Team Wrestling Finals Take Flight at Wings

By Pam Shebest
Special for

February 22, 2019

KALAMAZOO — Thirty-two teams, more than 9,000 spectators and 60 to 75 volunteers will converge at Wings Event Center this weekend for the MHSAA Team Wrestling Finals.

Volunteers gathered at the venue Thursday, setting up two of the three arenas and making sure everything was in working order in preparation for Friday’s Quarterfinals and Saturday’s Semifinals and Finals.

And tournament director Mike Garvey – who before retiring last year served as an athletic director for more than two decades at four area high schools, plus led Lawton to the Class D wrestling title in 1990 – can rattle off the details like a tour guide. 

“There are 10 warm-up mats in ‘The Valley,’” Garvey pointed out Thursday. “That’s where the teams also weigh in.

“We have four registered MHSAA referees who are going to inspect the kids for skin diseases, which they always do for wrestlers, and weigh them in. 

“There’s a doctor who has volunteered because if a referee says no … we say ‘Go see the doc,’ which is nice.”

And that's just the start of the setup that comes with hosting one of the MHSAA’s most popular championship showcases. 

The tournament is a collaboration of the MHSAA, Wings Event Center and Discover Kalamazoo, and the event is in its second year of a four-year contract with the facility. Saturday's 3:45 p.m. championship matches will close a three-week team tournament with champions celebrated in four divisions.

Last year’s Finals drew a championship-record attendance of 9,469.

"There’s no way you can miss Wings Event Center right off I-94,” said Dan Hutcheson, assistant director of the MHSAA. “Parking, the facilities. In general, this is a great place for us. Probably the most important thing for us is the people who work here. They’ve been so good to us, especially Rob (Underwood, Wings Event Center general manager) and Melissa (Janecke, special events coordinator).”

Garvey started planning this year’s event the day after last year’s championships finished. He started getting commitments from volunteers in the fall.

Providing memorable experiences for wrestlers, officials and fans are main priorities, and that means covering every detail from weigh-ins to concessions to where teams will stay and parents will park. 

Garvey has volunteers who act as liaisons for each team, greeting them, distributing their packets and familiarizing them with the venue.

How does he get so many volunteers?

“I beg,” he said, laughing. “I say that in jest because people are thrilled to be part of this. I emailed all the ADs and wrestling coaches in the area, and they’ve just jumped in.

“Also the Kalamazoo wrestling officials association has jumped in as well, not as referees (but) as volunteers. Chris Furlong, the wrestling coach at Portage Northern, has been invaluable.”

The main action will take place in the stadium, where four mats are showcased on risers.

“It’s like the movie ‘Hoosiers’ when the guy opened the door at Butler and the kids walked in and were awestruck,” Garvey said. “That’s how these kids look, especially for the first time.”

There is more to the tournament than the wrestlers.

Portage Northern softball players are selling programs, and the concession stands in the arena are open. 

“Teams can bring in their own food, and we have a place for them to eat (in the area above the third rink),” Garvey said.

Referees have their own space in the ECHL Kalamazoo Wings locker room, and “Portage Northern wrestling moms are setting up something for the refs in the locker room so they can just go back there for their food,” Garvey said.

Taco John’s will cater lunches for the volunteers, which Garvey calls “Garv’s Guys.”

Garvey also selects singers of the national anthem before each round.

South Haven’s Jim McCloughan, who received the Medal of Honor in 2017 for his service in Vietnam, will sing before the Division 2 and 3 Quarterfinals.

Martin junior Aleyca Morey and Loy Norrix sophomore Sierra Ward will perform before the other two divisions on Friday. Saturday’s anthem singers will be Portage Central junior Ciara Williams, Mattawan junior Thomas Lamb and St. Augustine fifth grader Marissa Toweson.

Discover Kalamazoo, a tourist information center, also is involved in the tournament playing a key role in many behind-the-scenes necessities.

“Our office is very engaged with helping place the participating teams and coaches into hotels,” said Greg Ayers, president/CEO of Discover Kalamazoo. “Of the 32 teams, most all of them will have at least one night (and some two nights) in our local hotels.

“While we don't have any specific number(s) regarding the economic impact of the event, we know 32 teams, their fans and others will have impact on area hotels, restaurants, retail, gas stations, etc.”

Ayers anticipates another large crowd this weekend.

“(With) three teams (Schoolcraft, Dowagiac and Niles) in our backyard, we anticipate big crowds to be in attendance supporting their teams,” he said.

Hutcheson, who wrestled at Ferris State University and spent three years at the Olympic training center, can look at the tournament from several vantage points

“When I look at an event like this, I look at it as a past wrestler, as a past coach, as an AD, and as a spectator,” he said. 

“I try to think of all the different lenses you have to look through at an event, then we try to do the best we can.”

Wings Event Center has become a “Home of Wrestling,” Underwood said. “They like it, and we like it.

“The convenience off I-94, the great hotels we have around here with more opening, the seats in this venue, the concessions and bathrooms have made it a great location.”

Wings Event Center hosts five MYWAY youth wrestling events a year, and it was through Dave Dean, that organization’s president, that the MHSAA Finals began looking to Kalamazoo.

“My relationship with Dave Dean in MYWAY led me to Dan Hutcheson, and we started our conversations a couple years ago and here we are,” Underwood said. “It’s a great event, and we love having it here.”

Underwood has become a fan and spectator of the event.

“Once you start watching, it’s hard to walk away from it,” he said. “The team event is really neat because of the camaraderie with the wrestlers and the coaches and their following. When you look in the stands and just see color blocking for that team and the support, that’s cool to see.”

“(The MHSAA) does one (tournament) here and (individual championships) at Ford Field, so I guess we’re in good company.”

Garvey said he always wanted to run an MHSAA Finals tournament and jumped at the job when it went to Kalamazoo.

This year is especially special for Garvey.

“One of the neat things for me this year is that Schoolcraft has qualified,” he said “Their coach, Rob Ling, was a Lawton wrestler (with Garvey as coach), and he’s one of my boys.

“It makes me feel very proud. That’s a bonus for me.”

Ayers said more than half the teams are returning to Kalamazoo this year and “those teams and their fans are gaining familiarity with our community (hotels, restaurants, etc.)

“Having high school-aged students in our community provides excellent opportunities to introduce Kalamazoo. It can lead to prospective students for WMU, Kalamazoo College and Kalamazoo Valley Community College.”

Garvey said his team is always trying to improve.

“Last year everybody who came to this tournament as participants said it was the best Team Finals ever,” he said. “Being competitors, we want it to be better every year.”

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) By Thursday evening, Wings Event Center awaited this weekend's MHSAA Team Wrestling Finals. (Middle) Clockwise from left: Lowell's Curt Cummings sets up the clocks. Portage Northern junior Shane Lisk, left, and senior Cameron Migliaccio clean the mats. Wings Event Center special events coordinator Melissa Janecke tapes the mats. Portage Northern senior wrestler Quinten Baughman continues the process of mat cleaning. (Below) Mike Garvey, left, and Rob Underwood. (Photos 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.)