Russell Drives West Catholic to Repeat

November 29, 2014

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

DETROIT – Travis Russell had faced this situation plenty over the last three years – first at the end of the 2012 Division 5 Final, then while lying in bed at night before games over the last two seasons.

As a sophomore quarterback that season, attempting to lead Grand Rapids West Catholic on a go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter, Russell was the listener – to his then-senior receivers and linemen offering encouragement – as the Falcons came up 12 yards short of overtaking Portland for an MHSAA title.

On Saturday, in the last of his three championship game appearances and final of 42 high school games, Russell entered the huddle as leader – encouraging teammates who stood 64 yards and three points from the school’s second straight title.

He told them, “This is what we live for, guys. We worked so hard all season for this moment. It’s going to pay off. Give everything you have, and it’s going to be fine.”

More than six minutes and 17 plays later, Russell ran three yards through the middle of Lansing Catholic’s defense to give West Catholic a 24-20 lead it would defend over the final minute to claim the school’s third MHSAA championship in five seasons and first perfect season since 1976.

“Definitely I lived it in the past; sometimes the night before games I’d think about it,” Russell said of the failed final possession in 2012, which stalled at Portland's 12-yard line as the Falcons lost 12-9. “Today, it wasn’t on my mind at all. Really, all I thought about was what can we do for each other right now to get it done.”

Russell ran for 134 yards and two touchdowns and threw for 203 and another score as the Falcons opened with a 17-0 lead, allowed the previously-undefeated Cougars to score 20 unanswered points, and then went back ahead late with Russell either running or throwing on all 17 plays of the final drive.

Lansing Catholic (13-1) completed a pass to its 32-yard line to begin its last-ditch possession to retake the lead, but senior Brett Wildman came down with an interception on the next play to effectively end the game.

Grand Rapids West Catholic (14-0) rarely trailed this season in outscoring its opponents on average 41-14. The Falcons fell behind last week early in its Semifinal against Menominee, also its opponent in the 2013 Final (a 27-14 win), but had never trailed in the fourth quarter this fall.

But after scoring on three of its first four possessions, West Catholic didn’t again for more than 24 minutes while Lansing Catholic scored on three of its next four after Russell’s 8-yard scoring run with 1:43 to go in the first half.

Cougars junior quarterback Tony Poljan – who also ran for a 7-yard score and threw a 41-yard touchdown pass to senior Zac Baker during the comeback – gave Lansing Catholic a 20-17 lead with a 22-yard scoring pass to junior running back Tony Palmer with 7:38 to play.

“We talk all the time (about) don’t get rattled, stay focused, teams are going to make plays,” West Catholic coach Dan Rohn said. “This is state championship football; you don’t get here with a bad football team. We had to make adjustments, they made some big plays and we were a little down on ourselves. But we stayed focused and made sure when we got the ball back that we chipped away a little bit.

“We have 24 seniors, and we need those kids to stay focused and play like leaders down the stretch. You don’t get to this level without those kind of kids and that kind of effort.”

That’s something Lansing Catholic has known as well in making the Finals twice over the last four seasons. In 2011, the Cougars were led by another sizable quarterback in Cooper Rush (now starting at Central Michigan University) but fell to Flint Powers Catholic 56-26 in that championship game. The 6-foot-7, 230-pound Poljan had never played quarterback before last season; he finished the Final with 60 yards rushing and a touchdown and 269 passing with two scores – giving him 2,806 yards and 34 touchdowns passing and 1,013 yards and 23 touchdowns rushing for the season.

“(He’s a) tremendous athlete that’s worked really hard to get where he’s at,” Lansing Catholic coach Jim Ahern said. “When we had to get some yards today, he got yards. He threw the ball well.

“I’m real proud of him. He’s worked for everything he’s got.”

Palmer was Poljan’s main target, catching eight passes, while senior lineman Ian Gorgenson paced the Cougars’ defense with 13 tackles. Senior running back Nick Buursma also ran for a score for West Catholic, and senior Charlie O’Connor had 111 receiving yards and caught the lone scoring toss from Russell. Wildman had a team-high 10 tackles and a sack in addition to his rally-stopping interception.

Lansing Catholic hadn’t scored fewer than 21 points since opening night 2013 and hadn’t given up more than 22 since West Catholic put up 38 on the Cougars in last season’s District Final. Ahern believed the teams were similar – similar offensive styles, standout quarterbacks who can run and pass. But Lansing Catholic just couldn’t stop what it knew was coming in crunch time.

“It just shows the growth and resilience of this team. We’ve been in every situation that is possible, and it’s just a credit to the guys,” Russell said. “Being able to fight, to dig deep and find something that Coach can’t really tell us to have. You can’t teach the will power guys had at practice, that was able to help us get it done today.”

Click for full statistics.

PHOTOS: (Top) Grand Rapids West Catholic celebrates its second straight MHSAA Division 5 championship Saturday at Ford Field. (Middle) West Catholic’s Brett Wildman (2) works with a teammate to bring down Lansing Catholic’s Tony Poljan. (Click for action photos and team photos from Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)


FALCONS FIRST TD - Grand Rapids West Catholic led 10-0 after the first quarter, its touchdown coming on an 87-yard pitch and catch from Travis Russell to Charlie O'Connor.

COUGARS BACK IN THE GAME - Late in the third quarter, Lansing Catholic tightened things up with a 96-yard drive, capped by a 41-yard pass from Tony Poljan to Zac Baker.

Watch the game in its entirety and order DVDs by Clicking Here, and watch the postgame press conference by Clicking Here.

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.)