1st & Goal: 11-Player Semifinals Preview

January 15, 2021

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

Five months have passed since the first football practices of this season.

But 24 hours from now, 16 11-player teams will have earned tickets to the destination they’ve been dreaming about since long before those first snaps of the fall.

The last outdoor MHSAA football games of January 2021 will send 15 more teams to Ford Field for the Jan. 22-23 Finals, with Semifinals to be played all over the Lower Peninsula (and one finalist already decided as Centreville will advance after a forfeit).

Spectators remain limited this weekend, but every game will be streamed live by FOX Sports Detroit or MHSAA.com – Click for the list of broadcasts.

Visit the MHSAA Football Playoff Home for Saturday’s entire schedule and scores as they come in, and see below for a glance at the matchups that will determine this season’s championship weekend field. 

Division 1

Davison (10-0) at Rockford (8-0)

Reigning Division 1 champion Davison might be missing quarterback Brendan Sullivan, now at Northwestern, but Dion Brown Jr. stepped in mightily last week after leading the team in receiving prior to the move. Carter Cryderman (848 yards/11 TDs) paces a rushing attack averaging 215 yards per game. The Rams have succeeded with a similar style, averaging 222 yards on the ground with lead back Ethan Nash and quarterback Zak Ahern combining for 1,217 yards and 14 touchdowns rushing. Ahern also has 20 touchdowns passes.

West Bloomfield (9-1) at Belleville (10-0)

Two of the most exciting offensive stars in the state will face off among a collection of future college players taking the field in this Semifinal. West Bloomfield running back Donovan Edwards ran for four touchdowns in last week’s return-to-play Regional Final win over Romeo, while Belleville quarterback Christian Dhue-Reid threw three touchdowns passes as the Tigers handed Detroit Cass Tech its lone loss of this season.

Division 2

Traverse City Central (9-1) at Muskegon Mona Shores (10-0)

Shores quarterback Brady Rose started his star run stepping in for an injured all-stater at last year’s Final and leading the Sailors to the Division 2 title. Now he has his team one win from returning to Ford Field having run for 1,057 yards and 17 touchdowns and thrown for 949 yards and 10 scores this season. The Trojans are playing for their first Finals berth since 1988, before the old Traverse City High split into Central and West. Josh Burnham is another standout quarterback, with 903 yards and 18 TDs rushing and 1,215 yards and 16 scores through the air.

Oak Park (5-5) at Warren De La Salle Collegiate (6-4)  

Oak Park is one of the best stories so far of this playoffs, as it entered the first all-in postseason in MHSAA football history with a single victory. Running back Davion Primm is another of the top talents in the entire state and the focus of an offense that scored 25 points total over five regular-season games followed by a combined 119 over four playoff wins. The Pilots will attempt to end that dream run, in part with a defense that has given up only 23 points during the postseason. Brady Drogosh (949 yards/9 TDs passing) directs a balanced attack.

Division 3

Muskegon (9-1) vs. DeWitt (10-0) at Lansing Catholic

These two have met in the playoffs two of the last three seasons, and Muskegon won the 2019 Semifinal matchup 28-21. Senior Amari Crowley is the Big Reds’ latest standout quarterback; he’s thrown for 1,008 yards and 12 touchdowns and run for 884 yards and 13 scores. DeWitt also has a playmaking QB, with Tyler Holtz throwing for 2,109 yards and 31 scores – and equally important will be a defense that gives up only 157 total yards per game. The Panthers also must stop running back Jacarri Kitchen, who averages 11.3 yards per carry and has 1,098 total over 10 games.

River Rouge (8-1) at Chelsea (10-0)

Reigning Division 3 champion River Rouge is a win away from what would be a third championship game appearance in six seasons, and with quarterback Mareyohn Hrabowski again one of the toughest to stop in any division. Chelsea is playing in a Semifinal for the third-straight season and also hoping to make the Finals for the third time in six seasons. The Bulldogs also have enjoyed one of the state’s top game changers, receiver Joe Taylor, who has caught 14 touchdowns passes, run for two scores and returned a kickoff for one more.   

Division 4

Cadillac (7-2) at Edwardsburg (9-0)

The Eddies are running for their third championship game appearance in four seasons, and as always running for a ton with 3,098 yards in only eight games on the field (the ninth was a forfeit). They’re averaging 55 points per game with their top two rushers, Jackson Hoover and Brett Allen, both averaging at least 14 yards per carry. Cadillac is making its first appearance in the Semifinals and following the same strategy. The Vikings have run for 2,507 yards, with top rusher Aden Gurden gaining 878 on 8.4 per carry.

Detroit Country Day (7-2) vs. Williamston (9-1) at Okemos

Reigning Division 4 runner-up Country Day is playing to reach its third championship game in five seasons. The Yellowjackets were able to get only four games in during the regular season but have played the same number during the playoffs and downed unbeaten North Branch last week. Jacob Yarberry is a playmaker to watch on both sides of the field. The Hornets have been on the verge as well with this their second Semifinal in three seasons. Williamston’s attack is tough on both fronts; quarterback Luke Mahaney guides an offense that has nearly equal yardage and touchdowns rushing and passing.

Division 5

Freeland (9-1) at Grand Rapids Catholic Central (9-0)

The Cougars claimed the Division 4 title last season, their third in four years, and are riding a 21-game winning streak. They returned last week with their highest-scoring performance since 2018, a 58-7 win over Muskegon Oakridge. Freeland’s 14th-straight winning season has landed the Falcons in their first Semifinal since 1998. Four players have scored at least six touchdowns;  leading rusher Jacob Kundinger (519 yards) is one of three with a team-best eight touchdowns.

Lansing Catholic (8-2) at Frankenmuth (10-0)

The Eagles are attempting to reach the Finals for the first time, but standing in the way is reigning Division 5 champion Lansing Catholic. Junior Alex Watters stepped in at quarterback last week and finished with 153 yards rushing with a touchdown and 73 yards and a score passing. Frankenmuth will be playing in its third Semifinal in five seasons, this time paced by a running attack averaging 286 yards per game. Cole Lindow is the top ground gainer with 907 yards, plus 12 scores, with quarterback Davin Reif adding more than 800 yards rushing and throwing.

Division 6

Grayling (7-3) at Montague (10-0)

After winning Division 6 in 2018, the Wildcats missed a return trip to the Finals by a one-point Semifinal loss last fall. Quarterback Drew Collins is leading the return attempt, topping the team in rushing with 638 yards (with 16 touchdowns) while passing for 1,640 yards and 20 scores. After two straight 3-6 seasons, Grayling has reached its first Semifinal with a six-game winning streak. David Millikin is averaging 10.1 yards per carry and 151 per game, with 29 rushing touchdowns total.

Constantine (9-1) at Clinton (9-1)

Clinton will be playing in its first Semifinal since 2015 after winning its last two playoff games, over unbeaten opponents, by a combined four points. Constantine has reached nine wins and the Semifinals both for the first time since 2012. The Falcons are averaging an obliterating 524 yards and 7.5 touchdowns on the ground per game.

Division 7

Traverse City St. Francis (8-2) at Cass City (10-0)

Cass City earned home field for its Semifinal with a road win last week over undefeated Ithaca. This will be the second-straight appearance in this round for the Red Hawks, who average 339 rushing yards per game behind backs Alex Perry (897 yards/13 TDs) and Jordan Mester (847/11 TDs). St. Francis also dominates in the ground game, averaging 215 rush yards per game led by Owen Mueller (523 yards/5 TDs) among a large group of contributing backs.

Schoolcraft (9-1) at New Lothrop (9-0)

The Hornets will be playing in their third Semifinal in six seasons and are looking to win their second Division 7 title in three seasons. No opponent has scored more than 16 points against them, which works well with an offense scoring 50 points per game. Quarterback Cam Orr (1,721 yards/24 TDs passing, 569 yards/16 TDs rushing) is among standouts. Schoolcraft turned its third-straight Regional Finals run into its first Semifinal since 2001. Alex Thole has thrown for 2,288 yards and 32 touchdowns. The Eagles downed reigning Division 7 runner-up Jackson Lumen Christi 29-22 last week and handed Division 6 semifinalist Constantine its only loss, in the season opener.

Division 8

Ubly (8-2) at Johannesburg-Lewiston (10-0)

Johannesburg-Lewiston also earned a home Semifinal after a Regional Final road trip, edging Iron Mountain 7-6 last week at the Superior Dome. Sheldon Huff paces another dominating running attack, averaging 9.3 yards per carry for 1,295 total and 16 touchdowns on the ground. This will be the Cardinals’ first Semifinal since 1998, but Ubly’s second straight and third in four seasons. The Bearcats missed Ford Field in 2019 with a one-point loss to Beal City.

NOTE: Centreville (10-0) advanced to the Division 8 Final after Clarkston Everest Collegiate had to withdraw from the playoffs this week.

PHOTO: Williamston, here during a 45-7 win over Ionia in Week 7, is back in the Semifinals this weekend for the second time in three seasons. (Click to see more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)  

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.)