1st & Goal: 2022 11-Player Finals Preview

By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com senior editor

November 23, 2022

We like to say every score has a story, and this weekend's 11-Player Football Finals at Ford Field have foundations laid for many to be told.

MI Student AidThe Division 1 and 2 matchups feature reigning champions against opponents returning to the Finals for the first time in a decade or more. The Division 5 and 8 games pit undefeated teams, with three of the four seeking their first championship at this level. The Division 3 and 7 games are rematches of powerhouse-packed playoff rivalries. The Division 4 and 6 games feature former Finals mainstays making their returns, but against teams looking to start their own traditions of traveling to Detroit for the holiday weekend. And the list goes on and on.

Here's the schedule for Friday and Saturday's games:

Friday, Nov. 25
Division 8 – Ottawa Lake Whiteford (13-0) vs. Ubly (13-0) – 10 a.m.
Division 2 – Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central (13-0) vs. Warren De La Salle Collegiate (12-1) – 1 p.m. 
Division 6 – Grand Rapids West Catholic (12-1) vs. Negaunee (13-0) – 4:30 p.m. 
Division 4 – Grand Rapids South Christian (13-0) vs. Goodrich (12-1) – 7:30 p.m. 

Saturday, Nov. 26 
Division 7 – Traverse City St. Francis (13-0) vs. Jackson Lumen Christi (10-3) – 10 a.m.
Division 1 – Belleville (13-0) vs. Caledonia (12-1) – 1 p.m. 
Division 5 – Frankenmuth (13-0) vs. Gladwin (13-0) – 4:30 p.m. 
Division 3 – Muskegon (11-2) vs. Detroit Martin Luther King (9-3) – 7:30 p.m. 

All games will be broadcast live on Bally Sports Detroit’s primary channel except the Division 4 Final, which will be broadcast on the Bally Sports Detroit website and Bally Sports app, and Stadium College Sports. Additionally, all eight championship games will be available for listening from the MHSAA Network at MHSAANetwork.com

Below is a glance at all eight matchups. Statistics are through Semifinals unless noted.

Division 1

Belleville vs. CaledoniaBELLEVILLE
Record/rank: 13-0, No. 1
Coach: Dejuan Rogers, interim coach (4-0)
League finish: First in Kensington Lakes Activities Association East and overall
Championship history: Division 1 champion 2021.
Best wins: 29-28 (OT) over Detroit Cass Tech in Semifinal, 33-10 over No. 10 (tie) Detroit Catholic Central in Regional Final, 62-44 over Saline in District Final, 42-3 over No. 10 (tie) Brighton, 42-14 over Division 2 No. 3 Livonia Franklin.
Players to watch: QB Bryce Underwood, 6-2/180 soph. (2,599 yards/35 TDs passing, 478 yards/7 TDs rushing); RB/LB Jeremiah Beasley, 6-1/215 jr. (1,177 yards/23 TDs rushing); RB Colbey Reed, 5-9/210, jr. (462 yards/9 TDs rushing); DL Jeremiah Warren, 6-3/285, sr.
Outlook: The Tigers bring a 24-game winning streak into this Final, with Cass Tech last week the only team to come within single digits of matching them. Underwood is considered one of the top sophomores nationally, and he showed why in leading Belleville’s comeback win over the Technicians with two touchdowns rushing and another passing. He was The Associated Press’ Division 1-2 all-state Player of the Year as a freshman, while junior defensive back James Robinson also made the first team and Warren, junior receiver/safety Jalen Johnson, senior defensive lineman Camden Weaver, Beasley and senior receiver/defensive back Mychal Yharbrough earned honorable mentions. Junior offensive lineman Nathaniel Johnson (6-5/330) is another highly-regarded talent.

Record/rank: 12-1, No. 8
Coach: Derek Pennington, second season (22-3)
League finish: Second in Ottawa-Kent Conference Red
Championship history: Division 3 champion 2005.  
Best wins: 14-13 (2OT) over No. 3 Rockford in District Final, 21-0 over No. 7 Clarkston in Semifinal, 48-26 (District Semifinal) and 50-40 over Grandville, 42-14 over Grand Ledge in Regional Final.
Players to watch: RB/DB Brock Townsend, 6-0/200 RB/DB jr. (1,179 yards/17 TDs rushing, 5 interceptions); QB Mason McKenzie, 6-0/180 sr. (1,375 yards/20 TDs passing, 1,537 yards/19 TDs rushing); HB/LB Derek Pennington Jr., 6-2/225 jr. (308 yards/5 TDs receiving); OL/DL Carlo Aybar, 6-1/275 sr.
Outlook: The Fighting Scots have shown remarkable resilience over the last month, bouncing back from a 38-15 loss to Rockford in Week 9 to rumble back to the Finals – with their best win arguably a 14-13 victory over the Rams only two weeks after the defeat, although the shutout of Clarkston clearly was noteworthy as well. A strong running attack long has been the name of Caledonia’s game, and the Fighting Scots went over 3,400 yards and 45 touchdowns rushing in the Semifinal win. Last week’s also was their fifth shutout of the season, but really the last three weeks have seen some of the team’s most impressive performances on that side of the ball as Rockford was averaging 37 points per game, Grand Ledge was averaging 30 and Clarkston was averaging 41.

Division 2

Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central vs. Warren De La Salle CollegiateGRAND RAPIDS FOREST HILLS CENTRAL
Record/rank: 13-0, No. 4 
Coach: Tim Rogers, 11th season (76-39)
League finish: First in O-K White
Championship history: Class A runner-up 1994.
Best wins: 20-17 (2OT) over No. 1 Dexter in Semifinal, 31-21 over No. 7 Muskegon Mona Shores in District Final, 21-17 over East Lansing in Regional Final, 21-13 over Byron Center.
Players to watch: WR/DB Ty Hudkins, 6-0/182 jr. (843 yards/10 TDs receiving); DB/QB Mason McDonald jr. (355 yards/6 TDs passing, 374 yards/2 TDs rushing); LB/RB JT Hartman jr. (941 yards/8 TDs rushing); DL/OL Crandall Quinn, 6-2/235 sr. (Statistics through Regional Finals.)  

Outlook: The Rangers have pulled through one-score games the last two weeks with a defense that’s given up 8.6 points per game on the season and hasn’t backed down against the tougher competition of the playoffs – seeing that average rise to only 15 ppg over four postseason games. Quinn and senior linebacker Raymond Cargill are among the pacesetters of that group. McDonald has stepped in admirably at quarterback the last two weeks – he threw and ran for another touchdown in the Dexter win – after senior Justin Osterhouse (654 yards/15 TDs rushing, 1,070 yards/13 TDs passing) was reportedly on crutches following the District Final.

Record/rank: 12-1, No. 2
Coach: Dan Rohn, third season (32-6)
League finish: Tied for first in Detroit Catholic League Central
Championship history: Four MHSAA titles (most recent 2021), three runner-up finishes.
Best wins: 37-7 over No. 9 Roseville in District Final, 28-0 over Division 1 No. 10 (tie) Detroit Catholic Central, 19-18 over Division 3 No. 4 River Rouge, 49-16 over Division 3 No. 7 Muskegon.
Players to watch: QB/DB Brady Drogosh, 6-4/215 sr. (1,839 yards/33 TDs passing, 1,088 yards/13 TDs rushing); RB/LB Rhett Roeser, 6-0/225 jr. (727 yards/13 TDs rushing); DL/TE Mason Muragin, 6-3/240 sr. (71 tackles/14.5 sacks); LB/TE James McDonald, 6-1/220 sr. (115 tackles/17 tackles for loss).
Outlook: The Pilots navigated another strong regular-season schedule with their only loss by a point to Bloomfield Brother Rice, and that’s no doubt paid off as they’ve been unchallenged during the playoffs outscoring their four opponents by a combined 175-29. Drogosh, who will continue at Cincinnati, made the all-state first team as a junior, while Muragin – playing next at Illinois – earned an honorable mention last season. Defensive back Jamari Allen is committed to continue at Central Michigan. Senior receivers Jack Yanachik (523 yards/8 TDs receiving) and Triston Nichols (449/8) are among top Drogosh targets.

Division 3

Muskegon vs. Detroit Martin Luther KingMUSKEGON
Record/rank: 11-2, No. 7
Coach: Shane Fairfield, 13th season (142-26)
League finish: Tied for first in O-K Green
Championship history: Six championships (most recent 2017), six runner-up finishes. 
Best wins: 27-20 over No. 6 Zeeland West in Regional Final, 49-21 over No. 9 DeWitt in Semifinal, 55-35 over Division 2 No. 7 Muskegon Mona Shores, 28-20 over Muskegon Reeths-Puffer. 
Players to watch: QB/DB M’Khi Guy, 5-9/155 jr. (1,638 yards/24 TDs rushing, 647 yards/11 TDs passing); SL/DB Destin Piggee, 5-7/160, sr. (718 yards/5 TDs rushing, 351 yards/5 TDs receiving); RB/LB Jakob Price, 5-7/175 jr. (971 yards/14 TDs rushing); OL/DL D’Andre Hudgins, 6-3/285 sr. 
Outlook: The Big Reds are making a familiar trip back to Ford Field for the first time since 2019, featuring familiar strengths – multiple playmakers including a tough-to-tackle running quarterback, and a giant line leading the way. Hudgins is joined by three more linemen 6-4 or 6-5, with two of those at 300 or more pounds. Guy ran for more than 300 yards and six touchdowns against DeWitt, and Price and Piggee stretch defenses as well – all three were averaging at least seven yards per carry entering last weekend. The losses came Week 2 to Division 2 finalist Warren De La Salle and Week 5 to Zeeland West, the latter avenged in the Regional Final. Price earned an all-state honorable mention last season. 

Record/rank: 9-3, No. 1
Coach: Tyrone Spencer, seventh season (74-17)
League finish: Second in Detroit Public School League Blue
Championship history: Five MHSAA titles (most recent 2021), three runner-up finishes.
Best wins: 52-17 over No. 3 Mason in Semifinal, 22-12 over Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice in Regional Final, 41-28 over No. 4 River Rouge in District Semifinal, 28-23 over Detroit Cass Tech. 
Players to watch: QB Dante Moore, 6-2/210, sr. (2,239 yards/28 TDs passing, 5 TDs rushing – includes Semifinal); WR/DB Jameel Croft Jr., 6-1/185 sr. (671 yards/8 TDs receiving, 6 interceptions); DE Kenny Merrieweather, 6-3/235, sr. (45 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, 12 sacks); RB Sterling Anderson Jr., 5-8/165, sr. (918 yards/12 TDs rushing). (Statistics through Regional Finals except Moore’s.)
Outlook: The reigning Division 3 champion will return with a star-studded cast, headlined by Moore as he finishes his four-year varsity career before continuing at Oregon. Anderson went over 1,000 yards rushing during the Semifinal win and scored six total touchdowns against Mason, while Croft snagged two more interceptions. Croft is committed to Kansas, Merrieweather is committed to Iowa and both joined Moore on the all-state first team last season, when Moore also was named Associated Press Division 3-4 Player of the Year. The Crusaders lost their final two games of the regular season, to Cass Tech and Cincinnati Moeller, but had only one single-digit game before (against Cass Tech) and none since.

Division 4

Grand Rapids South Christian vs. GoodrichGRAND RAPIDS SOUTH CHRISTIAN
13-0, No. 2
Coach: Danny Brown, fourth season (35-11)
League finish: First in O-K Gold
Championship history: Three MHSAA titles (most recent 2014), four runner-up finishes. 
Best wins: 26-20 over No. 5 Edwardsburg in Semifinal, 28-21 over No. 1 Whitehall in Regional Final, 35-20 over Hudsonville Unity Christian in District Final, 36-34 over Division 1 No. 5 Grand Rapids Catholic Central. 
Players to watch: QB/LB Jacob DeHaan, 6-2/190 sr. (2,574 yards/33 TDs passing, 1,128 yards/17 TDs rushing); WR/DB Seth Ritsema, 6-2/200 sr. (776 yards/10 TDs receiving); WR/RB Carson Vis, 6-3/180, soph. (659 yards/15 TDs receiving); OL/LB Cameron Post, 6-4/250 sr. (54.5 tackles/14.5 tackles for loss).
Outlook: South Christian is making its first Finals trip since that championship season in 2014, and after not only defeating two top-five teams in the playoffs but also downing last season’s Division 4 runner-up in Unity Christian. The regular-season win over GRCC ended the Cougars’ 41-game winning streak. DeHaan earned an all-state honorable mention last season as a junior, as did running back/kicker Nate Brinks (689 yards/8 TDs rushing, 60-64 XP/1 FG kicking). Senior linebacker Cayden Dykema (6-5/205) leads the defense with 77.5 tackles, plus has totaled 12.5 tackles for loss.

Record/rank: 12-1, unranked
Coach: Tom Alward, 30th season (186-113)
League finish: First in Flint Metro League Stars
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final. 
Best wins: 51-26 over No. 3 Riverview in Semifinal, 40-20 over Orchard Lake St. Mary’s in Regional Final, 10-9 over No. 6 Freeland in District Final, 42-21 over Almont.
Players to watch: QB/DB Gavin Hart, 6-3/180 sr. (1,732 yards/20 TDs passing); RB/LB Jace Simerson, 5-10/200 sr. (1,380 yards/20 TDs); WR/DB Caden Kolanowski, 6-1/180, sr. (622 yards/6 TDs receiving); TE/DE Jace Williams, 6-4/200, sr.
Outlook: Goodrich has won 12 straight games on the way to Ford Field after suffering its only loss Week 1 to Division 5 finalist Frankenmuth, and also set a program record for victories along the way. Only three of those wins were decided by a score or less, and Goodrich improved on a 6-0 win over Linden in Week 2 with a 21-0 shutout in a Week 8 rematch. Simerson ran for five touchdowns last weekend in the victory over previously-undefeated Riverview. Kolanowski earned an all-state honorable mention last season as a specialist; he’s kicked and connected on 50 of 51 extra-point attempts and four field goals this season. Junior linebacker Easton Phipps joins Williams in anchoring the defense.

Division 5

Frankenmuth vs. GladwinFRANKENMUTH
13-0, No. 5
Coach: Phil Martin, 10th season (104-16)
League finish: First in Tri-Valley Conference 8
Championship history: Division 5 runner-up 2020. 
Best wins: 38-0 over No. 7 Detroit Country Day in Semifinal, 49-7 over Flint Hamady in Regional Final, 21-0 over Division 4 No. 6 Freeland, 27-2 over Goodrich. 
Players to watch: QB Aidan Hoard, 6-4/205 sr. (1,406 yards/18 TDs passing, 682 yards/11 TDs rushing); RB/LB Griffin Barker, 5-9/170 jr. (861 yards/14 TDs rushing); TE/DE Brenden Marker, 6-3/220 sr. (40 tackles/16 tackles for loss/8 sacks); RB/LB Dalton DeBeau, 6-0/220 sr. (79 tackles/23 tackles for loss). 
Outlook: The Eagles are headed back to the Finals for the second time in three years in part driven by a defense that has given up 64 points this season – with two of their five shutouts coming over the last three playoff games. The most points Frankenmuth has given up is 16, to Saginaw Swan Valley in Week 2, and the Eagles shut out Swan Valley 31-0 in the District Final. Frankenmuth also has allowed 135 total yards per game this fall – and 317 rushing yards total over 13 games. Junior Colin Main is another impressive defender, with 69 tackles, 22 for loss and nine sacks. The Eagles spread  the wealth offensively; Hoard has thrown a touchdown pass to 10 receivers, and senior Sam Barger is another reliable rusher with 717 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground. 

Record/rank: 13-0, No. 2
Coach: Marc Jarstfer, fourth season (27-13)
League finish: First in Jack Pine Conference
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final. 
Best wins: 28-21 over No. 1 Grand Rapids Catholic Central in Semifinal, 26-8 over No. 4 Muskegon Oakridge in Regional Final, 33-27 over No. 8 Pontiac Notre Dame Prep, 38-0 over Clare. 
Players to watch: QB/S Nick Wheeler, 6-1/190 sr. (956 yards/11 TDs passing, 881 yards/19 TDs rushing, 57 tackles/5 interceptions); RB/LB Logan Kokotovich, 5-11/195 sr. (932 yards/13 TDs rushing, 84 tackles); SL/LB Earl Esiline, 5-10/170 sr. (1,073 yards/14 TDs rushing, 45 tackles); OL/DL Lincoln McKinnon, 6-2/240 sr. 
Outlook: A long-anticipated senior class has made good in taking Gladwin on its first trip to the Finals, after the Flying Gs also claimed their first Jack Pine Conference title since sharing it in 2002. The win over GRCC last weekend ended the Cougars’ three-year Finals streak and earned Gladwin a major dose of attention to help shine a light on those other accomplishments. The defense opened this fall with four straight shutouts and five over six games, giving up only seven points through the end of September. Senior safety Kaden McDonald (56 tackles) made the all-state second team last season, while McKinnon, Kokotovich and Wheeler earned honorable mentions. Four players have caught multiple touchdowns passes, led by junior Jhace Massey (5) and senior Lucas Mead (4).

Division 6

Grand Rapids West Catholic vs. NegauneeGRAND RAPIDS WEST CATHOLIC
12-1, No. 1
Coach: Landon Grove, first season (12-1)
League finish: Tied for first in O-K Blue
Championship history: Six MHSAA titles (most recent 2017), two runner-up finishes.
Best wins: 33-14 over No. 2 Clinton in Semifinal, 50-24 over No. 8 Constantine in District Final, 36-18 over Hudsonville Unity Christian, 28-20 over Division 4 No. 5 Edwardsburg.
Players to watch: QB Bernie Varnesdeel, 6-1/192 sr. (1,424 yards/20 TDs passing); RB/OLB Timmy Kloska, 6-0/220 sr. (2,158 yards/35 TDs rushing, 52 tackles/12 sacks); WR/DB Ryer Snow, 6-4/180 jr. (510 yards/7 TDs receiving, 75 tackles/12 sacks/4 interceptions); RB/SL/LB Charlie DeBruyn, 6-0/170 jr. (102 tackles/15 sacks).
Outlook: West Catholic last left Ford Field with a fifth-straight championship in 2017, and the Falcons are making their return with their statistically-strongest offensive and defensive units since that season. DeBruyn helps key a defense with 79 sacks total – junior Ethan Stoner adds another 10 to those leaders listed above – and junior Josh Mitchell (39 tackles) starts on both lines. Kloska is the name most know – he made the all-state first team last season, and his 35 rushing touchdowns qualify for the MHSAA record book. The team’s only loss came 28-20 to Fruitport in Week 7, and the Falcons came back with two shutouts over their next three games and last week limited a Clinton offense averaging 41 points per game to just 14. 

13-0, No. 3
Coach: Paul Jacobson, 23rd season (177-69)
League finish: First in Western Peninsula Athletic Conference Copper
Championship history: Division 6 champion 2002, Class CC runner-up 1991. 
Best wins: 13-12 over No. 5 Reed City in Semifinal, 18-12 (Regional Final) and 24-6 over Gladstone, 19-14 over Division 8 No. 4 Iron Mountain. 
Players to watch: WR/DB/K/P Phil Nelson, 6-1/185 sr. (326 yards/2 TDs receiving, 39-47 XP/2 FG kicking); RB/DB Kai Lacar, 5-11/185, jr. (1,233 yards/17 TDs rushing, 4 interceptions); WR/LB Niko Lukkarinen, 6-0/215 sr. (1,174 yards/19 TDs rushing); OL/DL Drake Spickerman, 5-11/225 sr.  
Outlook: The Miners opened with a close win over Iron Mountain and advanced with one-score victories the last two weeks, but absolutely dominated in between. They didn’t allow a point from Week 8 through the District Final, and total have given up only 148 yards and 6.7 points per game this fall. Senior Easton Palomaki has added another 509 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground as total Negaunee has rushed for 3,400 and 58, respectively. Sophomore quarterback Ty Jacobson has kept defenses honest with 580 yards and seven touchdowns through the air. Nelson made the all-state second team as a specialist last season, and in addition to kicking and punting he’s also returned three punts for touchdowns this fall.

Division 7

Traverse City St. Francis vs. Jackson Lumen ChristiTRAVERSE CITY ST. FRANCIS
13-0, No. 2
Coach: Josh Sellers, 13th season (145-19)
League finish: First in Northern Michigan Football Conference Legends
Championship history: Six MHSAA titles (most recent 2009), four runner-up finishes.
Best wins: 53-8 over No. 5 New Lothrop in Semifinal, 63-0 over No. 8 Ithaca in Regional Final, 42-7 over No. 10 Lawton, 42-35 over No. 4 Jackson Lumen Christi, 45-20 over Division 5 No. 7 Detroit Country Day
Players to watch: QB/DB Wyatt Nausadis, 6-4/210 sr. (1,145 yards/19 TDs passing, 1,007 yards/11 TDs rushing); RB/DB Burke Flowers, 5-11/175 jr. (699 yards/7 TDs rushing, 347 yards/7 TDs receiving); RB/LB Joey Donahue, 6-2/215 sr. (563 yards/14 TDs rushing, 105 tackles/13 tackles for loss); RB/LB Garrett Hathaway, 6-2/220 sr. (851 yards/17 TDs rushing, 4 TDs receiving, 64 tackles). 
Outlook: The Gladiators have mostly dominated on their way back to Ford Field for the first time since finishing Division 7 runner-up in 2020; their only close game other than the Week 2 win over Lumen Christi was a 16-pointer over Benzie Central in the District Final after previously defeating Benzie 49-12 in Week 3. Nausadis was an all-state receiver last season and has taken over for a graduated all-state quarterback with the best possible results. Donahue also made the all-state first team last season and leads a defense that’s raised its game even more during the playoffs giving up only 34 points total over four wins. 

10-3, No. 4 
Coach: Herb Brogan, 43rd season (394-94)
League finish: Second in Interstate 8 Athletic Conference
Championship history: 11 MHSAA titles (most recent 2018), three runner-up finishes. 
Best wins: 20-7 over No. 7 Napoleon in Semifinal, 7-6 over No. 10 Lawton in Regional Final, 35-0 over No. 3 Hudson in District Final, 19-14 over Parma Western. 
Players to watch: FB/LB Devian Franklin, 6-1/210, sr. (438 yards/11 TDs rushing); RB/DB Derrick Walker, 6-0/195 sr. (1,159 yards/15 TDs rushing); QB/LB Joe Lathers, 6-1/190 sr. (844 yards/7 TDs passing, 743 yards/17 TDs rushing); TE/LB Conor Smith, 6-1/210 sr. (Lathers’ passing does not include Semifinal.)
Outlook: Lumen Christi returns to Ford Field for the first time since finishing Division 7 runner-up in 2019. Freshmen who made that trip are now seniors, and the backfield features three veterans in Lathers, Franklin and Walker. They helped the Titans pulled off the rare feat of starting 0-3 but making the final weekend of the season, but those three losses also require context – they came 12-7 to No. 5 New Lothrop, 42-35 to St. Francis and 24-21 to Division 4 No. 8 Hastings. The defense, keyed in part by Smith, Franklin and Lathers at linebacker, has given up a combined 20 points over four playoff games and only 11.5 points per game all season. Brogan sits third on the all-time state football coaching wins list.

Division 8 

Ottawa Lake Whiteford vs. UblyOTTAWA LAKE WHITEFORD
13-0, No. 2
Coach: Todd Thieken, first season (13-0)
League finish: First in Tri-County Conference
Championship history: Division 8 champion 2017, runner-up 2016. 
Best wins: 44-6 over Clarkston Everest Collegiate in Semifinal, 38-26 over White Pigeon in Regional Final, 56-19 over Riverview Gabriel Richard in District Final, 50-14 over Erie Mason.
Players to watch: QB/DB Shea Ruddy, 5-11/170 sr. (1,129 yards/19 TDs passing, 725 yards/17 TDs rushing, 64 tackles); RB/DB Hunter DeBarr, 5-11/150 jr. (1,116 yards/10 TDs rushing, 361 yards/7 TDs receiving, 59 tackles); RB/LB Jake Iott, 6-1/180 jr. (1,121 yards/21 TDs rushing, 190 tackles/14 tackles for loss); TE/DB Ryin Ruddy, 6-1/170 jr. (279 yards/8 TDs receiving, 115 tackles/4 interceptions). 
Outlook: Whiteford built back to the Semifinals last season and took the next step this fall winning every game by double digits and 49-12 on average. Shea Ruddy made the all-state second team at quarterback last year and has helped the Bobcats top 50 points seven times including during the first two rounds of the playoffs. His 19 touchdown passes are a school record, as are Iott’s 190 tackles. Thieken previously served as head coach from 2005-10 at Evergreen, Ohio, and more than 25 seasons as an assistant before taking over the Whiteford varsity this fall. Junior fullback Drew Knaggs is another reliable option on offense; he’s run for 524 yards and seven touchdowns. 

13-0, No. 1
Coach: Eric Sweeney, third season (35-0)
League finish: First in Greater Thumb Conference East
Championship history: Division 8 runner-up 2020, Division 7 runner-up 2008. 
Best wins: 41-14 over No. 4 Iron Mountain in Semifinal, 49-7 over No. 8 Fowler in Regional Final, 49-14 over No. 5 Saginaw Michigan Lutheran Seminary in District Final, 42-0 over Harbor Beach.
Players to watch: QB/DB Evan Peruski, 5-11/170 jr. (312 yards/6 TDs passing, 1,165 yards/20 TDs rushing, 46 tackles); RB/LB Aiden Mackowiak, 5-10/175 sr. (943 yards/13 TDs rushing, 121 tackles); RB/DB Mark Heilig, 5-10/175 sr. (1,354 yards/29 TDs rushing, 77 tackles); RB/DE Seth Maurer, 5-11/190 jr. (714 yards/12 TDs rushing, 59 tackles). 
Outlook: Ubly can argue it’s been the most dominant team in Michigan, relative to division, this fall. The Bearcats’ closest game was last week’s 27-point win over Iron Mountain, and their average score this fall is 49-7. On defense, no opponent has scored more than 16 points and three have put up more than seven. The offense has scored at least 41 points in every game. Peruski started at quarterback as a freshman at Ford Field in 2020, and he earned an all-state honorable mention last season. Heilig and Mackowiak are among others who saw action in that last championship game appearance, and Mackowiak also earned all-state honorable mention last season, at linebacker. Junior Brett Mueller is another important option on offense; he made the all-state first team last season and this fall has connected on 84 of 87 extra-point attempts and a field goal.

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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.)