Drive Complete: 2018 Finals in Review

November 26, 2018

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

There was much anticipation entering the 2018 MHSAA Football Finals, beginning two weeks ago at the Superior Dome at Northern Michigan University and finishing Saturday at Detroit’s Ford Field.

They didn’t disappoint.

This season’s crowning weekends saw five first-time champions, two repeat title winners, two rise to the top for the first time in a while, and to end it all another re-emerging champion topple a 2017 winner in arguably the most awaited game of the entire series.

Second Half covered all 10 championship games last weekend at Ford Field and two weekends ago at the Superior Dome, with quick recaps and links (click on the game scores) to those stories below followed by notations of performances entered into the MHSAA Finals record book and a report on some of the biggest and best stories to emerge from the 2018 Finals.

Finals in Review

11-Player Division 1: Clinton Township Chippewa Valley 31, Clarkston 30

A year after Clarkston edged West Bloomfield by a point to win Division 1, Chippewa Valley claimed its first MHSAA title since 2001 by the same margin over the Wolves. The Big Reds stopped a go-ahead 2-point conversion try by Clarkston with 23 seconds to play to seal the win after previously leading by 14 points three times over the final three quarters.

11-Player Division 2: Warren DeLaSalle 29, Muskegon Mona Shores 16

The Pilots’ lockdown defense proved to have the upper hand against an explosive Mona Shores offense, as DeLaSalle broke away for its second straight Division 2 title after the teams were tied at halftime. Pilots coach Mike Giannone not only is the only coach to win football championships at two schools, but also became the first to win back-to-back at two (after also leading Macomb Dakota to Division 1 titles in 2006 and 2007).

11-Player Division 3: Detroit Martin Luther King 41, Muskegon 25

King finished this season’s Finals by avenging a three-point Week 2 loss to the 2017 champion. The Crusaders didn’t slow Muskegon’s record-setting rushing attack, but outgained the Big Reds in total yardage 400-315 as quarterbacks Dequan Finn and Cameron Martinez showed why they were two of the state’s best this fall.

11-Player Division 4: Edwardsburg 28, Chelsea 7

After falling short against Grand Rapids Catholic Central in 2017, Edwardsburg returned to its second Finals and won its first championship. The Eddies succeeded as they had all season; the offense ran for 382 yards and all four scores, while the defense got its season points allowed average to 9.9 per game after holding Chelsea to its fewest since 2014.

11-Player Division 5: Hudsonville Unity Christian 42, Portland 7

These Crusaders also won their first championship, in their first Finals appearance, finishing a playoff run that saw them defeat three teams ranked among the top six at the end of the regular season. Unity Christian got out to a 28-0 lead and finished with 279 yards rushing while holding the Raiders’ vaunted run attack to only 95.

11-Player Division 6: Jackson Lumen Christi 42, Montague 28

Lumen Christi added a first-time accomplishment to its long history of successes, clinching a three-peat for the first time by holding Montague to 14 points over the game’s first 45 minutes. The Titans ran for 348 yards and senior Nick Thomas gained 249 and scored twice on the ground to go with his team-high 10 tackles and two sacks.

11-Player Division 7: New Lothrop 50, Madison Heights Madison 44

This was not only the highest-scoring Final of the weekend, but of all-time. Neither team had been to a Finals since 2006, and Madison was seeking its first championship. But New Lothrop held on for its second title as quarterbacks Avery Moore and Austin Brown matched scores through much of the second half.

11-Player Division 8: Reading 39, Breckenridge 20

One of these teams was going to end up a first-time and undefeated champion, and Reading led off the 2018 Finals on Friday with the historic accomplishment in large part because of its dominance in the run game. The Rangers gained 296 yards on the ground and held the Huskies to a mere 24 and 198 yards of total offense.

8-Player Division 1: Morrice 44, Pickford 16

This also was going to produce a first-time and undefeated champion regardless of victor. After Pickford scored first, Morrice locked up its first title with 30 unanswered points over the next two quarters. Orioles quarterback Hunter Nowak capped his career with three rushing and one passing touchdown to go with 199 yards on the ground.

8-Player Division 2: Rapid River 30, Onekama 18

In its third 8-Player Finals try, Rapid River came away with its first MHSAA football title. The Rockets held on to the ball for an incredible 33½ minutes by extending drives with 10 third-down and four fourth-down conversions. Onekama was playing in its first Football Final, capping its second season of 8-player after a successful recent run with 11 on the field.

Record Report

Lumen Christi moved up to tied for fifth with its 13th Finals appearance. Muskegon (11th) and King (sixth) also moved up the list, and Warren DeLaSalle joined it by playing in its fifth championship game. Lumen Christi is tied for fourth all-time with 11 championships and became the 10th program to win three or more consecutively.

Three players made the list for longest kickoff return in a Final. New Lothrop’s Aidan Harrison ranks fourth after his 96-yard scoring sprint against Madison, while David Ellis raced 94 yards to the end zone for Chippewa Valley against Clarkston and Jacob Veale scored Portland’s only points against Unity Christian on a 91-yard return.

Tommy Schuster made the records with a perfect 13 of 13 passing for Chippewa Valley against Clarkston, becoming the first player with at least 12 attempts to complete all of his passes in an MHSAA Final.

As noted above, New Lothrop and Madison Heights Madison combined to score 94 points – breaking the previous record for highest-scoring Final of 91 by Belding and Detroit Country Day in the 1994 Class B championship game (a 50-41 Belding win). New Lothrop’s 50 points also tied for fourth most in an MHSAA Final.

That 94-point effort was a result in large part of work done by Madison quarterback Austin Brown and New Lothrop quarterback Avery Moore. Both made the records list with four rushing touchdowns in a Final and also for scoring 26 points (each had a 2-point conversion). Brown also was added for 298 passing yards, and his 403 of total offense tied for fifth. New Lothrop as a team was added for six rushing touchdowns, and Madison Heights Madison was added for total team passing yardage.

Reading’s Elijah Strine was added for becoming the first in Finals history to recover a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown.  

Edwardsburg became the latest to not punt in a championship game, and Chelsea punted only once in their Division 4 Final – their one combined punt tied for second-fewest in a Final.

Lumen Christi kicker Kevin Salazar connected on all six of his extra point attempts, and King’s Jerry Tucker made five of six (with the sixth attempt blocked). Both made the list for most extra points, Salazar tying for fourth most.

Lumen Christi running back Nick Thomas ran for 249 yards, the eighth most in a championship game. Muskegon quarterback Cameron Martinez also made the rushing list with 211 yards.

King quarterback Dequan Finn tied for fifth for touchdown passes with four against the Big Reds. Chelsea receiver Hunter Neff tied for fifth for receptions with 10 against the Eddies.

Morrice made the list for rushing yards as a team in the 8-Player Division 1 Final. The Orioles totaled 317 on 54 carries.

Rapid River made the 8-Player first downs list, moving the sticks 20 times in its Division 2 win.

Stories Behind the Scores

First-time champions: Five of this season’s 10 MHSAA football champions were first-time winners: Edwardsburg, Hudsonville Unity Christian, Reading, Morrice and Rapid River. That’s compared to only two first-time champs a year ago and one in 2016.

First time in a long time champions: Chippewa Valley’s title was its first since 2001, and New Lothrop won for the first time since 2006. Both had been building toward this moment, however. The Big Reds had made the playoffs all but three seasons since claiming the Division 2 title 17 years ago. New Lothrop has made the playoffs 19 straight seasons, and since winning Division 8 in 2006 had reached the Semifinals three times before this fall.

Closer Calls: In six games, teams were within 10 points of each other in the fourth quarter. Mona Shores pulled within five of DeLaSalle with 7:26 to play in Division 2 before the Pilots added a late touchdown. Muskegon pulled within 10 of King with 5:21 to play in Division 3 before the Crusaders scored again, and Onekama pulled within 10 of Rapid River in 8-Player Division 2 less than a minute into the fourth quarter before ultimately losing by 12. New Lothrop didn’t take the lead for good until 3:27 was left in Division 7, and as noted, Chippewa Valley escaped Clarkston by stopping a 2-point conversion try during the final minute in Division 1.

QB power: Elite quarterback play was on display all over the Finals. We talked a lot above about the heroics of Avery Moore and Austin Brown in Division 7 and Morrice's Hunter Nowak in 8-Player Division 1. In Division 3, Muskegon’s Cameron Martinez ran for 211 yards and two scores and threw a touchdown pass, while King’s Dequan Finn threw for 173 yards and four touchdowns and ran for 73 and a score. Tommy Schuster’s numbers for Chippewa Valley included the perfect passing for 205 yards and two touchdowns, and his Clarkston counterpart Jake Jensen ran for 121 yards and a score and completed 10-of-15 passes for 110 yards and a touchdown. Isaac TeSlaa led Unity Christian with 97 yards and two touchdowns on the round and completed 3 of 4 passes for 70 yards and a third score. Carter Staley kept his team in the Division 8 game with 14-of-19 passing for 177 yards and two touchdowns. Nolan Schultz ran for three touchdowns and a team-high 55 yards and completed 8-of-13 passes for 189 and a score for DeLaSalle.

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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.)