Lowell Begins Work to Extend Title Run

December 21, 2016

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half

LOWELL – Wrestling coach R.J. Boudro gets a chuckle every time he hears other people talk about Lowell High School athletes.

“Those kids are huge. What are they feeding those kids?”

It’s a comment based on little validity.

“It’s a myth that we feed our kids certain things, that they are big farm boys,” Boudro said. “What I think gets lost is people think Lowell is good every year, and I think that’s true in our football program, too.

“They think we’re good because of where we eat and what we’re feeding them, but we had seven of our 11 guys on the field for our football team at 170 pounds or below. They just work hard.”

Work ethic and toughness are staples among Lowell wrestlers. Those qualities have catapulted the Red Arrows into one of the premier programs in the state over the last two decades.

“They think Lowell is good because we’re Lowell, and we have to fight that,” Boudro said. “You can’t just walk in and be good because you put on a Lowell singlet. It takes a lot of work.”

The Red Arrows’ success is unprecedented.

They have captured six MHSAA Division 2 titles in program history, including the last three in a row. The Red Arrows have wrestled in 12 of the last 18 Division 2 championship matches, first finishing runner-up in 1999 and claiming their first title in 2002.

Lowell has made five straight Finals appearances, and after back-to-back losses to another perennial powerhouse, St. Johns, in 2012 and 2013, broke through in 2014 with a narrow 35-34 Finals win over the then four-time reigning MHSAA champion.

The Red Arrows defeated Eaton Rapids in the 2015 championship match, and St. Johns again last season. Lowell and St. Johns have met four times in the Finals over the last five years.

“It’s a huge challenge trying to defend a state title, and we’ve done that twice now,” Boudro said. “I don’t think it gets any easier, and it gets harder each year. There a lot of people that would like to see Lowell lose. I don’t think we’re a disliked program, but when you’re the guys at the top everyone is gunning for you.”

Lowell began this season as the top-ranked team in Division 2, but a new set of challenges await as it makes a bid for four consecutive championships.

The Red Arrows boast 51 on this year’s team; however, they graduated five all-state wrestlers and do not have any returning Individual Finals champions in the fold.

“This is new territory for us because that hasn’t happened since I’ve been here,” said Boudro, who is in his third season as head coach after previously serving as an assistant. “Usually we always have someone to look to who won a state title, and I could count on guys going out and getting six points almost every dual meet.

“We don’t necessarily have that this year, and we’re really young. We have a lot of freshmen we’re counting on and a lot of sophomores and juniors. The senior class isn’t big, but every junior and senior has been to the state finals three times and won.”

Lowell will rely on the strength of five returning all-state wrestlers to lead the way. They include seniors Sam Russell (145), Bryce Dempsey (152/160) and Eli Boulton (215), junior David Kruse (189) and sophomore Avry Mutschler (140).

Dempsey, who placed sixth at the Individual Finals a year ago, believes the Red Arrows can be just as good this year.

“I think we’re going to be better this year, actually,” he said. “We have a lot of new lightweights, and I’m not worried about them being freshmen because we have great leadership on the team and they’re all adjusting really well.

“We lost some hard-hitting seniors, but other guys have made progress in developing their abilities. I’m confident in our ability to get to the team state finals again this year.”

Kruse, the starting quarterback on the one-loss football team, also has high hopes.

“I think we have a good team, and we had some big losses, but I think (we) can fill those spots because we have a lot of guys coming up big,” he said. “I think we’ll be all right.”

The longstanding tradition of excellence at Lowell is something coaches and wrestlers take immense pride in.

Boudro said it begins with the support of the community.

“We have a community that gets it and stands behind us,” he said. “We have businesses in this town and people in this town who really come together to help put together an awesome program, athletics in general.

“We have a ton of support, and I think we have guys who realize they are wrestling for more than themselves. They are wrestling for the community, the people before them and the team now.”

Kruse began wrestling in Lowell’s youth program when he was 10, and has seen how the community has rallied around the program.

“I take a lot of pride in being a Lowell wrestler and being a part of a special team and community,” he said. “Our coaches teach us great things, and we have support from our community.”

Dempsey moved to Lowell last year. He was impressed by the values the coaches instilled.

“I love everything the team stands for,” Dempsey said. “It’s not wins and losses. It’s how we win or lose. We have a motto of ‘Never Yield’ and we follow that through practices and competitions.

“Everyone is there to support each other, and everyone is putting in the same amount of work you’re putting in and everyone is working for the same goal. We’re all equally passionate in achieving that goal.”

While the Red Arrows have enjoyed past successes, the future looks just as bright.

The youth program continues to see record growth with 170 wrestlers registered this year.

“It is insane, and it’s the most it’s ever been,” Boudro said. “I think of what we’ve done the last 20 years, and now I feel like it’s the strongest it has ever been. It’s pretty cool and exciting for our future.”

Dean Holzwarth covered primarily high school sports for the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years, served as sports editor of the Ionia Sentinel-Standard and as a sports photojournalist for WZZM, and currently is a reporter for WOODTV. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Lowell’s Sam Russell celebrates his win during last season’s Division 2 Final. (Middle) Eli Boulton (left) wrestles to victory at 189 pounds last winter at Rose Arena. (Click to see more 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.)