FHC Caps Ford Field Return by Sending Out Coach, Seniors with 1st Finals Win

By Paul Costanzo
Special for MHSAA.com

November 26, 2023

DETROIT – Ty Hudkins and his Forest Hills Central teammates were not going to be denied Sunday in the Division 3 Football Final.

Not even if it meant – in Hudkins’ case – having to drag a Mason defender 20 yards for a touchdown.

Not after coming up one win short of bringing their program its first Finals title a year ago.

And certainly not in the final game of their coach Tim Rogers’ career. 

So Hudkins dragged that defender, the Rangers got that last win, and they sent Rogers out a winner, defeating Mason 27-10 at Ford Field.

“We’ve been talking about this since sixth grade,” Hudkins said, before pointing to his teammates assembled at the press conference. “We’ve been playing for each other since we can remember. All our dads have been the coaches – coach’s kid, coach’s kid, coach’s kid, coach’s kid – it’s just been a real blessing. (Rogers) has been around with us the entire time, as well. It’s just a great way to end. We’ve been talking about it since sixth grade, and the fact that it finally came true is just crazy. It’s a blessing.”

Forest Hills Central had lost to Warren De La Salle Collegiate in the Division 2 Final a year ago. After that game, Rogers told the assembled media that the Rangers would be back, and he was proven correct.

This year, he made another major statement following the game, when he announced that he had just coached his final game at Forest Hills Central, calling it the “worst-kept secret in the state.”

Ty Hudkins (5) hauls in a catch down the sideline for the Rangers. “It’s tough,” Rogers said before taking a moment to collect himself. “Their fathers are dear friends, my assistant coaches. There’s been plenty of inquiries if I was stepping down this year, and the last thing I wanted to be was a distraction to our team. So, do what we always do, put our head down and grind. I feel great. I watched these kids grow up. I think I’m leaving it better than I found it. These assistant coaches I have are fantastic – great fathers, great people, great husbands. So, it was great in our final game to do that. Send them off the way they deserve to be sent off. This community has waited a long time for something like this, and they’re fantastic. The student body was fantastic, our administration was very supportive. Storybook ending for my career to finish with these guys and do what we just did today.”

The Rangers (13-1) did it with defense, holding Mason to 36 yards rushing and 4.3 yards per play. They also forced three turnovers, including a pick-six from linebacker Drew Fortino with 7 minutes, 13 seconds to play, which made the score 27-10 and essentially put the game away.

“I saw the guy across the field, and I saw him coming across, and I kind of just stuck my hand out and was like, ‘Shoot, I got the ball,’” Fortino said. “The whole team blocked really well, and I was able to get into the end zone and they were all in there celebrating with me.”

Mason coach Gary Houghton called the Rangers’ front seven the fastest his team had seen this season, including that of Detroit Martin Luther King, who the Bulldogs played in the Semifinal. As the Bulldogs struggled to find room to run – both with and without star running back AJ Martell, who had eight carries for 14 yards before leaving the game with an injury – that became more and more apparent. But Rogers said it went beyond his team’s athleticism.

“They’re talented for sure,” Rogers said. “But they’re smart. They do so much. The offense gets so much credit for checks at the line of scrimmage and all the things they do. We do that all the time on defense. If you watch me and you knew our signals, half the time you’d just think I was calling base. But these guys check everything at the line of scrimmage. It’s a testament to their football IQ, how they get us in the right play all the time on defense, and just a relentless pursuit of the football.”

JT Hartman led the defense with an interception, a sack, two tackles for loss and eight total tackles. Brady Drueke had a team-high 12 tackles, Fortino added a sack and Hudkins had a diving interception.

The defensive performance was a far cry from a year ago, when the Rangers allowed 52 points in the loss to De La Salle.

“We knew we had to be better, just this offseason, so we worked extra hard in the weight room,” Hartman said. “I think all the extra work made us better players and better people. That translated out on the field.”

Jacob Harleton (22) breaks up a Mason pass at the goal line.While the Mason defense had a fine day itself, holding the Rangers to fewer than 300 yards of total offense and 5.5 yards per play, Central was able to break the game open in the second half thanks to a max-effort play from Hudkins. The Purdue commit hauled in a pass from quarterback Mason McDonald at the 28-yard line and was latched onto at the 20 by a Mason defender. Hudkins stayed on his feet, however, and powered his way into the end zone, diving for the pylon and giving his team a 20-3 lead.

“Just a touchdown in and of itself is a big deal, but to see the will – he was not going to be denied,” Rogers said. “With that, you could literally see the whole sideline just start to elevate. Ty was going to put us on his back literally and figuratively, and he wasn’t going to be denied.”

Hudkins finished the game with 115 yards on six receptions. McDonald led the Forest Hills rushing attack with 74 yards on 21 carries, while Hartman had 68 yards and a touchdown on the ground. Kicker Alex Moeller had a pair of field goals (35 and 27 yards).

For Mason (13-1), it was the end of its own storybook season, even if it didn’t come with the ultimate happy ending. The Bulldogs were playing in their first Final after knocking off King, the team that had ended their previous two seasons in Semifinals.

They had served as a rallying point for a community in mourning following the passing of classmates Lillian Klages and Amanda Blue, who died in an August car crash. 

Mason players ran onto the field led by players carrying flags bearing their names.

“We gave it our best shot,” Mason senior receiver Kaleb Parrish said. “It wasn’t the outcome that we wanted, but we tried for the community. We knew this game was bigger than just a football game. At the end of the day, we all tried. When I looked up in the beginning, it was great to see all of the community that showed up. It was thousands – probably most of our community showed up.”

Parrish had a big day receiving in his final game at Mason, hauling in eight catches for 102 yards. Derek Badgley, who scored the Bulldogs’ lone touchdown on a 2-yard run late in the third quarter, added 71 yards on eight catches. Quarterback Cason Carswell was 22 of 40 passing for 229 yards. Kicker Collin Winters connected on a 26-yard field goal during the first quarter.

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS (Top) Forest Hills Central coach Tim Rogers holds up his program’s first championship trophy Sunday at Ford Field. (Middle) Ty Hudkins (5) hauls in a catch down the sideline for the Rangers. (Below) Jacob Harleton (22) breaks up a Mason pass at the goal line. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)

Constantine Football All-Stater, Wrestling Champ Aiming for Grand Finale

By Scott Hassinger
Special for MHSAA.com

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.)