1st & Goal: 2022 8-Player Finals Preview

By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com senior editor

November 18, 2022

We will award a first-time 8-Player Football Finals champion Saturday at North Michigan University’s Superior Dome. We also may watch an incredible winning streak grow to include a third-straight title – or witness an epic ending to that run with another first-time champion in this format.

MI Student AidBoth games are filled with story lines, kicking off with Martin and Merrill facing off in Division 1 at 11 a.m. and Powers North Central vs. Mendon following at 2 p.m.

Tickets may be purchased online through NMU or at the door – click for details – and both games will be broadcast live on MHSAA.tv and replayed on Bally Sports Detroit’s primary channel Nov. 24 beginning at 8 p.m. Audio of both games will be streamed live on MHSAANetwork.com.

Below is a look at all four finalists. Statistics do not include Semifinals.

Division 1 

Record/Rank: 10-2, No. 3
Coach: Brad Blauvelt, fifth season (45-10)
League finish: First in Southwest Michigan 8-Man Football League Tier 1
Championship history: 11-Player Class D champion 1987.
Best wins: 56-14 over No. 8 Adrian Lenawee Christian in Regional Final, 42-8 (Semifinal) and 49-6 over No. 9 Brown City, 50-6 over No. 10 Gobles, 30-28 over Division 2 No. 7 Mendon.
Players to watch: QB/LB JR Hildebrand, 6-0/180 sr. (1,518 yards/25 TDs rushing, 1,254 yards/25 TDs passing); RB/CB Karter Ribble, 5-10/180 sr. (430 yards/9 TDs rushing, 366 yards/6 TDs receiving); TE/LB Sam Jager, 6-1/180 sr. (426 yards/6 TDs receiving); WR/CB Drake Buell, 5-11/130 sr. (165 yards/3 TDs receiving).
Outlook: After putting Lenawee Christian’s pursuit of a third-straight championship to an end, Martin is lined up for its opportunity bringing a combined 39-6 record since making the move to 8-player in 2019. Hildebrand earned an all-state honorable mention last season, and he’s surrounded by playmakers also including junior receiver Taegan Harris (392 yards/4 TDs receiving) and senior running back Braeden Shanley (529 yards/6 TDs rushing). Martin’s losses were to Bridgman and Grand Rapids NorthPointe Christian, which both finished without a loss, and the Week 9 defeat to Bridgman was by just a point.

Record/Rank: 12-0, No. 2
Coach: Christian Wiley, eighth season (50-28)
League finish: First in Central Michigan 8-Man Conference
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Best wins: 22-20 over No. 1 Munising in Semifinal, 68-28 (Regional Final) and 36-14 over Breckenridge, 52-12 over Division 2 No. 9 Morrice.
Players to watch: QB/DB Joel Tack, 6-0/145 sr. (1,518 yards/26 TDs passing, 1,846 yards/27 touchdowns rushing); WR/DB Denver Coty, 6-0/155 sr. (415 yards/7 TDs receiving); RB/LB Sawyer Jordan, 5-9/140 sr. (722 yards/8 TDs rushing); OL/LB Cameron Raftery, 5-11/210 sr.
Outlook: Merrill went a solid 11-6 over the last two seasons but has won more games and scored nearly as many points this fall as those two combined. Tack is a substantial pace-setter on offense, and he had another 263 yards and a touchdown passing and 131 yards and two scores rushing against Munising in the Semifinal. The previously-undefeated Mustangs were the only team to get closer than 22 points to the Vandals this season. Raftery earned an all-state honorable mention at linebacker in 2021. Senior flanker Kaleb Walker (504 yards/10 TDs receiving, 9.4 yards per carry rushing) is another player to watch.

Division 2

Record/Rank: 10-2, No. 7
Coach: Robert Kretschman, seventh season (58-19)
League finish: Second in Southwest Michigan 8-Man Football League Tier 1
Championship history: 11 MHSAA 11-Player titles (most recent 2011), one runner-up finish.
Best wins: 30-14 over No. 9 Morrice in Semifinal, 46-44 over No. 2 Colon in Regional Final, 44-18 over No. 3 Climax-Scotts in Regional Semifinal, 36-6 over Division 1 No. 10 Gobles.
Players to watch: RB/DB Evan Lukeman, 5-9/155 sr. (1,180 yards/17 TDs rushing); QB/DB Luke Schinker, 6-0/160 sr. (560 yards/8 TDs passing); FB/DB Jack McCaw, 5-8/165 jr. (1,674 yards/22 TDs rushing, 2 TDs passing); TE/DB Gabe Haigh, 6-2/205 sr. (360 yards/8 TDs receiving).
Outlook: It was only a matter of time before longtime 11-player small-school power Mendon found this level of success in 8-player as well. The Hornets’ only losses this season were to Martin in the season opener and Bridgman two weeks later, and since only Colon has come closer than two touchdowns. Lukeman earned an all-state honorable mention last season and is part of a dynamic 1-2 combo with McCaw, who added another 198 yards and three touchdowns rushing against Morrice last week. Schinker also had four interceptions from his defensive back spot entering the Semifinal.  

Record/Rank: 12-0, No. 1
Coach: Leo Gorzinski, fifth season (54-3)
League finish: First in Great Lakes Eight Conference West
Championship history: Four MHSAA titles (most recent 2021).
Best wins: 36-12 over No. 4 Marion in Semifinal, 42-0 over No. 5 Crystal Falls Forest Park, 68-8 over Norway.
Players to watch: QB/DB Luke Gorzinski, 6-0/185 sr. (1,301 yards/19 TDs passing, 1,215 yards/20 TDs rushing); WR/DB Lane Gorzinski, 6-0/170 soph. (299 yards/5 TDs rushing, 7 TDs receiving); RB/LB Dillon Raab, 5-8/170 sr. (474 yards/7 TDs rushing, 305 yards/4 TDs receiving); OL/DL Max Nason, 6-0/255 jr.
Outlook: With 36 straight wins over the last three seasons, the two-time reigning champion Jets broke their previous 8-player record 27-game winning streak. This will be the final high school game for Luke Gorzinski, who has quarterbacked North Central throughout the streak and was named 8-player Player of the Year as a junior by The Associated Press. He’s led this year’s team to average 57 points per game, and he also starts for a defense that’s giving up 3.7 points per contest. He and Raab both had returned two interceptions for touchdowns, and junior Jacob Gorzinski had four punt return TDs heading into the Semifinal.

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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.)