Pirates Rule Air, Capture 1st Title

November 22, 2013

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

GREENVILLE – Peck’s players had started snapping at each other during their Week 6 Homecoming game against Kingston, getting on each other’s cases about missed tackles and other mistakes of the first two quarters.

The bickering became enough that coach Rob McDaniel decided that at halftime he and his players would have a talk. At least, that’s what he’s calling it now.

The message was clear. And McDaniel’s words that night proved true in Peck’s 67-32 victory over Rapid River in Friday’s MHSAA 8-Player Final at Greenville’s Legacy Field.

“We came out after halftime and put 52 on Kingston, and we haven’t looked back since,” McDaniel said. “I told them you can either bicker and your season will be done after nine games. Or, with the talent you have here, if you come together and be brothers on the field ... there aren’t any limits for you guys.”

“It was amazing,” Peck junior tight end Kyle Abrego added. “If you want to be state champions, you can’t fight against each other.”  

Instead, the Pirates took the fight to the rest of their opponents this season, finishing a perfect 13-0 and with their first MHSAA title.

This was only the second season of 8-player football for Peck and its third under McDaniel. The Pirates had won only one game, by forfeit, the season before McDaniel took over – and then went 1-8 in his first season of 2011, their last before switching to 8-player.

“Our numbers were down, and (8-player) was huge for us,” McDaniel said. “We were able to build success. We had success last year putting in a new system. And then the seniors this year took over, and last summer they were the ones making the phone calls saying get in the weight room.”

Peck stood tall all season, outscoring its opponents on average 51-16. But Abrego and the Pirates’ passing game chose the Final to no longer be overshadowed by a running game that gained more than 4,200 yards this fall.

Quarterback Tristen Haener had thrown for 1,166 yards and 12 touchdowns this season entering Friday night, and then connected on 12 of 16 passes for 379 yards and seven touchdowns – including four that were caught by Abrego.

Abrego’s twin brother Cody was the star of the Semifinal with 449 yards rushing against Lawrence, but the Rockets bottled him and his teammates up for a combined 165 yards rushing. Instead – and much to Kyle Abrego’s surprise – the Pirates decided to take advantage of his 6-foot-4 height as he grabbed six passes for 236 yards against defenders mostly four to six inches shorter.

“We thought we had good coverage, but we just didn’t turn our heads quick enough and the result was big plays,” Rapid River coach Steve Ostrenga said. “We thought we could cover them, but we were worried about their speed on the outside and speed on runs. They gave their quarterback just enough time to get the ball released.

“We took the run away. But we certainly didn’t take the pass away.”

McDaniel credited Ostrenga as well for slowing the Pirates' rush, but was able to deploy his speedy lineup in another useful way.

Rapid River senior quarterback Jake Pearson – also the starter when the Rockets (12-1) fell to Carsonville-Port Sanilac in the 2011 Final – put up simply incredible numbers this season. He entered Friday with 2,525 yards and 42 touchdowns rushing and 1,009 yards and 15 scores passing.

But although Pearson was able to run for 180 yards and three scores and throw for a fourth, he didn’t find enough room to help the Rockets keep pace when Peck pulled away during the second and third quarters.

“We have the ability to play sideline to sideline, and we pushed Pearson to the sidelines and didn’t let him get the corner. We tried to keep him in the pocket or trap him,” McDaniel said.

Pearson will go down as one of the first stars of 8-player football in this state, with numbers that will earn him recognition in the national record book. Senior lineman Hayden Hardwick also was a sophomore on that 2011 runner-up team, and Pearson got to finish his high school career connecting with Hardwick on a touchdown pass out of a spread formation that made the center eligible.

“The kid is humble. I’m not sure how many words I can say about Jake Pearson,” Ostrenga said. “He’s a true ambassador for our school, for 8-(player) football. We were 1-8 four years ago, 1-8 two years in a row, and 8-(player) football has been great. To have a Jake Pearson and this team stay together, it’s been phenomenal.

“He’s everything you see.”

Click for a complete box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Peck players chant while holding their first MHSAA championship trophy Friday at Legacy Field. (Middle) Pirates quarterback Tristen Haener (10) scores on a run during the second quarter. 

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.)