Ubly Sends Out Retiring Coach with Program's 1st Finals Win in D8 Rematch

By Scott DeCamp
Special for MHSAA.com

November 25, 2023

DETROIT – You could not have written a better script for Ubly’s football program and its tight-knit Thumb community Saturday at Ford Field.

The Bearcats captured their first Finals championship, avenged last year’s title-game loss to Ottawa Lake Whiteford, and sent head coach Eric Sweeney into retirement a champion with a 21-6 victory over the Bobcats in the Division 8 title game.

Might Sweeney consider an encore and coach another year?

“No!” Sweeney quickly responded with conviction, prompting laughter among attendees of the press conference and even his own players before adding another “no.”

Sweeney served as Ubly’s head varsity coach for only four seasons, but he compiled a 48-5 overall record. He led the Bearcats to the top of the mountain after the program had made several title pursuits prior to Saturday, including a last year’s which ended with a 26-20 loss to Whiteford and a 2020 Finals run that concluded with a 22-0 defeat to Centreville.

“You know, I’m done. I’ve coached for 23 years at every level there is. No, this makes it easier to walk away,” Sweeney said. “I loved coaching all these years. I got to coach these guys (referring to his players at the press conference) for four years at the varsity level. I coached them in seventh-grade basketball. I know these kids pretty good.

“My kids are all well out of high school, and there’s just other things I want to do in life. I’m just proud I’m leaving the program in the condition that it is.”

It may be impossible to leave it better than Sweeney and the Bearcats did Saturday and throughout their perfect journey in 2023.

The Bearcats’ Seth Maurer (30) follows teammate Canden Peruski’s block into a small gap in the Whiteford defense.Ubly completed this run with a 14-0 record and did it the Bearcat way – with physicality at the point of attack, a clock-grinding, ball-control offense; and a very stingy defense. The Bearcats outscored their opponents this season by a combined 596-134 margin.

“It means a lot. Like, last year, we lost here and we felt terrible for the seniors, the way we went out, basically on a last-second thing,” said Ubly senior Evan Peruski, who also started at quarterback in the Bearcats’ 2022 and 2020 Finals losses. 

“It means everything. I mean, a lot of us up here, we’re friends with kids that played 10, 20 years ago. I saw about 30 of them in the crowd, people I knew that played 20, 30 years ago. They’re there supporting us.”

Whiteford, which was seeking its third Division 8 title since 2017, saw a 27-game winning streak end and closed the season with a 13-1 record – a tough conclusion to a tremendous two-year run.

“I’ve been coaching football a long time. I don’t think I’ve ever had an experience of a senior group like these guys that we have,” said Todd Thieken, who finished his second season as Whiteford’s head coach but has been in the game since the late 1980s with various stops in Michigan and Ohio.

“A couple of seniors came up to me after the game and they said, ‘I’m sorry, coach.’ I just said to them, ‘I’m just sorry that I don’t ever get to coach you again,’” Thieken added, getting a bit choked up. “I’m still going to be around and in their lives and making sure that they continue to get through school and be successful young men.”

Well-executing Ubly and Whiteford squads engaged in a game of keep-away, both aiming to possess the football and keep it out of the opponent’s hands.

Ubly won that battle, possessing the ball for nearly a 2-to-1 margin (31:51-16:09). The Bearcats nearly doubled up the Bobcats in total offense as well, 310-165, led by an overwhelming advantage in rushing yardage (281-60).

Senior Seth Maurer led Ubly with 138 yards on 27 carries, highlighted by his 4-yard touchdown run that drew the teams even with 1:31 left in the first half before senior Brett Mueller hammered through the ensuing PAT for a 7-6 edge.

Whiteford had struck first in the contest. Ubly’s game-opening, 16-play, 79-yard drive that consumed 8:01 of the clock was stopped just shy of the goal line after a review determined Peruski’s knee was down inside the 1. Whiteford then marched 99 yards the other way and got into the end zone on a 4-yard scoring pass from freshman Tre Eitniear to senior Hunter DeBarr. The two-point conversion pass failed, but the Bobcats led 6-0 with 8:11 left in the second quarter.

Mitchell Foote (76) brings down the Bobcats’ Ryin Ruddy.Ubly’s defense settled in after that, allowing only 66 yards the rest of the way.

Meanwhile, Ubly’s offense continued to move the ball. The Bearcats extended their lead to 14-6 on Peruski’s 11-yard TD pass to senior Ryan Learman on 4th-and-goal from the 11. Junior Luke Volmering all but put the game away with his 3-yard scoring run with 6:13 remaining.

“I think our line does a great job. The big fella here (pointing to 6-foot-3, 270-pound senior lineman Mitchell Foote) had a heck of a game today,” Sweeney said. “When you’re running our offense, it’s an offensive line game. I’m an offensive line coach, so you know, it’s kind of my kind of game. I’m not smart enough for all this fancy passing stuff. 

“We’ve got to play the game at the line of scrimmage, and I thought defensively our D-line made some big plays as it went on and the secondary did a great job, too. … The game was won at the line of scrimmage.”

Peruski did enough to keep Whiteford’s defense honest. He ran six times for 32 yards and completed 2 of 3 passes for 29 yards. Volmering ran 16 times for 77 yards. Ubly senior Canden Peruski led the defense with 11 tackles.

Whiteford senior Jake Iott was all over the field, registering 18 tackles. Bobcats senior Kolby Masserant made 13 stops, while senior teammate Ryin Ruddy notched 11 tackles. Eitniear was 6-of-11 passing for 78 yards, while Ruddy went 3-of-4 for 27 yards. Iott led his team on the ground with 37 yards on 12 carries.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity. You know, I’ve been starting for four years on varsity,” DeBarr said. “I’m glad the coaches and some of my teammates could make me a better player for those four years. We won a lot of big games and, you know, you lose a couple of big games. It was fun.”

Saturday marked Ubly’s fourth Finals appearance. The Bearcats also had lost to Traverse City St. Francis in the Division 7 Final in 2008.

Sweeney attributed much of Ubly’s success over the past couple of decades to his cousin, former head coach Bill Sweeney. The Bearcats have won 10 Regional titles over the last 20 years.

Eric Sweeney also credited the unwavering support of Ubly’s community and that of the Bearcats’ rival schools along the way. Ubly spent the week practicing indoors at the Laker Legacy Center of rival Elkton-Pigeon-Bay Port.

“It’s not as much for me personally. It’s for our community,” Sweeney said. “The support we get from the Thumb area is unreal. It just means a lot.”

Said Foote: “It just means the world. Best coach I’ve ever had. He’s always pushed us. (They) just had to make him go out with a state championship. It would be a shame to not give him one.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS (Top) Ubly coach Eric Sweeney presents the Division 8 championship trophy to his team Saturday morning at Ford Field. (Middle) The Bearcats’ Seth Maurer (30) follows teammate Canden Peruski’s block into a small gap in the Whiteford defense. (Below) Mitchell Foote (76) brings down the Bobcats’ Ryin Ruddy. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)

Constantine Football All-Stater, Wrestling Champ Aiming for Grand Finale

By Scott Hassinger
Special for MHSAA.com

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.)