Harris Soars, Eagles Fly to D3 Championship

November 24, 2012

By Bill Khan
Special to Second Half

DETROIT — A funny thing happened on Drake Harris’ way to hoops stardom.

He discovered he’s even greater on the gridiron.

The junior wide receiver didn’t intend to play high school football at Grand Rapids Christian, but now figures that’s his meal ticket in college — and perhaps beyond — after a record-breaking season that culminated with an epic performance in the MHSAA Division 3 championship game against Orchard Lake St. Mary’s.

Harris made three clutch catches in the final eight minutes to keep scoring drives alive and finished with a MHSAA Finals record of 243 yards on eight catches in the Eagles’ 40-37 overtime victory Saturday night at Ford Field.

Twice on the game-tying drive, Harris made leaping catches on fourth down. His 7-yarder on fourth-and-three and 15-yarder on fourth-and-eight set up a 28-yard field goal by Joel Schipper with four seconds left in the fourth quarter.

After the Eagles stopped St. Mary’s on fourth-and-three on the first series of overtime, Schipper came out on first down and kicked the championship-clinching 27-yard field goal.

In the process, Harris became only the 12th player nationally and first from Michigan to rack up 2,000 receiving yards for one season. He finished the season with 2,016.

“It’s a great achievement for me,” Harris said. “I have to thank the quarterback, the line and my coaching staff for putting me in the right position to make plays. All I care about is that state championship.”

It's the first for Grand Rapids Christian, which also made its first MHSAA Final appearance and finished this fall 13-1. St. Mary's, last season's Division 3 champion, ended 11-3.

Harris had hoop dreams coming into high school, figuring he would specialize in basketball to enhance his college opportunities. After getting talked into playing football by Eagles coach Don Fellows, Harris discovered a hidden talent. He wound up making a verbal commitment last summer to Michigan State to play both sports, but football may eventually win out.

“I never realized the talent I had for football,” the 6-foot-4, 180-pound Harris said. “I’m putting it all together. I’m going to keep working hard to achieve my goals.

“(MSU basketball coach Tom Izzo) loves players that play football. He told me that. He encouraged me. He’s with me with the whole situation and loves that I play football. I’m kind of starting to lean more towards football. I just feel like I’m probably better in football and that I can go further in football.”

Grand Rapids Christian quarterback Alex VanDeVusse was 16 for 26 for 307 yards and a touchdown, but deflected any credit for his performance to his outstanding wide receiver. VanDeVusse noted that a couple of Harris’ catches late in the game came on passes that would’ve eluded the grasp of most high school receivers.

“He makes me look really, really good,” VanDeVusse said. “Balls that are behind him, he slows down and catches it with one hand if he has to. Balls that are too high, he jumps and gets flipped. People don’t necessarily think he’s tough or something, but to have a guy go three or four feet in the air to get flipped, catch the ball and land on his back and his head, he’s pretty tough in my book. I’ll take him on my team every single day. He’s amazing.”

VanDeVusse looked to Harris in every clutch situation, of which there were several in a wild fourth quarter.

“We joke around that he’s our toy,” VanDeVusse said. “If you have a toy, you’re going to want to play with it all the time. We use him a lot and he does every bit that we ask of him.”

The Eaglets knew that Harris would be targeted when Grand Rapids Christian needed a big play, but even double coverage couldn’t stop him.

“He makes you shift,” St. Mary’s coach George Porritt said. “You have to bring more people to him. You can’t guard him with one. It might leave somebody else open. He forces you to bring two, maybe three.”

A 42-yard run by VanDeVusse gave Grand Rapids Christian a 20-7 lead with 4:42 left in the first half, but St. Mary’s rallied behind a ground game that rolled up 459 yards to take its first lead at 30-27 with 9:37 left in the fourth quarter.

Harris made a 38-yard catch on third-and-27 with 8:00 remaining, one play before a 32-yard touchdown run by Seth McIntosh put the Eagles ahead 34-30 with 7:45 to go.

St. Mary’s then marched 80 yards in 12 plays to grab a 37-34 lead with 2:06 left on a 3-yard run by Grant Niemiec.

Harris made four catches for 47 yards on the ensuing drive, which culminated in Schipper’s game-tying field goal.

St. Mary’s got the ball first in overtime. A pass by Matt Linehan intended for running back Parker McInnis in the end zone fell incomplete on fourth-and-three.

Grand Rapids Christian didn’t hesitate to bring in Schipper to end the game with his right foot on first down.

“I knew it was a big kick starting off, but I just tried to block it all out,” Schipper said. “It felt just like at practice. Coach puts a lot of pressure on us during the week so these situations don’t come as big in the games. That really helped me. I’m just glad I could get the win for the team tonight.

“He’s got the whole team screaming in my ear in practice when I’m trying to make field goals. That really helps in this environment.”

St. Mary’s lost, despite setting a finals record with 579 yards of total offense. The teams combined for a record 1,033 yards.

McInnis ran 25 times for 269 yards, while Niemiec carried 28 times for 168 yards and three touchdowns for St. Mary’s.

Click for full statistics and to watch a replay of the game.

PHOTOS: (Top) Grand Rapids Christian receiver Drake Harris runs away from two Orchard Lake St. Mary's defenders for some of his record-breaking yardage Saturday. (Middle) The Eagles celebrate their first MHSAA championship. (Click for more from Terry McNamara Photography.)

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.)