Belleville Finds Championship Formula, Completes 1st Finals Run

By Scott DeCamp
Special for

November 27, 2021

DETROIT – Belleville’s football team found Ford Field after a series of near-misses in recent seasons. The Tigers found it much to their liking, too.

Belleville put its speed, athleticism and depth of talent on full display in a 55-33 runaway victory over Rochester Adams in the MHSAA Division 1 title game Saturday. The fast track and climate-controlled environment were ideal for the Tigers in their first-ever Finals appearance.

Freshman quarterback Bryce Underwood passed for 284 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions, three of the scores to senior Jeremiah Caldwell as the Tigers (13-1) came within a point of tying a record for most scored in a Finals game.

“You get a bunch of athletes on a fast track and without the elements, you know, it was going to be some opportunities for Bryce …,” said Belleville coach Jermain Crowell, the former Detroit Cass Tech assistant, who is now 72-10 in seven years with the Tigers program.

The 6-foot-2, 180-pound Underwood, who is only 14 years old, finished 12-of-21 passing. He capped Belleville’s scoring with a 30-yard run in the fourth quarter when he delivered a forceful stiff-arm in the backfield to a would-be tackler.

The 6-3, 175-pound Caldwell was on the receiving end of only four passes, but the playmaker converted them into a whopping 204 yards. Underwood connected with the lanky, speedy senior on scoring strikes of 56, 64 and 72 yards, all in the first half, as Belleville entered the locker room with a 21-20 edge.

“I would say I wasn’t that nervous, I just knew that I had to come out and execute our plan and finish the football game,” Underwood said.

Belleville took control in the third quarter, when the Tigers converted two Adams turnovers into touchdowns – one on a blocked punt and the other on a fumble recovery. They led 35-20 entering the fourth quarter, and that margin never dipped below 14 points the rest of the way.

Six different players scored TDs for Belleville, illustrating Crowell’s point in the postgame press conference that it was a team effort. The Tigers had no turnovers.

“It was the team. I mean, to be honest with you, it was the team,” said Crowell, whose squads lost semifinal heartbreakers to eventual 2020 state champ West Bloomfield (35-34 in double-overtime) and Brighton in 2019 (22-19). The Tigers also lost in the 2018 semifinals to eventual state champ Clinton Township Chippewa Valley.

“All the other years, it was always about this individual guy, that individual guy, that individual guy, and it’s not high school football. That’s not how it’s supposed to be. It’s not supposed to be that way.”

Division 1 Football FinalEven though Belleville’s defense surrendered 33 points, the Tigers made enough plays on that side of the ball and they did it with several players contributing.

Seniors Cameron Dyson and JaShawn Greene led Belleville’s defense with eight tackles apiece. Greene also had a forced fumble and sack, while Caldwell picked off a pass.

As much as Crowell stressed “team,” it was hard to ignore the individual talents of Underwood and Caldwell.

“I feel like it’s amazing because he’s so young,” Caldwell said about Underwood. “Once he gets to my age as a senior, it’s going to be, like, ‘Wow!’ Like, he’s doing this as a freshman now, so when he becomes a senior, it’s going to be mind-boggling.”

Said Adams coach Tony Patritto about Underwood: “His resume was pretty strong before he even got to Belleville. He can really sling it and, you know, his receivers made some big plays and a lot of yards after the catch. A lot of that’s on us.”

Adams (13-1), which went unscathed through the rugged Oakland Activities Association as well as a challenging playoff road, made some plays on Saturday, too.

Senior QB Parker Picot completed 8 of 21 passes for three TDs, four of his completions going to 6-6, 215-pound sophomore Brady Prieskorn for 117 yards and two scores.

Like Underwood, Picot was recognized at a young age for his athletic talents. He committed to University of Alabama for baseball as a freshman, but he also poured everything he had into this football season.

“Well, when it’s football season, it’s football season and this year we definitely had something special,” Picot said. “All of us players were all, you know, some of the best friends. At the start, every day (of) summer workouts, we knew we had something special and it was going to be really fun this year and I think we really held onto (it).”

Adams was seeking its first state title since 2003, which was Patritto’s first season at the helm, when the Highlanders captured the Division 2 championship.

On Saturday, it was Belleville’s time.

“I mean, it means a lot, especially to the community of Belleville,” said Caldwell, whose receiving TDs and receiving yards ties him for second in both categories in Finals history.

“It’s a new Belleville this year, so everything that happened in the past years was not happening this year. We all came together and made a change as a whole.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS (Top) Belleville’s Jeremiah Caldwell (2) prepares to make his move as Rochester Adams’ Marco Dicresce (4) looks to make a stop. (Middle) The Tigers’ Davieon Pitchford (20) attempts to run past Adams’ Parker Picot (11). (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)

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.)