Cass City Chases History in Rematch

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

November 8, 2019

Sandyn Cuthrell and his Cass City teammates have a simple way to make sure they are properly prepared for each game – treat every week like it’s Laker week.

As they prepare for their District Final, the Red Hawks won’t have to pretend, as for the second time this season, it’s actually Laker week. 

The Red Hawks will host archrival Elkton-Pigeon-Bay Port Laker at 7 p.m. Friday for the Division 7 Region 4, District 1 championship. The winner will advance to the Regional Final against either Madison Heights Madison or Detroit Loyola.

The win-or-go-home nature of the postseason adds more to this rivalry game, but it’s also a chance at some program firsts for the Red Hawks. A win would give them their first ever District championship and first ever 10-win season.

“This one, it’s probably the biggest game in Cass City history,” said Cuthrell, a four-year starter at quarterback for the Red Hawks.  “We’re not going to let it be ruined.”

Plenty is on the line, but what the Red Hawks have accomplished to this point already puts them among the best teams in school history. 

Cass City won nine straight games after a season-opening 16-14 loss against Montrose – a team that is still alive in the Division 6 playoffs – and won the Greater Thumb Conference West for the second straight season. 

It has also allowed 50 points. Total. All season.

“We’re not like huge; we’re all just super fast,” said Cuthrell, who also plays defensive back. “All these years building up to this year, we’ve been really heavy on the weight room every year. We’re all not huge guys, but we’re all really quick and fast. We can swarm to the ball, and there’s not a lot of big plays that can happen when the defensive backs are quicker than the receivers.”

Outside of the Montrose game, the Red Hawks haven’t allowed more than eight points in a game this season and had four shutouts. During six conference games, they allowed a total of 22 points. It’s the program’s best defensive performance since the 1950s.

“Coach does a really good job preparing us throughout the week,” junior running back and linebacker Alex Perry said. “We’ve been able to communicate with each other really well. The line gets a good push, so the linebackers can come in and clean it up. And the defensive backs shut down the pass.”

The offense has done its fair share, as well, averaging 40.1 points per game despite scoring just 14 in Week 1. So, while the defense’s numbers are eye-popping, most of the season has seen the Red Hawks be dominant in all phases.

“When you coach this long, hopefully you come across a team that gels really well, and that’s what happened this year,” Cass City coach Scott Cuthrell said. “We have a good group of kids, and they all get along really well on and off the field, and they all have a common goal. This is a group of kids that I’ve enjoyed going to coach every night.”

Players vouch for the camaraderie on and off the field and cited that as a main reason this year’s team has been special and capable of doing what no team at Cass City has ever done. 

“We’re more than a team. We hang out all the time,” Perry said. “This year, we just flow and really mesh together.”

Perhaps at no time this season did the Red Hawks mesh together as well as they did the first time they lined up against Laker. A 51-0 win in Week 4 marked the second-straight year Cass City had defeated its rival, but prior to the 2018 win, Laker had won nine straight in the series. 

“Last season’s win meant a lot to us,” senior halfback and cornerback Hadyn Horne said. “We’re 10 minutes apart, and it’s just a battle for our area. It’s always been a really big game around here, probably the biggest game in the Greater Thumb Conference. We know in the playoffs it’s pretty much like coming in with a 0-0 record. They’re going to be a lot better than what they were when we played them the first time. Obviously we beat them bad last time, but it’s all about who wants it more.”

The two teams have met twice in a District Final (2014 and 2017). Some of the current players were on the field for the 2017 loss, including Sandyn Cuthrell, who said it was “like getting stabbed in the heart.”

Not wanting to have that feeling again is quite the motivation, but so is making program history.

“That would mean a lot,” Horne said. “I think down the road, I’ll look back at that and know, ‘That was our team that did that.’”

Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Cass City defenders including Alex Perry (44) pursue the Laker quarterback during this season’s first game against their rival. (Middle) Sandyn Cuthrell (6) breaks through the line for the Red Hawks. (Photos courtesy of the Cass City athletic department.)

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.)