A Game for Every Fan: District Openers

October 31, 2013

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

A handful of MHSAA football teams always are safe to expect at Ford Field when we finish the annual five-week Finals run into Thanksgiving weekend. 

But if the record number of at-large qualifiers – 31 – or the difficulty in picking the best first-round matchups are indications, this weekend could be ripe for plenty of the unexpected.

A total of 38 teams enter the playoffs perfect for the regular season. Ithaca is riding a national-record 51-game winning streak and seeking its fourth straight Division 6 title, while Detroit Cass Tech and Birmingham Brother Rice are going for their third straight each in Divisions 1 and 2, respectively.

How they might fare this time will be easier to predict over the next few weeks. But first things first, and in this case it’s our forecast of the best District openers all over the state this weekend. (Click to see the entire schedule, with dates, times and locations.) 

Division 1

Detroit Catholic Central (7-2) at Northville (8-1)

Arguably the most competitive District in any division also includes Canton and Walled Lake Western, but Northville finished ahead of both to win the Kensington Lakes Activities Association. That doesn’t necessarily make the Mustangs favored. DCC’s only marks against came against reigning Division 2 champion Birmingham Brother Rice, and the Shamrocks have plenty of know-how in the postseason – they’ve finished Division 1 runner-up the last two seasons.

Others that caught my eye: East Kentwood (5-4) at Hudsonville (6-3), Rochester Hills Stoney Creek (6-3) at Rochester Adams (6-3), Belleville (6-3) at Saline (8-1), Canton (8-1) at Walled Lake Western (8-1).

Division 2

Southfield (7-2) at Birmingham Seaholm (8-1)

This is a meeting of Oakland Activities Association champions, with OAA White winner Southfield hoping to bounce back after last week’s loss to Red champ Clarkston. Blue champ Seaholm also lost in Week 9, to Detroit U-D Jesuit. The Bluejays have been considered MHSAA contenders since the preseason, but the Maples quietly are 16-3 over the last two years and poised to take the next step.

Others that caught my eye: Midland Dow (7-2) at Fenton (8-1), Muskegon Reeths-Puffer (7-2) at Muskegon (8-1), Ypsilanti Lincoln (7-2) at Wyandotte Roosevelt (9-0), Taylor Truman (7-2) at Allen Park (7-2).

Division 3

Zeeland East (5-4) at Zeeland West (8-1)

It’s fair to assume this won’t be much of a game – East got in with an at-large bid and its worst record since 2009. But there’s too much history to ignore. East did win their first matchup this season, in Week 2, 50-44. And after the Chix cruised to a 9-0 regular season in 2012, West upset them during the District opener. More payback would be the best way to end a four-game losing streak for East – although West hasn’t lost again this fall since that early defeat.

Others that caught my eye: Detroit Denby (7-2) at Detroit Mumford (7-2), Eaton Rapids (5-4) at Charlotte (7-2), Haslett (6-3) at DeWitt (9-0), Riverview (7-2) at Melvindale (7-2).

Division 4

Battle Creek Pennfield (8-1) at Paw Paw (8-1)

League champions clash in the best Division 4 game of opening night, Paw Paw from the Wolverine B Conference East and Pennfield from the Kalamazoo Valley Association. Pennfield has made the playoffs every season under the current format, which began in 1999 – but enters this run with perhaps its best defense of the bunch after giving up seven or fewer points in six games. Paw Paw is coming off a disappointing loss to Edwardsburg last week, but has been similarly sturdy stopping opponents – Week 9 was the first the Redskins gave up more than 14 points in a game.

Others that caught my eye: Harper Woods Chandler Park (7-2) at Richmond (8-1), Dowagiac (6-3) at Edwardsburg (9-0), Dearborn Heights Robichaud (6-3) at Pontiac Notre Dame Prep (7-2), Yale (6-3) at Saginaw Swan Valley (9-0).

Division 5

Grand Rapids West Catholic (5-4) at Portland (7-1)

Just as this matchup was tough to predict when these teams met for the Division 5 championship last season, it’s hard to read again this fall. The Raiders rebuilt quickly, with their lone loss two weeks ago to Division 3 contender DeWitt, 13-7. West Catholic made the playoffs with an at-large bid after a one-point win in Week 9 – but has won four straight after opening 0-3.

Others that caught my eye: Kingsford (7-2) at Grayling (8-1), Clare (7-2) at Reed City (9-0), Olivet (8-1) at Hopkins (7-2), River Rouge (8-1) at Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central (8-1). 

Division 6

Reese (8-1) at Montrose (9-0) 

Judging by last week’s Genesee Area Conference Blue deciding game, it's fair to guess this might not be much of a contest – Montrose ran past second-place Lake Fenton 37-0 to claim the title outright and also beat Reese 38-8 on opening night. But the Rockets haven’t loss since or scored fewer than 41 points since the first week of October.

Others that caught my eye: Elk Rapids (6-3) at Boyne City (7-2), Marlette (8-1) at Saginaw Nouvel (8-1), Schoolcraft (8-1) at Niles Brandywine (8-1), Manchester (7-2 at Grass Lake (8-1).

Division 7

Saugatuck (8-1) at Pewamo-Westphalia (8-1) 

One of these teams has reached MHSAA semifinals each of the last three seasons and both have advanced to Ford Field once during that time. And each has prepared well this season against similar or bigger foes – Saugatuck’s lone loss was to playoff qualifier Decatur and it beat Division 6 qualifier Hartford. Pewamo-Westphalia beat Division 5 qualifier Lansing Catholic and lost only to Division 8 powerhouse New Lothrop.

Others that caught my eye: Traverse City St. Francis (5-4) at Iron River West Iron County (9-0), Royal Oak Shrine (6-3) at Madison Height Bishop Foley (6-3), St. Joseph Lake Michigan Catholic (6-2) at Cassopolis (6-3), Whittemore-Prescott (6-3) at Lake City (8-1).

Division 8

Bessemer (6-3) at Crystal Falls Forest Park (9-0) 

We discussed this game at length when these teams met only two weeks ago and Forest Park celebrated avenging a 2012 loss to the Miners to this time clinch the Great Western Conference title outright. A win for Bessemer in this game would be even bigger as the Trojans are attempting to bounce back after failing to reach the District Finals last season for the first time since 2002.

Others that caught my eye: Munising (6-3) at Powers North Central (7-2), Mio (7-2) at Beal City (9-0), Clarkston Everest Collegiate (7-2) at Waterford Our Lady (7-2), Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart (6-3) at Coleman (7-2).


Deckerville (5-4) at Peck (9-0)

Last season’s champion opens these playoffs against one of the favorites according to playoff points average. Deckerville won the MHSAA championship in 2012, the team's first season of 8-player, and won two of its final three regular season games this fall. Peck is one of three 9-0 teams in 8-player and owns the third-highest playoff point average in the division. The Pirates beat Deckerville 56-8 only two weeks ago.

Others that caught my eye: Akron-Fairgrove (7-2) at Owendale-Gagetown (8-1), Casonville Port-Sanilac (6-3) at Portland St. Patrick (7-2), Bellaire (5-4) at Kinde-North Huron (6-3), Engadine (5-4) at Cedarville (8-1). 

PHOTO: DeWitt (blue helmets) and Portland met in a Week 7 battle of undefeated teams, and both are considered Ford Field possibilities – DeWitt in Division 3 and Portland in Division 5. (Click to see more from High School Sports Scene.)

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.)