Drive for Detroit: Semifinals Preview

November 18, 2016

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

Ford Field is only one more win away for 32 teams playing in MHSAA Semifinals on Saturday.

Five of eight reigning champions are playing to get back. Twice as many teams are playing to reach the final round for the first time.

Below is a look at all 16 Semifinal games, powered by MI Student Aid. All games will be broadcast, four on and 12 on; click for the schedule. And stay connected all Saturday for scores as they come in on

Division 1

Romeo (9-3) vs. Detroit Catholic Central (12-0) at Howell Parker Middle School

Reigning Division 1 champion Romeo seemed out of the running for a return run with two losses over the first five weeks (although by just a combined three points) and then a big one in Week 8 to Macomb Dakota. But a defense that has given up more than 16 points only once since opening night has given up just 17 total over three playoff games. Leading rusher and receiver Kade Messner (617 yards/6 TDs rushing, 229 yards/1 TD receiving) averages 10 yards per carry. DCC fell to Romeo in a Regional Final last year, 40-29, but has churned out a perfect season to earn a rematch, with senior Nick Capatina (996 yards/13 TDs rushing) and junior Cameron Ryan (748/14) carrying a good chunk of the load.

Utica Eisenhower (12-0) vs. Detroit Cass Tech (12-0) at Troy Athens

The Eagles are making their first Semifinal appearance since 2011, when they fell to Cass Tech 6-3, and already have secured their winningest season since 2003. Junior quarterback Max Wittwer (1,574 yards/19 TDs passing, 768 yards/8 TDs rushing) and senior running back Jack Provencher (1,434 yards/24 TDs rushing) make it impossible for defenses to stack in trying to stop an offense that has scored at least 42 points in every playoff game. Cass Tech is more familiar with this round than most; this will be its seventh straight Semifinal. The Technicians feature some of the best-known playmakers in the state, including senior quarterback Rodney Hall (2,125 yards/22 TDs passing) and senior receiver Donovan People-Jones (889 yards/15 TDs receiving). 

Division 2

Walled Lake Western (11-1) vs. Lowell (12-0) at Brighton

This is a rematch of a 2015 Semifinal won by Lowell 49-34 – and the Red Arrows also beat Western 42-35 in a 2011 Semifinal. The Warriors reaching their first MHSAA championship game since 1999 likely will rest in part on the arm of senior quarterback Johnny Tracy (2,050 yards/23 TDs passing) and senior receivers Kameron Ford (1,013 yards/12 TDs receiving) and Cody White (669 yards/9 TDs receiving, 443 yards/6 TDs rushing).  Lowell also follows a talented quarterback, junior David Kruse (1,573 yards/8 TDs passing, 1,438 yards/23 TDs rushing), and his leading running back, senior Nate Stephens (1,402 yards/21 TDs.). And trust the Red Arrows are extra motivated to get back to Ford Field after watching last season’s title slip away to Detroit Martin Luther King on the final play of the game.

Birmingham Groves (11-1) vs. Detroit Martin Luther King (10-2) at Dearborn

The reigning champion Crusaders have lost only to Division 1 semifinalist Detroit Cass Tech, twice, and are playing in their fourth Semifinal in six seasons. After the sudden death of coach Dale Harvel in July, King has rallied behind new coach Ty Spencer and followed sophomore quarterback Dequan Finn (1,986 yards/33 TDs passing) with major contributions by senior running back Kevin Willis (1,003 yards/13 TDs rushing) and senior receiver Ambry Thomas (766 yards/13 TDs receiving) among many others. After making its first Regional Final since 2004, Groves is playing in its first Semifinal ever. The Falcons have given up more than 15 points only once since opening night and 25 total over three playoff games while getting balanced offensive power from senior quarterback Beau Kewley (909 yards/12 TDs passing) and senior running back Ernest Allen (924 yards/11 TDs rushing). 

Division 3

Edwardsburg (12-0) vs. Muskegon (11-1) at East Kentwood

Edwardsburg will play its third Semifinal in seven seasons seeking its first championship game berth and coming off a two-point win over Chelsea, last season’s Division 3 runner-up. And this might be the most impressive team of the Eddies’ recent run. Edwardsburg gave up only 38 points over the first 10 weeks of the season before allowing 60 total over the last two; the Eddies also have run for 4,473 yards, led by juniors Nick Bradley (1,363 yards/18 TDs) and Kyle Shrider (843 yards/15 TDs). After making only the Regional Final last season, Muskegon is back in its fourth Semifinal over the last five years. The Big Reds already have set a program record with 634 points (52.8 per game) keyed by their dual quarterbacks – senior Kalil Pimpleton (714 yards/14 TDs passing, 1,314 yards/21 TDs rushing) and junior La’darius Jefferson (863 yards/9 TDs passing, 709 yards/15 TDs rushing).

Dearborn Divine Child (10-2) vs. Orchard Lake St. Mary’s (8-4) at West Bloomfield

This is the first meeting between these Detroit Catholic League contenders since 2008. The Falcons have built their strongest effort since 1985 with a six-game winning streak after suffering back-to-back losses in Weeks 5 and 6. Divine Child avenged one of those, to Division 7 semifinalist Detroit Loyola, in Week 9, and last week handed Allen Park its only loss of the season. Junior quarterback Theo Day has thrown for 1,508 yards and 21 touchdowns to lead the way. Reigning Division 3 champion St. Mary’s advanced to its seventh Semifinal in eight seasons with a comeback win at DeWitt last week. The Eaglets move the ball with junior running backs RaShawn Allen (1,833 yards/21 TDs rushing) and Ky’ren Cunningham (860 yards/13 TDs), who both average at least eight yards a carry.

Division 4

Hudsonville Unity Christian (10-2) vs. Grand Rapids Catholic Central (11-1) at Greenville

Unity Christian’s best season ever moves on to its first Semifinal, thanks to an overtime win over previously undefeated Benton Harbor last week. The Crusaders won’t be intimidated by the annually successful Cougars after navigating the Ottawa-Kent Conference Green, one of the most competitive leagues in the state this season. They cover a lot of ground with senior running back Parker Scholten (1,353 yards/14 TDs rushing) and senior quarterback Mitchell Dykstra (924/15). GRCC is making its first Semifinal appearance since winning Division 4 in 2010. But the Cougars have a chance to do some great things next year too with juniors the top playmakers this fall. Quarterback Jack Bowen has thrown for 2,329 yards and 24 touchdowns and running back Nolan Fugate is the leading rusher with 1,359 yards and 11 scores on the ground.

River Rouge (11-1) vs. Detroit Country Day (12-0) at Hazel Park

River Rouge just missed its first MHSAA championship a year ago, falling to Grand Rapids West Catholic by six in the Final, and hasn’t really been slowed this fall. The Panthers at one point shut out seven straight opponents and eight over nine games including the first of the playoffs, and they’ve gone over 600 points for the second season in a row led by senior quarterback Jairus Grissom (1,369 yards/18 TDs rushing, 1,967 yards/23 TDs passing). Country Day is playing its fourth Semifinal in five seasons seeking its first championship game berth since 2012. The Yellowjackets are incredibly balanced on offense, with a pair of quarterbacks (senior Steven Mann and sophomore Jalen Graham) both having success. But the defense stands out most; led by senior linebacker Kolin Demens, Country Day is giving up only 8.6 points per game and has allowed more than 14 only twice.  

Division 5 

Frankenmuth (11-1) vs. Menominee (11-1) at Northern Michigan’s Superior Dome

The Eagles have had only four sub-.500 finishes over the last 32 seasons, and 22 playoff appearances during that time. But they broke through again for their first Semifinal berth since 1997, handing Ithaca last week its first loss not in an MHSAA Final since 2008. Senior running back Kris Roche (1,005 yards/16 TDs rushing) and senior quarterback Jared Davis (922 yards/16 TDs rushing, 1,169 yards/11 TDs passing) give Frankenmuth multiple threats. As it has done for decades, Menominee is again trampling opponents, although lead back Keifer Rasner (1,372 yards/20 TDs rushing, 410 yards/3 TDs passing) was reportedly hurt two weeks ago and isn’t expected to play. Ethan Mileski (584 yards/5 TDs rushing, 1,066 yards/14 TDs passing) is another offensive standout to watch.

Algonac (11-1) vs. Grand Rapids West Catholic (10-2) at Battle Creek Harper Creek  

Algonac’s best two seasons in program history have been this one and last, and they’ve taken the next step with their first Semifinal appearance. Senior quarterback Brendan Piper is a two-way threat, throwing for 1,086 yards and 13 touchdowns this fall and running for a team-high 903 yards and 14 scores. Three-time reigning champion West Catholic has had to play three road games this playoff run, but outscored those opponents by a combined 78-20. Veteran duo David Fox and Gaetano Vallone are again big reasons why; the senior running back sometimes quarterback Fox had thrown for 1,286 yards and 17 touchdowns and run for 689 yards and eight scores, while junior quarterback Vallone has thrown for 889 yards and seven TDs.

Division 6

Leroy Pine River (9-2) vs. Maple City Glen Lake (10-2) at Traverse City Thirlby Field

Pine River’s first run to a Semifinal has included a ninth win for the second time ever and first time since 1999. Senior quarterback Mason Powell has had quite a final campaign, bringing the Bucks back from 4-5 last season by throwing for 1,047 yards and 15 touchdowns and running for 1,259 yards and 17 scores. The Lakers have had a little more recent success but still are making their first Semifinal appearance since 1996. Junior running back Nick Apsey carries a lot of the load offensively and has scored 22 times. But the defense also has been outstanding, giving up more than 14 points only twice and 112 points total this fall.

Jackson Lumen Christi (10-2) vs. Millington (11-1) at Lansing Catholic

Lumen Christi is back in the Semifinals for the first time since winning Division 5 in 2009; the Titans have won nine straight games to get here. Running back Bo Bell was the star in last week’s Regional Final win over Napoleon, and all season as well; he’s run for 2,200 yards and 29 touchdowns. Quarterback Troy Kutcha has added 1,313 yards and 10 scores through the air and run for six touchdowns. Millington is playing in its fifth Semifinal and seeking to reach the championship round for the first time. Junior quarterback Bryce Bearss (2,212 yards/25 TDs passing) and senior running back Brady Payne (1,196 yards/14 TDs rushing) give the Cardinals a strong 1-2 punch as well.

Division 7

Ubly (12-0) vs. Pewamo-Westphalia (12-0) at Mount Pleasant

Reigning Division 7 runner-up Pewamo-Westphalia will face its third straight undefeated opponent after handing first and only losses to Saugatuck and Traverse City St. Francis the last two weeks. Senior running back Jared Smith fell short of 100 yards rushing last week for the first time since his sophomore year, but continues to inch toward the MHSAA career rushing record and now has 2,403 yards and 36 touchdowns on the ground this season and more than 8,000 yards rushing for his career. Ubly also is a recent visitor to the Finals, its last trip coming in 2008. The Bearcats have controlled the ball with a rumbling ground game as well; senior Derek Brown has run for 1,226 yards and 19 touchdowns and senior Jonathan Brandel has gained 980 yards and 15 scores rushing.

Detroit Loyola (10-2) vs. Cassopolis (11-1) at Jackson

Loyola is another regular in this round, playing in its fifth straight Semifinal. The Bulldogs have beaten a league champion every week of the playoffs this time, and Cassopolis would be the fourth. Loyola averages 34 running plays per game and brings three 1,000-yard rushers – Malcolm Mayes (1,240 yards/14 TDs), D’Anthony Robinson (1,208 yards/18 TDs) and quarterback Price Watkins (1,010 yards/8 TDs rushing, 659 yards/7 TDs passing). Cassopolis is playing in his first Semifinal after setting a program record for wins last week. The Rangers roll with a loaded backfield; senior quarterback Shane Los has thrown for 1,320 yards and 17 touchdowns, while junior Brandon Anderson has run for 956 yards and 11 touchdowns and scored six more receiving. Sophomore Tyrese Hunt-Thompson has run for 811 yards and 10 scores and is the leading receiver with 533 yards and five TDs.

Division 8

Muskegon Catholic Central (12-0) vs. St. Ignace (11-1) at Petoskey

This is a rematch both of last season’s Semifinal (33-20 MCC win) and Week 2 of this fall (Crusaders 21-6), as St. Ignace gave MCC easily its closest game this season. The Crusaders have won three straight Division 8 titles and after facing mostly bigger schools during the regular season have given up only seven points over three playoff games. Senior LaTommy Scott (820 yards/8 TDs rushing) has starred for a few seasons and is one of five who have rushed for at least 370 yards. The Saints attack in multiple ways; senior running back Mitchell Peterson has run for 1,275 yards and senior quarterback Steve Seccia has thrown for 1,530 and 23 touchdowns.

Ottawa Lake Whiteford (12-0) vs. Saginaw Michigan Lutheran Seminary (10-2) at Dearborn Edsel Ford

Whiteford’s best two seasons also were the last two, with the Bobcats winning 10 games for the first time in 2015 and this their second straight Semifinal. Whiteford has set school records with 545 points, 222 first downs, 552 carries and 3,729 rushing yards this fall. Leading the way are running back Jessie Kiefer (1,057 yards, 27 touchdowns rushing, 287 yards/5 TDs receiving) and freshman Conner Hoogendoorn (811 yards/15 TDs). Michigan Lutheran Seminary is playing in its second Semifinal in three seasons to reach its first championship game since 1986. The Cardinals have given up only 13 points over three playoff games and force an average of two turnovers per game. Senior Casey Williams is the main scorer with 24 touchdowns, with 19 on the ground (and 1,226 yards).

Second Half’s weekly “Drive for Detroit” previews 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 Catholic Central's LaTommy Scott (20) breaks away for a touchdown against Frankfort in last week's 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.)