Reading is Believing for 1st-Time Champ

November 23, 2018

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

DETROIT – Alex Price’s 11 words – or rather, 56 characters – last Nov. 25 spoke volumes.

And he and his teammates made them count during Friday morning’s Division 8 Final at Ford Field.

Two days shy of a year ago, the Reading now-senior quarterback tweeted that his team would be making the trip to Detroit this weekend. It was quite a prediction. The Rangers had just finished 8-3 – but hadn’t reached a Semifinal since 2008 and had never played in an MHSAA football championship game.

Well, Reading is believing. Breckenridge scored first Friday, but the Rangers popped back up and broke away for a 39-20 win and their first Finals championship in this sport.

The win actually capped a three-year run that saw three freshmen and seven sophomores join the varsity in 2016, boosting that team from 11 to 21 players even as the overall level of experience fell dramatically. Reading finished only 3-6 that season, but set the stage for the team to play on the state’s biggest.

“What’s special is the kids,” Reading coach Rick Bailey said. “Basically we played that (2016) year with a junior varsity team at the varsity level. We went 3-6, but we competed in every game. They decided back then they were going to make it happen.”

Friday morning was going to be filled with firsts, regardless of the winner. Breckenridge also was making its first MHSAA Finals appearance in football, and both teams were undefeated heading into the day.

Reading (13-0) rarely had been stopped this season – even the local police escorted the Rangers through a few red lights early Friday as part of an escort kicking off the morning march.

But they knew they were in for some challenges right away. First, Breckenridge stopped Reading on a fourth down play at the Rangers’ 32-yard-line just four minutes into the game. The Huskies followed up by scoring the game’s first touchdown, converting two fourth downs on the way to the end zone.

Reading had been giving up only 7.2 points per game, and Breckenridge suddenly led 6-0. Game on. But the Rangers’ defense – one of the most impressive in any division this fall – brought things back to even with a Finals first.

With just over a minute left in the first quarter, senior Caleb Miller’s 42-yard punt pinned the Huskies on their 1-yard-line. On the next play, Miller got a sack and the ball came loose, and junior Elijah Strine ended up with it in the end zone – the first fumble recovery for a touchdown in MHSAA championship game history. Senior

Ethan LoPresto’s 2-point conversion run put the Rangers ahead, to stay, just 14 seconds after one of the few times they trailed this fall.

“We were down when they scored first – we’re not use to that. We’re not used to teams scoring much on us at all,” Miller said. “That got the momentum up and really helped us out.”

Bailey said Breckenridge (12-1) had the toughest defense his team had seen this season. And the Huskies didn’t let up despite the disappointing and historic turn of events. But Reading began to grind, adding a touchdown on a drive of 5 minutes, 10 seconds, midway through the second quarter and extending the lead to 24-6 on a Price score to cap a 5:39 drive to start the third period.

Breckenridge still didn’t go away, and that was saying a lot against a Reading defense that also had given up just a little more than 500 rushing yards total and only rushing touchdown over the first 13 weeks.

The Rangers held the Huskies to just 21 yards rushing for this game – but Breckenridge did get a touchdown on the ground and two through the air from senior quarterback Carter Staley to senior running back Hunter Collins, who also had the rushing score.

“I was just extremely proud of everyone on our team, pushing ourselves and pushing each other and not giving up on one another,” Staley said. “That’s just what got us here.”

LoPresto led the Reading offensive effort with 123 yards on 16 carries. Junior Hunter Midtgard had the most memorable play, breaking free in the fourth quarter off a block from junior Ben Affholter for a 57-yard score. Strine also ran for a touchdown.

No player had more than five tackles for the Rangers – but as a unit they had 10 for losses and three sacks.

Staley finished 14 of 19 passing for 177 yards and the two scores, and Collins caught six passes for 55 yards while junior back Lukas Ebright caught four for 55.

Breckenridge had a similar back story to Reading – the Huskies went 0-9 in 2015 when a handful of this team’s leaders were learning on the fly as freshmen. Four years later, 11 seniors are done but next season’s returnees have played up to another full season with extra games during the last three playoff runs.

“We’ve got a plan, and we stick to it,” Breckenridge coach Kris Robinson said. “It’s good athletes coming through, but we’ve also got a process. We’ve learned as a coaching staff, and I’m hoping we can move forward from here.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Reading celebrates its first MHSAA football championship Friday. (Middle) The Rangers’ Caleb Miller, right, chases Breckenridge quarterback Carter Staley.

Constantine Football All-Stater, Wrestling Champ Aiming for Grand Finale

By Scott Hassinger
Special for

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.)