Belleville Twins March to Finals Together

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

March 2, 2016

BELLEVILLE – Caleb Brown continues to be haunted by what he considers a grim disappointment in his Belleville wrestling career.

Last season, Brown lost during what those in the wrestling fraternity call the “blood round.” This is the consolation round, a match for fourth place, at the Individual Wrestling Regionals. Brown lost by one point in the 152-pound weight class to an opponent he had defeated earlier in the season and, thus, missed qualifying for the MHSAA Finals.

He was devastated but not consumed by it. For one, that was his junior season. Brown rededicated himself during the offseason. He continued to run cross country to keep his weight down and also increase his endurance.

This season Brown broke through barriers, claiming the Wayne County and Division 1 Regional championships at 152.

As proud as he is of reaching this point, it’s made even more special by the fact that he’ll enter The Palace of Auburn Hills on Thursday with his twin brother Chris. Chris Brown competes at 130. Last season he qualified for the MHSAA Finals at 119 and won a first-round match before losing his next.

“It’s really cool,” Caleb said. “I missed out last year. Being a senior, it’s cool.

“(Winning the regional) didn’t hit me right away. I was just talking about it with my teammates, and that’s when it hit me. I was really focused on winning the match.”

Caleb is 44-4 this season and will face Kyle Minor of Roseville in Thursday’s first round.

Chris is 47-2 and will go against Lee Grabowski of Brighton.

The Browns say having a twin who competes in the same sports is an advantage, if for no other reason than it enhances one’s competitive nature.

They both started wrestling in middle school by chance.

“We played football in the beginning,” Chris said. “The coach told us to wrestle to keep in shape. I was terrible in the beginning. But we’ve never been known as quitters. I like the individualism. You can’t use the excuse your team lost it for you.”

Once they entered high school, the Browns gravitated even more toward the sport. But it wasn’t until their sophomore season that they became proficient at it.

For Chris, there was one match that showed he could compete against the best.

“My sophomore year was my first on varsity,” he said. “I went against a ranked opponent, and I won by a point. That was huge for my confidence.”

Coinciding with the Browns’ rise was the return of Derek Phillips as coach. Phillips started coaching in 1994 and stayed 11 seasons before taking time off to help raise two children. He remained within the school district as a teacher, but the time commitment of teaching and coaching together was not conducive to spending quality time with his sons.

In 2013, Phillips returned. He has been a mentor for the Browns and a third senior MHSAA Finals qualifier, David Tooley (215).

Phillips was the one who encouraged the Browns to compete in cross country.

“It goes hand in hand,” Phillips said of the two sports. “I love it. They come into the wrestling season in shape. All three have over 100 wins and all three are good students. They’re a coach’s dream.”

Tooley is a little different. It’s not because he plays football instead of competing in cross country. And it’s not because he’s a three-sport athlete (also plays baseball). It’s his warm-up routine that causes many to take a second look, scratch their heads or both.

It’s more than a routine. It’s a dance. Sort of. He got the idea from watching a wrestler from Southgate Anderson who competed against his brother, Mark Tooley, when the elder Tooley wrestled for Belleville in 2011.

“It’s like no other,” David Tooley said. “It’s an active movement. It’s like a dance, and it’s a little embarrassing.”

Whatever works.

The Browns’ warmup routines are a little less flamboyant, but they do get a kick out of watching their teammate go through his routine. Chris likes to listen to music just before his matches. Caleb prefers listening to his coach, receiving last-minute instructions.

Away from the mat, the Browns are constantly challenging each other. Take running, for example.

“We try to one-up each other,” Chris said. “We’ve always been competitive. I’m faster than he is, when we run cross country. We’re not too far apart though.”

Caleb judges a person’s speed all together differently.

“He might beat me in cross country,” he said. “But if it’s a true test of speed, I’m faster.”

Tom Markowski is a columnist and directs website coverage for the State Champs! Sports Network. He previously covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Chris Brown works to gain control during one of his Division 1 Regional matches Feb. 20. (Middle) Caleb Brown, Chris Brown, David Tooley.(Below) Caleb Brown works an opponent toward a potential pin during one of his Regional matches. (Top and below photos by Douglas Chapman.)

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.)