Drive for Detroit: 11-Player Semis Preview

November 16, 2018

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor 

This season’s “Drive for Detroit” is in its final stretch as 32 teams prepare to play in 11-Player Semifinals on Saturday.

And there are plenty in the mix for the first time, or the first time in a while.

Of those 32, only 11 made it this far a year ago – and we’re guaranteed at least three new champions next week at Ford Field.

As always, we encourage you to bundle up and grab a seat in the stands. But if you’d rather watch from the comforts of home, this weekend we again will have all 16 Semifinals available, either on or (Click for the full schedule.)

All games are 1 p.m. Saturday. “Drive for Detroit” is powered by MI Student Aid

Division 1

Clarkston (10-2) vs. Saline (11-1) at Okemos

The reigning Division 1 champion Wolves have given up a combined 13 points over three playoff games, and 6-foot-5, 270-pound sophomore Rocco Spindler is among the leading tacklers with 76 from his defensive tackle spot. Saline has been similarly stifling giving up 26 points total in its playoff wins and has a reliable runner in senior Brendan Munday (1,160 yards/ 14 TDs rushing).

Belleville (12-0) vs. Clinton Township Chippewa Valley (12-0) at Troy Athens 

Belleville built on its second straight perfect regular season by making the Semifinals for the first time with a sophomore, Christian Dhue-Reid, running the show at quarterback. Chippewa Valley’s first Semifinal run since 2003 has been keyed in part by senior signal-caller Tommy Schuster (1,480 yards/21 TDs passing). 

Division 2

Midland (9-3) vs. Muskegon Mona Shores (11-1) at Grand Ledge

Mona Shores’ only loss this fall came to Division 3 contender Muskegon, and senior running back/linebacker Sincere Dent (1,228 yards/24 TDs rushing, 8.8 yards per carry) is among the standouts leading the way. Senior running back/linebacker Christian Gordon (1,408/20/7.2) provides similar impact for Midland.

Birmingham Groves (10-2) vs. Warren DeLaSalle (10-2) at Hazel Park

Junior quarterback Markis Alexander (1,337 yards/13 TDs passing) has Groves on a 10-game winning streak and playing its second Semifinal in three seasons. Reigning Division 2 champion Warren DeLaSalle has locked down its three playoff opponents to a combined 20 points. Senior Evan Vaillancourt scored in last year’s Final and leads the team with 576 yards and 12 TDs rushing.

Division 3

Zeeland East (11-1) vs. Muskegon (12-0) at Grand Haven

The reigning Division 3 champion Big Reds have marched again with junior quarterback Cameron Martinez (2,177 yards/33 TDs rushing, 610 yards/11 TDs passing) taking over where last year’s star La’Darius Jefferson left off. But Zeeland East hardly can be overlooked; the Chix are playing in their first Semifinal since 1989 (which was prior to the opening of Zeeland West) and with their only loss by four to reigning Division 4 champion Grand Rapids Catholic Central. Senior quarterback Gabe Taylor and senior running back Joshua Fusco have combined to run for 3,162 yards.

Detroit Martin Luther King (10-2) vs. DeWitt (12-0) at Brighton 

King senior quarterback Dequan Finn is considered one of the state’s most unstoppable with 1,086 yards and 19 touchdowns rushing and 1,787 yards and 20 TDs passing. The Crusaders are playing in their fourth straight Semifinal, with the last three in Division 2. DeWitt emerged from its third straight Regional Final to make the Semifinals for the first time since 2013. Senior quarterback Blake Gatfield has thrown for 1,226 yards and 14 scores and is the team’s second-leading rusher with 503 yards plus 12 scores.

Division 4 

Grand Rapids Catholic Central (11-1) vs. Edwardsburg (12-0) at Vicksburg

This is a rematch of last season’s championship game, won by GRCC 42-31. Edwardsburg will look to avenge with senior fullback Caden Goggins (1,185 yards/20 TDs rushing) pacing the Eddies’ powerful run-based attack. Many names are different for GRCC, which has lost only to Division 1 contender Saline. Senior quarterback Joe Collins has stepped in with 2,215 yards and 27 touchdowns through the air.

Chelsea (9-3) vs. Williamston (10-2) at Walled Lake Northern

Both have navigated some close ones this run, with Chelsea winning two playoff games by seven points apiece and Williamston with one seven-pointer. Chelsea is back in the Semifinals for the first time since 2015, with senior quarterback Quinn Starkey throwing for 2,091 yards and 22 touchdowns. Williamston is returning to the Semifinals for the first time since 2010. Hornets senior quarterback Austin Stiffler has been nearly identically effective, throwing for 2,181 yards and 22 scores.

Division 5

Hudsonville Unity Christian (10-2) vs. Saginaw Swan Valley (12-0) at Greenville

Last year’s Division 5 runner-up Swan Valley is coming off its closest game this season, a 36-28 win over Reed City, a win which also was its first decided by single digits since Week 1. Senior quarterback Alex Fries ran the show last season as well, and he’s thrown for 1,547 yards and 22 touchdowns. Unity Christian is playing for its first trip to the Finals and relies on a rushing attack that’s gained more than 3,700 yards. Junior Hayden Large has gained 1,143 of them and run for 12 scores.

Marine City (10-2) vs. Portland (12-0) at Howell

Portland’s strength has been a defense giving up 7.7 points per game, but the Raiders are also coming off one of their highest-scoring outputs in a 40-6 win over Frankenmuth in the Regional Final. Senior Jacob Veale leads the strong ground attack with 1,505 yards and 24 touchdowns. Marine City chews up yards on the ground as well with junior Aren Sopfe (1,087 yards/14 TDs) and senior Jack Kretzschmar (901/11) carrying the load. The Mariners have had two of their four highest-scoring games over the last two weeks.

Division 6 

Montague (10-2) vs. Traverse City St. Francis (12-0) at Mount Pleasant

These two have combined for an 82-11 record over the last four seasons, and both are seeking to make the Finals for the first time since 2009. Senior Bryce Stark has shouldered much of the rushing load for Montague with 1,422 yards and 24 touchdowns. Senior Danny Passinault leads a similarly strong run attack for the Gladiators with 1,201 yards and 18 scores.

Montrose (10-2) vs. Jackson Lumen Christi (11-0) at Novi

The Rams are seeking to reach their first championship game since 2002 and will take on the reigning Division 6 champion Titans with a balanced attack led by senior Devante Bedford (1,617 yards/26 TDs rushing) and sophomore quarterback Bobby Skinner (1,431/20 passing). Lumen Christi still does what it’s done to win the last two championships and three over the last decade – combine tough defense with a dominating rush attack, led this season by senior Nick Thomas (1,634 yards/29 TDs).

Division 7

New Lothrop (11-1) vs. Lake City (12-0) at Clare

Fresh off eliminating two-time Division 7 champion Pewamo-Westphalia, New Lothrop takes on another undefeated contender in Lake City. Junior quarterback Avery Moore is dangerous in multiple ways with 1,375 yards and 20 touchdowns rushing and 1,452 yards and 20 more scores passing for the Hornets. Lake City, which fell to P-W in a Semifinal a year ago, has already outscored last year’s team and is giving up half as many points through just one fewer game. Lake City also has a multi-talented quarterback – senior Matt Holt has run for 1,496 yards and 18 scores and thrown for 1,550 yards and 17 TDs.

Cassopolis (12-0) vs. Madison Heights Madison (12-0) at Jackson

One of the state’s most impressive defenses from Cassopolis will take on a high-flying offense from Madison. The Rangers are outscoring opponents by an average of 46-4, with senior running back Tyrese Hunt-Thompson the team’s leading rusher (859 yards/19 TDs) and receiver (314/6). Madison’s average margin of victory is a little less at 39-9 but has come mostly against much larger schools. Senior quarterback Austin Brown has thrown for 1,766 yards and 21 scores and run for 1,696/29.

Division 8 

Breckenridge (12-0) vs. Harbor Beach (11-1) at Chesaning

The Huskies have stretched their best season ever to their first Semifinal with a stalwart defense giving up four points per game. Senior dual threat quarterback Carter Staley leads with 926 yards and 10 touchdowns passing and also a team-best 882 yards rushing with 12 scores on the ground. Harbor Beach is back in the Semifinals for the fourth time this decade coming off its third shutout in five weeks. Junior running back/linebacker Devin Pfaff is key on both sides of the ball, rushing for a team-high 1,234 yards and 20 scores.

Holton (8-4) vs. Reading (12-0) at Battle Creek Harper Creek

Holton’s memorable run began after the team lost its last three regular-season games but made the playoffs as an additional qualifier. After reaching the postseason for the first time since 2007, the Red Devils have won their first District and Regional titles. Senior Aaron Herron has run for 1,548 yards and 19 touchdowns. Next up is Reading, coming off its sixth shutout of the season and averaging 50 points per game. Senior fullback Ethan LoPresto is tough to bring down; he’s averaging 12.6 yards per carry with 2,209 plus 26 TDs total on the ground.

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PHOTO: Portland's offense lines up during last week's Division 5 Regional Final win over Frankenmuth. (Click to see more from

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.)