'3rd-Quarter Team' West Catholic Shows Why in Record-Setting Triumph

By Paul Costanzo
Special for MHSAA.com

November 25, 2022

DETROIT – When Negaunee senior Phil Nelson returned the opening kickoff of the second half Friday and tied the Division 6 championship game at 14, it woke something up inside Ford Field.

Unfortunately for Negaunee, that something was Timmy Kloska.

“I just saw that kick return, and it really fired me up,” the Grand Rapids West Catholic senior running back said. “Our o-line got going, the holes were opening and we just got going.”

Kloska dominated the rest of the game, rushing for 172 yards and four touchdowns during the second half, leading West Catholic to a 59-14 victory. It was the sixth Finals title for West Catholic, and first since 2017. 

The Falcons’ 59 points set the record for an 11-player Final, breaking the mark set by both Flint Powers Catholic and Saginaw Nouvel in 2011.

“It’s great,” said Kloska, who finished with 241 yards rushing for the game. “Me and all my friends, and all the players on the team, we’ve worked really hard for this. This has been a dream since we were in seventh grade, watching all those state championships. It’s a great feeling because we’ve worked so hard.”

The Falcons’ Danny Groskiewicz (24) and Joe Debski bring down a Negaunee ball carrier.West Catholic put on an offensive display, gaining 520 yards of total offense and averaging 14.9 yards per play. That number sat at 16.8 yards per play entering the fourth quarter. 

The Falcons had five touchdowns of longer than 30 yards, and three longer than 60. They were also remarkably balanced, as they gained 295 yards on the ground and 225 through the air on the arm of quarterback Bernie Varnesdeel.

“Our coaches, all week, have put us in good positions,” said junior receiver Carter Perry, who had touchdown receptions of 72 and 32 yards in the first half. “When you get put in that position, it’s almost easy to make the plays and execute them.”

It started right away, too, as Perry’s 72-yard score came on the first play from scrimmage.

“I knew right before the game he was going to be wide open,” Varnesdeel said. “We were working on that play all week at practice, and he’s been open most of the time. He was the main option right there, so I just hit him and executed.”

Despite the big-play success, West Catholic (13-1) wasn’t able to pull away from Negaunee because it barely had the ball during the first half.

Negaunee (13-1) had a 20:03-3:57 edge in time of possession, and ran 37 plays to West Catholic’s 13. But it took until the final play of the half for the Miners to get on the scoreboard. They scored on a 6-yard pass from Ty Jacobson to Nelson on 4th-and-goal to make it 14-7 at halftime. The scoring toss was set up by a 32-yard pass on a reverse flea flicker from Jacobson to Eli VanBuren on a third down near midfield.

“Our gameplan was really similar from the first half to the second half, but you have to give Negaunee a lot of credit,” West Catholic coach Landon Grove said. “They did a really good job. They slowed the game down. They ate up a lot of clock. That’s credit to them. They got us out of rhythm, and they kind of forced our hand a little bit by not letting us have the football.”

When Nelson ran the kick back to start the second half and tie the game at 14, it seemed as if Negaunee’s strategy was working perfectly. 

West Catholic players celebrate Friday’s win. But West Catholic’s 45 unanswered points to end the game negated all of that.

“We ran out of gas,” Negaunee coach Paul Jacobson said. “We played toe-to-toe with them for a half, Phil had a great return to start the second half. I don’t know if we woke a sleeping giant. It was a combination of that, and we kind of ran out of gas. Then they rolled that second half on us.”

The Falcons scored 31 points in the third quarter, and didn’t take up a lot of time in doing so. 

Kloska had touchdown runs of 61, 16 and 3 yards, and Varnesdeel threw his third touchdown pass of the game, a 68-yarder to Andrew McAlary. Carson Beekman added a 31-yard field goal.

Those five drives lasted a total of 4:35.

The difference between the third quarter and the first half, however, was that the West Catholic defense was getting the Negaunee offense off the field.

“Kind of our M.O. this year has been third quarters,” Grove said. “Kind of coming out with our hair on fire and taking over games. That’s what we did again today. That’s a testament to our defensive staff for making those adjustments they needed to make. Then our kids buying into those adjustments and believing in the process.”

Kloska added a 13-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, while Elliot Zainea had a 26-yard touchdown run for the Falcons.

Varnesdeel was 5-of-10 passing on the night for his 225 yards and three scores. McAlary had three catches for 121 yards, and Perry had his two for 104.

Charlie DeBruyn led the West Catholic defense with 10 tackles, including 3.5 for loss, and forced a fumble.

Kai Lacar led Negaunee with 45 yards rushing, and Ty Jacobson was 7-of-12 passing for 78 yards.

“I’m just proud of these guys, the way they battled adversity,” Paul Jacobson said. “They battled a ton of different stuff this year. Just the ups and downs, they were able to stick together. We really preach a family mentality, and they stuck together through and through. I’m proud of these guys.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS (Top) West Catholic’s Carter Perry (13) gets upfield during his team’s Division 6 championship win. (Middle) The Falcons’ Danny Groskiewicz (24) and Joe Debski bring down a Negaunee ball carrier. (Below) West Catholic players celebrate Friday’s win. (Click for more from Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)

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.)