1st & Goal: 2023 8-Player Finals Preview

By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com senior editor

November 17, 2023

Northern Michigan University on Saturday will host two recent 8-player football champions looking to build on their recent success – and two more contenders hoping to celebrate at Superior Dome for the first time.

MI Student AidMartin in Division 1 will be seeking its second-straight title against Indian River Inland Lakes, which will be appearing in its first MHSAA Final in either football format.

Adrian Lenawee Christian in Division 2 will attempt to win a third title in four seasons, while Marion is making its first championship game trip in more than three decades and after a series of just-misses the last few years.

Martin and Inland Lakes kick off at 11 a.m., and Lenawee Christian and Marion follow 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. Audio of both games will be streamed live on MHSAANetwork.com.

Below is a look at all four finalists:

Division 1

Record/Rank: 10-2, No. 9 
Coach: Brad Blauvelt, sixth season (56-11) 
League finish: Tied for second in Southwest Michigan 8-Man Football League White 
Championship history: 8-Player Division 1 champion 2022, 11-Player Class D champion 1987.  
Best wins: 42-34 over No. 5 Kingston in Semifinal, 28-6 over No. 10 Gobles in Regional Final, 44-18 (Regional Semifinal) and 28-14 over Marcellus. 
Players to watch: QB/DB Gavin Meyers, 6-2/170 jr. (1,058 yards/11 TDs passing, 1,171 yards/11 TDs rushing); RB/LB Haylen Buell, 5-8/150 soph. (967 yards/13 TDs rushing), WR/DB Taegan Harris, 5-10/150 sr. (538 yards/6 TDs receiving); TE/LB Abe Dykstra, 5-10/195 sr. (199 yards/3 TDs receiving). 
Outlook: Martin graduated three all-staters including its two main offensive contributors and still finds itself back where it defeated Merrill 74-24 to finish last season. Meyers has stepped nicely into the dual-threat quarterback role after all-stater J.R. Hildebrand graduated, and he has the Clippers averaging 38.5 points per game. The team’s only losses came to undefeated Bridgman and Gobles, and Martin avenged the latter in the Regional Final. Dykstra was the team’s second-leading tackler in last season’s Final, and Buell also was a top contributor on that side of the ball before taking on a large share of the rushing load this fall.  

Record/Rank: 11-1, No. 6 
Coach: Travis Meyer, fifth season (35-17) 
League finish: First in Ski Valley Conference 
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final. 
Best wins: 12-0 over No. 2 Pickford in Semifinal, 40-36 over No. 3 St. Ignace in Regional Final, 22-6 over No. 7 Alcona in Regional Semifinal, 54-46 over Division 2 No. 10 Lake Linden-Hubbell.  
Players to watch: QB/DB Aidan Fenstermaker, 5-9/160 jr. (1,695 yards/25 TDs rushing, 1,090 yards/14 TDs passing); RB/LB Payton Teuthorn, 6-0/190 sr. (219 yards/3 TDs rushing, 2 TDs receiving); TE/DB Jacob Willey, 6-0/200 sr. (514 yards/6 TDs receiving); RB/DB Andre Bradford, 5-10/180 soph. (400 yards/6 TDs rushing, 2 TDs receiving). (Only Fenstermaker’s stats include the Semifinal). 
Outlook: Inland Lakes' two winningest seasons have come over the last three, and the Bulldogs’ only loss this fall was 30-28 to St. Ignace in Week 4 – with that defeat avenged in the Regional Final. The playoffs have included two of the most impressive defensive performances in either 8-player bracket, as Pickford averaged 47 points per game heading into their matchup and Alcona was averaging 52 ppg. Inland Lakes had 21 interceptions entering the Semifinals, with Fenstermaker snagging seven and sophomore Wyatt Hanel five. Willey earned an all-state honorable mention last season. 

Division 2

Record/Rank: 12-0, No. 1 
Coach: Bill Wilharms, 10th season (91-24) 
League finish: First in Southern Central Athletic Association East 
Championship history: 8-Player Division 1 champion 2021 and 2020. 
Best wins: 42-14 over Deckerville in Semifinal, 56-16 over Climax-Scotts in Regional Final, 48-28 over Kingston, 73-20 over Mendon. 
Players to watch: WR/CB Jesse Miller, 6-0/175 sr. (537 yards/8 TDs receiving); QB/S Sam Lutz, 5-7/165 sr. (2,003 yards/32 TDs passing, 973 yards/27 TDs rushing); RB/CB Blake Drogowski, 6-0/175 sr. (502 yards/7 TDs rushing, 513 yards/8 TDs receiving); WR/LB Paul Towler, 6-2/185 sr. (550 yards/8 TDs receiving). 
Outlook: This season’s Lenawee Christian run has been reminiscent of the undefeated seasons of 2020 and 2021, as the Cougars have defeated their opponents on average 54-10. Kingston at 20 points provided the closest challenge. Junior back-up quarterback Brenner Powers has run for 513 yards and seven scores and thrown for three more, and senior tight end Easton Boggs has been another significant target with a team-high 37 catches for 524 yards and seven touchdowns heading into last weekend. Lutz ran for three TDs and threw for three in the Semifinal win. 

Record/Rank: 11-0, No. 2 
Coach: Chad Grundy, 14th season (102-45) 
League finish: First in West Michigan D League. 
Championship history: 11-Player Class DD champion 1990. 
Best wins: 42-36 over No. 10 Lake Linden-Hubbell in Semifinal, 48-6 over No. 4 Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart in Regional Final, 64-14 over Bay City All Saints in Regional Semifinal, 62-0 over Mesick.  
Players to watch: QB/LB Collin McCrimmon, 5-8/180 soph. (1,006 yards/18 TDs passing, 679 yards/10 TDs rushing); RB/DB Gavin Prielipp, 5-10/180 sr. (964 yards/16 TDs rushing, 519 yards/10 TDs receiving); FB/LB Cole Meyer, 6-2/210 jr. (749 yards/9 TDs rushing, 289 yards/4 TDs receiving); C/NG Hayden Ostrowski, 5-10/240 sr. 
Outlook: After running into eventual Division 2 champion Powers North Central in Semifinals the last three seasons, Marion broke through to take the next step this fall. The Eagles had four shutouts and gave up eight points total over their first five games and still haven’t given up more than 14 points in a game except once, in their Semifinal win. The offense, meanwhile, is averaging 55 points per game and gaining 9.8 yards per rush with McCrimmon keeping defenders on their toes with an incredible 32.5 yards per completion. Prielipp also has 10 interceptions to go with his offensive output. 

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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.)