Grass Lake Thriving But Driving for More

September 13, 2019

By Doug Donnelly
Special for Second Half

GRASS LAKE – Cameron Darrow remembers the play like it was yesterday.

“It was the third quarter and there was nine minutes left,” the Grass Lake middle linebacker said. “I had 14 tackles in the game already. I came up through the hole and it was raining, and I tackled the running back. As I was lifting him up, my foot got caught in the ground and twisted and popped.”

Darrow broke his ankle in two spots in that game against Addison, which was near the end of his sophomore season. It was a long road back, but the Warriors senior captain made a full recovery. He’s one of the reasons Grass Lake is off to a 2-0 start and has its sights set on a big season.

“We just take it game by game,” Darrow said. “We just want to keep winning. Our goal at the end of every week is to be 1-0.”

The reigning Cascades Conference champions earned a spot in The Associated Press’ Division 6 top 10 poll earlier this week. And going into tonight’s game against East Jackson, the Warriors are in midseason form. Grass Lake beat Stockbridge 58-12 in the season opener and handled Vandercook Lake 51-0 in the first game of league play.

“You can’t argue with how the kids have played,” said 20th-year Grass Lake head coach Randy Cole. “It’s very early in the season, though. We have a long way to go. We just have to keep getting better.”

Over the past six seasons, Cole has employed a high-powered, up-tempo offense. His son Anthony was an assistant coach at Albion College when Cole asked him his thoughts about implementing the offense at Grass Lake. It’s worked.

“It gives us a lot of versatility,” Cole said. “We spread the ball around. We get the ball out quick. It’s fun. The kids like it.”

Grass Lake is used to winning. The Warriors have made the playoffs 13 of the last 14 years and are 145-60, a winning percentage above .700, during Cole’s tenure.

This year’s offense is led by junior quarterback Carson Farley. He’s been dynamite through two weeks, completing 26 of his 30 passes for 440 yards and nine touchdowns. He hasn’t thrown an interception.

“He’s new,” Cole said. “He was our JV quarterback last year. He’s off to a great start. He makes good decisions. He has good knowledge of the offense. We run the same thing on the JV, and he ran it well last year. He knew coming in that he was going to be our quarterback, so he worked hard this summer.”

Farley has spread the ball around. Over just two games, six Warriors have at least one rushing attempt and eight receivers have caught passes. Six of those eight pass-catchers have a touchdown.

“We don’t really have a No. 1 receiver,” Cole said. “We spread it around. We take what the defense gives us.”

Trenton Holden leads the Warriors in rushing with more than 300 yards on nearly 12 yards per carry.

Grass Lake never huddles on offense.

“We don’t even use the word huddle,” Darrow said. “We call it a gathering. The only time we ‘gather’ is late in a game if we are trying to use up the clock.”

On defense, Darrow is the signal-caller from his middle linebacker spot. He’s been in on 24 tackles over two games – credited with 20 solo tackles and four assists. He has three tackles for loss and one sack.

“He’s the guts and glue of our defense,” said Cole.

Grass Lake’s No. 1 goal, as usual, is to win the Cascades Conference. After that, the Warriors are hoping to make a deeper run in the playoffs. Last season they started 8-0 before losing to eventual Division 8 champion Reading in the Week 9 Big 8 Conference crossover game 55-7 and then to Cascades foe Michigan Center 35-6 in the first round of the playoffs.

“We were humbled,” Darrow said. “We really wanted to be the third team in Grass Lake history to go 9-0 in the regular season, but we just fell short. We definitely have that in the back of our minds. We want revenge and want to make it further in the playoffs.”

During the winter and summer workouts, Darrow said, those two losses were motivation for the Warriors players.

“We had 30 to 40 kids there lifting all summer,” he said. “We talked about those losses. We want to be better this year.”

Darrow, who is one of three team captains along with Gage Lee and Shane Holcomb, said this year’s Warriors are a tight group.

“We play for each other,” he said. “We all have the same goals. We’ve been playing together since the third grade and we just love football. When I was coming back from my injury last year, everyone lifted me up and helped me get back. Not coming back wasn’t an option. I love football too much.

“Football is a brotherhood. We play for each other.”

Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Cameron Darrow is back leading the Grass Lake defense this season. (Middle) Carson Farley looks downfield for a receiver (Photos courtesy of Amy Farley.)

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.)