Vance Bounces Back to Finish as Champ

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

March 10, 2020

It took a day for Tristan Vance to fully appreciate what he had accomplished.

The Clio senior won the Division 2 189-pound championship Saturday at the MHSAA Individual Wrestling Finals. Quite often, it takes some time before the gravity of the moment sets in. For Vance, that was partially true. But mostly, he was too sore to celebrate in a big way.

“That night, I was happy about it and celebrating about it, but I was so sore,” Vance said. “My back started spasming up right after the match. I was just so sore. I wanted to get home, and I wanted to rest. The next day, I was ecstatic.”

The spasms were nothing new to Vance, but rather a painful reminder of what he had to endure to get to this point. He missed more than half of the season because of them and didn’t return to the mat until the postseason. 

While Vance himself wasn’t showing the elation and emotion that comes with overcoming what he did, his coach and father, Tony, certainly was understanding of the achievement.

“All I wanted to do is find my wife in the stands and give her a hug and kiss,” Tony Vance said. “It was the best feeling I think I’ve had since my kids were born. I got excited, and I kind of walked to the middle of the mat looking for her. I didn’t know where she was at, then I saw her waving to me. I climbed the wall and gave her a hug. It was such a struggle for him, and so much for us, too.”

The pain started late in the summer for Tristan, but it stemmed from a surgery he had as a 12-year-old. Back then, he was having back pain that effected the way he was walking. After consulting with multiple doctors, a benign tumor was found on his spine.

“I thought I had cancer, and I thought I was going to die – for like 10 minutes,” he said. “Until my mom was like, ‘That’s not what it is.’ After that, I’ve always been kind of chill, not too worried about things.”

The surgery to remove the tumor was successful, but that wasn’t the end of Tristan’s problems. He said he suffered from nerve damage and sciatica. His muscles were still tight, and he had to undergo rehabilitation for his left hamstring.

Eventually, he improved and blossomed into a star athlete at Clio, playing quarterback and linebacker on the football team and earning all-state honors (eighth place) on the wrestling mat as a junior. 

That’s what made things even harder when the back pain returned.

“In middle school, none of that mattered to me,” Tristan said. “This year, it really kind of hit a soft spot. I was really depressed about it. I was kind of sure that I wasn’t going to be able to do anything.”

Tristan thought he had another tumor, but that was quickly ruled out. He was told that the smaller muscles around the hole where the tumor used to be were weakened and never fully recovered. The bigger muscles in his back were overcompensating, causing the spasms.

He decided, however, to play quarterback through the football season, even though he ran the ball a lot in Clio’s read-option offense. 

“It got so bad where he couldn’t even run sometimes in games,” Tony Vance said. “He would play until he couldn’t play anymore.”

The motivation for Tristan was to play his final season with his friends on the football team. He did admit, though, that if he felt his wrestling season was truly threatened, he may have stopped. 

When wrestling season began, the thought was to take things slow. Tristan returned to the mat in January, but his back acted up again in the New Lothrop tournament, and he was once again forced to sit.

“When I had to stop wrestling, it wasn’t because of the pain. It was because my muscles would contract and spasm, and I wasn’t able to do it physically,” he said. “It hurt my feelings. I was like, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to finish the season. I had four other guys on the team that ended up going to the state tournament with me, and I was seeing them do well and I was happy to see that, but I wanted to be part of that so bad.”

Tristan helped his teammates in the practice room, though he wasn’t sure if he would be able to compete again. As the postseason drew near, he began working out more and preparing for the possibility. The decision was made to put him into the lineup during the Team District and see how he held up. 

“We ended up holding him out as long as we could,” Tony Vance said. “He wrestled (in the Team District) and felt pretty good, so I said, ‘All right, we’ll wrestle you in (Individual) Districts. I was worried, because I didn’t want to have another kid have to sit out, then take him all the way up to Gaylord and enter him into Districts and him not be able to wrestle.”

Tristan entered the District with a 10-2 record. He also entered at 189, despite having wrestled at 171 earlier in the season. He weighed around 180 pounds, and Tony Vance didn’t think adding a large weight cut to the stress already on Tristan’s body was a good idea. The bump didn’t bother Tristan, who was second in the District and first at the Regional.

He entered the Individual Finals as the No. 2 seed. But thanks to having wrestled so few matches, and the presence of undefeated Central Michigan recruit John Shelton of East Grand Rapids on the other half of the bracket, Tristan came in under the radar.

“I had a problem with that last season, where I kind of got in my head a little bit and too full of myself, which really affected me,” he said. “Coming in as an underdog – it wasn’t the most fun way for my last season to be, but it really helped with my mentality coming into the tournament.”

Tristan won handily in his first two matches before running into Fruitport’s Crue Cooper in the semifinals. Cooper was considered by many to be Shelton’s main competition heading into the Finals, but Tristan came away with the 3-1 overtime victory.

“I really wasn’t getting too excited about anything, to be honest,” Tony Vance said of his mindset coming into the tournament. “Me and my wife were just happy that he was able to wrestle again. He won a huge match in the semis. As the match was going, I was like, ‘Man. OK, he’s really looking good.’ After that match was done, I was excited. I thought, whatever happens from here, he’s made a good run. I wasn’t thinking that he was going to win it, I was just thinking that we’d see where it goes (Saturday), and I’ll be able to tell how he’s doing at the end of the first period.”

Tristan was calm as he entered his match against Shelton, even after he was informed right beforehand of Shelton’s credentials. 

“I have never wrestled him before, and I have never seen him wrestle before because he’s on the west side of the state,” Tristan said. “My plan was mostly just to get to my tie-ups, get to my offense and do what I do best instead of waiting on what he can do.”

The match was tied at 3 after one period, and Tristan was able to take a 4-3 lead with an escape in the second. In the third period, Shelton chose down, and Tristan built an 8-4 lead thanks to a nearfall and a takedown. An escape and a stalling point put Shelton out of striking distance again, and he threw Tristan in a headlock as the clock was winding down. Tristan was able to get to his stomach, though, preventing the takedown or any back points.

“He has ice in his veins,” Tony Vance said. “He doesn’t have any doubt in himself, but he doesn’t show any emotion. He’s just calm and cool.”

After what could be his final competitive match – Tristan said he’s undecided about his future – he was congratulated by a host of spectators just off the mat, including his teammates and coaches from other schools. 

Excited but sore, Tristan calmly walked through it all, not yet fully cognizant of the degree of his remarkable achievement.

“I had a lot of emotions through that time, and I wasn’t really thinking about (going through the injury) too much,” Tristan said. “I was just thinking about what had just happened. Now I’ve realized that I kind of accomplished a lot given my circumstances this year.”

Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Clio’s Tristan Vance works to maintain control in his opening match of the Division 2 Individual Finals against Lansing Waverly’s Demitrius Webb. (Middle) Clio coach – and Tristan’s father – Tony Vance celebrates as Tristan finishes a semifinal win over Fruitport’s Crue Cooper. (Click for more from

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.)