Shores' Karel Blazes Smart Path to Stardom

January 5, 2016

By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half

Samuel Karel is not only the epitome of a true student-athlete. He is also proof that there are many different roads to becoming a high school all-stater.

Especially in wrestling.

“You don’t always have to be the most athletic or the most naturally talented to win the match,” explained Karel, a senior returning all-state wrestler for Muskegon Mona Shores, who is 15-3 with 10 pins this season at 160 pounds.

“You can put in time and effort and find a way to come out ahead.”

Karel has certainly done that, improving from a mediocre grappler as a freshman to a legitimate MHSAA title contender as a senior. But his ascent has been aided by an often overlooked skill in athletics, an intangible which has decided more games and matches than anything else in prep sports but is not as readily apparent as size and speed.

That skill is intelligence.

In addition to pursuing his championship dream on the mat, Karel sports a gaudy 4.24 grade-point average while juggling a class load featuring four Advanced Placement classes – AP Statistics, AP Literature, AP Environmental Science and AP Microeconomics.

Mona Shores coach Blake Groenhout said Karel brings that cerebral approach to the wrestling mat, which has enabled him to figure out a way to beat many opponents who possess superior athletic ability.

 “Samuel’s biggest strength is that he is a real technician,” explained Groenhout, who said Karel has always been good on his feet but has improved on the mat. “He works really hard, and he’s always thinking ahead and is able to pull off some big wins in that way.”

A great example of that came at last year’s Division 1 Individual Finals, when Karel found himself in the infamous “blood round” where a victory would make him an all-stater as a top-eight placer at 152 pounds. Unfortunately, his opponent had beaten him 9-2 just one week earlier at Individual Regionals.

This time, Karel fought a smarter match.

The low-scoring bout turned into a chess match, which played into Karel’s hands. Karel scored a takedown in the first period, while his opponent evened the score in the second – and the score remained 2-2 until just a handful of seconds remained. With overtime looking like a certainty, Karel was able to get away for an escape and a 3-2 victory as time expired.

 “I was jumping around and going crazy after that,” Karel said with a laugh.

It was quite an achievement for someone who couldn’t even manage a winning record his freshman year, finishing 14-14 at 145 pounds. He improved to 28-10 his sophomore year at 160 pounds, including city and Ottawa-Kent Conference Black titles, but fell one win short of making it to the MHSAA Finals. He finished 44-9 last year at 152 pounds, repeating as city and conference champion and capping things off with his 8th-place finish at The Palace of Auburn Hills.

Making all-state was a notable athletic achievement since most of his accolades have come as a student.

Karel was one of three Muskegon-area high school seniors to be named a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist this fall. He will find out this spring if he is a finalist for a National Merit Scholarship pool, which totals $32 million.

He credits his experience in sports – both as a standout and team captain on the wrestling team and as a reserve and role player on the Sailors’ football team – for giving him discipline and resilience to be successful in school and the rest of his life.

“Wrestling can get boring, working on the same things over and over, so you have to find a way to keep it new and fresh,” said Karel. “I try to have fun in the room every day and try to think back to what motivated me when I first started wrestling.”

Two more secret weapons for Karel are his family and faith.

The youngest of Paul and Deb Karel’s four children, he has plenty of support from older sisters Martha and Lydia, both students at Lee University in Tennessee, and older brother Simon, a freshman offensive lineman at Trinity College near Chicago.

The Karels have been fixtures in the Mona Shores district for almost 20 years and even longer at Olivet Evangelical Free Church, where Samuel plays guitar and drums at church services (“Music takes away my stress,” he explained).

Karel also will be heading out of state for college, as he will join the club wrestling program at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. He plans to major in mathematics and then pursue a career as a mathematician (possibly working for the National Security Agency) or an actuary.

For right now, he is focused on making the most of his final high school season on the mat.

Karel reached the coveted 100-win plateau last month at the Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern Invitational. Last week, he finished 3-1 at Grandville’s tournament to improve to 15-3 with 10 pins this season.

As a team captain, he also wants to help two of his teammates try to close out their senior seasons as all-state wrestlers. Sean Halverson is 11-2 at 112 pounds, and Nick Brown is 10-6 at 215 pounds. Those two, along with Karel, form the “Big 3” for Mona Shores wrestling, Groenhout said.

“I made him a captain as a junior, which is rare, but he has such great dedication and enthusiasm for the sport,” Groenhout explained. “He is the one who sets the standard. Our younger guys, like (standout freshman) Josh Hill, they all want to be like Sam.”

Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Mona Shores senior Samuel Karel, the youngest of Deb and Steve Karel's four children, has won more than 100 matches already in his career, with most of his senior season still to come. (Middle) Karel is a standout on and off the wrestling mat. The senior returning all-stater, also a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist, recently won his 100th career match. (Photos courtesy of the Karel family.)

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.)