King Avenges Early Defeat to Reign Again

November 24, 2018

By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half

DETROIT – Rematches are rare in high school football, especially for teams located on opposite sides of the state.

But Detroit Martin Luther King on Saturday got the chance to avenge a Week 2 loss at Muskegon, and star senior quarterback Dequan Finn and his talented supporting cast made the most of it.

Finn, a 6-foot-1,190-pound senior who has committed to sign with Central Michigan University, threw four touchdown passes and ran for another as the Crusaders’ offensive versatility was the difference in a 41-25 victory over previously unbeaten Muskegon in the Division 3 Final at Ford Field.

“So many great King teams have lost to Muskegon, and it felt great to be the first to beat them,” said Tyrone Spencer, who has two MHSAA titles and a Semifinal appearance in his three years as King’s head coach. “They are a great program with a rich tradition, and it feels good to beat them for a state championship.”

King (12-2) won its third Finals championship in four years, after claiming back-to-back Division 2 crowns in 2015 and 2016. The Crusaders have won four titles overall, with their first also in Division 2 in 2007. 

Muskegon (13-1) was shooting for its seventh MHSAA title, but instead finished runner-up for the fifth time, and saw its state-best 27-game winning streak snapped.

The final championship game of the weekend was a matchup between arguably the two best quarterbacks in the state – and neither disappointed.

Muskegon junior Cameron Martinez (5-11, 190) was once again the workhorse for the Big Reds, carrying 37 times for 211 yards and two touchdowns. He completed only 1-of-4 passes, but that completion was good for a 13-yard touchdown to senior Ali’vonta Wallace.

Finn, meanwhile, was deadly with his arm and feet.

Finn completed 9-of-13 passes for 173 yards and the four scores, as his offensive line gave him plenty of time to pick apart the Muskegon secondary. He was also King’s second-leading rusher with 11 carries for 73 yards and another touchdown.

“I’m just happy with the whole team, the effort that we gave,” said Finn. “It’s a surreal moment right now. I’m lost for words.”

The quarterback matchup went back-and-forth for three quarters, and when Martinez plunged in from two yards out late in the third quarter to draw his team within 21-17, it appeared the stage was set for a fantastic finish.

Instead, King’s myriad offensive weapons overwhelmed Muskegon over the final 12 minutes.

Three players scored in the fourth quarter as the Crusaders pulled away – senior receiver Ahmad Gardner on a 22-yard pass from Finn, junior running back Peny Boone on a 52-yard run and senior receiver Darrell Wyatt on a three-yard pass from Finn that was nearly intercepted in the end zone.

There were a lot of plays that could have been big for us, but there were dropped passes and a missed interception,” said Martinez, who finished his junior year with a school-record 2,527 rushing yards. “In a game like this, you can’t afford to make mistakes.”

Muskegon, which was playing in an MHSAA Finals game for the sixth time in seven years, got off to a great start.

The Big Reds forced a punt on King’s first possession, and despite taking over at their own 3-yard line, marched 97 yards in 13 plays behind their dominating offensive line. Martinez sprinted in from 10 yards out for a 7-0 lead.

Making openings for Martinez were four seniors up front – tackles Anthony Bradford (6-5, 360) and Evan Towers (6-4, 285) and guards Marquis Cooper (6-1, 330) and Da’Quarious Johnson (6-0, 260) – along with junior center DeAndre Mills-Ellis (6-0, 290).

King countered with the passing of Finn, who connected with senior wideout Dominick Polidore-Hannah on a pair of first-half touchdown passes covering 42 and 22 yards as the Crusaders took a 14-10 halftime lead.

The third quarter was even as Finn and Martinez each had scoring runs, but King’s athleticism prevailed over Muskegon’s size and strength during the final quarter.

“We won 27 games in a row, and you have no idea how remarkable that is,” Muskegon ninth-year head coach Shane Fairfield told his huddled team on the Ford Field turf afterwards. “It hurts and it should hurt, but we haven’t felt this in a while.”

Boone made Muskegon pay for spreading out to cover the pass, hammering his way for 111 yards on 14 carries. Gardner and Polidore-Hannah each caught three passes. Leading King defensively was junior free safety Joe Frazier with 11 tackles, sophomore safety Jaylen Reed and senior safety Ray Williams with 10 tackles apiece and senior linebacker Rich Miller with nine stops.

The victory was sweet revenge for the Crusaders and especially Finn. In the Week 2 meeting, he  mishandled a snap with 35 seconds remaining. Muskegon’s Billie Roberts recovered the fumble, and the Big Reds held on for a 24-21 win at Hackley Stadium in Muskegon. They went on to be ranked No. 1 in Division 3 the entire regular season and heading into the playoffs

“Our kids didn’t have any quit in them,” Spencer said. “I told them to give more effort, and that’s what they did. We got some breaks tonight, but (Muskegon) had some breaks when we went to their place and played. It’s a part of the game, and I’ll take it all day. Our guys never quit, and I’m proud of them.”

Senior Demario Robinson was the second-leading rusher for the Big Reds with 47 yards on six carries, while senior Carlos Hernandez booted a 37-yard field goal on the final play of the first half. Wallace led the defense with seven tackles, junior linebacker Tarran Walker had six and senior defensive back Isaiah Moore made five stops.

Muskegon, the winningest team in state history with 844 victories over 124 years of football (dating back to 1895), beat Farmington Hills Harrison last year for the Division 3 title. The Big Reds also have lost twice to Birmingham Brother Rice (2012 and 2013), twice to Orchard Lake St. Mary’s (2014 and 2016) and now King in championship games.

Fairfield scheduled the regular-season game against King to help prepare his team for the type of athletes it might see at Ford Field. He did not expect to see King again, as the Crusaders have traditionally slotted into the Division 2 bracket. But a drop in enrollment put both teams in the same division – and on a collision course.

Both had to survive Pre-District playoff scares, as Muskegon edged East Grand Rapids by one score (42-35), while King beat River Rouge by just one point (7-6).

After that, both teams rolled over their next three opponents en route to Ford Field.

Saturday’s matchup was the second time the two schools have met in an MHSAA Finals game, with the first meeting in the Class A Final in 1989 at the Pontiac Silverdome. Muskegon, which is now 5-1 all-time against King, prevailed in that title game 16-13.

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Detroit Martin Luther King raises the Division 3 championship trophy Saturday night at Ford Field. (Middle) Crusaders defenders work to bring down a Muskegon ball carrier.

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.)