Queen of the Mat

December 16, 2011

DEWITT – Even if they haven’t faced her, most Lansing-area wrestlers have heard of Rachel McFarland.

It’s a different story when DeWitt hits the road for Saturday tournaments. McFarland will run up against opponents who don’t know a thing about her – until she beats them.

The Panthers senior has won more than 100 matches over the last three seasons. She’s been asked about wrestling boys probably as many times.

“Sometimes, I feel bad for them. I’m not going to lie,” McFarland said, breaking into a laugh. “I don’t think of (wrestling boys) in a different way. But for guys, it’s probably weird because they never wrestle a girl.

“I just wrestle.”

A girl wrestling on an MHSAA team isn’t rare -- roughly 146 have participated in the sport per season over the last three. But McFarland is special.

She signed a letter of intent Wednesday to accept nearly a full scholarship from NAIA Oklahoma City University, which has the top-ranked women’s collegiate wrestling program in the country this season. She’s also wrestled on the international mat, taking fifth in a world competition in Hungary over the summer.

A 112-pounder, McFarland will carry a 101-39 record into her final high school season later this month. She’s both won a CAAC Gold championship and finished runner-up, and as a sophomore advanced to the MHSAA Regional round.

Not bad for only five years in the sport. After sitting through her younger brother’s tournaments while they were growing up, she decided in eighth grade to join her middle school team. She was tired of watching and not being a part. And she was drawn to the sport’s intensity.

“She had the drive to be great. I’ve never seen an athlete in any of my sports with such work ethic and dedication,” said DeWitt coach Brian Byars, who also coaches the school’s boys cross country team. “And so we knew that she could be something special. We just didn’t know what.

“Her commitment and desire kept her achieving goals, and we just kept setting them higher and higher. And then we just started realizing what a treasure we have.”

McFarland is following a short line to success at the MHSAA level. Goodrich’s C.C. Weber finished fourth in Division 3 at 103 pounds in 2009, the best MHSAA Finals finish by a girl. Martin’s Amy Berridge finished seventh at 103 in Division 4 in 2004. McFarland will be Oklahoma City teammates with Kristi Garr, also from Goodrich and an MHSAA Finals qualifier in 2010.

McFarland was a softball player during her middle school years, and ran cross country and track earlier in her high school career. She had picked up some wrestling knowledge watching her brother, and the rest came from natural ability and a lot of work on technique. 

“I thought I was going to beat her because she’s a girl. She totally was better,” said DeWitt sophomore Alex Lantz, McFarland’s practice partner last season. “When she roughs around the guys a little bit, it’s like ‘Whoa, she just threw me. I’ve got to do it back or something.’”

McFarland’s success is opening the wrestling room door for other interested girls at her school. A few gave the sport a brief try over the last few seasons, and Byars said one in particular has talked to both he and McFarland about joining the team this winter. Byars and McFarland also have discussed starting a little girls wrestling program in their community.

McFarland also considered signing with King College (Tenn.) and Menlo College (Calif.), which like Oklahoma City are members of the 14-team Women’s College Wrestling Association. She intends to study biomedical science and will move far from her family – but anticipates few changes to life on the mat despite the fact she’ll no longer be wrestling boys. 
“Everyone knows girls are more dramatic, so there might be more drama. But I think it will be about the same,” McFarland said. “I’ll definitely miss the guys. It’s fun being with them. But I think it will be OK. (The girls) are all wrestlers. They’ll understand.”


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.)