Hastings Among Statewide Pacesetters as Girls Wrestling Enjoys Rapid Growth

By Steve Vedder
Special for MHSAA.com

January 12, 2024

Sophia Sunior thought the mat might be the perfect place to learn something new about herself.

Mid-MichiganSo after hanging around a handful of Hastings boys wrestling practices a year ago, the Saxons senior opted to join the school's fledging girls team. As a former swimmer and current softball player, Sunior considered herself competitive. But the real attraction to wrestling, said Sunior, was to test her own mental and physical boundaries.

At first, Sunior struggled with the decision as she met with little success against more experienced wrestlers. But little by little, Sunior began to improve. And that's when she began to discover critical pieces about herself.

"For me, a lot of it was mental," Sunior said. "But I became stronger mentally and physically. Wrestling is probably one of hardest sports there is. It's almost legalized fighting, and I've learned so much about myself. My motto is if I can wrestle, I can do anything. You can learn some of the best (teaching) tools about yourself you can get."

While Sunior started last season slowly, she finished with a bang, placing eighth at MHSAA Individual Finals at 190 pounds. She's started this season with seven wins over her first eight matches.

Sunior is part of what Hastings coach Mike Goggins believes is the largest girls wrestling team in the state with 16 athletes. Goggins, who coached the Hastings boys team for 38 years, switched over to the girls program two years ago. Hastings had five Finals qualifiers and three placers last season.

Goggins isn't necessarily surprised that girls wrestling has caught on at Hastings, which has long had a quality boys program with Goggins' teams winning 11 league championships, 10 Districts and one Regional title and totaling 28 Individual Finals placers under his guidance.

The ability to build a program has carried over to the girls. The team had 14 wrestlers a year ago, and this season’s competitors have come from a variety of backgrounds. Of the 16 total, seven are first-year wrestlers. Three are first-year varsity letter winners, while two play basketball, two tennis, two softball, and one is a volleyball player.

“It's really kind of taken off," Goggins said of the sport. "A lot of the girls had shown interest in boys wrestling, and then when we offered wrestling for the girls, we began to get numbers. I'm not terribly surprised by that. Just the experience of what the girls saw with the boys, I just think they wanted an opportunity."

First-year wrestler Skylar Fenstemaker, left, and returning Finals placer Sophia Sunior are two of 16 athletes on the team. MHSAA participation surveys show 100-150 girls regularly participating in wrestling during the end of the first decade of the 2000s, but numbers began growing substantially to match the introduction of a state individual tournament by the Michigan Wrestling Association (the state coaches association) during the 2018-19 season and then the addition of a girls-only division to the MHSAA Individual Finals in 2022. Goggins said the vast majority of girls would much rather compete against girls. “I'd say 10 to 12 of our wrestlers will say no thanks to wrestling against boys, and that's absolutely fine,” he said.

MHSAA assistant director Dan Hutcheson noted girls wrestling has nearly tripled from 495 athletes who completed an Alpha weigh-in in 2019-20 to 1,332 this winter.

"The goal is we hope it keeps growing to where schools have complete lineups," Hutcheson said. "Wrestling is a sport you can do on your own and if you put in the work, you can be successful.

"We don't know how or to what point it grows, but it's been at a nice clip."

Goggins said the sport's next hurdle indeed will be fielding enough teams for dual meets. Hastings has gone to three tournaments, which included plenty of travel to East Jackson, Grayling and Montague. The Montague event had 52 competitors, but weekend tournaments can be a numbers struggle as most teams are never able to field a complete lineup. That leaves organizers with the challenge of organizing brackets to fit the participants.

When there are enough girls for more teams to fill the standard 14 weight classes, the sport will likely grow even more, Goggins contends.

One of his first decisions as girls coach was to hire a female assistant in his daughter, Erin Slaughter, also the school's volleyball coach. Goggins, the school's athletic director, said the move means girls don't have to turn to a male coach for advice. "It's added a certain comfort level," he said.

While Sunior is one of the most experienced wrestlers, first-year senior Skylar Fenstemaker said she has her own reasons for joining the program.

"It's a challenge," she said. "Just the physical commitment and how hard (you) have to work. And I wrestle because I like being part of a team and the bond you have with the other girls. You learn that you have to work hard to get what you want."

PHOTOS (Top) The Hastings girls wrestling team celebrates its team championship at the Grayling Invitational this season. (Middle) First-year wrestler Skylar Fenstemaker, left, and returning Finals placer Sophia Sunior are two of 16 athletes on the team. (Photos courtesy of the Hastings girls wrestling program.)

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.)