St. Mary Erases Doubts, Ends Ithaca Run

November 28, 2014

By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half

DETROIT — The players and their coach insisted they were playing for their own glory, not to deprive Ithaca of further greatness.

Monroe St. Mary would've savored an MHSAA Division 6 football championship regardless of the opponent, regardless of the historical backdrop.

But when the clock expired on the Falcons' 22-12 victory over Ithaca on Friday at Ford Field, once they'd secured their first title since 1991, there was a little extra pride among the St. Mary players.

Yeah, it was pretty special to beat a team with a nation-leading 69-game winning streak and four consecutive Division 6 championships.

"At the beginning of the week, we didn't really think about that," St. Mary senior linebacker David Howey said. "The coach just kept preaching there's 48 minutes left in high school football. That's a pretty cool win, though, beating the nation's longest winning streak in high school football. It's pretty cool. When we told people that's who we were going to play, they'd doubt us, and that just fueled me even more."

There was also a bit of a revenge motive for St. Mary (13-1), which lost 45-35 in the Division 6 final when the Yellowjackets' string of MHSAA titles began in 2010.

"It makes it a little more sweet, but it's just awesome," said senior John Lako, who ran for two touchdowns and made seven tackles with a sack at linebacker. "I was actually at the game when we lost to them in 2010. Just to see they were that close, it feels like we finally wrote the end of the book."

Ithaca coach Terry Hessbrook hasn't had to deliver a postgame speech to his players following a loss since a 47-16 setback to Montague in a 2009 Division 6 Semifinal. From the start of 2010, the Yellowjackets assembled a winning streak that ranks 13th all-time in national high school football history. The streak included 24 consecutive playoff victories. Ithaca was trying to tie the record of five straight MHSAA titles shared by Farmington Hills Harrison (1997-2001) and East Grand Rapids (2006-10).

Ithaca had to come from behind in its previous two games just to keep the streak alive and return to Ford Field. The Yellowjackets trailed Madison Heights Madison 27-19 heading into the fourth quarter of the Regional Final before winning 41-27.

They made a stop on fourth down from the 4-yard line with 13 seconds left to preserve a 20-16 Semifinal victory over Boyne City, which took an early 14-0 lead.

"We've had maybe more talented teams, I'm going to be honest, and that's no knock on this football team," Hessbrook said. "But I've never coached a football team that has more heart and more resiliency, and that's going back to the teams we've had in the last four or five years. I don't care what team you put out there, this team will fight you every step of the way. I couldn't be more proud. We came up short. We missed a few opportunities. We came up a few plays short. One play in the kicking game, one play here or there on offense, we win that game, and we win it going away."

Ithaca (13-1) had only three victories with a margin of fewer than 10 points during the winning streak. Missed extra points by opponents played a major role in two of those games, a 22-19 overtime victory over Montague in the 2011 Regional Final and a 21-20 victory over Montrose in a 2013 Semifinal.

Ironically, points after touchdown were critical in the outcome of Friday's championship game.

Monroe St. Mary's edge in conversions began following the first touchdown of the game, a 2-yard run by Lako that capped an opening drive that milked the first 8:15 off the clock. An off-sides penalty by Ithaca on the extra point attempt moved the ball close enough to the goal line to make a two-point attempt more feasible. Justin Carrabino ran untouched around the right side to give St. Mary's an 8-0 lead.

Ithaca tried to make up the difference following its first touchdown, an 11-yard pass from Jake Smith to Spence DeMull with 9:20 left in the second quarter, but the two-point pass fell incomplete to leave St. Mary's up 8-6.

Special teams loomed even larger with 7:11 left in the second quarter when Troy Hilkens forced a fumbled punt return. The ball popped up to Travis Vuich, who returned it 19 yards for a touchdown. Phillip Lehmann's extra point made it 15-6.

"It was a great feeling," Vuich said. "The guys did their job on the punt filling the lanes. The ball just popped right up."

Ithaca found the end zone for a second time on a 2-yard run by Smith with 33 seconds left in the first half. The extra-point attempt hit the upright, leaving the Yellowjackets down by a 15-12 margin despite matching St. Mary's two touchdowns.

"I hope that all those young people who were standing on our sideline understand what a small margin for error there is when you play for a state championship and understand how much work goes into it," Hessbrook said.

An Ithaca offense that averaged 43 points a game wouldn't score again, as St. Mary came up with huge defensive stops in the second half.

On fourth-and-one from the St. Mary 21, Ithaca was stopped in the backfield by Justin LaPlante and finished off by Darius Marks for a 1-yard loss with 2:29 left in the third quarter.

Ithaca marched to St. Mary's 19 on its next possession, but Bryce Windham (also the Falcons' quarterback) intercepted a pass after a reverse.

St. Mary's took over at its own 2-yard line with 10:19 remaining and was able to milk the clock down to 2:46 before punting. Ithaca got the ball at its own 20 for one final attempt to keep its winning and championship streaks alive. On second and 10, Lako sacked Smith for a 12-yard loss with 2:19 to go. On fourth-and-22, Marks intercepted a pass with 1:51 remaining and returned it to the 5.

Two plays later, Lako wrapped up the victory with a 3-yard touchdown run with 1:41 left.

Ithaca threw four incompletions on its final possession, and St. Mary kneeled out the clock.

"We won today because of our defense," St. Mary coach Jack Giarmo said. "Offensively, we struggled a little bit, but defensively the kids just did a fantastic job battling."

Ithaca outgained St. Mary, 262-182, but had three costly turnovers. Smith ran 18 times for 90 yards and a touchdown while completing 14 of 29 passes for 147 yards, one touchdown and one interception. DeMull caught nine passes for 108 yards and a touchdown.

Vuich made two clutch catches for first downs when St. Mary took 7:33 off the clock following Windham's interception. Vuich caught three passes for 38 yards, accounting for more than half of Windham's 71 yards on 7 for 12 passing.

LaPlante had nine tackles, including two for losses, to lead St. Mary's defense. Reeser had a game-high 12 tackles for Ithaca.

Click for full statistics.

PHOTOS: (Top) Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central players raise their first MHSAA football championship trophy since 1991 on Friday. (Middle) St. Mary defensive back Darius Marks (2) snags an interception in front of an Ithaca receiver. (Click for action photos and team photos from Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)


SMITH TO DEMULL FOR THE SCORE - Ithaca scores its first touchdown in the second quarter, with Jake Smith finding Spence DeMull in the end zone for the score.
FALCON FINDS GOOD FORTUNE - On its drive following the first Ithaca TD, Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central punts and a loose ball on the return finds its way into the hands of Travis Vuich, who took it 19 yards for what proved to be the winning points.

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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.)