Portland Wins Final in Portland Style

November 24, 2012

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

DETROIT – Half of Portland’s division of the Capital Area Activities Conference has made it to the MHSAA Finals over the last three seasons.

So before bringing the Raiders to Ford Field this week, coach John Novara spoke with 2011 Division 5 runner-up coach Jim Ahern of Lansing Catholic, 2010 Division 4 runner-up coach Steve Kersten of Williamston, and a number of others who had occupied the spot he was about to step into Saturday afternoon.

They gave him plenty of advice. But one piece was offered by them all: Stay true to yourself and what you do.

Most of the Raiders’ 90 wins in Novara’s 14 seasons have been more a result of force over fancy: tough running and physical defense, with just a little flare mixed in. So it only seemed right that Portland’s first MHSAA football championship – and team title in any sport – would come with a semi-ugly 12-9 win over Grand Rapids West Catholic that did well in representing the legacy of those who brought the program to the brink.

“We worked hard just like they taught us, and they were in the weight room 24/7, and we looked up to those guys,” Portland senior guard/linebacker Adam Goodman said of his predecessors. “We all had brothers and sisters who went to this school, and we were close with the others guys. They told us to go in the weight room, and we listened to them. They set the foundation for Portland football.”

This is the 10th straight season Portland (13-1) finished with a winning record, but the first time it had won more than one playoff game. By also beating Flint Powers Catholic, the Raiders defeated both the 2011 and 2010 Division 5 champions on the way to this title. West Catholic was that 2010 champ – and beat Portland in the District Final that season. 

In fact, three of Portland’s last four playoff losses came to teams that ended up at Ford Field.

 We've been close every year,” Raiders senior guard/linebacker Dylan Carroll said. “We always face the state champion or runner-up every year, and we finally pulled through.”

The Final played out like much of Portland’s season. The defense, with 10 seniors, often set the tone as the offense – which should return eight starters in 2013 – learned on the fly. West Catholic (10-4) became the seventh opponent to score in single digits. But that was necessary; the Raiders scored their 12 points over the game’s first 15 minutes, and struggled to do much more during the final 23 as West Catholic held them to a season low.

“Our defense has been stepping up all throughout the playoffs, so we knew they were going to give us another chance to get something going on offense,” Falcons junior running back Andy Corey said. “We couldn’t ask for anything more.”

West Catholic’s first score didn't come until Corey’s eight-yard run with 1:02 to play in the third quarter. The other two points came on a safety 2:13 into the fourth. Total, West Catholic had 13 possessions. But three ended with interceptions and two more on turnovers on downs.

Still, the Falcons had one last opportunity to take the game during the final three minutes. After recovering a fumble at their 32-yard line and converting one fourth down, West Catholic had first down and goal to go from Portland’s 10.

But the Raiders stepped up this time, holding the Falcons to one yard total on three straight runs. After a five-yard penalty, West Catholic completed a screen pass that was stopped well short by Portland senior Jeffrey Feldpausch with 50 seconds to play.

“With the playmakers they have, you’re always wondering if you’re going to get them stopped one more time,” Novara said

Portland’s scores came on a one-yard run by junior quarterback Tanner Allison, and then one of the most memorable plays of Finals weekend. Allison took the snap at his 6-yard line, faked two handoffs and spun nearly all the way around as West Catholic tacklers began to pull him to the ground. Right before they succeeded, he launched a seemingly no-look pass into the left middle of the field that somehow got past everyone. Junior Auston Brandt ran under it and turned it into a 94-yard touchdown catch – the third longest in MHSAA Finals history.

“I saw the blitz. I knew the play was getting blown up right away,” Allison said. “I was getting tackled, and I was actually trying to throw the ball away, and he just happened to be there. I saw him, and I was just trying to throw the ball close, and out-throw him a little bit just to get the pass off.”

Allison completed 7 of 16 passes total for 214 yards, with four of those for 178 yards to Brandt. Corey ran 26 times for 146 yards, and sophomore quarterback Travis Russell completed 20 of 39 passes for 209 yards for the Falcons

Carroll had a game-high 13 tackles for Portland. Senior defensive back Joe Harmon had 11 tackles for West Catholic, and junior linebacker Max Boorsma had 10.

“When you take a group of football kids like we did this year – we had six sophomores who started for us, an entire new defensive coaching staff, a new offensive line coach, new running backs coach – and you kinda rally together and you end up playing in a state championship game, the entire coaching staff, the entire program did something right.” West Catholic coach Dan Rohn said. “We’ll be back. We set the goal in January to be back here, and we hope we will.”

Click for full statistics and to watch a replay of the game. See below for the full press conference.

PHOTOS: (Top) Portland football players hoist their Division 5 championship trophy after winning their first title Saturday. (Middle) Portland quarterback Tanner Allison (5) holds tight to the ball as Grand Rapids West Catholic tacklers begin to surround him. (Click for more from Terry McNamara Photography.)

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.)