The Drive is Complete: Finals in Review

December 4, 2013

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

A crowd of more than 52,000 fans – 5,000 more than in 2012 – plus countless others watching on Fox Sports Detroit witnessed the end of one era, the beginning of another and the continuation of one of the most impressive in the nation while watching the MHSAA Football Finals over the last two weekends.

Second Half 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 2013 11 and 8-Player Finals.

Finals in Review

D1: Clarkston 32, Detroit Catholic Central 14 – Clarkston’s proud football tradition now includes its first MHSAA Finals appearance and championship, thanks in part to running back Ian Eriksen’s 237 yards and three touchdowns rushing. The Shamrocks fell in the championship game for the third straight season and despite avenging the first two losses by beating two-time reigning champion Detroit Cass Tech in the Semifinal. Click to read more.

D2: Birmingham Brother Rice 38, Muskegon 21 – The Warriors sent out longtime coach Al Fracassa with the team’s third straight MHSAA championship and first 14-0 season. Fracassa finished his career with a record of 430-117-7 at Brother Rice and Royal Oak Shrine and the most wins in Michigan football coaching history. Click to read more.

D3: Zeeland West 34, DeWitt 27 – The Dux have now won two MHSAA titles in two divisions over the last three seasons after also claiming the Division 4 championship in 2011. Zeeland West plowed to 441 yards rushing on 6.7 per carry. But to DeWitt’s credit, the Panthers didn’t let down despite an early 22-0 deficit and nearly blocked a punt late that could’ve set up a game-tying rally. Click to read more.

D4: Marine City 49, Grand Rapids South Christian 35 – In arguably the weekend’s most competitive scorefest, Marine City outlasted the reigning champion. The score was tied midway through the third quarter and South Christian pulled within seven points of the lead two minutes into the fourth. Click to read more.

D5: Grand Rapids West Catholic 27, Menominee 14 – Despite just making the playoffs at 5-4 and with a one-point win in Week 9, West Catholic marched through the postseason and beat Menominee for the fourth time in the playoffs in the last four seasons. The Falcons had finished runner-up in 2012, losing 12-9 to Portland. Click to read more.

D6: Ithaca 41, Clinton 22 – Despite trailing as late as four minutes into the third quarter, the Yellowjackets kept their reign going another season with a fourth straight MHSAA title, one short of tying the football record for consecutive championships. Ithaca also added to their 56-game winning streak, which is tied for longest in the nation for 11-player teams. Click to read more.

D7: Ishpeming 22, Detroit Loyola 12 – The highly-anticipated rematch of the 2012 Final ended with the same victor as Hematites quarterback Alex Briones led his team to the championship for the second time by a nearly identical score. Ishpeming won last season 20-14 and entered these playoffs ranked No. 1, while Loyola was No. 2. Click to read more.

D8: Muskegon Catholic Central 35, Beal City 12 – The Crusaders locked down one of the highest scoring offenses in MHSAA history while senior Alex Lewandowski turned in one of the top Finals rushing performances of all-time with 218 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. It was MCC’s first championship since 2008. Click to read more.

8-Player: Peck 67, Rapid River 32 – Peck was 1-8 in 11-player football only two seasons ago before making the switch and ascending to the top of 8-player as the latest power to emerge from the Thumb area. Usually a running team, the Pirates took advantage of size on the perimeter to rule the air against Rapid River, which finished runner-up for the second time in three seasons. Click to read more.

Records Report

A number of team and individual entries have been added to the MHSAA Football Finals record book, found by clicking here. A breakdown:

  • Clarkston’s Ian Eriksen ran for 242 yards (on 32 carries) to place eighth for most rush yards in a Final. Muskegon Catholic Central’s Alex Lewandowski ran 16 times for 218 yards, good for 16th on that list.

  • The Finals featured a number of premiere quarterbacks, but two stuck out most. Birmingham Brother Rice’s Alex Malzone tied for the sixth-most completions, 20, on just 24 attempts. His 263 passing yards ranked 12th for a Final and his four touchdown passes tied for third most. Ithaca’s Travis Smith finished with the seventh-most yards of total offense (370) – adding to a number of entries from his 2011 Finals performance – while joining the lower part of the list for most passing yards with 244. He also threw four touchdown passes.

  • DeWitt quarterback Jake Johnson joined some of his Panthers predecessors in the record listings with 289 passing yards (10th all-time) and 320 yards of total offense (11th). Grand Rapids West Catholic quarterback Travis Russell placed 13th on the total offense list with 309 yards, including 133 rushing. South Christian quarterback Jon Wassink joined a long list of those who have completed at least 18 passes, doing so for 240 yards and three TDs. And Muskegon quarterback Deshaun Thrower found teammate Justin Foster with an 86-yard TD pass, good for the fifth-longest pass play.

  • Menominee’s Devon Harris and Birmingham Brother Rice’s Corey Lacanaria tied for fifth with 10 receptions a piece, Harris for 149 yards and Lacanaria for 125. Grand Rapids South Christian’s Eric VanVoorst tied for seventh on the catches list with nine for 149 yards, and Marine City’s Pete Patsalis became one of eight who have caught a Finals-best three touchdown passes.

  • Marine City’s Olivia Viney tied the Finals record with seven extra-point kicks (see more on her below). Four other kickers made the record book list by connecting on all five of their attempts – Brother Rice’s Jason Alessi, South Christian’s Kyle Haan, Ithaca’s Alex Vanderploeg and Muskegon Catholic Central’s Griffin Seymour.

  • Marine City’s Jarrett Mathison ran for the fourth-longest kickoff return, 91 yards for a touchdown. Clinton’s Mathew Sexton ran for the second-longest punt return, 86 yards for a score.

  • Marine City’s 49 points were good to tie for sixth-most by a team in Finals history.

  • Zeeland West’s offense tied for the fourth-most first downs with 26 and became the 19th team to not punt in a championship game. West’s 66 rush attempts were the second-most in a Final. Brother Rice tied for seventh with 24 first downs and Clarkston tied for ninth with 23.

  • Detroit Catholic Central tied Farmington Hills Harrison for the most championship game appearances, with 16; the Shamrocks have won 10 titles. Brother Rice tied for third with 13 Finals berths and moved to sixth with nine championships – plus became one of six to win at least three straight. Muskegon moved up to tied for 12 with seven Finals appearances, Muskegon Catholic tied for sixth with 12 and South Christian is tied for 14th with six Finals appearances. DeWitt and Ishpeming both joined the lower end of that list, each notching their fifth. Ithaca is now tied for third on the list of consecutive titles with four straight, only one off tying that record. MCC also tied for sixth on the championship list by winning its ninth.

  • A number of entries also were added to 8-Player Finals record book, which although in its infancy boasts some of the most impressive totals for either football format. Peck quarterback Tristen Haener was added for his 379 yards and seven touchdowns passing, plus his 382 total yards and five extra-point kicks. Teammate Kyle Abrego was added for his 236 yards and four touchdowns receiving, with all four of those coming in the third quarter. Rapid River quarterback Jake Pearson was added for scoring 26 points in the game as both teams combined for 99. A number of team totals reflecting some of the same categories also were added.

Stories behind the scores

Ready for a rematch: There were two from the 2012 Finals, and both ended the same way in 2013. Brother Rice repeated against Muskegon in Division 2 with many of the same players as stood out a year ago, and Ishpeming repeated against Detroit Loyola in Division 7 with a number of new faces make big contributions.

7 for 7: Marine City’s Olivia Viney was believed to be the first female athlete to play in an MHSAA football championship game, and she put up a performance that will live on in the MHSAA record book. Viney connected on all seven of her extra-point kicks, tying the MHSAA Finals record. Viney earned a Division 3 all-state honorable mention this spring on Marine City’s girls soccer team.

Good bye, Coach: Longtime Brother Rice coach Al Fracassa retired after the game with the most wins in MHSAA history and sixth-most nationally. He coached at Royal Oak Shrine from 1960-68 before taking over the Warriors in 1969.

Ithaca reigns on: The national winning streak and four straight titles are detailed a little bit above, and next season the Yellowjackets can tie East Grand Rapids and Farmington Hills Harrison with a fifth straight MHSAA title. Quarterback Travis Smith was the only Ithaca player to dress for all four championships, and his brother Jacob is set to take over behind center next fall.

We are the champions: Clarkston has been in the conversation on Division 1 contenders for at least the last 14 seasons, and the Wolves brought home their first title after advancing from the Semifinals for the first time in four tries. They have won at least 10 games six times beginning in 1999 and are 24-2 over the last two seasons.  

Remembering David: Although Detroit Catholic Central’s third straight loss in the Division 1 Final was heart-wrenching for the Shamrocks, their student body pulled off an awesome tribute. David Widzinski was a running back on the team last season and died in his sleep a year ago. DCC’s students, wearing blue and white shirts, created his No. 33 in the Ford Field stands, memorializing him as his jersey hung from the front railing of the section.

PHOTOS: (Top) Nine champions celebrated MHSAA titles over the last two weekends. (Middle top) Clarkston players march off the Ford Field turf celebrating their first MHSAA football championship. (Middle) Ithaca, from right, works against the Clinton defense in the Division 6 Final. (Below) Detroit Catholic Central students, in blue and white shirts, form a No. 33 to commemorate their deceased classmate (Click to see more like the middle photos on the MHSAA Instagram page.)

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.)