In the Long Run, Daniels Finishes On Top

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

March 2, 2019

DETROIT – DJ Daniels didn’t have many close calls this season, but the Caro senior 160-pounder had a couple on his way to a second straight Division 3 championship – one on the mat, and one off.

Daniels won a battle of undefeated wrestlers Saturday at Ford Field, defeating Seth Konynenbelt of Hudsonville Unity Christian 6-4 in the championship match.

To qualify for that final, Daniels not only had to win three matches Friday, he also had to take an impromptu 2-mile run through downtown Detroit to make it just in time for his semifinal match.

“My coach and I got stuck in the People Mover and they finally got it turned back on, but they shut it down when we got to the next stop, and we were about 2.1 miles away,” Daniels said. “So we just started jogging, hoping we’d get here in time. I was in the hole when we arrived, then I put my shoes on and got down here and I was on deck. My quads hurt a little bit, but other than that I was ready to go.”

Daniels won that semifinal match 7-1 against Trenton Blanchard of Whitehall. One day later, a more well-rested Daniels took the mat and completed his 56-0 season.

“It’s amazing,” Daniels said. “If this is the end of my career, it’s definitely how I wanted it to be.”

He had to hold off a valiant effort by Konynenbelt (48-1), who nearly turned Daniels to take a lead in the second period and came close to tying the match with a takedown in the final seconds on the edge of the mat. Daniels held him off, however, to get the win.

“I knew the situation, I knew we were right on the line,” Daniels said. “He had my leg, and I knew if I could just get his feet out of bounds, we would go back to neutral, and I’d be all right. That’s all I told myself.”


Champion: Mike Nykoriak, Algonac, Sr. (48-1)
Decision, 4-3, over Brock Kuhn, Michigan Center, Sr., (46-2)

Nykoriak became the first Finals champion for Algonac since 1999, getting a third-period takedown and holding on for the win.

“I knew he scored first points, and heavyweight matches go into triple overtime, so he would have had first choice,” Nykoriak said. “I knew I had to get a takedown for it to work.

“Just seeing every day at practice, the alumni coming to practice, all the old coaches who come every day to work with us because they believe in us, and they believe in me. I’m just happy I was able to make them proud.”


Champion: Casey Swiderski, Dundee, Fr. (46-2)
Technical Fall, 5:17 (23-7), over Hunter Keller, Richmond, Soph. (27-6)

Swiderski, ranked No. 9 in the country at 106 pounds according to FloWrestling, finished off a dominant season with a dominant performance in his first Finals.

The freshman won three of his matches by technical fall, including the final against Keller, who he had defeated a week earlier to help Dundee claim a second straight Division 3 team title.

“I felt good,” Swiderski said. “I had kind of a tough weight cut, but I got energy in me and I scored points; that’s what I wanted to do. It’s just more matches. It’s fun.”


Champion: Hunter Assenmacher, Ida, Jr. (50-3)
Decision, 6-2, over Jordan Rodriguez, Chesaning, Jr. (44-4)

Assenmacher won his second straight Division 3 title after winning a year ago at 103 pounds.

It was Rodriguez, however, who drew first blood, getting a first-period takedown and taking a 2-0 lead. Assenmacher regrouped, though, and scored the match’s final six points to come away with the victory.

“It felt good to get back out there again in the finals; it was a good atmosphere,” Assenmacher said. “This time I definitely felt more prepared and more calm. I kind of felt like I belonged there, so it kind of helped me to stay relaxed when I was wrestling.”


Champion: Jake Elasivich, Montrose, Soph. (50-7)
Decision, 10-4, over Brendan Connelly, Yale, Jr. (48-10)

Elasivich battled through a tough bracket, which saw the No. 1 seed and a returning champion fall before the semifinals.

The Montrose sophomore controlled his match against Connelly, winning the battles on his feet and allowing just four escape points against him. It was just 6-4 late, however, before he earned another takedown to seal the win.

“I felt confident because I’m always on my attacks, always getting a takedown,” Elasivich said. “I felt confident I could pull one more out for the win. I just wanted to keep doing the same things I had been doing – keep my energy high and my pace high, just work the kids and in the end get the win.”


Champion: Corey Gamet, Michigan Center, Sr. (47-0)
Decision, 10-4, over Macintyre Breece, Birch Run, Jr. (49-5)

Gamet finished a perfect senior season with the win against Breece, but he was disappointed an incredible run of not allowing an offensive point all season did come to an end.

“I’m not happy about being reversed or being scored on offensively,” Gamet said. “But once we got on our feet and I got that takedown, I knew there was nothing he could do – nobody can take me down. I felt like I was in a good spot.”

Gamet is now a three-time Finals champion, having won Division 2 titles in 2016 and 2017 while at Parma Western.


Champion: Josh Rankin, Michigan Center, Sr. (40-4)
Decision, 4-2, over Luke Mahaney, Williamston, Soph. (33-8)

After Gamet walked off the mat victorious, Michigan Center made it two in a row, as Rankin claimed his first Finals title.

“That’s the best feeling in the world – it means that much more,” Rankin said. “Having your best friend out there before you, then you win it right after. We even hit the same celebration.”

Rankin said Mahaney did a good job of countering his go-to moves, something he had to react to in the moment.

“I felt pretty good – you could definitely tell they prepared for me a little bit more,” Rankin said. “I try to be as versatile as I can, but there are some things that you just do that people figure out. I think they definitely figured some of my stuff out and prepared for it a little bit better.”


Champion: Jonathon White, Dundee, Sr. (39-9)
Decision, 1-0, over Tyler Swiderski, Dundee, Soph. (28-11)

White and Swiderski have seen a lot of each other in the Dundee wrestling room over the past two years, and it showed on the mat as the only point scored was a White escape.

“Throughout the year we were battling at tournaments,” White said. “I had a hunch at the beginning of this tournament that I would wrestle him in the finals. It was awkward, but I just tried to stay calm and do what I had to do to win.”

The victory capped off a great postseason for White, who also clinched Dundee’s team championship victory against Richmond the week prior.

“It’s not a bad two weekends,” he said. “To be back-to-back team state champs then finally come home with my individual, it means the world. I’ve worked so hard to become a state champ, and my dream came true.”


Champion: Hayden Bastian, Richmond, Sr. (32-5)
Decision, 6-2 (2OT), over Christian Killion, Dundee, Jr. (44-6)

With the chance to choose bottom in the ultimate tiebreaker, Bastian felt confident. But before he could get there, he saw an opening.

Bastian caught Killion on a shot and took him to his back, breaking a 2-all tie and claiming his first Finals championship.

“Ultimate overtime, I felt I would have had that as well, but the (back points) just helped and it worked out really well,” Bastian said. “I played through the whole campaign, and I feel like I did well against the final boss.”


Champion: Trevor Robinson, Shepherd, Sr. (45-2)
Fall, 4:42, over Max Halstead, Grayling, Jr. (41-4)

With a pair of runner-up finishes already under his belt (2016 and 2018), Robinson was determined to finish his career on top of the podium.

He was in control of his finals match, and put it to rest in the third period with a pin. It was the most dominant performance of the weekend for the top-seeded wrestler.

“Honestly, I didn’t have any pressure, I just felt I was better than everyone and I had enough tools to win it all,” Robinson said. “It feels amazing. It’s crazy. I was just a little freshman a few years ago, and it just flies by. It feels amazing – the best feeling ever.”


Champion: Stoney Buell, Dundee, Soph. (45-8)
Decision, 1-0, over Sean Trombley, Lake Fenton, Sr. (50-2)

Buell continued his perfect Finals record, claiming a second straight title in a hard-fought match.

The only point scored was an escape, and Buell, who won at 135 a year ago, had been expecting that it wouldn’t be easy.

“He’s a three-time finalist, so I knew he was really good, really strong,” Buell said. “I really like my single, and I knew he wasn’t going to let me get that, so I really had to get two hands to it. I couldn’t finish one, and I had that stalling call, so I just had to keep going and going and going.”


Champion: Owen Guilford, Portland, Sr. (48-0)
Fall, 2:22, over Dillon Kroening, Gladwin, Jr. (50-2)

Guilford had a dominant weekend, racking up two falls and two major decisions. He capped it off with an early-second period pin to claim his second straight title and finish a perfect season.

A year ago, he became Portland’s first champion since 2000, and now he is the school’s first two-time champion.

“It feels pretty good,” Guilford said. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it without my coaches, the support staff, my family and friends. And a big shoutout to Kyle Hines for, ever since second grade, being my practice partner all the way through. I can’t take any of this credit.”


Champion: Kendel Taylor, Madison Heights Bishop Foley, Sr. (37-4)
Decision, 9-3, over Kayleb Venema, Whitehall, Jr. (45-3)

After taking fourth in his region, Taylor wasn’t on many people’s radar heading into this weekend. But he pulled off more than one upset to defy the odds and claim the title.

With his victory, Taylor became Foley’s third Finals champion and first since 1971.

“It feels absolutely amazing,” Taylor said. “I can’t believe it. Coming in as a freshman trying to wrestle, then coming in as a senior and winning a state title, it’s like night and day. It’s amazing. I love it.”


Champion: Brockton Cook, Birch Run, Sr. (54-3)
Decision, 3-0, over Luke Davis, Richmond, Jr. (43-6)

In a Regional Final rematch, it was once again Cook coming out on top.

A single escape was the difference in the match late into the third period, but Cook was able to get a takedown and seal the win.

“I got that stalling call, and I was like, ‘If I’m going to get stalling, I might as well shoot now,’” Cook said. “I wasn’t going to get another stalling call to tie up the match. I took my shot and it worked, I guess.”

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PHOTO: Caro’s DJ Daniels has his arm raised in victory after finishing an undefeated season with a Division 3 title. (Click for more from

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.)