Brooklyn Twins Locked In After Scare

By Chip Mundy
Special for Second Half

March 2, 2016

By Chip Mundy
Special for Second Half

BROOKLYN – A little more than a year ago, Cooper Gunnells’ greatest dream was thwarted by what turned into a horrible nightmare.

A sophomore wrestler at Brooklyn Columbia Central at the time, Gunnells dreamed of qualifying for the MHSAA Division 3 Individual Finals at The Palace.

He never got the chance in 2015, but he will be there this year as a Regional champion – and his twin brother will be there, too, in the same weight division.

In January of 2015, an illness – paired with a freak wrestling injury – turned into a nearly two-month stay in the hospital that threatened Cooper’s life.

“At first, we thought we’d lose him for a couple of weeks. Then it was, ‘Oh shoot, we’re going to lose him for the year,’ and then it was, ‘He might die.’ It suddenly put everything into perspective. Wrestling just didn’t seem that important anymore.” – Columbia Central wrestling coach Ron Guernsey

Cooper said he had a slight cold early in January, but it didn’t keep him from wrestling as it wasn’t a big deal. However, what happened in one match turned into a very big deal.

“My throat was a little dry because of the cold,” he said. “I got put in a headlock, and I think I went to pry up on this guy’s elbow to get away from him, and I felt a little rip in my throat, but I didn’t think anything of it. I just kept on wrestling.”

As the days went on, Cooper began to have trouble breathing. He noticed it during some of his matches.

“It hit me hard,” he said. “When I was wrestling one kid, I felt very fatigued. I couldn’t get my breath back. I was looking at my coach like, ‘What is going on? I’m not usually like this.’”

It also affected his sleep, and the only way he could get a decent night of sleep was to sit in a chair with his arms folded on the top of the chair to provide a little relief in his lungs.

After two trips to the emergency room – both times he was told he had mononucleosis – things got worse.

“The moment I really started to feel like something was really serious was when I started having shallow breaths and couldn’t really breathe that well,” Cooper said. “My chest really, really hurt; it hurt to the touch.

“I called my dad and told him that something was really wrong; he needed to come get me, and we needed to go to the hospital now. It was like nine or 10 o’clock at night. They hooked me up to an EKG, and they looked at me, then looked at the machine again, and said, ‘You need to get to U of M pronto.’ I didn’t know what was going on.

“All I remember from that point on is they hooked me up to a morphine bag. They started pumping me full of morphine, and I just kind of dozed off to sleep. I was there, but I wasn’t. I remember like little periods of that whole incident.”

The “rip” he had felt in his throat was actually a tear in his esophagus, so when he ate or drank, everything spilled into his lungs and chest cavity, causing an infection.

“If we had waited another day or two, from what the doctor said, the outcome wouldn’t have been very good,” said Cooper’s father, Scott Gunnells.

Cooper was in the intensive care unit as the doctors battled the infection.

“It was just a weird set of circumstances that brought it about,” Guernsey said. “Once it got into his lungs, they had to go in two different times to scrape his lungs.

“It was a big deal. They were pumping him with antibiotics, and he went from 125 pounds to 100 pounds. It was hard to even look at him.”

Cooper’s twin brother, Keenan, had a similar feeling.

“It was really scary,” Keenan said. “I didn’t even want to go to the hospital to see my brother in the condition he was in. It was hard.”

As Cooper lay in the hospital, he really was unaware of his condition or the severity of it.

“At first, when I starting coming to, I was bloated full of fluids and had chest tubes in me,” he said. “I was like, ‘What is going on?’ I had a whole bunch of IVs in my arm. The doctors came in and told me I ripped my esophagus and everything I was eating and drinking was going to my chest cavity. It made this thick mucus inside my lungs, and then the pericardium (sac around your heart), that was full of fluids, too.

“I had tubes going in my neck down into my chest area and tubes from both sides of my chest that was draining out all of the junk that was inside of me.”

He also was incubated with a breathing tube.

“The thought came to my head that I might never wrestle again, but I really wanted to wrestle.” Cooper Gunnells

When Cooper was first released about six weeks after going into the hospital, he returned after just eight hours and stayed another week.

While in the hospital, his spirits were lifted when the Michigan State University wrestling team sent a signed shirt, and three members of the University of Michigan wrestling team visited him in the hospital.

“That was really cool,” Cooper said. “I asked them about their go-to moves and stuff like that, and they said to ‘stick to the basics.’”

A return to wrestling was going to be a big step for a young man who had dropped 20 percent of his body weight from 125 to 100 pounds, and the doctors put him on a 4,000-calorie diet – maybe the only good thing that happened to Cooper during that time.

“It was great actually,” he said. “I splurged on ice cream and chocolate milk. They had these calorie bags that they would open and pour into my chocolate milk. It’s like 1,000 calories each.”

Cooper got out of the hospital in time to see his twin brother, Keenan, nearly advance to the MHSAA Tournament. He lost by one point in his final match in the Regional.

During the season, Keenan normally wrestles at a different weight class than Cooper so both can get into the lineup, but that was not necessary when Cooper was sidelined last season. But Keenan felt like he was wrestling for his stricken brother and made some changes to honor him.

“I was wrestling for him for sure,” Keenan said. “He made me try harder. Actually, at two tournaments, I bumped up to his weight class and took first at that level. I did it for him.”

Cooper never lost his desire to get back to wrestling. He returned to the mat near the end of the WAAAM (Wrestling Amateur Athletic Association) season.

“My dad told me I couldn’t wrestle at first,” Cooper said. “He just said, ‘We’ll see where you are in a couple of months.’ It was two weeks before WAAAM ended when I wrestled in WAAAM. I was huffing and puffing; it was hard to breathe.

“Keenan took first in WAAAM and I took eighth, but it was a learning process and had to start somewhere.”

Cooper played on the soccer team last fall to help build up his cardio, and he was relentless in his work to get back in wrestling shape.

“He worked so much harder when he got out of the hospital to get back where he is now,” Keenan said. “Those late-night runs, while I’m sitting on the couch doing cookie curls – eating cookies while he’s out running and busting his butt – just to know where he’s at now, I’m so proud of him.”

Cooper said he feels like he is 100 percent in all areas except endurance.

“I would say I’m 100 percent now strength-wise, but cardio-wise no,” he said. “Those months of being in bed – I couldn’t even walk down the hallway and back.”

Cooper is back. He is seeded first at 125 pounds in Division 2, and he brings in a record of 38-3.

But there remains one unique twist to the story.

“My little brother beat me.” Keenan Gunnells, on losing to Cooper in the Regional Semifinals two weeks ago

Although Keenan had wrestled at 130 pounds most of the season, he dropped down to 125 for the Regional in an attempt to reach The Palace.

Obviously, that set up the possibility of the twin brothers meeting each other officially for the first time. It was a situation that was tough to face, and it ended up becoming a reality in the Regional Semifinals.

Not everybody wanted the match to take place.

“I told them not to do it,” Scott Gunnells said. “I didn’t want them to wrestle, just flip a coin and save the energy for someone else. Somebody had to lose anyway, and whoever loses has to wrestle harder to get back in.”

Cooper had similar thoughts.

“I really didn’t want to wrestle him because he’s my brother,” he said.

Keenan, who likes to remind Cooper that he is 4 minutes older, was a little more for settling things on the mat.

“It was hard, but it was fun,” Keenan said. “Coach Guernsey gave us the chance not to wrestle. I could have injury-defaulted out of the match and then dropped back down, but I wanted to take first or second to move on, so why not wrestle for it? Who’s the better wrestler?

“It went to overtime, and he got the last takedown, so my little brother beat me.”

While Cooper went on to win the Regional title, Keenan regrouped and finished third to earn a spot at the Finals with a 38-10 record. And a repeat meeting could happen again.

Both are seeded high, and a rematch could take place in the Semifinals or possibly even the Final. With a championship at stake, the twin brothers have a little different outlook.

“It’s a no-mercy kind of thing,” Cooper said. “That’s what we kind of did at Regionals, but now that we’re in states, we’re going to go at it if we meet.”

Keenan would love to reverse the outcome of the last meeting, but either way, he is really pleased to be there with Cooper.

“It’s kind of neat,” Keenan said. “Say Cooper and me both make it through our brackets, we could meet in the Finals. Twins in the Finals? I’m pretty sure everyone would be watching us and not caring about the other matches that are going on.

“I really wanted to make it to state, but it makes it 10 times better to know that my brother will be there with me on the mat while I’m wrestling.”

“I learned that you can’t take life for granted.” – Cooper Gunnells

Cooper said even he is surprised to be where he is today after the terrible ordeal.

“I would have thought it was going to take way longer for me to recover,” he said. “I was like 101 pounds.”

Scott Gunnells reflects on the past year and remembers the pain and worry. He also said he will never forget the support from the community.

“They had a big spaghetti dinner last year, and people showed up who I didn’t even know,” he said. “The community was great, and the outgiving of the community and the sacrifices of the coaches will always be in my mind.

“I don’t care who wins or loses. They are both coming home and both are going to eat at the same table. It doesn’t matter to me.”

The Gunnells brothers have another year to wrestle in high school, and wrestling in college is something both would like to do.

When asked if he had any colleges in mind, Cooper gave an insightful answer.

“I want to wrestle in college and I am hoping to go to Western Michigan because they have a nursing program,” he said. “After going through everything, I think it would be cool to be able to help people.

“You can’t take life for granted. Going through the ICU and seeing some people who were much worse than me, that was pretty painful, too.”

Chip Mundy served as sports editor at the Brooklyn Exponent and Albion Recorder from 1980-86, and then as a reporter and later copy editor at the Jackson Citizen-Patriot from 1986-2011. He also co-authored Michigan Sports Trivia. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Brooklyn Columbia Central twins Cooper (left) and Keenan Gunnells wrestle during a Regional Semifinal at Williamston two weekends ago. (Middle) Cooper, below left, Keenan and their coach Ron Guernsey. (Below) Keenan Gunnells faces Alma's Alex Rosas in a third-place match at the Regional. (Top and below photos by

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.)