Anticipation High as Statewide Football Eyes Turn to History-Chasing Mason

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

August 8, 2023

MASON – The drone lightly buzzing overhead during the final hour of Mason’s first practice was providing coaches another point of view as another season got underway Monday evening.

Mid-MichiganBut those shouldn’t be the only eyes watching the Bulldogs these days.

Two years ago, the Bulldogs started grabbing attention with a run of eight straight wins that landed them a first Regional championship with a stunning 20-17 win over frequent contender Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice.

A statewide audience began focusing in last season on the 8,200-resident town just south of Lansing as Mason returned to the Division 3 Semifinals and finished 12-1, setting a school record for wins with the only loss coming to eventual champion Detroit Martin Luther King for the second-consecutive season.

The Bulldogs return nine starters on offense and eight on defense this fall, led in part by two four-year varsity players and three in their third seasons on the top squad. Not tuning in would be a mistake – and mean missing out on potentially another historic effort.

“It started when we beat the Brother Rice team two seasons ago. That kinda kicked off a little bit of a spark for us here at Mason, and the energy just became the difference,” said senior lineman Nick Saade, one of those three-year varsity standouts. “You could just tell. All of our coaches have been at the weight room every day, giving us harder workouts as each year progresses. We’ve increased everything. The energy is there, all the seniors are back. We’re ready to go.”

Practices in nine sports started for an estimated 95,000 athletes across 750 MHSAA member high schools Monday. And Mason football got a running start. On what felt like the most comfortable first day of practice weather-wise in recent memory, there was no sign the Bulldogs were aiming to sit comfortably after what they’d accomplished the last two seasons.

So many experienced returnees means less to teach the greater group and an opportunity for coaches to start game-planning and focusing on details they might not get to usually until the first third of the season is done.

The program has had plenty of success over the years, including a stretch of 14 winning seasons over 15 from 2002-16. But the combined 39-6 record over the last four seasons is unmatched in Bulldogs history and made Mason a place to be for local media Monday as expectations – and anticipation – likely have never been higher.

“Expectations are high, no question about it – and it’s exciting,” said seventh-year coach Gary Houghton, whose only sub-.500 finish came his first season in 2017. “These guys love a challenge, our coaches love a challenge. … We feel like we have a blueprint that leads to success, and we’re going to stay to that blueprint.

“We’ve tweaked some little things, but the core of what we do, we’re going to continue to do. With the added experience we have coming back, I think we have an opportunity to take it to another level.”

Third-year starting quarterback Cason Carswell lines up under center.Mason took a solid offense to nearly unstoppable last season, upping its per-game scoring average 12 points to 43 per game. Junior Cason Carswell should begin approaching Mason career passing records in his third season as the starter after setting single-season school records with 2,403 yards and 34 scores through the air last fall in making the Division 3-4 all-state second team.

The Bulldogs return all but one receiver among last year’s starting skill players, with senior running back AJ Martel entering his fourth season on varsity after running for 1,273 yards and 20 scores a year ago behind a line that returns Saade among three starters.

The defense was two points better per game last fall than in 2021 while facing another tough playoff slate, giving up 15 points per game. The entire linebacking group returns, with senior Kaleb Parrish having been named the Lansing State Journal Defensive Player of the Year last season. Senior Derek Badgley and junior Logan Doerr also received postseason all-area recognition at linebacker, as did seniors Tyler Baker and Cole Ries in the defensive backfield and senior Grant Gilchrist and junior Sam Corey up front. Junior Collin Winters, also a soccer player, was an all-area kicker last fall.

The energy Monday was undeniable. Houghton loves the chemistry this group has developed over the last three seasons, starting as a young team grew together during that 2021 run. He credits rebuilding the program’s culture, undertaken in several ways purposefully, as putting this team in this position to put the last two years of experiences and learning toward another championship opportunity.

“Just stay confident. Know you can get the job done. Just trust your teammates,” Carswell said he has learned most.

“We all have huge hopes. A couple of years ago, it was like, ‘Let’s make the playoffs. Let’s make a big run.” Now it’s let’s go for it all.”

Geoff KimmerlyGeoff Kimmerly joined the MHSAA in Sept. 2011 after 12 years as Prep Sports Editor of the Lansing State Journal. He is a senior editor of's editorial content and has served as MHSAA Communications Director since January 2021. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Barry, Eaton, Ingham, Livingston, Ionia, Clinton, Shiawassee, Gratiot, Isabella, Clare and Montcalm counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Linemen work on one-on-one drills during Mason’s first football practice Monday evening. (Middle) Third-year starting quarterback Cason Carswell lines up under center. (Photos by Geoff Kimmerly.)

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.)