Gaylord Rules North, Seeks to Take State

December 6, 2018

By Chris Dobrowolski
Special for Second Half

GAYLORD — The town of Gaylord is surrounded on all sides by more than an hour of northern Michigan roads and landscape.

But when it comes to high school wrestling, Gaylord is like an island.

Few wrestling programs in the northern Lower Peninsula are on par with the Blue Devils, who have made team success an annual occurrence and churned out elite individual performers year after year.

“Everyone who wrestles us, they know they’re going to get a battle,” said Gaylord head coach Jerry Lajoie, who is entering his 24th season leading the Blue Devils. “We’ve been to the state tournament several times — three or four times in the semis, a couple more times in the quarters and one time in the finals. Last year we put out two state champs and three other medalists. Not bad out of 14 weight classes for us.”

As good of a run as Gaylord has had in wrestling — the Blue Devils are working on a string of consecutive Big North Conference and District championships that goes back more than a decade and have won Regional titles in three of the last four years — last year was the program’s best. As a team, the Blue Devils advanced to the Division 2 championship match for the first time and had Chayse Lajoie and Derek Giallombardo reach the pinnacle of the Individual Finals at Ford Field, winning championships at 112 and 125 pounds, respectively. Gaylord had five others qualify for the Individual Finals, with Joe Markham third at the 285-pound class, Jacob McKnight fourth at 140 and Cade Foster sixth at 171.

“It was a great environment to be in,” said John Sosa, who was among Gaylord’s seven individual state qualifiers in 2018 and a Finals placer as a freshman in 2017. “Everybody wanted to be there. Everyone put in 110 percent, and it showed at the end of the year when we were in the state finals match. Everyone was willing to work. I could pick anyone in the room and everyone would give 110 percent, which I very much appreciate.”

The Blue Devils are motivated by last season’s 43-17 loss to five-time reigning Division 2 champion Lowell in the Final and are hoping to replicate their trip this winter, with perhaps a different result in the last match.

“We’ve got a team that I think we can get back to team states with,” said Jerry Lajoie. “We’re going to be focusing on winning conference, then Districts and Regionals. Once you get (to the Finals), you never know what can happen.”

The challenge will be replacing seniors like Giallombardo, Markham and 160-pound individual qualifier Nick Brewster. This year, more than half of the 33 grapplers on the roster are freshmen. That prevalence of youth doesn’t faze a veteran coach like LaJoie.

“We just had this discussion when we had a meeting on Wednesday — we’re starting a lot of young kids,” he said. “I said, ‘I don’t care if you’re a freshman or not. Expectations are the same. We’ve had freshman state champions. Why not you?’”

The Blue Devils are fortunate to be able to lean on veteran leadership while they get their younger group ready to compete at a high level. Foster is back as a senior to handle the 171 or 189-pound division, and the junior class led by Chayse Lajoie, who can wrestle anywhere from 119 to 130, Sosa (125 or 130) and McKnight (152 or 160) is strong and figures to rack up a lot of wins over the next few months.

“I’m just hoping our team can push through and make it to states again, and hopefully contest for the state championship again,” said Chayse Lajoie, the most accomplished member of the squad as a two-time MHSAA individual champion as well as a Junior Greco-Roman national champ at 120 pounds. “We’re just trying to get everyone together right now. Towards the end of the season we’ll start focusing on that. We kind of take things step by step.”

Hard work is the most common response the Blue Devils give when asked what it takes to become an exceptional wrestler, and that helps explain Gaylord’s success – there’s no shortage of work ethic in Gaylord’s wrestling room. Lajoie demands that and dedication, though he also makes sure wrestling is fun for his team, too. With all of those factors in the equation, he doesn’t have much trouble getting his squad to meet the expectations of the program.

“Kids are probably the best judge of character out of anybody. More so than adults,” said Lajoie. “They figure out if you care about them or not. And if you do, they’ll buy in.”

It doesn’t take Gaylord’s wrestlers long to realize their coach is willing to put in just as much time as they do, creating a mutual respect that strengthens the bond between coach and athletes.

“He’s a great guy,” Sosa said of Lajoie. “Very appreciative that we can give him our time. He says, ‘If you give me your time, I’ll give you mine.’ Very knowledgeable on and off the mat. You can call on him any time of the day, and he’ll help you out.”

The end result is what has become a wrestling dynasty in northern Michigan, built from the youth level up with a group of kids who take pride in being from Gaylord and everything for which the wrestling program stands.

“We only have so many kids to choose from, and no one in our area,” said Jerry Lajoie. “You can’t move five minutes and go to a different school. That’s where our badge of honor is. We’re up here, we’re all local boys — let’s go battle.”

Chris Dobrowolski has covered northern Lower Peninsula sports since 1999 at the Ogemaw County Herald, Alpena News, Traverse City Record-Eagle and currently as sports editor at the Antrim Kalkaska Review since 2016. 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 Cade Foster works toward a pin during last season’s Division 2 Semifinal win over Warren Woods Tower at Wings Stadium. (Middle) The Blue Devils, including coach Jerry Lajoie (left), cheer on a teammate. (Click to see more 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.)