Detroit Embarks on Historical Weekend

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

November 27, 2015

DETROIT – Basketball used to be king in Detroit. Detroit Public School League teams like Detroit Cooley, Detroit Pershing, Detroit Southwestern and others won MHSAA championships and sent numerous players on to college to play at major universities like Michigan, Michigan State and others.

Recently the quality of basketball has taken a step back, and football has taken center stage.

This past March, Detroit Western International was the first PSL team to win the Class A boys basketball title since Pershing in 2009 and just the second since Detroit Central won the Class A title in 1998. This is a far cry from what is considered one of the glory eras in PSL history. From 1987-94, teams from the PSL won eight consecutive Class A titles.

(It should be noted that Detroit Renaissance did win Class B titles in 2004 and 2006, and Detroit Crockett also won the Class B title in 2001.)

In 2007 Detroit King was the first PSL team to win a football state title. For those outside of the city, it might not have meant that much other than a simple statistic. But for the PSL coaches who longed for respect statewide, King’s victory over Midland in the Division 2 Final was vindication.

When Detroit Cass Tech won back-to-back Division 1 titles (2011, 2012) a few years later, football fans across the state began to realize that what King accomplished in 2007 was not a fluke. Teams from Detroit were relevant statewide.

This weekend another first will take place. King will play for the Division 2 title (against Lowell) on Friday and Cass Tech will play for the Division 1 title (against Romeo) on Saturday. It’s the first time two PSL teams will play for MHSAA championships in the same season. Both games kick off at 1 p.m. at Ford Field.

The milestone is not lost on the coaches, Dale Harvel of King and Thomas Wilcher of Cass Tech.

Wilcher pointed to King and then-coach James Reynolds for taking the lead. King was the first PSL team to reach an MHSAA Final (1989 and 1990), and by doing so created instant credibility.

“King established what we could accomplish,” Wilcher said. “By winning the first state title, by winning both the PSL and then the state the same year.

“I don’t prepare my kids the same way. From day one I’m preparing for a state championship, Thanksgiving Day weekend, not for nine weeks. You have to condition a different way. You have to have a long-haul focus. The kids you started with might not be the ones you finish with. King High set that bar.”

Step aside for moment and realize what Wilcher said. Cass Tech and King is the most intense rivalry in the city. Emotions run high, and sometimes they boil over. But here is the coach from one team praising the other. In addition to the rivalry, there is mutual respect.

“It’s great,” Wilcher said of the two city powers playing for a title. “It’s great for the city.”

Regardless of what takes place Friday, Harvel said he, his staff and players will be at Ford Field in support of Cass Tech.

And Harvel said it’s not just about King and Cass Tech. What will take place this weekend will affect all PSL schools: their players, coaches, student body and alumni.

“It’s a factor with our school system,” he said. “It’s a pride factor even if you don’t play for Cass or King. The alumni for all public schools are represented.”

Harvel said even though most point to the 2007 championship season as a turning point, it was the teams that lost in the Class A Final in 1989 and 1990 that started it all. Some forget that back in 1989 there were just four MHSAA Finals champions, not eight, making King’s run all the more noteworthy. The next season the playoffs were expanded from four classifications to eight.

Coincidentally, each team has had two difficult playoff games and two one-sided affairs on their way to Ford Field. King (13-0) trailed Detroit U-D Jesuit, 24-21, in a Pre-District before winning, 35-24, and King led Detroit East English 7-0 after three quarters before pulling away for a 26-12 victory in a Regional Final.

Cass Tech (11-2) blew past its first two opponents by the combined score of 84-20. In the Regional Final it trailed Macomb Dakota 10-0 before coming back for a 16-10 victory. Last week, the Technicians held on to defeat Canton 48-41 on a snow-covered field at Troy Athens. Canton had possession on Cass Tech’s 40 for the last play of the game.

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.

PHOTO: Detroit Cass Tech (green helmets) and Detroit Martin Luther King, here in the Detroit PSL Final, give the league two MHSAA finalists for the first time. (Photo courtesy of the Detroit Public School League.)

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.)