Coaching Cousins Build on Macomb Roots

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

January 18, 2018

MACOMB – Success must begin somewhere.

And for the Macomb Dakota wrestling program, its beginnings can be traced to a church in Mount Clemens nearly 25 years ago.

Ed Skowneski, a longtime educator in Macomb County who was a football star at Wayne State University during the 1970s, got with a few buddies and formed a youth wrestling program named the Bad Boys Wrestling Club.

This program would eventually produce six MHSAA champions and approximately 20 others who reached the Individual Finals. It also helped inspire two of those wrestlers to become coaches at the high school level. 

Eddie Skowneski, Ed's son, leads the Macomb Dakota program ranked No. 3 in Division 1 this week by Michigan Grappler. Nephew Anthony Biondo assists top-ranked Detroit Catholic Central.

Before the Bad Boys – which would eventually evolve into Team All Sport – there were pockets in the county where the sport thrived, such as Fraser High where Al Kastl had built a strong program. But for the most part, Macomb County was a step or two behind nearby counties such as Genesee, Lapeer, Oakland and Wayne, where the sport had well-established programs like Clarkston, Davison, Detroit Catholic Central, Hazel Park, Lake Orion, Montrose, New Lothrop and others.

Skowneski teamed with people like Bob Palazzolo, Rick Julien – an assistant under Kastl at Fraser who later became Fraser’s head coach – and later, Vince Biondo, Skowneski’s roommate in college, to organize a competitive youth program.

“We had some good kids back then,” Skowneski said. “We had six state champions come out of there. We practiced twice a week at the church, but it was more like a hall or reception room. After one year we moved to Fraser, Mark Twain Elementary (School), where I was a principal. That made it easier, for travel and everything. We had our own mats in the school, and it started to grow.”

A team from Macomb County has yet to reach an MHSAA Division 1 Final, but they’re getting close. Last season Dakota reached a Division 1 Semifinal for the first time, and it was just the third time a Macomb County team had advanced that far in the top division/classification.

Two other county schools fared well last season, too, in other divisions. Warren Woods Tower lost in the Division 2 Final to Lowell, and Richmond won the Division 3 title.

Skowneski’s motivation to become a coach came from his son, Eddie, and, later, his nephew Anthony Biondo, Vince Biondo’s son. Eddie Skowneski got his start with the Bad Boys at age 9 with his cousin who is two years younger. The two became best friends and would become two of the county’s top wrestlers during the early to mid-2000s at Clinton Township Chippewa Valley.

Each would reach the Individual Finals three times. In 2003, Skowneski won the 140-pound title over fellow county wrestler Justin Petrone of Roseville, 1-0. Biondo was a three-time champion placing first at 103 in 2003, first at 112 the next season and first at 145 in 2006.

Skowneski would earn a scholarship to Michigan State University, where he was a three-year starter. Biondo went to University of Michigan and was a three-time NCAA Tournament qualifier. His best season came as a senior when he went 2-2 at the NCAAs and earned his 100th career win.

“Those Bad Boys days, those were some great times,” Anthony Biondo said. “It was a great group of kids. I just remember being in that church with Uncle Ed. I really wasn’t into wrestling when I started. I was into hockey and football. I started going there one day a week, and it just grew. My first year wrestling (at Chippewa Valley), I won the state title. It was just that one-on-one thing that I liked. My dad was a huge goal-setting type of guy, and I just kept at it.”

Their wrestling careers didn’t stop after graduation. Skowneski became an assistant coach at Fraser for one season then went to Warren DeLaSalle for two as an assistant before becoming the head coach at Dakota in 2012. Biondo is in his seventh season as an assistant coach at Detroit Catholic Central, the top-ranked team and reigning champion in Division 1.

Eddie Skowneski, 31, said he’s had a number of mentors throughout his wrestling career who have contributed to him becoming the coach he is today. His father is one, but he also said his high school coach John Jeffire at Chippewa Valley, St. Clair Shores Lakeview football coach Pat Threet and his college coaches all have had their influence.

When Ed Skowneski retired as school principal at Mark Twain in 2015, his son quickly found him a part-time job as his assistant at Dakota to keep him active.

“He’s always been a great coach,” Eddie said. “Coaching with my dad, it never really stopped. With him, it’s the little things. He always said, if you have good technique, you can beat someone who is more physical than you are. With my dad, he goes to each person and shows them the proper technique. With me, sure I want them to work and train hard. But I want my wrestlers to do it the right way.”

Ed Skowneski got out of coaching when his son went to high school. He said he had taken his son as far as he could and that it was better to have Eddie continue his progression with someone else as his coach. 

Now that Ed’s back in it, coaching with his son no less, he couldn’t be happier.

“When he first got the job at Dakota, I thought of helping him but I just didn’t have the time,” Ed Skowneski said. “I’m enjoying it now. I’m not the head coach. He has the issues. I just work with the kids. It’s fantastic. It’s rewarding. We have a great group of kids and good parents.

“I look forward to the tournaments, which sometimes keeps me up at night. It’s nice that my son and I can do this together.”  

Tom Markowski is a columnist and directs website coverage for the State Champs! Sports Network. He previously covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

PHOTOS: Longtime coach Ed Skowneski stands with son Eddie (left) and nephew Anthony Biondo after a youth event when they were children. (Middle) Father and son hold up Eddie’s bracket sheet after he won the Division 1 championship at 145 pounds in 2006; to the right, they pose together during Biondo’s wedding. (Below) Ed Skowneski and Biondo, also before the latter’s wedding. (Photos provided by the Skowneski family.)

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.)