Hillger Cashing in on Price of Excellence

January 29, 2016

By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half

LINDEN — The books are never too far away from Trent Hillger, even as he works to put his name in the Lake Fenton wrestling record books.

On Monday night, as he does occasionally, Hillger rode for an hour across mid-Michigan to work out with partners who could challenge him.

As his mother drove him home, Hillger studied with the aid of a flashlight. At breakfast the next morning, he squeezed in some more study time. On the ride to school, he put the finishing touches on a paper.

That preceded another full day at school, followed by time in the weight room and wrestling practice.

It's the price of excellence for Hillger, on the mat and in the classroom.

"It's something a lot of kids don't have to experience," said Hillger's father, David, the athletic trainer at Lake Fenton. "Good or bad, it's just something he's had to learn to deal with. I'm proud of him, because that's a challenge every day. It's not like a lot of kids who just go home and study for two or three hours; he doesn't have that liberty."

Hillger, perfect on the mat the last two seasons, is nearly perfect in the classroom. The junior carries a 3.97 grade-point average, with an A-minus in an advanced-placement class standing between him and a 4.0.

"I really have to schedule my time every week, because I'm so busy," he said.

The 6-foot-1, 230-pounder was already a standout defensive end/outside linebacker for Lake Fenton when he filled a need at quarterback last fall. As one of the biggest quarterbacks in the state, he ran 141 times for 1,342 yards and 19 touchdowns in a run-oriented offense. He was an effective passer on those rare occasions when the Blue Devils threw the ball, going 25 for 39 for 503 yards and five touchdowns.

Defensively, he had 13 tackles for losses, five sacks, five forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.

"It was definitely a wildcat type of offense," Hillger said. "I ran the ball probably 20 times a game."

He led Lake Fenton into the second round of the MHSAA Division 4 playoffs, where the Blue Devils lost to eventual runner-up Flint Powers Catholic. For his efforts, Hillger received special mention on The Associated Press' all-state team.

But it's as a wrestler that Hillger has made the biggest name for himself.

After placing fourth in the MHSAA Division 3 individual tournament and going 57-8 at 171 pounds as a freshman, Hillger joined his head coach as Lake Fenton's only sophomore champions when he won the 215-pound title to cap a 58-0 season.

Vance Corcoran was Lake Fenton's first MHSAA champion, in the 1985 Class C tournament, then won again as a senior in 1987.

Shaun Mann (1994-95) and Ryan Ruddy (1996-97) are Lake Fenton's only other two-time champions.

"We've never had a three-timer, so he's got a chance to do that," Corcoran said. "We've had some really good kids come through the program; Trent's right there. Not only is he a great kid, but he's respected by all of his teammates. He's a 4.0 student, he's one of the best captains we've ever had and he's dependable."

Hillger is 39-0 in his quest to join the list of Lake Fenton's two-time champions. Of those victories, only three weren't pins or forfeits. He won one match by technical fall, one by a 6-1 decision over 2015 Division 1 qualifier Brandon Krol of Hartland ... and one in a match that exceeded the hype.

Hillger went four overtimes against Lapeer's Dan Perry on Dec. 19 in a battle between two MHSAA champions who are ranked among the top nine nationally. With an escape in the fourth overtime, Hillger escaped with a 4-3 victory in the Genesee County Wrestling Championships at Davison.

"It's exciting," Hillger said. "I like having close matches like that, but it's a little nerve-racking having an overtime match."

Hillger, who has won 97 straight high school matches, is ranked No. 6 nationally at heavyweight by InterMat and No. 8 by FloWrestling. Perry, who has signed with Michigan, is No. 4 in FloWrestling's rankings and No. 9 on InterMat. The two are expected to meet again on Saturday in the Lapeer Tournament.

"I look at them, yeah," Hillger said of the rankings. "It's cool. College is where it all matters. That's what I'm looking forward to if I choose wrestling."

Hillger's combination of academic and athletic prowess has attracted the attention of Ivy League schools for football and wrestling. He's also been recruited by Iowa, Missouri, Wake Forest and Eastern Michigan for football. In wrestling, Indiana, Iowa State, Michigan and North Carolina State have expressed interest.

While choosing which school to attend, Hillger also has to decide which sport to continue at the next level. That decision may be more difficult.

"I have choices for both," said Hillger, who wants to get into sports nutrition or athletic training. "I'd say in wrestling I have a bit more, but they're the same level, the same caliber of teams. I couldn't decide. I've been doing both of them my whole life. It'll be a tough decision when I decide next year which sport I'll go into."

Hillger is a unique wrestling  athlete in that he's successfully made the jump from 171 pounds to heavyweight in two years' time. The skills that were necessities in the lower weight class serve Hillger well against the big boys in a division that maxes out at 285 pounds.

"During the summer, I knew I'd be at heavyweight, so I started wrestling up in weight classes," Hillger said. "I was wrestling really small. I'd wrestle 280-pound guys at 200 pounds, just to get used to it; it transferred over. Now I'm really comfortable at heavyweight. You've just got to use your speed and don't get stuck underneath a guy. Once you get stuck underneath, you're not getting up."

Hillger said he kept "my little-man mentality" when he moved up to heavyweight.

"I'm trying to stay fast, but I also got stronger in the other weight classes," he said. "That helped me to be faster than everyone else and still have the strength of the big guys. A lot of heavyweights wrestle up top. I like to stay low and take a bunch of shots, keep the pace going, make it a fast pace."

Like many wrestlers who enter elite high school programs, Hillger had a wealth of experience at a high level since he began competing at age 6. What set him apart was that he was having immediate success in one of the heavier weight classes.

"From day one, the kid's come in and he's mature and he's a hard worker," Corcoran said. "So, all the seniors took to him right away. They saw his work ethic. We get freshmen come in every now and then who come in like that, but not at the 171 weight class where he's wrestling men. Right away, he dominated. He's kept that same work ethic. I think it's even gotten better over the years, if that's possible."

Hillger is trying to not only repeat as an individual champion, but get Lake Fenton its first team title.

The Blue Devils are 27-3 and ranked No. 3 in Division 3 by MichiganGrappler.com. They are coming off a 42-22 victory on Wednesday over perennial power New Lothrop, the top-ranked team in Division 4.

"We should make the Finals," Hillger said. "Our team is very good, so the Finals is definitely a realistic goal. It will be tough to beat (top-ranked) Dundee; we'll have to have a few matches go our way."

Hillger has traveled across the country wrestling at a high level throughout his summers, but said the camaraderie of high school wrestling is hard to beat.

"It's an individual sport, but having your whole team cheering you on the side is nice," he said. "Seeing how far your team can go in team states is cool, seeing the whole team come together.

"When I wrestle by myself, I always have friends around at national tournaments, but it's not the same as having your team on the sidelines, getting excited for your matches."

Bill Khan served as a sportswriter at The Flint Journal from 1981-2011 and currently contributes to the State Champs! Sports Network. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Trent Hillger works against Grand Rapids Catholic Central's Grant Tennihill during last season's MHSAA Division 3 Final at 215 pounds. (Middle) Hillger stands at the top of the podium after winning the championship. (Click for more photos from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)

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.)