1st & Goal: 2021 Playoff Week 3 Preview

By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com senior editor

November 11, 2021

The 8-player football season is down to its final six games, and the 11-player season is down to its final three weeks – and every matchup at this point in the MHSAA Playoffs has a story to tell.

MI Student AidWe preview 12 of those below, switching things up with the 8-Player Semifinals first as we join those contenders in preparing for next weekend’s trip to the Finals at Northern Michigan University’s Superior Dome.

All four 8-Player Semifinals and 31 of 36 football games total this weekend will be streamed live on MHSAA.tv, with Bally Sports Detroit broadcasting the 11-player Division 1 matchup between Rochester Adams and West Bloomfield. Click for how to watch.

8-Player Division 1

Martin (11-0) at Adrian Lenawee Christian (11-0), Friday

Lenawee Christian’s winning streak since switching to 8-player last season has reached 22 games, and they have yet to win one by only single digits – Climax-Scotts came closest this fall in a 16-point Week 6 loss. But all of that could change this week; Martin has put together two perfect regular seasons over its three in 8-player, and Mendon (in losses by eight and 19) is the only team to get within 40 points of the Clippers this season.

Rudyard (9-2) at Suttons Bay (11-0), Saturday

By defeating previously-unbeaten Indian River Inland Lakes 53-18 last week, Suttons Bay ran its record over the last three seasons to a combined 33-2, with both losses in Division 1 championship games. No one has gotten closer than 18 points to the Norseman this fall, and the last nine wins have all been by at least 30 points. Enter Rudyard, which is holding opponents to only 11 points per game and features a two-way threat on offense in senior quarterback EJ Suggitt (853 yards/17 TDs passing, 362 yards/11 TDs rushing). The Bulldogs have avenged both of their regular-season losses during the playoffs.

8-Player Division 2

Marion (10-1) at Powers North Central (11-0), Saturday

To say the Jets have been unchallenged this season is becoming an understatement – they’ve outscored their 10 opponents on the field by an average of 61-4, and they too have won 22 straight games. But Marion is enjoying historic success, reaching double-digit wins for the first time since 1992 with the only loss to Suttons Bay (see above) and no other opponent getting closer than 15 points. Junior quarterback Mason Salisbury can do it all; he’s run for 1,567 yards (11 per carry) and 30 touchdowns and thrown for another 908 yards and 12 scores.

Colon (10-1) at Au Gres-Sims (11-0), Saturday

The Wolverines have reached their previous high point, as in 2018 they also entered a Semifinal 11-0 before falling that game to Pickford. This time, Au Gres-Sims features a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in senior Mason VanSickle (1,434/21 TDS) and junior Keagan Bender (1,209/16), and VanSickle also has thrown for 2,465 yards and 40 touchdowns – nearly half to senior Evan Saunders (1,061 yards/17 TDs). They surely will test a Colon defense allowing only 12 points per game. But the Magi have seen many of the rest of the best, with the only loss to Lenawee Christian (see above) and wins the last two weeks over previous unbeatens Portland St. Patrick and Morrice.

11-Player Division 1

Dearborn Fordson (9-2) at Belleville (10-1), Saturday

Fordson’s two losses this season were by a combined five points, and the first came Week 5 against Belleville 21-19 in a game that ended up helping the Tigers finish atop the Kensington Lakes Activities Association East. The Tractors’ defense has been sound – they are giving up only 17 points per game, and those 21 tied Belleville’s second-lowest output of the season. But Fordson’s challenge of scoring more in this rematch faces a tough obstacle as well with the Tigers giving up only 13 points per game this season including a combined 19 over their last three games.  

Other Regional Finals FRIDAY West Bloomfield (10-1) at Rochester Adams (11-0), Macomb Dakota (8-3) at Sterling Heights Stevenson (9-2). SATURDAY Grand Blanc (11-0) at Rockford (11-0).

11-Player Division 2

Traverse City Central (10-1) at Caledonia (10-1), Friday

Central has followed up last season’s first Semifinal trip since 1998 with a record offensive performance. The Trojans’ 537 points are their most since at least 1950 (according to Michigan-football.com), and they’ve scored 49 or more five straight games and 42 or more in nine games total. Caledonia may not be fazed. The Fighting Scots are giving up 13 points per game, and that includes allowing only 17 to Rockford (averaging 40 per game) and 12 to Muskegon Mona Shores (44 ppg) over the last five weeks. But the comparison also cuts the other way; Central’s defense is giving up just 13 points per game as well, and Caledonia’s offense is grinding out 35.

Other Regional Finals FRIDAY Portage Central (9-2) at South Lyon (11-0), Livonia Franklin (6-5) at Waterford Mott (7-4). SATURDAY Roseville (7-4) at Warren De La Salle Collegiate (10-0).

11-Player Division 3

Cedar Springs (9-2) at DeWitt (10-1), Saturday (at Grand Ledge)

Cedar Springs’ 21-14 win over Muskegon last week may have resulted in some double takes – the Big Reds had won nine straight District titles – but the result definitely falls in with the Red Hawks’ body of work this season. Grand Rapids Catholic Central puts up a strong argument as one of the best teams in Michigan regardless of division, the Cedar Springs fell to the Cougars by just a point in Week 8. The other loss came to Rockford. The question this time will revolve around how much the Red Hawks’ defense can match DeWitt’s offense, which averages 48 ppg. Muskegon averaged 46 before last week’s meeting, but the Panthers put up 50 on previously-undefeated Mount Pleasant in their District Final.

Other Regional Finals FRIDAY Parma Western (8-3) at St. Joseph (7-4), Mason (9-2) at Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice (8-3) (at Lawrence Tech), Allen Park (9-2) at Detroit Martin Luther King (10-1).

11-Player Division 4

Detroit Country Day (7-3) at Chelsea (11-0), Friday

Country Day’s record really is irrelevant at this point; the Yellowjackets’ losses were to Division 2 South Lyon and Division 3 Brother Rice and Harper Woods, and South Lyon and Brother Rice are still playing. More telling might be how Country Day has played over the last five weeks – the reigning Division 4 champion is 4-1 giving up 13 points per game and having scored a combined 84 over its first two playoff contests. It’s a good match for how Chelsea has been looking consistently all season; the Bulldogs are giving up 12 points per game and scoring 43, and that’s with only one game under 40 this fall.

Other Regional Finals FRIDAY Cadillac (9-2) at Hudsonville Unity Christian (11-0) (at Jenison), Grand Rapids South Christian (8-3) at Edwardsburg (11-0), Croswell-Lexington (10-1) at Freeland (10-1).

11-Player Division 5

Kingsley (10-1) at Frankenmuth (11-0), Saturday

A rematch of last season Division 5 Final with Grand Rapids Catholic Central is a possibility for next week, but the Eagles cannot overlook a Kingsley team that has reached at least Regional Finals three of the last four seasons and is eight points from also being undefeated this fall. The Stags lone loss was 38-30 to Division 7 contender Traverse City St. Francis, and minus that game Kingsley is giving up only 7.8 points per contest. Frankenmuth’s defense should be ready to match – the Eagles are giving up only 9.3 points per game – but must be ready for a close game that could resemble their wins over New Lothrop, Freeland and Goodrich.

Other Regional Finals FRIDAY Muskegon Oakridge (9-2) at Grand Rapids Catholic Central (11-0), Kalamazoo United (8-3) at Portland (9-2), Corunna (7-4) at Marine City (11-0).

11-Player Division 6

Montague (8-3) at Lansing Catholic (10-1), Saturday

Reigning champion Montague has worked its way back to this point, and a broader look at the Wildcats’ season shows they’ve really been in the mix all along. Montague earned a share of the West Michigan Conference title, which is never a small feat, and the losses came to teams in Division 4 (Edwardsburg, Whitehall) and Division 5 (Portland) that all are still playing after winning District titles. The Cougars impressed in a big way with last week’s 28-8 win over previously-undefeated Millington, and an offense averaging 34 points per game may need to be the difference this time. Both teams are giving up only 14 points per game.

Other Regional Finals FRIDAY Michigan Center (10-1) at Clinton (9-2). SATURDAY Calumet (9-2) at Standish-Sterling (9-2), Ecorse (8-3) at Warren Michigan Collegiate (9-2).

11-Player Division 7

Lawton (11-0) at Muskegon Catholic Central (10-1), Friday

The Blue Devils put together their second perfect regular season in three years this fall, and a win this weekend would plant a major exclamation mark on that recent work. Lawton is seeking its first Regional title and rolling, especially on the defensive side of the ball where its giving up only 8.5 points per game. This will be MCC’s seventh-straight game against a playoff team, which makes its 34 points scored and 14 points allowed per game even more impressive. The Crusaders are seeking their first Regional title since 2016’s undefeated Division 8 run.  

Other Regional Finals SATURDAY Ishpeming Westwood (10-1) at Traverse City St. Francis (11-0), Elkton-Pigeon-Bay Port Laker (9-2) at Pewamo-Westphalia (11-0), Detroit Loyola (6-4) at Jackson Lumen Christi (10-1).

11-Player Division 8

Clarkston Everest Collegiate (9-2) at Ottawa Lake Whiteford (10-1), Saturday

While not this group of players, Whiteford as a program has familiarity with this level of the tournament having made consecutive Finals in 2016 and 2017 and winning Division 8 to cap the latter run (when the Bobcats also defeated Everest in a Regional Final). But this will be Whiteford’s first playoff game this season against a team from outside its league. Everest has that bit of unfamiliarity on its side, and has been on its game outscoring its first two playoff opponents by a combined 88-0. The Mountaineers reached the Semifinals last season but were unable to play that round – so surely there’s some added motivation to return.

Other Regional Finals FRIDAY Carson City-Crystal (10-1) at Beal City (10-1), Breckenridge (9-2) at Ubly (11-0), White Pigeon (10-1) at Hudson (11-0).

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PHOTO Marion quarterback Mason Salisbury (7) works to get to the edge during a Week 8 win over Vestaburg. (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.)