1st & Goal: 2021 11-Player Semifinals Preview

By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com senior editor

November 19, 2021

Our final 32 11-player football teams are one more win from playing at Ford Field.

MI Student AidAt this time of year, and with the added detail we have on each Semifinal below, that’s plenty of introduction.

All 16 games will be broadcast live. Bally Sports Detroit will feature on its primary channel the Division 1 Semifinal between Sterling Heights Stevenson and Belleville, and the other 15 games can be watched on MHSAA.tv.

Division 1

Rochester Adams (12-0) vs. Grand Blanc (12-0) at Howell

This might be one of the weekend’s most difficult games to predict, because these teams seem to match up so well. Senior running back Elijah Jackson-Anderson (1,119 yards/16 TDs rushing) and senior quarterback Hunter Ames (1,795 yards/21 TDs passing), plus a defense giving up 15 points per game, has keyed Grand Blanc’s school-record playoff run. Adams, aiming for its first Final since 2003, is giving up 11 points per game and following the lead of junior quarterback Parker Picot (1,165 yards/18 TDs rushing, 4 TDs passing) and senior running back Griffin Henke (863 yards/15 TDs rushing).

Sterling Heights Stevenson (10-2) vs. Belleville (11-1) at Troy Athens

Belleville is playing a Semifinal for the fourth-straight season and hoping to book its first trip to Ford Field. Freshman quarterback Bryce Underwood is a player to remember this weekend and for the next three years. Stevenson is playing in its second Semifinal in three seasons and seeking its first Finals berth since 2009 on the rushing attack of seniors Jordan Ramsey (1,204 yards/16 TDs rushing ) and Jordan Kwiatkowski (1,283 yards/15 TDs). Senior Biagio Madonna is another big-time playmaker, running for 872 yards and 12 touchdowns and throwing for 1,011 yards and five scores.

Division 2

Traverse City Central (11-1) vs. South Lyon (12-0) at Greenville

A long-awaited opportunity is on the line for both; Central is seeking to reach the Finals for the first time since 1988 (and first time since Traverse City West opened), while South Lyon last played in a championship game in 1995. Senior Josh Burnham (6-foot-4, 230 pounds) has exceeded high expectations, running for 1,315 yards and 25 touchdowns and throwing for 934 yards and 14 scores while also starting at linebacker. Junior Reed Seabase (1,175 yards/12 TDs rushing) carries a significant load on offense as well. Last week’s 29-23 overtime win over Portage Central was South Lyon’s first by fewer than 14 points. Junior Tommy Donovan (895 yards/16 TDs rushing) is among playmakers, and senior Braden Fracassi (865 yards/8 TDs passing) has stepped in well after the Lions lost their starting quarterback to injury midway through the regular season.

Livonia Franklin (7-5) vs. Warren De La Salle Collegiate (11-0) at Hazel Park

The Pilots – last season’s Division 2 runners-up – have been one of the teams most expected to reach this point, especially after their undefeated run through the Detroit Catholic League Central. Junior quarterback Brady Drogosh led last season’s run and remains tough to slow down – he’s run for 1,440 yards and 21 touchdowns and thrown for 1,285 yards and 10 scores. Franklin entered the playoffs 4-5 and defeated three teams that were a combined 22-8. Two of the Patriots’ top three scoring outputs of the season have come during the postseason run.

Division 3

St. Joseph (8-4) vs. DeWitt (11-1) at Jenison

The reigning Division 3 champion Panthers returned the majority of their playmakers this fall and have scored 48 points per game led by senior quarterback Tyler Holtz (2,483 yards/36 TDs passing, 829 yards/11 TDs rushing) and senior receiver Tommy McIntosh (1,107 yards/19 touchdowns receiving). St. Joseph is playing to make the Finals for the first time since 1988. The Bears are grinders, with more than 2,800 yards rushing led by juniors Trey McGinnis (902 yards/14 TDs) and Joron Brown (850 yards/12 TDs).

Mason (10-2) vs. Detroit Martin Luther King (11-1) at Wayne Memorial

The Bulldogs coming off one of the biggest wins in their history, 20-17 over Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice, to reach the Semifinals for the first time. Next up is another team most expected to be back at this level. King is looking to return to Ford Field for the third time in four seasons. Junior quarterback Dante Moore is one of the most heralded players in Michigan, and for plenty of reasons – he’s thrown for 2,626 yards and 37 touchdowns over 10 games on the field (two wins were by forfeit). Mason has put together more than 4,000 yards of total offense, with sophomore running back AJ Martel (1,430 yards/23 TDs rushing) the key cog.

Division 4

Edwardsburg (12-0) vs. Hudsonville Unity Christian (12-0) at Portage Northern

A pair of recent champions will face off – both won titles in 2018, Edwardsburg in Division 4 and Unity in Division 5. Three years later, both are on similar paces as those title winners. Edwardsburg’s average margin of victory this fall is 48 points, thanks to a defense giving up less than five points per game and a rushing attack that’s run for 4,400 yards with five backs gaining between 400-700. Unity’s average margin of victory is 45 points with an offense that has scored at least 40 every game. Senior Drew Chandler has run for 1,242 of the Crusaders’ 4,500 on the ground.

Freeland (11-1) vs. Chelsea (12-0) at Lapeer

The Falcons are playing in their fifth Semifinal – and second straight – hoping to reach the Finals for the first time. Senior quarterback Bryson Huckeby (1,522 yards/15 TDs passing, 8 TDs rushing) and senior Garrett Pistro (1,037 yards/18 touchdowns rushing) lead a balanced offense. Chelsea has reached the Semifinals four straight seasons and eliminated reigning champion Detroit Country Day last week. The Bulldogs hope to return to Ford Field for the first time since 2018 with senior running back Trenton Hill (1,400 yards/29 TDs rushing) and senior quarterback Lucas Dunn (1,440 yards/18 TDs passing) leading a similarly-balanced attack.

Division 5

Frankenmuth (12-0) vs. Grand Rapids Catholic Central (12-0) at Mount Pleasant

This is a rematch of last season’s Division 5 championship game, a 48-21 Catholic Central win. The Cougars lost star quarterback Joey Silveri to injury early this season, but senior John Passinault (1,765 yards/33 TDs passing) has stepped in and been outstanding as well with lots of help from senior tight end Nolan Ziegler (1,039 yards/23 TDs receiving). Frankenmuth also returns one of its best playmakers in senior running back Cole Lindow (1,794 yards/20 TDs rushing), while senior Cole Jankowski has stepped in well at quarterback with 18 rushing touchdowns and six more passing.

Portland (10-2) vs. Marine City (12-0) at Novi

These are two more teams familiar with this stage, as both last made the Semifinals in 2018 and won championships during the last decade. Marine City is giving up only nine points per game and has three players averaging at least 10 yards per carry, led by junior Zach Tetler (1,302 yards/27 TDs rushing). Portland’s strategy also isn’t a secret, and just as effective – four Raiders have run for 700 or more yards and eight touchdowns apiece.

Division 6

Standish-Sterling (10-2) vs. Lansing Catholic (11-1) at Clare

Standish-Sterling is one of the comeback stories of the year, after finishing 1-6 a season ago. The Panthers now run into Lansing Catholic, making its third-straight trip to the Semifinals and having won Division 5 in 2019. Senior Joey Baker (2,523 yards/27 TDs passing) is the latest great Cougars quarterback, and senior Alex Watters (1,063 yards/14 TDs receiving) also was among stars of that 2019 team. Standish-Sterling’s defense has been outstanding during the playoffs, giving up 21 points over three games, and senior Laine Thibault (1,396 yards rushing) is solid leading the offense.  

Michigan Center (11-1) vs. Warren Michigan Collegiate (10-2) Ypsilanti Lincoln

Both are seeking their first championship game appearances. Michigan Center has gotten here with a defense giving up 11 points per game and an offense keyed by multi-talented senior quarterback Kaydin Hiland (1,322 yards/19 TDs rushing, 7 TDs passing, 7 TDs receiving). Michigan Collegiate is paced by an excellent dual-threat QB as well – senior Deion Black has run for 1,134 yards and 14 touchdowns and thrown for 13 scores.

Division 7

Pewamo-Westphalia (12-0) vs. Traverse City St. Francis (12-0) at Cedar Springs

These two combined have played in seven Semifinals and three championship games over the last five years. P-W complements a defense giving up six points per game with an offense led by two runners with at least 800 yards and 10 touchdowns apiece. All of the Pirates’ nonleague wins, including in the playoffs, have been over teams that won conference titles this fall. St. Francis is the reigning Division 7 runner-up, having fallen by just seven points in last season’s Final. The Gladiators haven’t scored less than 48 points during the playoffs, led by senior quarterback Charlie Peterson (1,677 yards/21 TDs passing).

Lawton (12-0) vs. Jackson Lumen Christi (11-1) at Battle Creek Harper Creek

These two have vastly different playoff pasts but could look very similar when they meet. Lawton is playing in its first Semifinal, relying on a defense giving up eight points per game and a senior running back in Jake Rueff with incredible numbers – 2,253 yards and 46 touchdowns on the ground. Lumen Christi is a regular in late November, and the recipe is similar – the defense gives up 13 points per game, and the offense runs the ball with five backs gaining between 400-900 yards this fall.

Division 8

Ubly (12-0) vs. Beal City (11-1) at Mt. Morris

Reigning runner-up Ubly has yet to play a single-digit game this fall. Sophomore quarterback Evan Peruski is averaging 11.1 yards per carry for 1,009 total, along with 17 touchdowns rushing, and he’s thrown for eight more scores. Beal City’s only loss was opening night by a point to Ravenna, and the Aggies have been rarely challenged otherwise. They are winning by 29 points per game, giving up just under nine on average.

Ottawa Lake Whiteford (11-1) vs. Hudson (12-0) at Adrian College

Hudson’s defense has been an intriguing follow, giving up just under six points per game and last allowing more than eight in Week 5. The Tigers match that with an offense that’s rushed for 3,600 yards, led by senior Nick Kopin’s 1,397 with 16 touchdowns on the ground. Whiteford is undefeated in-state, with its lone defeat to an opponent from Ohio, and all of the Bobcats’ wins have been by double digits. Senior Cole Giesige is a big part of a balanced offense, running for 1,241 yards and 21 scores this fall.

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PHOTO Sterling Heights Stevenson’s Jordan Ramsey (5) fends off a potential tackler during his team’s Semifinal win. (Photo courtesy of C&G Newspapers.)

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.)