Superb Seniors Bringing Gladwin to Ford Field as 1st-Time Football Finalist

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

November 23, 2022

Nick Wheeler had a feeling growing up that he and his Gladwin classmates could have some success when it was their time to lead the Flying Gs varsity football program.

Bay & ThumbHe just had no idea how much.

“I never saw the state championship,” the Gladwin senior quarterback and safety said. “I saw us winning the Jack Pine Conference, which was something that hadn’t been done in a while.”

Wheeler and his teammates have blown past those expectations and are now one win away from what once felt impossible.

Led by a strong senior class, Gladwin will play in an MHSAA Football Final for the first time Saturday. In Division 5, the Flying Gs will take on Frankenmuth, which is also seeking its first football title.

“This has been our dream since we’ve been in high school,” senior linebacker and running back Logan Kokotovich said. “We went down (to Ford Field) to watch games my freshman year, and it was amazing. Back before high school, we were blowing teams out of the water. Everyone thought we could be good, but we knew we had to really work hard to get there.”

Gladwin football was in a much different place when Wheeler, Kokotovich and their classmates entered high school. The program had won just six games total over the previous three seasons, and hadn’t been to the postseason since 2014.

“I remember going to games when I was young and we would always lose,” Kokotovich said. “I would tell my dad, ‘That’s not a surprise.’”

Senior Lincoln McKinnon works to shed a blocker and get to the GRCC quarterback.As the Class of 2023 entered the high school, the Flying Gs were getting new leadership. Marc Jarstfer took over as head coach in 2019 after being an assistant at his alma mater – and Gladwin’s arch rival – Clare.

“I had no idea of what was coming up,” Jarstfer said. “I didn’t really pay attention to the youth programs (at Gladwin) or that sort of thing. I was familiar with the current situation. I think in that first year our staff was here, we saw that group had pretty significant potential. They went undefeated on JV with two freshmen playing on varsity. We figured if they continue to work hard and do the right things, they could be very good.”

Kokotovich and receiver/safety Kaden McDonald both played varsity as freshmen, and 10 members of the Class of 2023 played varsity as sophomores. 

It was during that 2020 season that the turnaround started to feel more like reality. Gladwin went 4-4, but its three regular-season losses were by a combined 24 points. It also had a win against Division 2 Dexter, which featured multiple college prospects.

“That’s when I started noticing it,” Wheeler said. “We were in close games with teams that we were never close with before, like Clare and Beaverton. And we were just young sophomores.”

The following year was a true breakthrough, as Gladwin went 9-0, claiming its first Jack Pine title in 20 years and winning it outright for the first time ever. Gladwin got there by defeating Clare for the first time in 40 years. 

Earl Esiline keeps his feet on the icy turf. Then, in the first round of the playoffs, the Flying Gs’ season came to an abrupt halt, with a loss to that same Clare team.

It was humbling, but also motivating.

“We just thought we were the best,” Wheeler said. “That really put us down and made us work even harder for next season to achieve our goal. The coaches, they put pictures right in front of our squat rack of Clare beating us. So that’s looking at us every time we lift.”

The motivation clearly worked, as Gladwin repeated its 9-0 regular season, winning a second-straight Jack Pine title. This time, however, the Flying Gs were even more dominant. They outscored their regular-season opponents by a combined 444-48, with 27 of those points allowed coming in their 33-27 win at Pontiac Notre Dame Prep.

But nothing Gladwin accomplished could compare to its 28-21 Semifinal win against Grand Rapids Catholic Central. The Cougars had won Finals titles in four of the past five seasons, including the past two Division 5 titles. It was the first postseason loss for Catholic Central since 2018.

“Everybody doubted us going into that game,” Wheeler said. “Grand Rapids Catholic Central, everybody thinks they’re just the best, but we just took it as they were another team. We didn’t think of them any differently. Everybody (on the team) believed. It was probably the best feeling of my life.”

The Flying Gs are now one win away from an even better feeling. But no matter what happens at Ford Field on Saturday, they’ve already established themselves as the group that turned the program around. 

That’s a feeling that’s made even more special by the fact they’ve been able to do it with their lifelong friends.

“It is definitely going to be something I remember for the rest of my life,” Kokotovich said. “This group of guys is everything. We’ve pushed each other so much, and it’s all just falling together. This is awesome.”

Paul CostanzoPaul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Gladwin's Logan Kokotovich (12) holds onto the ball during Saturday's Semifinal win over Grand Rapids Catholic Central. (Middle) Senior Lincoln McKinnon works to shed a blocker and get to the GRCC quarterback. (Below) Earl Esiline keeps his feet on the icy turf. (Photos by Mike Kolleth.)

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.)