'Next Up' Help P-W to Next Championship

November 25, 2017

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

DETROIT – The Pewamo-Westphalia football program finished a second straight season hoisting a championship trophy at Ford Field on Saturday, thanks to the “next man up” … and the next man … and the next man after that.

It was easy to credit the Pirates’ first MHSAA football title ever, won last year, on the state’s all-time second leading rusher Jared Smith. But he graduated in the spring.

They got back to Ford Field in large part on the running and passing skills of senior quarterback Jimmy Lehman. And then Lehman potentially broke his left hand in the second quarter and didn’t play the final two.

In both instances, and a few more this fall, someone stepped right in. This time, the Pirates weathered the loss of Lehman and stood strong as Saugatuck’s offense caught stride to close with a 21-0 win that proved once more P-W’s teams of the last two seasons were even better than the sum of some truly elite parts.

“We had a lot of people that just really felt like they had to step up,” Lehman said. “We lost our first game (28-21 to Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central) and that was some of the adversity we had to go through all year – how were we going to respond from that? We just made sure we took every day and made it the best we could, and just improve from there.”

That loss to the Falcons was P-W’s only defeat of the last two seasons, and they improved to 40-3 over the last three years after also finishing Division 7 runner-up in 2015.

The “next man up” success sort of began in last season’s championship game, when Smith served as a tremendous decoy running for 48 of his 8,182 career yards while Lehman and others starred in a 28-14 win over Detroit Loyola.

Lehman took the reins fulltime this fall and threw for 1,627 yards and 20 touchdowns, running for 728 yards and 16 scores – and while starting as a forceful 6-foot-4, 215-pound defensive end as well.

His late first quarter touchdown run from 12 yards out said it all as Lehman broke two tackles and dragged three more defenders into the end zone. He stayed in the game at first after injuring the hand on P-W’s final possession of the first half, throwing a 12-yard touchdown pass to senior Peyton Heckman to finish his day.

The Pirates threw only one pass during a scoreless second half. Junior Noah Spitzley stepped in and helped that effort on the defensive side, tying for third on the team with six tackles. 

“It says a lot about the other guys on the team, the other guys in the program that are just continually working and waiting for an opportunity,” P-W coach Jeremy Miller said. “Cameron Wirth started for us all year at fullback and linebacker, and we lost him on the opening kickoff of the Semifinal. Justin Pohl, who hadn’t played a whole lot, stepped in and did a great job at fullback for us today. So we always have the ‘next man up’ mentality, and these guys are constantly ready. And I think it says a lot about them.”

Saugatuck’s run this fall said plenty as well. The Indians this spring graduated Blake Dunn, the eighth-leading rusher in MHSAA career history. But they made it to Ford Field for the first time since finishing Division 8 runner-up in 2010, ironically after seeing perfect seasons end against P-W in District Finals the last two years in losses of 10 and six points.

“It’s been our dream forever to get here, and the first thing yesterday when we first walked in here, it was amazing – it just opened up,” Saugatuck senior linebacker Reece Schreckengust said. “It’s a great stadium, a great atmosphere. Losing hurts, but to get all the way here, it was a great season. I’m proud of every one of my teammates, my coaches, and myself and everyone else in our community for getting here. … To go out at Ford Field is probably the second best, besides winning it.”

After struggling during the first half, Saugatuck (10-4) took its shots at making it close during the second.

The Indians drove to P-W’s 18-yard line on their second possession of the third quarter, but sophomore linebacker Jacob Pung ended that rally with an interception at the 11.

Saugatuck then drove to the Pirates’ 3-yard line early in the fourth quarter, before having first and second-down runs stopped for a one-yard loss and no gain, respectively, seeing a third-down pass fall incomplete and getting sacked on fourth down for a 16-yard loss by Spitzley and senior Damon Schneider.

Total, P-W (13-1) held Saugatuck to 147 yards of offense. The shutout was the Pirates’ second of the playoffs and sixth this season, not including a 2-0 forfeit win in Week 7.

“They’re just a big, physical, fast team,” Saugatuck senior quarterback Jackson Shriver said. “That’s what makes a great defense. They follow their system and play hard. They have a great team, and it was hard to play against them.”

Saugatuck’s defense deserved praise as well. The Pirates’ 21 points were their fewest since that opening-night loss.

“We had our moments when we could’ve come back, and unfortunately it didn’t happen,” Indians coach Bill Dunn said. “To hold a team like that to 21 is a good credit. A couple of those came off miscues either offensively, or a turnover. Our defense was exceptional considering the opponent. They were just a little bit better today.”

Senior Bryce Thelen added 92 yards rushing on 14 carries and scored P-W’s first touchdown midway through the first quarter. Schneider paced the defense with eight tackles including two sacks.

Schreckengust, who will graduate as Saugatuck’s career tackles record holder, had nine more, as did senior Connor Carper.

“They always play hard, and so respectful,” Thelen said of what’s become an annual meeting between the programs. “It’s always a hard-nosed game, always close, always super physical. They’re just fun games to play in that come down to a couple plays throughout the game that tilt the game one way or the other.”

Click for the full box score.

The MHSAA Playoffs are sponsored by the Michigan Army National Guard.

PHOTOS: (Top) P-W quarterback Jimmy Lehman charges upfield during the Division 7 championship game. (Middle) Bryce Thelen eludes the grasp of a Saugatuck defender. 

Constantine Football All-Stater, Wrestling Champ Aiming for Grand Finale

By Scott Hassinger
Special for MHSAA.com

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.)