last two years. There's going to be a winner and a loser. Unfortunately, the last two years we fell on the other end of it." 

While Fairfield works on bringing a title back to the state's all-time winningest program, Fracassa will be a spectator while Brother Rice goes for a fourth consecutive MHSAA title in 2014.

"It's hit me the whole season when I'd go home every night," Fracassa said. "I couldn't believe it's going to be my last year. I try not to think about it. Football kept me busy, but it's here. It's time for someone else to take over. I'd like to mention my coaching staff. ... They did an outstanding job coaching my boys. I hate to take all the credit. They coached and did most of the coaching. I did most of the yelling."

Click for the full box score. 

PHOTOS: (Top) Brother Rice coach Al Fracassa celebrates one more MHSAA championship with his team Friday. (Middle) Warriors quarterback Alex Malzone tries to break away from Muskegon's Terry Copeland (5) and Jordan Waire (7). (Click to see more from Terry McNamara Photography.)

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.)