1st Girls Finals Champions Make MHSAA History at Ford Field

By Scott DeCamp
Special for MHSAA.com

March 6, 2022

DETROIT – Eliana Bommarito will typically have the advantage in strength anytime she steps on the wrestling mat against another female.

At Saturday’s Individual Wrestling Finals, the Hartland senior drew strength from the crowd at Ford Field as girls joined the boys on the big stage for the first time in history.

Bommarito earned a fall over Belding freshman Madasyn Frisbie in 3:53 in the 255-pound title match to become a four-time state champion.

“I’m so proud. It means, like, we’re being recognized,” said Bommarito, who was 8-0 in matches against girls this season. “There’s actually more girls joining, and this will only encourage more and more females to start wrestling and know that they have a chance to be recognized for it. It’s just great that I got to see that my last year.”

Bommarito said she picked up wrestling about six years ago. She’s been a state champion more than half that time.

The last three years, she won state titles through the Michigan Wrestling Association. This season, a girls wrestling tournament was sponsored by the Michigan High School Athletic Association, so Bommarito got the chance to perform in front of a much larger crowd that in previous years.

Frisbie (7-1) made Bommarito work a bit. None of the previous postseason matches in her career went beyond the first period, but this one lasted nearly two.

“I rely a lot on my upper-body strength. I always get discouraged when I get in a match and I don’t have that (advantage). But that’s definitely something that I have the majority of the time,” Bommarito said. “Going to that second period, I was like, ‘She’s pretty good. It’s going to work up my cardio a bit for this match, so I’ve got to start relying on cardio, too.’

“This is great. It’s like the first time in history for women (to wrestle alongside the boys at the Finals), in at least Michigan. I feel like I can encourage more females to want to join wrestling.”

Champion: Emme Hicks, Saline, Jr. (10-0)
Fall, 5:50, over Tricia Pyrzewski, Gladwin, Soph. (13-3)

Hicks earned her third state title in as many high school seasons with the hard-fought victory over Pyrzewski.

Hicks picked up wrestling as a second-grader nine years ago.

“I know that I’ve put in more work than anybody else. I live on the mat, I feel some days. I trust in my coaches and my hard work,” she said.

“This just felt amazing to be recognized by so many people as being equal as the guys who wrestle. Having this opportunity, it’s just amazing.”

Champion: Sky Langewicz, Algonac, Fr. (19-0)
Decision, 3-0, over Sunni LaFond, Gaylord, Fr. (32-9)

In the lone Finals match pitting two freshmen, Langewicz shook off some nerves and recorded a hard-earned victory.

Langewicz said she’d been preparing all season for this moment, and once she scored a takedown, the rest took care of itself. 

“It was scary at first – I was pretty nervous, but as soon as the whistle blew, the nerves went away and I just felt in the moment,” she said. “The whole world disappeared, and I didn’t feel like there was any pressure. It felt amazing.”

Sophomore Sydney Thompson, Eaton Rapids, Soph. (20-6)
Decision, 7-1, over Gabby Motz, Laingsburg, Sr. (19-5)

Thompson noticed quite the difference in atmosphere between the girls Finals last year and this weekend’s event at Ford Field. Also, she didn’t even place last year and this time she took home the state title.

“I worked hard, I put in the work, I did what needed to be done,” she said. “I did what (most) people weren’t willing to do: Staying after practice, practicing on weekends, working one-on-one with coaches and my dad and stuff. Just working hard.

“I didn’t waver. I knew it was going to pay off. I knew that if I worked hard, it would beat anyone’s talent when they didn’t work hard, so I knew I would come out on top.”

Margaret Buurma, Fowlerville, Fr. (14-2) 
Decision, 9-6, over Kendra Vickory, Goodrich, Soph. (6-2)

Buurma trailed later in the match against Vickory but said she kept fighting to pull out the victory on the big stage.

Buurma said she’s been wrestling since she was 3 or 4 years old, but this environment was different than anything she had ever experienced.

“The experience was definitely amazing – one of the greatest things I’ve ever done,” she said. “It was very nerve-racking going out there in front of all the people, but in the end it’s the same rules, same mat.”

Angelina Pena, Milan, Soph. (8-0)
Fall, 5:56, over Lola Barkby, Sturgis, Fr. (8-3)

Pena believes that wrestling against boys helps her when it’s time to take the mat against a girl. At the same time, she’s very proud of the fact that girls now have an equal platform as boys at the Finals.

“It really means a lot to me,” said Pena, who won a second-straight state title. “I know a lot of my girl wrestling friends say the same thing because you used to hear boys say, ‘Oh, girls wrestling is so easy. I could totally win that.’ We get the same chance as guys do.”

Pena’s brother, Milan junior Peter Pena, finished runner-up at 140 pounds in Division 3 moments after she captured the championship.

Hannah Palise, Warren Mott, Sr. (22-1)
Decision, 6-3, over Ryen Allen, Goodrich, Soph. (6-1)

Palise closed her high school wrestling career in grand fashion, rallying past Allen for her first title.

Palise knew she needed a takedown and nearfall to pull out the victory. Achieving her goal in front of a large crowd in the big venue made it all the more memorable, she said.

“It was awesome – like, the whole stands, everything,” she said. “It made it more meaningful that everybody could come, that I knew that were supporting me.”

Tyler Swanigan, South Lyon East, Soph. (9-0)
Decision, SV-1 8-6, over Faith Blackburn, Clinton, Soph. (23-2)

At several moments during her Finals match, it appeared Swanigan could have given up. Her shoulder joints were bending so much, it seemed as though they were made of rubber bands.

“I’m a varsity cheerleader,” the flexible Swanigan said in laughter after her dramatic, extra-time victory.

Swanigan bent but didn’t break. The moment she scored a takedown in the extra period, she realized that she’d realized a dream.

“Definitely the thoughts of winning my first state title. … I definitely wanted this really bad,” she said.

Danni Swihart, Hanover-Horton, Jr. (20-4)
Inj. Def., 5:01, over Kennedy Edson, Lawrence, Jr. (14-1)

Swihart said she picked up wrestling in second or third grade. All the hard work paid off.

In her first Finals appearance, Swihart captured the championship and did so on the biggest stage the girls have been on.

“Oh, it was just glorious,” she said. “I mean, coming out here, working so hard during the season, having the opportunity to be in the Finals, let alone first time in girls history and at Ford Field, it was just an outstanding feeling. 

“And if I could, I would play it over and over again,” she added with a chuckle.

Emma Pendell, Montague, Soph. (19-6)
Decision, TB-1 2-1, over Isabel Worthing, East Jackson, Sr. (13-5)

Pendell is Montague’s first girls wrestling state champion, and she’s also her school’s first Finals champ in the sport since 1989.

She placed seventh in the state last year, when she dual-sported in wrestling and basketball during the winter.

“My main reason for (picking up wrestling) was college opportunities, but after like two years, I just fell in love with it. Now, I can’t imagine not doing it,” she said.

Mishell Rebisch, Romeo, Soph. (8-0)
Fall, 3:55, over Teairah Elsemann, Saline, Jr., (6-2)

Rebisch admitted to feeling a little pressure with so many eyes on her during her Finals match against Elsemann. She knew when it was time to turn the pressure up on her opponent, however, and she scored a pinfall late in the second period.

Rebisch captured her first title after finishing runner-up last season.

“Definitely, there was so much more mats here – probably like five times as many mats as there was last year. Big stadium – a lot bigger stadium,” she said. “It felt a lot louder. In some ways, it felt like more pressure, probably because so many people were watching. I was excited.”

Lydia Krauss, Boyne City, Sr., (24-0)
Major decision, 13-2, over Amarisa Manuel, Romeo, Soph. (6-1)

A lot was riding on the Finals match for Krauss – more than the title.

“Honestly, I just wanted 100 wins – I just wanted it,” she said.

Krauss got both. Previously, she had lost twice to Manuel, including in last year’s state finals tournament. This time, she left no doubt.

“It was just amazing. I’ve lost to her twice so far and just to know that I can beat her and I can be a girl that gets 100 wins, it’s just amazing,” the emotional Krauss said. “I’m just so grateful right now.”

Sabrina Nauss, Brighton, Soph. (9-0)
Fall, 1:59, over Khloe Williams, Clio, Jr. (7-2)

On Friday, Nauss became the first girl to win a match at the MHSAA’s first Finals tournament. 

On Saturday, she finished the job in a big way, earning a victory over Williams to cap a memorable weekend and season.

“This weekend was so special. This will be a weekend I’ll never forget in my life,” Nauss said. “It was great – it was great to be out here and prove that girls can wrestle just as hard as guys can and that we’re just as equal as they are and we should be on the mat alongside of them. This was so special.”

Kailyn Garrett, South Lyon, Sr. (8-1)
Major decision, 19-9, over Gabriella Allen, Marcellus, Soph. (16-1)

Garrett could not have imagined finishing her high school wrestling career in a better way. 

Sure, she won her second state title in three years, but this one felt so much bigger.

“Well, first, the crowd size. And then also being able to be seen next to the guys, seen as equals, is definitely a big difference,” Garrett said. “I had people when I won (two years ago) didn’t say anything and then now even qualifying, they feel obligated to congratulate me, so that’s a big difference.”

Click for full results.

PHOTOS (Top) Hartland’s Eliana Bommarito holds up four fingers on each hand to signify winning her fourth championship Saturday at Ford Field. (Middle) Saline’s Emme Hicks, left, locks up with Gladwin’s Tricia Pyrzewski. (Click for more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)

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.)