After Slight Delay, Veteran Spring Lake Impresses in Long-Awaited Launch

By Tom Kendra
Special for

September 9, 2021

Spring Lake returned 17 starters and, understandably, couldn’t wait to get this season started.

But just as the Lakers were revving up their engine for takeoff, they were idled for another week.

Spring Lake picked up a forfeit victory in Week 1 after Muskegon Orchard View decided to not field a varsity team this fall, so the Lakers put in another week of practice and then unleashed all of their pent-up energy on Zeeland East last Thursday.

Christian Folkert rushed 11 times for 211 yards and four touchdowns as Spring Lake sprinted to a 42-0 halftime lead and then cruised to a convincing 56-21 nonleague victory.

“We were so excited and pumped,” said Folkert, a 5-foot-11, 195-pound senior. “We wanted to go out there and send a message and show everyone what we have this year.”

After the Lakers’ front line and Folkert established itself in the first quarter, senior quarterback Jackson Core (6-1, 170) did his thing in the second quarter, connecting on touchdown passes to senior Joe Westhoff and junior Derrick Paggeot.

Core finished 6-of-7 passing for 90 yards, and Paggeot had four catches for 71 yards. SL piled up 401 total rushing yards, with eight ball carriers.

The final score was a surprise to many throughout West Michigan, considering Zeeland East plays in the larger Ottawa-Kent Conference Green and has qualified for the playoffs 10 straight seasons. About the only people not surprised were Spring Lake’s 19 seniors, who are used to winning – and winning big.

Spring Lake footballThe Lakers’ senior class went undefeated in seventh grade, lost one game in eighth grade (to Hudsonville Unity Christian), then went unbeaten as freshmen and sophomores – despite having five of the best players from the class playing on the varsity as sophomores. Those five who were called up in 2019 were Folkert, twin brothers and linemen Travis and Hunter Throop, RJ Lisman (C/LB) and Ty French (H-back/DE).

“Our senior class is used to winning, and that gives us confidence,” explained Core, whose father, Bill, is Spring Lake’s longtime basketball and softball coach. “It’s not just a couple of us seniors, we have a lot guys who can play and push each other. I guess that’s why we’re so excited for this season.”

Spring Lake broke through last season and beat Fremont (48-0) in a Division 4 District opener, snapping a 12-game playoff losing streak dating back to 2001, before falling to Ada Forest Hills Eastern (28-21) in the District Semifinal.

The bulk of that 5-3 team is back, led by Folkert, who combines size and speed – and now another intangible, according to sixth-year Lakers coach Dan Start.

“In the past, Christian was more of a battering ram who ran people over,” explained Start, a former player at Grandville, who coached football in Florida before taking the Spring Lake job in 2016. “He can still do that, for sure, but he’s learned how to make them miss, too. His change of direction and vision is much-improved.”

Folkert is also a leader of the Lakers’ 4-2-5 defensive look from his defensive end position. With Folkert and French setting the edge at the two defensive end spots and the Throop brothers plugging up the middle, Zeeland East was unable to run the ball.

Spring Lake begins league play in the rugged O-K Blue this week at Holland Christian. The real test comes over the final four weeks of the conference season at home against Hudsonville Unity Christian and Coopersville, at Grand Rapids West Catholic and at home against Allendale – all of whom are 2-0 thus far.

“We’ve only won one game, so we obviously have a long way to go,” said Folkert, who also gave a shout out to his school’s student section, which was loud and raucous for the Zeeland East game, clad in matching black shirts. “You never know what is going to happen. We have a lot of good players, but we have to go out there and ball and get it done. I mean, everyone said we were going to lose to Zeeland East and that didn’t happen.”

Spring Lake footballSpring Lake has had two undefeated teams during the playoff era, in 1980 and 1982, but neither qualified for the playoffs – which at that time included just 32 teams in the entire state, broken into four classes. The 1982 team was a particularly hard-luck story, posting eight shutouts in nine games and outscoring its opponents by a combined score of 266-6.

The Lakers’ best playoff run came in 2000, when they made it all the way to the Division 5 championship game at the Pontiac Silverdome, losing to Jackson Lumen Christi, 42-15.

Spring Lake reached the second round the following year, but before last fall, the Lakers went “one and done” in the playoffs 11 straight times.

After snapping that skid, this year’s senior-laden Lakers squad is focused on making a long playoff run.

Spring Lake is the largest school in Division 4 with 825 students, which means many of its conference opponents could become early-round playoff foes as well.

“First off, we do play in a very difficult conference,” said Start, whose assistants include offensive coordinator Kyle Jewett and defensive coordinator Aaron West. “So we feel like if we can do well in our conference, then we can do well in the playoffs.

“But honestly, that is so far away. Our goal right now is to get one percent better every day. If we actually do that, the results will take care of themselves.”

Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Spring Lake senior running back Christian Folkert breaks through a huge hole on a 57-yard touchdown run in the first quarter of the Lakers' 56-21 win over visiting Zeeland East on Sept. 3. Joe Westhoff (24) and Hunter Throop (77) provide additional blocking for Folkert, who finished with 11 carries for 211 yards and four touchdowns. (Middle) Spring Lake senior quarterback Jackson Core launches a pass during his team's win over Zeeland East. He completed 6-of-7 passes for 90 yards and two touchdowns. (Below) Spring Lake coach Dan Start, now in his sixth season, addresses his team before the start of last Thursday’s game. (Photos by Kelly Gates.)

Constantine Football All-Stater, Wrestling Champ Aiming for Grand Finale

By Scott Hassinger
Special for

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.)