Drive for Detroit: Playoff Week 3 Review

November 13, 2017

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

A longtime observer of Michigan high school football had a hard time remembering a playoff weekend with as many close finishes as fans enjoyed Friday and Saturday.

Start with the games in 11-player Division 1, where all four were decided by fourth-quarter scores or stops, and nail-biters dominated a weekend that saw 32 teams move on to 11-Player Regional Finals and the four finalists for 8-player championships book trips to Marquette’s Superior Dome.

We start with a brief glance below at all four 8-Player Semifinals and then move into all 32 11-player games. The MHSAA Playoffs are sponsored by the Michigan Army National Guard, and “Drive for Detroit” is sponsored by MI Student Aid.   

8-Player Division 1

Central Lake 54, Stephenson 20

The Trojans (12-0) rode a ravenous rushing attack in a snowstorm to earn its first MHSAA championship game berth while also tying its program record for wins in a season. Central Lake plodded to more than 400 yards against a Stephenson defense that had given up only 16.7 points per game entering the day. The Eagles finished 9-3. Click for more from the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

Deckerville 52, Bellevue 18

Deckerville rattled off 44 straight points to earn a second straight trip to the MHSAA Finals. Bellevue led 12-8 early before the Eagles (11-1) went on their run against another otherwise-stellar defense – the Broncos (10-2) were giving up only 9.5 points per game entering the day and this season set a program record for wins. Click for more from the Huron Daily Tribune.

8-Player Division 2

Crystal Falls Forest Park 36, Pickford 34

Forest Park will add to its 13 championship game appearances as an 11-player program with its first in 8-player after handing Pickford its lone loss this season. The Trojans (10-2) last made a championship game in 2009 and moved to 8-player a year ago. They put up the most points Pickford (11-1) gave up in a game this season by 12. The Panthers fell in their second straight Semifinal but moved to 27-7 in three years of 8-player. Click for more from the Iron Mountain Daily News.

Portland St. Patrick 33, Kinde-North Huron 14

The Shamrocks are 53-12 since moving to 8-player in 2012, and in their first Semifinal since that first season finally broke through to earn a first championship game berth since 1997. St. Patrick (11-1) scored 21 points during the fourth quarter to pull away against a North Huron program that also was playing in its second 8-Player Semifinal and finished 10-2. Click for more from the Lansing State Journal.

11-Player Division 1

West Bloomfield 28, Utica Eisenhower 25

Quarterback Bryce Veasley scored the winning touchdown with under a minute to play to send West Bloomfield (10-2) to its first MHSAA Semifinal in football. The Lakers edged an Eisenhower program much more familiar with this stage of the playoffs; the Eagles were playing for a third Regional title this decade and made the Semifinals a year ago. Eisenhower (11-1) had given up more than 20 points in a game to only one other opponent this fall. Click for more from the Oakland Press.

Other Regional Finals:

Clarkston 29, Holland West Ottawa 22 – The Wolves (10-2) scored 23 unanswered fourth-quarter points to win their second Regional title in four seasons and end West Ottawa’s winningest football season at 10-2.

Detroit Catholic Central 27, Canton 26 – The Shamrocks (8-4) stopped a Canton two-point conversion attempt with 34 seconds to play to win their fifth Regional title this decade while handing the Chiefs (10-2) their first loss since opening night.

Detroit Cass Tech 32, Clinton Township Chippewa Valley 26 – In maybe the most dramatic finish of all this weekend, Chippewa Valley (10-2) took the lead with 1:25 to play and Cass Tech (9-2) took it back as the clock ticked under 10 seconds to win an eighth straight Regional title. 

11-Player Division 2

Livonia Franklin 31, Flushing 29

Franklin (10-2) clinched its second Regional title in three seasons on kicker Brad Gibson’s 27-yard field goal with 13 seconds to play. Flushing had taken the lead just more than a minute before with a two-point conversion after a late score. Flushing was playing for its first Regional title and finished 9-3, tying its most successful season (2014) since 1997. Click for more from the Observer & Eccentric.

Other Regional Finals:

Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central 28, Traverse City Central 10 – Forest Hills Central (12-0) won its first football Regional title since 1995 with 28 unanswered points over the second and third quarters; Traverse City Central (8-4) was playing for its first Regional title since 1991.

Detroit Martin Luther King 55, Ypsilanti Lincoln 14 – The Crusaders (11-1) won their third straight Regional title and fifth in seven years while finishing the most successful playoff run ever for Lincoln (9-3), which hadn’t lost since an 0-2 start.

Warren DeLaSalle 14, Oak Park 7 – A last-minute touchdown gave DeLaSalle (10-2) its first Regional title since 2014 as both teams scored their fewest points since opening night; Oak Park (9-3) tied its most successful season after also going 9-3 in 2012. 

11-Player Division 3

Riverview 36, Dearborn Divine Child 31

The Riverview dream season continues, this time after a close win over one of last season’s Division 3 semifinalists. The Pirates (11-1) won their first Regional title since 2002, with the reminder again that they went only 2-7 a year ago. Riverview led by 12 heading into the fourth quarter and held off Divine Child (10-2) during a late comeback attempt. Click for more from the Southgate News-Herald.

Other Regional Finals:

Muskegon 49, DeWitt 0 – The Big Reds (12-0) were great on offense as usual, but defensively this was the most impressive of their six shutouts this fall; DeWitt (10-2) was averaging 39 points per game entering the day.

Battle Creek Harper Creek 16, East Lansing 13 – The Beavers (12-0) scored all 16 of their points during the fourth quarter to clinch their first Regional title since 2012 and hand East Lansing (9-3) its first defeat this season since Week 3; the Trojans finished their best season since 2011.

Farmington Hills Harrison 34, Linden 21 – The Hawks (9-3) added to their inspired run with a first Regional title since 2014; Linden (9-3) was playing for its first Regional title but did finish its winningest season since 2012. 

11-Player Division 4

River Rouge 21, Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood 14

The Panthers (10-2) reached 10 victories for the fourth straight season and fifth in six seasons by clinching this third straight Regional title. River Rouge never broke away but did go ahead to stay midway through the fourth quarter to seal its closest win of the season (the two losses were by nine and seven). Cranbrook Kingswood (10-2) did cap its winningest season in program history. Click for more from the Southgate News-Herald.

Other Regional Finals:

Escanaba 39, Williamston 21 – The Eskymos (10-2) began pulling away during the first half on the way to their first Regional title since 1981; for Williamston (7-5), it was the only loss this season by more than seven points.

Grand Rapids Catholic Central 42, Belding 3 – GRCC (12-0) rode another giant dose of running back Nolan Fugate to its 18th straight win; Belding (9-3) ended its most successful season since 1998.

Edwardsburg 52, Lansing Sexton 30 –The Eddies (11-1) won their second straight Regional title with their fifth game over 50 points this season; Sexton (8-4) did become the first team to top 30 against Edwardsburg this fall.

11-Player Division 5

Grand Rapids West Catholic 28, Portland 26

The latest of frequent playoff meetings between these annual contenders turned out to be another classic as West Catholic (10-2) stopped a late two-point conversion attempt to secure the win – after also beating Portland by three last season on the way to winning the Division 5 title. The Raiders (10-2) fought back from two touchdowns down in the fourth quarter. Click for more from the Grand Rapids Press.

Other Regional Finals:

Reed City 46, Menominee 34 – The Coyotes (11-1) closed this weekend’s action in Saturday’s final game by claiming their first Regional title against a Menominee team playing in its ninth straight Regional Final; the Maroons, last season’s Division 5 runners-up, finished 8-4.

Saginaw Swan Valley 48, Muskegon Oakridge 14 – The Vikings (11-1) will play in their third Semifinal in nine years as Alex Fries threw three touchdown passes and ran for a fourth score; Oakridge (9-3) was playing for its first Regional title since 2013.

Frankenmuth 17, Algonac 7 – The Eagles (12-0) won their second straight Regional title and set a program record for wins by outlasting the Blue Water Area Conference champion Muskrats (10-2) in a defensive struggle; Frankenmuth held Algonac to 161 yards. 

11-Player Division 6

Ithaca 33, Montague 23

Ithaca made a statement in a game pitting teams that have combined to win seven of the last nine Division 6 titles. Following quarterback Joey Bentley – 218 yards and four touchdowns rushing, one more touchdown passing – the Yellowjackets (12-0) led by 18 late before Montague added a final score. The Wildcats (11-1) did put up the most points Ithaca has given up this season – the Yellowjackets have now allowed only 101 over 12 games. Click for more from the Mount Pleasant Morning Sun.

Other Regional Finals:

Traverse City St. Francis 33, Millington 26 – The Gladiators (11-1) hung on to win their second Regional title in three seasons as Millington (10-2) put up the most points St. Francis has given up this season – although the Gladiators also became just the second to score more than 30 on the Cardinals.

Jackson Lumen Christi 44, Watervliet 22 – The reigning Division 6 champion Titans (10-1) locked down a Watervliet offense that had scored at least 36 points every game and averaged 52 per game during the Panthers’ 11-0 start.

Warren Michigan Collegiate 32, Blissfield 6 – The Cougars (12-0) won their second Regional title in 10 seasons as a program, ending Blissfield’s first winning season since 2012 and winningest since 2009 at 7-5. 

11-Player Division 7

Lake City 20, Breckenridge 18

Someone was going to celebrate a major accomplishment after this game. Lake City improved to 12-0, extending its program record for wins in claiming its first Regional title and with last year’s 2-7 finish becoming tougher to believe by the week. Breckenridge was 0-9 only three years ago and won its first playoff game just two weeks ago on the way to finishing 10-2 this fall. Click for more from the Cadillac News.

Other Regional Finals:

Pewamo-Westphalia 34, Elkton-Pigeon-Bay Port Laker 0 – The Pirates’ fifth shutout this season moved them to 11-1 and landed them their sixth Regional title in seven seasons; Laker (10-2) did contain P-W to its third-fewest points this fall.

Saugatuck 7, Cassopolis 6 – A go-ahead score with under three minutes to play pushed Saugatuck (9-3) just past the Rangers (10-2) for its first Regional title since 2010; Cassopolis had guarded that lead since the first quarter.

Madison Heights Madison 22, Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central 20 – Madison (12-0) will play in its first Semifinal since 2007 after coming back from two touchdowns down during the second half; the Falcons finished 7-5 after a 1-3 start this fall. 

11-Player Division 8

Iron River West Iron County 35, Frankfort 20

West Iron’s first Regional title since 1977 came with a program record-setting 11th win as the Wykons haven’t lost since falling by two points on opening night. West Iron scored the first 22 points and locked down a Frankfort offense that had scored 45 per game entering the game. The Panthers finished 8-3 after making the Regional Finals for the third straight season. Click for more from the Iron Mountain Daily News.

Other Regional Finals:

Saginaw Nouvel 54, Lincoln Alcona 34 – Nouvel (12-0) picked the best time to score its most points in a game this season, coming off a District Final scare against Harbor Beach; the Panthers opened a 28-0 lead on the Tigers (9-3), who were playing in their first Regional Final.  

Mendon 14, Climax-Scotts 6 – A week after stunning reigning champion Muskegon Catholic Central, Mendon (12-0) had to hold off the Panthers (9-3) for 2½ quarters to earn its first Regional title since 2011.

Ottawa Lake Whiteford 60, Clarkston Everest Collegiate 20 – Last season’s Division 8 runner-up Bobcats (12-0) clearly are intent on getting back to Ford Field; they finished this one on a 44-6 run to end the longest tournament run in the five-year history of Everest Collegiate (9-3).

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PHOTO: Ithaca’s Devon Smith (51) closes in on a Montague ball carrier during Saturday’s Division 6 Regional Final. (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.)