Transformed Shores Continues to Rise

September 8, 2015

By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half

This is not your father’s Muskegon Mona Shores football team.

Or even your older brother’s.

This is not the team that went its first 51 years of football without making the MHSAA playoffs and whose only traffic jams leaving its parking lot occurred early in the third quarter – when the band was done performing.

Heading into one of the state’s marquee Week 3 matchups at home against perennial Division 1 powerhouse Rockford, Shores is looking to snap a 10-game losing streak against the Rams, which has included some forgettable affairs like a 49-7 loss in 2000 and 10-7 loss last fall, the Sailors’ lone regular-season defeat.

“Great job tonight,” Mona Shores coach Matt Koziak told his huddled players last Thursday night, allowing them a few seconds to enjoy their 2-0 start and a dominating 55-14 win over host Fruitport, before quickly shifting gears.

“But now we have Rockford coming to our place. We can’t make the mistakes we made tonight, or they will make us pay for it. We have to play top-notch.”

The emergence of Mona Shores as a power has changed the landscape of football, not only in the Muskegon area, but West Michigan as a whole. As other Muskegon-area schools struggle with declining enrollment – most notably Muskegon High, Muskegon Heights and Muskegon Catholic Central – Mona Shores is now the largest school in Muskegon County and a legitimate force, bursting onto the state scene with a memorable run to last year’s Division 2 championship game at Ford Field.

After putting up 55 points in back-to-back wins over Holland West Ottawa and Fruitport to open the season (and with their defense not allowing a single point), the Sailors are showing that the 2014 season was far from a flash in the pan.

“Last year we were the hunters; now we’re the hunted,” explained senior quarterback Tyler Trovinger, who set a school record with six TD passes in the Week 2 win over Fruitport. “We have to be great because no one is looking past us anymore.”

The Sailors’ fortunes, and attitudes, began to change in 2011 with the hiring of Koziak as head football coach. He turned out to be the perfect choice, as a 1994 Mona Shores graduate who cut his coaching teeth at Muskegon High School under Tony Annese, serving as offensive coordinator when the Big Reds won MHSAA titles in 2006 and 2008 and as head coach for one year in 2009.

His words upon taking the Mona Shores job in 2011 were prophetic:

“I'm tired of people badmouthing my school,” Koziak told The Muskegon Chronicle at that time. “I’ve heard people say the Shores kids are cake-eaters. It’s not true. There are a lot of blue-collar kids and families there. I’m excited to change the football culture.”

While Koziak knew Shores football history, he also was smart enough to recognize changes that needed to be made – beginning with the installation of the spread option, veer attack which was so effective across town at Muskegon High.

The most notable player was quarterback Tyree Jackson, who Koziak inserted into the starting lineup as a 5-foot-9 freshman. After struggling mightily and making people question whether the new coach was running the wrong system, Jackson sprouted to 6-4 and started throwing to targets like Asantay Brown and Marquon Sargent.

Brown is now a starting safety at Western Michigan University, Sargent is at Grand Valley State University and Jackson is a freshman quarterback at the University of Buffalo, but the Mona Shores system and the athletes haven’t missed a beat.

Trovinger (5-11, 200 pounds) has stepped into Jackson’s big shoes and possesses a cannon for an arm and terrific running ability.

Trovinger’s passing options are nothing short of an embarrassment of riches. Three of the starters in the Sailors’ four-wide attack have already made Division I college commitments – Hunter Broersma (6-2, 190) and Darece Roberson (5-9, 165) to Western Michigan and Kobe Burse (6-3, 205) to Miami of Ohio – with the fourth starter being dangerous Deandre Oakes-Owens (6-0, 175), an all-league selection as a defensive back last season.

“We have a ton of weapons, no doubt,” Trovinger said. “When we’re all focused, we’re a force to be reckoned with.”

The defense is led by two more senior standouts who could possibly sign with Division I schools. Dom Shermeta (6-0, 215) is a Chris Spielman clone at middle linebacker and a battering-ram fullback, and Christian Boyd (6-2, 280) is a run-stuffer at left defensive tackle.

Koziak said a big part of the Shores turnaround is the supportive administration, notably seventh-year athletic director Ryan Portenga, the outspoken, energetic and unapologetic leader of the Shores athletic program.

Portenga has written a book about the Mona Shores football turnaround and the storybook 2014 season, entitled: “Flipping Football: A True Story of Resilience and Transformation.” The book, which costs $20, will be released Friday, in conjunction with the Rockford game.

“It’s a story that needed to be told,” said Portenga, who noted that half of the proceeds from the sale of the book will go to the Shores athletic program.

So … with all of this talent, all this excitement, all this momentum (even a book!), are the Sailors ready to take the next step and knock off the biggest kid on the block – Rockford? Or will the Rams’ mystique win out again?

It’s the same question Muskegon-area residents were asking last October, when the upstart Sailors traveled to historic Hackley Stadium to face the Big Reds, which had downed Shores 14 games in a row. Shores matched the athletes for Muskegon and made believers out of many in a convincing 48-27 victory.

While every eye in Muskegon was on that game, many eyes from around the state will now be on Sailor Stadium when a senior-laden Rockford team comes to town Friday, looking to swat away the latest challenger to its perch atop the West Michigan football heap.

Rockford (1-1) is coming off a 47-0 romp over visiting Holt, and will bring its usual big offensive line, bevy of running backs and unparalleled special teams – especially senior kicker and punter Quinn Nordin, who has committed to sign with Penn State University.

The Rams have extra motivation as coach Ralph Munger has 299 career coaching victories over his 36-year career, the first 12 spent at Frankenmuth and the past 24 at Rockford. His next win would make him the 11th coach in state history to register 300 wins.

Shores is not motivated to deny Munger, but rather to avenge last year’s 10-7 loss at Rockford. In that game, Roberson scored on a 79-yard run on the first play from scrimmage, but failed to score again, fumbling twice in the fourth quarter.

With a huge crowd expected for the rematch, Koziak said his players will be motivated to come out and not let another game against the Rams slip away.

“We talked about how Rockford beat us last year,” said Koziak, who is assisted on the varsity level by Brian Sikkenga, Holsey James and Aaron James, Chris Hilliker and Kyle Brott. “They have that in the back of their minds that they let one get away, and that’s motivation for them.

“I think there’s a new energy for football with what we’ve been able to build the last four years. The community has waited forever for this. They’re ecstatic.”

Tom 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) Mona Shores’ Darece Roberson strides for additional yardage during last season’s MHSAA Division 2 Final against Warren DeLaSalle. (Middle) Tyler Trovenger, surrounded by teammates, celebrates his third-quarter touchdown catch at Ford Field. He moved to quarterback this fall. 

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.)