Martin Caps Frantic Final Minutes with Unforgettable Comeback at Superior Dome

By Jason Juno
Special for

November 18, 2023

MARQUETTE --- Martin had it easy last year, at least from a stress and anxiety standpoint.

Sure, the 8-Player Division 1 Final was competitive in the first half, but Martin went on to win the championship game by 50 points, hardly anything to sweat too much about.

But this year? 

Oh goodness.

Martin took possession of the ball on its own 15-yard-line with 1:15 on the clock and trailing by two scores, 26-14, to an Indian River Inland Lakes team determined to win its first Finals title on the football field.

And Martin won. A state title game for the ages, the Clippers claimed it 30-26 to repeat as champions despite also trailing 20-0 to start the fourth quarter.

It was still a 20-point margin, 26-6, when the Bulldogs scored what seemed to be the insurance points they needed with 6:26 left.

“It’s amazing,” Martin coach Brad Blauvelt said. “I’m not gonna lie – doubt creeps into your head when it’s 20-6, they’re driving down the field, they’re running the clock. … We made plays, we made plays when it counted the most.”

Inland Lakes built its big lead with a stout red zone defense – Martin got there on every one of its possessions but didn’t cash in until the final quarter – and a four-touchdown day from junior quarterback Aidan Fenstermaker.

It was the first Finals appearance for Inland Lakes, which had its two winningest seasons over the last three years. Coach Travis Meyer’s message to the team after such a heartbreaking loss was about focusing on getting here – no easy feat itself – and about the upperclassmen guiding the rest of the team so that their run of success isn’t complete.

Martin quarterback Gavin Meyers charges toward the end zone on the way to scoring the game-winning touchdown. “No one in the state, based on any rankings, based on any newspaper articles, based on anything really, expected us to do what we did,” Meyer said. “And then even the ones that weren’t totally shocked that we were here didn’t think it was going to be a four-point game. Regardless of when the points were scored, that’s still a four-point game, that’s a hell of a state championship. That could have gone lots of different ways, and I don’t think anybody really expected us to give them a shot.”

They certainly did that. Martin, though, had an epic response.

The Clippers scored quickly, going 70 yards in a minute and a half, with Haylen Buell’s one-yard touchdown run pulling the Clippers within 26-14 with 4:54 left.

The Bulldogs recovered the Martin onside kick attempt and marched right into the red zone on the ensuing drive. But they turned it over on downs with 1:33 left. 

That meant Martin had to go 85 yards just to pull within one possession with the clock even more daunting than the distance.

It took them a minute. The Clippers capped the drive as Taegan Harris caught a 10-yard scoring pass from Gavin Meyers with 33 seconds to go. The conversion pass made it 26-22.

Everything came down to the onside kick by sophomore Ben Romero. The bouncing ball went off at least two Inland Lakes players before Martin’s Mike Branch recovered it. 

Martin had tried an onside kick after its previous two scores as well, but this was the only one that worked. 

“They timed it perfect,” Meyer said. “That kid has a heck of an onside kick, it gets there at the same time as his kids. Whether you’re ready for it, whether you’ve got your best athletes there or not, that’s hard to do, especially on a stage like this, in that moment. That is hard on anybody, even the pros.”

The Clippers took over at their 45 with 32 ticks on the clock. Before long they were at the 21. 

Meyers looked to pass, scrambled and then ran 21 yards for the touchdown with five seconds remaining. 

“It was a pass play, trying to get it to Abe (Dykstra),” Meyers said. “The middle opened up, and I just took off.”

He said he was just hoping to get out of bounds, with the clock running down, but he was able to get in the end zone.

“We thought we could keep them out for two more plays,” Meyer, the Bulldogs’ coach, said. “We lost contain somewhere there around the edge.”

Inland Lakes’ Andre Bradford (20) pulls in a catch as two Martin defenders converge including Bryer Watson (2). The unfathomable score: 30-26 after the conversion.

Martin lost a lot of seniors from last year, including three all-staters. The Clippers didn’t win their conference, and they fell to 2-2 early in the year with losses to Bridgman and Gobles. They haven’t lost since, though, winning nine straight games with a young team.

“It’s nice to be able to leave a legacy,” said Harris, a senior. “Last year, we had a pretty stacked group of guys. We had three of our star players injured this season, it wasn’t looking good, 2-2, then we won, what, nine, eight straight? … It feels really good.”

Meyers, who threw for 216 yards and ran for 142 on Saturday, filled in for one of those all-state graduates quite well, J.R. Hildebrand.

“He’s a damn good football player,” Blauvelt said of Meyers. “And he’s grown a bunch. Halfway through the year, he started moving in the pocket, keeping his eyes downfield. You saw it today, right, he kept his eyes downfield.” 

After a scoreless first quarter, Inland Lakes scored twice during the second quarter. The Bulldogs took over for the final drive of the half at their own 12 with 3:05 remaining. They went for it on 4th-and-6 at their own 31 and again on 4th-and-6 at the 47. They converted both and were rewarded with a touchdown as time expired. Despite being pressured, Fenstermaker hit Jacob Willey in the corner of the end zone for a 24-yard touchdown pass that put Inland Lakes up 14-0 at the half.

Meyer said his team punted once this year and once last year.

“We don’t put a ton of time into punting,” he said. “So when the best we can do is maybe get off a 25-yard punt and they return it 10 yards before we cover it, we figured that was only 15 yards of field position anyway, so we might as well give ourselves a shot. It was playing the odds. Maybe people don’t like that logic, but we like to play aggressively. We like to see what we can do.”

They built the lead to 20-0 late in the third quarter as Martin came up empty on all four of its drives, even though every one of them got into the red zone.

“It was very frustrating,” Blauvelt said. “We saw on film, they stopped Pickford (in the Semifinal) inside the red zone multiple times, they tightened up when they got in there. We shot ourselves in the foot in the first half. But we moved the ball consistently, but yeah, that was a little frustrating. We had some good drives, and we just couldn’t punch them in.”

It just wasn’t as frustrating as the finish was for the Bulldogs.

Inland Lakes senior Payton Teuthorn said getting to this point was what they wanted since youth football.

“We made it here. We just couldn’t finish,” he said.

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS (Top) Martin players celebrate with their fans Saturday the program’s second-straight 8-Player Division 1 championship at Superior Dome. (Middle) Martin quarterback Gavin Meyers charges toward the end zone on the way to scoring the game-winning touchdown. (Below) Inland Lakes’ Andre Bradford (20) pulls in a catch as two Martin defenders converge including Bryer Watson (2). (Click for more photos by Cara Kamps.)

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.)