March to Marquette: 8-Player Preview

November 17, 2017

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

The MHSAA 8-Player Finals return to where they got their start Saturday, with two champions to be awarded for the first time.

Saturday’s games will be played at Northern Michigan University’s Superior Dome, which hosted the first MHSAA 8-Player Final in 2011. The 8-Player Playoffs also moved from one to two divisions this year, and Central Lake, Crystal Falls Forest Park and Portland St. Patrick all are seeking their first 8-player championships – while Central Lake will play 2012 champ Deckerville looking to win its first MHSAA title ever in the sport. 

Both games will be broadcast live on the FOX Sports Detroit Facebook page and replayed on FOX Sports Detroit’s primary channel on Nov. 21 – Division 1 at 8 p.m. and Division 2 at 11 p.m. Audio of both games will be streamed live on

Below is a look at all four finalists. Statistics are through Semifinals unless noted. The MHSAA Playoffs are sponsored by the Michigan Army National Guard.

Division 1

 12-0, No. 1
Coach: Rob Heeke, seventh season (41-30)
League finish: First in Midwest Central Michigan Conference
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Best wins: 54-20 over No. 7 Stephenson in the Semifinal, 58-26 (Regional Final) and 44-14 over No. 10 Suttons Bay, 36-14 (Pre-Regional) and 64-38 over No. 15 Mesick, 42-28 over Division 2 No. 2 Onekama.
Players to watch: QB/DB Gavin Mortensen, 5-11/160, sr. (1,062 yards/12 TDs rushing, 680 yards/18 TDs passing); TE/DB Jayce Hoogerhyde, 6-2/145, sr. (223 yards/8 TDs receiving, 49 tackles); RB/DB Skyler Spangler, 6-0/160, jr. (1,652 yards/26 TDs rushing, 272 yards/7 TDs receiving); RB/LB Grant Papineau, 6-3/210, jr. (1,886 yards/25 TDs rushing, 95 tackles).
Outlook: Central Lake has shined in its first season of 8-player football, improving from 2-7 in its final season of 11-player a year ago. Onekama came closest to catching the Trojans, losing by 14 in the game Week 8 that decided the league championship. It’s no secret how Central Lake succeeds; led by three 1,000-yard rushers, the Trojans have run for nearly 4,900 yards at 8.3 per carry. Defensively Papineau is a stopper, but Mortensen and Hoogerhyde are impressive pass defenders with 13 and 15 pass break-ups, respectively. Mortensen also has six interceptions.

 11-1, No. 3
Coach: Bill Brown, 25th season (201-71)
League finish: First in North Central Thumb League Stars
Championship history: 8-Player champion 2012, runner-up 2016.
Best wins: 52-18 over No. 5 Bellevue in the Semifinal, 38-0 over No. 4 Morrice in the Regional Final, 66-28 (Pre-Regional) and 42-8 over No. 12 Mayville, 20-14 over No. 6 Kingston, 52-0 over No. 16 Lawrence.
Players to watch: QB/DB Isaac Keinath, 5-10/155, soph. (660 yards/15 TDs passing); TB/DB Kenton Bowerman, 5-6/150, sr. (971 yards/14 TDs rushing, 8 interceptions); TE/LB/P Wyatt Janowiak, 6-4/255, sr. (288 yards/6 TDs receiving); TB/DB Cruz Ibarra, 5-10/150, jr. (1,430 yards/20 TDs rushing).
Outlook: A new cast of stars has emerged after most of last year’s graduated, and Bowerman stepped up even more last week scoring four touchdowns with leading rusher Ibarra reportedly out with an injury. Deckerville’s only loss this season was by a point to Morrice in Week 6, and was avenged with a 38-point shutout win in the Regional Final. Rival Kingston was the only other opponent to get closer than 20 points to catching the Eagles – despite a regular-season schedule that featured seven playoff teams. Senior Zachary Ostrowski has six catches as the team’s third-leading receiver – and five interceptions as its second-leading pass defender.

Division 2

9-2, No. 6
Coach: Dave Graff, fourth season (35-10)
League finish: Second in Western Eight Conference
Championship history: Three MHSAA titles (most recent 2007), 10 runner-up finishes.
Best wins: 36-34 over No. 1 Pickford in the Semifinal, 62-20 over No. 9 Engadine in the Regional Final, 20-6 (Pre-Regional) and 66-58 over No. 7 Powers North Central, 52-38 over Division 1 No. 13 Ontonagon.
Players to watch: RB/LB Connor Bortolini, 5-8/150, sr. (1,749 yards/20 TDs rushing); QB Tommy Peltoma, 6-1/180, soph. (666 yards/10 TDs passing); RB/DE Peter Ropiak, 6-0/185, sr. (863 yards/12 TDs rushing); RB/DB Calvin Post, 5-8/170, soph. (765 yards/9 TDs rushing, 4 interceptions).
Outlook: Forest Park is one of the most successful programs in MHSAA history, especially among smaller schools – it played in the Division 8 Final six straight seasons from 2004-09. The Trojans moved to 8-player last season and might have been the second or third-best team in Michigan, but shared a league and playoff path with eventual repeat champion Powers North Central and lost to the Jets in the Regional Final. Forest Park opened this season 1-2, but hasn’t been defeated since falling to Division 1 semifinalist Stephenson in Week 3. Bortolini took over this fall as the main ball carrier after the Trojans graduated a 2,400-yard rusher, and he’s carried on the program’s tradition of productive backs.

 11-1, No. 3
Coach: Patrick Russman, 11th season (69-42)
League finish: First in Central Michigan 8-Man Conference
Championship history: 11-Player Class D champion 1992, runner-up 1997 and 1991.
Best wins: 33-14 over No. 5 Kinde-North Huron in the Semifinal, 50-0 over No. 8 Flint International Academy in the Regional Final, 44-6 over No. 13 North Adams-Jerome in the Pre-Regional, 24-8 over No. 10 Marion, 38-22 over Division 1 No. 14 Webberville.
Players to watch: QB/DB Tanner Lawson, 6-3/165, jr. (1,093 yards/20 TDs passing); RB/LB Isaiah Smith, 5-10/190, sr. (359 yards/7 TDs rushing); RB/DL Ned Smith, 5-10/160, soph (779 yards/8 TDs rushing); WR/DB Will Simon, 6-2/170, sr. (395 yards/8TDs receiving). (Statistics through nine games plus one forfeit win.).
Outlook: St. Patrick also was one of the state’s top 11-player small-school programs through the 1990s and has been on the verge of playing for an 8-player championship since switching formats in 2012 – and making the Semifinals that first season. The only blemish on this season’s record was a Week 4 loss to eventual Division 1 semifinalist Bellevue, and no other opponent has gotten closer than 16 points. Junior linebacker Paul Cook is among those pacing a defense that has given up only 12.7 points per game.

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.)