Saints Remember, Rally During Semifinal Run

November 20, 2015

By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half

ST. IGNACE – Tradition and excellence are distinctive parts of the athletic program at LaSalle High School at this eastern tip of the Upper Peninsula.

Located at the north end of the Mackinac Bridge, St. Ignace has won five MHSAA girls basketball championships since 1999, and the school's football team won the 1983 Class C title. The football team also is currently preparing for its third MHSAA Semifinal appearance since 2011.

When the Saints face two-time defending Division 8 champion Muskegon Catholic Central on Saturday at Thirlby Field in Traverse City, they will have an extra player in their huddle.

Mitchell Snyder, a three-year starter at center, was killed in a car accident following the school's homecoming in October when he was struck by an alleged drunk driver.

"Since his death, the team has really come together as a unit," said veteran St. Ignace News sportswriter Dave Latva.

Head coach Marty Spencer, in his 19th season at the helm, agreed. "This has been a rallying point for us," said Spencer, noting the Snyder family has become an integral part of every football game.

"This has brought us closer; it has brought his family closer to us. We have rallied around him. He is with us. He is on our shoulders. He is in our huddle."

Snyder's father, Brent, wears his son's No. 69 jersey to every game, and the players reach out and touch the jersey as they leave the locker room for the field. His number also appears on the back of each player's helmet.

In the first game after the accident, against Ironwood and played in Gladstone, Brent Snyder asked the Saints what they thought Mitchell would want them to do. Snyder told them Mitchell loved to play football, and they should continue to play the game.

The Saints ran their opening two plays against Ironwood with just 10 players, in memory of their deceased teammate. "Mitchell was there blocking for us," said Spencer.

Spencer said the coaching staff and players talked extensively about the tragic accident. "It was tough that first week. We struggled," said Spencer. "We talked a lot trying to find answers, and you never can answer those questions.

"We had to do that for our well-being, for us to survive. As he helps us through each game, it gets better and better for us. Not just for us, for the whole community."

Spencer has guided St. Ignace to an 11-1 record. Its only loss was 20-14 to unbeaten Ishpeming, which is in the Division 7 Semifinals for the fourth straight year. Last week the Saints beat perennial Division 8 power Crystal Falls Forest Park 22-8.

"Our kids are pretty resilient," said Spencer. "He (Mitchell Snyder) has been our backbone for this run. It could have destroyed us all. Mitchell's dad said there should be no more crying. Mitchell is not crying. He wants you to play football."

Because the Saints have played such powerful foes as Ishpeming and Forest Park, they will not be intimidated going up against a team the stature of Muskegon Catholic Central. "They are bigger than us, they have size and speed," said Spencer. "Our kids are confident. We have played some good teams (including also Fowler and Johannesburg-Lewiston). We are ready."

Leading the Saints is senior Gage Kreski, an all-state prospect in football and basketball and highly-sought college recruit in both sports. Kreski is the team's quarterback and was the Upper Peninsula's defensive player of the year (small school division, as voted by media) as a back. He also does the punting and returns punts.

"He does so much," said Spencer, noting Kreski had 11 interceptions as a sophomore and this year has scored off two of his three interceptions as offenses steer away from him. "He is a constant athlete who keeps working. He can play anywhere. He could be one heckuva wide receiver," said Spencer.

Kreski has rushed for 851 yards and added another 1,235 yards passing. He has solid backfield support from Mitchell Peterson, Andrew Goldthorpe and Dave LaVake, with linemen Cole Garen and Jared Helms setting the interior tempo for the two-time Ski Valley Conference champions.

Spencer said the heavily balanced Saints have emphasized defense this year with a 52 alignment (five linemen, two linebackers). "Against the run, this is the best it has ever been," he said.

The narrow loss to Ishpeming provided a confidence boost for the Saints, who have a fully home-grown coaching staff under Spencer, a downstate native. Spencer coached nearly every assistant coach when they played and said having St. Ignace grads on the staff "helps continue the legacy that has been built."

Two of the aides are volunteers who moved back home this fall, Chase and Zach Pierson, the sons of legendary St. Ignace football standout and coach Barry Pierson.

"It is nice having people who know the tradition here, the ins and outs of what the program means to people," said Spencer.

Denny Grall retired in 2012 after 39 years at the Escanaba Daily Press and four at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, plus 15 months for WLST radio in Escanaba; he served as the Daily Press sports editor from 1970-80 and again from 1984-2012. Grall was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and serves as its executive secretary. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Upper Peninsula.

PHOTOS: (Top) St. Ignace players all wear a decal on their helmets in memory of late teammate Mitchell Snyder. (Middle) A Saints defender stacks up an Indian River Inland Lakes ball-carrier earlier this season. (Below) St. Ignace huddles during a break in play. (Photos courtesy of Kristi Gustafson.)

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.)