Drive Complete: 2016 Finals in Review

November 28, 2016

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

This season’s MHSAA Football Finals certainly had a familiar look. Five of 2015’s nine champions won again, and the season finished Saturday with only one winner claiming a title for the first time.

But while most finalists were regulars this time, players and coaches change even as teams stay the same. And this weekend, combined with the 8-player Final the Friday before, saw the ends of some eras and the likely beginnings of a few more.

Second Half once again covered all nine championship games, with quick recaps and links to those stories below followed by notations of performances entered into the MHSAA record book and a report on some of the biggest and best stories to emerge from the 2016 Finals.

Finals in Review

Division 1: Detroit Cass Tech 49, Detroit Catholic Central 20

In a meeting of the two top-ranked teams at the end of the regular season, the No. 1 Technicians finished a perfect run by downing the No. 2 Shamrocks in a rematch of the 2011 and 2012 Finals. Cass Tech had finished runner-up in 2015, falling to Romeo in the championship game. Click to read more.

Division 2: Detroit Martin Luther King 18, Walled Lake Western 0

There’s more below on the significance of King’s shutout, which included more points scored by the Crusaders’ defense than offense. The championship was the second straight and third overall for King, which entered this season on a heartbreaking note after coach Dale Harvel died suddenly in July. Click to read more.

Division 3: Orchard Lake St. Mary’s 29, Muskegon 28

The most memorable play of the weekend at Ford Field had to be Ky’ren Cunningham’s 18-yard touchdown catch between a pair of Muskegon defenders with four seconds to play. His grab gave the Eaglets their final one-point lead and third straight Division 3 championship. Click to read more.

Division 4: Grand Rapids Catholic Central 10, Detroit Country Day 7

A defensive stalemate for most of the first three quarters got pretty exciting during the fourth, and Grand Rapids Catholic Central claimed its first championship since 2010 despite earning only one first down – on what turned out to be the game-winning play. Click to read more.

Division 5: Grand Rapids West Catholic 43, Menominee 7

Grand Rapids West Catholic became the second team of the weekend to win a fourth-straight MHSAA championship, and in the process beat Menominee in the playoffs for the fourth straight season as well. Quarterback Gaetano Vallone put up a performance that has him all over the MHSAA record book. Click to read more.

Division 6: Jackson Lumen Christi 26, Maple City Glen Lake 14

Frequent contender Lumen Christi earned its first championship since 2009, riding the running of Bo Bell (and at the goal line fullback Kyle Minder) against the passing of Glen Lake’s Cade Peterson. The Titans had started this season 1-2. Click to read more.

Division 7: Pewamo-Westphalia 28, Detroit Loyola 14

The second-leading rusher in MHSAA history, Jared Smith, ran for only 48 yards. But the Pirates took advantage of the attention he drew, with a number of contributors picking up the load as P-W won its first championship. Click to read more.

Division 8: Muskegon Catholic Central 35, Ottawa Lake Whiteford 6

The Crusaders kicked off the 11-player Finals weekend by claiming their fourth straight championship in Division 8, paced by freshman quarterback Cameron Martinez. Whiteford, making its first Finals appearance, trailed only 7-6 at halftime before MCC scored 28 straight during the second half. Click to read more.

8-Player: Powers North Central 58, Deckerville 22

The Jets turned in another dominating performance, this time against previously-undefeated Deckerville. Amid at times a sideways rainstorm, both teams found success running the ball – but especially during the first half, North Central quarterback Jason Whitens simply couldn’t be tackled. Click to read more.

Records Report

Detroit Catholic Central, with its fourth Division 1 Finals appearance this decade, moved into a first-place tie with 17 MHSAA Finals appearances since the start of the tournament in 1975. The Shamrocks share the top spot with Farmington Hills Harrison. DCC has won 10 titles, sixth-most in MHSAA history.

The record for longest Finals field goal was broken twice Saturday. Grand Rapids West Catholic’s Liam Putz drilled a 47-yarder in the Division 5 Final, and held the record for about three hours until Orchard Lake St. Mary’s Ben Fee nailed a 49-yarder in Division 3. Fee also tied the record with most field goals in a game, adding kicks of 32 and 35 yards.

Detroit Cass Tech’s Luis Borjas became one of three who have kicked seven extra points in a Final, making all seven of his tries in Division 1. Muskegon Catholic Central’s Caleb Muskovin also joined the extra point list, making all five of his tries in Division 8.

Jackson Lumen Christi’s Bo Bell easily was the biggest rusher of the weekend, joining the MHSAA list for yards on the ground with 238 on 40 carries in Division 5. As a team, Lumen Christi ran 65 times, which tied for third-most in a Final.

Gaetano Vallone connected with Brett Meyers for a 91-yard pass for West Catholic in the Division 5 Final, the fourth-longest passing play in Finals history and the Falcons’ first touchdown of the game. Vallone finished with 311 yards on 13 of 20 passing, good for the fifth-most passing yards in a Final. He also became one of 10 passers to throw for four touchdowns, and his 394 total yards (including 83 rushing) rank sixth. With teammates Dominic Stornant (six yards) and David Fox (34) also completing one pass apiece, West Catholic threw for 351 yards – third most by one team.

Maple City Glen Lake quarterback Cade Peterson also made the passing yards list, throwing for 254 on 15-of-20 passing in Division 5.

Cass Tech quarterback Rodney Hall capped his high school career by tying the MHSAA Finals record for passing touchdowns in a game, connecting for five in the Technicians’ win over DCC. As a team, Cass Tech tied for the sixth-most points in a Final with 49 in the 49-20 win and also became the 23rd team to not punt in an MHSAA Final.

Menominee’s Hunter Hass scored the first blocked field goal return touchdown in Finals history, bringing one back 73 yards in Division 5.

Detroit Martin Luther King’s Jay-Veyon Morton and Jesse Scarber and West Catholic’s Connor Bolthouse and Sam Neville joined 26 others with at least two interceptions in a game, each snaring two this weekend in Divisions 2 and 5, respectively. Morton and Scarber both returned an interception for a touchdown, allowing Martin Luther King to tie its 2007 Finals record with two interception return scores.

Yellow flags flew at a minimum over the two days of the 11-player Finals, and especially in the Division 8 game; Muskegon Catholic Central (no penalties) and Ottawa Lake Whiteford (one penalty- five yards) combined for the second-fewest penalty yards in a championship game.

Powers North Central quarterback Jason Whitens left his name all over the 8-Player Finals record book. He set records with 352 rushing yards, six rushing touchdowns, tied the record with six total touchdowns, and was second with 40 points scored (he had two two-point conversions as well) and 452 total yards.

As a team, the Jets put up 58 points – tied with their 2015 team for third-most in an 8-Player Final – and combined with Deckerville (22) for 80 points, which also ranks third. Powers North Central also set team records with 469 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns, and the two teams set an 8-Player Finals record with 971 total yards between them with North Central’s 569 the fourth-most by one team. Deckerville also made the single-game rushing list with 330 yards.

Stories behind the scores

Public School League pride: For the first time, multiple Detroit PSL teams left Ford Field as MHSAA champions. Cass Tech and King – which had met twice during the regular season, including in the PSL Final – both won titles. King had won Division 2 last season, but Cass Tech fell in the Division 1 Final.

First – and last – first down: The Division 4 Final between Grand Rapids Catholic Central and Detroit Country Day included a lot of defense – and a few of the most statistical curiosities to be found in recent Finals history. The teams combined to rush 69 times – but each ended up with only eight rushing yards. GRCC had an incredible 11 sacks – and yet, also won the game with only one first down, on Michael Brown’s 44-yard receiving touchdown that gave the Cougars their final lead early in the fourth quarter.

Impressive zero: Speaking of defense, King’s shutout of Walled Lake Western was the third total by any team in the Finals over the last three years – but first ever in either Division 1 or Division 2 (the division format began in 1999). It was also the first shutout in a Final of one of the two divisions made up of the state’s largest schools since Detroit Catholic Central shut out Holt 24-0 in 1995 in Class AA.

Impressive zero, part II: With its second straight perfect season, Powers North Central remains undefeated in two years of 8-player football. The Jets are 26-0 since making the switch before the start of the 2015 season, and in that time no opponent has come within single digits of matching them. Crystal Falls Forest Park, in falling 60-50 in this season’s Regional Final, gave North Central its closest game of the two-season run.

Leaving no doubt: Three 11-player champions made especially impressive runs to Ford Field, eliminating a number of contenders along the way. Grand Rapids West Catholic won its fourth straight Division 5 championship by playing its first three games this playoffs on the road before the neutral-site Semifinal, taking down top-ranked Portland and No. 4 Lansing Catholic on the way. Division 1 No. 1 Cass Tech downed No. 2 DCC in the Final after beating No. 3 Utica Eisenhower in the Semifinal, No. 4 Saline in the Regional Final and Nos. 7 and 8 Dearborn and Dearborn Fordson as well. Pewamo-Westphalia in Division 7 had a similar story; the Pirates entered the postseason ranked No. 2, then beat No. 3 Saugatuck, No. 1 Traverse City St. Francis and No.4 Ubly before downing No. 5 Loyola.

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

PHOTOS: (Top) All nine MHSAA champions, at some point in their Finals marches. (Middle) Detroit King's defense brings down a Walled Lake Western ball carrier in Division 2. (Below) Grand Rapids Catholic Central raises the Division 4 championship trophy.

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.)