1st & Goal: 8-Player Finals Preview

By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com senior editor

January 15, 2021

Four undefeated teams will be the first to play for championships to cap the longest football season in MHSAA history.

Adrian Lenawee Christian and Suttons Bay in Division 1 and Portland St. Patrick and Powers North Central in Division 2 will take the field at Brighton’s Legacy Center on Saturday with this season’s two 8-player titles on the line. They returned to action last week after a nearly two-month pause due to COVID-19.

Suttons Bay and Portland St. Patrick are the 2019 runners-up in Divisions 1 and 2, respectively. Adrian Lenawee Christian is new to the format this season and like Suttons Bay is playing for its first football title. North Central, meanwhile, is the only program to win multiple 8-player championships since the format was added in 2011, and the Jets are back at the Finals for the first time since their repeat run in 2016.

Kickoff for the Division 2 game is 2 p.m., with the Division 1 game following approximately 5:30 p.m. Spectators remain limited, but both games will be broadcast live on the FOX Sports Detroit Facebook page, and replayed on FOX Sports Detroit’s primary channel Jan. 21 beginning at 8 p.m. Audio of both games will be streamed live on MHSAANetwork.com.

Below is a look at all four finalists. Team “rankings” are based on their playoff-point averages heading into the postseason.

Division 1

 10-0, No. 3
Coach: Bill Wilharms, eighth season (59-21)
League finish: First in Southern Central Athletic Association A
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Best wins: 49-0 over No. 1 Morrice in Regional Final, 47-12 over No. 8 Martin in Semifinal, 78-14 over No. 4 Mayville in Regional Semifinal, 24-6 over Division 2 No. 5 Colon.
Players to watch: RB/LB Jameson Chesser, 5-10/170, sr. (1,179 yards/29 TDs rushing, 506 yards/4 TDs receiving); QB/CB Landon Gallant, 5-10/155, sr. (1,331 yards/23 TDs passing, 388 yards/6 TDs rushing); OG/NG Coby Kegerreis, 5-8/185, jr.; C/DE Joey Breckel, 6-1/240, sr.
Outlook: Lenawee Christian’s 8-player debut couldn’t have gone better on the field, as the Cougars have won only one game by fewer than 35 points. That was an 18-point victory over league foe Colon, last season’s Division 1 champion, and Saturday the Cougars can make it a repeat for the SCAA Division A. Chesser – who also has thrown for 178 yards and two touchdowns on 17 attempts – made the all-state first team and scored five times against Martin in the Semifinal. Kegerreis also made the all-state first team, as did junior kicker Clay Ayers (41 of 48 XP), and Breckel earned honorable mention. Those four and Gallant also start on a defense that’s given up only 46 points over 10 games.

 10-0, No. 1
Coach: Garrick Opie, third season (30-2)
League finish: Does not play in a league.
Championship history: 8-player Division 1 runner-up 2019, 11-player Division 6 runner-up 2004.
Best wins: 38-22 over No. 8 Gaylord St. Mary in Regional Final, 35-0 over Brethren, 39-20 and 44-0 (Regional Semifinal) over Whittemore-Prescott.
Players to watch: RB/DB Hugh Periard, 6-0/175, jr. (799 yards/13 TDs rushing, 217 yards/3 TDs receiving); QB/DB Nate Devol, 6-0/175, sr. (901 yards/15 TDs passing, 301 yards/2 TDs rushing, 4 interceptions on defense); RB/LB Shawn Bramer, 6-2/195, jr. (622 yards/11 TDs rushing, 60 yards/1 TD receiving); OL/LB Michael Wittman, 6-4/230, sr.
Outlook: Suttons Bay is returning to the Division 1 championship game after falling short in a 26-14 defeat to Colon in 2019. The Norsemen have won all of their games by double digits, with a defense giving up only 7.6 points per game and a rushing attack that has piled up 2,506 yards over nine games (last week’s Semifinal win was a forfeit by Indian River Inland Lakes). Wittman made the all-state first team as a linebacker. Starting tight ends Jake Murphy and Brayden Opie add another element to the attack – both have caught 15 passes, with Murphy scoring on five and Opie on six.

Division 2

 10-0, No. 1
Coach: Patrick Russman, 13th season (96-39)
League finish: Does not play in the league.  
Championship history: 8-player Division 2 runner-up 2019 and 2017, 11-player Class D champion 1992, runner-up 1997 and 1991.
Best wins: 44-34 over No. 5 Colon in Regional Final, 34-12 over No. 7 Kinde North Huron in Semifinal, 52-19 over No. 4 Burr Oak, 26-22 over Division 1 No. 6 Merrill.
Players to watch: QB/DB Connor Cross, 6-3/190, sr. (1,245 yards/21 TDs passing, 429 yards/9 TDs rushing, 4 interceptions on defense); RB/LB Derec Fedewa, 5-10/185, jr. (1,369 yards/19 TDs, 311 yards/5 TDs receiving); WR/LB Braxton Teachworth, 6-3/190, jr. (193 yards/3 TDs  receiving); OL/DL Chase Fitzsimmons, 6-3/240, sr.
Outlook: The Shamrocks have come within a win of the Division 2 championship twice over the last four seasons, and will make a run at it again with an offense featuring all-state first teamers at quarterback and running back. Cross and Fedewa have piled up big numbers this fall, as has leading receiving Shane Cook (502 yards/9 TDs), for a team scoring 43.5 points per game. But the key Saturday could be an opportunistic defense that has taken advantage of 28 turnovers – including 19 fumble recoveries – and allowed conversions on only 19 percent of opponent third downs. Fitzsimmons and Teachworth earned all-state honorable mentions, Teachworth at linebacker.

 10-0, No. 2
Coach: Leo Gorzinski, third season (28-3)
League finish: First in Great Lakes Eight Conference West
Championship history: 8-player champion 2016 and 2015.
Best wins: 55-8 over No. 3 Cedarville in Regional Final, 50-2 over No. 8 Marion in Semifinal, 50-8 over Stephenson, 52-8 over Lake Linden-Hubbell in Regional Semifinal.
Players to watch: QB/LB Luke Gorzinski, 5-9/170, soph. (1,163 yards/18 TDs passing, 909 yards/20 TDs rushing); WR/LB Ian Gorzinski, 5-11/165, sr. (362 yards/5 TDs receiving, 101 yards/3 TDs rushing); RB/LB Alex Naser, 5-8/165, jr. (312 yards/7 TDs rushing, 301 yards/7 TDs receiving, 2 TDs on kickoff returns); OL/DL Carter Eichmeier, 6-2/190, sr.
Outlook: The Jets will match St. Patrick’s all-state quarterback with the other all-state first-team signal-caller this season in Luke Gorzinski, who is coming off four touchdown runs and a scoring pass in the Semifinal. He keys an offense that has outscored opponents 280-8 in the first quarter alone and 539-60 in nine games overall (one win was a forfeit). Eichmeier also made the all-state first team as North Central won all but one of its games by more than 40 points. In addition to the sparse points given up, the Jets are allowing only 114 yards per game.

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.)