North Central Soars, Scores 1st Football Title

November 20, 2015

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

GREENVILLE – The photos Powers North Central football players took Friday night after winning the first MHSAA championship trophy in program history were finishing touches on arguably the most impressive run yet during the short history of 8-player football in this state.  

Although the 8-player format is only half a decade old, it’s fair to surmise Michigan may not see an offense as potent as North Central’s for years to come – at least until the Jets take the floor this basketball season.

Sure, North Central was held to its season low in points Friday. But given the opponent and the stage, the Jets did more than enough to impress in defeating previously-undefeated Battle Creek St. Philip only 58-33 after scoring at least 64 points in every other game this fall. 

North Central (13-0) ended this season, it’s first as an 8-player program, averaging 70.4 points per game. That was only half a point less than the basketball team, featuring many of these same players, averaged in winning the Class D title in March.

“When you go into a season, you know what you have and you know what you need to work on,” said junior quarterback Jason Whitens, who also was the basketball team’s leading scorer last winter. “With the group of guys we’ve got, we all love each other, we’re close-knit just like basketball, and we love to work hard. We come out here and perform and just work hard.” 

North Central finished 13-0. Before St. Philip came within 25 points, no opponent had come closer to the Jets than 48. 

A few key decisions gave them the momentum for such a dominating run.

First came the decision to move to 8-player. North Central had had recent success in 11-player, making the playoffs three of the last five seasons and finishing 8-3 in 2013. But enrollment dropping to 119 students this fall justified the move.

Then came another switch. Whitens, a receiver last season, moved to quarterback to take over for his graduated cousin Rob Granquist after formerly serving as one of Granquist’s top targets. 

Whitens threw for 217 yards and two touchdowns Friday, giving him 2,532 yards and 45 touchdown passes without an interception this fall. It’s a good argument, which was more incredible – the zero interceptions or that 25 percent of his 179 passes went for scores. 

His development was quickened by work with cousin Granquist, but also by another sharp decision by coach Kevin Bellefeuil, who decided to keep the same offense as when the team was 11-player but drop the tackles and a slot receiver.

Still, St. Philip nearly wrote its own storybook ending as it sought its first football title since 1985. 

The Tigers scored first – the first time North Central had trailed this season – and led by as many as nine points before a pair of plays changed the game’s course.

Holding a 21-20 lead with 2:15 left in the first half, St. Philip chose to go for a first down on 4th-and-1 from North Central’s 34 yard line – and was stuffed for a 3-yard loss by junior Tanner Poupore with help from a few teammates. 

On the next play, Whitens dropped a 63-yard touchdown pass just over the shoulder of junior running back Bobby Kleiman, who outran a defender for the go-ahead score.

“We’ve got a couple of guys, and we can just call their number and it seems to go for us every time,” Bellefeuil said. “We set up a couple of plays, and then we waited and waited and waited. And then we hit with that big pass to Bobby down the middle and it was just what we hoped would happen.” 

Less than two minutes later, junior Dawson Bilski intercepted a fourth-down St. Philip pass again in North Central territory. With 30 seconds left in the first half, Whitens led a 56-yard drive that included 28 and 34-yard passes to Kleiman and ended with Whitens scoring on a 1-yard run with a second left in the half.

“They just had a ton of weapons and speed that we couldn’t contain, and that was the ballgame,” Tigers coach Dave Downey said. “Once we get down, we’re pressing. We’re throwing the ball a lot more than what we probably should have. We like to run the ball a little bit more. When we went to the air, they defended the pass pretty well and they got to our quarterback quite a few times, and that was the difference too.”

The North Central defense did give up a season high in points, but those 33 were also a season low for the Tigers. St. Phil did end up with 380 total yards – senior running back Brayden Darr ran for 104 and two touchdowns despite plenty of North Central attention, and senior quarterback Brendan Gausselin threw for 172 and two scores – but St. Philip couldn’t make up for a pair of interceptions and the Jets’ 572 yards of offense. 

Darr also had 13 tackles to lead the Tigers, and Bilski had a team-high 12 for North Central.

Kleiman rushed for 205 yards on only 21 carries, good for an average of nearly 10 yards per attempt. He ran for five touchdowns to go with the sixth through the air. 

Bilski and Kleiman are two more of six starters on the Jets’ offense who have another season to play. After averaging 70 points a game and dominating most of all 13 wins, what could be next? 

“Keep working hard and just have fun,” Whitens said. “We’re in high school, having the time of our lives right now and doing things we love. We’re ready for next year, and I’m very excited.”

Click for a full box score. 

The MHSAA Football Finals are sponsored by the Michigan National Guard.

PHOTOS: (Top) North Central quarterback Jason Whitens runs toward the end zone while St. Philip’s Trevor Searls (70) and Grayson Obey (16) give chase. (Middle) St. Philip quarterback Brendan Gausselin moves upfield while the Jets’ Taylor Belongia (79) and Zach Estrada (68) close in. (Below) North Central’s Bobby Kleiman hauls in a 63-yard scoring pass during the second quarter. (Photos by John Johnson.)

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.)