Harper Woods Stops Record-Setting South Christian on Final Play to Clinch 1st Title

By Paul Costanzo
Special for MHSAA.com

November 25, 2023

DETROIT – Carson Vis had been getting away all afternoon. 

The Grand Rapids South Christian quarterback had smashed Finals records for passing yards and total offense in Saturday’s Division 4 Final against Harper Woods, mostly by evading pressure and finding his senior receiver Jake Vermaas for big plays.

So, when the Sailors needed just three yards to tie the game with three seconds to play, Harper Woods made sure they knew where Vermaas was, and that Vis didn’t get away one more time.

Defensive end Javonte Lee-Forbes put immediate pressure on Vis, draping himself on his legs and forcing the 6-foot-4 junior to attempt to fit in a pass – not to Vermaas. Keyontae Wilson broke it up, preserving a 33-27 victory for the Pioneers and giving them the first Finals title in program history.

“We were keying on two things, No. 2 (Vermaas) and No. 5 (Vis),” Harper Woods coach Rod Oden said. “First we needed to identify where (Vermaas) was, and two, we needed to cup the pocket and keep (Vis) inside, and he almost still got outside. Once we were able to contain the quarterback, we knew he had to try to just make a play, and we made a play. We made one more play than they did.”

In a game that featured 1,030 yards of total offense (533 from South Christian, 497 from Harper Woods), the second-most in Finals history, it’s not exactly fitting that the defense won the deciding play.

But it was something Oden knew his team would need, eventually.

“I’m glad it came down to the end,” he said. “Our defense, we knew it would come down to them for us to win the championship. The offense has kind of been consistent all year, and (the defense) had an opportunity to go out there and make a play, and they made it.”

South Christian's Carson Vis (5) unloads a pass as the Pioneers' Johnny Nelson (21) and Javonta Lee-Forbes (28) apply pressure.Both offenses spent most of the game making plays, led by Vis’ record-breaking performance.

He threw for 441 yards on 30 of 44 passing with two touchdowns and one interception. His passing yards broke the record previously set by Armani Posey of Detroit Martin Luther King in 2015 (383). His 30 completions were also a record, breaking the previous mark of 26 set by Cooper Rush of Lansing Catholic (2011) and AJ Westendorp of Holland Christian (2008).

Adding in his 72 rushing yards, Vis finished with 513 yards of total offense, well ahead of Westendorp’s 426, which was the previous record. And all of that – plus a little more – came in the final three quarters, as he had negative-6 total yards through the first 12 minutes.

“I would say it was first-quarter nerves,” Vis said. “I wasn’t being myself out there. Not relaxed and not getting into it. We started getting some easy completions, we were trying to take shots early on. I started getting into a rhythm and started getting it to my guys who were getting open. Definitely (I can appreciate how well I played), but I feel for my guys, my seniors. Some of them, this is our last time playing. So I’m just going to try my best to love on them and be with them.”

Harper Woods didn’t set any records, but had multiple big-time offensive performances, as well, despite losing 1,000-yard rusher Colby Bailey on the second play of the game.

Donald Adams took on the rushing load for the Pioneers (11-3) and starred, rushing for 174 yards on 17 carries. Quarterback Nate Rocheleau had 210 yards and two TDs on 10-of-17 passing. Dakota Guerrant had four catches for 84 yards and a score, while Ramonty Houze had a single catch that went 90 yards for a TD.

“On the one to Ramonty, I had been trying to get it all game,” Rocheleau said. “It was man-to-man press with no high safety, and Ramonty is the fastest guy on the field, so we wanted to take that shot and it worked. The one to Dakota, we worked on that all week in practice where we’re in trips and we stack it, he popped wide open.”

The TD to Houze had the feeling of a back-breaker, as it put Harper Woods up 27-7 early in the third quarter. More so than the lead, it came after South Christian had made its way deep into Harper Woods territory with a chance to make it a one-score game. But Corey Bailey forced and recovered a fumble to end the threat.

Dwight Houston (3) gets ready to make his move as South Christian's Austin Tiesma (7) gets into position to make the stop.It was the second time in as many South Christian possessions that a chance to pull within a single score had ended in a turnover. On the final play of the first half, Wilson intercepted a Vis pass in the end zone after the Sailors had made their way to the Harper Woods 9.

But none of it fazed the Sailors (10-4), who were seeking their second-straight Finals title.

Following Houze’s TD, South Christian finally did pull to within one score at 27-20, getting TD runs from Charlie Schreur (1 yard) and Vis (22 yards).

Harper Woods stretched it back to a 13-point lead with a 10-play, 85-yard drive, capped off by a 1-yard TD run by Stephone Buford.

But when Noah Funk scored on a 12-yard pass from Vis less than two minutes later, South Christian had again pulled to within a score, and a defensive stop set up the final drive, and the late-game drama.

“The message at halftime was, ‘We’ve been resilient, and nothing you ever do in life, when you’re chasing success, is going to be easy. There’s going to be adversity,’” South Christian coach Danny Brown said. “And that was the message. These are a bunch of great guys that do things the right way. If there was ever a time to come and climb that mountain of a little adversity, the second half was that time. They fought like crazy, and I’m proud of them to keep swinging, and we almost had it.”

Harper Woods jumped out a 14-0 lead with first-quarter TD runs by Buford and Dwight Houston. A 39-yard TD pass from Vis to Vermaas put the Sailors on the board in the second quarter, but Guerrant’s 27-yard TD catch had the Pioneers up 20-7 at the half.

Houston finished with 62 yards rushing for the Pioneers, while Buford had 46 to go along with two TDs.

Austin Tiesma had eight catches for 120 yards for South Christian, while Funk had five for 61.

Click for the full box score

PHOTOS (Top) Harper Woods raises its first football championship trophy after winning the Division 4 Final on Saturday. (Middle) South Christian's Carson Vis (5) unloads a pass as the Pioneers' Johnny Nelson (21) and Javonta Lee-Forbes (28) apply pressure. (Below) Dwight Houston (3) gets ready to make his move as South Christian's Austin Tiesma (7) gets into position to make the stop. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)

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.)