Division 6 Final: Play it Again, Yellowjackets

November 29, 2011

DETROIT – So began the legacy of Ithaca quarterback Travis Smith.

And so continues an incredible run by one of Michigan’s newest football powerhouses.

The Yellowjackets pushed their winning streak to 28 and claimed their second straight MHSAA championship by downing Constantine 42-14 in Friday's Division 6 Final.

They did so led by a number of last season’s top players, but minus their 2010 Final star. That’s where the sophomore Smith came in, joining the starting lineup in the season’s second week and bringing Ithaca back to Ford Field for another title.

“It’s more special just because this is the last time to suit up for most of us. We’re not going to be able to play another game next year, and we get to end on the biggest stage high school football has to offer in Michigan,” Ithaca senior linebacker/running back Garrett Miniard said. 

“I think it was almost a little jealousy of the seniors last year of being able do that, being able to go out on top. I think that kept us going throughout the season, throughout the offseason. Being able to have that luxury of going out on top just like they did.

Ithaca (14-0) hasn’t lost since its 2009 Semifinal against Montague. With two more wins to start next fall, the Yellowjackets can become the 14th team on the MHSAA record book list with at least 30 straight victories.

And Smith should be there to lead the way. He connected on 18 of 25 passes for 299 yards and a touchdown Friday, and ran for 43 yards and a score. Miniard rushed for 43 yards and two touchdowns, and had 14 tackles. And senior David Brown caught six passes for 122 yards and also ran for a score.

Smith followed the path this fall of another former sophomore starter at his position – Alex Niznak, who graduated in the spring, plays at Central Michigan now, but didn’t leave before leading the Yellowjackets to both their first Semifinal berth and MHSAA championship over the last two seasons. Niznak’s title game performance last season included 251 yards passing, 138 rushing and an MHSAA Finals-record five touchdowns running the ball.

Brown originally took over at quarterback this fall. But he was injured on opening night – after running for three touchdowns against Williamston – and missed significant time, allowing Smith to take hold of the offense. Smith finished his first varsity season with a not-too-shabby 2,310 passing yards, 969 rushing yards, and a combined 48 touchdowns throwing or running.

“Coach (Terry) Hessbrook told me to just go in there and do what I can do, and just play football,” Smith said. “I’ve got so many good athletes around me. I just need to get my players the ball and let them do what they can do.”

Ithaca twice had catching up to do in the Final, with Constantine (11-3) scoring first and then taking a 14-7 lead midway through the first quarter – before the Yellowjackets rolled to 35 unanswered points.

“These kids had this goal since last year … of getting back here,” Hessbrook said. “We didn’t want Ithaca football to just be one and done, or a one-year wonder. And they’ve worked really hard.”

Constantine junior Ben Mallo did run 17 times for 189 yards and both scores. But the Falcons were without quarterback Tommy Reed, who was injured during last week’s Semifinal win over Ecorse. They played Ithaca to a 14-14 halftime tie before the Yellowjackets’ offense broke the game open.

“We’ve played offenses with that type of talent. Last week, for instance. And I’m sure Coach Hessbrook watched those films and saw some things he could do against us," Constantine coach Shawn Griffith said. "It’s a lot different than what we do, and you saw we caused them a little bit of problems early in the game as well. We do our thing, they do theirs. They do their thing very well. We did ours well. We just weren’t quite there on a couple drives that ended short.”

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Constantine Football All-Stater, Wrestling Champ Aiming for Grand Finale

By Scott Hassinger
Special for MHSAA.com

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.)