QBs Shine as West Catholic Earns 3-Peat

November 28, 2015

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

DETROIT – Grand Rapids West Catholic might have won its third straight Division 5 championship Saturday night with either sophomore Gaetano Vallone or junior David Fox playing every snap at quarterback.

But it was impossible to argue the duo’s effectiveness as they worked together to keep the Falcons ahead of a River Rouge comeback attempt led by another quarterback putting up near-record numbers.

Fox, the starter when the season began, and Vallone – who took over when Fox was lost with a shoulder injury in Week 3 – combined for 288 yards rushing and 106 passing as West Catholic held on for a third straight Finals win, 40-34, despite the heroics of Panthers senior signal-caller Antoine Burgess.

“We’re both athletic, we’re both physical and I guess Coach (Dan) Rohn says we’re playmakers, so we’re playmakers,” Vallone said. “It definitely helped because we’re both gamers, and that’s what it takes. With two of us back there … it really can spread things out and get them confused.”

The Finals appearance was West Catholic's fifth straight, but Vallone was among players who had significant impacts for the first time this fall.

Fox ran for 152 yards and three touchdowns from his “scat” quarterback position, while Vallone ran for 115 yards and threw for 84 and a score despite being limited by an ankle injury sustained during last weekend’s Semifinal win over Lansing Catholic.

Fox’s third touchdown run just 16 seconds into the second half gave West Catholic (12-2) a seemingly comfortable 21-6 lead.

But that would’ve counted River Rouge out far too early. 

Burgess brought the Panthers back within seven with a 63-yard touchdown pass to senior Aaron Vinson with 3:56 left in the third quarter, then responded to Vallone’s 9-yard scoring pass with a 1-yard touchdown run 1:06 into the fourth. 

The teams traded scores four more times, the last a 2-yard run by Burgess with four seconds to play. An onside kick was covered by the Falcons, denying Burgess one last chance at another deep toss to tie the score.

“I just told (my teammates) not to give up yet and play hard. It wasn’t over,” Burgess said. “Like I saw yesterday, King came back and won the (Division 2) game. I told them we could do that too. I continue to fight no matter what.” 

A few more key plays figured into the final score, notably a tackle for a safety by West Catholic senior Conner Nemmers with 7:15 to play, followed by a 31-yard field goal by sophomore Liam Putz that made the Falcons’ lead 12 with 4:13 left in regulation. And while it didn’t lead to a score directly, Fox’s 22-yard pass to senior Billy Kral on a fake punt helped the Falcons drain a few more seconds off the clock – and ended up setting up the safety when Fox drilled a 53-yard punt to the River Rouge 3-yard line five plays later.

For the game, Burgess threw for 354 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 70 yards and two scores – missing the MHSAA Finals record for total yardage by only two and approaching the record of 383 passing yards set by Detroit Martin Luther King’s Armani Posey in the Division 2 Final on Friday. 

But Burgess and his teammates made it a memorable night for a community that had six straight sub-.500 seasons before coach Corey Parker took over in 2009. The Panthers set a record for wins this fall in making the Finals for the first time and finishing 12-2.

“I think we’ve arrived, to a certain extent, in reference to the way my kids handled things,” said Parker, who has led his teams to a combined 40-7 record over the last four seasons. “To watch them manage this process, it tells me a lot about my guys and what we’ve developed as far as a foundation. 

“Most press writers thought they were going to bail us out 50-something to zip. But my guys looked at that opportunity and said hey, let’s see how good they really are.”

Burgess completed 13 of 19 passes, with Vinson grabbing four for 162 yards, sophomore Giovanni Turner catching four for 95 and a score and senior Ashawnti Howard pulling in three for 84 yards and a touchdown. Junior Aaron Hall caught West Catholic’s lone touchdown pass, and junior Sam Neville had the team’s final points on a 3-yard run with 1:27 to play. 

Fox, also a safety, led the Falcons with eight tackles, and senior lineman Carl Myers had seven. Sophomore safety Reggie Pearson had 10 for River Rouge, and senior defensive end Jamal Bonner also had seven.

West Catholic defeated three top-10 teams and a fourth that earned an honorable mention in the final statewide media poll to get back to Detroit, before downing River Rouge, another honorable mention. Not bad for a team that started 1-2, lost a starting quarterback and had another on a sore ankle the last two weeks. 

“We had a small senior class, and I think a lot of people doubted this group since they came in as one of our smallest classes in history. But for them to be here four years is pretty remarkable,” Rohn said. “All along we knew we had a tough early schedule. … We just said, let’s just stick to our guns. We’ve been 1-3 and 1-4 in recent years and we’ve still been able to make it back down here. So the kids buy into the scheme, continue to work hard and believe in the coaches. Because a lot of people would quit at 1-2. Not this group, not this community.”  

Click for the full box score.

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

PHOTOS: (Top) West Catholic’s David Fox (4) and Gaetano Vallone (6) celebrate a touchdown during Saturday’s Final. (Middle) River Rouge quarterback Antoine Burgess breaks away from a tackle.

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.)