Chippewa Valley Leads Macomb Charge

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

November 8, 2018

CLINTON TOWNSHIP – Since winning the Division 2 title in 2001, Clinton Township Chippewa Valley has played in the shadow of traditional Macomb County powers Macomb Dakota, Romeo, Sterling Heights Stevenson and Utica Eisenhower. 

Before this season, Chippewa Valley’s record against those four schools over the last 17 years was 26-52. The Big Reds did own a 10-8 record against Stevenson, but twice Stevenson reached MHSAA Finals while Chippewa Valley’s best showing since its championship season was a Semifinal appearance in 2003.

That trend started to change in 2017 as Chippewa Valley went 4-1 against these teams (including a second win over Dakota in the playoffs). This season, the Big Reds took another step forward posting a 6-0 mark and capturing their first outright title in the Macomb Area Conference Red.

And for the first time in program history, Chippewa Valley is 11-0. The Big Reds were 9-0 in 1975, the first season the MHSAA sponsored state playoffs, but did not qualify for the postseason (only four teams in each of the four classifications were selected for the playoffs that first year).

Scott Merchant is in his 10th season as head coach at Chippewa Valley, and the Big Reds have made the playoffs eight times during his tenure. These past two seasons have been his best by far. Last season, Chippewa Valley finished 10-2 losing to Detroit Cass Tech, 32-26, in a Division 1 Regional Final.

Most expected a rematch of that game this week. But Dearborn Fordson (10-1) upset Cass Tech last week, 41-14, and Chippewa Valley will host Fordson in the Division 1 Region 4 Final at 7 p.m. Friday. The teams have met just once before – and that game, in 2003, also took place in a Regional Final with Chippewa Valley claiming a 30-12 victory.

Merchant’s team is experienced, confident and loaded with talent. He has four three-year starters and eight seniors starting on defense.

“Dakota set the bar for the whole conference,” Merchant said of Chippewa Valley’s sister school (both are in the Chippewa Valley school system) and biggest rival. “In the mid- to late 2000s they had like five or six Regional titles. Our streak of losing to Dakota started in ’04, and I didn’t get here until ‘09. It was huge for us to win in 2014. It was the first time we beat them in 10 years. That was a big weight being lifted.”

When a team loses so often to another, especially a rival, the losses and the years often run together. For the record, here’s how bad it got for the Big Reds:

Beginning with a 7-0 loss to Dakota in a Division 1 Regional Final in 2004, the Big Reds lost 16 consecutive games to Dakota, and only six of the 16 were by 10 or fewer points. A 28-27 victory in a 2014 District Final ended this streak.

One loss stung most. In 2013, both teams were 7-0 and state-ranked. Dakota won 52-7.

“To this day I can’t explain what happened,” Merchant said. “It was one of the most disappointing losses I’ve had. A lot of it was mental.”

The tables have turned. Chippewa Valley has won five of the last six in the series and is two wins this month from reaching what would be the program’s second MHSAA Final.

The Big Reds’ success last season gave the players confidence and also fed their appetite for more. The 2017 team scored a school-record 463 points, and this season Chippewa Valley has scored 445.

The productivity is similar, but the means by which the offense this season has been successful is different. There’s a difference in personality. Last year Chippewa Valley was more of a finesse team that concentrated on the passing game. This team is more physical and its offense is geared more for the run, which is often more effective in November playoff games.

Quarterback Tommy Schuster is a three-year starter who threw for 3,100 yards over his first two seasons. His numbers (1,400 yards) are down a tad this season, but he’s thrown 20 touchdown passes and just one interception. Schuster also is carrying the ball more as he showed last week by rushing for 60 yards in the 51-10 victory over Dakota.

This added dimension has become a fine complement to the Big Reds’ top two running backs, Andre Chenault and Ja’Von Kimpson. Chenault is the team’s leading rusher with 888 yards and 13 touchdowns on 107 carries while Kimpson, who also starts at cornerback, is more of a featured back in 3rd down situations. He’s scored nine touchdowns rushing and one receiving.

“Our run game has been dominant all season,” Schuster said. “The offensive line has gotten better and better. It took a little time. They’re all (first-year) starters, and they’re confident now.”

Replacing the entire offensive line was the main concern for Merchant and his staff coming into this season. With just one senior, this group grew up fast. In the opener, Chippewa Valley trailed Saline 13-0 before the offense began to click and the Big Reds won 31-26. Senior captain Ryan Cyrowski, the center, is the leader and juniors Charles Wesley, the left tackle, and Donovan McBride, the right guard, have developed nicely. The Big Reds rushed for an-eye-popping 445 yards last week.

Merchant’s top two players could well be linebacker Marcel Lewis, who also sees time at tight end, and David Ellis. Ellis rarely comes off the field as he starts at receiver and defensive back and is a dangerous kick returner. He has 33 tackles on defense, five rushing touchdowns, six receiving scores, three more on kickoff returns and he’s returned a punt for a touchdown.

“We don’t have any weaknesses,” Schuster said. “This team, all year, hasn’t panicked. We’re ready for whatever happens. Last year’s team was like that, too. The reason we’ve been so successful (the past two seasons) is we have great players and great coaches.

“Playing quarterback on this team is a lot of fun. There’s so many options. If the run game isn’t working, we have no problem throwing the ball.

“I’ve grown up a lot over these three years. I’ve gotten to work on my speed, and I’m able to help the younger guys out too. It’s easier for me now. There’s nothing that’s new to me.”

The experience Schuster and many of his teammates have is a big reason Chippewa Valley has come out on top in a number of close games. In addition to the victory over Saline, the Big Reds held on to defeat Romeo (41-34) and Dakota (24-17) during the regular season. All three of those games were on the road.

“We’ve had way more close games this year than last,” Merchant said. “It’s been great to see the program grow.”

Tom Markowski is a columnist and directs website coverage for the State Champs! Sports Network. He previously covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Chippewa Valley’s defensive front lines up against Utica during a 49-0 Week 9 win. (Middle) David Ellis (8) follows his blockers into an opening against Utica Eisenhower in a 34-7 first-round playoff victory. (Photos courtesy of the Chippewa Valley 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.)