March to Marquette: 8-Player Preview

November 13, 2018

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

The following statement is both rare and thrilling to announce:

We are guaranteed Saturday to celebrate two first-time MHSAA champions at the 8-Player Football Finals at Northern Michigan University’s Superior Dome.

In fact, three of Saturday’s four finalists will be playing in their first championship game. Both Division 1 contenders – Morrice and Pickford – are making their first trips past the Semifinals. In Division 2, Rapid River is a two-time runner-up and Onekama another first-time finalist.

Kickoff for the Division 1 game is 11 a.m., with the Division 2 game following at 2 p.m. Tickets cost $10 and one is good for admittance to both games. Both games also will be broadcast live on and the FOX Sports app, and replayed on FOX Sports Detroit’s primary channel on Nov. 20 – 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. Team “rankings” are based on their playoff-point averages heading into the postseason.

Division 1

 12-0, No. 4
Coach: Kendall Crockett, fifth season (41-14)
League finish: First in North Central Thumb League Red
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Best wins: 40-8 over No. 5 Colon in Semifinal, 44-14 over No. 2 Wyoming Tri-unity Christian in Regional Final, 34-14 over No. 8 Deckerville, 40-0 over Division 2 No. 5 Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart.  
Players to watch: QB Hunter Nowak 5-11/164 sr. (1,922 yards/33 TDs rushing, 529 yards/8 TDs passing), RB/LB Austin Edington 5-9/152, sr. (851 yards/15 TDs rushing, 313 yards/4 TDs receiving; 54 tackles), OG/NG Sam Koresky 5-7/170 sr. (68 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, 10 sacks), FB/LB Connor Lucas, 5-10/180 sr. (91 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss).
Outlook: Morrice had an often-solid 11-player program before switching to 8-player in 2014, and has since become elite. The Orioles are a combined 21-2 over the last two seasons and have allowed only 62 points this fall over 11 games (one win was a forefeit) – with six straight shutouts from Weeks 5-10. Junior defensive back Shane Cole with seven interceptions leads an opportunistic unit that is enjoying nearly three turnovers per game. Nowak made the all-state team as a junior and will enter the record book with 232 points and counting this fall.

 12-0, No. 1
Coach: Josh Rader, 16th season (99-53)
League finish: First in Great Lakes Conference East
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final. 
Best wins: 50-20 over No. 3 AuGres-Sims in Semifinal, 48-42 over No. 7 Suttons Bay in Regional Final, 52-7 over Division 2 No. 2 Engadine, 58-12 over Division 2 No. 7 Rapid River.
Players to watch: QB/LB Jimmy Storey, 6-0/180 jr. (1,638 yards/30 TDs passing, 920 yards/18 TDs rushing; 89 tackles, 3 interceptions); RB/DB Stephen LaMothe, 5-9/165 jr. (913 yards/15 TDs rushing; 4 interceptions); RB Matt Bush, 5-10/170 jr. (786 yards/10 TDs rushing; 62 tackles); SE/DE Nick Edington, 6-8/220, jr. (836 yards/16 TDs receiving; 46 tackles).
Outlook: Pickford also has been on the cusp of this opportunity, emerging from a third-straight Semifinal appearance to make the championship game for the first time. The Panthers are a combined 39-7 since switching to 8-player four seasons ago, and the dominance should continue as only two of this year’s players are seniors (although both start). Storey guides an offense averaging 54 points per game that hasn’t slowed in the playoffs with 51, 48 and 50 in its three postseason wins. Juniors Isaiah May (96 tackles) and Sam Burton (67 tackles/12 sacks) are two more impact players.

Division 2

 10-2, No. 4
Coach: John Neph, second season (19-4)
League finish: Third in Midwest Central Michigan Conference West
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final. 
Best wins: 28-14 over No. 10 Portland St. Patrick in Semifinal, 52-0 over No. 8 Brethren in Regional Final, 22-6 (Pre-Regional) and 30-0 over No. 12 Marion.
Players to watch: HB/LB Ben Acton, 6-2/175 sr. (726 yards/7 TDs rushing, 241 yards/2 TDs receiving); QB/DB Luke Mauntler (5-8/145) jr. (659 yards/9 TDs passing, 433 yards/6 TDs rushing); HB/LB Aaron Powers, 6-0/175 jr. (625 yards/11 TDs rushing); WR/DB Ben Johnson, 6-0/150, sr. (6 interceptions).
Outlook: The Portagers navigated a tough league finishing behind two Division 1 playoff teams and just ahead of reigning Division 1 champion Central Lake before opening up their longest postseason run ever. Onekama is another 8-player success story at 19-4 over the last two seasons after a solid recent run in 11-player as well. The numbers above might seem modest, but the team played only 10 games on the field as two wins came by forfeit. Not modest is the defense’s giving up only 8.1 points per game, with the team’s two losses by a mere seven points combined.

9-3, No. 7
Coach: Steve Ostrenga, 20th season (109-82)
League finish: Third in Great Lakes Conference East
Championship history: 8-Player (one division) runner-up 2011, 2013.
Best wins: 36-30 (Semifinal) and 28-20 over No. 16 Cedarville, 40-34 over No. 14 Crystal Falls Forest Park in Regional Final, 20-18 over No. 2 Engadine in Pre-Regional.
Players to watch: RB/S Tyler Sundling, 5-11/170, jr. (1,252 yards/16 TDs rushing, 504 yards/7 TDs receiving); QB/S Brent Lundquist, 6-3/180 sr. (1,424 yards/21 TDs passing); RB/LB Azariah Hernandez, 5-6/135, jr. (870 yards/11 TDs rushing); RB/DL Gunner Larson, 6-1/240 sr. (945 yards/8 TDs rushing).
Outlook: Rapid River has developed one of the strongest 8-player traditions during this first decade of the format in Michigan, appearing in the inaugural championship game and now heading for its third Finals. The Rockets held off league rival Cedarville for a second time last week after upsetting GLC East runner-up Engadine in the playoff opener and just two weeks after losing that matchup by 18. If this game is close, Rapid River can dig deep – five wins are by eight points or fewer. Senior Nate Olson is another two-way starter and the leading receiver with 685 yards and eight scores on 26 catches.

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.)