1st & Goal: 2023 11-Player Semifinals Preview

By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com senior editor

November 17, 2023

No flashy or fact-packed introduction is necessary this weekend to tie together the remaining 11-player football games across the state. 

MI Student AidSaturday's winners advance to Ford Field, and that says it all. 

See below for a glance at all 16 Semifinals. All kick off at 1 p.m. except for Menominee/North Muskegon, which begins at 3 p.m. Follow along in person or watch all of them on MHSAA.tv, and keep up with the scores as they come in on the Football Playoff Scoreboard.

Division 1

Davison (12-0) vs. Belleville (12-0) at Novi – WATCH

Belleville’s winning streak is up to 37 games, and the Tigers have won all three playoff games by at least 41 points. Junior quarterback Bryce Underwood is up to 2,967 yards and 37 touchdowns on 159-for-232 passing. Davison will try to limit Belleville after holding Rockford to 14 points last week in arguably its most impressive defensive performance.  A running game led by junior AJ Hill (1,488 yards, 19 TDs rushing) could take some off some of the pressure.

Southfield Arts & Technology (11-1) vs. West Bloomfield (10-2) at Troy – WATCH

Southfield A&T gets a chance to avenge its lone loss, as West Bloomfield won their Week 8 meeting 31-20. Senior quarterback Isaiah Marshall has been one of the most dynamic playmakers in the state for multiple seasons. West Bloomfield avenged one of its two losses this season with last week’s 21-20 win over Clarkston and has one of the top pass combos in the state with senior quarterback Requez Nance (2,497 yards/21 TDs) and junior receiver Elisha Durham (1,010 yards, 10 TDs).

Division 2

East Lansing (10-2) vs. Muskegon (10-2) at Greenville – WATCH

East Lansing has won 10 straight games to reach its first Semifinal since 2007. A balanced offense is enjoying arguably its most impressive stretch, and a big drive is a running game led by juniors Jace Clarizio (1,209 yards, 9.0 per carry, 16 TDs) and Dwataye Sams Jr. (965 yards, 9.8 per carry, 13 TDs). Muskegon has run for 3,950 yards this season in making the Semifinals for the seventh time in eight seasons, with a dynamic group putting up similar numbers. Senior quarterback M’Khi Guy (1,636 yards/23 TDs) is averaging 10.9 yards per carry, senior running back Jakob Price (842/17) is averaging 8.2 and senior slot Destin Piggee (951/10) is averaging 14.9 yards per carry.

Waterford Mott (10-2) vs. Warren De La Salle Collegiate (10-2) at Troy Athens – WATCH

The two-time reigning champion Pilots graduated their offensive leader for those two title runs but are keyed by another talented dual-threat quarterback in junior Sante Gasperoni (903 yards/14 TDs rushing, 1,876 yards/20 TDs passing). De La Salle’s only losses were to Davison in the season opener and Ohio power Toledo Central Catholic. Mott is making its first trip to a Semifinal paced by another skilled signal-caller with massive numbers – senior Kalieb Osborne had run for 1,865 yards and 25 touchdowns and thrown for 3,532 yards and 35 scores.

Division 3

Zeeland West (9-3) vs. Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central (11-1) at Holland West Ottawa – WATCH

Forest Hills Central is one more win from returning to Ford Field after finishing Division 2 runner-up a year ago, and senior quarterback Mason McDonald is a catalyst again after stepping into the lineup due to an injury for the latter part of last year’s run. He’s thrown for 1,398 yards and 18 touchdowns and run for 649 yards and nine scores. West’s first Semifinal trip since 2015 has been driven in part by another balanced rushing attack that’s piled up 3,258 yards with senior Rolando Robelin leading the way with 762 and 15 TDs on the ground.

Detroit Martin Luther King (7-5) vs. Mason (12-0) at Chelsea – WATCH

This is a rematch of Semifinals from the last two seasons, both won by King as the Crusaders went on to back-to-back Division 3 championships. Mason will try to take its turn this time with nearly the entire lineup back from last season including four-year running back AJ Martel, who has gained 1,293 yards (9.0 per carry) and 25 touchdowns this fall and is the program’s all-time leading rusher. King’s losses were to Division 1 Cass Tech twice and three out-of-state powers, and the defense can counter with a standout senior end in Marquise White, who has 12 sacks and 10 tackles for loss.

Division 4

Grand Rapids South Christian (9-3) vs. Portland (12-0) at Ada Forest Hills Eastern – WATCH

Reigning Division 4 champion South Christian is coming off a 55-35 win over Big Rapids and its highest scoring output since opening night, and senior receiver Jake Vermaas has followed up a monster Finals performance last year with a monster 2023 catching 79 passes for 1,485 yards and 19 touchdowns as junior Carson Vis has directed the attack. Portland’s task got taller when leading rusher Caden Thelen (1,496 yards/23 TDs rushing) was lost with an injury at the end of the Regional Final. But the Raiders have run for 3,323 yards total, and junior quarterback Dominic Novara has provided another threat throwing for 1,008 yards and 16 touchdowns – or a score on every third completion.

Goodrich (11-1) vs. Harper Woods (9-3) at Livonia Franklin – WATCH

Goodrich also is a game away from a Ford Field return after finishing Division 4 runner-up a year ago, and the Martians have already outscored last year’s team thanks in part to the powerful running of junior Chase Burnett (1,746 yards/23 TDs rushing), who has gained nearly two-thirds of the team’s yardage on the ground. By now, no one should be sleeping on Harper Woods despite its three losses – those defeats came to Division 1 Southfield A&T and Lake Orion and Division 2 Birmingham Groves, and wins over Clarkston and Roseville certainly were attention grabbers. Sophomore quarterback Nate Rocheleau has completed 71 percent of his passes for 1,836 yards and 23 scores.

Division 5

Frankenmuth (11-1) vs. Grand Rapids Catholic Central (11-1) at Ithaca – WATCH

These two met in the 2020 Division 5 Final and a 2021 Semifinal, and Frankenmuth then finished runner-up a year ago with GRCC losing to eventual champion Gladwin in a Semifinal on the other side of the bracket. The Cougars can count wins over South Christian, River Rouge and Grand Rapids West Catholic among their most impressive, with senior Kellen Russell-Dixon averaging 10.9 yards per carry for the season (with 1,560 yards/22 TDs rushing total). Frankenmuth counters with a defense that’s given up only 807 rushing yards despite facing Goodrich (see above) and a powerful attack from Kingsford among others. Senior quarterback Jack Rich has stepped in to lead the Eagles with 1,184 yards and 19 scores rushing while throwing for another eight TDs.

Flat Rock (9-3) vs. Corunna (12-0) at Ypsilanti Lincoln – WATCH

Flat Rock is playing in its first Semifinal since 1976, and Corunna its first since 1996. The Rams bounced back from a midseason 1-3 stretch to score a combined 201 points over their last four wins, which were all by 30 or more. Corunna has given up only 94 points all season – never more than 18 in a game – and only a combined 42 over three playoff wins despite playing undefeated opponents in two of them. The senior Bower twins are playing major roles; Wyatt, the quarterback, has thrown for 2,191 yards and 25 touchdowns and run for 943 and 15, respectively; while split end Tarick has caught 41 passes for 1,289 yards (30.2 per catch) and 18 scores.

Division 6

Reed City (9-3) vs. Kingsley (10-2) at Cadillac – WATCH

Reed City’s repeat run to the Semifinals has come after a 1-3 start – including a 46-12 season-opening loss to Kingsley. But the Coyotes have reached 40 points six times during their eight-game winning streak and have pounded defenses with senior running backs Max Hammond (1,343 yards/18 TDs rushing) and John Ondrus (1,365/13). Kingsley has stayed in stride, with its 583 points this season more than the Stags scored in any of their other three 10-win seasons over the last five years – and even more than they scored in going 12-1 in 2019. Senior Eli Graves has run for 1,654 yards and 20 scores, caught five touchdown passes and scored twice on kickoff returns.

Ovid-Elsie (8-4) vs. Almont (11-1) at Grand Blanc – WATCH

After stunning contender Constantine in last week’s Regional Final, Ovid-Elsie takes on another opponent that might be considered the team to beat. Almont’s only loss was Week 9 to Division 5 Ogemaw Heights, and the Raiders have impressed including edging another favorite in Warren Michigan Collegiate in the District Final. Junior Chase Battani leads the rushing attack with 1,047 yards and 15 touchdowns and also has 85 tackles with 11 tackles for loss at linebacker. Ovid-Elsie similarly has a balanced offensive attack, but junior quarterback Tryce Tokar helps make it so throwing for 1,224 yards and 18 scores and rushing for a team-high 814 yards and 13 TDs.

Division 7

Menominee (10-2) vs. North Muskegon (12-0) at Gaylord – WATCH

North Muskegon’s first Semifinal since 1986 has come off two wins by a combined four points, and the Norseman take on a Menominee team that’s had only one single-digit game – win or lose – in making its longest run since finishing Division 5 runner-up in 2016. These Maroons are more balanced than the run-heavy teams that many associate with the program, but they still dominate on the ground with senior Landan Bardowski leading a 3,200-yard rush attack with 1,343 and 25 touchdowns. North Muskegon’s rushing and passing yardage and touchdown totals are nearly identical, but junior quarterback James Young definitely pops off the page with 2,460 yards and 31 scores through the air.

Millington (12-0) vs. Jackson Lumen Christi (11-1) at Westland John Glenn – WATCH

The reigning champion Titans are a three-point Week 8 loss to Division 3 Gaylord from an undefeated season so far, and they’ve done it in part with one of their most impressive defenses in at least a decade giving up just 7.1 points per game. Millington’s defense has been similarly sturdy, giving up only nine per game during a run that’s included two one-point wins. Junior Dallas Walsh is among those hoping to break through for the Cardinals; he’s run for 1,153 yards and 16 touchdowns this fall.

Division 8

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

This is Ubly’s fifth-straight Semifinal, and the only team to keep the Bearcats from Ford Field the two years they fell short was Beal City with a one-point win in the 2019 matchup and five-point victory in 2021. Ubly has run for more than 4,100 yards led by senior Canden Peruski, who is averaging 11.7 per carry for 1,485 total to go with 21 touchdowns on the ground – he’s one of five Ubly rushers with at least 10 rushing scores. Beal City is giving up only 8.6 points per game and has an offensive playmaker in senior Jamisen Latham, who has run for 827 yards and 10 scores and also caught 10 touchdown passes.

Riverview Gabriel Richard (8-4) vs. Ottawa Lake Whiteford (12-0) at Adrian College – WATCH

Reigning Division 8 champion Whiteford has won 26 straight games since falling in a 2021 Semifinal, and the Bobcats are doing it again this fall with a defense giving up nine points per game and with five players scoring between 8-17 touchdowns and freshman quarterback Tre Eitniear throwing for 949 yards and 14 scores. Gabriel Richard will attempt to transform its first Semifinal appearance into its first Ford Field trip with a similarly-balanced attack led by junior quarterback Nick Sobush (1,256 yards/13 TDs passing, 8 TDs rushing) and junior running back Joey Calhoun (858 yards/16 TDs rushing, 5 TDs receiving).

MHSAA.com'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 X (Twitter) @mistudentaid.

PHOTO Ubly's Seth Maurer (30) takes on a pair of Ithaca defenders during last week's Regional Final win. (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.)