Davison's McRill Packs Plenty of Thrills

August 30, 2016

By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half

DAVISON — The sense of excitement is palpable when Brenden McRill recalls one of the biggest adrenaline rushes he's had on a football field.

He's in his third year as Davison's starting quarterback, but it's the one time he got to play on the other side of the ball that makes McRill really light up.

Although he's put up impressive numbers at the game's most glamorous position, the opportunity to make eight tackles as a safety in a first-round playoff loss to Lapeer last season was about as fun as it gets for McRill.

"Oh, it felt great," he said. "I was so excited for that, because I hadn't played defense since my freshman year. I was ready to go out there and hit somebody."

Spoken like a true ... wrestler.

The willingness to absorb punishment is considered a barometer of toughness for a quarterback, and McRill is certainly willing to do that for the good of the team. Most quarterbacks, however, don't get as hyped as McRill to deliver a blow.

But he isn't wired like most quarterbacks, which is why Davison coach Kyle Zimmerman could confidently add the following hash tag to a Twitter post about McRill: #MyQBIsTougherThanYours.

The groundwork for McRill's unique makeup was forged on the wrestling mats of the Davison youth program and fine-tuned at the high school level under the guidance of Roy Hall, who has coached the Cardinals to six MHSAA team championships and four runner-up finishes since 2000.

McRill was the MHSAA Division 1 champion at 189 pounds as a junior.

"It definitely makes me different, because I love to hit," McRill said of his wrestling background. "If I'm near the sideline and see a guy, I'm going for the hit; I'm not sliding. That aggressiveness and toughness has definitely helped me."

While McRill is as tough as they come, Zimmerman is reluctant to have his quarterback playing both ways on a regular basis.

"To be honest, he probably should play defense," Zimmerman said. "He's one of our best defenders. At the first day of practice, everybody does drills to simulate stuff. He's lights-out. Anything he does on a football field, he's going to excel at. He's played end for us, he's played linebacker, he's played safety, he's played quarterback.

"We've got other guys we know can play. You know it's a huge drop-off if you put yourself in a position where you could lose someone. If you see the quarterback out there, people are going to be attacking him, trying to tire him. We want him to play at a high level on offense."

And that he does.

McRill received honorable mention on The Associated Press' Division 1-2 all-state team last season as a dual-threat quarterback. As a passer, he was 68-for-136 for 1,306 yards, 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He also ran 161 times for 642 yards and 11 touchdowns.

In the 2016 opener against Saginaw Arthur Hill, McRill was 3-for-5 for 52 yards and two touchdowns passing to go with five carries for 27 yards and a touchdown in the first half of a 62-12 rout of the Lumberjacks. 

The mission for McRill and his teammates is to get Davison back on the state high school football map. The Cardinals made the MHSAA playoffs seven straight years from 2002-08, reaching the Semifinals three times and going 65-19 during that span. In the seven years that followed, Davison went 33-33 and made the playoffs three times.

"We had three starting sophomores that first game my sophomore year," McRill said. "There was me, offensive tackle Zach Slezak, who at the time played defense, and Corran Thornton, who started at defensive end. We started it together. Our senior year, we want to make it our best and have one of the best years Davison's ever had." 

On the wrestling mat, McRill knows what it's like to compete at a high level.

McRill added his name to the list of individual MHSAA champions coached by Hall when he won the Division 1 title at 189 pounds with an overtime decision over previously unbeaten Nicholas May of Kalamazoo Loy Norrix. McRill was fifth at 152 as a freshman and third at 160 as a sophomore. 

"Going into high school, I planned to win it right away my freshman year," said McRill, whose only blemishes on a 38-2 junior record were against MHSAA champions. "Just with that legacy and Coach Hall's style, you're expected to win. You're working as hard as you can. ... It felt real good to get that out of the way."

He helped Davison reach the MHSAA Division 1 Team Finals in 2014 and 2016, with a semifinal appearance in between in 2015. Each of the last four years, however, Davison has lost to the eventual champion. 

"It's kind of upsetting, but it will make us hold each other more accountable that we need to finish this year," McRill said. "We need to win. We've got a lot of guys back and some incoming freshmen who are ranked guys and very good. So I'm very excited for this team coming up."

McRill does what he can to maintain his sharpness as a wrestler, but he devotes most of his attention to football over the summer. 

"I try to get a couple of drills in right now when the season's going," he said. "When we get to the playoffs, I try to stay off it, focus on football and stay healthy for that. Right after football, I try to get a couple days off and get ready for wrestling. I try to train hard, because I know I have a lot of catching up to do."

McRill doesn't compete in the national wrestling tournaments that many of his competitors do over the summer, but that hasn't hurt his exposure to college scouts. He is weighing offers from Central Michigan, University of Michigan and West Virginia. 

Once football and wrestling seasons conclude, McRill said he may return for one final season on the baseball diamond. He grew up playing baseball, but cut back on it once he realized his college future was likely to be in football or wrestling.

He didn't play baseball as a freshman, because he was working to win the starting quarterback job the following fall. McRill was called up to the varsity baseball team as a sophomore after throwing a no-hitter on the junior varsity team. 

"I think I'm going to come out my senior year," he said. "We've got a great group of guys in baseball, too. That's one that people kind of sleep on, but we could come up with something in baseball."

In the meantime, the arm that threw a no-hitter for the JV baseball team will be firing touchdown passes for a football team that could have a special season. 

"The first day I saw Brenden, I knew who my quarterback was from how he competed and how he threw," said Zimmerman, whose first year at Davison was McRill's sophomore season.

"We were probably going to take our lumps early, but it's going to pay off in the long run. He was steady his sophomore year, he was good last year and he's going to explode this year."

Bill Khan served as a sportswriter at The Flint Journal from 1981-2011 and currently contributes to the State Champs! Sports Network. 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) Davison quarterback Brenden McRill lines up over center during his team's game last season against Saginaw. (Middle) McRill holds up his weight's bracket sheet after winning the Division 1 title at 189 pounds last winter. (Below) McRill looks to lock up during his championship match. (Click to see more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)

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.)