Expectations High for Battle-Tested Gaylord

January 5, 2018

By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half

GAYLORD – During the winter of 2001, Davison’s Chase Metcalf was in the process of winning a second consecutive MHSAA individual wrestling title.

Jerry LaJoie, the wrestling coach at Gaylord, was quite familiar with Metcalf and his younger brother, Brent, who would finish 228-0 as a prep and win two NCAA championships.

“I knew the family,” said LaJoie, whose nephew Tony was a two-time MHSAA Finals champion at Clarkston during those days. “The Metcalfs are a staple in Michigan wrestling. I got to watch the Metcalfs grow up in front of me. They were little kids coming on to the wrestling scene when I was a young coach.”

So when the LaJoies welcomed a baby boy on Christmas Day in 2001, they named him Chayse after Chase Metcalf.

“We wanted to make it our own (first name) so we added a ‘y’ to it,” said LaJoie.

Chase Metcalf went on to wrestle at the University of Michigan, then tragically died in an auto accident in 2005 at the age of 21.

As for Chayse LaJoie, he’s making his own mark on the mat. As a freshman last season, LaJoie captured the Division 2 individual title at 103 pounds. That same day, his brother, Dominic, claimed 125 pounds. Only a one-point loss at the 2016 Finals prevented Dominic from becoming a four-time state champ, matching Brent Metcalf’s feat.

It was a proud day for Jerry LaJoie, who has built the Gaylord wrestling program into one of the state’s best, as he watched his sons realize dreams on the same day.

“As a coach, it was awesome,” said LaJoie. “As a dad, it was very special. They were drill partners. All the hard work paid off.”

Athletic director Christian Wilson savored it, too.

“It was a special deal because not only are they outstanding wrestlers, but they’re great kids,” he said. “Anytime you have kids come through your school, and they’re able to see their goals achieved, it’s pretty neat. Not just for our wrestling program and school, but for our community.”

Dominic is now wrestling at Cornell University. Still, the Blue Devils return the nucleus of a team that lost a two-point match to St. Johns in the team Regional Finals a year ago, this after two consecutive MHSAA Semifinal berths. Four Individual Finals placers are back.

“We have high expectations because we have a veteran squad,” said senior captain Joe Markham, who took sixth at 285 last year. “We expect great things out of each other. We want to get back in the running for states.”

Gaylord, ranked No. 3 in Division 2 by Michigan Grappler, opened this campaign with tournament wins at Marquette and Greenville. The Blue Devils placed third at the Goodrich Tournament of Champions over Christmas break with 10 wrestlers.

Gaylord is especially strong in the lower weights with Chayse LaJoie, senior captain Derek Giallombardo and sophomore John Henry Sosa. The three are rotating, depending on style matchups, in the 119, 125 and 130 weight classes. Giallombardo finished fourth at 119 a year ago, while Sosa placed fifth at 112.

“We’re flexible,” said Jerry LaJoie. “We can move our lineup around, and our kids are still capable of performing at high levels.”

The lineup also features Will Sides at 112, Rico Brown at 130-135, Dmitri Smith, Cody Starks and Seth Gregory at 140-145; Jacob McKnight at 145, Kenny Smith at 152, Brady Schulz at 160-171, Cade Foster at 171-189, A.J. Krumholz at 215 and Markham at 285. Foster and Markham won the 171 and 285 weight classes at Goodrich. Giallombardo placed second to Utica Ford’s Terrin Machart at 125, while Chayse LaJoie was third at 119.

“It’s tough to find a couple holes in our lineup that we can’t protect or move around, and that’s what makes us tough,” said LaJoie, who entered the season with a 632-131-2 career record.

Over the holidays, five former Blue Devils returned home to work with the team, including three who are wrestling in college (Dominic LaJoie, Jon Martin at Central Michigan University and Trevor Giallombardo at Ohio University).

“We use the Christmas break to correct some of our mistakes and work on the finer things,” said LaJoie. “Plus, the college kids come in and show their techniques.”

Chayse LaJoie and Derek Giallombardo are training partners this season. Previously, they worked with their brothers.

“Coach likes to say, ’iron sharpens iron,’” Giallombardo said.

Chayse LaJoie appreciates facing good competition in practice. After all, working with his brother in the past helped him develop his work ethic and focus.

“You don’t have to push Chayse to work hard,” his father said. “He‘s a goer. He’ll battle with anybody. Dom was more technical. Chayse is more physical.”

LaJoie said his captains, Giallombardo and Markham, lead by example. Both are capable of winning Finals titles this winter, he said.

When asked what his most memorable moment has been on the mat, Giallombardo said that chapter has yet to be written.

“I’m hoping to make that moment happen at the state meet this year,” he said.

Markham, meanwhile, is motivated by how he finished 2017. He injured his ankle at the Individual Finals and had to default his last match.

“I felt kind of empty afterwards,” he said.” I’m using that to drive me.”

Markham likes the makeup of this team.

“I like our work ethic,” he said. “You’re not born with that skill, you have to work at it – and we have it.”

Still, he added, the Blue Devils must avoid complacency.

“Just because we have state medalists doesn’t mean anything coming into this season,” he said. “We have to keep working, keep building off what we have.

“And we have to stay mentally tough. It’s a long season, and we’re going to have to stay mentally strong if we want to finish the way we expect.”

The Blue Devils will be put to the test Saturday in a highly competitive six-team tournament at Grand Ledge.

“We’ll see some tough teams,” said Giallombardo, who has signed with Ohio University. “We need to do well for seeding.”

Chayse LaJoie can’t wait for the challenge.

“It excites me,” he said. “I love competition.”

After Grand Ledge, Gaylord will begin pursuing another Big North Conference crown. The Blue Devils have won 10 consecutive league titles.

“Both Traverse City teams are getting better, and Petoskey is always tough,” said Jerry LaJoie. “We’ll have to be on our game.”

But the Blue Devils have goals beyond that.

“If we stay healthy, I think we can get back to states,” said Chayse LaJoie. “But that’s if everybody stays healthy and dedicated.”

Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Joe Markham’s arm is raised in victory during a triangular meet Dec. 21 against Ogemaw Heights and Sault Ste. Marie. (Middle) Derek Giallombardo, (top) and Chayse LaJoie are another pair of standouts for this season’s Blue Devils. (Below) Gaylord coach Jerry LaJoie, and graduated son Dominic (kneeling) watch one of their wrestlers compete during the tri-meet. (Photos courtesy of the Gaylord Herald Times.)

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.)