Champ Lilly Honed In on Historic Quest

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

January 15, 2020

Chris Lilly could have plenty of thoughts racing through his mind as he goes through his senior wrestling season at Croswell-Lexington.

It’s his final year wrestling for his dad, Cros-Lex coach Joe Lilly, who has been in his corner since he began wrestling at 7 years old.

It could be his final year wrestling competitively period, as he’s not sure he’ll continue with the sport in college.

He’s a returning MHSAA Finals champion, having won the Division 2 title at 135 pounds a year ago, which has placed a target squarely on his back. Lilly is also the first Cros-Lex wrestler to ever have the chance to win a second title, as the school’s previous two champions – Donnie Corby and Collin Lieber – won as seniors. 

But Lilly isn’t thinking too much about any of that. He’s just thinking about wrestling.

“I’m just going to do what I do,” Lilly said. “I don’t feel pressured. I just feel like it’s my last season, so I’m going to work hard, and the outcome will be what it is. I know I have the opportunity to (be the program’s first two-time MHSAA champion), and that’s another motivation. But I don’t think about it like that all the time. I just feel free. I feel like if it happens, it happens. I want it to.”

Lilly’s approach is working as he’s 24-0 on the season and recently recorded his 150th career victory. While the possibility of creating Cros-Lex history is in front of him, what he’s already done makes him one of the program’s greatest of all-time.

“That’s awesome,” Joe Lilly said. “That’s beyond words and beyond my expectations. That’s never been put on the plate that it was what the expectation was. The main expectation for my kids is to put their best effort into everything they do. To now see where he’s come with that is phenomenal.”

As noted above, Chris began wrestling when he was 7 and has been coached by his dad the entire time. But he has been around the Cros-Lex program essentially since birth. 

“I was actually looking through pictures for graduation with my mom, and she kept pulling up pictures of me in (Dad’s) arms in the middle school gym with the wrestling team,” Chris said. “Ever since I was little, I was with him there.”

It was in sixth grade, Joe said, that things really started to click for Chris. That was the year Corby, a 2008 graduate, came back to coach after finishing his career at Central Michigan University. 

“I looked up to Donnie a lot,” Chris said. “I remember coming in when I was really little, and he’d mess around with me. When he went away and wrestling season would roll around, I’d always remember him and I’d look in the hall, look in the wrestling room and see his picture on the wall and think that I wanted to be that. When he came back, it made me want to buy in. Then (Lieber) comes around, and he was just another perfect role model for me. He was (a senior) my freshman year. He was a really good friend and role model.”

As a freshman and sophomore, Chris qualified for the MHSAA Finals but didn’t place. He entered last year’s tournament as a Regional runner-up with a 48-7 record, but battled through his bracket, defeating Madison Heights Lamphere’s Matthew Tomsett 6-3 in the final.

“If you would have told me that I was going to be a state champ my freshman year, I probably would have called you silly,” he said. “Honestly though, before states we were running in the wrestling room and I turned the corner and looked toward the door – that's where Collin’s picture and Donnie’s pictures are at – and that’s where I wanted to be. I felt like I had the stuff to do it. Checking into our hotel, the other wrestlers were there and I looked at every one of them and I wanted to wrestle them all in the lobby. I knew I could (win) it. We get there, and something just clicked. It was amazing. I felt like I couldn’t be stopped.”

While Chris was confident, it didn’t stop his dad from taking part in what has become a pre-Finals ritual of sorts.

“In all of my state championship matches that I’ve had kids wrestle, I’ve thrown up before we stepped on the mat,” Joe Lilly said. “In all three of them. With Chris, I was thinking I was fine, then they called his name and I threw up in the garbage can and went and met him at the mat. The component of it being your son, it’s a whole new dimension. But actually, once we got wrestling, it was the same as coaching him all year.”

Chris has a video saved on his phone of the post-match celebration, when the emotion of the moment started to hit and he jumped into his dad’s arms. It’s a video he said he watches every night. 

He’s motivated to enjoy that feeling again. But more than that, he’s motivated to show everyone that he can earn it once more.

“I feel like I still have something to prove,” he said. “I feel like people kind of doubt it. I was ranked seventh, and they say it was a fluke. I have to go back, and I have to prove it wasn’t.”

To do that, he’s focused on keeping things normal and not worrying about all that surrounds this season.

“It’s business as usual,” Chris said. “I get in the room and do what needs to be done. We work hard, but I kind of try to keep it light. That’s been kind of my key this year, is to have fun, like I did last year.”

Paul 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) Croswell-Lexington’s Chris Lilly has his hand raised in victory during last season’s MHSAA Division 2 Individual Finals at Ford Field. (Middle) Lilly’s father and coach, Joe (front), celebrates his son’s win. (Click for more from

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.)