Nightmare Ends with Shanks' Dream Finish

December 6, 2017

By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half

The media were fixated on La’Darius Jefferson, and who can blame them?

The senior quarterback validated his recent selection as the MLive statewide Football Player of the Year by rushing 32 times for 245 yards and all four of Muskegon’s touchdowns in a 28-10 victory over Farmington Hills Harrison in the MHSAA Division 3 Final on Nov. 25 at Ford Field. He followed that up by giving the dejected Harrison players a classy postgame pep talk.

If it wasn’t Jefferson, the cameras were focused on eighth-year Muskegon head coach Shane Fairfield, who overcame four losses in the title game by finally taking the final step and hoisting the championship trophy,

But the best story coming out of Muskegon’s recently-won title belonged to senior cornerback Willie “Bo” Shanks – a tale that started with heartbreak, which morphed into an ongoing nightmare, which had to be confronted and converted into motivation, then mixed in with relentless hard work before finally culminating with redemption. Sweet redemption.

“It felt great; it felt right,” said Shanks, the soft-spoken leader of the Big Reds’ secondary. “I guess the lesson in my story is that with focus and hard work, you can overcome anything.”

The heartbreak occurred one year ago, when Shanks was playing cornerback on the final play in Muskegon’s heartbreaking 2016 Division 3 Final 29-28 loss to Orchard Lake St. Mary’s. Shanks was running with receiver Ky’ren Cunningham, who abruptly turned in at the goal line. Before Shanks could react, the ball was in Cunningham’s arms on the ground in the end zone with six seconds showing on the clock, courtesy of a perfectly-timed pass from quarterback Caden Prieskorn.

Even though player after player, coach after coach, fan after fan, and family member after family member pointed out that it wasn’t just one play which cost Muskegon the championship, Shanks couldn’t shake it off.

"I think about it every play," the soft-spoken Shanks said earlier this season. "I think about it every day in practice. I think about it every time we go out and play a game. I even think about it when I`m asleep. I have nightmares about it, so it just motivates me a lot to not let it happen again."

Fairfield decided right away that the best way to deal with the pain of that loss was to bring it out in the open – confront it and then work to overcome it.

“We got beat with six seconds left, so everything ever since has been six more reps, six more sprints, six more drills,” said Shanks, a 6-foot-2, 180-pound senior who is also a starting guard on Muskegon’s basketball team, which opens its season Friday at home against Rockford.

The hard work by Shanks and fellow seniors Clinton Jefferson and Marvin Harwell and junior Lamarion Sherrill turned Muskegon’s perceived Achilles heel – pass defense – into a strength.

In both of Muskegon’s losses in 2016, against visiting Chicago Lincolnshire Stevenson (38-35) in Week 2 and the Final against St. Mary’s, the Big Reds were torched through the air. Led by Shanks in the secondary, the Big Reds fielded a defense for the first time in years this fall that was equally good against the run and the pass – with only Muskegon Mona Shores having even a modicum of success passing.

“He was our solid rock all year back in the secondary,” Fairfield said of Shanks, who is now hoping to play defensive back at the college level.

Shanks had his individual highlight in the Regional championship game against DeWitt on Nov. 10 at Grand Haven, when he intercepted three passes (including one he took back for a touchdown) as Muskegon rolled to a shocking 49-0 victory. Those three interceptions gave him 10 for the season, breaking the school record of eight held by three players, including ex-Southern Cal standout and NFL player Ronald Johnson.

If the story ended right there, it would have been a much happier ending than most ever get in the sports world. Sports Illustrated and others have told countless stories of wayward kickers, not to mention recognizable figures like Bill Buckner and Steve Bartman, who never quite recovered from a single play during a game.

But this story had a perfect ending not only for Shanks, but for the Muskegon football program as well.

After dispatching overmatched Battle Creek-Harper Creek, 42-0, in the Semifinals, Muskegon returned to the familiar confines of Ford Field, almost one year to the day of its last-second defeat.

No worries this time around. When the scoreboard clock reached :06 this year, the Big Reds were comfortably in celebration mode.

6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 …0.

For Jefferson, Fairfield and the entire Muskegon football family, it was a dream come true.

And for one Big Red in particular, it also was a nightmare vanquished.

Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Muskegon senior cornerback Willie Shanks tackles Farmington Hills Harrison receiver Joe Stevens during the Division 3 Final. (Middle) Shanks defends Grand Rapids Christian's Duane Washington during last year's Class A Regional at Grand Haven. Muskegon entered the game undefeated, before falling to the Eagles. (Below) Muskegon football coach Shane Fairfield, left, and Muskegon basketball coach and athletic director Keith Guy pose with the Class A District championship trophy after the Big Reds defeated Zeeland West this fall. Fairfield and Guy sharing great athletes like Shanks has put Muskegon’s programs among the state's elite in both football and basketball. (Photos by Tim Reilly.)

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.)