All Eyes on Ithaca's Winning Streak

November 1, 2012

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

Terry Hessbrook has sensed this level of buzz around Ithaca's football program once before.

He was a senior running back during the 1984 "dream season" when the team finished the regular season 9-0 and made the playoffs for the first time. The Yellowjackets' postseason run lasted only a week – Ithaca fell to Grand Rapids South Christian 20-0 in the first round, which in those days of shorter playoffs was the Regional Final – but the excitement was reminiscent of the attention his program is getting heading into Friday's Division 6 District Final against Hemlock. 

Except this hype extends far outside the city limits of his 2,900-resident hometown. Ithaca has won 38 straight games, the fifth-longest streak in MHSAA football history, and is only three more wins from a third straight trip to the Finals at Ford Field.

“It’s been really neat to have people take a look at what we’re doing in Ithaca,” Hessbrook said. “We’re not doing anything different. We’re not reinventing the wheel. We’re not a bunch of geniuses or anything like that. We just have a coaching staff that works really hard and supports each other, and we don’t care who gets the credit. And the players don’t care who gets the credit.” 

How much the ninth-year coach is beaming comes through the phone as he talks of his players' handling of the growing expectations or how fortunate he is to be surrounded by assistants he's been close with, in at least a few cases, for decades.

And winning makes everything more fun. The Yellowjackets get a Second Half High 5 this week as they work toward becoming just the fifth school to win three straight MHSAA titles since the first playoffs were held in 1975. The winning streak is the third-longest among those that included at least one season since the postseason was added.

Ahead of Ithaca on that consecutive wins list are Hudson (72), Morenci (44), Cheboygan (43) and New Lothrop (39). But only Cheboygan accomplished its streak completely within the playoff era, with Hudson’s coming to an end in the first MHSAA Class C Final.  

Making this run more special is that half the team has been together for nearly all of it.

Hessbrook brought his players into a huddle at the start of practice this August, and as he started looking at their faces, a thought crossed his mind.

“Wow, you guys have been around for a long time,” he told them.

Ithaca’s football players haven’t been around any longer than those on any other team in Michigan. But it sure feels that way. The Yellowjackets have played in 12 playoff games over the last three years, and five seniors who moved to varsity at the start of 2010 – receiver Markes Gadlen, linebackers Tyler Gibson and Jacob Barnes and linemen Bradley Martyn and Josh Capen – have played in 38 varsity games. That’s the equivalent of more than four regular seasons. And the team's other 12 seniors all came up for the playoffs in 2010, giving them more postseason experience than perhaps any group currently playing in this state. 

During that 2010 run, they felt like they were along for the ride. Last season’s championship was about seniors like Garrett Miniard and David Brown showing they could win one too after following all-state quarterback Alex Niznak’s lead the year before. Now, these seniors similarly want to be the leaders of another title run.

But Hessbrook is sure to credit one more group – the 2009 team that played in the team's first MHSAA Semifinal.

“In 2009, that group of players raised the bar, and they made it possible, although they didn’t win,” Hessbrook said. “They didn’t get to the big game. But in 2009, for one quarter (in the Semifinal), we played with Montague (which went on to finish 14-0).

“The bar has been raised. I don’t know that the goal now is to (just) get into the playoffs. I think the kids are hungry enough that they don’t want to just get in. They want to get in and make noise.”  

The name statewide observers are coming to know is that of junior quarterback Travis Smith. He took over in the 2011 opener and quarterbacked the team through the 42-14 championship game win over Constantine, throwing for 299 yards – fifth-best all-time for an MHSAA championship game.

His numbers this fall say plenty – 107 completions in 175 attempts for 1,696 yards and 30 touchdowns, with only four interceptions. Smith also leads the team with 610 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. He’s 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds and already getting the college looks that came to Niznak during his senior season after he’d already committed to Central Michigan.

Total, the team is outscoring opponents on average 53-6. The defense is a little smaller but faster this fall, and is averaging exactly three turnovers per game.  

Another stat helps it all make more sense. Teams submit the grade-point average for their top 11 players for academic all-state – and Ithaca’s group comes in at 3.85.

And visitors to Ithaca don’t get the feel they’re in a small town once they enter the stadium. Recent renovations included the addition of viewing platforms 15 feet above the track that put fans closer to the field than the first row of bleachers. There are new bathrooms and a larger concessions area, but the biggest blast comes from the 13 by 24-foot Jumbotron scoreboard that’s made the stadium feel more like the home of a Division II college team.

Hessbrook estimates at least 2,000 fans are showing up for home games, and similarly large crowds have followed his team on the road.

To Ithaca’s credit, the team is taking all of this in stride. It’s not that the streak isn’t a big deal – “It is what it is,” Hessbrook said – but the players just don’t talk about it too much.

“They’re really a mature group of seniors, really grounded, from great families with great parents who are very supportive of what we’re doing and just keep their kids grounded. The coaching staff does a good job keeping the kids grounded," Hessbrook said. "You’re only as good as your last game. Nobody’s going to care what you did last week or last month. And I think the players believe that.”

PHOTOS: (Top) Ithaca's Caden Kipp and Zach Allen (12) celebrate after a touchdown during last week's win over Grandville Calvin Christian. (Middle) Quarterback Travis Smith already is in the MHSAA record book for his performance during last season's Division 6 Final. (Click to see more from

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.)