Snowbirds Soar Again As 8-Player Power

October 4, 2019

By Chris Dobrowolski
Special for Second Half

GAYLORD — After the first three weeks of the football season, it didn’t look like anyone was going to be able to stop Gaylord St. Mary.

The Snowbirds, after all, had scored 215 points over three convincing victories during their first season since making the move to compete as an 8-player team.

But that high-powered, explosive offense was ground to a halt over the last two weeks. It wasn’t because of a sudden lack of execution by St. Mary. Nor was it due to a stout defense rising to the occasion. Rather, it was back-to-back forfeits by opponents who weren’t able to field teams that sidelined the Snowbirds’ dynamic attack with an unwanted midseason break.

“Our kids want to play, but unfortunately it is what it is,” said Gaylord St. Mary head coach Kevin O’Connell. “It stunk for the kids because I know they really wanted to look forward to Friday nights, especially homecoming.”

St. Mary tried to turn the two-week pause into a positive. They hit the reset button and went back to focusing on fundamentals, with short periods of live contact during quick, but effective practices.

“Our practices have been nothing short of awesome,” said O’Connell.

St. Mary will find out this week against Suttons Bay if the time off disrupted its offensive flow. But the players are confident the break was not a hinderance.

“I don’t think it broke our rhythm. I think it brought us closer together,” said quarterback Brady Hunter. “We were able to bang heads with each other, get some frustration out.”

Hunter is one of a multitude of weapons the Snowbirds have in their veer option attack. The senior quarterback is joined by a stable of talented running backs in seniors Steven Koscielniak and Logan Murrell, and juniors Christopher Koscielniak and Dominic Keister. Senior center Rory Curran anchors the offensive line.

“I like this offense,” said Steven Koscielniak. “This is what our team is about, quick and fast.”

While the Snowbirds’ scoreboard numbers are eye-popping, the team’s individual stats are more modest – partly because those main threats didn’t play in second halves of two games St. Mary was thoroughly dominating. Also, there is enough talent on board to share the wealth and not miss a beat.

“It’s everybody. There’s not just one player who runs it. It’s the whole team,” said Steven Koscielniak.

As the quarterback, however, Hunter is thrust into the important role of leading the group, a task he does well. The three-sport standout, who also excels at basketball and baseball, fittingly, has his pilot’s license.

“He’s one of the best leaders,” Steven Koscielniak said. “No doubt about it. He pushes us to the next level. He pushes us in practice, when we’re lifting.”

“He conducts himself the right way in everything,” O’Connell said of his signal caller. “He conducts practices. He speaks respectfully. He’s a great leader.”

Each of St. Mary’s skill players are returning starters, but it’s been a completely different experience this season for the Snowbirds, who were depleted by injuries and suffered through a 2-7 grind a season ago.

“We took our lumps,” said O’Connell, in his seventh year in charge of the Snowbirds. “A lot of that had to do with we were senior-laden the year prior and then a lot of the seniors last year didn’t get quality reps the year prior. High school football is extremely cyclical.”

Still, St. Mary had a good outlook for 2019. It had speed, athleticism, leadership and experience all on its side, plus a better fit as an 8-player team for a school its size.

“We definitely saw it coming,” said Hunter. “Last year we had a little bit of a rough season. Coming into 8-man we had all of our skill players returning. We knew this offensive power was here.”

The offense has been so impressive that it overshadows what the defense can do, but St. Mary is tough on that side of the ball as well. The Snowbirds’ depth allows them to have only a few players who play on both sides of the ball. Kyle Murphy and Chris Grody are disruptive on the defensive line, while Murrell leads the defensive backfield and Christopher Koscielniak – who his coach lauds for his toughness – is an all-state caliber linebacker.

“He’s not physically imposing, but he is so tough,” said O’Connell. “He’s disciplined. He’s good.

“We’re not big in stature. We just have a lot of tough kids.”

The astonishing thing is the Snowbirds have only started to tap their potential on offense. The team hasn’t even utilized some of its capabilities yet.

“We like to spread ourselves so we’re very diverse. If a team comes and stops our run, we’ve got a great spread offense, a great wing set and a lot of stuff we can throw at them,” said Hunter.

The time to introduce some of that could be coming as the schedule ramps up considerably when St. Mary finally steps back onto the field. The matchup at Suttons Bay is a showdown between unbeaten teams and is followed by contests against a pair of current 4-1 teams in Vestaburg and Mio — the latter a rematch from a 48-32 Week 2 game — and 3-2 Brethren.

“It’s definitely going to be fun,” said Hunter. “Those blowout games aren’t really fun for anyone. Suttons Bay’s a great team. Mio, (Vestaburg and Brethren) — they’re all great teams. It’s going to be a good battle towards the end of the season, and it’s really going to prepare us for playoffs.”

Chris Dobrowolski has covered northern Lower Peninsula sports since 1999 at the Ogemaw County Herald, Alpena News, Traverse City Record-Eagle and currently as sports editor at the Antrim Kalkaska Review since 2016. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Gaylord St. Mary’s Logan Murrell (7) follows Steven Koscielniak (1) and another blocker around the edge during a Week 3 win over Central Lake. (Middle) The Snowbirds bring down the Trojans' T.J. Schultz. (Photos by Sports in Motion.)

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.)