Cushman: Good to Great to 101 Straight

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

February 14, 2018

Flushing’s Ben Cushman wanted to be better than good on the wrestling mat.

After his sophomore season ended in at the MHSAA Finals, one win shy of the podium and all-state honors, Cushman decided to do everything he could to become great – to be able to compete with the state’s elite.

One hundred and one straight victories, one Division 1 individual title and a signed letter of intent to Central Michigan University later, it’s safe to say he’s accomplished that.

“I think a lot of it was just getting beat,” Cushman said. “I got beat by Brendan McRill (a former MHSAA champion from Davison), and just always got beat by guys like him. I just changed up my whole technique. Before I was just always shooting double legs. I didn’t really have a good takedown that was effective against other wrestlers.

“I really looked at a lot of film, looked at all the mistakes I made and what I could have done better.”

Cushman won the Division 1 title at 215 pounds as a junior, becoming Flushing’s first Finals champion since 2000. He’s 45-0 as a senior this winter, and he recently won a District title to keep alive his opportunity for a run at a repeat championship, although this season he’s back at 189 pounds.

He has yet to be taken down this season, allowing only escape points to his opponents through those 45 matches. He’s only been taken down once in the past two years. It’s a stunning run of dominance, and to those looking in from the outside, it appeared to come out of nowhere.

“He’s been around (wrestling) for a long time, so most people in Michigan knew who he was,” Flushing coach Andy Rishmawi said. “I think he surprised people in the way he went about it. He wrestled a lot of good kids, and last year we put him up against everybody, and he went undefeated and had one offensive point scored on him all year. So to me, I think the way he went about it, I think that surprised some people.”

It wasn’t a surprise to Rishmawi and Cushman, however, as they saw what he went through each day to get there.

“Coming into his junior year, he was just focused and ready, and working out all the time,” Rishmawi said. “In the weight room, on the mat, working on his form, working on his technique, just really understanding more how you do certain things. There was a huge growth in him.”

While Cushman was working to add more to his repertoire, the focus remained on simple things – and doing those simple things incredibly well.

“We would just take it day by day,” he said. “There was one thing that Coach would want me to work on, which is just pulling the elbow. We would do that for a half hour straight until I got it down perfectly, and when we would wrestle live, I would work on other moves off of that. I kept doing that until it became second nature.”

Rishmawi said the raw ability was always there with Cushman, calling him freakishly strong while at the same time extremely coachable. Because of the latter, Cushman has been able to maintain that same level of focus in practice, despite the fact he’s already established his dominance in the state.

“When you’ve dominated people and you’ve had such a good run, you wouldn’t expect to have coaches still screaming in your ear about a move you might have done wrong,” Rishmawi said. “Let’s say he’s doing a 30-second drill. We know that the person he’s wrestling against can’t keep up with him, so he needs to get six takedowns instead of five. During sprints, we’re in his face. While he’s working on a move, we’re in his face. He understands, ‘They’re really trying to help me.’”

Cushman has remained motivated, in part, by the fact he knows he has to improve to be successful when he goes to Central Michigan. He also knows that in this sport, losing his focus for one second could end this run.

“I just know that in order to get to that stage, you need to wrestle each and every match one match at a time,” he said. “You can’t advance to the state Finals without winning Districts. I really just try to stay humble, and I give the glory to God, because I know that’s why I’m doing this.”

But the training isn’t just about holding off hungry competition, it’s about feeding Cushman’s own hunger, the same that burned inside him in 2016.

“Everyone wants to knock the king off the mountain, and this year people have taken the approach, ‘I’ve got nothing to lose, this is a state champion, I’m supposed to lose,’ so they really go after me,” Cushman said. “My coach reminds me every day, ‘You’re chasing something, too. You want to win another title. You want to go to college and win a national title and be an All-American.’

“I never want to be satisfied.”

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) Flushing’s Ben Cushman works against Grand Haven’s Drake Morley during last season’s Division 1 championship match at 215 pounds. (Middle) Cushman locks up with Detroit Catholic Central’s Jackson Ross during a quarterfinal. (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.)