1st & Goal: 2023 Playoff Week 1 Preview

By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com senior editor

October 26, 2023

Part of the enchantment of high school sports is the relatively small window athletes receive to play them. Most get four seasons – and most football players just two on the varsity team under the frequently and fondly-referenced “Friday night lights.”

MI Student AidThat enchantment makes it impossible to undersell the anticipation as another MHSAA Football Playoffs – the 49th – begin tonight.

It will be the first playoffs for thousands of players and the start of the last playoffs for thousands more as 11-Player District Semifinals and 8-Player Regional Semifinals kick off with 128 games, and 16 more Saturday.

The mini heat wave finishing its run through Michigan is another reason to check out a first-round game in person. But if you’re not heading out, you still can watch nearly all of them – as of Thursday evening, 122 of this weekend’s 144 playoff games will be broadcast live on MHSAA.tv, viewable with subscription. Keep up with scores as well and Round 2 matchups as they’re determined on the Football Playoff Scoreboard.

Here are just a handful of the intriguing matchups as this postseason gets underway. Games are Friday unless noted.

11-Player Division 1

Rochester Adams (6-3) at West Bloomfield (7-2) - WATCH

These two rank among the most successful playoff teams in the state over the last three seasons, with West Bloomfield a combined 8-2 in the postseason with a Division 1 championship in 2020, and Adams a combined 7-2 (not counting a COVID-related forfeit in 2020) with a runner-up finish in 2021 after the Highlanders defeated the Lakers 14-13 in a Regional Final during that run. This fall West Bloomfield was third and Adams fourth in the Oakland Activities Association Red, thanks in part to the Lakers' 36-32 win in their Week 5 meeting. West Bloomfield also handed Southfield Arts & Technology its only defeat, 31-20 in Week 8.

Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Detroit Catholic Central (7-2) at Novi (7-2) - WATCH, St. Clair Shores Lakeview (7-2) at Macomb Dakota (7-2) - WATCH, Detroit Cass Tech (6-3) at Westland John Glenn (7-2) - WATCH.

11-Player Division 2

Muskegon Reeths-Puffer (7-2) at Muskegon Mona Shores (6-3) - WATCH

This is also a rematch, as Mona Shores opened the Ottawa-Kent Conference Green schedule with a 28-10 win over Reeths-Puffer – and in fact, the Rockets are seeking their first win over Shores since 2016. But this also has been Reeths-Puffer’s winningest season since 2013, and they enter this opener coming off impressive back-to-back victories over Zeeland East 35-21 and Zeeland West 14-12, the latter avenging a 2022 defeat. Shores also defeated West, 14-6 two weeks ago, but was edged by East 21-20 in the regular-season finale.

Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Portage Northern (8-1) at Caledonia (7-2) - WATCH, Birmingham Groves (6-3) at Birmingham Seaholm (8-1) - WATCH, Dexter (6-3) at Allen Park (8-1) - WATCH.

11-Player Division 3

Zeeland East (6-3) at Zeeland West (6-3) - WATCH

Zeeland West has won its last six meetings with its neighbor, including once in the playoffs, since East swept a pair in 2018. The Dux claimed this season’s first matchup 36-13. But that shouldn’t be an indication a repeat is a sure thing. As noted above, East is coming off a one-point win over Mona Shores – avenging a 42-7 loss from a year ago and breaking a two-game losing streak to the Sailors since they rejoined the same league in 2020. West meanwhile has lost three straight games, but those beg for context as well – those defeats came to Muskegon High, Mona Shores and Reeths-Puffer, and all by eight points or fewer. Muskegon is the only team to score more than 14 points on the Dux, and the Big Reds put up just 22 in their six-point Week 7 win.

Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Battle Creek Harper Creek (6-3) at Parma Western (8-1), Fenton (6-3) at DeWitt (6-2) - WATCH, Detroit Martin Luther King (4-5) at Port Huron (7-2) - WATCH.

11-Player Division 4

Lansing Sexton (8-1) at Portland (9-0)

This is a rematch of the Week 8 decider for the Capital Area Activities Conference White title, and Portland’s 41-0 win over then-undefeated Sexton further emphasized the mightiness of the Raiders’ defense this year – they’ve given up just 47 points and also shut out Berrien Springs last week. Portland is up to No. 3 in the final coaches poll and enters having won District titles in Division 5 the last two seasons (and its Regional two years ago) and with a combined 29-5 record going back to the start of 2021. But Sexton, enjoying its best season since 2017, is ranked No. 10 and certainly has the ability to flip things if it can build up some success on offense and keep Portland’s off the field.

Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Big Rapids (8-1) at Spring Lake (7-2), Wayland (6-3) at Grand Rapids South Christian (6-3) - WATCH, Croswell-Lexington (7-2) at Harper Woods (6-3).

11-Player Division 5

Gladwin (7-2) at Ogemaw Heights (8-1) - WATCH

The only loss of Ogemaw Heights’ most successful regular season since 2009 came in the opener on the road at reigning Division 5 champion Gladwin, 42-28. The Falcons get the Flying Gs at home this time, and have given up just under 10 points per game on average since that defeat. Ogemaw Heights has downed five playoff teams over those eight games including previously-undefeated Almont 21-7 last week. About 40 miles southeast, Gladwin impressively ran its Jack Pine Conference winning streak to 19 games and three straight championships, and those defeats came last week to Frankenmuth and Week 7 to Pontiac Notre Dame Prep – which are 16-1 between them.  

Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Berrien Springs (5-3) at South Haven (6-3) - WATCH, Flint Hamady (8-0) at Corunna (9-0) - WATCH, Detroit Denby (8-1) at Detroit Southeastern (6-3).

11-Player Division 6

Detroit Old Redford (8-1) at Detroit Edison (6-3), Saturday

Old Redford has built its most successful regular season, and the climb has been stunning. The Ravens didn’t play a game in 2020 or 2021, then went 4-5 last year before doubling their victories this fall – with their only loss in the season opener to playoff team Dearborn Heights Robichaud. Old Redford won the Charter School Conference Silver but should get one of its toughest challenges in Edison, which spent more than a month in the coaches poll top 10 and reached No. 6 on the list on the way to earning six wins for the third time in four seasons and after going just 2-7 a year ago. Edison tied for second in the Charter School Conference Gold behind undefeated Warren Michigan Collegiate.

Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Kent City (7-2) 39.000 at Hart (8-1) - WATCH, Lake City (6-3) at Manistee (7-2) - WATCH, Buchanan (6-3) at Kalamazoo United (5-4).

11-Player Division 7

Traverse City St. Francis (4-4) at Charlevoix (8-1) - WATCH

This is another fascinating rematch. These two didn’t play in the same league this fall, but they did open against each other with St. Francis winning 41-40 while filling in almost an entirely new starting lineup. The Gladiators were coming off finishing Division 7 runner-up a year ago and had to navigate six more eventual playoff qualifiers – but reached the postseason again, and now a large group of new contributors at the start of the year have a season of experience against strong competition. Charlevoix bounced back and didn’t lose again – or let anyone closer than 13 points on the way to winning a league title and reaching eight wins for the fourth-straight season.

Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Schoolcraft (7-2) at Lawton (8-1) - WATCH, Sandusky (6-3) at Cass City (7-2) - WATCH, Manchester (7-2) at Napoleon (8-1).

11-Player Division 8

Fowler (8-1) at Ithaca (9-0) - WATCH

The Division 8 bracket is loaded. Six teams are undefeated and five more have lost only once, and this game matches one from each group. Ithaca is playing in Division 8 for the first time and brings a streak of 15 straight league championships, Division 7 District titles two of the last three seasons and a current team that is outscoring its opponents on average 50-5 with shutouts in five of its last six games. But Fowler has seen this caliber of competition. The Eagles’ lone loss was 27-14 to Division 7 contender Pewamo-Westphalia in Week 6, and the Pirates are the only team to score on Fowler since Sept. 1. The Eagles have given up only 53 points this season with six shutouts, and five of those shutouts were of playoff teams including Frankfort, Laingsburg and McBain since the P-W loss.

Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Hudson (7-2) at Addison (9-0) - WATCH, Frankfort (7-2) at Beal City (8-1) - WATCH, Mount Clemens (5-4) at Riverview Gabriel Richard (5-4) - WATCH.

8-Player Division 1

Mendon (7-2) at Gobles (7-2) - WATCH

Gobles made the switch to 8-player in 2021 and has strung together two straight seven-win seasons, with this fall’s coming against a schedule featuring five teams with winning records. Mendon wasn’t on this year’s slate after a league change, but they’ll meet again after the Hornets won their matchup a year ago 36-6. Gobles has scored 53 points in all of its wins and has its 2022 points total by more than 100. Mendon, last season’s Division 2 runner-up, remains similarly able to match points with most and lost only to still-undefeated Climax-Scotts and Adrian Lenawee Christian.

Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Alcona (8-1) at Indian River Inland Lakes (8-1) - WATCH, Newberry (7-2) at Norway (7-2) - WATCH. SATURDAY Carson City-Crystal (8-1) at Brown City (9-0) - WATCH.

8-Player Division 2

Crystal Falls Forest Park (7-2) at Lake Linden-Hubbell (6-3), Saturday - WATCH

For more than a decade, this was a notable regular-season finale in the 11-player Great Western Conference, with these two meeting again in the playoffs six times between 2004-15. Forest Park switched to 8-player in 2016, Lake Linden-Hubbell in 2020, and this is the third season in a row they’ll meet in the regular season and playoffs. Forest Park won the Week 6 matchup this fall 36-28, but also won last year’s regular-season matchup 22-14 before the Lakes flipped things in the Regional Semifinal 44-12.  

Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Bay City All Saints (7-2) at Marion (8-0) - WATCH. SATURDAY Au Gres-Sims (7-2) at Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart (8-1) - WATCH, Powers North Central (7-2) at Posen (8-0).

Second Half’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 DeWitt's Elliott Larner (3) unloads a pass during a Week 9 win over Lansing Waverly. (Photo by TCP-Photography.)

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.)