Longtime Coach Vlcek has Manchester On Pace to Contend in D4 Title Race

By Doug Donnelly
Special for MHSAA.com

December 19, 2023

Steve Vlcek is 34 years into his varsity coaching career at Manchester and might have his best team yet. 

Southeast & BorderThe season still has a long way to go, of course, but Vlcek is confident that what is being built right now in the Flying Dutchmen wrestling room is something special. 

“I always call this our preseason,” he said. “We’ll have four tournaments before the new year. That’s 26 or 27 matches per kid. That way, we can figure out where we are at, what we need to work on more. Then we can start tweaking stuff a little bit. 

“It’s been a really great start. I see a lot of improvement in our team.” 

Vlcek, who has won more than 700 meets in his career, and Manchester have been on the cusp before. The Flying Dutchmen have won 18 straight District championships and own a dozen Regional titles. Manchester was the Division 4 runner-up in 2008 and has reached the Semifinals multiple times. 

The last two years, they’ve qualified for MHSAA Team Finals weekend but have lost the first day in Quarterfinals. 

“It’s been a little frustrating, but you have to keep plugging away,” Vlcek said. “We’re trying. We have a good shot the next couple of years.” 

Vlcek was a football guy at Manchester, but when the school didn’t field football in 1981, he turned to wrestling. 

“We didn’t have football my freshman year, and I was driving my mom crazy,” Vlcek said. “I took up wrestling.” 

During his four years with the varsity, Manchester went through three coaches. It was his final coach, Dan Jordan, who invited Vleck back a couple of years later to work with some of the wrestlers on the team. 

Teammate Blake Sloan, right, considers his next move during his championship match last season.“He called me up and asked if in my free time I would come and work with a couple kids,” Vlcek said. “Two years later, I was the junior high coach, and two years after that he resigned, recommended me for the job and I got it. He did a really good job of bringing up the program.” 

Vleck never thought he would be a coach, but it became his passion. 

“Once I started working with the kids, I really enjoyed it,” he said. “I wasn’t sure how much I would like it as a 19-year-old, or 20-year-old kid, but I did.” 

Some of his early Manchester teams struggled with numbers. They’d often have seven or eight wrestlers win matches but lose in a dual-meet format because of the forfeits. That started to change during the mid-2000s. 

“We started getting good classes together, and that made a considerable difference,” he said.  

He picked things up from rival coaches, some of whom he has become friends with over the years.  

“You pick up little things from each coach you coach against,” he said. 

He credits a strong youth program at Manchester with developing wrestlers at a young age. 

“We have a very involved youth program,” he said. “They’ve brought a good product to me. I try to stay away from it, let them develop it. We are very lucky to have it.” 

He also credits a slew of assistant coaches, such as Mike Bunn. 

“I can name 20 guys who have come into the room and make the program better every day,” he said. “I have my son (Brock) coaching with me now, and I really enjoy that.” 

Coach Steve Vlcek embraces Stewart after the victory.The Flying Dutchmen have 10 juniors on this year’s squad, including Sammy Stewart, who won an Individual Finals title last year at 113 pounds, and Blake Sloan, who was runner-up at 138. 

Stewart missed a good part of the 2022 season while recovering from a hand injury. 

“He had a really bad accident in shop class,” Vlcek said. “He almost cut his hand off. He came back in mid-January. He definitely had to overcome some obstacles. He avenged the loss he had (during the regular season) in the state finals.” 

Sloan is another of the super sophomores. He’s coming off a record-setting football season in which he rushed for more than 2,100 yards.  

“I can’t ask more out of those guys,” Vlcek said. “They put their time in and help their teammates out. We have seven or eight kids who have been state qualifiers. We still have some work to do, but there is improvement.” 

Manchester is 10-2 in dual meets to start this season, giving Vlcek 711 career victories. The Flying Dutchmen have played a good schedule and have been ranked anywhere from No. 2 to No. 5 in early-season team rankings. 

“I like to be challenged,” Vlcek said. “You don’t get better without wrestling the best.”

Doug DonnellyDoug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Sammy Stewart’s hand is raised by the official in victory after the Manchester standout won his championship match at the Individual Finals in March. (Middle) Teammate Blake Sloan, right, considers his next move during his championship match last season. (Below) Coach Steve Vlcek embraces Stewart after the victory. (Click for more from High School Sports Scene.)

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.)