Muskegon Catholic Earns Photo Finish

November 29, 2013

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor 

DETROIT – Muskegon Catholic Central’s players emerged from the Ford Field tunnel Friday morning for the first time, in shirts and ties and with awe over their faces.

The Crusaders as a community are used to making this trip, with 11 MHSAA Finals appearances and eight titles. But this was their first time in a championship game since 2008, before any of these players were in high school.

“We have a bunch of pictures in our weight room of all the state champions. And we always talk at the end of each year about how we want to be the next picture on the wall,” MCC junior quarterback Nick Holt said. “Especially this group of kids, we wanted to come down here and win.” 

And now they’ll be remembered forever among the school's best.

The Crusaders shut down one of the highest-scoring offenses in Michigan history and moved up to sixth on the list of most MHSAA football titles in beating Beal City 35-12 in the Division 8 Final.

Beal City finished this fall with 737 points, second-most all-time. But the top-ranked Aggies (13-1) mustered only 263 yards against an MCC defense that gave up more than 16 points only once this fall – on opening night.

Meanwhile, Crusaders senior running back Alex Lewandoski ran for 218 yards, good for 15th-most in Finals history. He scored on runs of 78, 1 and 66 yards. 

The team – ranked sixth at the end of the regular season – was directed by first-year coach Steve Czerwon, a player during the early 1990s and among the many on his sideline connected with MCC’s historical success.

The backfield alone included Lewandowski, whose dad played for the Crusaders, and third-generation MCC students Tommy Scott and Blake Sanford. Holt’s dad has taught at the school for 12 years. 

“It’s a lot of the same families coming through, and that’s what makes it so special here – it’ the second and third generation we’re getting of (Muskegon) Catholic kids,” Czerwon said.

“I always dreamt of playing at Ford Field,” Scott added. In ’06 coming to watch that Catholic team and that Muskegon team, and in ’08 watching both teams play. To have that experience, it’s awesome.” 

Beal City was experiencing Ford Field for the second straight season and with most of its standouts from 2012’s Finals loss to Harbor Beach back for one more shot at the school’s first title since 2009.

By the end of the first quarter, the Aggies had nearly evened Lewandowski’s touchdown on his team's first offensive play of the game, just missing on an extra point to trail 7-6. MCC added a second-quarter touchdown, but didn’t break things open until scoring twice during the first eight minutes of the third quarter. That allowed the defense to take a few more risks and send a few more rushers and make Beal City’s comeback attempt much tougher – especially after the Aggies' initial strategy included long possessions to drain the clock.

“You’re trying to dig yourself out of a hole right off the bat, but it puts you in a different play-calling situation when they break off those big runs,” Beal City coach Lou Rau said. “We responded, and then we gave up another big play. That definitely changes what we do and how we do it.”

Senior Hayden Huber led Beal City with 52 yards rushing and its lone touchdown on the ground. Senior quarterback Kurt Gross did complete 8 of 16 passes, but the Aggies just couldn’t get their offense clicking.

MCC's defense had is share of big plays as well. The Crusaders had three tackles for losses, two interceptions and broke up five passes. Lewandoski had a team-high nine tackles and two of those break-ups.

“They sent a lot of guys; they were on a mission,” Gross said. “A couple of times when I was passing, I knew what they were doing. But the DBs were covering well, and they shifted over well and played their zone really good. They were really disciplined; that’s the best way I could describe them.” 

Although Holt didn’t complete any of his four passes, it wasn’t needed. He ran for 123 yards and a touchdown and Scott ran for 53 yards including a 21-yard score.

MCC’s last three playoff losses had come by seven points or fewer, including once to Beal City in a 2009 Semifinal and last season to Harbor Beach by five in another semi. But a number of this year’s contributors got valuable experience during that run, no doubt preparing them to finish the job.

“I think the expectations were there because this is the same group of kids that lost, and we knew we had started some sophomores and some freshman in the Semifinals last year,” Czerwon said. “Not only did we have expectations, but the kids had expectations for themselves. That being said, we were able to take that next step.”

Click for a full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Muskegon Catholic Central players hold up their first MHSAA championship trophy earned since 2008. (Middle) A trio of Crusaders tacklers wrap up Beal City running back Ty Rollin. (Click to see more from Terry McNamara Photography.)

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.)