Suttons Bay Succeeding at Football Numbers Game

By Tom Spencer
Special for

December 3, 2021

Suttons Bay is, well, playing the numbers game.  

Not by choice. It’s been by necessity — since a painful football decision was made in September 2016. Many of Michigan’s smaller schools have made a similar decision.

Most of the numbers, the Norsemen can use just one hand to count. Some take two hands. Others you can’t use your hands. We’re not talking illegal use of the hands either.

The first number is 11, the healthy and available Norsemen for their third game of 2016, their last season of 11-man football.

Hand counting starts now with 1. The 2016 quarterback and only football player to join the soccer team, Jack Pasche, actually kicked off to start of the Norsemen’s homecoming game win that season against Glen Lake. Suttons Bay, known as NorthBay through a co-op with Northport and Leelanau St. Mary’s, beat Glen Lake 4-0 as the soccer match took center stage for homecoming due to the tough decision to forfeit the remaining seven games on the 2016 football schedule.

Move on to the number 8. The Norseman started competing in 8-player football in 2017 and went the playoffs, losing to eventual champion Central Lake. Fast forward to 4. Garrick Opie took over the head coaching duties and just completed his fourth season.

Now to 5. Suttons Bay, which also co-ops with Leelanau St. Mary’s for football, has lost only five games total over Opie’s four seasons. Back to one … just one loss in regular season. The other four came during the MHSAA Playoffs.

Before getting to 3 – perhaps the most notable number – count to 14. That’s the number of players on the 2021 Suttons Bay football roster – and six of them were seniors.  

“We’re going to have to fill some shoes on defense especially,” said assistant coach Stan Pasch. ‘We’ve got some good offensive lineman coming back. We’ve got to fill some shoes on our offensive ends too.”

Hand counting becomes more challenging now, starting with 47.

Pasch has coached football for 47 years. He has a long history with Suttons Bay and Leelanau St. Mary, including providing guidance in basketball, volleyball and track. He’s also been on the sidelines for Beal City and Traverse City St. Francis.

He’s had long stints as an assistant for legendary coaches Larry Sellers of St. Francis and Joe Trudeau of Suttons Bay. He was with St. Francis when they won the Class C championship in 1992.

Among those coached by Pasch on that ‘92 Gladiators team was Mark Bramer, a four-year letterman with St. Francis and the father of Shawn Bramer. The younger Bramer scored the game-tying touchdown in Suttons Bay’s 42-36 overtime win against Rudyard in the Division 1 Semifinal three weeks ago.

The junior running back Bramer, who attends St. Mary, was one of three Norsemen named first-team all-state. The other two were wide receiver Brayden Opie and defensive lineman Cam Alberts.

Mark Bramer has been thrilled to have his son play under his former coach and enjoy the playoff runs the past three seasons.

Suttons Bay football“Coach Pasch still has the passion and the spark and everything,” Mark Bramer said. “He hasn’t really changed, and it’s a good thing.

“I know the excitement as an athlete and now watch it as a parent – it is a great community thing,” he continued. “As a player back then, you never really knew that side of it, and now on the flip side you get to see the excitement of the community.”  

Pasch came back to the Suttons Bay coaching staff in 2000 and has been there since. He credits Opie’s leadership for the Norsemen reaching championship games each of the last three seasons.

“Garrick does a great job of leading the team,” Pasch said. “He has really worked hard to solidly the passing game with the kids and getting the kids to believe in themselves.

“He has done a lot of good things and really opened up the offense,” Pasch continued. “When you need a big play – which the kids have done quite a bit – the kids pull it off because they had fun with it in practice.”

Opie, who previously coached all his players in Pop Warner football, has compiled a 43-5 record at Suttons Bay. He too is thrilled to have Pasch and his experience on the sidelines with him.

“I can’t do it without Stan,” he said. “Not only is he my right-hand man … he brings so much experience from his St. Francis days and his 260-plus games with Suttons Bay.  

“His experience and way he deals with young men … Stan is invaluable.”

Now back to the number 3. The head coach’s sons Bryce, Braden and Grayson, have all played for Suttons Bay during playoff runs. Grayson will be back next year as the Norsemen strive to make another.

Football fans know the history of John Elway losing his first three Super Bowls, and the Buffalo Bills losing their four straight from 1991-94. But the Norsemen players aren’t really aware of it.

“They’d be lucky if they remember Brett Favre,” joked the Mark Bramer. “I have to tell them about Barry Sanders!”

Opie can laugh about it too as he knows the Norseman can rebuild again. Mike Lodish, a personal friend of Opie and former all-state player with Birmingham Brother Rice, held the record for most Super Bowl appearances with six until Tom Brady broke it. Lodish played his first four with the Bills and then won two with Elway. He played five years with the Bills under coach Marv Levy, and six with the Broncos.

“You can call me Marv Levy,” Opie said with a laugh. “You can call me whatever you want as far as that’s concerned.

“Every year it is our intentions to get to the state finals and win one,” he continued. “Is it a prediction? No. I never do that.”

Opie and Pasch will work in the offseason that number 1. They’ll use a familiar formula.

“I never make any assumptions about any season no matter what players we have,” Opie said. “We’ve had a lot of talent, but we’ve also been able to place kids in the spots (where) they will best succeed. 

“We never want to put them in a spot where they will fail,” he went on. “Our goal is to find where each young man can succeed, and we’ve been very fortunate we’ve been right many of the times the last four years.”

Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. 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) Suttons Bay coach Garrick Opie hugs his son Brayden at midfield after Brayden caught the game-winning touchdown pass in the Semifinal. (Middle) Shawn Bramer outruns his stunned teammates on his way to the game-tying score during the final seconds of regulation against Rudyard. (Photos by Mike Spencer.)

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.)