1st & Goal: 2023 11-Player Semifinals Review

By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com senior editor

November 20, 2023

Of 16 teams that earned trips Saturday to this weekend’s MHSAA 11-Player Football Finals, eight will be returning to Ford Field for at least the second season in a row – with a repeat Division 8 championship game leading off the upcoming lineup.

MI Student AidNotable as well, four schools earned an opportunity to play on the season’s final day for the first time – and those are just some of the storylines to catch up on during a quick week that will conclude the MHSAA’s 2023 Fall season.

We’ll be back with a preview of all eight championship games Wednesday evening. For now, see all 16 Semifinals at a glance:

(Note: Highlights from Saturday's 8-Player Finals will be included in a final football championship "Review" next week.)

Division 1

HEADLINER Belleville 63, Davison 21 At 38 straight games, Belleville’s winning streak is up to the seventh-longest in MHSAA history and fourth-longest among streaks taking place entirely during the playoff era. The Tigers (13-0) earned the opportunity to play for a third-straight Division 1 title by scoring more than 60 points for the second time in three weeks, and despite giving up a season-high 21 points to the Cardinals (12-1). Click for more from MLIVE-Detroit.

HEADLINER Southfield Arts & Technology 40, West Bloomfield 35 Quarterback Isaiah Marshall scored the game-winning touchdown on the final play to send A&T (12-1) to its first Final in this sport. The win also avenged the Warriors’ 31-20 loss to West Bloomfield (10-3) in Week 8. Click for more from the Oakland Press.

Division 2

HEADLINER Muskegon 42, East Lansing 7 Running back Jakob Price was the biggest star this time as Muskegon (11-2) broke away to earn a return trip to the Finals after finishing Division 3 runner-up a year ago. East Lansing (10-3) capped its winningest season since 2001. Click for more from the Muskegon Chronicle.

HEADLINER Warren De La Salle Collegiate 45, Waterford Mott 19 The two-time reigning Division 2 champion is heading to the Finals for the fourth-straight season after extending its winning streak to nine this fall. The Pilots (11-2) opened up a 21-7 halftime lead on the way to advancing, and ended Mott’s longest playoff run and winningest season at 10-3. Click for more from the Macomb Daily.

Division 3

HEADLINER Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central 18, Zeeland West 14 The Rangers (12-1) also will be making a return trip to Ford Field after finishing Division 2 runner-up last season and thanks to a go-ahead touchdown during the final minutes after the teams traded scores during the fourth quarter. West finished 9-4, those losses by a combined 20 points. Click for more from the Grand Rapids Press.

HEADLINER Mason 26, Detroit Martin Luther King 20 Mason (13-0) is off to its first Final, and after falling to the Crusaders in Semifinals the last two seasons. King (7-6) led 13-10 at halftime, but after the teams traded scores to start the second half Mason eventually went ahead for the final time in the fourth quarter to get past the two-time reigning champ. Click for more from the Lansing State Journal.

Division 4

HEADLINER Grand Rapids South Christian 21, Portland 6 South Christian (10-3) earned an opportunity to repeat as Division 4 champion after limiting a Portland offense that averaged nearly 41 points per game entering the day. The Raiders (12-1) also shined on that side of the ball, holding South Christian to its second-lowest output of the season. Click for more from the Lansing State Journal.

HEADLINER Harper Woods 35, Goodrich 24 Harper Woods (10-3) will play in its first championship game in this sport after ending another long run for the reigning Division 4 runner-up Martians. Harper Woods tied the score at 21 all just before halftime, then pulled away during the second half while holding Goodrich (11-2) to just a field goal over the final two quarters. Click for more from MLIVE-Detroit.

Division 5

HEADLINER Grand Rapids Catholic Central 35, Frankenmuth 0 After a year away from Ford Field, GRCC (12-1) is heading back for its fourth Final over the last five seasons after shutting down an offense that averaged 46 points per game entering the weekend. Connor Wolf threw three touchdown passes and Kellen Russell-Dixon scored three times including twice rushing for the Cougars. Frankenmuth (11-2) was playing in its fourth-straight Semifinal and is a combined 47-5 over those seasons. Click for more from MLIVE.

HEADLINER Corunna 49, Flat Rock 0 Corunna (13-0) is headed to its first championship game in this sport after posting its fourth shutout this season and against an offense that averaged nearly 39 points per game during the regular season but 47 over three playoff wins. Flat Rock finished its first Semifinal run since 1976 at 9-4. Click for more from the Owosso Argus-Press.

Division 6

HEADLINER Kingsley 37, Reed City 7 Kingsley (11-2) added to its season-opening win over the Coyotes, this time to reach the Finals for the first time since 2005. Skylar Workman scored four times for the Stags, who held Reed City (9-4) to its two lowest scoring outputs of the season. Click for more from the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

HEADLINER Almont 45, Ovid-Elsie 21 Almont is headed to Ford Field for second time in five seasons after building a big first-half lead and carrying it through the second. The Raiders (12-1) scored on the first play with Chase Battani breaking away for a long run, one of his three rushing touchdowns. Ovid-Elsie finished its first Semifinal season since 2008 at 8-5. Click for more from the Port Huron Times Herald.

Division 7

HEADLINER Menominee 32, North Muskegon 21 The Maroons (11-2) earned a return to the Finals for the first time since 2016 by handing North Muskegon (12-1) its only loss – scoring the most points the Norsemen gave up this fall. Menominee jumped out to a 20-0 lead and held off the comeback attempt. Click for more from the Eagle Herald.

HEADLINER Jackson Lumen Christi 35, Millington 7 The Titans (12-1) earned an opportunity to play for a repeat championship this weekend by handing Millington (12-1) its lone loss this season. It was the ninth time Lumen Christi had held an opponent to single-digit scoring. Click for more from the Jackson Citizen Patriot.

Division 8

HEADLINER Ubly 24, Beal City 6 For the fifth-straight season, these two met with a trip to Ford Field on the line – and for the second straight Ubly (13-0) will be making it. Record-setting kicker Brett Mueller caught two touchdown passes and also booted a 54-yard field goal for the Bearcats. Beal City finished 11-2 and is a combined 33-5 over the last three seasons. Click for more from the Huron Daily Tribune.

HEADLINER Ottawa Lake Whiteford 35, Riverview Gabriel Richard 6 Reigning Division 8 champion Whiteford ran its winning streak to 27 games in earning its Ford Field return, also holding an opponent to single digits for the ninth time this season. Gabriel Richard finished its longest tournament run at 8-5. Click for more from the Monroe News.

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 Belleville blockers including Damon Denny (57) create running room during Saturday's 63-21 Division 1 Semifinal win over Davison. (Photo by Terry Lyons.)

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.)