Eriksen, Clarkston Finish 'Dream' Run

November 30, 2013

By Bill Khan
Special to Second Half

DETROIT — Ian Eriksen's senior season was slipping away.

And so was his lifelong dream.

Eriksen and his football-playing buddies in Clarkston talked about earning an MHSAA championship back when they were in elementary school and winning the Super Bowl of the Northern Youth Football League in Oakland County.

But after rushing for 2,167 yards and 33 touchdowns as a junior, Eriksen came into his senior year with Achilles and ankle injuries, then underwent arthroscopic surgery for a partially torn meniscus in his right knee on Sept. 19.

Four Friday nights passed with Eriksen in street clothes, unsure of when — or if — he'd ever rejoin his teammates in pursuit of their shared dream.

"That was really tough, because I've never been injured that seriously," Eriksen said. "It could've been a lot worse. I tried to be positive. All you can do is be positive rather than mope over it."

One positive out of the situation may be that Eriksen was fresh enough by the end of the playoffs to take on a heavy workload and help carry the Wolves to their first MHSAA football title.

Eriksen ran 32 times for 237 yards and three touchdowns in Clarkston's 32-14 victory over perennial power Detroit Catholic Central in the MHSAA Division 1 championship game Saturday at Ford Field.

He also had a 30-yard catch to extend Clarkston's first touchdown drive, and a sack. In Clarkston's last two games, Eriksen ran 76 times for 592 yards and nine touchdowns.

"He gave us a lot of problems," said veteran Catholic Central coach Tom Mach, who has built a dynasty with the power-running game. "He was a very good running back. He would be a good running back in our program. We would've loved to have him. We had a lot of trouble tackling him. He got the extra yard and put in the extra effort.

“They kept the ball away from us, getting those first downs, getting those first downs, getting those first downs. That's frustrating on a team, especially when you do get the ball when you're a ball-control offense like us."

Bringing Clarkston its first MHSAA championship was the fulfillment of a dream for Eriksen and his teammates after the program reached three Semifinals and made the postseason 16 times under 27-year coach Kurt Richardson.

"In Little League, there's a Super Bowl," Eriksen said. "We won the Super Bowl together in 2006 when we were in fourth and fifth grade. The next thing we started talking about was winning a high school championship if we could do it. We knew we could."

Eriksen and some of the players who delivered that championship were in the stands at Troy Athens four years ago when Clarkston lost by two points in a Semifinal to Sterling Heights Stevenson.

"I remember when that happened," Eriksen said. "Everyone in the community was just so upset about that. Me and the other guys were like, 'That's not going to happen to us when we get there.'" 

Clarkston made Catholic Central settle for a third straight runner-up finish by stealing a page from the Shamrocks' script.

Led by Eriksen and an outstanding offensive line, the Wolves ground out 288 yards on 45 carries. They had a 27:58 to 20:02 advantage in time of possession. 

"The offensive line doesn't get enough credit," Richardson said. "They deserve it for this one."

After a punt and interception ended Clarkston's first two drives, the Wolves scored touchdowns on their next five possessions. 

Both teams had promising drives end with interceptions deep in the opponent's territory before Clarkston broke through for the game's first score with 13 seconds left in the first half.

Converting three times on third down and once on fourth, Clarkston moved 91 yards in 17 plays, taking 6:36 off the clock, before D.J. Zezula hit Shane Holler with a 15-yard touchdown pass on a post route. The extra point failed. 

The key play on the drive was a 30-yard pass to Eriksen on third-and-12 from Clarkston's 15-yard line.

"We knew we had to score, because we got the ball to start the second half," Zezula said. "It was 0-0 and we knew we had to get up on CC. They brought in an extra (defensive back). The play-action with Ian helps me out a lot with time and the O-line helps me a lot with time. We knew the play-action would work." 

Catholic Central's best drive of the first half came following the opening kickoff. The Shamrocks marched to the Clarkston 24 before Tim Cason intercepted a pass, only the second pick thrown by Catholic Central all season.

Jack Van Acker made two big plays to keep Clarkston out of the end zone on the Wolves' second possession. First, he made a touchdown-saving tackle on a 35-yard run by Eriksen to the Shamrocks' 10-yard line. Then, two plays later, he picked off a pass in the end zone after Clarkston moved to the 6. 

A 63-yard punt by Zach Bock pinned Clarkston at its own 9-yard line with 6:49 left in the second quarter before the Wolves drove for the only touchdown of the first half. Clarkston's average starting field position on three first-half possessions was its own 10.

Armed with a lead and momentum, Clarkston took the opening kickoff of the second half and marched 80 yards in eight plays, taking a 12-0 lead on a 37-yard run by Eriksen with 8:18 left in the third quarter. 

The lead reached 18-0 on a 1-yard run by Eriksen with 3:59 left in the third.

Catholic Central got on the board when Dylan Roney scored on a 2-yard run with 45 seconds left in the third quarter, cutting Clarkston's lead to 18-7. 

The Wolves responded with a seven-play, 71-yard drive that ended on a 47-yard pass from Zezula to Caine Watlington with 8:35 left in the game.

The Shamrocks scored again on a 48-yard pass from Sean Birney to Alexander Bock with 5:46 left, but Clarkston again had an answer, with Eriksen scoring on a 12-yard run to cap the scoring with 4:06 left.

Zezula was 10 for 15 for 154 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Birney was 13 for 23 for 166 yards, one touchdown and one interception. 

Clarkston won its final 13 games after a season-opening loss to Rochester Adams, a loss the Wolves avenged in the playoffs.

"A lot of these kids have been playing together since fifth grade," Richardson said. "They've played Chiefs together, so they've come up through the junior ranks. We all felt this could be a special season. We had some issues at the start. We talked to the kids at the time about turning a negative into a positive. You're going to get slapped in the face in life. We got slapped in the face in the first game. They learned from it. It was a huge coming-together point for us as a team." 

Catholic Central (11-3) became the third team to finish runner-up three straight years. Utica Eisenhower was the Division 1 runner-up from 1999-2001 and Crystal Falls Forest Park was the Division 8 runner-up from 2004-06.

The Shamrocks' 2012 runner-up team was led defensively by sophomore middle linebacker David Widzinski, who had a game-high 15 tackles. Less than two weeks later, he died in his sleep. 

Tributes to Widzinski were visible at Ford Field. Catholic Central's uniforms had a patch with his No. 33 inside a shamrock. In the student section, some students wore white and formed a 33 within a field of blue shirts worn by the others. Widzinski's jersey hung on the wall on the Catholic Central sideline.

"We brought up David a lot," Mach said. "He was a force behind our team all year long. Every day after practice, we would say a prayer for him and the people in our community who are suffering. It was a real learning experience for our kids to put something bigger than themselves in place of winning and losing." 

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Clarkston players trade high fives with fans as they march off the Ford Field turf with their first MHSAA championship trophy. (Middle) Clarkston running back Ian Eriksen runs through the reaching arms of Detroit Catholic Central defenders Saturday. (Click to see more from Terry McNamara Photography.) 

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.)