Trojans Find Familiar Success in 8-Player

October 5, 2016

By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half

Football players, coaches and fans all know what it takes to produce winning teams: score a lot of points, don’t give up many, run, pass, catch and tackle.

While 11-player football is the traditional way to play the game, declining school enrollments have forced numerous schools to adjust if they want to keep offering the sport. They are learning that 8-player football requires the same things to be successful.

Crystal Falls Forest Park for decades dominated the ranks of Class D, which later became Division 8. The Trojans used a pretty simple game plan: find a stud running back, hitch their wagon to his burly shoulders and overpower any team which happened to be on the field.

Forest Park claimed the initial two Class D championships when the playoffs began in 1975 and added another title in 2007. The Trojans also won 23 Great Western Conference crowns.

But enrollment kept dropping, as it has throughout the state, and a year ago Forest Park officials decided to join the movement to 8-player football. There are 51 teams at that level this year, and nearby Felch North Dickinson, another long-time small-school power, will join the mix in 2017.

The decision was controversial when it was accepted by a 4-2 board of education vote last October, and many staunch Forest Park fans were aghast. But that apparently has cooled down, no doubt helped by a 5-1 start to this initial season.

“I don’t hear the griping of people against it,” said veteran coach and former Forest Park player Dave Graff. “The people in the know realize where our numbers are. That type of (negative) talk has gone by the wayside.

“We still have traditionalists out there who think 8-man is not football. This program is steeped in tradition, and you don’t get acceptance in one year’s time.”

The Trojans suit up 22 players for each varsity game, but nine are freshmen and sophomores who would be playing junior varsity football if Forest Park offered that level. “If we had jayvees we would not be able to function as a varsity unit,” Graff said.

The school enrollment is about 150 students this year, and Graff said he has been hearing it may drop by about 25-30 students next year. Forest Park has not fielded a full jayvee schedule for the past six years.

Even more astounding is this observation from Bill Santilli, the school’s athletic director since Aug. 1 and a former all-state running back and long-time coach: “I really fear that in the next two years Forest Park will not have a football program.”

Wow … this tradition-laden, statewide power on the threshold of no football?

Santilli added: “I’m fearful in the sense that four freshmen are playing, and we lose eight seniors. You do the math.”

He said Graff and Forest Park are being proactive and have worked with their Western Eight Conference to institute a junior high level of 8-player football and are also trying to get a grade 5-6 program started, possibly in flag football.

The school’s youth program has stayed with the 11-player game, and 2015 8-player MHSAA champion Powers North Central has kept an 11-player junior varsity. “It just doesn’t seem to be working because we’re all struggling with numbers there also,” said Santilli.

To give football a chance to hang around, he said, “We have to focus our attention on that youth level. We’re trying to build interest.”

While declining enrollment is forcing the switch to 8-player football, Santilli said, “Declining participation is probably more of a factor than it is enrollment. There are athletes in our school that in my opinion would make our football team better, but for some reason have not elected to play.”

Noting the game “nationwide is under attack,” he said it is safer now than ever because of increased improvement in equipment and extensive stress on safety. “Changes being made at every level are making the game as safe as it can be,” Santilli added.

Graff and Santilli, as players and coaches, have seen the values the sport provides.

“What are you trying to teach in football? We’re trying to teach work ethic, morals, not doing what is wrong when people aren’t watching, trying to teach character,” Graff said. “We are trying to raise people to be successful in our society and improve our society. We stress doing it right, we stress not missing the opportunity to do something good, the little things in life.

“Football is not just a rough sport. There are such great opportunities to teach things in life like discipline, teamwork, effort, enthusiasm, mental toughness, making good people.”

Santilli pointed out those lessons occur in both the 11-player game and the 8-player game. “It is still football. I’ve seen some great blocks and tackles and collisions out there,” said Santilli, who still resembles the powerful fullback who led the Trojans to their first Class D title in 1975 en route to a distinctive U.P. Sports Hall of Fame playing and coaching career.

“I don’t see that any different with 8-man; there are just fewer players.”

Santilli said some of his former teammates who now have youngsters playing have been hard to convince the switch to 8-player was necessary. “It is taking them a little bit longer to adapt to the change,” he said.

But, he said, “The players have slowly bought into the change. For them it is still the same game. There is the same excitement with the players, the same intensity when they take the field. They are just ready and waiting for the competition.”

Santilli, with his strong and successful background with the Trojans, might be the ideal observer of the switch, agreeing the game still requires athletes to make plays to stop other athletes.

“It is a different technique, a different style player more geared to open field situations (on both sides of the ball). Dave is still bringing Forest Park style football into his coaching, giving the ball to (Dan) Nocerini and powering it right at you.”

Nocerini is the latest standout back in a string of stars from Santilli and Graff who also included Mark Flood, Lee Graff, Dan Lato, Gerard Valesano and Dean Arcand. In just six games this season, the 6-foot-2, 217-pound senior has rushed for 1,186 yards and 20 touchdowns, highlighted by an opening-game 414 yards rushing and seven TDs.

“It is definitely a lot more open than I expected,” Nocerini said after that explosive opener at Rapid River. “Instead of beating a safety or a corner, you just have to beat one guy (downfield).”

He also said the players “have moved on. Everybody likes football; you just put your helmet on and go play.”

The acceptance of 8-player has been easier because the Trojans are as powerful as ever, losing only to North Central 60-42 in Week 2. They are averaging 56.3 points per game and allowing 28.3.

“People will see we have to go 8-man. There isn’t a choice,” Graff said. “We as coaches have come to grips with that ,and I think the community is coming to grips with it. The tradition is always there.”

Denny Grall retired in 2012 after 39 years at the Escanaba Daily Press and four at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, plus 15 months for WLST radio in Escanaba; he served as the Daily Press sports editor from 1970-80 and again from 1984-2012. Grall was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and serves as its executive secretary. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Upper Peninsula.

PHOTOS: (Top) Dan Nocerini of Crystal Falls Forest Park barges through a huge hole for a four-yard touchdown against Rapid River defenders David Johnson, left, and Gavin Harris (55) in their season opener. (Middle) Parker Sundell finds some running room after getting around Rockets defender Levi Miller. (Below) Roy Hagglund of Crystal Falls Forest Park reaches for a pass as Austin Wicklund of Rapid River defends. (Photos by Dennis Grall.)

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.)