Team of the Month: Martin Football

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

December 13, 2022

Two straight trips to 8-Player Semifinals

Two seasons over the last three with double-digit wins.

Three straight seasons where the only loss on the field came in the playoffs to the eventual Division 1 champion.

Martin’s football team had come so close a few times to earning the ultimate prize in Michigan high school football. And finally, this fall, it was the Clippers’ turn.

Paced by 11 seniors, the MHSAA/Applebee’s “Team of the Month” for November claimed the 8-Player Division 1 championship at the Superior Dome in Marquette – the Clippers’ first Finals title since 1987 – with a 74-24 win over previously-undefeated Merrill.

“This is the most seniors we’ve ever had, as long as I’ve been coaching here,” said Martin coach Brad Blauvelt, a 2003 graduate of the school who just finished his fifth season leading the program after serving as an assistant coach nearly as long before taking over. “Program kids – from rocket football to middle school, all the way up, they’ve been committed to the program the whole time.”

Martin has an interesting recent history as a program, to say the least. After five straight winning seasons from 2003-07, the Clippers didn’t win a game from 2008-2013. They got back on the plus side at 6-4 in 2018, then made the move to 8-player – where they’ve gone a combined 40-6 over the last four seasons. 

This one started with a 30-28 win over Mendon – the eventual 8-Player Division 2 runner-up – and over 13 games Martin averaged 54 points while giving up only 14.5. There were a pair of losses along the way – to Grand Rapids NorthPointe Christian and Bridgman, which both finished 9-0 but have enrollments too high to qualify for the 8-Player Playoffs. Those losses helped Martin move forward, especially the 35-34 defeat against Bridgman in the regular-season finale. 

“The biggest thing was being OK with a loss, because we were so used to winning … not being OK with it, just understanding we’ll get better from it,” Blauvelt said. 

The Bees were able to get their playmakers outside on the Clippers – which generally means big plays in the 8-player format. So Martin’s coaches made a sharp adjustment heading into the postseason, putting all-state safety Sam Jager at one outside linebacker, and moving middle linebacker (and all-state quarterback) JR Hildebrand outside on the other side.

So while Hildebrand was able to continue leading the offense to totals of 68, 56, 42 and 74 points over the four playoff games, the Clippers during the playoffs gave up just 52 points total – and held a two-time reigning champion Adrian Lenawee Christian team averaging 48 points per game to just 14 in a 59-14 Regional Final win. 

The Cougars had eliminated Martin from the playoffs the last two Semifinals on the way to those two straight Division 1 championships. In 2019, Martin lost to Colon in a Regional Final, and the Magi went on to claim the Division 1 title.

“The last couple of years, we lost the last game of the season, and you can’t do anything about it,” Blauvelt said. “Losing in-season, we were able to fix and change some things around that I think ultimately helped us.”

Hildebrand was one of the state’s best at his position this fall, rushing for 1,340 yards and 23 touchdowns and throwing for 1,234 yards and 25 scores. He owns two school records on offense, and also led the team with 90 tackles, to go with four sacks and seven more tackles for loss. 

Jager caught seven of those touchdown passes and was the best blocker for a team that ran for more than 2,600 yards. He had 51 tackles and five interceptions, including one he brought back for a score. Another senior, Karter Ribble, topped 300 yards rushing and receiving, with a combined 12 touchdowns, plus scored twice on kickoffs and again on a punt return. He also made 90 percent of his extra-point tries and set a school record with a 43-yard field goal.

They were part of that senior class that, although graduating, has helped bring a buzz and momentum that Blauvelt hopes carries over into other sports, academics and the community as a whole.

“They come to morning workouts, they come to all the summer stuff, and they do the extra work to push themselves over the hump,” Blauvelt said. “They’re so talented athletically too, that doing that pushed them over the top even more so.”

Past Teams of the Month, 2022-23

October: Gladwin volleyball - Report
Negaunee girls tennis - Report

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.)