1st & Goal: 2023 Playoff Week 2 Preview

By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com senior editor

November 3, 2023

The MHSAA Football Playoffs drive on this week with 144 teams playing either 11-Player District Finals or 8-Player Regional Finals and the magnitude doubling as the number of high-profile matchups continues to grow.

MI Student AidMore than 145,000 fans watched first-round playoff games across the state, and while the weather certainly has turned more wintery most places, this weekend also provides notable opportunities to take in multiple games – 61 will be played Friday, but 11 on Saturday including arguably the most intriguing games statewide in both 11 and 8-player formats.

Once again, the majority of games also will be viewable on MHSAA.tv, with subscription, and brackets will continue to update on the Football Playoff Scoreboard as results are reported.  

Here’s a look at some of the most intriguing matchups, to be played Friday unless noted.

11-Player Division 1

Saline (9-1) at Belleville (10-0), Saturday - Watch

In continuing to build its 35-game winning streak this fall, reigning Division 1 champion Belleville has turned away nearly every challenger by a large margin. But the possibility of this District Final rematch with Saline has been carrying heavy anticipation for a while. The Tigers claimed last year’s District championship meeting 62-44, and once again star quarterback Bryce Underwood will match up with his Saline highly-touted counterpart CJ Carr. The Hornets’ only loss this season was in Week 9, 35-28 to undefeated Lake Orion, which entered the postseason with the highest playoff-point average in Division 1.

Keep an eye on these FRIDAY West Bloomfield (8-2) at Utica Eisenhower (9-1) - WATCH, Macomb Dakota (8-2) at Clinton Township Chippewa Valley (8-2) - WATCH. SATURDAY Detroit Cass Tech (7-3) at Southfield Arts & Technology (9-1) - WATCH.

11-Player Division 2

Byron Center (9-1) at Caledonia (8-2)

This will be the second playoff meeting in three seasons for these Ottawa-Kent Conference powers, as they missed each other last year when Caledonia played in Division 1 and finished runner-up at Ford Field. The Fighting Scots emerged from the traditionally powerful O-K Red and have lost only to Division 1 opponents the last two seasons – Belleville in last year’s Final, Rockford twice and Grandville 38-34 four weeks ago. But Byron Center’s O-K White was one of the most competitive conferences in the state this season, and the Bulldogs’ lone slip-up came in Week 6 to Lowell 38-28.

Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Muskegon Mona Shores (7-3) at Muskegon (8-2), Dexter (7-3) at Gibraltar Carlson (9-1) - WATCH, Roseville (7-3) at Grosse Pointe South (9-1).

11-Player Division 3

Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central (9-1) at Mount Pleasant (9-1), Saturday - WATCH

Forest Hills Central shared the O-K White championship with Byron Center after finishing Division 2 runner-up a year ago, with its lone loss 15-14 to the Bulldogs in Week 5. The Rangers have been among Division 3 championship favorites all season but head to Mount Pleasant to face an Oilers team that quietly joined that group as well with a perfect run after its opening-weekend loss to Saginaw Heritage – adding a 31-17 win over the O-K White’s Grand Rapids Northview last week. Worth noting, FHC had defeated Northview 45-0 in Week 7.

Keep an eye on these FRIDAY DeWitt (7-2) at Mason (10-0) - WATCH, Auburn Hills Avondale (9-1) at Walled Lake Western (9-1) - WATCH, Coopersville (8-2) at Zeeland West (7-3) - WATCH.

11-Player Division 4

Portland (10-0) at Hastings (8-2) - WATCH

Thanks to its schedule filled with Division 3 opponents and still-undefeated nonleague foes, Hastings drew home field for this matchup of league champions and with its only losses this fall during the first three weeks to Pontiac Notre Dame Prep and Whitehall. The Saxons held off Charlotte 30-28 last week – the Raiders defeated Charlotte 35-8 in Week 7 – and this matchup could be power on power as Portland gets another test for its defense giving up only five points per game this season.

Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Big Rapids (9-1) at Whitehall (10-0) - WATCH, Freeland (9-1) at Goodrich (9-1) - WATCH, Paw Paw (9-1) at Niles (9-1) - WATCH.

11-Player Division 5

Pontiac Notre Dame Prep (9-0) at Corunna (10-0) - WATCH

This is another of the most highly-anticipated games statewide as these two sit as possible Ford Field travelers on the opposite side of Division 5 from the Grand Rapids powers Catholic Central and West Catholic and reigning runner-up Frankenmuth among others in a loaded bracket. Corunna also faced an undefeated team last week, Flint Hamady, and won 45-7, while Notre Dame Prep has defeated three league champions this fall and won all of its games by at least 16 points.

Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Romulus Summit Academy North (8-2) at Flat Rock (7-3) - WATCH, Macomb Lutheran North (8-2) at Marine City (9-1) - WATCH. SATURDAY Kingsford (9-1) at Ogemaw Heights (9-1) - WATCH.

11-Player Division 6

Warren Michigan Collegiate (10-0) at Almont (9-1) - WATCH

This is a rematch of a 2021 District Final, won by Michigan Collegiate on the way to finishing Division 6 runner-up at Ford Field. The Cougars’ only loss of its last 19 games was to Clinton by a point in last year’s Regional Final, and Michigan Collegiate has played only one game closer than 28 points this season – a 26-20 Week 3 win over Division 4 Detroit Country Day. Almont’s lone loss came just two weeks ago to Division 5 contender Ogemaw Heights. The Raiders’ defense (10.9 ppg allowed) vs. Michigan Collegiate’s offense (43 ppg scored) should be the matchup to watch, although both teams are strong on both sides of the ball.

Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Negaunee (8-2) at Gladstone (8-2) - WATCH, Detroit Edison (8-3) at Ecorse (8-1) - WATCH, Hart (9-1) at Reed City (7-3) - WATCH.

11-Player Division 7

Lawton (9-1) at North Muskegon (10-0), Saturday - WATCH

North Muskegon has been one of the statewide stories of the year, reaching double-digit wins for the first time since 1986, and with two of those victories the only losses this season for Pewamo-Westphalia and Hart. Last week’s matchup with Union City was the Norsemen’s toughest in a month but they shined with a 27-14 win over another league champion. Lawton is coming off a tough rematch win 36-18 over Schoolcraft after those two decided a league title two weeks earlier, and its only loss was to another league champion, Division 6 Constantine, in Week 3.

Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Napoleon (9-1) at Jackson Lumen Christi (9-1) - WATCH, Cass City (8-2) at Millington (10-0) - WATCH. SATURDAY Charlevoix (9-1) at Menominee (8-2) - WATCH.

11-Player Division 8

Harbor Beach (9-1) at Ubly (10-0) - WATCH

Ubly’s 56-20 win over Harbor Beach in Week 4 ended up deciding the Greater Thumb Conference East championship, but didn’t send the Pirates off course. They still haven’t given up more than 14 points in a game otherwise and made a loud statement by dealing Beal City its only regular-season defeat in Week 9. That said, Ubly never gave up more than 15 points in a game other than the 20 Harbor Beach scored and didn’t have a game closer than 22 points after missing winning last year’s Division 8 championship by a 26-20 defeat to Ottawa Lake Whiteford.

Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Ithaca (10-0) at New Lothrop (9-1) - WATCH, Hudson (8-2) at Ottawa Lake Whiteford (10-0) - WATCH, White Pigeon (10-0) at Saugatuck (8-2) - WATCH.

8-Player Division 1

Norway (8-2) at Pickford (9-1), Saturday - WATCH

Norway was the undefeated champion of the Great Lakes Eight Conference West, which sent three more playoff teams including three-time reigning Division 2 champion Powers North Central. Notable also, the Knights lost to Lake Linden-Hubbell 54-34 in their opener and then won a rematch 34-6 two weeks later. This too is a rematch, of Pickford’s 40-18 win in Week 7, and the Panthers are coming off a 38-16 rematch win last week over Rudyard after having edged Rudyard only 44-42 in Week 4. Pickford’s lone defeat came in its regular season finale 42-10 to St. Ignace, a possible Semifinal opponent for whichever team wins this game.

Other Regional Finals FRIDAY Indian River Inland Lakes (9-1) at St. Ignace (9-1) - WATCH, Kingston (8-2) at Brown City (10-0) - WATCH, Gobles (8-2) at Martin (8-2) - WATCH.

8-Player Division 2

Climax-Scotts (10-0) at Adrian Lenawee Christian (10-0), Saturday - WATCH

This is another matchup drawing major eyes to some of the state’s smallest schools. After seeing its two-year Division 1 title run end last year with a Regional Final loss to eventual champion Martin, Lenawee Christian has returned to domination with its closest game 20 points and an average margin of victory of 45. Climax-Scotts has played only three games closer than 30 points, including the last weeks in eight and 12-point wins over Pittsford. Climax-Scotts also has been one of the few to play Lenawee Christian tough the last two seasons, falling 28-12 in 2021 but winning last year’s meeting 28-21.

Other Regional Finals FRIDAY Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart (9-1) at Marion (9-0) - WATCH. SATURDAY Powers North Central (8-2) at Lake Linden-Hubbell (7-3) - WATCH, Deckerville (8-2) at Portland St. Patrick (9-1) - WATCH.

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PHOTO Corunna's Parker Isham (5) works to get to the edge during last week's District Semifinal win over Flint Hamady. (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.)