Moment: The Final Thrill

December 16, 2020

By John Johnson
MHSAA Director of Broadcast Properties

Over the course of nearly 34 years on this job, you often get asked what single championship game you would rank at the top of your list. You could ask that question to 100 people and get 100 answers – and guess what? They’d all be right. Such is the beauty of high school sports.

Which is why, after all these years, my game for the ages is one that has stood the test of time in my mind for over 30 years. It had everything you would want in a high school game – fantastic competition – great plays – and when it was over, some of the best sportsmanship I’ve ever seen – NO – make that THE best sportsmanship I’ve ever seen. To be on the field, you’d have a hard time telling who won and who lost by the way the players from both teams hugged and shook hands and sincerely congratulated each other. Which is how it should be after every – single – game.

And what topped it all off after that was the winning team making a trip to a pep assembly at the other team’s gym the following week to thank them for a great game, and present a banner signed by every member of the team.

That game was the 1989 Class B Football Playoff Final. The last year that four divisions were conducted in that postseason tournament. The last game played in that format.

Farmington Hills Harrison and DeWitt. The powerful, dominant Hawks and even legendary at that time coach John Herrington – and the All-America quarterback in Mill “The Thrill” Coleman; against the pride of the Ingham County League, the Panthers of DeWitt, from what was an old farming bedroom community north of Lansing transforming into a new money suburb of the Capitol City.

The Hawks, the reigning Class B champs after winning the third of their state-record 13 titles against St. Joseph the previous November, were heavy favorites. DeWitt was making its fourth Playoff appearance and moving up in class after reaching the Semifinals in 1988, only to lose to powerhouse Detroit St. Martin dePorres.

The underdogs used an efficient running attack to take a 21-14 halftime lead on Harrison. John Telford, who rushed for 153 yards in the game, had two of the scores. Harrison tied the game early in the final period on the first of two scoring runs by Coleman, this one from 19 yards out.

DeWitt then put together a grinding drive, culminated by quarterback Chris Berkimer sneaking it from one yard out. Harrison blocked the extra point and DeWitt led 27-21 with 2:20 on the clock.

That left way too much time for Coleman. He engineered a 67-yard, five-play drive to tie the game. It didn’t even take a minute off the clock.

“When they scored I looked at the clock and knew we had enough time and all three of our time outs,” Coleman told the Detroit Free Press after the game. “I kept thinking back to that drive John Elway had against the Browns a couple of years ago in the playoffs when he had to go 98 yards.”

Three straight passes to Mike Saputo, Steve Hill and Greg Piscopink got Harrison down to the DeWitt 16; and Coleman then rolled out on a Student Body Right for another seven yards.

At the DeWitt 9, Coleman dropped back for what appeared to be another pass, but the Panthers' pressure forced The Thrill to run. Coleman eluded five tacklers along the way, finally diving into the end zone to score. 

“We knew he (Coleman) was good, and we just tried to contain him,” DeWitt coach Gail Thornton told the Lansing State Journal after the game.  “But every once in a while he would get loose for a big one.”

Steve Hill kicked the extra point and Harrison was back in the lead, 28-27. Hill would then intercept Berkimer on DeWitt’s first play after the ensuing kickoff to seal the deal.

PHOTO: Farmington Hills Harrison's Mill Coleman rolls left at the start of what would be the game-winning run for his team in the 1989 Class B Football Final. (Photo by Gary Shook). 

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.)