Cros-Lex's Lieber Readies for Final Shot

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

November 30, 2016

Croswell-Lexington wrestling coach Joe Lilly saw championship potential in Collin Lieber when he was in sixth grade.

Donnie Corby, the best to ever come through the Cros-Lex program by any metric – for now anyway – saw it, too.

The rest of the state had to wait until Lieber’s freshman season in 2013-14, when he entered the MHSAA tournament with a single loss and made a run to the 135-pound Division 2 title match before losing against DeWitt’s Austin Melton.

It was at that point Lieber himself realized he had the ability to reach his goal of becoming an MHSAA Finals champion, something that seemed more likely than not after such an impressive start.

As he starts his senior season, however, that individual championship still remains unchecked on Lieber’s list.

“It was funny, because I really didn’t know what to expect going into the state tournament (as a freshman), and I really didn’t think I was that good,” Lieber said. “I remember waking up that morning thinking, ‘I might be a state champ today.’ Then going into sophomore year, losing in the semifinals, that was hard. Then last year (in the finals) in overtime, that was rough.”

Lieber is among the state’s best wrestlers, ranked No. 3 across all divisions by Michigan Grappler at 171 pounds. He has a career record of 165-7 and three top-three Finals finishes to his name. In 2015, he was third at 152 pounds in Division 3, and in 2016, he was second at the same weight.

He has signed to wrestle at Central Michigan University, the same place Corby put together an impressive career by qualifying for the NCAA tournament three times and winning one Mid-American Conference championship. With 35 more wins, Lieber will unseat Corby as the all-time wins leader at Cros-Lex.

“He’s gonna kill me,” said Corby, who is now an assistant wrestling coach at the University of Northern Colorado. “He’s gonna kill me. I knew that freshman year. If anybody could do it, I want it to be Collin.”

Corby is not only Cros-Lex’s all-time wins leader, he’s also its only MHSAA Finals champion, having won in 2008. Like Lieber, he placed second as a junior, something he used as motivation for his title-winning senior year.

Lieber is hoping that same driving force can help him replicate Corby’s senior success.

“It’s just more motivating that I lost,” he said. “Because now it’s like I have to win states at least once.”

Lieber’s loss in the 2016 title match came with added heartache. After a hard-fought 6 minutes that left Lieber and Dundee’s Sean Sterling tied at 2, it was Sterling who was able to get a takedown in overtime to win the match. It not only handed Lieber his second loss in a Finals title match, but also ended his unbeaten season (54-0).

“He was better at takedowns than me. I was better at top/bottom,” Lieber said. “I was really tired, too. I should have conditioned more last year. I don’t know how much time was left in overtime, but I was kind of banking on getting to double overtime because I wanted to get to top/bottom.

“The whole year, I’m going to keep thinking about that match, over and over again.”

It was a crushing loss, one that was felt off the mat, as well.

“It was devastating,” Lilly said. “Devastating. Just because I know what he’s put in, and what his desires and goals are, and ours as coaches have been the same for him. Once you get a kid like Collin, that knows what his goals are and knows where he wants to be, you push him on a regular basis to meet that. Then you’re there – we were in the same boat, just crushed. I had no idea what to say to him.”

Despite the losses at the highest level, losing is not something Lieber has had to deal with much during his wrestling career. He began wrestling at 6 years old and won a state championship that year.

“I hated losing,” he said. “I would always cry when I lost.”

The crying has stopped, but the desire to win has not. If anything, this season, it has intensified.

“I’ve sure seen so far this year in the practice room and running that it’s a step up,” Lilly said. “He’s not a kid that gives into pressure; he thrives on it. He loves it. I watch him warm up for big matches, and the routine is the same. I never notice him getting anxious or uncomfortable. He keeps it in real well.”

Lieber has focused on being better conditioned this season, and said that wrestling at 171, a weight that is more natural for him, should help.

“I think not cutting weight will honestly help me a lot, because I won’t be as tired,” he said. “I’ll be able to condition a lot better in practice. I’ll be happier. I’ll want to come in more. I’ve been lifting a lot more, too.”

Lieber feels confident heading into the season. There’s pressure to reach the top of the podium, of course, but he said he feels less of it thanks to having his college decision out of the way. He’s proud, he said, of what he has accomplished to this point in his high school career. Now he simply wants to win for himself and those who have helped him get to this point.

Lilly wants it for him as well. He said that when Lieber was in sixth grade, he had pegged him as the program’s next Corby – a wrestler with the tools to win an MHSAA Finals title. Even without a championship, Lieber has proven his coach to be correct.

“I keep telling him that to be at the state tournament is such an accomplishment,” Lilly said. “Then to be there three years in a row and place, and now we’re looking to go in his senior year, it’s a heck of an accomplishment. You’re in an elite group to begin with.

“So that has comfort for me. I’m hoping it has a burning desire in him to say, ‘I’m going to win it this 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 Collin Lieber (top) wrestles Dundee’s Sean Sterling during last season’s Division 3 championship match at 152 pounds. (Middle) Lieber warms up before his match at The Palace of Auburn Hills. (Click to see 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.)