Studer In 54th Year of 'Growing Good People'

By Pam Shebest
Special for

February 19, 2020

BATTLE CREEK — Dave Studer knew he was too small to play varsity football in high school, and when someone approached him about wrestling, “I had no clue what it was,” he said.

“I thought they did it in a ring like pro wrestling.”

That was in the early 1960s at Port Huron High School. Intrigued, Studer decided to try it and got hooked.

In fact, he got so hooked, he is now in his 54th year as head wrestling coach at Battle Creek Harper Creek.

Although he is still going strong, he does not get down on the mats to grapple with his wrestlers any more. That is the job of assistant coach Joe Yurisich.

“I’m their practice dummy most of the days,” Yurisich said, laughing.

Studer, 75, has received many accolades, including induction into the Harper Creek High School Hall of Fame and Michigan Wrestling Association Hall of Fame.

But there is one thing missing from his resume – a trip to the MHSAA Team Finals.

This year’s are Feb. 28-29 at Wings Stadium in Kalamazoo.

“The first two years I coached, I had some outstanding teams, but they didn’t have a team state meet at that time,” Studer said. (The team championship format was created in 1988.)

“One of the best teams I ever had, every kid won 80 percent of their matches, but we didn’t have any kind of team thing.”

Last week, the Beavers took a 17-3 record into Districts, winning their fifth consecutive title. They defeated Richland Gull Lake 46-24, then swept Vicksburg 84-0.

The Beavers will host Plainwell today in a Division 2 Regional first-round match.

Temporary beginning

After wrestling for four years at Western Michigan University, Studer graduated and had a government job when he got a phone call in 1967.

“They said Harper Creek’s wrestling coach was in an accident and they needed somebody to stand in for a little bit,” he said. “I said, ‘Sure I’ll do that.’

“My very first match, we just got beat terrible. I thought, maybe I’m not doing things right but I kept working at it. By the end of the season, we won the Regional Championship.”

The school district offered Studer the position and a job teaching physical education at the elementary school, and that sealed the deal.

He eventually taught psychology, then physical education and weightlifting at the high school, retiring from the classroom in 2001.

“I just like the people and the community,” he said. “We had a lot of support. The young men I was getting were good, hard-working kids.

“I had some other opportunities to go other places but I told them no, I was real happy right here.”

He still feels that way after 54 years. Things change of course, and one he’d like to see switch back are more opportunities for dual meets – the team had only two home meets this year but used to have six to eight, which provided more opportunities to create excitement for the sport in the community.

Plus, one of those past duals remains among his favorite memories.

“We were wrestling Lakeview at the old high school,” he said. “We had over 2,700 people come to that dual meet.

“The fire marshal turned away over 300 people. That’s why I like dual meets. People had to sit on the gym floor because we ran out of bleachers.”

Second generations

Studer coached the fathers of many of his wrestlers, including Yurisich, who graduated from Harper Creek and Olivet College in the early 2000s.

“There really hasn’t been much change since I was in school,” Yurisich said. “The cool thing is that my father (Steve), who was (Studer’s) assistant a few years ago, also wrestled for Coach Studer.”

Steve Yurisich graduated in 1978 “so he wrestled for him in a different era,” his son said.

“We’ve had conversations. (Studer’s) mentality for the sport and his passion for the kids has never changed since my father can remember from ’78 to present day.”

Senior Trevor Brooks, who wrestles at 145 pounds, said he has learned a lot from Studer.

“He brings a lot of emotion and intensity and pride,” Brooks said. “We have to keep that pride up, knowing that we’re a good team and we have to keep the tradition going.

“I’ve learned a lot of life skills from him. You should never take a moment for granted because any given moment it can be taken from you because of injury. You just have to go out there and wrestle like it’s your last match.”

Yurisich, who teaches fifth grade math and science at the middle school, said Studer is in it for the kids.

Brooks joins seniors Greylon Dishman, Chandler Froehlich, Aspen Tyler Kortz, Jaden Mainstone and Ethan Shipley. Juniors are Brian DeJesus Castellanos Camacho, Joseph Edmonds, Easton Kolassa, Jake Pancoft, Noah Szarejko, Bryce Trimm and Merritt Wilson. The team’s lone sophomore is Matthew Martinez, and freshmen are Zachary Egan and Nicholas Martinez.

“The biggest thing that I notice as a coach and didn’t necessarily notice as a kid is he’s always trying to make the kid a better person later on in life, not necessarily at what they’re doing at the moment,” Yurisich said.

“Making sure that we grow good, young men, rather than just grow wrestlers.”

The outpouring of love from his wrestlers and supporters was evident four years ago when Studer was honored during his 50th year of coaching.

The school raised more than $40,000 for a scholarship and new wrestling mat.

Studer has not wavered from his original way of coaching.

“We worked a lot on mental training, getting mentally tough, not on winning and losing,” he said.

“I’ve never faulted kids when they get beat. I tell them it’s not the end of the world, it’s just one wrestling match. You’ve got your whole life to be a winner.”

Working with the athletes is what keeps him going.

“I enjoy it,” he said. “When I get to a point where I don’t enjoy it or I don’t think I’m doing a good job, then I will retire.”

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) Battle Creek Harper Creek sophomore Matthew Martinez locks up an opponent this season. (Middle) From left, coach Dave Studer, assistant Joe Yurisich and senior Trevor Brooks. (Below) Studer talks things over with senior Greylon Dishman. (Action photos by Jennifer Brooks; 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.)