Finals Qualifiers Show Strength of Muskegon Catholic Central's Gains on Mat

By Tom Kendra
Special for

March 2, 2023

Muskegon Catholic Central is the smallest wrestling school in Muskegon County, with just 124 students in the high school.

West MichiganIt also happens to be the only school in the county with two individual Regional champions in senior David Hill (157 pounds) and junior Easten Cook (165 pounds), who hope to add all-state honors to their resume when they compete at the MHSAA Individual Finals on Friday and Saturday at Ford Field in Detroit.

Now, don’t expect wrestling to usurp football as the sport of choice at MCC – which with 12 state titles during the playoff era is behind only now-closed Farmington Hills Harrison’s 13 championships – but throw in another Finals qualifier in senior Zach Michael (175) and the Crusaders grapplers boast three headed to Ford Field, not bad for a school which had only four wrestlers in the entire program in 2019.

“It’s been a great year for our program and our school, and we’re having a blast,” said fifth-year MCC coach Barry Kieft, who is assisted by PJ Mitchell.

“Those three state qualifiers are all stud football players. That sends a great message to the younger kids that wrestling will make you better on the football field.”

Hill was a star running back for the Crusaders’ Division 6 District finalist football team this fall, who had to get over a stigma to become a star on the mat.

“I used to be a germaphobe, so it’s hard to believe I even started wrestling,” said Hill, who is 32-7 this season and has 107 career wins. “But at some point, something changed. I love the independent part of it. You have to go out there and do it; you can’t blame anything on other people.”

Muskegon Catholic Central wrestling coach Barry Kieft. Hill, the son of former Muskegon Reeths-Puffer all-state running back DeMarkeo Hill, who led the Rockets to the Class A championship in 1992 and tragically died of brain cancer five years ago at the age of 44, calls his dad his athletic hero and his inspiration before every match.

David Hill made short work of the field at 157 pounds at the Feb. 11 Division 4 Regional at Ithaca, including a pin at the 1:00 mark in the championship match.

This will be his second appearance at the Individual Finals, after placing fourth at Regionals last year. He believes his experience, speed and unorthodox style give him a shot at the title.

“I have a unique style, that’s for sure,” said Hill, a three-sport athlete who also runs track in the spring. “My coaches don’t know what to say to me because a lot of what I do isn’t conventional wrestling moves. So they just say, ‘Go out there and wrestle like David Hill.’”

Cook, meanwhile, is a conventional tactician at 165, the next weight class up from Hill.

Cook, a starting guard and linebacker on the football field, embraces the mental and physical challenges of wrestling.

“I think my biggest strength is my mental preparation and thinking things through,” said Cook, who got started in the sport in fifth grade when he was hanging around his older brother and now-MCC assistant coach, Aiden Cook. “I like the hardships that come with wrestling and seeing if you are strong enough to overcome it.”

Easten Cook, who as his name suggests, loves to experiment with different foods (right now, he and Hill eat a small granola bar dipped in honey before each match), won his Regional championship match 9-4.

Cook sports his team’s best record at 37-7, with city, District and Regional titles. He has 82 career wins.

The third member of the Crusaders’ Finals trio is Michael, who has a 32-9 season record and 89 career wins.

In addition to the three qualifiers, MCC also had two wrestlers eclipse the 20-win plateau this season in juniors Andrew Rosema (138) and Sawyer Hanson (190).

That additional depth nearly pushed the Crusaders to a team District championship Feb. 8. MCC downed Holton, 52-18, in the District Semifinal, before a narrow loss to Ravenna, 42-36, in the championship match.

Kieft said his team’s three Finals qualifiers are all ultra-competitive and have pushed each other to greater heights.

“They just pound each other in practice, sometimes too much,” Kieft said with a laugh, thinking of some of the trio’s practice battles in the wrestling room above MCC’s James Morse Jr. auxiliary gymnasium. “We had to go to 30-second rounds when they practice because if they go 1 minute, it gets too intense.”

Kieft said another reason for his team’s postseason success is a regular season of competing against larger schools.

Kieft, 71, has also been an assistant football and baseball coach at MCC in recent years. He recently decided to retire from coaching those two sports, but plans to continue leading the wrestling program.

“People ask me all the time: “Don’t you want to be in Florida during the winter?’,” said Kieft, who was an assistant wrestling coach at Fruitport in the 1990s. “No, I love doing this. I’ve been down there in the sun and all that, but I miss this. I enjoy being with the wrestling kids.”

Tom KendraTom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Easten Cook’s arm is raised in victory after a match this season. (Middle) Muskegon Catholic Central wrestling coach Barry Kieft. (Below) David Hill works to establish control during a match against Whitehall. (Photos courtesy of Karen Kieft.)

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.)