Whitehall Pair Making Memorable Marks

March 2, 2016

By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half

Reiley Brown has three brothers of his own.

But the returning MHSAA champion wrestler at Whitehall High School said it might be more accurate for this article to include his fellow senior teammate Jwan Britton as a fourth sibling.

“We are the closest thing to brothers,” said Brown of his good friend and daily training partner – referring both to their time together on the Whitehall High mats and also the makeshift mat which Brown has set up in the pole barn behind his house.

“We really go at it and push each other to get better every day. I owe a lot of my success to him.”

Brown, 47-1, is seeking a second straight Division 3 individual championship, this time at 135 pounds, at this weekend’s MHSAA Individual Finals at The Palace of Auburn Hills.

The only thing that would make such a repeat sweeter is if Britton, who is 47-2 and a Regional champion at 140 pounds, could follow right behind him with a Finals championship of his own.

“At this point, it’s really hard to mention Reiley and his accomplishments without talking about Jwan,” said Whitehall coach Cliff Sandee, who is in his 10th year and has guided the Vikings to the Team Semifinals three of the past six.

Rare back-to-back championships for teammates would be a fitting end for Brown and Britton, who have been the backbone of a tremendous four-year run for the Whitehall wrestling program.

As a team, the Vikings achieved all of their goals this winter, including their 10th consecutive Greater Muskegon Athletic Association City Wrestling title. Whitehall, which finished 26-2 in duals, won its fourth straight West Michigan Conference and District titles, and then added a Regional championship.

The culmination of this season’s work led last weekend to Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, which hosted the MHSAA Team Wrestling Finals and also happens to be the school where Brown will wrestle next year when he becomes the first Whitehall wrestler to go on to a Division I college program.

It was almost “one and done” at CMU, as things looked mighty bleak against Richmond in Friday’s Quarterfinal match.

Richmond built a seemingly insurmountable 29-9 lead before the Vikings came roaring back to score the final 28 points, winning the final six bouts for an emotional 37-29 win. Whitehall’s victory was significant as Richmond and Dundee have dominated Division 3 team wrestling over the past decade, combining to win eight of the past 10 Team Finals titles.

“That was a huge win for us on a state level, because Richmond is such a great program,” said Sandee. “We want to be at team state every year; that’s the kind of program we want. I have six seniors this year, but we also have our most talented middle school group coming in, so we’re excited.”

Fittingly, unheralded junior Dominick Haynes started the comeback, pinning state-ranked Graham Barton at 130 pounds. That stunning six points led right into the strength of the Vikings’ lineup, with a pin from Brown and a major decision for Britton.

The Vikings dug another big hole in Saturday morning’s Semifinal. But a second miracle comeback was not in the cards against powerful Dundee, which raced out front 27-3 and held on for a 39-18 victory. Dundee then dispatched Remus Chippewa Hills 40-16 in the Final for its ninth team wrestling title and third in the past four years.

However, buddies Brown and Britton certainly got the attention of the Dundee faithful and many other wrestling gurus with big wins near the end of that dual. Brown rallied for a last-minute, 3-2 win over Tylor Orrison at 135, and then Britton used a takedown in the waning seconds to beat Zach Blevins, 4-3, in what could end up a preview of this weekend’s individual title match at 140 pounds.

Whitehall has two other Regional champions in JoJo Dowdell (145) and Hunter Bower (103).

Brown is the best known of the Vikings on the state level, taking second at 103 in his freshman year and third at 119 as a sophomore before breaking through for the 125-pound Division 3 championship as a junior. He comes into this weekend with the pressure of great expectations to go with a 181-12 career record.

“I try to use that pressure as a positive and feed off of it, to prove myself,” said Brown, who plans to study human resources at CMU. “I actually felt way more pressure going into team state, because my match there affects a lot more than just me.” 

Besides, he has always felt right at home on a wrestling mat.

While many kids have basketball hoops in their driveways, how many can say they have their very own wrestling mat – along with an exercise bike and a heater – in a pole barn out back?

“My dad set it up out there when I was going into high school,” said Brown. “I’ve had some great battles out there with Jwan and my brothers over the years. Hopefully that extra work I’ve put in at home will pay off this weekend.”

Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Whitehall's Reiley Brown works to gain control in his match Saturday against Dundee's Tylor Orrison. (Middle) Jwan Britton (right) lines up to start his match against Zach Blevins during the Division 3 Team Semifinal. (Click for more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)

Constantine Football All-Stater, Wrestling Champ Aiming for Grand Finale

By Scott Hassinger
Special for MHSAA.com

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.)