Cass Tech Comes Back, Leaves as Champ

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

November 26, 2016

DETROIT – Mission accomplished.

Shortly after Nov. 28 of last year, the momentum toward an MHSAA championship began at Detroit Cass Tech. The Technicians had just lost to Romeo, 41-27, in the Division 1 Final, and the work began in the weight room for a return trip to Ford Field with the mindset that there would be a different outcome.

Rodney Hall, who did not play in the Semifinal and Final last season after suffering a severe left ankle sprain in a Regional Final, threw five touchdown passes to lead the Technicians to 49-20 victory over Detroit Catholic Central in the Division 1 championship game Saturday at Ford Field.

Donovan Peoples-Jones was a junior and starting receiver on the team that lost to Romeo, and he said the focus on this season began almost immediately.

“When you fall down you have to get back up,” he said. “As soon as we lost, we were heartbroken. You always come into a season wanting to win a state championship. Now that we won it, it’s a dream come true.”

Coupled with Detroit Martin Luther King’s victory in the Division 2 Final on Friday, Cass Tech’s victory marks the first time two teams from the Detroit Public School League have won MHSAA titles in the same season. Cass Tech and King each have won three championships.

The Technicians also finished their first undefeated season 14-0.

An injury also added drama to this year’s title game. Austin Brown, DCC’s sophomore quarterback, suffered a broken leg in last week’s Semifinal and was on the sideline in a wheelchair.

It’s unlikely that with Brown the outcome would have been different. Cass Tech played that well.

Hall was 10 of 18 passing for 220 yards, with one interception to go with the five scoring passes – which tied the MHSAA Finals record held by three others. Peoples-Jones had six receptions for 118 yards and two touchdowns. Cass Tech rushed for 163 yards on 22 carries and did not punt. Hall gained 58 of those yards, on seven carries.

“I’m just excited to play out here,” Hall said. “It’s great to go out, throw five touchdowns. It was fun to play in this game.

“I came in (this season) a little timid to run. My coaches got behind and gave me confidence. I was able to run in the first game, but I was still timid.”

Cass Tech trailed 14-7 before Hall and the offense began to click.

He had a big hand in the Technicians’ second touchdown. His 7-yard run gave Cass Tech a first down at the DCC 46. On a 3rd-and-15, Hall scrambled for 27 yards, and then three plays later he threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Teone Allen to tie the score at 14-14 with 5:33 left in the half.

Less than a minute later, after a DCC punt, Donovan Johnson broke free on a counter play to the left. A number of Shamrocks defenders appeared to have an angle on Johnson, but he ran untouched for a 60-yard score.

“It meant a lot to the team,” Johnson said of the run. “It was a little hole there. I knew it was going to be open on the outside.”

Cass Tech led 21-14 at halftime and outgained DCC 211 yards to 108 by that point.

DCC was unsuccessful on an onside kick attempt to open the second half, and on the second play Hall threw a 42-yard touchdown pass to Donovan Parker for a 28-14 lead.

Cass Tech scored touchdowns on its next two possessions to blow the game open.

“We planned that during the week,” DCC coach Tom Mach said of the onside kick. “We thought that was a good opportunity.

“We got it put to us pretty good today.”

DCC was making a record 17th appearance in the MHSAA Finals, after sharing the previous record of 16 with Farmington Hills Harrison.

It took the Shamrocks five seconds to score their two touchdowns. They went 73 yards in 15 plays to tie the score at 7-7 on Isaac Darkangelo’s 1-yard run. On the next play, the last of the first quarter, Jack Morris returned an interception 35 yards for a touchdown, and the Shamrocks led 14-7. Cass Tech then scored the next 42 points.

“We just stay focused,” Cass Tech coach Thomas Wilcher said. “Everyone just stayed engaged. We knew we had to pass. We had to take advantage of what we had.”

This season, Cass Tech had a lot. Peoples-Jones is rated as the state’s top college prospect. Hall committed to Northern Illinois. Jaylen Kelly-Powell has committed to Michigan, and Johnson will take an official visit to Penn State next weekend and said he will make his decision soon between Penn State and Virginia Tech.  

Nick Capatina led DCC (13-1) with 85 yards rushing on 12 carries.

Click for the full box score.

The MHSAA Football Finals are sponsored by the Michigan National Guard.   

PHOTOS: (Top) Detroit Cass Tech quarterback Rodney Hall eludes a Detroit Catholic Central defender during Saturday's Division 1 Final. (Middle) DCC's Jack Morris sprints toward the end zone for a first-half score.

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.)