Portage Northern Coach Nurturing New Roots After Arriving from Crosstown Rival

By Pam Shebest
Special for MHSAA.com

October 19, 2021

PORTAGE — When Kurt Twichell was hired as Portage Northern’s head football coach last May, he had some serious closet cleaning to do.

Southwest CorridorAs an assistant coach at crosstown rival Portage Central, his wardrobe was filled with blue and gold.

“I had to clean out probably 80 percent of my closet,” Twichell said, laughing. “Being a phys. ed. guy, I had quite a bit of blue and gold PC stuff.

“That all went into a big old bag, and I actually donated it back to them. I had a lot of work to do from a wardrobe perspective, no doubt about that.”

Twichell is nearing the conclusion of his first season as a head coach, with Portage Northern 2-6 this fall heading into its season finale Friday against Kalamazoo Central.

He had spent the previous seven seasons at Portage Central, finishing his tenure with the Mustangs last fall as their defensive coordinator. Across town at that time, Pete Schermerhorn was completing his 27th and final season leading the Huskies’ football program – and after some thought, Twichell applied to be his replacement and was named Northern’s next coach this spring.

Twichell made sure to wear orange when he met with his new team for the first time.

If he had worn any hint of blue, “We wouldn’t have let him in,” said senior and two-way player Xavier Thomas with a big grin.

Twichell said he understood why players were apprehensive.

Portage Northern football“I think naturally, with teenagers, it was like what the heck is going on?” he said. “We hired a guy from Portage Central. This is crazy.”

Twichell said he worked very hard to establish a rapport with the players.

“You’re trying to build trust within your program,” he said. “As soon as I accepted this job, I’m diving full on in, orange, brown and white as a Huskie.”

Thomas said players did not know what to expect.

“The initial feeling, we were a little nervous as far as what his path for us was going to be. Having come from that school, would he hold a grudge against us or not?” he recalled.

“After meeting him and sitting down and having a conversation with him, we understood that he was fully on the path of Portage Northern Huskies. He fully supports all of our sports programs, not just football. He’s just a great guy that we need in our community.”

Climbing the ladder

Twichell said his love of football started at Haslett High School in “an up-and-coming program” under head coach Charlie Otlewski and defensive coordinator Rob Porritt, adding “Those are my guys.”

After a football injury at Hope College derailed his playing career, Twichell transferred to Michigan State as a “regular student” and started working with Otlewski and Haslett’s football team.

“I spent a couple years there doing it for fun,” Twichell said. “I ended up loving it so much.”

He scrapped plans for med school and earned a teaching degree.

Taking his first job at White Pigeon, “I was just a young guy looking for any job I could get.”

Portage Northern footballTwo years later he contacted Enders, who happened to have a job available. Twichell spent the next seven years at Central, working his way up to defensive coordinator.

When he heard about the opening at Northern, which included a teaching position, he was not sure about applying.

“I was very, very rooted with Central and really enjoyed the staff and the opportunity they gave me to work my way up to d-coordinator,” he said. “When this job came up, I actually sat down and thought about it for more than three seconds. Being a head coach is a goal of mine.”

Twichell’s wife, Kate, coaches the Portage schools’ co-op girls lacrosse team and he said the family, including 3-year-old twins, are happy living in the community.

Ironically, shortly after accepting the Northern coaching job, his wife left Hackett Catholic Prep to teach Spanish and English at Portage Central.

That makes for some interesting family dynamics, especially during the rivalry game.

“I try to push the (twins) one way; Kate doesn’t necessarily try to push them either way but we still hear the ‘M’ (Mustangs) word after “Go” from the kids,” Kurt said.  “They’ll say every now and then, Go Mustangs or Go Huskies. Kate just cheers for ‘no injuries,’ the way she puts it.”

No longer just Xs and Os

“The biggest change is how much of your role has almost nothing to do with football from an Xs and Os perspective or from an actual coaching kids perspective,” Twichell said.

“It’s community relations, youth involvement, financial management, recruiting.”

He said it is like the iceberg analogy.

“People just see Friday nights and results, but below the surface is all these components that go into building a good program,” he said. “Coach Shermerhorn left a pretty good foundation in terms of that iceberg, but I definitely want to put my own spin on things.”

During the day, Twichell is in the weight room, teaching a full day of power lifting.

The academic classes are open to all students, and Twichell hopes to resurrect the school’s power lifting team.

Chris Riker, Northern’s athletic director, said when hiring a coach, it is not where he coached but if he was a good fit for the program.

“We had some outstanding candidates and Kurt had a good plan on developing culture, developing not just the football player but the whole athlete, the whole person,” Riker said. “Academics were important. Getting involved in your community is important, and being a role model for the younger kids is important as well as being a good football player, good person.”

Riker said the team is very involved with the community.

“He’s done some things with our kids and Rocket Football to establish that connection with the youth program,” he said.

He added that Twichell and Enders collaborated on Camp Ability in July.

“It’s a camp for special needs kids who want to be involved with football,” Riker said. “It’s pretty cool to get out there and see kids who aren’t involved in football be that excited and be next to our football players. Kids had big smiles on their faces, just to be able to try on the shoulder pads and football jerseys.”

The children also ran drills, tossed footballs and ran for touchdowns, helped by players from both teams.

Not just another game

The Huskies are still settling into a new system (although a highlight was a Week 4 win over Division 3 No. 10 Stevensville Lakeshore). But Twichell has surrounded himself with solid support, carrying over several assistants from Schermerhorn’s staff.

Portage Northern football“Those guys have been phenomenal,” Twichell said. “Just about every coach who wanted to come back did.”

As the defensive coordinator at Portage Central, Twichell was familiar with Tom Laskarides, Schermerhorn’s defensive coordinator.

“People probably wondered what that was going to look like, but I have nothing but admiration and respect for Tom,” Twichell said. “We also brought back Mike McGuire who was on staff here probably 10 years ago. He’s a quarterbacks, offensive guy and a former head coach himself. That’s been huge to have these guys.”

Twichell said the team lost several outstanding players to graduation the last three years.

“When you go through losing groups like that, there’s going to be a transition there, regardless of a new coach,” he said. “We have a very young team, an inexperienced team.”

One game on Twichell’s radar this fall was the battle of the Portages, a game Northern lost, 33-17, two weeks ago.

“I’m not sure there’s a playbook out there that anybody’s ever written,” he said. “Not just competing against players that you had physically coached and had invested so much in their lives, but you know their families, their career aspirations, especially that senior class.”

Twichell said the “coach speak” was that it was just another game.

But the emotions surfaced during the postgame handshakes.

“Lots of hugs and some emotions. It was a good feeling from a human standpoint, but obviously we’re disappointed the game didn’t go the way we wanted it to,” he said.

Thomas said his coach warned the players that the game would generate more than the usual hype.

“He let us know there would be a lot of attention brought on us from the media, being (Central head coach Mick) Enders vs. Twichell,” Thomas said.

“But with his preparation, we were pretty dialed into the game. Hopefully we can take the things we learned from that game and assess them moving forward so the things that happened in that game won’t happen again.”

Pam ShebestPam 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) First-year Portage Northern varsity football coach Kurt Twichell talks with his team this season. (2) Portage Northern senior Xavier Thomas, top, and athletic director Chris Riker. (3) Twichell, left, works with his players during a practice this fall. (4) Twichell addresses the Huskies after a game. (Action photos by Jason Altwies; head shots by Pam Shebest.)

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.)