Drive for Detroit: 11-Player Semis in Review

November 23, 2015

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

Winter Storm Bella received some of the headlines entering this weekend's MHSAA 11-player Football Semifinals.

But the teams that took the field in mostly snowy conditions earned the rest, with three clinching championship game berths for the first time and seven more undefeated teams keeping perfect records intact. 

See below for a few highlights from all 16 Semifinals. There's plenty more to come this week, including previews of each championship game and coverage of each Friday and Saturday. 

Division 1

Romeo 48, Grand Ledge 21 – This officially can be coined the best season in Romeo history with its first MHSAA Finals berth to go with a school record for wins and a Macomb Area Conference White title. The Bulldogs (12-1) didn’t take their first lead until Jackson Butcher caught a 62-yard touchdown pass from Paul Hurley with 2:19 to go in the first half, but they then scored the last three touchdowns of the game to pull away. Hurley completed 8 of 10 passes for 133 yards and two scores, and Butcher caught five for 103 yards. Ba Blamo went over 1,000 rushing yards for the season with 172 plus two scores for Grand Ledge (12-1), which finished its deepest run since 2000. Click for more from the Macomb Daily.

Detroit Cass Tech 48, Canton 41

The Technicians (11-2) got up 14 points during the first half and then held off a comeback attempt by Canton to make the Division 1 Final for the first time since 2012. Sophomore Aaron Jackson, filling in for injured quarterback Rodney Hall, completed 4 of 5 passes for 216 yards and two touchdowns and ran for a third score, while junior Donovan Johnson ran for 154 yards and two scores and junior Timothy Cheatham gained 91 yards and two scores. Canton (10-3), in its first Semifinal since 2006, was paced by Marcus Sanders’ 298 yards rushing and three touchdowns on the ground – including one with 38 seconds to play that pulled the Chiefs to within seven of the lead. Click for more from the Detroit Free Press.

Division 2

Lowell 49, Walled Lake Western 34

The Red Arrows (12-1) avenged a 42-40 opening night loss to Walled Lake Western to earn a trip to Ford Field for the first time since 2011. Quarterback Ryan Stevens continued his sharp play with three touchdowns passing and three more rushing to give him 47 combined this season. Walled Lake Western (12-1), pursuing its first Finals berth since 1999, led 10-7 after the first quarter and got back within four heading into the fourth before Lowell scored three times over the final 12 minutes. Quarterback Kyle Thomas ran for two scores and threw for a third. Click for more from the Grand Rapids Press.

Detroit Martin Luther King 40, Livonia Franklin 6

King (13-0) moved one more step closer to a perfect run by taking a 20-0 advantage after the first quarter and following senior quarterback Armani Posey and his three touchdown passes to a lead Franklin never threatened. The Crusaders will play in an MHSAA Final for the first time since winning in 2007. Franklin, making its deepest postseason run since 1975, the first year of the MHSAA playoffs, finished 9-4 – its best record since 2005. The Patriots were only 2-7 a year ago, their fourth straight sub.-500 finish. Click for more from MLive-Detroit.

Division 3

Orchard Lake St. Mary’s 14, East Grand Rapids 7

These two perennial powers have now met six times over the last decade, including three times in MHSAA Finals – but this was the first victory for St. Mary’s (11-1). The reigning Division 3 champion got its final edge on a 70-yard touchdown run by Ryan Johnson to open the second half and will play in its fifth championship game in six seasons. This was East Grand Rapids’ first Semifinal since 2011; the Pioneers (9-4) scored on their first possession but didn’t reach the end zone again the rest of the way. Click for more from the Oakland Press.

Chelsea 35, Coldwater 7

The winner was guaranteed the first MHSAA Finals appearance in school history, and Chelsea took hold early jumping to a 28-0 first-half lead. Junior quarterback Jake Bush threw three touchdowns passes and ran for a fourth score as the Bulldogs (12-1) set a team record for wins in earning a first trip to Ford Field. Coldwater ended its deepest playoff run and winningest season but continued an impressive run that’s seen the team go from 1-8 in 2011 and 2012, to 5-5 with its first playoff berth in 2013, to 8-2 in 2014 and 12-1 this fall. Click for more from the Ann Arbor News.

Division 4

Zeeland West 46, Ada Forest Hills Eastern 8

West’s rumbling run-heavy offense is perfect for days like snowy Saturday, and the Dux (13-0) piled up nearly 400 yards in earning a return to Ford Field after falling in the Semifinal a year ago. West’s defense also played a starring role, allowing single-digit points for the fifth time in six games. Forest Hills Eastern hadn’t been held to fewer than 13 points since 2012. The Hawks did end their best season at 11-2 after four straight sub-.500 finishes including 4-5 each of the last two years. Click for more from the Holland Sentinel.

Flint Powers Catholic 21, Detroit Country Day 14

The Chargers (11-2) will return to Ford Field for the second time in five seasons after quarterback Noah Sargent scored with 26 seconds to play to give them their first lead. The dual threat standout threw for 97 yards and a touchdown and ran for 88 in addition to his go-ahead score. Country Day (11-2), playing for its first Finals berth since 2012, took a 14-0 lead into the second half. Junior Steve Mann threw for 108 yards and a touchdown for the Yellowjackets. Click for more from the Flint Journal.

Division 5

Grand Rapids West Catholic 42, Lansing Catholic 13

West Catholic (11-2) will play in its fifth Final in six years after winning this rematch of last season’s championship game. Any ideas that the Falcons were in demise after a 1-2 start clearly were exaggerated; they’ve beaten four opponents during the playoffs that entered a combined 39-3. The Cougars scored first, but West Catholic scored three times during the second quarter; for the game, sophomore quarterback Gaetano Vallone ran for two touchdowns and threw for two more. Lansing Catholic (11-2) had been held under 20 points only one other time since opening night 2013. Click for more from the Grand Rapids Press.

River Rouge 28, Ida 26

River Rouge (12-1) turned its first Semifinal appearance into its first championship game berth by holding off a late comeback attempt by Ida and stopping a 2-point conversion try that would’ve tied the score during the final seconds of regulation. River Rouge built a two-score lead during the first half, but the teams were tied 20-20 when quarterback Antoine Burgess found Alexander Carter for a go-ahead scoring pass and then added the eventual game-winning points on the conversion. Ida finished 12-1 after also playing in its first Semifinal. Click for more from the Southgate News-Herald.

Division 6

Clinton 42, Grand Rapids NorthPointe Christian 20

Clinton’s opponents were a combined 37-5 entering the playoffs, and beating previously-undefeated NorthPointe Christian earned the Redskins (13-0) a rematch of the 2013 Division 6 Final against Ithaca. Clinton’s running attack was nearly unstoppable; Noah Poore ran for 248 yards and two touchdowns, and Mathew Sexton ran for 182 yards and two scores. NorthPointe (12-1) saw its season end in the Semifinals for the second straight season and is 23-3 combined over the last two. Click for more from the Adrian Daily Telegram.

Ithaca 28, Traverse City St. Francis 19

Ithaca will play in its sixth straight Division 6 Final after coming back from a slow start to outscore St. Francis 22-6 over the final three quarters. Quarterback Jake Smith threw for 180 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 147 yards and two more scores for the Yellowjackets (13-0), who held St. Francis to eight first downs and took advantage of four turnovers. The Gladiators (12-1) scored immediately on a 95-yard return of the opening kickoff by Joe Trucco and still led 19-15 with just under 11 minutes to play. Click for more from the Mount Pleasant Morning Sun.

Division 7

Ishpeming 22, New Lothrop 14

The Hematites (12-0) will play in the Division 7 Final for the fourth straight season and for their third title in that time after winning this matchup of undefeated teams. The only game played inside this weekend – at Northern Michigan University’s Superior Dome – still looked like it was in the snow thanks to strong defenses on both sides. Ishpeming quarterback Ozzy Corp ran for 88 yards and two touchdowns and threw a scoring pass, and New Lothrop quarterback Erik Birchmeier threw for 132 yards and ran for a score as neither offense gained 200 total yards. The Hornets finished 12-1 after a sixth-straight perfect regular season. Click for more from the Marquette Mining Journal.

Pewamo-Westphalia 30, Detroit Loyola 0

Pewamo-Westphalia (13-0) will this time move on after this rematch of last season’s Semifinal that sent Loyola to Ford Field to win its first MHSAA title. The Pirates followed the snowy footsteps of running back Jared Smith, who rushed for 193 yards and two touchdowns – adding to his MHSAA single-season record for rushing scores of 52 and giving him the MHSAA record for rushing yards in a season with 3,094. The Pirates also handed Loyola (10-2) its first shutout since 2011. P-W played in a Final once before, in 2011, and Loyola played in the last three in Division 7. Click for more from the Lansing State Journal.

Division 8

Muskegon Catholic Central 33, St. Ignace 20

The Crusaders (11-2) will play for a third straight MHSAA championship after building a 20-0 lead as two running backs went over 100 yards – Walker Christoffersen had 192 and a touchdown and LaTommy Scot ran for 102 and scored both rushing and receiving. St. Ignace scored all 20 of its points during the fourth quarter with Andrew Goldthorpe running for a touchdown and catching a pass for another. The Saints (11-2) were playing in their third Semifinal in five seasons. Click for more from the Muskegon Chronicle.

Waterford Our Lady 36, Ottawa Lake Whiteford 20

The Lakers (13-0) will play for an MHSAA title for the first time since claiming Division 8 in 2002. Our Lady led only 22-14 heading into the fourth quarter before breaking away. Quarterback Clay Senerius threw two touchdown passes to bring his total to 34 this season. Whiteford (10-3) played in its first Semifinal and had more than 300 yards of total offense, but couldn’t keep pace during the fourth quarter and missed on a couple of scoring opportunities deep in Lakers territory. Click for more from the Oakland Press.

PHOTO: Clinton trudged through the snow to defeat Grand Rapids NorthPointe Christian in a Division 6 Semifinal. (Click for 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.)