Seniors Shoulder Decatur Title Hopes

By Pam Shebest
Special for

December 20, 2016

DECATUR — When he was young, Coy Helmuth broke both sides of his collarbone and almost gave up wrestling.

Logan Kennedy is looking to add more MHSAA Finals honors to the family tree.

Fritz Williamson’s brothers told him he’d never make it as a wrestler.

That trio provides three key ingredients to Decatur’s hopes for securing an elusive MHSAA Division 4 team title.

Helmuth and Kennedy were Division 4 Individual Finals runners-up last year and hope to build on their successes this year as seniors.

In fact, Jack Richardson, who has coached the Raiders the last four years, has seniors slated for 10 of the 14 weight classes.

Decatur’s team was seeded second last year but lost to Leroy Pine River in the Quarterfinals in a 35-34 nail-biter.

“That’s still fresh in my mind, and I think it’s fresh in the kids’ minds, especially the seniors,” Richardson said. “They were all extremely disappointed, but Pine River wrestled extremely well. They came out and they wrestled to beat us.

“We will use that as a teaching tool. Yes, we were sour about it. We wanted to win. We had high aspirations. Now we have to use it not as something that will hold us back but something that will push us forward. OK, this happened and what can we do to fix it.”

Richardson has a bit more breathing room this year, choosing from among 21 wrestlers to compete.

Last year, he had just 15 on the team.

“We were relying on everybody,” he said.

One of those was Williamson, a senior this year, who surprised his coach with his versatility.

“He’d been a JV wrestler for two years, and I had him at 189,” Richardson said.

Although Williamson posted a 22-34 record, “He came within a match of being a state qualifier, and he hadn’t seen a varsity match in two years,” the coach said. 

“He really, really came on at the end of the year and wrestled very well.”

Williamson said the fact his older brothers told him he’d never make it was the best motivation of all.

“I practiced really hard and worked really hard to get better,” he said. “Now I’m a pretty decent wrestler. People say I’m pretty good and they like to watch me wrestle.”

The senior, who was adopted from Haiti when he was 5 years old, has 10 brothers and sisters, all adopted, he said.

“I like the fact that I feel like I can accomplish things myself,” he said. “No one is really yelling much at you, telling you what to do. It’s a team sport, but it’s basically you. I like the fact that I can wrestle people and win. I like to win.”

Helmuth, who had a 50-7 record at 119 last year, followed his dad, David, who wrestled for Dowagiac, then helped coach the team for a few years. David started his son out wrestling at a young age.

After finishing runner-up to Erie-Mason’s Robert LeFevre last year, Helmuth said he knows better what to expect this year.

The MHSAA tournament “is a different environment,” Helmuth said. “You’ve got thousands of people looking down at you, watching your match, other than the 16 who are usually involved.

“You walk out and see the one person you’re wrestling. You guys came out of the same region, and it’s just a completely different environment (than the regular season).

“This year, I feel like I could get myself ready for that Finals match better. I’m not expecting anything less. That’s one of my goals. Second isn’t good enough this year.”

A four-year varsity wrestler, Helmuth “lost in the blood rounds freshman and sophomore years,” Richardson said. “He made a big jump going into his junior year, more mentally than anything.

“He’s very analytical. Ninety-five percent of the people I’ve seen him wrestle that he’s gotten beat by, he has the ability to come back and adjust how he wrestles to have success.”

Kennedy said he is inspired by father, Jim, who was an MHSAA champ at Decatur in 1986 and started his son in the sport when Logan was 5 years old.

Logan’s three older brothers, Mitch, Zach and Austin, all placed at the Individual Finals. That’s an even bigger motivator for the senior, who posted a 51-6 record at 285 last year, losing to Laingsburg’s Kory Koenig in the Final.

“After (my brothers) graduated, they all focused on building me up,” Kennedy said. “Mitch wrestled at 125, Zach and Austin were heavyweights.

“Every time I step on the mat, it’s like a natural high to me. I feel like I’m floating on air when I wrestle.”

Durability is one of Kennedy’s key assets.

“Most of my matches I end up winning in the third period,” he said. “This year I am working harder than anybody else is working. 

“My biggest fear is that someone else is out there working harder than me. My goal is every day to work the hardest I can work, to push my body to the limit.”

Richardson said Kennedy, who wrestled varsity all four years, “is extremely athletic for a guy his size. For a guy his size, he’s got good feet.

“He actually tore his ACL the summer before his sophomore year, and we didn’t know if we were going to get him back. He came back and helped our team get to the Semifinals that year.”

Richardson said there are reasons Decatur has had strong wrestling programs through the years.

One is that younger wrestlers learn from accomplished older ones.

Most recently, Luke Bell was an MHSAA champ in 2010, 2011 and 1012.

His brother, Hunter won a Division 4 crown at 152 pounds in 2015.

“Hunter was a junior and senior when these seniors were freshmen, sophomores,” Richardson said. “You see the way he worked, which goes back to his brother Luke.

“I think with any successful program, those are the kinds of threads that bind. People who have success inspire the next generation through.”

Another reason is the makeup of the community.

“You have blue collar, hard-working people,” he said. “I think that’s what the sport’s built on.

“In a sense, when you have high expectations and that kind of background with kids, they’re not afraid to come in and work hard. If anything, with our sport, regardless of talent, regardless of ability, hard work is the foundation for success.”

Others on the team are Dylan Elmore (103), Ronnie Bell (103), Sterling Smith (112), Romeo Lopez (112/119), Emile Laporte (125), Owen Flowers (119), Kohl Matlock (135), Sebastion Rached (140), Alex Mendoza (140), Ethan May (145), AJ Gerhold (152), Everett Blonde (152), Jared Checkley (160), Michael Nuyen (160), Zack Checkley (171), Jack O’Brian (171), TJ Conklin (215) and Colby Olgrin (215).

Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Logan Kennedy lines up against Leroy Pine River's Andrew Frisbie during last season's Division 4 Quarterfinals. (Middle) Clockwise, from top left: Decatur coach Jack Richardson, Coy Helmuth, Fritz Williamson, Kennedy. (Below) The Decatur bench cheers on a teammate while Richardson offers support. (Click to see more action photos from; head shots by Pam Shebest.)

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.)