New Heroes Emerge as Hornets Reign

February 28, 2015

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor 

BATTLE CREEK – Gabe Bennett made himself take a few deep breaths at the end of Saturday morning, then had a long talk with his dad, which helped. 

The New Lothrop senior has won a lot during his high school career, and placed at the MHSAA Individual Finals the last two seasons. But Saturday morning, although the Hornets moved on from their Division 4 Semifinal, Bennett lost his match – falling to 0-4 for his career for the final two rounds of team competition.

The afternoon’s championship match against Hudson would provide one last opportunity to help the Hornets with a title on the line. 

“If you win all the time, you don’t learn a whole lot. If you lose, that’s where you’re able to go back and learn from what you did and why you lost,” Bennett said. “I’ve taken all those times that I’ve lost, and I’ve learned something new – a new move to counter that, or to make my shots better, or whatever I needed to do to make myself better.

“Coming into this (Final) match, being a senior, this was my last one. (I thought) let’s go out with a bang. I did it.” 

Bennett’s one-point decision win at 130 pounds got the Hornets even after an early deficit and contributed to what turned into a 38-24 victory and title repeat for reigning champion New Lothrop (29-1), the top-seeded team in Division 4 entering the weekend.

That favorite status was part of how this weekend’s narrative differed from in 2014, when the Hornets came back over the final three weights to upset the then top-seeded Tigers, who had won a record five straight MHSAA team titles. 

Saturday’s win was less dramatic – New Lothrop clinched with two weights to wrestle. But this season as a whole was impressive in other respects – notably in how the Hornets dominated after graduating two individual champions who carried the load a year ago.

Bennett was one of four Hornets who won in Saturday’s championship match after falling in the Final a year ago. Junior Cole Hersch won by pin at 125 pounds to put the Hornets on the scoreboard, and Bennett’s 7-6 decision in the next bout evened the match score at 9-9. Sophomore Erik Birchmeier won by decision at 160 to give the Hornets a nine-point lead with six bouts left, and senior heavyweight David Robertson clinched the championship with a pin. 

“Last year it felt like we had to get it. We had that good group of seniors that had a chance the three years before that. … That was like their time,” New Lothrop coach Jeff Campbell said. “Last year felt like more pressure. This year, I don’t want to say I surprised, but I was just really excited and proud of our leadership and the way the guys stepped in and filled in after the amazing leaders we had last year graduated.”

“(Bennett had) lost heart-breakers. … So to have him be the one who really got momentum going for us is pretty special.” 

Junior Steven Garza II earned a key major decision at 140 pounds to follow Bennett and give New Lothrop a lead it would’ve give back. Senior Trevor Copes followed Garza with a pin to extend the lead to 19-9 halfway through the match.

Junior Caleb Symons was awarded a void at 215 pounds, and freshman Tommy Malloy followed Robertson’s clincher with a major decision at 103. 

Although Hudson (23-6) did fall in the Final for the second straight season, it made its seventh straight championship match despite entering the weekend seeded third. The Tigers edged second-seeded Decatur 39-33 in the morning’s Semifinal and climbed within a point of New Lothrop with four bouts remaining.

Senior Tyler Roberts and junior Kyle Johnson won by pins in the championship match for Hudson. Seniors Roddy Hamdan and Mitch Ely and sophomores Tylor Grames and Zak Lopinski won by decisions. 

“We were in a position a couple of spots where maybe we could make a legitimate run at it. But they’re pretty deep up top,” Hudson coach Scott Marry said. “I’m never going to fault my kids for their efforts. They gave everybody on the team, everybody in the community, their coaches, everything they’ve got, and that’s all I can ask.

“They goal is to win it, but sometimes certain things are out of your control. That was a very good team that beat us.” 

Click for full results.

PHOTO: (Top) New Lothrop’s Cole Hersch (right) works toward a pin in his 130-pound match Saturday afternoon. (Click to see more at

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.)