St Mary's Scores 3-Peat on Late TD

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

November 26, 2016

DETROIT – Orchard Lake St. Mary’s has been bitten before by teams that made last-second winning plays.

This time St. Mary’s bit back.

Ky’ren Cunningham’s 18-yard touchdown reception with four seconds left gave the Eaglets a thrilling 29-28 victory over Muskegon in the Division 3 Final on Saturday at Ford Field.

St. Mary’s (10-4) began its last drive on its 20-yard line with 1:55 left. A pass interference penalty by Muskegon and Rashawn Allen’s 22-yard run placed the Eaglets in a good position to go for the winning score.

On 3rd-and-3 from the 22, quarterback Caden Prieskorn scrambled for four yards and a first down. An incomplete pass preceded the winning score.

“It was a pistol right,” Prieskorn said. “All we knew was we were going to have man-on-man coverage.”

Make no mistake. This was desperation, and it was a makeshift play. Cunningham is a starting running back. The last time he lined up as a receiver was in the first game this season against Macomb Dakota. Coach George Porritt ditched that plan afterward. Cunningham would stay in the backfield.

But not this time. St. Mary’s had five wideouts and to confuse matters more, Cunningham went to the slot, then switched spots with Clay Antishin, with Antishin moving inside.

“I play running back,” said Cunningham, a junior. “It was one-on-one and the safety didn’t come over the top. Caden just threw it. He just made the read.

“My body felt so weak (when I caught it). I don’t remember much.”

If Cunningham was stunned, Muskegon was more so.

The only loss the Big Reds (12-2) had this season was to a team from Illinois (Lincolnshire Stevenson). They rolled through the playoffs with their Semifinal game against Edwardsburg (19-8) the only close one.

“I just didn’t do a good enough job of teaching coverage,” Muskegon coach Shane Fairfield said.

“People say we can’t win the big one," he added. "We won a lot of big games to get here. The football game doesn’t define you. It’s what you do and the way you act afterwards that defines you.”     

It was Muskegon’s fourth loss in a Final since winning its last title in 2008. Meanwhile, the championship was St. Mary’s third straight and eighth overall.

Muskegon took a 21-20 lead on its second possession of the second half. It took the Big Reds 1:48 to go 50 yards with senior quarterback/running back Kalil Pimpleton going the final 18 to give Muskegon the lead with 11:21 remaining.

St. Mary’s then went on one of its patented long, time-consuming drives to retake the lead. The Eaglets took 12 plays to go 47 yards, and Ben Fee set an MHSAA Finals record with a 49-yard field goal to give his team a short-lived 23-21 lead with 4:47 left.

Clinton Jefferson, Jr., returned the ensuing kickoff 49 yards to midfield to give the Big Reds great field position, and they made it count. Jefferson carried five times on the drive for 32 yards, including the last three for a touchdown with 1:55 left.

As it turned out, that was too much time to leave for St. Mary’s.

“Cade made some big throws against DeWitt (in a Regional Final),” St. Mary’s coach George Porritt said. “What amazes me is we were 5-4 at one point, and we battled back.”

St. Mary’s is the fifth team to win an MHSAA football title having lost four games. 

Muskegon led 14-13 at the end of an entertaining first half.

The Big Reds went 70 yards during the opening drive and took a 7-0 lead on Pimpleton’s 18-yard touchdown run. Pimpleton’s 27-yard pass to Jefferson helped set up the score.

St. Mary’s then went 69 yards, but its drive stalled and Fee kicked a 32-yard field goal.

La’darius Jefferson took over at quarterback for Pimpleton in the second quarter, and Muskegon increased its lead to 14-3 as Jefferson completed an 80-yard drive with a 2-yard touchdown run. He carried five times on the drive for 25 yards. His 54-yard pass to Pimpleton was the key play.

After another Fee field goal, Muskegon had possession late in the half. But on 3rd-and-9 Jefferson handed off to Pimpleton, who threw a halfback pass that was intercepted by Shermond Dabney, who returned it 30 yards to the Muskegon 30. On St. Mary’s 3rd-and-9, Prieskorn threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Antishin, who made a diving catch in the end zone with 35 seconds left before the break.

Allen was a workhorse in the backfield, and ran with determination. A junior, he rushed for 136 yards on 25 carries, and Cunningham had 15 carries for 46 yards. Prieskorn was 13 of 21 passing for 200 yards and two touchdowns.

For Muskegon, Pimpleton had three receptions for 88 yards, was 3 of 4 passing for 58 and rushed nine times for 56 yards and two touchdowns.

Click for the full box score.

The MHSAA Football Finals are sponsored by the Michigan National Guard.   

PHOTOS: (Top) St. Mary’s Ky’ren Cunningham (12) celebrates his game-winning touchdown. (Middle) Muskegon’s La’darius Jefferson breaks around his blocker Saturday.

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.)