Older, Wiser MCC Ranks with Elite Again

By Tom Kendra
Special for MHSAA.com

October 21, 2020

Max Price is right – Muskegon Catholic Central football is back.

Not that the Crusaders ever went too far away. But after winning four consecutive Division 8 titles from 2013 to 2016, failing to make it out of Districts the past three seasons felt like a 100-year drought to Price and his teammates.

“I feel like this is the way we should be playing here at Muskegon Catholic,” said Price, the three-year starting senior quarterback who has his team at 5-0 and ranked No. 2 in the latest Associated Press Division 6 state poll.

“We were down, no doubt, but now we’re back up and ready for the playoffs.”

MCC has one more hurdle to clear to complete its first unbeaten regular season since 2016 when it hosts Holton at 4 p.m. Friday.

The Crusaders are doing it with defense, allowing a total of 18 points over five games. But even that low number is misleading, as the defense has only allowed one TD from scrimmage (a 79-yard run against Ludington), with the other points coming on an interception return and a kickoff return.

While the defense has been reminiscent of those MCC championship teams, one big change is that the Crusaders are now competing in Division 6 because of a cooperative agreement with nearby Muskegon Western Michigan Christian.

As a result, MCC appears on a collision course to host top-ranked Montague in a Division 6 District championship game next month – which would be a showdown between a pair of three-year starting quarterbacks in Price and Montague’s Drew Collins.

Ironically, MCC’s recent gridiron struggles can be traced back to its first-ever meeting with Montague during the 2017 regular-season finale. The Crusaders came into that game with a 27-game winning streak, but suffered a humbling 34-10 home loss. That game was followed by a lackluster 42-20 win over Decatur in the Pre-District, before a season-ending 26-15 loss at Mendon the following week.

The bad news continued that offseason, when three key sophomores transferred, leaving behind the youngest varsity team in MCC school history.

“We started 10 underclassmen and five freshmen in 2018,” said eighth-year MCC coach Steve Czerwon, whose team finished 3-6 that season. “There’s a lot of JV teams that don’t start five freshmen. I’m as proud of that team as any I’ve coached because of how they hung in there, and now we’re seeing the fruits of that this season.”

Price was thrust into the starting quarterback role as a sophomore and took a pounding behind a small and inexperienced offensive line. He played at less than full strength most of that season and missed the final three games when it was discovered that he had three fractured vertebrae in his spine.

“Looking back, I was scared back there and really didn’t understand the quarterback position,” said Price, who helped MCC flip its record to 6-3 last season. “I was new, and the game was so fast. I am very comfortable now, and that’s a huge thing.”

Price (5-foot-11, 175 pounds) came out this fall flinging the ball around in the Crusaders’ opening win over Ludington, completing 10-of-13 passes for 212 yards and three touchdowns.

But for those worrying that the quintessential running football team has gone pass-happy, no worries. Since that game, MCC has settled into its running ways, with Price passing for just 235 yards and one touchdown over the past four games.

The Crusaders are back to pounding teams on the ground behind an offensive line that has grown bigger and more experienced under the direction of veteran line coaches Mike Ribecky, Joe Perri and Mike Hornak. Guard AJ Lock (6-1, 220) is still the lone senior starter on the interior line, with the other four being juniors – tackles Jaden Johnson (6-4, 235) and Alex Barnhill (6-0, 260), guard Jack Heminger (5-10, 210) and center Landon Patterson (6-0, 220).

The real secret of this year’s team is a stable of talented and interchangeable backs, led by senior Tommy Kartes and junior Joe Waller. The other backs getting significant touches are all underclassmen – juniors Nick Powell, Dane Rutz and Eliot Riegler.

“We were still in the first quarter last week against Orchard View, and seven different kids had touched the football,” said Czerwon. “I don’t think this team has any superstar on it. Quite frankly, we have a lot of kids of equal ability – we have a lot of good, solid players.”

The first to touch the ball each play is Price, who then distributes the ball around.

Price is thankful to be playing at all, after the COVID lockdown wiped out his junior baseball season this spring and a team that many believed was poised to make a run at an MHSAA Finals championship.

He is also thankful to be healthy. Price likely appreciates his health more than most his age because of the health issues of his father, Paul, who was paralyzed in 2015 after a fall at their home.

“I was in middle school when that happened, and I wondered if I should even play football with all the risks,” said Price. “But I know he wants me to follow my passion and be out there. He is a motivation for me, and I love seeing him on the sidelines at our games.”

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 Catholic Central senior quarterback Max Price runs behind the block of junior tackle Jaden Johnson during the Crusaders' 30-6 season-opening victory over visiting Ludington on Sept. 18. (Middle) MCC senior slot receiver Tommy Kartes hauls in this reception from Price while an Orioles defender works to break it up. (Photos by Tim Reilly.)

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.)