Hesperia Stars Guiding Whitehall's Title Drive

February 6, 2019

By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half

Whitehall wrestling already had a solid infrastructure in place.

The Vikings have been the dominant wrestling program in the Muskegon area since George W. Bush was President, recently winning their 13th consecutive Greater Muskegon Athletic Association city wrestling championship.

On the state level, Whitehall also has been a fixture at the Division 3 Team Finals in recent years – losing to powerhouse Dundee in the Semifinals both last year and 2016, and bowing to Lake Fenton in the 2017 Quarterfinals.

Could this be the year Whitehall breaks through with an MHSAA championship?

The Vikings hope that the hiring of young, first-year co-coaches and brothers Justin Zeerip and Collin Zeerip – legends from nearby Hesperia who went on to wrestle at the University of Michigan – is exactly what the program needs to take that final step.

“Honestly, it’s been an amazing experience being coached by them,” said Whitehall senior Allen Powers (189 pounds), who has a 32-3 record on the season. “It gives us a bunch of extra confidence knowing that they were just Division I college wrestlers – and they’re not afraid to get on the mat and show it to us.”

Whitehall, which has a 24-2 dual record and is ranked No. 3 in Division 3, starts its drive to the Team Finals on Thursday at the District tournament at Shelby. If the Vikings prevail Thursday, they would host Team Regionals on Feb. 13. A win there would put them back in the Finals at Wings Event Center on Feb. 22-23, with a chance to prove they have closed the gap on Dundee and Richmond – which between them have won the past nine Division 3 titles.

Last year’s loss to Dundee was particularly one-sided, 67-3, a pummeling which has motivated Whitehall to improve throughout the offseason and so far this winter. The Vikings’ only losses have come to Rockford and Hartland, both Division 1 schools.

“It’s been awesome watching these kids grow – both in technique and in their confidence,” said Justin Zeerip, the oldest of the three Zeerip brothers (Justin, Brandon and Collin), all of whom wrestled at Michigan. “My brother and I just want to bring that college wrestling atmosphere into the room. We’ve set high goals; we want to be wrestling on that final day. “

Suffice to say: when the Zeerips talk, the Vikings listen.

After all, Justin Zeerip, 30, brings instant credibility as a four-time Division 4 individual champion at Hesperia who graduated with a 260-0 record and 203 pins. He went on to win 100 matches during a five-year career at Michigan and now teaches middle school math at Hesperia.

Collin Zeerip, meanwhile, is 26 and was a three-time individual champion at Hesperia, graduating with 238 victories. He won 38 matches at Michigan before returning home to help run the family business, Heritage Farm Markets in Fremont.

While all three of his boys wrestled at Michigan, Justin and Collin’s father, Craig Zeerip, was a four-year wrestler at Ohio State. Craig Zeerip is now the head wrestling coach at Fremont.

“Our family has always loved the month of February,” said Justin Zeerip, who as a senior at Hesperia in 2007 became at that time the fourth wrestler in state history to finish a four-year career unbeaten and the 13th to win four Finals titles. “There’s a whole different feel. I’m really enjoying it as a coach as well.”

Whitehall’s strong wrestling foundation began in the 1980s under Rick Champion and Craig Christensen, who are still coaching in the program. Cliff Sandee coached the Vikings for the past 11 years – a tenure which was highlighted by 11 city titles, nine Districts, five Regionals and four Final Four appearances – before leaving to take an assistant principal position at Muskegon Reeths-Puffer last August.

That departure opened the door for the Zeerips, who inherited a young, but well-rounded team with just three seniors – Sam Baustert (112), Trenton Blanchard (160) and Powers – in the normal 14-wrestler lineup.

The strength is in the upper weights, starting with freshman Ira Jenkins (152) with a sparkling first-year record of 27-6. Trenton Blanchard is 29-4, junior Kayleb Vennema (171) is 34-2 and junior Jarrean Sargeant (285) is 28-8.

The impressive records continue when the match swings to the lowest weights, with freshman Aiden Weiler (103) at 29-6 and Baustert at 29-4.

“I know they are going to be really good the next few years with all of our young guys, but I really don’t see any reason we can’t win state this year,” said Baustert, an all-state track and cross country performer who will run at Grand Valley State. “The new coaches have given us all a whole new sense of hope. We all have learned a few moves that we haven’t done before.”

Tom 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) Whitehall senior Sam Baustert works toward a pin. (Middle) Trenton Blanchard is another Vikings senior standout this winter. (Below) Whitehall co-head coaches Collin Zeerip, left, and Justin Zeerip, right, flank Baustert after an invitational victory earlier this season. (Photos courtesy of the Whitehall 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.)