Drive for Detroit: 11-Player Semis Review

November 20, 2017

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

Five of Saturday’s 11-player Semifinals were decided by seven points or fewer.

Four reigning champions earned opportunities to repeat as champions.

Three teams advanced to the Finals for the first time.

Two of the five winningest coaches in MHSAA history – and the top two among active coaches – will make the trip again.

One more weekend remains to decide the last of this season’s football champions.

The countdown is on for our annual voyage to Detroit’s Ford Field. West Bloomfield, Saginaw Swan Valley and Edwardsburg earned first-time MHSAA Finals berths Saturday, while a handful of surprises also helped shape an intriguing championship field.

Below is a glance at all 16 Semifinals, plus links to coverage both print and broadcast. The MHSAA Playoffs are sponsored by the Michigan Army National Guard, and “Drive for Detroit” is sponsored by MI Student Aid.

Division 1

Clarkston 27, Detroit Catholic Central 7

The Wolves (11-2) held the reigning Division 1 runner-up Shamrocks (8-5) scoreless until late in the third quarter to earn their return to Ford Field looking for a third title in five seasons after winning Division 1 back-to-back in 2013-14. Click for more from the Oakland Press.

West Bloomfield 9, Detroit Cass Tech 7

West Bloomfield (11-2) held off the reigning champion Technicians (9-3) to advance to the MHSAA Finals for the first time, with Nick O’Shea kicking a 31 and two 26-yard field goals. Click for more from the Detroit News.

Division 2

Livonia Franklin 20, Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central 0

Franklin (11-2) earned its first Finals berth since the first year of MHSAA playoffs in 1975, shutting down a Forest Hills Central offense that averaged 38 points per game during a 12-0 start. Click for more from Observer & Eccentric.

Warren DeLaSalle 14, Detroit Martin Luther King 13

In a matchup of Detroit area powers, Catholic League Central champion Warren DeLaSalle (11-2) edged Public School League champion and back-to-back Division 2 title winner King (11-2); the Pilots will be going for their second title in four seasons after winning Division 2 in 2014. Click for more from the Macomb Daily.

Division 3

Muskegon 42, Battle Creek Harper Creek 0

This Muskegon playoff drive is becoming legendary; the Big Reds (13-0) haven’t given up a point in their last two games and this time handed Harper Creek (12-1) its first and only loss of the season. Click for more from the Muskegon Chronicle.

Farmington Hills Harrison 21, Riverview 0

Likewise, Harrison’s run is becoming something of a storybook end for a program guided by the newly-anointed all-time winningest coach in state history that will also will play only one more season as the school will close in 2019. The Hawks (10-3) earned their second shutout of the playoffs as well, this time as Riverview (11-2) was averaging 35 points per game. Click for more from Observer & Eccentric.

Division 4

Grand Rapids Catholic Central 24, Escanaba 0

The reigning champion Cougars (13-0) ran into one of few opponents that has slowed down its offense; GRCC scored fewer than 32 points for the first time since Week 2. But Escanaba (10-3) didn’t manage a point for the first time since last year’s Regional Final, when GRCC downed the Eskymos 34-0. Click for more from the Grand Rapids Press.

Edwardsburg 32, River Rouge 21

Edwardsburg (12-1) scored the final 14 points of the game to earn its first trip to the MHSAA Finals and tie a program record for most wins in a season with last year’s semifinalist team. River Rouge (10-3) was playing in a Semifinal for the third straight season and hadn’t lost to an instate opponent since opening night. Click for more from the Niles Daily Star.

Division 5

Saginaw Swan Valley 29, Reed City 14

Both teams were playing to make the MHSAA Finals for the first time, and Swan Valley (12-1) earned the trip while also tying a program record for wins in a season. Four rushing touchdowns including two by Chase Mendoza doomed the Coyotes (11-2), who won a program-record 11 games for the second straight season. Click for more from the Saginaw News.

Grand Rapids West Catholic 25, Frankenmuth 21

Four-time reigning champion West Catholic (11-2) came back from a 21-0 deficit to clinch a sixth straight MHSAA Finals appearance, holding off the Eagles (12-1) as they attempted to reach the Finals for the first time. Click for more from the Grand Rapids Press.

Division 6

Ithaca 27, Traverse City St. Francis 0

Most of the time, Ithaca’s offense is cast in the starring role. But the Yellowjackets (13-0) have two shutouts this playoffs and are giving up only 7.8 points per game – and St. Francis (11-2) hadn’t been held scoreless since 2013. Click for more from the Mount Pleasant Morning Sun.

Jackson Lumen Christi 44, Warren Michigan Collegiate 12

Reigning champion Lumen Christi (11-1) earned a shot at its first repeat title since winning two straight in 2003-04. The Titans put up 38 points in the first half and held Michigan Collegiate (12-1) to its fewest since opening night 2016. Click for more from the Jackson Citizen Patriot.

Division 7

Pewamo-Westphalia 51, Lake City 8

The reigning champion Pirates are headed back to the Finals after holding Lake City scoreless until the final minutes. Over four playoff games, P-W (12-1) has outscored its opponents 158-29. Lake City did set a program record for wins in finishing 12-1, making the Semifinals for the first time and all after going 2-7 a year ago. Click for more from the Lansing State Journal.

Saugatuck 14, Madison Heights Madison 7

The Indians (10-3) earned their first Finals berth since 2010 with a third straight playoff win by seven points or fewer – an incredible showing of perseverance considering also that this run has come after they missed out on a league title because of a Week 9 loss. Madison (12-1) entered the postseason with the highest playoff point average in the division by a large margin, but couldn’t get an offense going that averaged 33 points heading into the weekend. Click for more from the Holland Sentinel.

Division 8

Saginaw Nouvel 17, Iron River West Iron County 14

Nouvel (13-0) outlasted a physical West Iron front on both sides of the ball and made a third-quarter field goal stand for 22 minutes to reach the Finals for the first time since winning Division 7 in 2011. While West Iron (11-2) did hold the Panthers to their season low points, the Wykons also scored their fewest since Week 5. Click for more from the Saginaw News.

Ottawa Lake Whiteford 50, Mendon 21

This shouldn’t be called an upset, but Mendon (12-1) had to be considered the Division 8 favorite by at least a few after eliminating reigning four-time champ Muskegon Catholic Central in the District Final. Instead, reigning runner-up Whiteford (13-0) scored 50 points for the 10th time in 11 games, those points accounting for 39 percent of all the points the staunch Hornets gave up this season. Click for more from the Monroe Evening News.

Second Half’s weekly “Drive for Detroit” previews and reviews are powered by MI Student Aid, a part of the Student Financial Services Bureau located within the Michigan Department of Treasury. MI Student Aid encourages students to pursue postsecondary education by providing access to student financial resources and information, including various student financial assistance programs to help make college more affordable for Michigan students. MI Student Aid administers the state’s 529 savings programs (MET/MESP) and eight additional aid programs within its Student Scholarships and Grants division. Click for more information and connect with MI Student Aid on Facebook and Twitter @mistudentaid. 

PHOTO: Muskegon quarterback La'darius Jefferson breaks into the second level of Harper Creek's defense Saturday as a pair of tacklers work to wrap him up. (Photo by Tim Reilly.)

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.)