Ithaca Focuses Again on Number 1

August 17, 2015

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

ITHACA – Leaders talked Thursday about getting back to Ford Field after finishing 2014 with a loss.

The coach discussed the value of experience and how seniors are key to a successful season.

Players started their first workout on their home practice field by stretching and working on special teams. When they were thirsty, they drank water. They wore helmets, shoulder pads, shorts and shoes.

Ithaca might’ve had the nation’s longest active 11-player football winning streak snapped last season – but during this afternoon, nothing seemed much different than for about 600 other teams in Michigan looking to begin this fall 1-0.

“That’s the first question everybody asked me last season. But it’s over now, and we’ve just got to focus on this season,” said senior Jake Smith, the returning quarterback, of the five-season run. “There’s not as much pressure anymore. We don’t have to carry on a streak. But we want to start a new one.”

And that's where this practice and any by the Yellowjackets likely will differ from most in Michigan this fall.

The practice field was filled with veterans, with nine starters back on offense and 13 who started at least one game on defense during last season's run to the Division 6 championship game, which ended in a 22-12 streak-breaking loss to Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central. 

Those are some key numbers to immediately digest, but numbers became part of the swirl around Ithaca’s incredible run of the last five seasons.

First up was 44 – the number of games Ithaca won in a row to pass Cheboygan for the MHSAA’s longest streak that came all during the playoff era, which began in 1975.

Then came 57 – the number of games Ithaca had won consecutively when it took over sole possession as the nation’s most consistent winner thanks to a loss by Regina High School in Iowa City, Iowa, last August.

There was 72 – the number of consecutive wins by Hudson from Sept. 1968-Nov. 1975 that remains the MHSAA record, although, it is noted, that streak included only one playoff win before Hudson fell in the inaugural Class C Final to see its run end.

Finally, the end came at 69 – the number of games Ithaca won from opening night in 2010 until falling in to Monroe St. Mary on Nov. 28.

And now there’s only 1 – the number of wins in a row Ithaca will play for when it opens against Clare on Aug. 28, and the ranking in its division the Yellowjackets will strive for again after winning four of the last five Division 6 titles.

“I hate to think of it as a start over,” Ithaca coach Terry Hessbrook said as his team started its first practice at home after three days of camp in Hawks, near Rogers City. “There’s lots of experience out here, and it’s been a nice few days. I haven’t had to raise my voice because they know what the goal is, and they know what the process is that you’ve got to go through to get to it. And it’s quite a climb – you don’t get to start where you finish (the year before).

“(But) you finish on such a high, even if you lose.”

Rewind to last season’s loss, if only for a minute.

Monroe St. Mary relied in part on a senior quarterback in Bryce Windham and a 1,000-yard rusher in senior running back John Lako. Ithaca, meanwhile, returned to Ford Field with only six seniors and only a few who played significant roles – and really, were a surprise after conquering a road that included No. 8 Millington, No. 10 Madison Heights Madison and No. 5 Boyne City, the final two wins decided by senior-like clutch play in the fourth quarter.

Ithaca and Monroe St. Mary literally traded scores in the Final, although Ithaca never led. Smith ran for a 3-yard score with 33 seconds left in the third quarter to pull the Yellowjackets to within three points at 15-12. But neither team scored again until St. Mary added a touchdown with 1:41 to play.

And yet, the welcome at home that night had Ithaca feeling like it was a champion still.

“We had more people show up when we returned than maybe when we won the third or fourth (title),” said Hessbrook, who starred as a running back at Ithaca from 1982-84 and took over as head coach before the 2004 season. “The community kind’ve stood in unison and said, ‘That was pretty cool that we just got to go on that ride.’

“I get chills just talking about it.”

There could be more to come.

Smith, who has had college football conversations with Harvard and Yale among others, threw for 2,134 yards and 27 touchdowns last season and ran for 1,391 more yards and 20 scores. His top three receivers last season all were juniors; Spence DeMull is recovering from an injury, but caught 66 passes for 1,193 yards and 16 TDs. Senior Jace Demenov, the team’s leading tackler the last two seasons, is moving from offensive line to a tight end/receiver combo and is among a few who should emerge as reliable targets. Nose tackle Jonah Loomis was the team’s second-leading tackler last season and also is a senior this fall.

Eight of this season’s seniors were on the varsity as sophomores, so they’ve played 28 games – including 10 during the playoffs. Still, Ithaca is coming off a loss … not something it’s been used to of late.

“(Local people) ask who is coming back, and we just say everybody,” Demenov said. “In years past, people knew who was coming back and what it was going to be like. People are asking this year who do we have, are we going to be good.

“It’s a game that we lost, an important game for us. We all worked for it, and to have an ending like that really bugged us. It was fun saying we had the longest streak in the nation, but the pressure’s not off. We’re coming back stronger than ever.”

As one might expect, history says Ithaca should remain elite. Hudson went 9-0 in 1976 coming off its streak-ending loss in the 1975 Final. Cheboygan won 10 of its next 11 starting at the end of 1982 and finished 1983 at 8-1. Farmington Hills Harrison came off the end of its 36-game winning streak from 1999-2002 by finishing the latter 8-3 and going 11-2 in 2003, and Fowler won the 1998 Class D title with a 10-3 record after seeing its 33-game win streak end in a 1997 Regional Final.

Still, there isn’t a script Hessbrook can refer to in this situation since so few have been in such a spot. He said it’s up to these seniors to leave their mark – be it playing 10 games, or 12, or getting all the way back to Ford Field.

Winning 14 in a row wouldn’t be 70 or 71 – but more than good enough, even if it comes with fewer people watching Ithaca’s every move.

“I think they should follow us,” Smith said. “We slipped up one game. We’re still a great team that’s going to go out there and put on a show for the fans.

“Anybody that follows us this year is not going to be disappointed.”

Geoff Kimmerly joined the MHSAA as its Media & Content Coordinator in Sept. 2011 after 12 years as Prep Sports Editor of the Lansing State Journal. He has served as Editor of Second Half since its creation in Jan. 2012. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Barry, Eaton, Ingham, Livingston, Ionia, Clinton, Shiawassee, Gratiot, Isabella, Clare and Montcalm counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Ithaca players work on a blocking drill during Thursday's practice. (Middle) Coach Terry Hessbrook, left, explains how to field a kick to one of his special teamers. (Below) Jake Smith, carrying the ball, follows blocker Grant Gimmey.

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.)