Lansing Catholic Comes Back to Claim D5

November 30, 2019

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

DETROIT – Zach Gillespie was just part of what was out of rhythm for Lansing Catholic during the first half of Saturday’s Division 5 Final against Almont.

The senior quarterback headed into the break 2-of-6 passing for 16 yards with an interception, and had eight carries for nine yards – not at all characteristic for a standout who had thrown for nearly 2,500 yards and run for more than 550 through his first 13 games this season.

But somehow, the Cougars and Raiders were tied. And that meant Lansing Catholic was in position to win.

Gillespie stormed back with a big second half, the offense meeting halfway a defense that had kept the Cougars in the game, and the lessons of comebacks earlier this season made the difference in Lansing Catholic finishing a 31-17 win over Almont to earn its first Finals championship since 1985.

“I probably shouldn’t say that with these guys here, but I don’t think this team is the most talented team from top to bottom that we’ve ever had,” said Cougars coach Jim Ahern, who also brought Lansing Catholic to Ford Field in 2011 and 2014. “But I’ll tell ya, I don’t think I’ve had a team that has more chemistry and more heart than this group of kids did. We’ve been behind in a lot of games this year and they never quit, and I think that’s why.”

They call it a “21-7 mentality” and it was born from a loss this season, the sixth-straight over four seasons to rival Portland.

The Cougars (13-1) trailed in that Week 5 matchup 21-7 at halftime, and lightning forced the second half to be played the next day. Lansing Catholic came back to make the final score 21-20 – but even in defeat, the message hit home that the team can change the course of a game over the final two quarters. (And Lansing Catholic went on to defeat Portland 21-0 in the District Final.)

“We write it on the board at halftime – 21-7 mentality in the second half – and I think that was a big turning point coming out firing that game,” Cougars senior linebacker Sam Edwards said.  “We’ve just carried that with us since, and it’s made us better.”

This time, as in many before, Gillespie led the way. He found his footing and touch after the break, completing 9-of-17 passes for 171 yards and two touchdowns over the final two quarters and running for two scores as well.

Almont carried a 17-7 lead into the final two minutes of the third quarter. But Lansing Catholic scored 24 unanswered points to finish the game, with Gillespie shutting the door with a four-yard scoring run with 1:39 to play.

That followed touchdown passes of seven yards to senior Vince Salquist and 23 to senior Mitch Raphael, a soccer player last year who showed some delicate footwork getting one down before exiting the side of the end zone. Raphael’s score put the Cougars ahead 24-17 with 3:41 to play.

“We just knew. We knew we could come out and score with anyone,” Gillespie said. “We knew we had a couple three-and-outs, and it wasn’t going our way. We kinda just had all gas, no brakes, and weren’t just satisfied with going up seven there. We wanted to score again.

“I don’t think I could’ve had a worse first half. Especially in the state championship game, I went in at halftime and I was pretty down on myself. I (restored) the confidence in myself that I can make the throws, and I’ve got great playmakers that are going to catch it. Our line blocked pretty good in the second half … and everyone just got open for me and I was able to deliver.”

Almont (13-1) was making its first trip to the Finals for football, concluding an impressive run that saw it win on the road three of the first four weeks of the playoffs.

But the first half Saturday was frustrating, as the Raiders ended two drives throwing interceptions and a third giving up a fumble. The only first-half possession that didn’t end in a turnover finished with a touchdown.

Almont then scored on a field goal and touchdown on the first two possessions of the second half. But the Raiders threw another interception and fumbled the ball away again on the next two, allowing Lansing Catholic opportunities to catch up.

Senior Jack Paupert and junior Michael Lulgjuraj scored those Almont touchdowns, and Paupert ran 18 times for a team-high 78 yards. Senior Colby Schapman caught five passes for 80 yards. Senior Ryan Miller booted a 31-yard field goal to round out the team’s scoring.

Senior linebacker Jacob Hausmann with seven tackles led a defense that again this season measured up with the state’s best. The Raiders gave up just 11.6 points per game, holding teams below 15 per game for the sixth time in seven seasons. Lansing Catholic’s 31 points were the most surrendered by the Raiders since the 2017 playoffs.

“The backbone of our team is our defense. Coach (Ritchie) Feys does an excellent job preparing these guys, and these guys execut(e) the game plan,” Almont coach James Leusby said. “When we came out (after halftime) we were 0-0 ballgame, and we were going after it.”

Sophomore Alex Watters caught five passes for 107 yards for Lansing Catholic as Gillespie finished with 187 total through the air. Edwards had 19 tackles, recovered both fumbles and snagged an interception, and senior Daniel Magaway had 10 tackles as the Cougars locked down an offense that averaged 39.5 points this fall. Ahern directed the credit to assistants Kelly Carrier, Mike Doran and Pat Barner, who handle all of the defensive play-calling and made adjustments at halftime to slow down Almont’s outside running attack.

Ahern, meanwhile, claimed his first championship five decades after he began his head coaching career at Gobles in 1969. He spent more than three decades at Ithaca and came back from Florida in 2009 to take over at Lansing Catholic – going over 300 career wins this season and moving up to 11th on the in-state career list with a 301-152-6 record while coaching at those three Michigan high schools.

“When you get here and you don’t win, you don’t realize until I think months after that you had a great season. This is definitely a different feeling,” Ahern said.

“The message all week was let’s get him to 301,” Edwards said. “It means the world to me to be able to put on the jersey and play for this guy. It’s kinda bittersweet that I won’t get to do it again, but to end it on a high – there’s no one that deserves this more than this guy right here.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Lansing Catholic quarterback Zach Gillespie follows his blockers during Saturday’s Division 5 Final. (Middle) Mitch Raphael (7) helps bring down Almont’s Michael Lulgjuraj.

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.)