Three Rivers Takes Run at District Together

October 31, 2017

By Wes Morgan
Special for Second Half

J.J. Wagner is economical with his words, stoic on the sideline, and not preoccupied with statistical trends. All he really asks of his Three Rivers football players is to play and sacrifice for one another.

It’s been a pretty good recipe throughout his 13-year tenure as the head varsity coach of the Wildcats, at least in the years when the players truly held up their end of the bargain. With an 82-50 career record since 2005, Wagner has seen what can happen when everyone is pulling in the same direction, like a 13-0 run that ended with a loss in the 2009 Division 4 Final.

He’s also witnessed how complacency can cut a program right back down, as was the case in 2010 when an experienced Three Rivers squad went 4-5 and missed the postseason.

The Wildcats have been noticeably hungrier the last two years, with a 7-3 mark in 2016 and an 8-2 record this year as they prepare for Friday’s Division 4 District championship game against Edwardsburg.

Eleven games into the year, Three Rivers has been unable to break out of a Wolverine Conference bubble. The Wildcats went 7-2 in the league, with losses to Dowagiac (Week 2) and Vicksburg (Week 9). Revenge was sweet last Friday as Three Rivers beat Vicksburg in the Pre-District game (20-10).

Now, the difficult task of beating the league’s most dominant team for the second time in one year is what’s required to move on in the playoffs. If Three Rivers can beat the Eddies (after also doing so 21-18 in Week 7), there’s a chance they’ll face Wolverine Conference member Plainwell in the Regional Round.

“You get through the Wolverine (schedule) and then you’re suddenly in a mini Wolverine tournament,” Wagner joked.

There are no secrets in terms of playoff prep against such familiar foes, so it’s all about the basics.

“Our offense has been moving the sticks, our defense has been playing well, our special teams have played well and we play well when we don’t turn the ball over,” he said.

Having played for perennial power Mendon, where he registered 253 tackles as an outside linebacker during the 1987-89 seasons, Wagners’ emphasis on that side of the ball has been a hallmark of the 2017 campaign. Three Rivers has only allowed 11.7 points and 203 yards per game. The Wildcats have stopped opponents on third down 79.8 percent of the time.

A lot of that has to do with big and athletic senior defensive end Tirrell Hausmanis (6-foot-4, 245 pounds), senior defensive tackle Tyler Moore (5-11, 235) and the linebacker duo of senior Chris Morrill (5-10, 160) and Traven Van Oss (6-1, 165). That group alone has accounted for 34.5 tackles for loss this season. Morrill and Van Oss are tied for a team-best 61 tackles.

“Anytime you’re playing good defense, you can take a few more chances on offense,” Wagner said. “I don’t know how many times we’ve gone for it on fourth down this year, but it’s probably more than most (years). You can take a chance at midfield or the 40 that maybe you wouldn’t normally.”

Perhaps no player has embraced Wagner’s rule of doing what’s best for the team more than Hausmanis, who likely would have garnered a lot more attention from college coaches had he stayed at tight end. Instead, he’s anchored both lines the past two seasons.

“We all just do our jobs,” he said. “This happened and we weren’t big enough (on the offensive line) for me to play tight end. They needed me at tackle. At first I didn’t really like it, but I had to get used to it because it was what was best for the team. It helped us succeed and win, so I had to do it.”

His defensive stats might not seem that impressive — 30 tackles with two sacks — but it’s what he’s capable of that impacts the game so severely.

“It helps when you know people are going to run away from (Hausmanis), so you can stunt and play games on the other side that can mess with their protections and blocking schemes,” Wagner said.

Wagner admitted he’s not big on stats, but for those who were wondering about how many times the offense has felt comfortable gambling on fourth down because of a belief in the defense, it’s 27. The Wildcats have converted 15 times (55.6 percent).

Other than knowing the defense could likely bail it out if needed, there’s been plenty of confidence in the offense under the leadership of junior quarterback Jalen Heivilin.

With a 22-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio, an average of 214.6 passing yards per game and a completion rate of 61 percent, the first-year starter has settled in nicely. Classmate Gavin Charvat has been Heivilin’s favorite target as the two have connected 42 times for 562 yards and six touchdowns. Bryce Morlan was next in line with 32 receptions for 549 yards and a team-high 11 TDs, but the senior went down in Week 9 with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Fortunately for the Wildcats they also have reliable receivers in Jett Haifley and Zac Meyer; each has hauled in 23 passes for around 400 yards.

“When we play mistake-free, which is what we harp on, and eliminate pre- and post-snap penalties, you can win a lot of games,” Wagner said. “That’s what we focus on every week. If you can do that, you’re going to keep yourself in a lot of games.”

That was exactly the difference in Three Rivers’ home win against Edwardsburg on Oct. 6, which snapped a 34-game Wolverine Conference winning streak by the Eddies.

“We have to play with that same energy and effort (against Edwardsburg),” Wagner added. “In both of our losses, we came out kind of flat. If I knew why, we wouldn’t do it. We think we can go in there (at Edwardsburg) and play them tough again. It boiled down to mistakes in that (first meeting). We made our extra points, and we held them on all theirs. If we go in there with the same discipline, there’s no reason we can’t beat them again.”

Wes Morgan has reported for the Kalamazoo Gazette, ESPN and, 247Sports and Blue & Gold Illustrated over the last 12 years and is the publisher of He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Three Rivers’ defense lines up for a play; it’s been stifling this season giving up only 11.7 points per game. (Middle) Receiver Nolan Mark and quarterback Jalen Heivilin (4) talk things over against Edwardsburg. (Photos courtesy of

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.)