Old 5-A League Fueled Wrestling's Rise

June 29, 2020

By Ron Pesch
Special for Second Half

This latest quest into wrestling began with an inquiry, as these projects often do.

My work with the MHSAA – which includes the title ‘historian’ – is mostly a hobby that began many years ago. The diversion often gets me into press boxes and places the average sports fan doesn’t usually get to venture. Now and then, I get to talk into a microphone. But mostly, it is hours of digging; pouring through scrapbooks, yearbooks and newspapers, old and new, as I search for names, details and stories lost in time. The pursuit sometimes leads to awkward phone calls, e-mails and messages where I try to describe who I am and why I’m chasing a phone number for someone, a person’s mother or father, grandmother or grandfather.

I adore the chase and resolving mysteries. I love visiting libraries and schools and delight in connecting with people. I love filling in holes and connecting dots. I’m a computer guy by trade, focused on analyzing and aligning data. I equate sports searches to detective work, and for fans of old television, I’m like Columbo without the trench coat or cigar, always asking, “Just one more thing …”


My first visit to the sport was in junior high gym class. That’s when Coach Murphy paired me up against another undersized classmate. With the shrill of a whistle, we battled it out on a deep red colored mat – representative of one half of the red and grey school colors of Nelson Junior High. The struggle lasted for no more than a matter of seconds. With a slap of a mat, or perhaps another whistle, it was over. I lost by ‘fall’ – the gentler way of saying I was pinned.

My second visit to the sport came in high school. That’s when the wrestling coach stopped me in the hall one day to suggest I join the wrestling team. Apparently, word of the skills I demonstrated at Nelson hadn’t travelled the half mile east from the junior high to the high school. Quickly recognizing this fact, I told him it might be counter-productive, as I wasn’t much of a wrestler. He was undeterred. Because I was still undersized, he said, I would likely win a fair number of matches. Many schools, it seemed, struggled to find someone to wrestle in the lower classes, and hence, would have to forfeit. I still turned him down.

I give credit to the Coach Erickson. He was trying to involve a kid in athletics that wasn’t going to make the football, basketball or track team. But that bit of wisdom didn’t hit me until long after high school.

As the above may demonstrate, an extensive understanding of the intricate particulars of wrestling isn’t my strong suit. I’ve attended only one MHSAA Wrestling Final. That visit still remains among my favorite sports sights. The pageantry of the Grand March staged before the orchestrated pandemonium of the MHSAA wrestling championship combined with huge crowds and inspiring athleticism creates a spectacular event.

The Latest Project

Recently, a question, relating to past individual champions from the earliest days of the championships, arrived at the MHSAA office. The Association has awarded wrestling titles since 1948, and a list of team champions and runners-up from the beginning to the present appear on the MHSAA Website.  Missing, however, are the names of the individuals who won championships between 1948 and 1960.

To find an answer, that meant a deep dive into newspapers, yearbooks and old wrestling guides to exhume the particulars from articles and agate, cross-referencing results, matching last names to first names, correcting spellings and occasionally schools when obvious errors have been made.

Technology has helped carve away some time and travel when embarking on such a project. Once, the only way to dig out such information was to travel to microfilm, and then spend hours scrolling past print. Today, thanks to some online archives, even during a global pandemic, we can visit a handful of Michigan newspapers via the internet. Tack on the ability to search the online cloud of information, intriguing elements intermittently bubble to the surface, transforming a standing list of names and schools to an account that brings at least some names to life.

The Beginnings

An initial look at the existing team championship listings revealed the first fact. For all intents and purposes, the earliest days of the MHSAA wrestling state championships served as a glorified meet for the members of the 5-A Conference. The league, comprised of Ann Arbor, Battle Creek Central, Jackson, Lansing Eastern and Lansing Sexton high schools, was where wrestling as a prep sport first gained traction in Michigan. Almost immediately, Greater Lansing established a stronghold on the sport that would last those first 13 years.

From 1948 to 1960, there was only one classification in which all schools, regardless of size, competed. In 10 of those 13 years, one of two Lansing high schools – Eastern or Sexton – won the state’s mat championship. In the three years when a Lansing team didn’t win, they finished as runner-up. Those three were part seven total of that baker’s dozen when either Eastern or Sexton finished second.

Growth in Michigan

The first championship tournament in 1948 involved around a dozen schools. While expansion into other schools commenced slowly, by 1957, wrestling had progressed into the fastest growing sport in Michigan.

“The sport blossoms into many new schools every year,” stated George Maskin in a January issue of the Detroit Times in 1957. “Best estimates are that at least 60 varsity prep teams now are in competition. The figure should come close to the 100 mark within a year or two. Prep wrestling has grown with such swiftness it now is necessary to hold regionals to determine qualifiers for the state meet.

“It is not the kind of wrestling one has watched on television or in some of the professional arenas around the state,” he added, trying to educate the public about the difference between the prep sport and the form of broadcast entertainment then popular. “Groans and grunts have no part in high school wrestling … nor does hair pulling or stamping the feet … or pointing a finger into the referee’s eye.”

Coaches of wrestling noted that it was one of the few sports offered that gave equal opportunity to students regardless of their physical build. Separated into 12 weight classifications, running from 95 pounds and under up to the unlimited, or heavyweight division, there was a place for all.

“Take the kid who weighs 95 pounds,” Ignatius ‘Iggy’ Konrad, a former wrestler at Michigan State and the coach at Lansing Sexton, told Maskin. “He’ll participate against a boy of similar weight. Thus a kid whose athletic possibilities might appear hopeless (in other sports) finds a place for himself in wrestling.”

As the sport continued to expand, coaches were still trying to explain the worth.

“Parents should try to understand the difference between television wrestling and high school and college wrestling,” Grandville coach Kay Hutsell told a Grand Rapids Press reporter in December 1960. “There is no comparison. TV is 100 percent acting.”

A state champion wrestler as a high school student in Illinois, where spectator interest and participation was far greater than in those early days of wrestling in Michigan, Hutsell twice lettered in the sport at Indiana University.

“Wrestling is a conditioner and perhaps develops the body better than any other sport. About the only way wrestling can educate the adults (in the western Michigan area about the sport) is through newspapers.” He felt people should come to “see for themselves.”

The Tournament

Lansing Sexton won the state’s inaugural team wrestling title, 54-43 over the Ann Arbor Pioneers, with the event run off on the mats of the University of Michigan in 1948. Both Floyd Eaton at 127 pounds and Carl Covert at 133 ended the year undefeated for the Big Reds. Five wrestlers from each school earned individual titles that first year. Jackson’s heavyweight, Norm Blank, scored a pin over Sexton’s Dick Buckmaster. The pair had split their two previous matches during league competition.

Ann Arbor grabbed the next two MHSAA team titles, both by a mere four points, first 60-56 over Sexton, then topping the Quakers of Lansing Eastern, 56-52, in 1950.

Eight wrestlers qualified for the final round for both Ann Arbor and Sexton in 1949, with five each earning championships. Both schools had three wrestlers finish in third and fourth place; hence the team title was awarded based on Ann Arbor tallying more pins. A total of 96 wrestlers from 11 schools participated in the tournament. Ted Lennox, wrestling at 95 pounds, became the first athlete from the Michigan School for the Blind to compete for an individual title but was defeated by Sexton’s Leo Kosloski. Lennox would later wrestle for Michigan State.

In 1950, nine Ann Arbor wrestlers advanced to the final round with six seizing championship medals, but only Sam Holloway repeated as champion from the previous year. Teammate Jack Townsley, who had won in 1949 at 112 pounds, finished second at 120.

Eastern and coach Don Johnson grabbed the first of two consecutive titles in 1951, topping Ann Arbor, 56-52, with East Lansing finishing a distant third with 26 points. Pete Christ of Battle Creek Central became the first Bearcat (and only the second athlete from a school other than Eastern, Sexton or Ann Arbor) to bring home an individual wrestling title, with a decision over Lansing Eastern’s Vince Malcongi in the 140 classification. “The Bearcat matmen took fourth in the State,” according to the Battle Creek yearbook. “Mr. Donald Cooper took over the coaching duties when Mr. Allen Bush was called to the Marines.” (Bush would later serve as executive director of the MHSAA).

Johnson’s squad absolutely dominated the field in 1952, topping Sexton the next year, 68-43. Ann Arbor followed with 39 points. Seven Quakers – George Smith (95), Herb Austin (103), Jim Sinadinos (127) Bob Ovenhouse (133), Bob Ballard (138), Ed Cary (145) and Norm Thomas (175) – all won their final matches. Both Austin and Sinadinos were repeat champions.

Sexton flipped the table in 1953 with a 67-46 win over Eastern. Ten Big Reds competed for individual state championships among the 12 classifications, with five taking home titles. The Big Reds’ Ken Maidlow, jumping from 165 pounds to 175, and Eastern’s Ed Cary, who moved up to 154, both repeated as medal winners. In the heavyweight class, Sexton’s Ray Reglin downed Steve Zervas from Hazel Park. (Zervas, a two-time runner-up, later wrestled at the University of Michigan, then coached wrestling at Warren Fitzgerald for 34 seasons and served as mayor of Hazel Park from 1974 to 1986).

In 1954, Ossie Elliott of Ypsilanti and Henry Henson of Berkley became the first wrestlers from non 5-A schools to win individual state wrestling titles. Elliott, who had finished as state runner-up in 1953 at 133 pounds, downed Lansing Sexton’s Tom Holden in the same classification. Henson earned a decision over Lansing Eastern’s Ken Bliesener at 154 pounds. Eastern again returned to the winner’s circle, outdistancing Sexton, 60-44. Ypsilanti finished third with 34 points.

By 1955, athletes from 28 high school teams were battling for state team and individual honors on the mats at MSC’s Jenison Field House. As a senior captain, Lansing Eastern’s Larry Bates pinned four out of five opponents in the 112-pound class to become Michigan’s first wrestler to earn three state crowns. Bates grabbed his first title in 1953, competing at 95 pounds, followed by his second in 1954 at 103. Eastern picked up its second-straight team trophy, racking up 102 points on the way to a fourth crown in the eighth year of championships. For the first time, a non-5-A school finished second, as the Ypsilanti Braves grabbed runner-up honors with 84 points.

Coach Bert Waterman led Ypsilanti to the first of four championships during a 10-year span in 1956. Two Braves, Ambi Wilbanks and Walt Pipps, earned titles while three others finished second in their classifications. Ypsi had lost one dual meet during the regular season, to Lansing Eastern, by a slim three-point margin. With the 1967-68 school year, Waterman would embark on a 24-year career as coach at Yale University after posting a 192-35-4 mark in 16 seasons at Ypsilanti. A 1950 graduate of Michigan State, the former Spartans wrestler would join Eastern’s Don Johnson, Sexton’s Iggy Konrad, Fran Hetherington from the School for the Blind and two other high school coaches as a charter member of the Michigan Wrestling Hall of Fame in November 1978.

Runner-up in 1956, Eastern grabbed another title in 1957 topping Battle Creek Central, 93-89, in the tournament standings. It was a surprise “going away present” for Coach Don Johnson, who was stepping away after 10 seasons of coaching the Quakers to accept the assistant principal position at Eastern. Battle Creek had five wrestlers advance, and held a 56-48 lead over Eastern as the teams entered the final round. The Quakers’ Ted Hartman opened the day with a victory in the 98-pound weight class, helping Eastern post a 3-1 record in championship round matches. Sexton assisted with the Eastern victory when Norm Young defeated Battle Creek’s Bob McClenney in the 120 weight class. The Bearcats, who had five wrestlers in the finals, ended with two individual champs on the day and their highest finish in their 10 seasons of wrestling.

An All-American wrestler at Michigan State, Johnson would remain at Eastern throughout his education career, retiring as principal in 1983. The fieldhouse at Eastern was named after him in December 1984, fittingly just prior to the championship round of the annual Eastern High Wrestling Invitational.  

Eastern again went back-to-back, topping Sexton, 88-57, with Ypsilanti third in the 1958 championship standings. The meet, culminating with 16 boys competing in each weight division – four each from regionals hosted at Battle Creek, Lansing, Ypsilanti and Berkley – was held at the Intramural Building at the University of Michigan. Both Eastern and Sexton advanced four wrestlers to the final round, with Eastern’s Gary Gogarn (95), Ron Parkinson (145) and Alex Valcanoff (154) earning titles. For Sexton, Fritz Kellerman (133) and Wilkie Hopkins (138) finished on top.

The 1959 championships, hosted at the new intramural building at MSU, found boys from 47 schools chasing medal honors.

“Points toward the team title are awarded one for each bout won, with an extra point for a fall,” noted the Lansing State Journal, explaining the mechanics of the tournament. “The big scoring chance comes (in the final round) with a first place netting 10 points, second 7, third 4 and fourth 2.”

Jackson and Sexton had tied for the 6-A Conference crown (the league renamed with the addition of Kalamazoo Central to the mix) and the race to the MHSAA title was expected to be a tight one. Jackson qualified seven for the semifinal round, with four advancing to the championships. The Big Reds sent five wrestlers to the last round. Vikings Ron Shavers (95), Nate Haehnle (145) and Don Mains (165) had each won matches, while Sexton’s qualifiers Tom Mulder (127) and Emerson Boles (175) had earned titles.

With one match remaining, Jackson trailed Iggy Konrad’s Big Reds by four, 67-63, as the Vikings’ Ed Youngs – the state’s reigning heavyweight champion – squared off with Sexton’s Mickey Devoe. Youngs grabbed a 3-1 decision to repeat, but the Vikings needed a fall in the match for a tie. Hence, the Big Reds eked out a single-point victory, 74-73, to escape with their third state mat title.

The results of the title round of the 1960 tournament, also won by Sexton, telegraphed how far the sport had come. Wrestlers from a dozen high schools squared off for honors in the title matches, with winners representing 10 cities. The Big Reds topped Ypsilanti 70-64, followed by Kalamazoo Central with 56 points. Eight other schools had scored at least 20 points in the tournament; 31 teams had scored at least a point. Tom Mulder of Sexton was the lone repeat champion.

With 112 schools now offering wrestling on their sports menu, the MHSAA split the event into two parts for the 1959-60 school year, with Class A set for the University of Michigan and Class B hosted by Michigan State University. The sport was now in full bloom.

Ron Pesch has taken an active role in researching the history of MHSAA events since 1985 and began writing for MHSAA Finals programs in 1986, adding additional features and "flashbacks" in 1992. He inherited the title of MHSAA historian from the late Dick Kishpaugh following the 1993-94 school year, and resides in Muskegon. Contact him at [email protected] with ideas for historical articles.

PHOTOS: (Top and 4) Lansing Sexton won the first MHSAA Finals in wrestling in 1948. (2) Eastern’s Larry Bates became the first three-time individual champion in MHSAA history in 1955. (3) The Big Reds were led by coach Ignatius Konrad. (5) Lansing Eastern kept the championship in the capital city in 1949. (6) Bert Waterman built one of the state’s top programs at Ypsilanti. (7) Don Johnson was the architect of Eastern’s program.(Photos gathered by Ron Pesch.)

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.)