Ishpeming 'Makes Way' to MHSAA Title

November 24, 2012

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

DETROIT – When Ishpeming coach Jeff Olson watched film this week of Saturday opponent Detroit Loyola, he saw a team that continuously “demoralized” its opponents.

By midway through the second quarter of the MHSAA Division 7 Final, his players understood what he meant.

Senior Brad Wootke, easily the Hematites’ biggest player, joked after about getting knocked around by the multiple more sizable Bulldogs across the line. Junior quarterback Alex Briones rolled his eyes into his head describing a blast he withstood.

But it would’ve taken more than that to knock Ishpeming off its path to an MHSAA football title. As Olson also explained, “They guys made their own way, and they made it all year.”

The Hematites doled out plenty of physicality and turned away a few late rushes to hang on to a 20-14 Division 7 championship win at Ford Field.

“First of all, we’re a hard-nosed football team. We don’t take anyone prisoners. We’re going to fight all we can,” Briones said. “They’re big, but we just didn’t let them dominate us.”

The championship was Ishpeming’s first since 1979, and came two seasons after the team fell 28-26 to Hudson in a 2010 Final. The Hematites finished this fall 13-1.

Loyola, 13-0 entering the day, was playing in its first MHSAA championship game and could be back again soon – the Bulldogs had only five seniors this fall.

But Loyola also was ranked No. 1 heading into these playoffs, featured the second-leading scorer in MHSAA single-season history in senior running back Keymonn’e Gabriel, and had eight players – to Ishepming’s one – weighing in between 250 and 290 pounds.

The No. 4-ranked Hematites were underdogs. And they knew it. But they obviously didn't believe it.

“Our coach he said it best before the game when we were at our school. He said the game’s going to be won or lost on the first smack, the first hit,” Gabriel said. “I guess we were just on the receiving end. We didn't come out strong like we were supposed to, and we just came up a little bit short.”

Although Loyola led at halftime, that advantage was slim – only 8-6. The Bulldogs had outgained the Hematites, but only 153-80. Seven minutes into the second half, Ishpeming appeared to change the tide with senior Eric Kostreva’s second touchdown run. But Loyola turned it back when Gabriel scored on a 20-yard run on the final play of the third quarter to make the score 14-12.  

In the end, it would come down to a few close plays, all coming on fourth down. Ishpeming made good on both of its fourth-down attempts. Loyola was successful on four of five – but that one miss might have eventually been the decider.

Loyola faced fourth-and-seven with 7:47 to play and trailing 20-14, when Gabriel ran on a punt fake for 38 yards to Ishpeming’s 17-yard line. But four plays later, on fourth-and-one, Gabriel was hung up for no gain by the waiting Briones, who had senior R.J. Poirier right behind providing support.

Then it was Ishpeming’s turn to convert instead. Its first fourth-down make set up a third-quarter touchdown. That wasn't the case this time. But making good on a fourth-and-one try from its own 18 – after twice trying to draw Loyola off-side and calling two timeouts – allowed the Hematites to drain two more minutes off the clock before junior Tyler Windahl’s 44-yard punt pinned the Bulldogs on their 28 with 1:14 to play.

Loyola made one more first down, but ended the game on its 41-yard line.

“I’m surprised I didn't want to go for it right off the bat. When we called timeout, I said we’re going to punt it, and I think half of you guys (his players) said, ‘Nope, we’re going for it,’” Olson said. “And when I thought about it, we always go for it on fourth and one. But if somebody offers me fourth and three inches for a state championship, I’m going for it.

“We weren't going to punt it away and hope it happened. We wanted to make it happen.”

Gabriel finished with 21 carries for 129 yards and a touchdown rushing, and also caught four passes for 52 yards and a score. That gave him 326 points this season – second-most in MHSAA history, and final unofficial rushing numbers of 145 carries, 2,516 yards and 36 scores. The yards rank 20th in MHSAA history for one season, and the rushing touchdowns are 11th.

He did so running in part behind junior tackles Malik McDowell (6-foot-7, 290 pounds) and Kajohn Armstrong (6-5, 275), and Loyola certainly felt the impact Saturday when Armstrong had to leave the game early with an injury.

“Our seniors are the reason we’re here; they were our leaders although there were only five of them. But now it’s time for the other group to step up,” Loyola coach John Callahan said. “We had a lot of sophomores playing, a lot of freshman playing. I’m pretty sure I know what we did and what we didn't do, and we've got all offseason to work on and correct, and next season, to start over again.”

Kostreva ran 20 times for 182 yards and all three Ishpeming touchdowns, and also had 16 tackles. He’s one of 12 seniors who helped guide the program through a tough start to the fall after Olson’s son, Daniel, was found after committing suicide in July.

Jeff Olson said after this game wasn't about him, but Briones was quick to point out that the players certainly wanted to win in part for their coach and the memory of their former teammate.

“I didn't know how this year would go. But I know once I got on the football field, it was a relief for me,” Olson said. “It was where I really felt comfortable. It’s because of these guys right here. They made it comfortable for me.” 

Click for full statistics and to watch a replay of the game. See below for the full press conference.

PHOTOS: (Top) Ishpeming running back Eric Kostreva (11) races down the sideline as Detroit Loyola's Anthony Frierson gives chase Saturday. (Middle) The Hematites celebrate their first MHSAA championship since 1979. (Click for more from Terry McNamara Photography.)

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.)