'Best' Algonac Unbeatable So Far as Highly-Anticipated Drive for Finals Begins

By Paul Costanzo
Special for MHSAA.com

February 10, 2022

Jake Kasner knows the hard work is still ahead for him and his Algonac wrestling teammates.

But that doesn’t mean he can’t appreciate what the Muskrats already have accomplished.

“It’s great,” the Algonac senior 152-pounder said. “We had a couple tournaments cut short, and we had some teammates out – really the only dual we had our whole team was against Richmond. Everyone has been stepping up when we need them, and we continue to win duals whenever possible. I’m very proud of our team in that way.”

Algonac is 21-0 and ranked No. 4 in Division 3 and won Wednesday’s Team District with a championship victory over Clawson. The team collected hardware throughout the year and finished a program-best second in the Macomb County Invitational.

While that incredible season did not include a Blue Water Area Conference championship, the Muskrats were 5-0 in the league, including a win against perennial state power Richmond, something no BWAC team had achieved since 2004.

“We’ve been trying to harp on consistency,” Algonac coach Brian Ranger said. “In past years, we had some tough teams where one week they looked amazing, and the next week not so much. We’ve been working to have that same, consistent effort every week and being the best version of ourselves. We don’t have kids worry so much about the other teams. We’re good enough now where if we wrestle to the best of our abilities, we can wrestle with anyone. We’re making sure we bring the same championship-level effort every time.”

Ranger took over at Algonac before the 2011-12 season, inheriting a program with no youth feeder system and 11 high school wrestlers.

Over his first 10 seasons, Ranger turned the program around, winning five District championships and – along with the help of his friend and assistant coach Ken Thomas – built the youth program to more than 70 wrestlers.

Algonac spent plenty of time over those 10 years among the top teams in the BWAC and ranked among the top 10 in Division 3.

The team also ended each of those previous 10 seasons with a District or Regional loss against Richmond.

“For whatever reason, we never wrestled as well as we should have at the end of the season against Richmond, and it pained me,” Ranger said. “I was always kind of searching every offseason for why we weren’t performing better against some of these better teams. This year, we focused on being the best us. If we’re the best us, we’re pretty hard to beat.”

Algonac’s best could be enough to end the streak this year, but it’s tough to fault the Muskrats for previous defeats. Richmond – the alma mater of both Ranger and Thomas – has won eight Division 3 Finals titles since 2000 and has been a Division 3 finalist eight of the past 10 seasons.

The Blue Devils won the BWAC title this year, taking first at the league tournament and edging Algonac in dual points thanks to the Muskrats having to cancel an early-season league date against Imlay City and Croswell-Lexington.

Richmond may be waiting for the Muskrats in the Regional Final, but first must wrestle No. 10-ranked Yale, the tournament host next Wednesday. On the other side of the bracket, Algonac will face Imlay City, which Ranger considers a top-10 caliber team.

While Algonac may have put a target on its back with the earlier win against Richmond, the bigger takeaway could be the confidence gained by the Muskrats heading into the postseason.

Algonac wrestling“It was a little bit more of a mental victory, if anything,” Ranger said. “For so long, we haven’t performed when it came to a match like that. We’re still proving to ourselves that we are good enough for those moments.”

The Muskrats are a young team, with 10 underclassmen in the starting lineup, including seven freshmen. The final five matches against Richmond were wrestled by Algonac underclassmen, as they pulled out a 31-29 victory. Six freshmen – Chris Campbell (second, 103), Sky Langewicz (fourth, 103), Lucky Gartin (third, 112), Steve Shannon (third, 119), Alex Bright (third, 125) and Reid Hiltunen (second, 160) – placed at the BWAC tournament.

“I saw it coming,” said Kasner, who won a BWAC title at 152. “We’ve had all the younger kids coming up through the youth program. There was a big gap the last few years in the lower weights, and we knew we were going to get a lot of that filled, so if you ask me, this isn’t really a surprise. (The younger wrestlers) come to practice every day, and we expect the same thing from them as we expect from everyone else. They give it their all every day, including the Richmond match.”

Those younger contributors not only came up through the Algonac youth program, they thrived while taking part.

“My young kids, this is kind of all they know,” Ranger said. “They’re not super surprised; they’re kind of used to it. I think it’s surprising to some people around our community and other communities. I think (this season) took that belief to another level, but they kind of already had that inside of them, that we’re this good and we need to be like this every year.”

As the talent base was building, Ranger also was working on himself as a coach. The former Elmhurst University wrestler has been tweaking his approach over the past decade – not so much in what he physically teaches, but the mental aspect.

“I’ve always known how to show wrestling moves, but it was kind of some of that mental preparation – how to get them ready mentally and physically, how to peak at the right time,” Ranger said. “Most of my philosophy I use here has been stolen from about 27 different people, plus (former Richmond coach George Hamblin), and my college coach was a Division I national champion. I still haven’t learned it all. I’m also trying to stay positive in the corner as much as I can. I’m an emotional guy, and if something goes wrong, I used to wear that in my body language too often.”

That emotion is sure to come out, though, if the Muskrats can accomplish what is now in front of them – advancing to the Team Wrestling Finals for the first time in program history.

“We all love (the coaches), everyone on our team,” Kasner said. “They work so hard for our team. Coach Thomas drives 45 minutes just to get to practice every day. To (beat their alma mater) for them after all the years and all the stuff they did for us, we were happy for them, too.

“We’ve prepared all season and took it one day at a time. We’re going to be ready. We’ve been ready. I think we have a good shot to be the first team to make it to team state from Algonac. But there’s no for sures.”

Paul CostanzoPaul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Algonac coach Brian Ranger gives Alex Bright a pep talk this season. (Middle) The Muskrats’ Lucky Gartin works for a pin. (Photos courtesy of the Algonac wrestling program.)

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.)