Understudy Shines as Shores' Lead Receiver

October 31, 2018

By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half

The understudy has become the star for the Muskegon Mona Shores football team.

James Gilbert was supposed to be “the other guy” this season, the receiver on the opposite side from Division I recruit Damari Roberson, who has committed to Western Michigan University.

But the cast list changed in June when Roberson, a 3.6 GPA student who at one time had more than 17 college football scholarship offers, tore the ACL in his left knee for the second time in nine months during a non-contact drill.

“That’s when everything changed,” explained Gilbert, who always had considered himself a basketball player on the football field. “The coaches and Damari sat me down and told me that I had to be the man, that I was the only one with the same type of ability that could take his place. They basically challenged me.”

Shores coach Matt Koziak said Gilbert, a 6-foot-2, 181-pound senior, has always had the physical skills. But since Roberson went down this summer, he has been focused, motivated and driven like never before.

The result has been an incredible senior season for Gilbert, who has 51 catches for 1,172 yards and 10 touchdowns. His emergence as one of the top receivers in the state enabled the Sailors to climb all the way to No. 1 in Division 2 in the final Associated Press state rankings.

Mona Shores (9-1) will put its top ranking to the test Friday night in the MHSAA District championship game against visiting Ottawa-Kent Conference Black rival Jenison (7-3). The two teams engaged in a shootout just three weeks ago, with the visiting Sailors escaping with a 49-42 victory.

Gilbert played a huge role in that win, with six catches for 93 yards and a touchdown, coming up big once again when his team needed it most.

“JG has been unbelievable all year,” said Koziak, who has a 60-26 record in eight years as the Sailors’ coach, highlighted by a run to the Division 2 title game in 2014. “With all of the injuries we’ve had, he’s kind of been the one constant. When we’re scratching our heads, we can always throw it up to James.”

Coming into the season, Koziak knew he had senior battering ram running back Sincere Dent (5-11, 217), who has delivered with 118 carries for 1,082 yards and 20 touchdowns. The problem is that Dent has played in only seven games and his playing time was reduced in several others due to shoulder and ankle injuries.

Junior quarterback Caden Broersma (6-3, 206) also has been outstanding, completing 81-of-112 passes (72 percent) for 1,547 yard and 13 touchdowns, with just one interception. He also has rushed for 621 yards and 12 touchdowns.

The most surprising statistic for Mona Shores is that Gilbert has accounted for 76 percent of the Sailors’ receiving yards.

“I’m not surprised, because he’s always had it in him,” said Roberson, who has remained a key part of the team, attending every practice and serving as another assistant coach for Koziak. “I always learned from him in basketball, and I taught him everything he knows about football. With me being out, he’s had more of a chance to show what he can do.”

Gilbert is starting to garner more and more interest from college football programs, with Saginaw Valley State, Ferris, Davenport and Mount Union (Ohio) showing the most thus far.

Gilbert wasted no time proving he would be “the man,” showing his big-play ability with five catches for 159 yards (32 yards per catch) and a touchdown in a big 48-38 win over East Kentwood in the season-opening Gridiron Classic at Grand Valley State University. East Kentwood hasn’t lost a game since.

He also came up big in the cross-town showdown Oct. 12 against unbeaten Muskegon, which is ranked No. 1 in Division 3. Gilbert caught six passes for 118 yards, including a one-handed, 28-yard touchdown grab. He also threw a 31-yard touchdown pass to Andrew Swick on a trick play in that 55-35 loss.

And Gilbert was at it again in last week’s narrow 34-28 District win over Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central, catching five passes for 120 yards and a touchdown. He sealed the win with an interception as the Rangers were driving for a potential game-winning score in the final minute.

“It’s been fun, but we know we still have a lot of work to do,” said Gilbert, who has impressed opposing coaches with his ability to come down with big catches in traffic. “Damari and I have been playing with each other and against each other since Little League, so I kind of feel that I’m playing for him this season.”

As for Roberson, he still believes that a season that began with a nightmare injury could have a storybook ending – both for the team and himself.

Roberson (6-2, 194) said his rehabilitation is going great and his possible return date from the injury is during the week of the MHSAA Semifinals. So there remains the possibility, if the team keeps winning, that Roberson and Gilbert could line up as opposite wideouts, like the original plan.

“Stay tuned,” said Roberson, who is on pace to graduate early in December and then enroll at WMU in January. “After all that this team has been through, with all of the injuries, that would be the perfect ending.”

Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Mona Shores senior James Gilbert makes a one-handed catch for a 28-yard touchdown on a pass from Caden Broersma early in the second quarter Oct. 12 at Muskegon. (Middle) Damari Roberson returns a punt last year as a junior against Reeths-Puffer. Roberson has not played this season due to a knee injury. (Photos by Eric Sturr.)

Constantine Football All-Stater, Wrestling Champ Aiming for Grand Finale

By Scott Hassinger
Special for MHSAA.com

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.)