As Upsets Abound, Parker Repeats in D2

March 5, 2016

By Jeff Chaney
Special for Second Half

AUBURN HILLS – St. Johns senior Ian Parker could not help but notice what was going on around him Saturday night at The Palace of Auburn Hills.

The MHSAA Individual Wrestling Finals had turned into a tournament of upsets, as many returning champions, and a few multiple champions like Grand Rapids Catholic Central's Devin Schroder, Gaylord's Dom LaJoie and Lowell's Lucas Hall, all went down to defeat.

For Schroder, he lost a chance at making history, failing to win his fourth straight title and becoming just the 22nd wrestler to accomplish that feat.

So Parker, also a returning champion, walked onto the mat for his 140-pond championship match with  Ortonville-Brandon's Bryan LaVearn a little nervous. And why not? LaVearn pinned former champ Zeth Dean of Lowell on Friday night in their Semifinal.

But Parker buckled down, wrestled his match, and beat the game LaVearn 6-2 to win his second title. 

"I was a lot more nervous going into this match, because it was my final match, and there had been a lot of upsets in this tournament," Parker said. "It kind of gets in your head a little bit, but I felt like I calmed it down and did what I had to do to get it done."


Champion: Corey Gamet, Parma Western, Fr. (15-1)
Decision, 3-2, over Chaise Mayer, Warren Woods Tower, Fr. (50-7)

Gamet had a difficult first year of high school wrestling, dealing with an injured knee that limited his season to just 16 matches.

But the final four of those matches were great, as he won an MHSAA title at 103 with a 3-2 win over fellow freshman Mayer.

"I had to keep my confidence because I missed a lot of practices," Gamet said. "I knew I just had to win the match."


Champion: Elijuh Weaver, Warren Woods Tower, Jr. (58-1)
Decision, 5-4, over Branson Proudlock, Gibraltar Carlson, Soph. (51-2)

There would be no second place for Weaver again.

A runner-up last year, Weaver won his title this year with a hard-fought 5-4 win over talented sophomore Proudlock.

"I was thinking I can't lose again, I can't repeat what happened last year," Weaver said. "My friends motivated me by telling me I can't be a runner-up again."


Champion: Julian Saldana, Melvindale, Sr. (58-1)
Decision, 4-3, over Dom LaJoie, Gaylord, Jr. (61-1)

Saldana may have been as shocked as everyone else in The Palace on Saturday. After all, he had just upset a two-time reigning champion.

The win caused the large crowd at The Palace to gasp, as LaJoie went down to defeat for the first time at the MHSAA Finals.

"I had to do something; I'm not really sure what exactly I did," Saldana said. "All I know is it worked, and I beat a two-time state champion."


Champion: Drew Marten, Tecumseh, Jr. (53-1)
Decision, 10-4, over Lucas Hall, Lowell, Sr. (31-1)

Just as the crowd was settling down at the Division 2 end of The Palace, Marten put fans back on their feet as he beat two-time champion Hall, 10-4.

It was a tough win for Marten, as he explained that he and Hall are close friends. But was glad to do it for his school and wrestling program.

"He is my best friend, so that was tough," Marten said. "But I hope this will motivate our program and create a chain reaction for Tecumseh."


Champion: Mike Bergmooser, Carleton Airport, Sr. (50-3)
Fall, 3:58, over Jon Marten, Gaylord, Sr., (58-4)

Better late than never for Bergmooser.

He had struggled at the Finals before, but this past weekend won four matches to win his first title.

"I never won a match down here before. I was 0-6," Bergmooser said. "But it felt so good to finally get a win and go out with a bang."


Champion: Nathan Ellis, Goodrich, Sr. (52-3)
Decision, 5-2, over Trent Lashuay, St. Johns, Jr. (44-11)

When two wrestlers are evenly matched, it's usually the one who pushes himself to the limit who picks up the victory.

Ellis wrestled a full six minutes and came away with a tight 5-2 win.

"Going into the third period, I knew I just had to push the pace," Ellis said. "If I did that, I knew that it would be in my favor, and I would come out on top."


Champion: Austin Melton, DeWitt, Sr. (55-1)
Major decision, 14-6, over Dustin Gross, Dearborn Heights Annapolis, Soph. (55-4)

Sometimes a heart-breaking loss in a championship match can be just the motivation to help achieve a title the next year.

That's what happened Melton, as he lost a tough match in the Finals to Marysville's Austin Thompson a year ago, only to come back and win this year by major decision.

"It felt great to go out on top," Melton said. "I have been working hard all year long. It feels awesome because last year it slipped away, but now that I finally got it … it feels awesome."


Champion: Ameer Munassar, Melvindale, Sr. (52-1)
Decision, 7-5 OT, over Brandon Garcia, Riverview, Sr. (54-1)

Losing in Regional competition can be tough. It affects your seed and placement when it comes to the Finals.

But coming back and avenging that loss in the Finals can be even sweeter, as Munassar felt Saturday night avenging his only defeat by beating Garcia.

“I lost to him in overtime at Regionals, and it motivated me so much more coming into the State Finals," Munassar said. "To win here is so great."


Champion: Deirrien Perkins, Warren Lincoln, Sr. (41-1)
Decision, 3-1, over Connor Charping, Trenton, Jr. (55-2)

Wrestling coaches always preach wrestle to the final whistle. They always say you never know what can happen, and that a match is never done until that final whistle.

Perkins did just that, and scored a takedown with 10 seconds to go in the 160-pound championship match to beat Charping 3-1.

“He wasn't ready for it (the takedown). I knew I had to go, and I just went for it," Perkins said. "I capitalized on that moment, got (the takedown) and held on for dear life."


Champion: Jelani Embree, Warren Lincoln, Jr. (47-0)
Decision, 4-1, over Danny Kruse, Lowell, Sr. (36-3)

An injured Embree is no easy opponent to wrestle. A healthy one can be downright impossible to face.

The Warren Lincoln junior proved that this year, completing an undefeated season with a hard-fought 4-1 win over Kruse.

"This year it was a little bit different, because both my knees were actually healthy," Embree said. "I was able to train a lot harder, and it helped me finally come out on top."


Champion: Max Dean, Lowell, Sr. (37-0)
Decision, 9-2, over Brad Wilton, Mason, Jr. (45-3)

Dean won an MHSAA championship as a sophomore, but was unable to defend that title last year thanks to an injured wrist suffered during his junior football season.

So it was that much sweeter for him to come back as a senior and finish the task, winning his second championship with a workmanlike 9-2 decision.

"To me, this means a lot," said Dean, who will be wrestling at Cornell next year. "I was heart-broken last year not being able to compete, having that privilege to walk on to the mat and go to war. I really missed that, and it was definitely tough. But it is really satisfying to come back and win this year."


Champion: Landon Pelham, Tecumseh, Sr. (53-0)
Decision, 9-2, over Eli Boulton, Lowell, Jr. (29-14)

There is an MHSAA championship in the Pelham household now.

Two years after watching his older brother Preston Pelham lose in the heavyweight Finals, Landon Pelham won the family's first title.

"I got some redemption for my bother. It has all been our goal to be state champs," Landon Pelham said. "He wanted more for me than I could have ever wanted it for myself."


Champion: Isaiah Espinoza, Adrian, Sr. (47-1)
Decision, 1-0, over Sam Benson, Mason, Sr. (36-6)

Espinoza takes nothing for granted in wrestling. He knows how brutal the sport can be, both physically and mentally.

The grind of a season can take it out of your body. And a loss in a championship match can wear on the mind for a long time.

That happened last year when Espinoza fell in the Finals at heavyweight and had to wait a full year for redemption, which he got Saturday night. 

"I knew I had to make it back, and my coaches gave me a process to get better" Espinoza said. "They expected me to push myself harder and harder. It was a grind, I loved it and it paid off."

Click for full results

The MHSAA Wrestling Finals are presented by the Michigan Army National Guard.

PHOTO: St. Johns’ Ian Parker wins his Semifinal match Friday to earn a berth in Saturday’s Final, which he also won to repeat as a Division 2 champ. (Photo by Michelle Campbell.)

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.)