QB Leads Ithaca Back to Legendary Level

November 27, 2015

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

DETROIT – At halftime of Friday’s Division 6 Final, Ithaca coach Terry Hessbrook told his quarterback Jake Smith he was the best player on the field and needed to play like it. 

Or something like that – no doubt a little more directly, with a few more words that got right to the heart of Smith’s importance in helping the Yellowjackets avoid the disappointment of taking home the second-place trophy for the second season in a row.

Two quarters later, the list of Ithaca quarterbacks who have put up memorable performances at Ford Field grew by one. 

Cementing his place in a line of signal callers who have led Ithaca to 83 wins in 84 games, Smith directed a second-half rally that pushed the Yellowjackets past Clinton 27-20 for their fifth MHSAA championship in six seasons.

A year ago, Smith and his teammates left the field after a loss to Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central ended a national-best 69-game winning streak. This time, Ithaca trailed 13-0 early in the third quarter before scoring 27 straight points over 15 minutes to take a lead it wouldn’t relinquish. 

“He knew he could get more out of me, and as an offense we definitely produced,” said Smith of his coach’s halftime cajoling. “I wasn’t really panicking. I knew if we get behind, we’ve still got to keep playing. I wasn’t going to let it happen like it happened last year. I didn’t want to experience that feeling again, so I just played as hard as I could.

“It means so much to everybody on our team. Everybody really just wants to go out on top. Everybody wants to be number one. We finished that climb this year and we stuck the flag in the mountain, and it just feels so great.” 

And it surely was a bit of a relief too.

Many of the team’s 17 seniors saw the field for most of the 2014 trip to Detroit, perhaps offering a little more motivation to bounce back for the program’s fifth perfect season over the last six. 

“It was immense pressure, and to be honest, that made me very nervous. I talked to the players about it before the game today, that I was so happy because since day one last year after we got beat their goal was to get back to Ford Field,” Hessbrook said. “And I thought we had a championship-caliber football team, but I think a lot of people had championship-caliber football teams and somewhere along the line they get caught up and something goes wrong.

“I was glad they were able to play their last game in an Ithaca uniform here at Ford Field and have a chance ... to play for a championship.” 

The Yellowjackets (14-0) finished off their best defensive performance of the run in terms of points allowed, giving up only 107 this fall despite dealing the first and only losses to three contenders over the last four weeks.

That defense played a massive role Friday, holding a Clinton rushing attack that averaged 297 yards per game this season to only 179. The Redskins had only 14 yards rushing over five second-half possessions after taking the 13-0 third-quarter lead. 

But while the Yellowjackets held Clinton’s offense in check, it came down to Smith to carry them over the top.

The Ithaca run of quarterbacks starring at Ford Field started with Alex Niznak, who ran for five touchdowns in 2010 to lead the Yellowjackets to their first title. Then came Jake’s older brother Travis Smith, who put his name all over the record book in 2011 and 2013 wins – sandwiched around 2012, when back-up Logan Hessbrook came in after Travis Smith was hurt and led Ithaca to another MHSAA Finals victory. 

Jake Smith was decent in last season’s Final, running for 90 yards and a score and throwing for 147 yards and the other touchdown as Ithaca fell 22-12. But his first half Friday was not at all noteworthy – six yards rushing and 60 passing.

Then came Hessbrook's pep talk. 

“The first half, we did what we wanted to do,” Clinton coach Scott McNitt said. “We kept him in front of us. We didn’t let him get loose. But the third quarter, he found something. And he showed he was the best player on the field.”

Four minutes into the third quarter, Smith scored Ithaca’s first touchdown on a 14-yard run. Three and a half minutes later, Smith connected with senior Spence DeMull on a 22-yard pass in the seam, and two plays later connected with DeMull on the same route for a score that put the Yellowjackets ahead 14-13. 

The next possession saw Smith's performance climb toward another level.

With 14 seconds left in the third quarter, he dropped back and rolled left, spun away from a near-sack, down the left sideline – and just as it looked like he would dive at the near pylon, Smith side-stepped right and whirled into the end zone. Ithaca 21, Clinton 13.   

Smith added one more touchdown run from a yard out to put the Yellowjackets up 27-13 with 7:47 to play. Noah Poore’s 4-yard run at 4:59 pulled Clinton back within seven. But after Ithaca ran the clock down to 1:47 on its next possession, Clinton went to the air and completed only one of four passes before Ithaca senior Derek Teed ended the threat with a fourth-down sack.

Teed had three of his team’s 11 tackles for losses. Senior linebacker Jace Demenov led the effort on that side of the ball with 10 tackles, and junior linebacker Lane O’Boyle had eight.

Smith ended with 126 yards rushing to go with three scores and 180 yards passing with a touchdown. 

For Clinton, senior running back/linebacker Mathew Sexton ran for 141 yards and a score and had six tackles. Senior linebacker Ken DeShano had 11 tackles.

Sexton also played a major role when Clinton fell to Ithaca 41-22 in the 2013 Final, and ran for more than 2,000 yards this season as the Redskins (13-1) charged through this run toward the rematch, eliminating reigning champion St. Mary among one of the most impressive slates of playoff opponents in any division. 

“The gauntlet we’ve gone through these past four weeks – St. Mary, Madison Heights (Madison), (Jackson) Lumen Christi, (Grand Rapids) NorthPointe Christian, may have taken some of what we needed in the tank out of us,” McNitt said. “But these kids battled to the end … and had a chance at the end.”

Coaches almost always decline to compare teams from year to year, and especially championship winners. 

But Hessbrook admitted this run was a little sweeter than some of the rest because of what it allowed for the players who walked off sadly a year ago and the legacy they were able to finish on a winning note.

“It would be hard for me to put them into numerical order and say this one is my favorite one or that one is my favorite one,” Hessbrook said. “But I’ll say this about this group of seniors: I don’t think that any class at Ithaca has ever dedicated themselves to winning a championship more than this class has, and that’s why it was so important for them to do that." 

Click for a full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Ithaca quarterback Jake Smith breaks a tackle during Friday's Division 6 Final. (Middle) The Yellowjackets celebrate their fifth MHSAA title in six seasons.

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.)