Receiver-Turned-QB Finishes Job Helping GRCC Run Title Streak to 3

By Scott DeCamp
Special for

November 27, 2021

DETROIT – To the casual observer, Grand Rapids Catholic Central’s fifth MHSAA football title in six years may seem a little ho-hum.

Don’t tell that to John Passinault. This one was special – way different than what he may have envisioned at the start of the season.

The senior quarterback connected with Notre Dame commit Nolan Ziegler on a pair of second-half touchdown passes, and the GRCC defense did the rest in a 31-7 victory over Marine City in the Division 5 Final on Saturday at Ford Field.

Joey Silveri, GRCC’s three-year starting QB, suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 4. That’s when Passinault, a 6-foot, 180-pound converted receiver, switched to the signal-caller position. Passinault picked up where Silveri left off and helped lead the Cougars to a second-straight Division 5 title, their sixth championship in the last dozen years and seventh overall.

“Well, it’s surreal. Before the season, if you would have told me this was going to happen, I would have told you you’re crazy,” said Passinault, who finished the game 15-of-28 passing for 221 yards with one interception. 

“A bad thing happened to a really good kid, Joey Silveri, and that’s just the mindset of the team to step in where it’s needed. I went from wide receiver to quarterback and it’s pretty easy to do that when I have guys around me like Nolan, Ronin Russell-Dixon, Devin Fridley-Bell, Luke Kuzner, Jack Rellinger. I have all those guys around me, it’s easy to step into that role and just settle in.”

GRCC (14-0) completed its third perfect season in the last five years, but Marine City (13-1) made the Cougars work for it for the better part of three quarters Saturday.

GRCC led 10-0 in the second quarter after a 29-yard field goal by junior John Meyer and a 2-yard TD run by Rellinger, a senior. Marine City hung in there, however, and pulled within 10-7 on junior QB Jeff Heaslip’s 3-yard scoring pass to senior Charles Tigert with a little more than three minutes left in the half.

The score remained that way until the closing seconds of the third quarter. Ziegler, a 6-4, 210-pound receiver and linebacker, caught a pass over the middle from Passinault, turned the corner and raced down the sideline for a 59-yard scoring play. 

That seemed to ignite the Cougars’ offense a bit.

Division 5 Football Final“My team, they blocked well, it was a great pass by John,” Ziegler said. “We were just kind of playing backyard football out there honestly, and we just got things going. I got a good block from the receivers, and I just got down and got it in.”

The Passinault-to-Ziegler connection struck again four minutes later, this time on a 17-yard TD play, as the Cougars began to pull away. Ziegler finished with seven receptions for 136 yards, plus he notched a game-high 13 tackles in displaying his Power Five college football credentials.

Senior linebacker Jack Klafeta put the exclamation point on the victory for GRCC with a 34-yard scoop-and-score midway through the fourth quarter. Klafeta notched nine tackles, as did junior Jack Cook.

“Just their athleticism all over the field, their physicality up front, made things very difficult,” said Marine City coach Daryn Letson, whose team allowed no more than 14 points in a single game this season prior to Saturday.

“You know, our defense played their hearts out. I think our whole team played their hearts out,” Letson said. “You know, they have those kids and we just weren’t able to do enough offensively when we needed to.”

GRCC finished with a narrow edge in total offense, 228-215. The Mariners outrushed the Cougars, 77-7.

Heaslip was 14-of-22 passing for 138 yards. Senior Wyatt Walker led Marine City defensively with nine tackles.

This was the sixth state title in 10 seasons overall for GRCC coach Todd Kolster, who is now 112-12 at the Cougars’ helm. They also won titles under him in 2010, 2016, 2017, 2019 and 2020. GRCC’s first came in 1987.

Kolster said the Cougars made great strides from the start of this season.

“It’s a pretty surreal thing for these guys up here – just unbelievably proud of them for so much that they’ve accomplished this year,” he said. “This team probably has come as far as any football team in a season that I’ve coached.

“Just coming together, learning what it takes, getting experience, understanding each other, fighting, competing. That’s a process and we were far, far away with them at the beginning of the season. To come here and be able to get this done, the credit goes 100 percent to our seniors.”

It was an emotional farewell for Passinault. He carried on the strong QB play provided by Silveri, who is a college prospect and led the Cougars to Finals titles in 2019 and 2020.

As a passer, Passinault proved more than capable in his own right. He threw for 2,307 yards and 37 TDs this season.

“This is it. That will probably be the last time I ever play football, so it’s just crazy to think that that’s the last time I’ll play specifically with these people,” Passinault said. “ … It’s just crazy. As a kid, you just dream about this. And to have it happen, it’s just a surreal feeling – and having dreams come true, it’s crazy.”

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PHOTOS (Top) Grand Rapids Catholic Central’s Will Smith (73) hoists teammate Nolan Ziegler as they celebrate during Friday’s Division 5 championship win. (Middle) A host of GRCC and Marine City players stack up to a standstill. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)

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.)