Frankfort Follows Coach to Title Success

February 16, 2016

By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half

FRANKFORT – When Frankfort captured its first MHSAA Division 4 District wrestling championship in 22 years last Wednesday, Jaime Smith was asked if another first had been achieved that night.

Was she the first woman in MHSAA history to coach a boys wrestling team to a District title?

"I said, 'I'm going to assume so,'" Smith replied.

It's a milestone that might be hard to verify. If it's not a first, it's certainly rare, according to the MHSAA.

Frankfort's feat under Smith might have come as a surprise to some, but not to those at the school.

High school principal Matt Stapleton called Smith “a quality coach and a quality person," who knows how to get the best out of her students and athletes.

“She’s really passionate about wrestling, about family, about teaching and working with kids,” he said. “Those are the type of (attributes) you need to build a program.”

Frankfort defeated Fife Lake Forest Area and Traverse City St. Francis to claim the District. Freshman Kody Michel's win at 152 pounds decided the outcome in the 42-36 finale with St. Francis.

The championship added to what's been quite a winter for boys athletic teams at the small Class D school. Earlier Wednesday, the Frankfort-Benzie Central co-op squad won the Lake Michigan Ski Conference title. Two days later, the state-ranked basketball team inched closer to the Northwest Conference championship by beating Kingsley to improve its record to 13-1.

Such success is not lost on junior wrestler and two-time Regional qualifier Daymian Tabbert.

"We had to do our part," he said.

Smith, who has an extensive wrestling background, took on the task of resurrecting the program four years ago. Frankfort previously participated in a co-op with Onekama. When that dissolved, the Panthers did not have enough wrestlers to field a team.

In fact, when Smith was hired by the district in 2010, she volunteered to help the school's lone tournament wrestler, Jacob Chappell, who was training at Benzie Central and competing as an individual. The following season Smith was named the coach. She started with six wrestlers that first season, and now has 11, including senior captain Brandon Coxe, who has been in the program all four years. The District crown was the exclamation point of his varsity career.

"It was a very special (night) for the entire team," he said. "We all worked very hard for it. We (Frankfort) haven't done anything like this in a long time. We've come a long way."

Coxe (171), Michel, Tabbert, Ben Tiesworth (112), Isaac Dean (130) and Levi Hubbard (140) were all double winners in the District. Michel, a Regional qualifier at 145, provided the most dramatic moment. Smith moved him up a weight class against St. Francis, knowing it would be the swing match of the night. Given little time to think about it, Michel delivered.

"You need enough time to prepare yourself, but not enough time to scare yourself," Smith said.

Perhaps the day's biggest decision came prior to the matches. Frankfort had a snow day, and conditions were so iffy that the athletic department considered not putting the team bus on the road to St. Francis, a near 40-mile drive.

"Fife Lake was going so we would have automatically forfeited had we not gone," Smith said.

After some discussion, the team was allowed to travel. And, as luck would have it, the storm system, which had produced whiteouts earlier in the day, cleared out.

The District win that night created a buzz at school the following morning. Team members, accustomed to anonymity, suddenly became the center of attention, receiving congratulatory praises from students and staff.

"It was a cool experience," Tabbert, who is 27-12, said.

It was an experience Smith hopes to build off as she develops the varsity – there is no feeder program in the junior high.

"I've already had two kids talk to me about coming out (for the team next season)," she said. "That's (District title) monumental. It will make recruiting easier."

Prior to arriving at Frankfort, Smith coached girls and boys soccer at Traverse City Central. She led the girls to two District titles. Smith was a four-year starter and captain of the soccer team at Olivet College.

But wrestling has always been part of her life.

"I grew up (in Alpena) with five brothers," she said. "We wrestled freestyle on Saturday, folkstyle on Sunday. That's what we did since we were old enough to get across the mat."

She eventually wrestled for the high school team until she made the decision to focus on soccer.

In college, she got back into wrestling, competing in open freestyle tournaments. She also started officiating youth tournaments.

It was at Olivet where she met her husband Ethan Smith, who was a four-time MHSAA Finals wrestling qualifier at Traverse City Central.

“People ask me, 'What's your favorite sport?'" Jaime Smith said. "I love soccer, but I was successful at it because of the discipline and characteristics I learned from wrestling."

It was a no-brainer, she said, when Stapleton approached her about the wrestling job, even though it's been almost exclusively a male-dominated position.

"It felt pretty natural," she said. "Wrestling is in my blood, and there's no way I was going to let (the program) die.

"Were there concerns about me being a female? Absolutely. But my boys, my gentlemen, make that really easy. There's a respect, trust and understanding between us. I have never had an issue with one of my athletes. People always ask, 'How do you make that happen?' It's on them. They allow it to be comfortable and appropriate."

She's had a harder time convincing others, though. At coaches meetings, and even at matches, she’s been mistaken as a mother of a wrestler, and not the coach. Another time, after a match, the opposing wrestler came over to shake the Frankfort coach's hand and walked right past Smith.

"He was looking for a male coach," Smith said.

"But it doesn't bother me," she added. "All that matters (on the team) is the respect that we have between each other."

Smith believes there will be more women following her path. For proof, she points to the increased participation of girls in the sport.

"When I was wrestling (in youth and high school tournaments), I was one of the few and far between," she said. "Now, especially in the lower weights, you can show up at a tournament and create a girls bracket if it's a round-robin. I hope, if they're qualified, you'll see more of it in the future."

As for the immediate future, Frankfort will be the decided underdog when it competes in Wednesday's Team Regional at Leroy Pine River. The Panthers open with Charlevoix. Although numbers are improving, Frankfort still voids three weight classes.

The Panthers will have two wrestlers, Tabbert and Michel, in the Individual Regional on Saturday at Rogers City. Both are underclassmen, which bodes well for the Panthers next season.

"If you look at it, numbers (in wrestling) seem to be waning in northern Michigan," Stapleton said. "But certainly, we're gaining momentum."

For Smith, that’s encouraging.

"It's exciting to be talking about the wrestling program again," she said.

Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. 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: (Top) Frankfort's Daymian Tabbert wrestles under the watchful eye of coach Jaime Smith, top right-hand corner. (Middle) Smith confers with Ben Tiesworth during a match. (Below) Frankfort poses with its first District title trophy in 22 years. (Photos courtesy of the Frankfort wrestling program.)

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.)