White Pigeon Building On 2018 Surge

By Wes Morgan
Special for MHSAA.com

September 10, 2019

There won’t be any halftime ceremonies years from now celebrating the White Pigeon football team’s accomplishments in 2018. There’s no engraved award to display in the trophy case. 

But the Chiefs’ 7-3 season certainly rejuvenated the program and its supporters.

That it will spark prolonged success remains to be seen, admitted second-year head coach Shawn Strawser, who isn’t interested in making bold predictions. What he can say with certainty is his players are committed, disciplined, physical and hungry for another taste.

Leading up to last fall, White Pigeon had just one winning season (5-4 in 2014) since its last playoff appearance in 2009, a year that resulted in a 9-2 mark with a Division 7 Pre-District win over Decatur. Last year, the schedule paired the Chiefs with what would turn out to be the top two teams in the Southwest 10 Conference during the first three weeks of the season. Losses to Centreville (22-12) and Cassopolis (28-12) sandwiched a 38-8 victory over Marcellus. But White Pigeon went on to win its final six regular-season games to qualify for the postseason, a march which included the program’s first win over Mendon in 20 years (although the Hornets got revenge in the Division 8 Pre-District round with an 8-6 win over White Pigeon).

It all happened quickly from Strawser’s perspective. When Joseph Morsaw resigned as the head coach at the end of 2017, administrators turned to Strawser and Mike Gropp — a duo with past varsity experience who had spent recent years guiding the middle school program. Strawser was just about to leave for a vacation in St. Lucia and needed to think about whether he wanted to deal with everything that comes with the top spot at the varsity level.

“I called Mike and I was like, ‘We’re going to have to do this, aren’t we?’” Strawser said. “Mike was like, ‘Yep.’

“We had a nice group of seniors. I had actually coached those kids when they were in Rocket. I knew them all real well.”

Strawser also knew he needed to do a little recruiting, starting with then-junior Stone Kemp, who turned his focus as a freshman and sophomore to leading a Bible study after school rather than playing football.

“He’s very persuasive, and so he got me back into it,” said Kemp, who finished with 398 rushing yards on 82 carries (4.9 per carry) and seven touchdowns as the Chiefs’ second back behind senior Carlos Castro in 2018. “I decided it would be a good place to be, and I think that’s where God wanted me.”

The benefits were twofold, Strawser said. It was obvious what Kemp brought to the team in terms of production, but Strawser noticed the positive impact Kemp had on his teammates as well.

“He’s a great athlete and an even better kid,” Strawser explained. “He is truly an all-around football player. Last year he played defensive end and outside linebacker. We stuck him out to cover one-on-one. This year we moved him back to safety. He has great hands and can pretty much do anything we ask him to do. He’s such a versatile player. He picked it up pretty fast for being out a couple years. He popped right back in like he didn’t miss a beat.”

To open the 2019 season, Kemp rushed for three touchdowns and returned the opening kickoff for a score in a 54-0 White Pigeon victory over Bloomingdale. He caught a touchdown pass in Week 2 in the Chiefs’ 14-8 win at Decatur, which required a goal-line stand during the final minute.

“It has been very enjoyable,” Strawser said of the program’s turnaround. “That was the whole point. On the bubble wasn’t good enough. We really wanted these kids to buy in, believe what we were doing and reap the rewards of their hard work. We preached every day mental toughness.

“Each time we had a successful game the confidence just grew. It has been a real fun ride. They were eager to do well. It paid off. We haven’t earned anything or proved anything this year yet, so we just have to keep grinding away.”

Though the Chiefs lost a ton of talent to graduation, people familiar with the program believed they could fill those voids. With 19 players on the roster, including three sophomores, the Chiefs have been able to do that, including a great effort from an offensive line that consists of a mix of experience and youth.

Captain and three-year starter Kobie DeBruine, a tackle who can play guard, sets the tone for a group that includes capable tight ends Dominick Pant – who has packed on 20 pounds of muscle since last season – and Chris Bontrager, guards Beau Freedline and Luke Gropp, and sophomore center Lane Esarey.

“That was the biggest question mark going into this season is that we were pretty young on the offensive line,” said Strawser, whose son, Lincoln Strawser, is back as a senior to guide the offense at quarterback. “They really got to work and made a lot of improvement from the scrimmage to Week 1.”

Now the Chiefs are after their first playoff victory since 2009 and fourth since 1990.

“We’re just looking for big things this year,” Kemp said. “This year I know it’s my last year to do it, so I just want to make the most out of every opportunity I get. I kind of like how people underrate us because it gives us a chance to show what we’ve got.”

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

PHOTOS: (Top) White Pigeon defenders track down a ball carrier during their Week 1 win over Bloomingdale. (Middle) Stone Kemp breaks away on a long run. (Photos by John Gentry.)

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.)