1st & Goal: 2021 Playoff Week 1 Preview

By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com senior editor

October 28, 2021

From an up-close point of view, at just more than half of Michigan’s football-playing high schools, three months of football season ended last weekend.

MI Student AidBut from a mile-high perspective, 20 teams have played just slightly more than half their games this fall – and 288 begin this weekend with the opportunity to add onto their seasons and finish among that fortunate few.

Playoffs begin Friday with District Semifinals in 11-player and Regional Semifinals in 8-Player – click here for the full schedule for each division. More than 100 of the 144 total playoff football games will be broadcast on MHSAA.tv, with Clinton Township Chippewa Valley at Troy appearing on the Bally Sports Detroit primary channel tonight – click for more on how to watch.

Below are glances at games that especially pop off the page in every division. (Games are Friday unless noted.)

11-Player Division 1

Howell (7-2) at Hartland (7-2)

The co-champions in the Kensington Lakes Activities Association West meet again, after Hartland won the regular-season matchup 29-7 on Oct. 1. Those remain the most points given up by a Highlanders defense allowing an average of 11.9 per game, while the Eagles’ defense finished the regular season giving up an average of just 9.6 (and only five per game not counting a 46-9 Week 9 loss to No. 6 Belleville). This time Howell will have running back August Johanningsmeier, a Western Michigan recruit, who didn’t play during the first meeting.

Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Clinton Township Chippewa Valley (6-3) at Troy (8-1), Ann Arbor Huron (8-1) at Belleville (8-1), Detroit Cass Tech (6-3) at Dearborn Fordson (7-2), Lapeer (7-2) at Rochester Adams (9-0).

11-Player Division 2

Muskegon Mona Shores (7-2) at Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central (8-1)

Two-time reigning Division 2 champion Mona Shores is facing a playoff road that may not include a home game. But while that adds to the challenge, the Sailors are plenty familiar with elite opponents – their losses this fall were to Division 3 top-ranked Detroit Martin Luther King and No. 5 Muskegon High. This week’s trip is especially intriguing, however – Forest Hills Central barely fell to Shores 28-25 during the last year’s playoffs and by just six points in a 2018 playoff matchup, and won their 2017 postseason meeting. The Rangers’ only loss this fall was early by four points to Division 1 No. 4 Grand Blanc.

Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Dexter (5-4) at Battle Creek Lakeview (6-3), Port Huron (6-3) at Port Huron Northern (7-2), Bay City Western (7-2) at Midland Dow (6-3), East Lansing (6-3) at Milford (7-2).

11-Player Division 3

River Rouge (6-2) at Harper Woods (7-2)

These are familiar opponents with this their eighth meeting over the last 14 seasons, including as members together of the Michigan Metro Athletic Conference Blue from 2017-19. River Rouge has won the last five of those matchups and is continuing to build on a decade as a Finals contender as it looks to return to Ford Field for the third-straight season. But Harper Woods has been climbing. Two of those losses to Rouge in the MMAC Blue were league title deciders, and the Pioneers have made the playoffs four straight seasons (including all-in 2020) with their lone defeats this fall to Division 2 top-ranked Warren De La Salle Collegiate and Division 3 qualifier Orchard Lake St. Mary’s.

Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Marquette (7-2) at Mount Pleasant (9-0), Orchard Lake St. Mary’s (5-4) at Flint Kearsley (6-3), Warren Fitzgerald (8-1) at Detroit Martin Luther King (8-1), Riverview (9-0) at Allen Park (7-2).

11-Player Division 4

Whitehall (7-2) at Sparta (7-2)

The Spartans somewhat quietly put together a fourth-straight winning season with their two defeats this fall coming over the first three weeks and by a combined eight points. The first of those losses was opening night to Muskegon Oakridge, 22-21, which went on to defeat and then share the West Michigan Conference championship with Whitehall. The Vikings are coming off a 10-point loss at 8-1 Reed City, but can boast wins over Montague and Kalamazoo United to go with their league title share.

Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Spring Lake (6-3) at Grand Rapids Christian (6-3), Goodrich (7-2) at Freeland (8-1), Pontiac Notre Dame Prep (7-2) at Croswell-Lexington (8-1). SATURDAY Detroit Country Day (5-3) at Redford Union (8-1).

11-Player Division 5

Comstock Park (9-0) at Grand Rapids West Catholic (8-1)

Houseman Field will host one of the most intriguing matchups statewide regardless of division. Both teams have four wins over others in these playoffs. Comstock Park bounced way back this fall from three straight one or two-win seasons to finish ahead of Sparta (see above) in winning the Ottawa-Kent Conference Silver title. The Panthers are plenty familiar with West Catholic after losing to the Falcons in last season’s playoffs and playing them either as part of the same league or nonconference the 12 seasons prior. West Catholic’s only loss this fall was to eventual O-K Blue champion Hudsonville Unity Christian, and the Falcons handed Division 7 contender Muskegon Catholic Central its lone loss.

Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Clare (6-3) at Gladwin (9-0), Kingsford (6-3) at Kingsley (8-1), Olivet (7-2) at Williamston (6-3), Corunna (5-4) at Flint Powers Catholic (3-6).

11-Player Division 6

Michigan Center (8-1) at Jonesville (9-0)

This is a rematch of last season’s District Final won by Michigan Center 28-22, and they just missed seeing each other in the Big 8/Cascades crossovers of this year’s Week 9. Jonesville won the Big 8 Conference this fall, and then edged Cascades champion Addison 20-14 last Saturday in the Comets’ only game this season closer than 16 points. Michigan Center was second in the Cascades after a one-point Week 4 loss to Addison, but since the Cardinals have shined in close games winning three by eight points of fewer.

Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Calumet (7-2) at Menominee (5-4), Boyne City (8-1) at Grayling (7-2), Erie Mason (5-4) at Ida (7-2), Detroit Pershing (5-4) at Detroit Southeastern (6-3).

11-Player Division 7

Elkton-Pigeon-Bay Port Laker (7-2) at Reese (8-1)

All three co-champions of the Greater Thumb Conference West play in the same District, and these two are meeting again after Reese won the Week 7 matchup 27-18. The Rockets are enjoying their first winning season since 2013, losing only to Bad Axe – the third co-champion in the GTC West. Laker has enjoyed more recent success, with this its sixth-straight playoff appearance. The Lakers edged Bad Axe by a point Week 8 to create the shared league title. Bad Axe travels to Hemlock on the other side of the District bracket.

Keep an eye on these FRIDAY New Lothrop (6-3) at Montrose (7-2), Lutheran Westland (8-1) at Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central (8-1), Bad Axe (7-2) at Hemlock (5-4). SATURDAY East Jordan (7-2) at Ishpeming Westwood (8-1).

11-Player Division 8

Centreville (7-2) at Addison (8-1)

Four of the top 14 teams in Division 8 playoff points are in the same District (Reading and Hudson are on the other side). Addison entered as the No. 3 team and Centreville is No. 10 and also the reigning Division 8 champion. As noted above, Addison’s lone loss came last week to Division 6 No. 11 Jonesville, and Centreville’s defeats came to a pair of Division 7 teams including No. 6 Muskegon Catholic Central. Both are league champions and have put up similar numbers overall this fall – but the difference may be found when Addison is on offense (averaging 43.8 points per game, but 48 not counting the Jonesville loss) and Centreville is on D (12 points allowed per game, but only 8.6 after opening night.)

Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Fowler (6-3) at Flint Beecher (4-5), Reading (6-3) at Hudson (9-0). SATURDAY Bark River-Harris (6-3) at Beal City (8-1), Frankfort (6-3) at Iron Mountain (6-3).

8-Player Division 1

Rogers City (8-1) at Indian River Inland Lakes (9-0)

Inland Lakes dove into 8-player last season with great success, and Rogers City is following the same path in its first season this fall while the Bulldogs have been even better in their encore. Inland Lakes reached the Division 1 Semifinals in 2020 and is coming off its closest game of this season, a 14-point win over Gaylord St. Mary. Rogers City is coming off its defeat – 44-36 to Newberry – but didn’t give up a point in September and won its first three games of October against teams sitting now at .500 or better.  

Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Rudyard (7-2) at Munising (7-2), Tekonsha (7-2) at Martin (9-0). SATURDAY Britton Deerfield (8-1) at Deckerville (7-1).

8-Player Division 2

Colon (8-1) at Portland St. Patrick (9-0), Saturday

These have been two of the most dominating 8-player programs in the state over the last four years, with Portland St. Patrick defeating the Magi 44-34 last season in a Regional Final on the way to the Shamrocks finishing Division 2 runners-up for the third time in four seasons. Colon was the Division 1 champion in 2019, and its only other losses over the last two seasons were to reigning Division 1 champion and current favorite Adrian Lenawee Christian. Portland St. Patrick long has thrived offensively, scoring 43.6 points per game this fall, while Colon has established itself as a defensive juggernaut over the last three seasons and has given up 11 points per game with five shutouts.

Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Mio (6-3) at Hillman (6-3), Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart (7-2) at Kinde North Huron (9-0). SATURDAY Crystal Falls Forest Park (7-2) at Lake Linden-Hubbell (7-2).

Second Half’s weekly “1st & Goal” previews and reviews are powered by MI Student Aid, a part of the Office of Postsecondary Financial Planning located within the Michigan Department of Treasury. MI Student Aid encourages students to pursue postsecondary education by providing access to student financial resources and information. MI Student Aid administers the state’s 529 college savings programs (MET/MESP), as well as scholarship and grant programs that help make college Accessible, Affordable and Attainable for you. Connect with MI Student Aid at www.michigan.gov/mistudentaid and find more information on Facebook and Twitter @mistudentaid.

PHOTO Edwardsburg, here on offense against Otsego, brings a 9-0 record into the Division 4 playoffs. (Photo by Gary Shook.) 

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.)