Linden Seniors Gladly Avoid Collision Course

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

January 31, 2017

For the better part of the last four years, Dawson Blank and Patrick Kerr have been working to make each other better in the Linden wrestling room.

So when the seniors faced the prospect early this season of standing in each other’s way for an MHSAA individual title, they had to figure something out.

“Me and him are the best workout partners ever,” Blank said. “No matter what we were doing, we were going to make sure we didn’t have to wrestle each other at the state meet.”

Kerr – who battled injuries early in the season – has now dropped down to 140 pounds, and had a successful first weekend at the weight. He’s ranked No. 4 at 140 in Division 2 by Blank is ranked No. 3 at 145. Before the rankings were updated Jan. 27, Blank was ranked No. 2 and Kerr No. 3, both at 145.

“I was going to stay right at 145 and just double enter, but me and Dawson have become pretty close, so I was like, I don’t want to mess up the chance for one of us to win a state title,” Kerr said. “At the beginning of the year I was thinking about going down to 140, then I wrestled at 145 and did fine. Then I went to 152 for (the Genesee County meet) and lost by one point in the finals, so I thought I could stay there. But I decided with all the injuries I’ve had, it was probably better to go down, and I was only weighing 148.”

Teammates with legitimate MHSAA title ambitions entering in the same weight is nothing new. Sometimes, while a rarity, they’ll square off in the title match. The most recent example came in 2015, when Corunna’s Jarrett Trombley (who is now at Lake Fenton) defeated teammate Tristan Serbus in the Division 3 final at 112 pounds.

Linden won’t have to worry about that, but it certainly has two wrestlers with legitimate title ambitions, even if they’re coming off two very different junior seasons.

Blank placed third at the MHSAA Finals a year ago at 145, despite it being his first trip to the season-ending tournament. He advanced to the semifinals before losing to eventual champion Austin Melton of DeWitt.

As a sophomore, Blank was a regional qualifier, and he credits Kerr and former teammate Bryce Davis for helping him make the leap as a junior.

“My buddy Bryce Davis, who graduated last year, and Patrick, they really pushed me in the room,” Blank said. “It was cool, because I could go from Bryce, who was bigger than me, to Patrick, and in our wrestling room I had two different partners with different styles.”

Blank is 30-2 this season with a pair of one-point losses – one coming at 160 pounds. He’s confident he can wrestle with anyone in the state at his weight class, and feels his experience at the 2016 Finals will help him as he prepares for another.

“I think my nerves going into the state meet last year were probably a lot higher than they will be this year,” Blank said. “I think I have more confidence, and I’ll be more ready for it.”

Blank was Linden’s lone Finals placer a year ago, but during the regular season it looked as though Kerr was on his way to accomplishing the same before a shoulder injury ended a promising season early.

“Patrick was on the same path, but he got injured in the conference finals,” Linden coach Todd Skinner said. “He was having a great season last year – he teched the (Division 4) state runner-up, then he (won by major decision against) the kid from Mason who ended up taking fifth. We knew that he had a shot, and he was going to be battling for it, but he got injured. It was just a bad situation.”

Kerr said sitting out a postseason he was set to thrive in was difficult, but his coach credited his attitude while sitting out.

“The run Dawson made last year, even though Patrick couldn’t be there, he was his training partner along with Bryce Davis,” Skinner said. “And it was cool to see how he supported him. They definitely support each other.”

Kerr is 25-2 on the season, and is now motivated to make up for lost time. Although it wasn’t always that way.

“I love wrestling, I love the sport, but (the injury) really hurt my drive,” he said. “In the summer, at least, I kind of got off track and wasn’t paying enough attention at summer practices as I should have. The coaches said, ‘You have to focus, get your stuff together and get after it.’ Then I was finally able to get back into the swing of things.”

With Kerr healthy and motivated, and Blank rolling toward the postseason, Linden has a powerful one-two punch in the middle of the lineup that Skinner can move around to suit his team’s needs.

“You’re able to adjust, and it’s all about matchups and styles,” Skinner said. “You want to try and see which matchup or style is best, and Patrick’s style is completely different than Dawson’s.”

Both wrestlers are hoping to be standing at the top of their own podiums next month at The Palace of Auburn Hills, and they agree that would be better than the possibility of meeting in the last match of the season.

The fact it was a possibility, however, gave a sense of pride to both.

“I thought it was awesome,” Blank said of the early-season rankings. “Two kids coming out of the same school that are ranked second and third, that’s awesome. Not many schools have that.”

Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. 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) Linden's Dawson Blank, top, was his team's lone MHSAA Individual Finals placer last season. (Middle) Teammate Patrick Kerr, also top, hopes to join Blank among placers this winter after an injury ended his 2015-16. (Photos by Mary Kerr.)

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.)