Pivotal Playmaking Puts King Back on Top to Close 2021 Season

By Scott DeCamp
Special for MHSAA.com

November 28, 2021

DETROIT – Past disappointments tucked away in his mind, Dante Moore knew what he needed to do with an elusive Finals title on the line Saturday night at Ford Field.

Detroit Martin Luther King’s junior quarterback needed to make a play to put the game away. And that’s exactly what he and senior receiver Chansey Willis Jr. did.

Pinned against their own goal line, Moore and Willis converted a big third-down play to seal King’s 25-21 victory over last season’s MHSAA Division 3 champion DeWitt in a hard-fought title game.

It was the first Finals championship for Moore, the highly recruited 6-foot-2, 195-pounder, who after the game was presented the State Champs! Mr. Football award. Facing 3rd-and-6 from his own 5 and with his team holding a four-point lead, Moore hit Willis on a 7-yard play to move the chains and enable the Crusaders (13-1) to run out the clock.

Moments earlier, King’s defense stuffed DeWitt (12-2) on 4th-and-goal from the 1 in the back-and-forth contest.

“I just say, ‘Hey,’ I looked at Chansey – how we’ve been all year – ‘I’ll lead my guy, let’s get this pass. They don’t have any more timeouts. We can win this game,’” Moore said. “I gave him my trust throwing him the ball, and he’s going to do what he do: Catch the ball, get down and get the first down.”

The championship was King’s first since 2018 and fourth in seven years.

During Moore’s freshman year in 2019, King lost to Muskegon Mona Shores, 35-26, in the Division 2 Final. Last year, the Crusaders fell in the Regional to River Rouge, which lost a 40-30 shootout to DeWitt in the Division 3 championship game.

“Blessings. Ever since we lost my freshman year to Mona Shores, a shot at that great team; last year we lost in the Regionals to River Rouge. I mean, we’ve been hungry for it,” said Moore, who finished 18-of-24 passing for 228 yards with an interception.

“A lot of seniors on this team have got rings, but a lot of juniors, sophomores and freshmen were really hungry for it. After the start of conditioning in the summer time and being out here right now, we’ve just been really hungry for this moment and we appreciate it.”

King played like it early.

Division 3 Football FinalThe Crusaders scored in the game’s first minute, as senior Terrence Brown sprinted for a 51-yard touchdown run. They made it 13-0 just 1:18 into the second quarter when junior defensive end Kenny Merrieweather tipped a pass and turned it into a 45-yard pick-six.

“Just being a ball player, trying to just make plays to try to win the game for me and my teammates,” the 6-4, 245-pound Merrieweather said about his interception return.

That was the start of a wild quarter when the teams combined for 33 points. Despite trailing 19-7 with three minutes left in the half, DeWitt stormed back to take a 21-19 lead into the break.

Senior QB Ty Holtz, who led the Panthers to the title last year, sandwiched 6- and 15-yard TD passes to seniors Bryce Debri and Tommy McIntosh, respectively, around a 6-yard scoring run by King’s Brown. Then, in the closing seconds of the half, Holtz electrified the DeWitt crowd by intercepting Moore and returning it 69 yards for a TD.

That put DeWitt in front by two at halftime, a lead the Panthers held until junior Sterling Anderson Jr. scored on a 3-yard run with 8:22 remaining in the game to put the Crusaders back in front, 25-21.

Holtz finished 10-of-18 for 153 yards with two picks. Six of his completions went to McIntosh, the University of Wisconsin commit, who finished with 90 receiving yards.

Holtz guided DeWitt deep into King territory during the game’s final minutes, as the Panthers had 1st-and-goal from the 10, but they could not punch it in.

“I mean, Ty Holtz, I want to give him a shoutout on defense, first of all,” Moore said. “I mean, him being a quarterback and being at safety, eyeing me wherever I go. … He was throwing the ball around to Tommy and the other teammates. It was a great team, a great coaching staff. They were here last year, they won it, so big shoutout to them.”

Brown led all rushers with 113 yards on 11 carries. Willis caught four passes for 111 yards. Senior Blake Bailiff led King with 10 tackles, including stops on each of DeWitt’s final four offensive plays.

It wasn’t Moore’s best game statistically, but King coach Tyrone Spencer was impressed with the way he ran the team.

After losing at Carmel (Ind.), 42-40, on a Hail Mary in the season opener, the Crusaders finished the year with 13 straight wins.

“I just love the way that kid (operates); he’s so poised,” Spencer said about Moore. “He throws an interception, he’s in the locker room, I mean, it doesn’t faze him. He comes back out and he does what he needs to do. They were taking the pass away from him. They had safeties all over the top, bailing out late and we had to stick to the run game. Sometimes, that’s going to take away from what you can do in the air, and that’s fine. We got a win. He found a way for us to win.”

For DeWitt, senior Nicholas Flegler paced his team with 11 tackles and 69 rushing yards.

He is one of 21 Panthers who will graduate in the spring and also played a significant role on last season’s champion.

“They grew up together and played together. They’ve won for a long period of time and they learned from the previous group, and I think that’s something that’s just carried on,” DeWitt coach Rob Zimmerman said. “We’ve got young kids coming up that want to be just like these guys.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS (Top) Detroit King’s Sterling Anderson Jr. (23) jets down the sideline as a DeWitt defender works to wrap him up. (Middle) Chansey Willis Jr. (2) prepares for contact as the Panthers’ Bryce Debri (21) pursues. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)

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.)