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 pamkzoo@aol.com 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.)

For Their Teams, For Each Other, St. Mary Seniors Team Up 2 More Times

By Tom Spencer
Special for MHSAA.com

March 17, 2023

Shawn Bramer and Dylan Barnowski, as middle schoolers, attended the MHSAA Boys Basketball Finals every year.

Northern Lower PeninsulaLast year, they nearly played in the Division 3 title game – falling in a Semifinal but almost making a dream come true for the then-juniors and their Lake Leelanau St. Mary coach, Matt Barnowski, also Dylan’s father.

That dream began for some when the boys were coached by Matt as third graders, and they made serious strides last season. Before last winter, the last time the Eagles had won a Regional championship was 1950 – and no St. Mary boys basketball team had reached the Semifinals. Bramer and Dylan Barnowski – along with current seniors Jack Glynn, Drew Thompson and Nick Linguar – had high hopes of making more history this winter.

The dream ended Wednesday night with a Regional Final loss to Frankfort, which St. Mary had defeated 54-41 during the regular season. This time, the Eagles were faced with a large number of K-12 students succumbing to illness – with all five of its starters at least somewhat sick – as nearly a third of the school’s tiny enrollment was out of school the day after the loss to the Panthers.

But you won’t hear any of the players or coaches making excuses. They give all the credit to Frankfort, and they’re ready to move on. And many in the LSM family know reaching the Regional Finals this season and Breslin Center in 2022 had absolutely no probability had Bramer and Barnowski not made an iron-clad agreement last summer. 

Eagles coach Matt Barnowski coaches up his team during last week’s Regional Semifinal win over Mesick.The two friends vowed to help each other despite their personal, opposing challenges.

Barnowski and Bramer, through LSM’s cooperative agreement with Suttons Bay, went 3-for-3 playing in 8-Player Division 1 Football Finals during their first three years of high school. But through last summer Barnowski, who quarterbacked the Norseman, had no interest in football.  

Bramer, meanwhile, had been nursing a quad tendon injury since his sophomore football season and battling two bad knees but was thinking he could suffer though football and sit out the basketball season to recover. The all-state running back experienced training difficulties and even had his strength training severely hampered.

Football was king for Bramer, and he also loved basketball too. Basketball is number one to Barnowski. The longtime friends decided cut a deal to help each other — and their teammates — out.

“I was kind of on the edge,” said Bramer, who plays with braces on both knees. “After talking to each other, we both ended up just playing. 

“I really shouldn’t be playing sports, but I couldn’t miss out playing with my friends,” he continued. “We just figured it was our last season so we might as well just do it.”

Dylan Barnowski and Brammer also teamed up during successful football careers. Barnowski had been considering ending his football days immediately after the Norse fell short in their third-straight trip to the Finals, at Superior Dome in Marquette in Fall 2021. That loss was at the hands of Adrian Lenawee Christian 31-20.

The Norseman graduated most of their offensive and defense lines last spring and expected to be small in numbers. Until this fall, they had lost only one regular-season game on their way to three straight title game appearances. This year they finished 3-5.

The big linemen losses — Barnowski’s protection — was forcing him to weigh his injury risk against having a senior basketball season.

“We did it for each other,” Barnowski said. “I talked with Shawn, and we knew we had a big community behind us and it would be hard for them if we just quit. 

“I knew we weren’t going to have the same powerhouse team we had,” he continued. “We weren’t very good this year, but we still had a blast.”

This week’s loss put an end to the possible Breslin championship finish, but it left the friends happy with the decision to play both sports. The Eagles finished 20-4.

Barnowski led St. Mary in scoring. He averaged better than 20 points a game with more than seven rebounds and five assists. Bramer averaged just under 15 points per game, and almost 10 rebounds.

The two big men each scored 11 in the season-ending loss. Thompson scored 14. This year’s senior-dominated team likely will be remembered for its basketball success for some time. Barnowski, Bramer and Glynn experienced only one loss in District play over their four seasons.

“It’s a really special groups of kids,” Coach Barnowski said. “These kids kind of transformed St. Mary’s basketball.  

St. Mary’s seniors, from left: Shawn Brammer, Jack Gwynn, Dylan Barnowski, Drew Thompson and Nick Linguar. “They’ve really built the program,” he continued. “It’s been a roller coaster ride.”

Bramer and Dylan Barnowski also played baseball in the past for the Eagles, but that likely won’t happen this spring. Barnowski plans to golf, and Bramer expects to sit the spring season out and heal.

“We’ll never forget these last four years of varsity we played,” Barnowski said. “I‘ve decided to go a more relaxing route, and I’m going for some golf.”

With their Breslin dream over, the friends are ready to enjoy the St. Mary’s community support and move on. They’re bummed so many were sick in the end but won’t use it as an excuse.

“Hats off to Frankfort,” Barnowski said. “They did an incredible job of shutting us down.”

Bramer agreed.

“They just played their game better than we did,” he said. “They took the lead at the end of the third quarter, and it was a battle from there.”

Tom SpencerTom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at tomspencer@chartermi.net with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS (Top) St. Mary’s seniors Dylan Barnowski, left, and Shawn Bramer hold up the team’s District championship trophy last week. (2) Eagles coach Matt Barnowski, center, and assistant Sander Scott coach up their team during last week’s Regional Semifinal win over Mesick. (3) Dylan Barnowski and Bramer also teamed up during successful football careers. (4) St. Mary’s seniors, from left: Shawn Bramer, Jack Glynn, Dylan Barnowski, Drew Thompson and Nick Linguar. (Sideline photo by Tom Spencer; player photos by Emmerson Lamb Photography.)