Decision Adds to Anticipation As Cass Tech's Thompson Begins Senior Year

By Keith Dunlap
Special for

August 18, 2022

DETROIT – Monday will mark both an end and the beginning for Detroit Cass Tech senior Jalen Thompson.

Greater DetroitOn one hand, it will mark an end to everyone in the recruiting world wondering which college football program he’ll initially give a commitment, as he had targeted Monday as the decision date to pledge his services to one of the more than 30 Division I college programs who have offered him a scholarship.

But it also will be the beginning, because make no mistake about it: College coaches who lose out on Monday aren’t going to give up trying to woo the ultra-talented Thompson until national signing day in December.

It’s no wonder, because Thompson is one of the premier defensive line recruits in the Midwest.

Last season, Thompson finished with 10 sacks, 42 tackles and 14 tackles for loss despite being the constant focus of attention for blocking schemes of opposing offenses.

He has narrowed his college contenders down to, in alphabetical order, Cincinnati, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State and Pittsburgh, and chose Aug. 22 as the commitment date for two reasons.

One, it’s the first day of game week for Cass Tech’s season opener Aug. 26 at Southfield Arts & Technology.

Second, it’s the birthday of his late grandfather, and Thompson figured it was a good way to honor him.

“It was a day I felt comfortable with (committing,)” he said.

So Thompson will make one college program very happy Monday, then start preparing to make life miserable for opposing offenses during his senior season.

Of course, the big game that many have circled is Cass Tech’s annual tussle against Detroit Public School League rival Detroit Martin Luther King, which will take place on Sept. 16 at Cass Tech.

Many will turn out to see how much Thompson can pressure Martin Luther King quarterback and Oregon-pledge Dante Moore.

“Every time we go against them, my thing is to show them he’s not who they think he is and for him to get off the least amount of balls as possible,” Thompson said.

By no means is Thompson a late bloomer in football, given he has been playing in youth leagues since he was in elementary school.

However, he did not play for Cass Tech when he was a freshman because he decided to play youth football instead.

But after coming out for the varsity team his sophomore year, it certainly didn’t take long for Thompson to show he was special.

Cass Tech then-head coach Thomas Wilcher kept telling Thompson that his time was coming, and then proceeded to ask Thompson one question.

“Are you ready to blow up?” Thompson said Wilcher asked him.

Thompson sure did, and by the time his junior year was over, college coaches were salivating over his abilities.

This past offseason was spent touring some of the prominent programs in the country, including Ohio State, which offered him a scholarship in June after Thompson appeared at a camp there.

Going into his senior year, Thompson said polishing up mental aspects of the game is what he wants to focus on the most as he tries to lead Cass Tech to the Division 1 title.

“Really just fixing as many mental errors that I can and try and prepare for college as best of my ability,” he said. “Just fixing little things like techniques and definitely getting bigger. But mental things are most important right now.”

Cass Tech head coach Marvin Rushing, who is in his second year, said Thompson’s enhanced role as a leader will be vital this fall.

“He’s going to help lead our younger guys, which will be beneficial to us,” Rushing said. “We’re going to be a heavy mix of seniors and younger guys. That’s been pivotal. He’s been leading by example, working hard in the classroom and off of the field.”

It’s actually Thompson’s prowess in the classroom as a 3.8 student that has impressed Rushing more, especially while traveling the recruiting trail.

“It’s the way he carries himself off of the field,” Rushing said. “He is studying engineering here and plans on studying engineering in college. He’s a very accomplished student. The thing that stood out to me most in the offseason is that we had coaches come in here and he was really interested in what the Ivy League schools had to say.”

It should be a fun fall for everyone both and on and off the field to watch Thompson, who is ready to tell the world where he plans to play football and attend college Monday.

But he’s simply too talented for his recruiting to completely stop until December.

“Coaches now are texting me,” he said.

Keith DunlapKeith Dunlap has served in Detroit-area sports media for more than two decades, including as a sportswriter at the Oakland Press from 2001-16 primarily covering high school sports but also college and professional teams. His bylines also have appeared in USA Today, the Washington Post, the Detroit Free Press, the Houston Chronicle and the Boston Globe. He served as the administrator for the Oakland Activities Association’s website from 2017-2020.

PHOTO Detroit Cass Tech’s Jalen Thompson is expected to again rank among the state’s top defenders this season. (Photo courtesy of Jalen Thompson.)

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.)