Gaylord Marching Again Into Contention

January 6, 2016

By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half

GAYLORD – Gaylord had reason to celebrate over the holidays.

The Blue Devils, ranked No. 6 in Division 2 by Michigan Grappler and the Michigan Wrestling Association in their pre-holiday wrestling poll, ushered in 2016 with strong showings in the Tournament of Champions at Goodrich and the Grand Ledge Invitational.

Gaylord placed second to No. 2 St. Johns, and finished five points ahead of No. 5 Goodrich, in last Wednesday's loaded 16-team field at Goodrich.

Over the weekend at Grand Ledge, Gaylord edged No. 3 Eaton Rapids 37-36 despite missing three starters.

The results left head coach Jerry LaJoie feeling quite pleased with how his team is progressing.

"If we can keep everyone together, and healthy, we could make a nice push by the end of the year," he said.

The Blue Devils advanced to the Division 2 Semifinals a year ago in the MHSAA team competition. After beating Flint Kearsley in the Quarterfinals, Gaylord fell to eventual champion Lowell. Lowell then downed Eaton Rapids for the title.

LaJoie returned several starters off that Final Four squad, including his son Dominic, a two-time individual MHSAA champion.

Dominic LaJoie, currently 20-0, is ranked No. 1 in the state at 119 pounds. Jerry LaJoie said his son's mental makeup on the mat has helped propel him to the top.

"He analyzes everything," Jerry LaJoie said. "He's a thinker. If something doesn't go right, like a technique, he works (to correct it). He's meticulous. And he's one of the hardest workers in the room. It’s like World War III watching him and (training partner) Jon Martin in practice."

Then again, practice makes perfect, right? That's been the case, so far, for LaJoie under his father's tutelage.

"I’m always striving for state championships," Dominic LaJoie said. “That’s my goal."

LaJoie is not the only standout on the squad – a fact not lost on the junior.

"This is the best team I've been on," he said.

LaJoie is one of six Blue Devils ranked in Division 2. He’s joined by Martin, No. 1 at 130 pounds; Derek Giallombardo No. 2 at 103; Trevor Giallombardo No. 3 at 112; Shane Foster No. 5 at 215; and Tim Roney No. 9 at 285. Foster and Roney missed the tournament at Grand Ledge with “nagging” injuries.

"I don't want the injuries to become an issue when we get towards the end of the year," Jerry LaJoie said. "We need to let them heal up."

Foster, an Individual Finals qualifier a year ago, was injured in leading the Blue Devils to a football playoff berth. He's been in and out of the lineup, finishing second in the Marquette Challenge and Tournament of Champions.

An unsung hero on the team is captain Tristan Blanzy at 152 pounds.

"He's keeping everyone together, leading by example," Jerry LaJoie said. "He's not one of the stars. He's just a kid who has come up through the ranks and worked hard for everything (he's achieved). He's done it the old school way."

So what's the strength of this team? LaJoie doesn't hesitate in answering that question.

"We're really good on our feet," he said. "We score a lot of takedowns. We're aggressive."

LaJoie is in his 22nd season as Blue Devils coach. He arrived at a time when rival Ray Arthur had the Petoskey program rolling.

"We had some good teams, and Ray kept knocking us off," LaJoie said. "Ray is the guy who got me up every morning to figure out how to beat him."

Arthur, who stepped down in 2010 after 31 seasons, led the Northmen to 685 dual meets wins, sixth all-time in MHSAA history. His 1996 team won the Division 2 championship.

He set the bar high for LaJoie and the Blue Devils, who have now taken over as the perennial powerhouse in the Big North Conference.

"If it wasn't for him (Arthur), I don't think we would be as good as we are," LaJoie admitted.

Christian Wilson, Gaylord athletic director, said LaJoie spends countless hours developing his program –  from the varsity and junior varsity teams at the high school to the youth programs.

"There's no secret to our success," Wilson said. "It's the time and dedication that he's (LaJoie) put into it, along with all of our wrestling assistants. They're often here from the time school gets out until 9 or 10 at night working with kids.

"Wrestling is one of those sports where you can't hide. The cream rises to the top. It's something they've put a lot of effort into."

Wilson said LaJoie is a strong motivator, too.

"He relates well to all the kids," he said. "The kids want to wrestle for him. They want to do well for him. His practices are not easy, but they know in order to compete they have to put the time in (training). He has high expectations, and those kids reach for it."

How high can they reach? That question will be answered in the weeks ahead, but LaJoie believes anything is possible.

"I think we can make a run if we can stay healthy and get a few breaks along the way," he said. "(Top-ranked) Lowell and St. Johns are tough teams, but a lot can happen between now and then."

Especially for a team trending up.

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) Gaylord’s wrestling team takes part in the pre-match march before last season’s Division 2 Quarterfinals at Kellogg Arena. (Middle) Jon Martin (top) wraps up Dakotah Leland of Flint Kearsley during their match at 130 pounds. (Below) Coach Jerry LaJoie is in his 22nd season leading the program. (Click for more photos 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.)