Dominance Sets Up John Glenn's Dawson to Make Major Decision on Repeat Pursuit

By Keith Dunlap
Special for

January 11, 2024

WESTLAND — Westland John Glenn wrestling coach Bill Polk has been at the helm for more than two decades and amassed over 500 wins, but he probably hasn’t dealt with a dilemma like this during his terrific tenure. 

Greater DetroitGranted, it’s a good dilemma to mull over, but a dilemma nonetheless.

Last year as a freshman, Nakayla Dawson was dominant at 105 pounds in the girls division, rolling to the Individual Finals championship and barely being tested throughout her MHSAA Tournament run. She finished the season 41-2. “I don’t think she wrestled more than a couple of minutes last year,” said Polk in reference to her postseason matches. 

The ease of her title came as a surprise even to Dawson.

“I went in there thinking I was going to win, but I didn’t expect it to be that easy,” she said. “I was nervous for just about all my matches.”

During the regular season last winter, Dawson also happened to defeat four boys who placed in their division in the same weight class.

She’s 17-4 this winter and last Saturday won the 106 bracket at the New Lothrop Hall of Fame Tournament with three pins.

Given all that, it’s begging the obvious question as wrestling season gets into full swing with the holiday break over: Should Dawson just wrestle in the boys division?

“That’s what we are leaning toward,” Polk said. “That definitely is what she wants to do.”

If she does switch to the boys division when the tournament begins next month, don’t think Dawson can’t hold her own. 

The Westland John Glenn standout goes for a takedown in her championship match against Remus Chippewa Hills’ Natalie Gibson.There was debate about whether she would wrestle in the boys division last year, but Polk said since she was only a freshman, the thought was to have her wrestle in the girls division her first season and then go from there.

Wrestling at 106 pounds this year, Dawson has had several close losses to ranked boys wrestlers. While hard to suffer those losses now, they likely will make her even tougher to beat come February and March.

“I’m hoping it will refocus her a little bit,” Polk said. 

Being competitive and defeating boys is nothing that new for Dawson, given she grew up having battles with older brother Robert and younger brother Kyron, as well as numerous cousins. 

Robert is a senior and one of the best wrestlers for John Glenn this year, while Kyron will be a freshman next season. 

“Wrestling with them already set me up with wrestling other boys,” Dawson said. “(Robert) was bigger than me and stronger. I was already kind of used to wrestling boys.”

Polk said the sibling rivalry isn’t limited to just the house since he sees the battles between Robert and Nakayla in the wrestling room every day.

“They still do, are you kidding me?” Polk said. “You definitely see some brother-sister battling going on in the room from time to time. He’s helped make her a lot tougher.”

Dawson said the big difference she experiences wrestling boys compared to girls is the greater strength that boys possess compared to the flexibility advantage girls tend to have. 

“I feel when I’m wrestling girls, I’ll be doing different moves,” she said. “It’s easier to get to my shots. With boys, I have to work for it more and set it up better.”

The success of Dawson and Morgan Irwin, a 2023 graduate who finished second at 115 pounds last winter, has been inspirational to other girls around the school. 

“I feel like girls have looked at it and wanted to try wrestling,” she said. 

In addition to wrestling, Dawson is also an accomplished sprinter on the track team, although she says she does that more to stay in shape for summer wrestling than anything. 

Polk said there is still a long way to go for Dawson to realize her full potential in wrestling, but by the time her high school career is done, she likely will be one of the all-time greats Polk has coached.

“Boys or girls, she is definitely one of the most accomplished we have had,” Polk said. “She can go toe-to-toe with any of the boys out there.”

Keith DunlapKeith Dunlap has served in Detroit-area sports media for more than two decades, including as a sportswriter at the Oakland Press from 2001-16 primarily covering high school sports but also college and professional teams. His bylines also have appeared in USA Today, the Washington Post, the Detroit Free Press, the Houston Chronicle and the Boston Globe. He served as the administrator for the Oakland Activities Association’s website from 2017-2020. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties

PHOTOS (Top) Nakayla Dawson’s arm is raised in victory during last season’s Individual Finals at Ford Field. (Middle) The Westland John Glenn standout goes for a takedown in her championship match against Remus Chippewa Hills’ Natalie Gibson. (Click for more from High School Sports Scene.)

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.)