Grinding Ground Game Has White Pigeon Eyeing Memorable Run

By Wes Morgan
Special for

September 8, 2021

With just a cursory glance at the 2020 results for the White Pigeon varsity football team, the Chiefs’ 4-3 record might not seem all that impressive.

Their opponents this year, however, know not to discount a program that has the potential to both reshape the Southwest 10 Conference standings by the end of the fall, but also to shake things up once the Michigan High School Athletic Association Division 8 playoffs get rolling.

Losing two of those contests to eventual D8 champion Centreville — a 14-8 defeat in Week 2 and a 16-0 loss in the District championship game — White Pigeon’s only other misstep was a 26-24 loss to Mendon in what was the Hornets’ final season before moving to the 8-player ranks. White Pigeon’s District opener win over Saugatuck was the school’s first postseason victory since 2009.

The Chiefs are rolling so far this year with sizable wins over Saugatuck (48-6) and Galesburg-Augusta (38-7) to set up a conference opener this Friday against Decatur (1-1). Comstock is White Pigeon’s Week 4 opponent before the anticipated matchup with Centreville on Sept. 24.

"It definitely was a misleading (record) last year,” fourth-year head coach Shawn Strawser said. “(Centreville) was just a little better than us and ended up being state champs. Knowing that we were right there and that’s how close we could have been to having a nice run and being one of the better teams in the state … we watched those teams play and there wasn’t anybody that scared us. We would have loved to have chances against some of those schools last year.

White Pigeon football"I think our guys seeing a team from our conference won a state title, it gives them some confidence that they can do that too if they work hard.”

Perhaps that wish will come true this year as Strawser’s Wing-T offense is pounding opposing defenses thus far despite the graduation of 12 seniors, only 17 players on the varsity roster and several underclassmen in starting roles. If so, it will be because of heart and not size.

At a preseason scrimmage, Strawser instituted a new rule as a result.

"The boys come walking down the sideline and they don’t have their pads on,” he said. “I said, ‘Dang it; what are you guys doing? Don’t you ever walk out here with your pads off. We ain’t intimidating nobody with our pads off, so go get them back on. Some people might see us with our pads off and they think we’re a JV team. But I’ll tell you what, we don’t play like a JV team.”

Seniors Jack Davidson and Dylan Carper so far have amassed staggering rushing production for the Chiefs, who have thrown the ball just three times. Davidson, a 5-foot-10, 170-pound fullback, ran for 299 yards and three touchdowns against Saugatuck and he added 137 yards and three more TDs vs. the Rams in Week 2. Carper, a 5-9, 165-pound back, piled up 130 yards and two scores in Week 1 and added 99 yards and a pair of touchdowns last week. The two also line up at linebacker — a position of strength for the White Pigeon defense

"Carper is a football player,” Strawser said. “You can play him anywhere. He’s the hardest hitter on the team. He could have had 300 yards the first night had I been giving him the ball more. Jack Davidson is not the type of fullback we had the first couple years. He sees holes really well and is a really strong runner.”

Of course, success begins up front with junior tight ends Jordan Stamper and Chris Jackson, left tackle Chaz Underwood (freshman), left guard Esteban Castro (junior), center Wyatt Carunchia (junior), right guard Luke Gropp (senior) and right tackle Seth Miller (sophomore).

White Pigeon football"Our line has probably been the best it has been in a few years, so that’s a big reason why we get so many yards per carry and so many touchdowns,” Carper said. “Them doing their job consistently helps us a lot. It makes it really easy for us to just run through the big hole they made.

"It’s really fun watching Jack go for all these yards. And then the next thing you know, I get to carry and go for a big touchdown. We just get to go back and forth with each other. It’s fun to play and fun to watch. I’m faster than Jack, so I hit the hole quicker. But he’s more powerful and patient than I am. He waits for the hole to develop while I go right through it.”

Davidson has a unique perspective on how the front seven should operate having spent last season at left guard to shore up the offensive line.

"Yeah, I got yelled at a few times,” Davidson joked. “It made me understand how tough it is. I get now why they ask a lot of questions and that I have to be more patient in the backfield.”

"We knew it was going to be a one-year deal,” Strawser added of Davidson’s line days. “We were a little thin on the line last year and he stepped up and did a nice job. But we knew he’d be moving back this year.”

With the meat of the schedule ahead, the Chiefs believe they have what it takes to get to the next level.

"I just think we work really good as a team. And with us all working together, I think we can cause them some trouble,” Carper said. “Every year I think we’re in the mix for (a conference championship), but this year there is a good team at Centreville and at Comstock, so it should be a close race.”

Wes Morgan has reported for the Kalamazoo Gazette, ESPN and, 247Sports and Blue & Gold Illustrated over the last 12 years and is the publisher of He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) White Pigeon’s Jack Davidson pulls away from a potential tackler last week against Galesburg-Augusta. (Middle) White Pigeon’s defensive front seven – including Davidson (30), Luke Gropp (54), Chris Jackson (8) and Jordan Stamper (84) – loads the box against Saugatuck during Week 1. (Below) Dylan Carper (21) gets to the edge against Saugatuck. (Photos courtesy of the White Pigeon football program.)

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.)