A Game for Every Fan: 11-Player Semis

November 20, 2015

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

Rain, sleet, or a few inches inches of snow, we expect to know our 16 11-player football finalists by the end of Saturday afternoon. 

But even fans of the college football games being played this weekend should make sure to have MHSAA.tv and FoxSportsDetroit.com playing on their computers, tablets or smartphones, as the 16 MHSAA Semifinals should produce at least a few classics. 

See below for a brief breakdown of all 16 games, and watch all 16 live by clicking the links above beginning at 1 p.m. 

Division 1

Romeo (11-1) vs. Grand Ledge (12-0) at Brighton

The Comets are attempting to make their first MHSAA Final since winning Division 1 in 2000 and after scoring 33 unanswered fourth-quarter points last week to beat Rockford. Grand Ledge has nearly 3,800 yards of offense this fall, with senior running backs Ba Blamo (993 yards/18 touchdowns rushing) and Caden Evert (543/15) carrying much of the load but sophomore quarterback Nolan Bird (1,445 yards/15 TDs passing) also progressing quickly. This is Romeo’s first Semifinal since 1992, and has come after advancing through arguably the toughest road in the tournament – reigning champion Clarkston, undefeated Lapeer and Detroit Catholic Central. Senior quarterback Paul Hurley completed more than two-thirds of his passes for 953 yards and 18 touchdowns through the regular season, and senior Bradley Tanner had scored 19 touchdowns through nine games.

Detroit Cass Tech (10-2) vs. Canton (10-2) at Troy Athens

Playing its sixth straight Semifinal, Cass Tech is looking to get back to the Division 1 championship game for the first time since 2012. The Technicians’ only losses were to Division 2 contender Detroit Martin Luther King – although this game certainly will be a test with play-making quarterback Rodney Hall reportedly out Saturday with an ankle injury. Canton might be a surprise to make it this far, but left no doubt in downing undefeated and 2014 runner-up Saline 27-7 in the Regional Final. The Chiefs have reached this round for the first time since 2006 after rebounding from a pair of consecutive losses midseason and on a rushing attack that has gained 4,388 yards – including 2,184 with 27 touchdowns by junior Markus Sanders.

Division 2

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

These two met in one of the most exciting games of opening weekend, with Walled Lake Western coming away with a 42-40 victory. The Warriors are trying to reach their first MHSAA Final since 1999 and will follow senior quarterback Kyle Thomas, who has thrown for 2,154 yards and 24 touchdowns and run for 743 yards and 10 scores. Lowell hasn’t lost again, instead rolling up more than 5,500 yards in total offense with no other opponent coming within 14 points. The Red Arrows too are led by a dynamic dual-threat quarterback; senior Ryan Stevens has thrown for 2,230 yards and 28 TDs and run for 872 yards and 13 scores.

Detroit Martin Luther King (12-0) vs. Livonia Franklin (9-3) at Dearborn

King is playing in its third MHSAA Semifinal in five seasons, but looking to return to Finals weekend for the first time since the perfect run in 2007. The Crusaders are loaded with offensive standouts who have drawn statewide attention all season – notably, senior running back Martell Pettaway (1,180 yards/14 touchdowns rushing through nine games), senior quarterback Armani Posey (1,319 yards/12 TDs passing) and senior receiver Donnie Corley (858 yards/9 TDs receiving). Franklin was on no one’s Semifinal radar after a 2-3 start, but has won seven straight to make its first Semifinal since winning the first Class A title in 1975. Senior quarterback Denzel Adams (1,623 yards/23 touchdowns) and junior running back Jacob Clark (1,446 yards/15 TDs) have combined for more than 3,000 of the team’s 4,545 yards on the ground, and Adams also has thrown for 1,029 yards and 13 scores.

Division 3

Orchard Lake St. Mary’s (10-1) vs. East Grand Rapids (9-3) at Howell

Reigning champion St. Mary’s is playing to make its fifth MHSAA Final in six seasons and has outscored its first three playoff opponents by a combined 160-35. Running back Justin Myrick (1,049 yards/13 touchdowns rushing) and quarterback Brendan Tabone (1,020 yards/5 TDs passing) have led the way for the second straight season. East Grand Rapids hasn’t played a game of this magnitude since ending a string of six straight Semifinals in 2011. The Pioneers haven’t given up a point in two weeks and only 14 over the last month, and on offense ride the legs of senior running Bryce Henkey (1,152 yards/20 touchdowns rushing through the District Final).

Chelsea (11-1) vs. Coldwater (12-0) at Jackson

This will be the first Semifinal for an otherwise annually successful Chelsea program. The Bulldogs can make their first championship game and break the team record for wins with one more. They had a string of five straight shutouts during the first half of this season and have given up only 34 points total during the playoffs. Junior quarterback Jack Bush has thrown for 1,603 yards and 14 touchdowns and run for eight more scores. Coldwater also is playing in its first Semifinal – it made the playoffs for the first time only two seasons ago – and hasn’t let an opponent within 14 points since Week 2. The Cardinals have thrown for only 250 yards – because they’ve run for 4,261, with junior Sam DeMeester (1,154 yards/14 TDs), senior Spencer Burns (1,120 yards/17 TDs) and senior Luke Beckhusen (1,107 yards/12 TDs) all crossing the 1,000-yard rushing milestone.

Division 4

Zeeland West (12-0) vs. Ada Forest Hills Eastern (11-1) at East Kentwood

West has won 36 of its last 37 games, with that lone defeat in a Semifinal a year ago. The secret to the Dux’ success hasn’t been a surprise for a while; they run, run and run some more. Senior fullback Darius Perisee leads the rush this time with 1,796 yards and 28 touchdowns. Forest Hills Eastern is a field goal from perfection during its most successful season, which will now include its first Semifinal. The Hawks take a more balanced approach on offense, led by senior quarterback Jack Clark (1,932 yards/22 touchdowns passing, 752 yards/19 touchdowns rushing).

Detroit Country Day (11-1) vs. Flint Powers Catholic (10-2) at West Bloomfield

Country Day is playing in its third Semifinal in four seasons and seeking to return to Ford Field for the first time since 2012. The Yellowjackets’ only loss was Week 2 to Detroit U-D Jesuit; they’ve given up only 45 points total over the last 10 weeks and 75 for the season. Junior quarterback Steve Mann is the player to watch on offense, with 1,369 yards and 18 touchdowns through the air and six more scores on the ground. Powers is trying to get back to Ford Field for the first time since 2011 led by a similarly stellar defense giving up only nine points per game. Like that championship team, the Chargers are keyed on offense by a dangerous dual threat quarterback in senior Noah Sargent, who has run for 941 yards and 14 touchdowns and thrown for 1,466 yards and 17 scores.

Division 5

Lansing Catholic (11-1) vs. Grand Rapids West Catholic (10-2) at Greenville

This is a rematch of last season’s MHSAA Division 5 Final, a 24-20 West Catholic win. The Falcons have played in four of the last five championship games and five straight Semifinals. This year’s leaders have different names, but similar impact. Senior Denny Alt has run for 1,291 yards and 17 touchdowns, and sophomore Gaetano Vallone stepped in at quarterback and has thrown for 2,347 yards and 26 scores while running for 738 yards and 10 TDs. A return to Ford Field would be Lansing Catholic’s third in five seasons, and senior quarterback Tony Poljan would love another chance to lead his team to the school’s first title since 1985; he’s thrown for 1,746 yards and 14 touchdowns and run for 1,156 yards and 24 scores.

River Rouge (11-1) vs. Ida (12-0) at Novi

River Rouge will play in its first Semifinal, the next step of a successful run of six straight playoff appearances. The Panthers are four points from perfection this fall and have tied a team record for wins led by a pair of 1,000-yard rushers including senior quarterback Antoine Burgess (1,040 yards/11 touchdowns rushing, 1,270 yards/24 TDs passing). Ida also will play in its first Semifinal after winning 10 of 12 games by at least 10 points. The Bluestreaks have thrown only 36 passes because they’ve run for 4,247 yards. Senior Eric Bugg has 1,865 yards and 32 touchdowns on the ground, and junior Nick Levicki has totaled 1,328 yards and 17 scores.

Division 6

Ithaca (12-0) vs. Traverse City St. Francis (12-0) at Clare

The senior-laden Yellowjackets have been playing all season for an opportunity to return to Ford Field after watching their 69-game winning streak come to an end in last season’s Final. Ithaca’s roster is loaded with players who have started at least two seasons including senior quarterback Jake Smith, who has run for 1,485 yards and 29 touchdowns and thrown for 1,162 yards and 22 scores. St. Francis is back in the Semifinals for the first time since 2009. The Gladiators have given up only 75 points against a strong schedule, a solid complement to an offense that’s run for 3753 yards and 61 touchdowns led by senior Joe Trucco (1,207 yards).

Clinton (12-0) vs. Grand Rapids NorthPointe Christian (12-0) at Battle Creek Harper Creek

Clinton’s lineup of defeated playoff opponents rivals Romeo’s in Division 1 – reigning champion Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central, plus Madison Heights Madison and Jackson Lumen Christi. The Redskins are looking to reach Ford Field for the second time in three seasons. Senior running back/linebacker Mathew Sexton has run for 2,065 yards and 33 touchdowns and also scored twice each on kickoff and punt returns. NorthPointe Christian has made its second straight Semifinal after surviving two straight games decided by three points or fewer. The Mustangs will attempt to lock down Clinton like it did their opponents Weeks 2-9, when they didn’t give up more than eight points in a game.

Division 7

New Lothrop (12-0) vs. Ishpeming (11-0) at Northern Michigan University

Ishpeming is trying to add to its streak of three straight MHSAA Finals appearances, while New Lothrop is trying to get back for the first time since 2006 after one of the most impressive regular-season runs in MHSAA history. The Hornets haven’t lost a regular-season game since 2009, but also haven’t made it past the Semifinals during that run. Junior quarterback Erik Birchmeier leads the way with 1,330 yards and 24 touchdowns rushing and 905 yards and 12 touchdowns passing. Ishpeming fell in last season’s Final after two straight wins in 2012 and 2013, but senior quarterback Ozzy Corp is back for another try and has thrown for 1,047 yards and seven scores while also leading the team in rushing with 644 yards and seven scores. The defense has been arguably the most impressive of the tean's recent run, giving up only 85 points in 11 games.

Detroit Loyola (10-2) vs. Pewamo-Westphalia (12-0) at Fenton

Loyola is playing to make its fourth straight MHSAA Final as well, and also with a different cast than in past seasons. The Bulldogs have thrown only 75 passes this season because they’ve run for 3,870 yards; three players could end up over 1,000 yards rushing, although leading rusher and freshman fullback D’Anthony Robinson was injured Week 9 and isn’t expected to return Saturday. Senior quarterback Blaine Woodland has run for 891 yards and 19 touchdowns and averages 13.9 yards per carry. Pewamo-Westphalia’s famed rushing attack will face its toughest test as it runs to return to Ford Field for the first time since 2011. Junior Jared Smith broke the MHSAA single-season rushing touchdown record last week and now has 50 this fall, and with 2,908 yards needs only 55 more to break the single-season rushing record.

Division 8

Muskegon Catholic Central (9-2) vs. St. Ignace (11-1) at Traverse City’s Thirlby Field

MCC’s two-season title streak looked to be over after graduating a number of significant contributors in the spring. Instead, the Crusaders will play in their fourth straight Semifinal. Junior LaTommy Scott is the program’s next great running back; he’s gained 1,089 yards and 16 touchdowns. St. Ignace is playing in its third Semifinal in five seasons hoping to make its first championship game since 1985. The Saints have gained nearly 4,700 yards keyed by senior quarterback Gage Kreski. He’s run for 851 yards and 13 touchdowns and thrown for 1,235 and 16.

Ottawa Lake Whiteford (10-2) vs. Waterford Our Lady (12-0) at Hazel Park

Whiteford has reached 10 wins and a Semifinal for the first time by avenging a regular-season loss, then beating a second rival from its conference, and then downing undefeated Climax-Scotts. A cast of running backs has contributed to more than 3,000 yards rushing, while sophomore quarterback Thomas Eitniear has thrown for 1,030 yards and 14 scores. Our Lady has returned to the form of its successful past with its first Semifinal berth since 2006. Seniors Clay and Devin Senerius are a dynamite receiving combo; Clay has thrown for 2,688 yards and 32 scores, and Devin has caught 61 passes for 1,213 yards and 11 scores. 

PHOTO: Walled Lake Western quarterback Kyle Thomas (5) runs toward the end zone during last week's Regional Final win over Midland Dow. (Click for more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)

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.)