Finals Four: Ithaca Adds to Title Streak

November 29, 2013

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

DETROIT – As the final seconds ticked down in Friday’s Division 6 Final, Ithaca’s players predictably began throwing four fingers into the air – signifying their fourth straight MHSAA title.

But the Yellowjackets could’ve chosen instead to press a thumb and fingertip together and form a zero – as in how many times they’ve lost during this greatest run in state football history.

Ithaca re-claimed a tie with Iowa City Regina (Iowa) for the nation’s longest active winning streak of 56 straight by climbing back from an early deficit to beat Clinton 41-22 at Ford Field.

The Yellowjackets’ run of perfection also is the longest in MHSAA history to occur entirely during the playoff era. Only Hudson, with 72 straight wins between 1968-75, put together a longer streak – and the Tigers’ included only one playoff win before they fell in the first-ever MHSAA Class C Final.

Also, only two teams have won more consecutive titles than Ithaca; East Grand Rapids and Farmington Hills Harrison achieved five straight apiece.

“We have a huge target on our back, and we all know that. As a team, we handle it pretty well,” said Ithaca senior quarterback Travis Smith, who finished his career 41-0 as a starter and as the only player who dressed for all four Finals wins. 

“We left the whole winning streak for our community to play with. We don’t really think about it too much. We just focus on the task at hand, which is what our coaching staff says all the time. And I’m just so proud of my team and my friends.”

Despite the convincing final score, Ithaca did trail Clinton into the third quarter. Amazingly, the Yellowjackets trailed in all of the final four playoff games this fall. 

Coach Terry Hessbrook, in his 10th season running the program and a former Ithaca standout himself, called three of the running backs his team faced during the run – Maple City Glen Lake’s Trevor Apsey, Negaunee’s Tyler LaJoie and Clinton junior Collin Poore – among the best Ithaca has ever faced. Then there was the more sizable Montrose, which provided the season’s greatest scare before falling to the Yellowjackets by a point in the Semifinal.

“We’ve been behind four playoff weeks in a row. It just does not seem to faze them,” Hessbrook said of his players. “With the big heavy weight, burden, on their shoulders and the bulls eye and the winning streak and all that kind of stuff, I’ve got to believe that a lot of high school kids would crumble under that kind of pressure. 

“These guys are going to go on to do amazing things in life because they’re special people.”

But it was Clinton (13-1) that appeared early to be special enough to end Ithaca’s streak. The Redskins capped their best season ever by making their first MHSAA Final. 

“I came last year to watch Ithaca play. Just coming to play the game is totally different,” Clinton senior quarterback T.J. Baker said. “I knew I was nervous right when I stepped on the first. It was just crazy to play in this game. But at the same time, it was fun. Our community has never been here before, and it was just a fun game to play in.”

After Ithaca jumped to a 14-0 lead, Clinton bounced back with a Poore 18-yard touchdown run and an 86-yard punt return score by sophomore Mathew Sexton. 

That seemed to nudge Ithaca’s offense – which finished this season with 710 points, third most in MHSAA history. Smith threw the second of his four touchdown passes to give Ithaca back the lead heading into halftime, and followed another Poore score at the start of the third quarter with two more scoring passes and a scoring run.

Smith also returned an interception 30 yards for a touchdown during the first quarter, giving him a hand in all six Ithaca scores. He finished his high school career with an MHSAA record 104 touchdown passes, and in this game 123 yards rushing and 247 passing. 

“He lived up to his billing,” Clinton coach Scott McNitt said. “We did the best we could against him. And for two and a half quarters, we felt we were right there. And then it just got away from us a bit, and the momentum changed.

“I couldn’t be more proud of a group of young men who overcame a lot of adversity. To make it to the state finals, it’s unheard of where we come from.” 

Hessbrook said everything he feared about Clinton seemed to go wrong for his team during the first half. Poore finished with 125 yards rushing and the team as a whole had 254, taking advantage of its perimeter speed to get around the corner on pitch sweeps and other similar runs for 208 of those yards during the first half.

But the Yellowjackets made the necessary adjustments during the third quarter, taking away that edge while bringing more pressure – Ithaca finished with 13 tackles for losses including seven sacks.

Senior Josh Hafner caught two of the scoring passes from Smith, and senior Eli Villalobos had six catches for 82 yards and a score. Senior Logan Hessbrook also had six catches, for 93 yards and a score, to follow last season’s performance when he stepped in for an injured Smith at quarterback and led the team to the title. 

“You’re playing with your best friends you’ve grown up with your whole life. It’s the best group of friends I’ve ever had and could ask for,” said Hessbrook, who also is the coach’s nephew. “And the coaching staff and the community, it’s amazing. 

“Ithaca’s a special place. Coach says that; everyone says that. And when I get out of college, I’m going to try to come right back to Ithaca, because it’s amazing to live there.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Ithaca senior Josh Hafner (14) leaps over two Clinton defenders on the way to one of his two touchdowns. (Middle) Ithaca quarterback Travis Smith holds tight to the ball after a big hit from Clinton’s Mathew Sexton. (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.)