Rivals to Be Push Each Other as Teammates

February 24, 2016

By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half

SAGINAW — The trash talk of an intense rivalry can wait.

For now, Matt Santos and K.J. Suitor wear the same colors, representing the same school, focusing on the same goal — winning individual MHSAA wrestling championships.

The Saginaw Swan Valley seniors also are helping each other attain that goal, providing the other with one of the best training partners available in the state.

When the MHSAA Division 3 Individual Wrestling Finals end March 5 at The Palace of Auburn Hills, Santos and Suitor will no longer be teammates for the first time in six years.

The next stop for Santos will be Michigan State University, where he will wrestle for the Spartans.

Suitor will move on to University of Michigan to wrestle for the Wolverines.

While the irony of two teammates becoming rivals isn't lost on either wrestler, it's a storyline they've minimized during their final season together at Swan Valley.

"We'll have an occasional laugh about that," Suitor said.

"Yeah, we get that a lot," Santos said. "We've talked about it a little bit, but not too much. Right now it's all about business, talking about what's happening right now. It's about states and stuff like that. I'm sure we'll get to that more."

As wrestlers in the same college conference, there is the chance that Santos and Suitor could one day take the mat against each other. They are only one weight class apart, Santos wrestling at 135 pounds and Suitor at 130. Santos has always been significantly bigger than Suitor, but the weight gap has closed to within five pounds this season.

"We don't really talk about it too much," Suitor said. "It's definitely a possibility. We're getting pretty close in weight. We don't really focus on that. Right now, the primary goal is to finish out the year on the best note possible at the state championships. I can see us talking about it later down the road. We'd both give it our all. It wouldn't be anything less than what we've been doing."

What Santos and Suitor have been doing day in and day out in the Swan Valley wrestling room is prepare each other to succeed on the biggest stage.

While they've never wrestled against each other in a competitive match, their practice sessions can be tougher than some of their matches.

"Most of the time, we're just working on moves, but once in a while we do go live," Santos said. "It's a brawl; we go at it."

Suitor knows that he can't take a day off in practice with a partner like Santos awaiting him.

"Matt is an extremely hard worker," Suitor said. "As soon as you enter the room, you know you're going to go 100 percent. That's really good to know. He helped me get to the next level. We thrive off each other. It's great knowing I can walk in and I'm going to get the best partner in the state."

Santos was the 130-pound champion in Division 3 last year after taking second at 119 as a freshman and fourth at 125 as a sophomore. He is the No. 1-ranked wrestler in that weight class in all divisions, according to MichiganGrappler.com.

The only loss for Santos in a 48-1 season was a 3-2 decision against St. Johns senior Ian Parker, the No. 1-ranked wrestler in all divisions at 140 pounds and an Iowa State recruit. Santos is 190-10 in his career and is ranked 13th nationally at 132 pounds by InterMat.

"I always want the better matches with the better guys," Santos said. "That's what makes you better as a wrestler. Yeah, I want to go undefeated. At the same time, going into the state tournament I don't have the pressure to be undefeated. I have to go out there and wrestle now."

Suitor has been on the podium all three years, but has yet to grab the top spot. He was seventh at 103 as a freshman, second at 112 as a sophomore and fourth at 125 as a junior. He is ranked fourth overall in the state at 130 behind two Division 3 wrestlers, No. 1 Alex Martinez of Ida and No. 2 Kole Krauss of Grand Rapids Catholic Central.

Suitor's only loss this season was a 3-0 decision to third-ranked Dallas O'Green of Division 4 Carson City-Crystal in January. Suitor is 51-1 this season and 219-12 for his career. The 219 wins are a school record, and he’s just outside the top 30 for career victories in MHSAA history.

"It definitely sent a message," Suitor said of the loss. "It was like a blessing in disguise. It gives you something to go back and work on the drawing board to prep for future matches like that. It takes a load off going undefeated. It's a great opportunity, but it also just adds more stress than you need. You tend to wrestle more at ease. You're not afraid to make as many mistakes."

Swan Valley coach Darrell Burchfield guided both athletes through the recruiting process, starting it out by sending about 70 letters to Division I and II colleges on behalf of his wrestlers. He also asked them to come up with a list of schools which offer the degree programs they are interested in pursuing.

Suitor is going into finance with a goal of eventually working for a professional sports team, while Santos will major in physical therapy.

"They are very different," Burchfield said. "Both are excellent character kids. Both are hard workers. Both are strong goal-bound people. You don't get the success without that. Matt just has incredible discipline in everything he goes. He maps things out a little bit different than K.J. K.J. looks at things from the 10,000-foot view; these are the steps he needs to go and the steps he's going to take. Matt will map out this day and he'll do this. He has his meal plans down, what time he's going to bed."

Having each other as wrestling partners has helped Santos and Suitor shore up their weaknesses, Burchfield said.

"It's a huge help," Burchfield said. "Historically, K.J. had struggled with short, quick, strong guys a little bit and Matt had struggled with guys who had a lot of length. So, their body styles helped each other out this year. We've had a good room over the last several years, so they've had a lot of different people to work with. This year, they've drilled with each other every day."

The only time Swan Valley has produced two MHSAA individual champions was in 2009, when B.J. Suitor won at 112 pounds and Jake Jeske won at 145 in Division 3. B.J. Suitor, K.J.'s brother, was a three-time champion from 2007-09. He's the only Swan Valley wrestler to win multiple titles, an exclusive club Santos looks to join on March 5.

"My freshman year, the first time being in the Finals, it's scary," Santos said. "Now that I've been there for three years, been in the Finals and won, it takes a lot of the pressure off."

Bill Khan served as a sportswriter at The Flint Journal from 1981-2011 and currently contributes to the State Champs! Sports Network. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Matt Santos (left) and K.J. Suitor compete during last season’s MHSAA Individual Finals. (Middle) Santos claps after claiming the Division 3 championship at 130 pounds. (Below) Suitor wrestles his first-round match at 125. (Click for more photos 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.)