Trojans Standout Back from Basic Training

September 20, 2019

By Chris Dobrowolski
Special for Second Half

It seemed appropriate that the first game T.J. Schultz played his senior season for the Central Lake/Ellsworth football team was also the program’s fourth annual Veterans and First Responders Appreciation Night.

Schultz, a starting linebacker and running back in his third year with the Trojans, had the beginning of his final year on the gridiron delayed until the third week of the 2019 campaign — the game that paid homage to those who have served in the military — as he was completing basic training for the National Guard.

Enlisting in the Split Training Option program gave Schultz the opportunity to do basic training during the summer before his senior year. He reported to Fort Sill in Oklahoma on June 25 and spent the next 10 weeks going through the rigors of the military. It’s part of an eight-year contract with the National Guard that includes six years of active service, followed by two more years of inactive duty.

“It just gave me a head start, instead of graduating and then doing basic,” said Schultz. “The advantage of doing split op is I can come back and finish high school and take a little break, then go back down.”

Schultz quickly found out how demanding the military can be for a new recruit during basic training.

“They give you near-impossible tasks and if you can’t do them, you do push-ups or exercises,” he said. “Sometimes you’d have to go upstairs and change into a new uniform in less than 30 seconds. If you can’t do that, you’re coming downstairs and doing push-ups.”

To make matters even more challenging, the 240-member unit did the brunt of their training in the heat of the southern Oklahoma summer, where temperatures often reached into triple digits.

“They said it was one of the hottest summers there in a long time,” said Schultz. “We had to wear Kevlar helmet, bulletproof vest. They added 30 pounds to us. We were out there in the heat. It was just insane. We didn’t have (air conditioning). What we had were these big fans that sprayed mists of water. They were big, powerful fans, but unless you were really close to them they didn’t work very well.”

Not only did Schultz manage to make it through those hardships that he faced during basic training, but he came out of graduation with high praise from his drill sergeant.

“His drill sergeant had nothing but good things to say about him,” said Schultz’s mother, Mary Drenth, also a veteran of the National Guard. “He did great on everything. He was one of six in the whole unit to shoot expert on the rifle range. He was second. There was one kid who got 38 out of 40, and he got 37 out of 40. We’re incredibly proud.

“We have four boys. When we found out he was graduating a week into school, we chose to let the kids all miss that first week of school and took a trip out to Oklahoma. So, they all got to witness their brother graduate. That was an amazing experience. It was really, really cool.”

Like his first experience in the military, Schultz also can hold his own on the football field, where he has been a fixture at linebacker since taking over a starting spot as a sophomore in 2017 — the year the Trojans went 13-0 and captured the MHSAA 8-player Division 1 championship. It was his first season playing football after moving from Cheboygan the previous year.

“It was funny because I was thinking of doing football in Cheboygan and I never really committed to it because I was hockey, hockey, hockey. I love hockey,” said Schultz, who started playing hockey as a 4-year-old. “Then I came here and thought, ‘I’ll give football a try. Might as well.’ I love those guys. It was just so fun. Everyone was so confident. Going into a game we didn’t expect to lose. We were just going out there and having fun.”

Central Lake/Ellsworth defensive assistant coach Jarod Steenwyk has come to rely on Schultz’s toughness and tenacity at the heart of the Trojans’ defense for the past couple years, so he was excited to finally have Schultz return from basic training. Schultz also is getting an increased role at running back this season after serving as a backup at that position the last two years.

“He brings some size at linebacker for us and having that other running back,” said Steenwyk. “He’s got some speed, but he’s willing to hit somebody — lower the shoulder.”

“He started for us on the state championship team and even in that (championship game) he made some pretty big plays. He really came through for us.”

Steenwyk has noticed that Schultz seems to be more focused in the short time he’s been back with the team. Drenth, likewise, said the experience of basic training changed her son in a good way.

“It was good for him,” she said. “He’s definitely matured a lot. He has the self-discipline. He’s a different kid now.”

After Schultz finishes the school year in the spring, he will return to the National Guard for Advanced Individual Training — eight weeks of hands-on instruction at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas with a Military Occupational Specialty as a construction equipment repairman.

“Right after high school I’ll go to AIT, finish up there and then come back with some good certificates that will get me a head start, and it will look good on my resume,” said Schultz. “So far I’m not regretting anything.”

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: Central Lake/Ellsworth’s T.J. Schultz tries to cut past a Gaylord St. Mary defender during their Week 3 meeting. (Middle) Schultz takes down a Wyoming Tri-unity Christian ball carrier. (Photos courtesy of the Antrim County Review.)

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.)