Driven by 2022 Semifinal Loss, GR Catholic Central Reclaims Top Spot in D5

By Tom Kendra
Special for

November 26, 2023

DETROIT – Corunna coach Steve Herrick’s final words at the postgame press conference pretty much summed up his team’s struggles in Sunday’s Division 5 title game.

“It’s tough to prepare for a team like Grand Rapids Catholic Central,” explained Herrick, whose school was playing at the Finals for the first time.

“We took care of preparing for their receivers and linemen pretty well, but No. 7 and No. 23 were hard for us to mimic at practice. We don’t have anyone like them.”

With that, Herrick and his players exited the interview area just as GRCC’s No. 7, senior quarterback Connor Wolf, and No. 23, senior running back Kellen Russell-Dixon, squeezed past them, the stars of the Cougars’ 21-7 victory.

Wolf scored all three touchdowns for GRCC, on a pair of 1-yard runs in the second quarter and a 10-yard burst in the fourth quarter, as the Cougars won their eighth Finals title in 10 championship game appearances.

Russell-Dixon didn’t get in the end zone, but was the game’s leading rusher with 20 carries for 133 yards, to go with two receptions for 19 yards.

Both senior leaders said it was a devastating loss to eventual champion Gladwin in last year’s Semifinal, 28-21, which fueled the team’s desire to get back to the mountaintop.

The Cavaliers’ Wyatt Bower (4) and Dayne Zeeman work to bring down GRCC’s Lucas Thelen short of the goal line. “That loss last year showed us we still had so much work to do to be our best,” said Wolf, who completed 10-of-22 passes for 82 yards and rushed 11 times for 78 yards and the three scores.

Added Russell-Dixon: “I remember watching the Division 5 championship game on TV last year, and just thinking about how we had it in our hands and we weren’t focused and we let it slip away.”

GRCC, which finished 13-1 after a season-opening home loss to powerhouse Chicago Loyola, was focused and prepared Sunday, mixing up the pass and run exquisitely to take a 14-0 halftime lead.

Corunna, also 13-1, averaged more than 41 points per game coming in, but struggled in the first half against the experienced Cougars.

“I felt like they were more physical than us,” said Corunna senior quarterback and defensive back Wyatt Bower. “I felt like all year we didn’t get the respect we deserved, but we battled those guys in the second half.”

The Cavaliers did exactly what they had to do coming out of halftime, taking the third-quarter kickoff and marching 67 yards in 14 plays, capped with a 7-yard burst up the middle by Bower on a 4th-and-goal play, that cut the lead to 14-7.

That score brought a sizable group of black-and-gold clad fans from Corunna, a community of about 4,000 people between Lansing and Flint, to its feet.

However, that turned out to be as close as Corunna would get against a quick and hard-hitting GRCC defense.

The Cougars added an insurance touchdown in the fourth quarter after a short punt gave them the ball at Corunna’s 35-yard line. Eight plays later (six of those runs by Russell-Dixon), Wolf took it the final 10 yards to ice the win.

“It never gets old,” explained 12th-year GRCC coach Todd Kolster, who has guided the Cougars to titles in four of the past five years and six of the last eight. “One of the things I cherish the most from the Finals is the team photo we take down on the field. I never get in those photos. Then when I get a moment, I can look at all those kids who worked so hard and gave so much.”

Brayden Sweeney (6) and Derek Weiss (30) wrap up Corunna’s Parker Isham.GRCC, which held a 315-239 edge in total yardage, made Corunna work for every yard Sunday.

Senior linebacker Austin Baxter (6-foot, 185 pounds) set the tone for the Cougars’ defense with eight tackles. Adam Whalen and Derek Weiss made six tackles apiece, and Mill Coleman III added five tackles and the game-clinching interception in the end zone with five minutes remaining.

Wolf said family ties drive the Cougars’ year-in, year-out success – the connections to both his football brothers and his actual biological family.

“My dad, grandparents, uncles, they all went to Catholic Central,” said Wolf, a 6-3 dual threat QB who passed for more than 2,500 yards with 23 TD passes and only two interceptions. “This means a lot to all of us, to continue the Cougar tradition.”

Corunna, which was led all season by Wyatt Bower and his identical twin brother, Tarick (one of his favorite receiving targets), got a strong final game from senior fullback/linebacker Jaden Edington, who made a game-high 10 tackles and rushed 14 times for 70 yards.

The Bower twins, sprinters who helped Corunna win the Lower Peninsula Division 2 Track & Field championship last spring, finished their football careers in style. Wyatt completed 6-of-16 passes for 123 yards, no touchdowns and one interception, while making eight tackles on defense. Tarick made two catches for 69 yards.

Kaden Cowdrey and Dayne Zeeman each made eight tackles for the Cavaliers.

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS (Top) Grand Rapids Catholic Central’s Kellen Russell-Dixon (23) prepares for contact with Corunna’s Kaden Cowdrey (8) during Sunday’s Division 5 Final. (Middle) The Cavaliers’ Wyatt Bower (4) and Dayne Zeeman work to bring down GRCC’s Lucas Thelen short of the goal line. (Below) Brayden Sweeney (6) and Derek Weiss (30) wrap up Corunna’s Parker Isham. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)

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.)