Powers North Central Extends Title Legacy

November 18, 2016

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

GREENVILLE – Their parents are taking credit for this, and for many reasons, rightfully so.

But the moms and dads who birthed the athletes rolling through Powers North Central’s football and boys basketball programs these last few years never stacked championships like this. For that matter, no class at any Michigan school has accomplished what the Jets seniors added to Friday night.

North Central’s 58-22 win over Deckerville at Legacy Field finished a second straight undefeated 8-player football championship season for the Jets, to go with two straight undefeated Class D championship teams for their boys basketball team – and ignited questions of how a school with only 115 students from a small Upper Peninsula community could come up with such a collection of talent.

Jets assistant coach Gerald Whitens provided his son, star quarterback and hoops guard Jason Whitens, with one explanation.

“Most of our parents went to North Central. It’s coming back around,” Jason Whitens said. “We had a good family group that stayed at Powers North Central, and we just kept filtering through and growing as a group. My dad said he blazed the path for us, and we just made it even bigger. So I have to give him a little credit.”

Added senior running back Bobby Kleiman, whose dad Scott also is a football assistant and played with Gerald Whitens on the school’s 1984 Class D champion basketball team: “(This kind of group) doesn’t come by often, I can tell you that. But we’re blessed to have the kids we have. The timing, everything, it just fell into place. We grew up with each other, we love each other, and it’s just a blessing to have the kids we have.”

That blessing to North Central athletics has been an unmovable obstacle for football opponents the last two seasons.

The Jets finished this run 13-0 to move to 26-0 since switching to 8-player before the start of the 2015 season.

But this most recent win didn’t come as smoothly as the score might indicate – at least during most of one quarter.

The first belonged to North Central, and the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Whitens in particular. In 2015, Kleiman became the first player in the then-five seasons of 8-player football to run for more than 200 yards in an MHSAA Final, finishing with 205. Whitens obliterated that record in the first quarter Friday, running for 231 yards and three touchdowns on only five carries as the Jets opened up a 20-0 lead.

But Deckerville, also undefeated and making its first championship game appearance since winning 8-player in 2012, didn’t fold. In fact, the Eagles (11-1) rode the running of senior tailback Austin Fritch and senior quarterback Brandon Pattullo, who combined for 162 yards rushing and three touchdowns during the second quarter to put the Eagles up suddenly 22-20 with 1:57 to play before the break.

North Central had trailed only once before this season, into the third quarter Week 2 against Crystal Falls Forest Park before coming back to win 60-42.

“We’re not used to other people scoring on us and having close games,” Bobby Kleiman said. “But we played Crystal Falls two weeks ago (a 60-50 Regional Final rematch); they’re an exact replica of this team. We had one of the craziest games ever with them, and they really prepared us for this game.”

Indeed, Whitens scored on a 44-yard run a minute after Deckerville took its lead, and the Jets never trailed again. Kleiman added a 49-yard scoring run less than three minutes into the third quarter, and Whitens added 37 and 2-yard scoring runs and a 71-yard touchdown pass to senior Marcus Krachinski.

Whitens finished with an 8-Player Finals rushing record that may not be broken in some time, 352 yards on only 17 carries (20.7 yards per carry) with six touchdowns. His numbers could’ve been greater, or at least different if for just two plays, both dropped passes that likely would’ve resulted in touchdowns. Still, Whitens completed 6 of his 12 throws for 100 yards despite rain that blew sideways for most of the first three quarters.

Deckerville had given up only 50 points total this season and only 18 during the playoffs despite facing two other undefeated teams.

“We made a nice comeback there, but you’ve still got to keep going, and we weren’t able to make some plays,” Deckerville coach Bill Brown said. “We can’t give up big plays and expect to win. We don’t have a kid like that that can get 80-yard runs every time and score.”

Fritch and Pattullo did both finish with 133 yards rushing, Pattullo on only 12 carries for an average of 11.1 yards per attempt.

Kleiman added 123 yards rushing on 10 carries despite what North Central read as Deckerville aligning to stop him early on. That read led to Whitens’ big first quarter, including a 38-yard run on the first offense play of the game, on the “dart” quarterback keeper play that North Central continued to throw at the Eagles throughout the night.

The addition of Friday’s performance gave Whitens 2,496 yards and 44 touchdowns passing this season, along with 943 yards and 22 touchdowns rushing.

He’s one of 11 seniors who played his last high school football game – and six of those seniors also played in last season’s Class D Basketball Final.

“This is the best class probably ever in the state, to do what they’ve done,” North Central coach Kevin Bellefeuil said. “Two basketball titles, two football titles, and they have to be a favorite to win a third one (in hoops).

“This is a special group of kids. We have the right mix of skill players, offensive linemen, linebackers; we have a little bit of everything.”

And some will take only a short break. Whitens said at first he’d be back to work for basketball Saturday morning. Then he self-corrected – he’ll wait until Monday instead.

“You’re never satisfied with who you were last year, or the day before. You’re always growing to get better each and every day of your life, and that’s how I go about my life,” Whitens said.

“We’ve got our eyes on the ultimate prize. This is our last year, last run at it, and we’re going to enjoy it. … I’m going to get home, join our community, let them bask in the glory with us. And then Monday morning, I’m ready to go.”

Click for the full box score.

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

PHOTOS: (Top) Powers North Central quarterback Jason Whitens breaks away for one of his six rushing touchdowns Friday. (Middle) A Deckerville ball carrier works to get free of a North Central defender. (Below) Whitens confers with Jets coach Kevin Bellefeuil. (Photos by John Johnson/MHSAA.)

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.)