MHSA(Q&)A: Stevensville-Lakeshore wrestling coach Bruce Bittenbender

February 9, 2012

Bruce Bittenbender grew up in Bethlehem, Pa., in the heart of steel country, and worked part-time in a mill as a young adult. That helped land him in Michigan City, Ind., not long after graduating from Milligan College in Tennessee in 1969.

But Bittenbender wanted to teach and coach.

Bittenbender took a teaching job at South Haven that fall, and as an assistant coach helped that school's wrestling team to the MHSAA Class B championship. A year later the wrestling coaching job opened at Stevensville Lakeshore. He says now that he was too young for the job, but Bittenbender applied and was hired. The program was struggling at that point -- but not for much longer.

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations' record book, Bittenbender trailed only Rex Peckinpaugh of New Castle, Ind., in career dual coaching wins heading into this season (796-780). Bittenbender won his 800th match on Jan. 14 -- and has his team just two more victories from MHSAA Finals weekend Feb. 24-25 in Battle Creek.

Bittenbender retired from teaching two years ago after 35 teaching biology and seven more physical education. At 64, he still gets on the mat with his wrestlers from time to time, although perhaps not as much as he once did. But countless wrestlers -- including those who won a combined 20 individual championships -- have benefited from his instruction.

His coaching tree includes current Rockford coach Brian Richardson and former Lowell coach Dave Strejc, who led teams to MHSAA Division 2 championships in 2002 and 2004. Bittenbender was named National Coach of the Year by the National Federation of State High School Associations in 2002 and again by the National High School Athletic Coaches Association in 2010. He is a member of the Michigan Wrestling Association Hall of Fame, and he will be inducted into the Pennsylvania Wrestling Coaches Association Hall of Fame this spring.

Stevensville Lakeshore is ranked No. 7 in Division 2. His team won its District on Tuesday, downing St. Joseph 35-34 with a decision win in the final match.

What keeps you coming back for another season?

Every year, when you think you've seen it all, something else comes up. When I was in middle school, it was junior high school back then, I was on the edge. The coach (Jim McIntyre, who went on to coach at Kutztown University) grabbed me on the back of the neck and said, "What are you doing?" I was hanging out with kids of questionable character, and he said, "You need to come out for wrestling." I still go back and play golf with that guy once in a while. ... I came from a big family. We didn't have much. I have empathy for the kids that were kicked around, misdirected. Somebody took time out for me. I felt maybe I could kick some of that back.

After so many wins, do you still enjoy all of them the same?

I tell ya, last night I certainly enjoyed the win. It was just like I was 23 again. Yeah, I enjoy it. It's addictive. That's what you're out there for.

The NFHS changed its wrestling weight classes this season, but Michigan chose to stay with its current lineup. What is your thought on that switch?

I think it's going to switch back. It makes no sense to me. The average kid graduating from high school is 5-(foot-)9, 155 pounds. Why add a weight class at the top where you have to compete for kids with football and basketball. … Our sport has prided itself on giving the little guy a chance. ... He can be a state champ in wrestling.

Your teams have finished MHSAA Finals runner-up twice. How much would you like to win that first championship?

I would love to. That's the ultimate goal. We've been so close. We were up three points in '94, and got pinned at heavyweight (to lose 28-25 to Fowlerville). In '86 we broke the record for individual number of points scored, but Eaton Rapids broke it too. We were that close.

I'm assuming you're not going to stop coaching any time soon.

Being around people and the community, and working with kids, it keeps you young. Keeps you in shape, keeps you motivated. I think that's one of the reasons. Now that I'm not teaching, my wife and I are able to travel quite a bit in the fall and summer. I think that's basically a motivator, just being around people.

What do you tell, or would you tell, young coaches who are just getting started in high school wrestling?

I tell them to be careful the first few years. It's different today. … I tell coaches you need to set up standards, discipline, goals and objectives, and go by those. You try to accommodate some of these kids, and this and that, but you can go only so far. You’ve gotta stick to the rules and let the cards fall where they are. If you don't, you'll have problems down the line.

And I think communicating with people, making friends, getting out there and strumming up support for the program is important too. I've had the opportunity to speak to the Lions Club, various civic organizations, at hospitals. You have to try to make yourself available. People have to learn to put their trust in you."

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.)