St. Johns' Massa: Master of the Mat

February 29, 2012

Taylor Massa enters his final high school wrestling competition today at The Palace of Auburn Hills the same way he started it -- without a loss.

Massa is one of 896 wrestlers who will compete this weekend. But he can become just the 16th in MHSAA history to graduate with four individual championships. And his 217 consecutive wins rank fifth on the all-time MHSAA list. With three wins this weekend, he’d move up to fourth. 

“Taylor has absolute dedication to the sport. During the season he is on the mat seven days a week training,” St. Johns head coach Zane Ballard said. “Off the mat, he’s a normal teenager who likes wake-boarding and hanging out with his friends. He also is a very good student.”

The MHSAA Individual Wrestling Finals begin at 2 p.m. today. They continue through the Semifinals early Friday evening and into the championship matches Saturday afternoon. Click for a full schedule, plus brackets and results as they are filed.

After claiming titles at 145 pounds as a freshman, 152 as a sophomore and 160 a year ago, Massa has his sights set on the 171-pound crown. He also led the Redwings to three straight team titles, the most recent last weekend at Battle Creek.

Massa was on the mat all of 3 minutes and 8 seconds in pinning three opponents at the Team Finals. He spent most of the rest perched just behind his coaches, helping instruct his teammates with the knowledge that has made him nationally recognized and earned him a scholarship to Michigan.

His leadership has continued to grow in step with his elite mat skills over the last four seasons. Ballard said Massa mediates conflicts between teammates on top of passing on advice.

“We all help each other, show each other what’s happening,” Massa said. “You can’t get good without your partners. I look to my partners for advice. We’re all really good at different things.

“I think a lot of kids come to me if they have questions. (But) you know, if I’m not doing something right, I’ll ask someone that’s doing it better than I am what I’m doing wrong.”

If he's done something wrong on the high school mat, it's been tough to tell.

Ironically, Massa’s first individual championship at the Palace in 2009 came at the expense of Greenville’s Jordan Thomas, 5-2, in a battle of freshmen. Since that season, Thomas has stayed a weight heavier than Massa, winning the title at 160 in 2010 and at 171 a year ago. Thomas goes for his third consecutive championship, at 189, this weekend. He and Massa will lead the Finals Grand March together as flag bearers on Saturday.

After this spring, Massa will join the Wolverines and study pre-med. He’d also like to make a push for the Olympics, and already has competed internationally.

But for all the accolades, Massa prefers to let his actions do the talking.

“He is a quiet and unassuming person,” Ballard said. “You would never know he wrestles unless the topic is brought up.”

MHSAA four-time champions

Mike Mills, Mt. Pleasant—98-112-132-138 (1976-79)
Gregory Elie, Escanaba—98-105-112-119 (1980-83)
Robert Mariucci, Iron Mountain—112-126-145-155 (1981-84)
Michael Murdoch, Montrose—119-132-145-145 (1983-86)
Larry Raether, Iron Mountain — 112-119-132-132 (1984-87)
Brandon Chesher, Adrian 112-125-134-145 (1993-96)
Jeremiah Tobias, Manchester — 125-130-135-145 (1997-00)
Nick Simmons, Williamston — 103-103-119-119 (1998-01)
Andy Simmons, Williamston — 112-130-135-140 (1999-02)
Roger Kish, Lapeer West — 160-171-189-189 (2000-03)
Joe Mendez, Lowell —103-112-130-135 (2002-05)
Brent Metcalf, Davison —130-140-145-145 (2002-05)
Justin Zeerip, Hesperia —125-145-152-160 (2004-05-06-07)
Mark Weber, Goodrich  - 103-112-125-135 (2005-08)
Kyle Waldo, Rockford – 103-103-112-119 (2006-07-08-09)

(NOTE: Detroit Catholic Central’s Alex Mooradian also is competing for a fourth MHSAA title this weekend. Click to read more about his accomplishments.)

PHOTOS: (Top) St. Johns Taylor Massa and (middle) Greenville's Jordan Thomas. See more photos at High School Sports Scene. Report was compiled by the MHSAA's Rob Kaminski.

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.)