Veteran Ishpeming Takes Back D7 Title

November 28, 2015

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

DETROIT – Michigan high school football players, if they’re most fortunate and their teams uncommonly successful, can play up to 20 playoff games during their careers.

Saturday morning at Ford Field, Ishpeming seniors Ozzy Corp and Thomas Finegan joined that exclusive club. And with membership came a few lessons available to those who have experienced two MHSAA championships and a runner-up finish. 

Don’t get frazzled when trailing by two touchdowns early. Don’t be fazed when a record-setting running back is galloping at you play after play after play.

And above all else, don’t forget a game has two halves – and their team tends to own the second one. 

Despite trailing into the fourth quarter and failing to slow Pewamo-Westphalia’s Jared Smith over the first two, the Hematites stayed calm – and came back for a 22-16 win to clinch their third Division 7 championship in four seasons.

“We’re a second-half team. In the fourth quarter, we get tired, but we know how to fight through it, and I feel like that’s our advantage,” said Corp, the team’s starting quarterback the last two seasons. “We know how to face adversity. When things don’t step our way, we know how to fight back and stand right back up.” 

This Ishpeming four-season has run included championship game wins twice over Detroit Loyola and now P-W, to go with a loss to Loyola in last season’s MHSAA Final. The Hematites were a combined 13-0 this fall and 52-2 over the last four seasons, losing only to Loyola last year and rival Negaunee midway through 2012.

Those are some incredibly impressive numbers – and would have been only a little less impressive if the numbers from Saturday’s first half would’ve stood up over the entire game.

Pewamo-Westphalia junior running back Jared Smith, who finished this season with single-season records of 3,245 yards and 53 touchdowns rushing, had 112 and his lone score by halftime as the Pirates (13-1) held on to a 16-6 lead after scoring the game’s first two touchdowns and running 20 of the first 27 offensive plays. P-W’s first possession ended with a turnover on downs at Ishpeming’s 1-yard line after senior defensive end Luke Kuliu came up with a goal line stop.

“We didn’t have an answer,” Ishpeming coach Jeff Olson said of Smith. “We worked hard at stopping the cut back, and he got the cut back. We worked hard on stopping him from getting the outside; he got the outside. When he gets one on one, he’s extremely difficult to tackle.”

But not impossible to stop after all, as Ishpeming showed during the second half.

The Hematites picked up momentum with a 13-play drive that took up half of the second quarter before Corp scored his team’s first points with 2:41 to go in the second quarter. They carried it through the third quarter as both teams resorted to ramming their best runner back and forth against each other – Smith at times taking direct snaps for P-W and Corp blasting ahead from the shotgun for Ishpeming.

But the results were sharply different from the first half. Ishpeming gained 135 of its 211 yards during the third and fourth quarters as Corp added touchdown runs seven minutes into the second half and with 3:52 to play – the final score coming after a drive of 14 plays over nearly 8 minutes.

P-W managed only three first downs and 43 yards over the final two quarters, as Smith was contained to 37 yards rushing on eight carries. Ishpeming held onto the ball for 15 minutes and 19 seconds total in the second half to the Pirates’ 8:41 – controlling tempo a lot like P-W during the first quarter and a half.

“Because it’s our gameplan too,” Olson said. “When you’ve got two teams, something’s gotta budge.

“In the first half they were winning the line of scrimmage. I think we threw a couple of passes to try to loosen them up a little bit, back them up. But I think we did wear them down. I could see them breathing hard in the fourth quarter, definitely that last drive.”

P-W did have one chance to tie after taking over the ball at the 50 with 3:42 to play. The Pirates drove to Ishpeming’s 32-yard line, but with less than a minute remaining had to go to the pass for only the fourth and fifth times on the day. Both were incomplete – the last knocked away like a basketball blocked shot in front of the end zone by the 6-foot-5 Corp.

He ran 32 times for 128 yards and three scores after gaining only 33 yards on the ground during the first half. He also completed 6 of 11 passes for 77 yards and led the defense with 10 tackles. Senior defensive back Nick Comment had nine tackles.

P-W sophomore quarterback Jimmy Lehman did connect on a 50-yard touchdown pass to sophomore tight end Bryce Thelen during the first half. Senior linebacker Nate Jandernoa led the Pirates with nine tackles as they made their second appearance at Ford Field to go with a runner-up finish in Division 7 in 2011.

P-W will graduate seniors who filled only seven starting positions Saturday. A large group of expected returnees will play to get back to Detroit to take advantage of the knowledge they gained facing the most experienced tournament team in the state.

“It’s big for us to come in here, for our guys to get a look at what it’s like,” Smith said. “We’ve got a lot of guys coming back next year, so hopefully we’re coming right back with experience. We played a pretty good game, but next year we’ll know exactly what to expect.”

Click for the full box score. 

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

PHOTOS: (Top) Ishpeming quarterback Ozzy Corp reaches across the goal line for one of his three touchdowns Saturday. (Middle) Ishpeming running back Isaac Olson charges ahead through an opening in the Pewamo-Westphalia defense.

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.)