'Battle for the Bell' Rings for 110th Tilt

October 5, 2016

By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half

The Whitehall vs. Montague football game actually begins on Thursday night far away from any football field, with a huge crowd from each town, bands, cheerleaders, players, coaches and school officials.

For the coin toss.

In a scene reminiscent of a Revolutionary War battle, the aforementioned delegations marched toward each other on the evening of Thursday, Sept. 22, and met – Whitehall in red and Montague in blue – on the bridge over the White River, which separates the two northern Muskegon County towns.

No shots were fired or punches thrown, but simply a coin was tossed high in the air by veteran MHSAA official Chuck Hulce (who, by the way, coached Montague from 1969 to 1977 and then Whitehall from 1979 to 1981) and the 110th edition of the “The Battle for the Bell” was underway.

“This is something I’ve been dreaming about my whole life – playing Whitehall, the cross-town rival where I know everyone, my senior year,” said Montague senior wide receiver Josh Weesies. “It’s huge for me. We’ve been grinding all summer just thinking about this game.”

Montague, with a population of 2,361 and covering 3.27 square miles, boasts the World’s Largest Working Weathervane and 1961 Miss America Nancy Fleming – and boasted a 59-48-2 edge in the all-time series over Whitehall heading into this year’s game.

Whitehall, with a population of 2,706 and covering 3.79 square miles, counters with the historic Howmet Playhouse and 11-year Major League Baseball player and Gold Glove winner Nate McLouth, who quarterbacked the Vikings to back-to-back wins in the series in 1998 and 1999.

The game has always been about bragging rights, but this year’s clash was much more. For the first time since 1985, both teams came into the game undefeated and both were state-ranked.  Whitehall was 4-0 and ranked eighth in the Associated Press Division 4 poll, while Montague was also 4-0 and ranked sixth in Division 5.

The pre-game festivities on Sept. 22 were all about White Lake area unity as the two communities came together for a “Pink Out” event to raise money for St. Jude’s Hospital and the fight against cancer – and  the marching bands even performed together on the field before the game.

Then it was time to take sides.

“This rivalry is very special for me,” said Whitehall senior quarterback Casey Huizenga. “I know all the Montague kids. We’re friends, but during this game we’re going all out.”

Huizenga and Whitehall actually struck first in the game, which was played on a perfect early fall night in front of 5,000 fans at Montague.

Whitehall junior Tylor Russell returned the opening kickoff deep into Montague territory, setting up a 1-yard plunge by Huizenga for a quick 6-0 Vikings’ lead.

But it didn’t take long for Montague’s myriad offensive weapons to come out. On the ensuing possession, Montague senior quarterback Dylan Stever (good friends with Huizenga, incidentally) connected with junior Jake Jancek on a 16-yard touchdown pass to tie the score.

Jancek was the first of six Wildcats to score touchdowns in the game, which featured 40 points in the first quarter alone, with Montague holding a 27-13 edge. Also scoring for the Wildcats were junior Eddie Caviedes, sophomore Bryce Stark, Weesies, sophomore Kenyon Johnston and Stever.

The difference in the game was Montague’s defense completely shutting down the Whitehall offense after the first quarter.

Whitehall’s only score after the first 12 minutes was a 90-yard interception return by junior Justin Brown in the fourth quarter, which completed the scoring in a decisive 41-20 Montague victory. The night ended with fans heading for their cars and the Wildcats ringing the red, white and blue victory bell for the ninth time in the last 11 years.

“It’s fun to be here with the whole community at one game,” said 13th-year Montague coach Pat Collins, who played quarterback and led the Wildcats to the 1992 Class CC championship game at the Pontiac Silverdome, where they lost to Detroit dePorres, 12-7. “It’s a real special moment every year up here.”

Collins has turned Montague into a state football powerhouse, as it’s made the MHSAA Playoffs in 11 of his first 12 seasons as head coach. What is more impressive is what his teams have done once they get there. Montague made it at least to the third round of the playoffs eight straight years from 2004 to 2011, at least to the Semifinals five straight years from 2005 to 2009 and won back-to-back Division 6 championships in 2008 and 2009.

Montague (5-1), which was upset by North Muskegon in the rain on Sept. 30, is heavily favored at Hart this week, which would set up a showdown at Muskegon Oakridge (5-1) on Oct. 14 for the West Michigan Conference title. For the playoffs, Montague’s enrollment has increased to 414 and the Wildcats are now considered a “bubble team” which could end up in either Division 5 or Division 6.

Whitehall (4-2), a larger school with 654 students, could clinch its third-straight Division 4 playoff berth with two wins over its final three games, starting with this week’s showdown at Ravenna (4-2).

While Montague has been a model of stability with just two head football coaches during the past 31 years (Ken Diamond from 1986 to 2003 and Collins from 2004 to present), Whitehall has been just the opposite.

The Vikings have had five different head coaches since 2002, but it appears they have found their man in Dewitt native Tony Sigmon, who has a 19-9 record over the past three seasons after a 1-8 start in his first season in 2013.

For Sigmon, the first step to competing for West Michigan Conference titles and MHSAA playoff victories is being able to consistently go toe-to-toe with rival Montague.

“This game, this rivalry is what high school football is all about,” Sigmon said. “It’s a game that has become a huge community event, and it drives both teams to keep getting better.”

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) Montague players gather to ring the trophy bell after Montague defeated Whitehall, 41-20, in the "The Battle for the Bell." (Middle) Montague junior Jake Jancek elevates to grab this 16-yard touchdown pass from Dylan Stever in the first quarter, while Whitehall's JoJo Dowdell defends. (Below) The Whitehall and Montague bands performed together before the big game between the two northern Muskegon County schools. (Photos by Tim Reilly.)

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.)