Redwings Seniors Finish with 4

February 23, 2013

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

BATTLE CREEK – St. Johns’ seniors heard most of it and read the rest over the last year.

Those last three MHSAA team wrestling championships simply were the product of an incredible senior class that had combined for six individual championships. Throw in a new coach this winter, and the Redwings would fall off their roost as the dominant program in Division 2.

But these seniors – including five who will wrestle in the Big Ten next season – knew better.

“Of course we did. This is the same group of guys who just keep working hard, keep going after it,” St. Johns senior Josh Pennell said. “Just because one grade moves out, that doesn't mean we (don’t) have kids from underneath moving in and replacing those kids."

With 2012 graduates Taylor Massa and Jordan Wohlfert looking on – as fans, this time – the teammates they left behind finished a run achieved by only three schools before.

Top-seeded St. Johns defeated Lowell in the Division 2 Final at Kellogg Arena on Saturday, 42-20, to become the fourth school to win four straight MHSAA team wrestling titles since the beginning of the Team Finals format in 1988.

“We proved that it just wasn't a fluke, one grade that just could do everything,” Pennell said. “The truth is we've got what it takes to win state championships, if we work as a team to win.”

The two teams also met in last season’s Final, with St. Johns winning 41-18.

Pennell and senior Jacob Schmitt started in all four championship match wins during this run, and senior Brant Schafer no doubt would've done the same had an injury not ended his season earlier this winter.

Total, this senior class finished with a 115-8 dual meet record.

By numbers alone, this season’s 22-4 finish was the least impressive of their run. But those losses this winter came to eventual Division 1 championship Detroit Catholic Central – which St. Johns also then beat – plus ranked Division 1 Brighton and Division 2 Fowlerville, and Ohio powerhouse Lakewood St. Edward.

The only other teams to win at least four straight titles during the Team Finals era were Davison from 2002-06, Hudson – which joined Davison as the only two with five straight by winning Division 4 on Saturday – and Dundee from 1995-98.

“These guys, they have moxie. They've got attitude. They want to be here and all that stuff,” said St. Johns coach Derek Phillips, who took over the program this winter after seven seasons as an assistant.

“I had a bond with these kids. I’d been with them for all four (titles), and winning breeds winning. They wanted it, and they were going to do everything they could to get those Ws.”

Schmitt and sophomore Logan Massa needed a combined 51 seconds to build St. Johns a 12-0 lead to start the championship match. Senior Ben Whitford, sophomore Drew Wixson, senior Payne Hayden and junior Zac Hall also won by fall for the Redwings. Junior Derek Krajewski and freshman Zeth Dean won major decisions late for the Red Arrows to tighten the final margin, although Lowell did win six matches total.

The Red Arrows, which entered the weekend as the second seed, finished 19-7. But there’s no reason to think they won’t be back at Kellogg Arena again in 2014 – although they started three seniors in the championship match, they also started five freshmen.

“They fought today. I’m proud of my team” Lowell coach Dave Dean said. “This is a very young team, so we’re building on a really good foundation."

Lowell will have nine qualifiers at next weekend’s Individual Finals at The Palace of Auburn Hills, and St. Johns will send 11. The Redwings' senior class certainly will be remembered among the most impressive in Michigan in some time, regardless of what happens next weekend. Whitford and Hayden have signed with the University of Michigan, Pennell with Michigan State, Schmitt with Northwestern and Schafer with Indiana.

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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.)