Lapeer West 4-Time Finals Winner Set to Build Champions at Oklahoma

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

July 5, 2023

Roger Kish has a habit of accomplishing great things in a short amount of time.

Made in Michigan is powered by Michigan Army National Guard.He won an MHSAA Individual Wrestling Finals title as a freshman at Lapeer West, his first of four.

He was an NCAA finalist as a sophomore at Minnesota.

He was a Division I head wrestling coach at North Dakota State University at 27.

So, it should come as little surprise that before hitting his 40th birthday, Kish is now in charge of one of the nation’s most storied college wrestling programs.

Kish, 39, was recently named the head coach at Oklahoma, a program that has won seven national titles and produced 67 individual champions in its history.

“It’s something I’m very grateful for, and I’m certainly humbled to walk the same halls of some of the Oklahoma greats,” the 2003 Lapeer West graduate said. “Being able to lead this program is nothing short of a dream come true. The administration is great, and in terms of the support system that’s in place, what they have at Oklahoma is second to none.”

Kish takes over a Sooners program fighting to get back into the conversation as one of the nation’s best. His time at NDSU portends well for that, as he had the Bison as high as No. 12 in the country a year ago, the highest ranking in program history.

NDSU also defeated Oklahoma in a Big 12 dual meet, and finished 24th at the NCAAs, with a program record 25.5 points.

“Roger knows what it takes to build a championship-caliber program, and he’s done just that at North Dakota State, with many of his wrestlers having won conference titles and earning All-American honors,” Oklahoma Director of Athletics Joe Castiglione said in a release. “His coaching philosophy aligns with our approach at Oklahoma, and I know he’ll guide our wrestling program toward achieving the standards we’ve set for ourselves.”

Had you told a teenage Kish this would be his future as he was racking up the second-most wrestling victories in state history, he wouldn’t have believed it. Not because it was too ambitious, but because coaching wasn’t even on his radar.

In fact, it wasn’t something he was considering even as he was becoming a two-time All-American at Minnesota.

) Kish helps Lapeer West to the Division 2 team runner-up finish with this match against Mason as a senior. “I would be lying to say that I wanted to be a high school or college wrestling coach, career-wise,” Kish said. “I had other plans.”

Those other plans were to either continue wrestling beyond college, explore a career in mixed martial arts, or become a chiropractor.

It was all on the table for him as his collegiate career came to a close, but an injury and the long recovery process that followed opened up a new avenue for Kish.

“When I had my surgery, I was off the mats for a lot of time, but I was still able to be on the mats, not as a competitor, but in a way that I could help some of my younger teammates,” he said. “I wanted to be able to give back to those guys that had helped me. That’s where it all began.”

He had been accepted into the chiropractic program at Northwestern Health Sciences University in Bloomington, Minn. But he chose to put that off to continue his recovery for a possible mat return, and to serve as a graduate assistant for the Gophers.

The following year, he was asked to join Bucky Maughan’s coaching staff at North Dakota State, and his career as a coach took off.

“Throughout that year (at Minnesota), I really enjoyed helping out those young guys,” Kish said. “I took an opportunity from Bucky Maughan, because he needed a bigger guy to train with those bigger guys. It seemed like the best route in the moment, so I took it and never looked back. I was an assistant for two seasons, and built really good relationships with stakeholders in the athletic department. Following two seasons under Bucky Maughan, he retired after 46 seasons, and the position opened up. They did a national search, and I think the relationships I had built with stakeholders, and the immediate success of the program in the two seasons I was part of it, led to a great opportunity for me to take over at North Dakota State.”

Kish built a strong program in his 12 seasons at the helm, compiling a 108-70 record. During his time, the Bison moved from the Western Wrestling Conference to the Big 12 and didn’t skip a beat. NDSU is 33-26 in its time in the Big 12, including a 6-2 mark this past season, which was good enough for fourth place during the regular season.

NDSU has sent 21 wrestlers to the NCAA Championships over the past four seasons, with nine becoming All-Americans.

While it’s now in the corner and not in the center of the mat, Kish and wrestling success have long been synonymous.

Kish was 117-27 at Minnesota, placing second in the nation as a sophomore and third as a junior. He also won a Big Ten title at 184 pounds as a sophomore.

He was 252-2 in his high school career, with both losses coming during his freshman season. The 252 wins are second in MHSAA history only to 260 won by Justin Zeerip of Hesperia. Kish was unbeaten in his last 223 matches, placing him third all-time for consecutive wins behind Zeerip and Brent Metcalf of Davison (228).

In 2003, Kish became the 11th wrestler in MHSAA history to win four individual titles. At the time, nobody had won them at higher weights, as Kish won at 160, 171, 189 and 189.

“For me, it probably didn’t feel as big in the moment as it probably did for other people,” Kish said. “For me, it was the expectation to win it as a freshman. My own father said, ‘I don’t know if he’s going to get out of the Regional.’ I took it very personal and serious. But I didn’t think of how hard it was to do in the moment. I’m in awe of how talented these (more recent four-timers) are. Doing it today is seemingly a lot more challenging.”

Wrestling has long been a family experience for Kish, as his father, Roger Kish Sr., coached alongside Hall of Famer John Virnich at Lapeer West.

Kish’s older brother James was a two-time Finals champion who wrestled at North Carolina and amassed 215 career high school victories.

“I was fortunate enough to have a father who gave a tremendous amount of care to the sport and was always trying to keep my brother and I busy throughout our youth,” Kish said. “He always had us in some sort of activity. It probably also stemmed from having an older brother that was a couple years older than myself. I was always a little bit bigger, and he was a little more agile. We were always competitors – call it a brother thing. That allowed each of us to excel in sports, having one another to compete with.”

Kish also played football at Lapeer West and was a starting varsity linebacker as a freshman.

“Wrestling was my passion,” Kish said. “I loved playing football, but it was what I did to take a break from wrestling. It allowed some different facets to cultivate in terms of building relationships and recognizing different factors that helped motivate individuals. … Understanding being on a team, and relying on and trusting other people to help you succeed, whether that’s your teammates or your coaches.”

As someone who made the most of his time in high school athletics, and now remains close to them in a recruiting aspect, Kish is fully aware of how important they are for students.

“Having an outlet for young kids to be active and learn the traits that will help them later in life – the discipline and the humility of wins and losses, the work ethic that’s necessary, understanding what goals are and how to achieve those goals, dreaming a little bigger than what’s realistic – is good for kids,” Kish said. “Athletics is a great platform to do that. Wrestling is a great platform to do that. To help them grow as young men and women, that’s extremely important.”

Made in Michigan is powered by Michigan Army National Guard.

PHOTOS (Top) Roger Kish stands atop the MHSAA champions podium in 2003, and was hired as Oklahoma’s head coach in May. (Middle) Kish helps Lapeer West to the Division 2 team runner-up finish with this match against Mason as a senior. (Lapeer West photos from MHSAA archives; Oklahoma photo courtesy of University of Oklahoma athletic department.)

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.)