A Game for Every Fan: District Finals

November 6, 2014

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

One week of MHSAA football playoffs is behind us, and all nine champions from 2013 are still alive.

Maybe that's not too shocking, considering they were the elite only a short year ago. But don't be too surprised if that number is cut down by at least a few when Saturday night is done. 

All nine of those reigning champions remain undefeated heading into Friday and Saturday's District Finals. But three are playing opponents also undefeated through 10 weeks. 

All three matchups are among those highlighted below as we look to this week's 11-player District Finals and 8-player Regional Finals. All are Friday unless noted.


Lapeer (10-0) at Clarkston (10-0)

The Wolves have fended off a few impressive challenges in building their winning streak to 23 straight including last season's run to their first MHSAA title. Quarterback D.J. Zezula has taken on and thrived in a starring role as Clarkston has earned close wins over Macomb Dakota and Farmington Hills Harrison and double-digit victories over everyone else. But Lapeer is as daunting an unknown as they come in this tournament; the Lightning, in its first season after the combination of Lapeer East and West, also has been challenged only twice but hung tough in its playoff debut last week with a 23-15 win over Romeo.

Others that caught my eye: Hudsonville (6-4) at Rockford (8-2), Detroit Cass Tech (10-0) at Dearborn Fordson (10-0).


Muskegon Mona Shores (9-1) at Midland Dow (10-0)

On a night featuring a decent share of 10-0 vs. 10-0 District Finals, this still is among premier games. Dow must defend Midland Community Stadium against the playmaking power of Mona Shores quarterback Tyree Jackson, who has led his offense to 42 or more points five weeks running while facing the likes of Muskegon and Caledonia among others. The Chargers could be up to the task, having given up no more than 21 points in a game this fall in earning this opportunity to tie its record for wins.

Others that caught my eye: Farmington Hills Harrison (8-2) at Walled Lake Western (9-1), Southfield (7-3) at Oak Park (8-2).


Stevensville Lakeshore (8-2) at Zeeland West (10-0)

Aside from an odd opening-night score (2-0 over Battle Creek Central), Lakeshore has rather quietly won eight games for the third straight season. But the Lancers could make a major splash by knocking off the reigning MHSAA champion. If the score stays close, it could up Lakeshore's chances significantly; the Lancers are 5-1 this fall in games decided by 10 or fewer points. West has had only one opponent get closer than 27 points, and none come within 10.

Others that caught my eye: Cedar Springs (9-1) at Muskegon (9-1) on Saturday, Grand Rapids Christian (6-4) at Lowell (9-1).


Saginaw Swan Valley (10-0) at Lansing Sexton (10-0)

This could be THE game of this weekend, with the winner a favorite to at least reach Ford Field – if not win it all. These two also met in a Regional Final last fall, with Sexton winning 26-21. Vikings running back Alex Grace has at least 212 yards and two rushing touchdowns in eight straight games and is up to third on the MHSAA career rushing yards list with 7,353. He had 242 yards and two touchdowns in the 2013 loss to the Big Reds, who again are sound defensively and capable on offense of holding onto the ball as well.  

Others that caught my eye: Vicksburg (8-2) at Edwardsburg (9-1), Hudsonville Unity Christian (6-4) at Grand Rapids South Christian (8-2).


Almont (10-0) at Marine City (10-0)

Despite both being successful in the postseason over the last decade, these two have eluded each other with Marine City playing in Division 4. East China Stadium should be rocking with the Mariners representing the best from the Macomb Area Conference Gold and as the reigning Division 4 champion and the Raiders the champs in the Blue Water Area Conference. Almont has set a team record for scoring while averaging 53.4 points per game, and has given up only 49 with five shutouts including 65-0 over Clawson last week.

Others that caught my eye: Clare (8-2) at Freeland (9-1), Reed City (8-2) at Remus Chippewa Hills (8-2).


Madison Heights Madison (8-2) at Flint Beecher (10-0)

The winner of this game not only moves on to the Regional – it likely will be considered a favorite by at least some to end Ithaca’s nation-best 11-player winning streak of 66 games. That’s how much both of these teams have been regarded from the start of this fall, and neither has disappointed. Beecher has set a team record for wins, and Madison’s losses were to Division 2 playoff team Walled Lake Western and Division 3 qualifier Warren Woods-Tower.

Others that caught my eye: Clinton (10-0) at Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central (9-1), Hillsdale (8-2) at Jackson Lumen Christi (10-0).


Iron River West Iron County (9-1) at Ishpeming (9-0)

The Hematites have turned back West Iron once during their 30-game winning streak, in last season’s District Final 34-0. And the shutouts haven’t ended, with Ishpeming blanking four of its last five opponents. But the Wykons have a chance to show how much they’ve learned since that loss last season – their only loss this fall was 8-6 to playoff team Bark River-Harris, and they looked ready enough in blanking Iron Mountain 40-0 a week ago. That said, Ishpeming also shut out Iron Mountain, 36-0 on opening night.

Others that caught my eye: Traverse City St. Francis (8-2) at Suttons Bay (9-1), Saginaw Michigan Lutheran Seminary (9-1) at Whittemore-Prescott (10-0).


Fowler (10-0) at Muskegon Catholic Central (10-0)

These records are identical, but a Fowler win would be considered one of the recent best of that program’s storied history. MCC’s 22-game winning streak also includes a 42-0 District Final win over the Eagles last fall. Fowler has a tough runner in Austin Cook, the leading rusher in the Lansing area with more than 1,700 yards. He and his blockers might have the biggest task of an upset effort.

Others that caught my eye: Waterford Our Lady (9-1) at Harbor Beach (10-0) on Saturday, Johannesburg-Lewiston (9-1) at Beal City (8-2).


Cedarville (9-1) at Rapid River (10-0)

One of these years will be Cedarville’s year – the Trojans are 34-6 in four seasons of 8-player football – and they seemed to send a signal that this could be the one with a 39-0 win over Bellaire last week. Rapid River has always been in the way – the reigning MHSAA runner-up Rockets have won three straight over the Trojans including 20-19 in Week 6 and are 22-1 over the last two seasons.

Others Regional Finals: Kingston (7-3) at Deckerville (8-2), Morrice (6-4) at Peck (10-0), Lawrence (10-0) at Battle Creek St. Philip (9-1).

PHOTO: Calumet traveled to Harrison last week and won 30-21 to earn this week’s District Final matchup with Menominee. (Click to see 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.)