A Game for Every Fan: District Openers

October 30, 2014

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

Friday begins another five-week journey to whittle 272 MHSAA football playoff qualifiers to nine champions.

But many more than nine teams have something to celebrate over the next month:

  • Burton Atherton, Lapeer, Ypsilanti, Big Rapids Crossroads Academy and New Haven Merritt Academy are appearing in the playoffs for the first time. Lapeer is in its first year as a school.

  • Brethren (1990), Manton (1994), Fraser (1998), Harrison (1999), Romulus (2000), Bad Axe (2001), Riverview Gabriel Richard (2003), Leroy Pine River (2005), Newberry (2005) and Quincy (2005) all are in the postseason for the first time in more than a decade.

  • Rockford, with 20 straight appearances, has taken over the longest active playoff streak with Felch North Dickinson not qualifying this fall for the first time since 1990. Menominee has qualified 19 straight seasons, and Crystal Falls Forest Park is next with 18 straight.

  • Beal City has made the playoffs 15 straight seasons and an MHSAA-best 32 times overall, following by Farmington Hills Harrison with 31 appearances and Forest Park with 30.

  • All nine champions from 2013 are back, although Marine City is in Division 5 after winning Division 4 a year ago. All but one of last season’s 18 finalists made the field again. Ithaca is going for its fifth straight title, and Birmingham Brother Rice is seeking its fourth straight.

And it all begins this weekend. Read on for some of the best matchups from each division. All are Friday unless noted.


Fraser (6-3) at Dearborn Fordson (9-0)

Fraser was among big celebration stories Sunday after earning its first playoff berth since 1998 – in fact, the Ramblers have achieved their first winning season since 2001 and were 3-6 only a year ago. Fraser also opened this fall 1-3 before winning five straight to qualify – so there’s a lot here to praise. But Fordson has high expectations as well. The Tractors have made the playoffs nine straight seasons but not past the District opener since 2011. Three of their last five wins this fall are over playoff teams – and Fordson gave up single-digit points in seven victories.

Others that caught my eye: Waterford Mott (6-3) at Walled Lake Central (7-2), Plymouth (7-2) at Livonia Churchill (7-2), Hudsonville (5-4) at Holland West Ottawa (5-4).


Caledonia (7-2) at Muskegon Mona Shores (8-1), Saturday

For statewide fans, this is the most intriguing game of opening weekend. Their first meeting wasn’t much to discuss – Mona Shores won big, 40-7. But since, Caledonia has outscored its five opponents by a combined 187-27. Four of those opponents are in the playoffs, and total the Fighting Scots have beaten six playoff teams from arguably the strongest area of the state. That said, Mona Shores might be the best from the west right now, given arguably its most memorable win ever last week, 48-27 over Muskegon. Quarterback Tyree Jackson will finish his career among the leading passers in MHSAA history, and his offense is averaging 41 points per game.  

Others that caught my eye: Portage Northern (6-3) at Portage Central (7-1), Farmington Hills Harrison (7-2) at Fenton (9-0), Southfield (6-3) at Detroit Martin Luther King (8-1).


East Grand Rapids (6-3) at Lowell (8-1)

The Red Arrows own four straight wins over their Ottawa-Kent Conference White rival. But it’s important to put the last couple of matchups in perspective; Lowell helped keep East Grand Rapids out of the playoffs in 2011 with a 42-39 win and then won 30-25 in Week 3 this fall. The Pioneers would surely enjoy returning to the playoffs after two years off by ending Lowell’s season in a District opener.

Others that caught my eye: Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern (7-2) at Cedar Springs (8-1), Mount Pleasant (6-3) at Marquette (7-2) on Saturday, Grand Rapids Christian (5-4) at St. Johns (8-1).


Goodrich (7-2) at Saginaw Swan Valley (9-0)

It will be tough for Swan Valley to not look ahead to a possible District Final matchup with Lansing Sexton, the only team to beat the Vikings the last two seasons (in last year’s Regional Final). But they know to be careful with Goodrich, their District Final opponent in 2012 and the second-place team this fall in the solid Genesee Area Conference Red. Swan Valley has enjoyed senior running back Alex Grace to the tune of 7,055 rushing yards while building a 30-4 record over the last three seasons – he’s currently fifth all-time for career rushing yards in MHSAA history and could move up to third on the list with a big game Friday.

Others that caught my eye: Paw Paw (6-3) at Edwardsburg (8-1), Williamston (7-2) at Lansing Sexton (9-0), Detroit Country Day (5-4) at Detroit Denby (5-4) on Saturday.


Muskegon Oakridge (8-1) at Hopkins (8-1)

This is another of the few battles between league champions highlighting the first weekend; Hopkins won the O-K Silver and Oakridge claimed the West Michigan Conference title. Oakridge’s lone loss came on opening night to reigning Division 5 champion Grand Rapids West Catholic, and the Eagles fell just shy of playing for that title last fall losing to Menominee in a Semifinal. But Hopkins earned enough playoff points to host this week with a strong nonleague slate – in addition to beating Grand Rapids NorthPointe Christian to win its O-K division, the Vikings also beat Schoolcraft and lost to Allendale in nonconference play. All three are playing this weekend as well.

Others that caught my eye: Lakeview (8-1) at Remus Chippewa Hills (7-2), Newaygo (7-2) at Reed City (7-2), Stockbridge (6-3) at Olivet (7-2) on Saturday.


Montrose (6-3) at Flint Beecher (9-0)

With its long winning tradition and after losing by only a point to Ithaca in a Semifinal last fall, Montrose might still be considered by some the favorite in this District opener – despite losing to Beecher 19-14 only two weeks ago in the deciding game of the GAC Red. In fact, Beecher will make its eighth straight playoff appearance and finished perfect for the regular season for the second time in six years, and made the Semifinals in 2012. Montrose did give the Buccaneers their toughest game this season – but the Rams have plenty to prove with three losses over their last five games and no wins this season over teams with winning records.

Others that caught my eye: Niles Brandywine (8-1) at Watervliet (8-1), Manchester (8-1) at Clinton (9-0), Schoolcraft (6-3) at Constantine (8-1).


Iron Mountain (6-3) at Iron River West Iron County (8-1)

Despite the shared mineral in their names, these schools actually are about 45 miles apart along the Michigan/Wisconsin border. But the rivalry burns as if they are neighbors, even though they also play in different leagues. They’ve faced each other annually for nearly 50 years and often twice of late with a rematch in the playoffs. West Iron won the first game this year, 24-0, but the Mountaineers are 5-1 since despite one-point wins each of the last two weeks.

Others that caught my eye: Ishpeming Westwood (6-3) at Ishpeming (8-0), Pewamo-Westphalia (7-2) at Union City (8-1), Homer (7-2) at Hudson (8-1).


Hillman (8-1) at Johannesburg-Lewiston (8-1)

This is a rematch of a 2012 playoff opener, a 62-14 Johannesburg-Lewiston win, but things have changed slightly. That year Hillman was an at-large qualifier at 5-4; this season the Tigers have only a loss to undefeated Whittemore-Prescott. The Cardinals have beaten three playoff teams, falling only to St. Ignace in Week 5, and quietly built on one of the consistently strong programs in the northern Lower Peninsula – they’ve won at least eight games four seasons running.

Others that caught my eye: Indian River Inland Lakes (7-2) at Munising (8-1), Clarkston Everest Collegiate (6-2) at Waterford Our Lady (8-1) on Saturday, Pittsford (7-2) at Climax-Scotts (8-1).


Bellaire (7-2) at Cedarville (8-1) on Saturday

Cedarville’s football program probably has looked forward to this week for nearly a year – the Trojans were upset 28-26 in their playoff opener last season by league foe Engadine, a year after a similar upset at the hands of rival Rapid River in a 2012 Regional Final. Cedarville seems on the cusp of big things again – but this time must first face Bellaire, another Bridge Football Alliance opponent. The Eagles are seeking their first 8-player win in five games against the Trojans after falling to them 57-14 only two weeks ago.

Others that caught my eye: Kingston (6-3) at Owendale-Gagetown (8-1), Portland St. Patrick (8-1) at Lawrence (9-0) on Saturday, New Haven Merritt Academy (6-3) at Morrice (5-4) on Saturday.

PHOTO: Mona Shores quarterback Tyree Jackson prepares to throw during last week’s victory over rival Muskegon. (Photo courtesy of Eric Sturr.)

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.)