Back-up QB Sails South to D4 Title

November 23, 2012

By Bill Khan
Special to Second Half

DETROIT — The Grand Rapids South Christian community wouldn't allow Derek Woltjer to feel nervous or unsure of himself.

As soon as it became apparent that he would start for injured star quarterback Jon Wassink in the MHSAA Division 4 championship game, Woltjer was bombarded with encouraging messages from fans, teammates and friends.

Wassink broke his collarbone a week ago in a Semifinal victory over Comstock Park. Later that night, Woltjer was told he would start the title game against Detroit Country Day on Friday at Ford Field.

"I felt awful that he couldn't play," Woltjer said. "He's one of the biggest parts of our team, but I was ready to step up. I had people calling me, giving me texts that night, telling me they believe in me, telling me they have full confidence, telling me they stand behind me. I was very blessed with the people in the community."

That kind of support had a calming effect on Woltjer, who accounted for four touchdowns in South Christian's 40-7 victory over Country Day.

Woltjer, a senior who played sparingly at quarterback this season, was 7 for 7 for 88 yards and two touchdowns, while rushing 15 times for a game-high 136 yards and two scores.

"If I wouldn't have had all that (encouragement), my nerves today would've been just off the charts," Woltjer said. "I slept a good 10 hours last night. I wasn't nervous up until the kickoff today. With people behind you like that, it takes the nerves away from you quite a bit."

There was no need to shake off any rust for Woltjer, who marched the Sailors down the field on their opening drive and scored on a 13-yard run with 3:21 left in the first quarter. It became 14-0 when Woltjer hit Jason Miller for a 41-yard touchdown pass on South Christian's second drive with 9:13 left in the second quarter.

"I knew he had it in him," South Christian coach Mark Tamminga said. "I talked to Derek before the game, just me and him, and I said, 'Derek, you don't have to win this football game for us. Play within yourself and make the plays you know you can make.' That's what he did. He did a tremendous job."

The Sailors' coaching staff made sure the team didn't get down over the loss of Wassink, a sophomore who threw for 3,400 yards and rushed for more than 700 this season.

"I knew we could win this without Jonny," said senior receiver Austin Diekevers, who scored two touchdowns. "Our coach has been telling us all week that Jonny is only one person. We've got 57 kids on this team. It takes more than one person to win a football game."

The Sailors kept Wassink's injury under wraps all week. Country Day prepared to face a South Christian team that would throw the ball all over the field, but instead got a squad that ran 39 times for 291 yards.

"We kind of prepared for No. 12 (Wassink)," Country Day coach Dan MacLean said. "We've been in that situation. Once several years ago, our quarterback broke his arm in the Semifinals and we won a thriller. Credit to those kids. They showed a lot of resolve and I think they kind of play up for the guy who goes down. They played very well. We obviously didn't, but a lot of that was attributable to them."

Country Day's only touchdown was a 54-yard pass from Tyler Wiegers to Maurice Ways with 3:40 left in the first half, cutting the margin to 14-7.

The Sailors took that lead into the break, but seized control of the game with two touchdowns in a 1:28 span of the third quarter. Woltjer hit Diekevers with a 20-yard touchdown pass on a corner route to make it 21-7 with 7:54 left in the third. Chad Sterk, who ran 11 times for 103 yards, made it 27-7 after a quick three-and-out by the Yellowjackets when he took a punt 31 yards to the end zone. On the punt return, he was aided by a devastating block by Seth VanEngen, a block that elicited some "ooohs" when it was replayed on the large screens at Ford Field.

The rout was on when Woltjer broke free for a 69-yard touchdown run with 2:24 left in the third quarter and Diekevers scored on a 6-yard run with 8:00 to go in the game.

"We probably ran the ball more than we've run the ball all year, there's no doubt about it," Tamminga said. "Derek ran the ball. Our running backs, our line played phenomenal tonight. They opened up holes for our backs and Derek."

It was the second MHSAA championship for South Christian, which also won the Division 4 title in 2002. The Sailors started the season 4-3 before winning their final seven games.

"I didn't think we'd win by this much, but I'm not surprised that we did win," Woltjer said. "We did very well today."

Click for full statistics and to watch a replay of the game.

PHOTOS: (Top) Grand Rapids South Christian quarterback Derek Woltjer rushes for some of his 136 yards during Saturday's Division 4 Final. (Middle) South Christian players celebrate their MHSAA championship. (Click for more from Terry McNamara Photography.)

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.)