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.)

All-Woman Football Officiating Crew Makes History, Inspires More to be Made

By Keith Dunlap
Special for MHSAA.com

September 26, 2023

Caryn Jackson said it “started to hit her” at about noon, some seven hours before kickoff.

An official for football games at both the high school level in Michigan and the college level for the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, Jackson started to fully realize what a special event she was about to participate in.

Jackson was assigned to be the head line judge for the Waterford Kettering at Detroit Lincoln-King varsity game last Thursday at Detroit Mercy, but this was a different assignment than any other.

In addition to Jackson, there were four more women to form what’s believed to be the first all-female officiating crew for a varsity football game in state history.

With that in mind, Jackson posted what was about to happen on her X (Twitter) feed hours before the game.

“It had 23,000 engagements in an hour,” Jackson said.

And all this happened without any retweets from her daughter Rikea Jackson, the 2019 Miss Basketball Award winner at Detroit Edison who plays for Tennessee and has over 10,000 followers.

The football game arrived, and right away spectators sensed they were watching history unfold.

The crew of Jackson, referee Nicole Randolph, line judge Delonda Little, umpire RanDee Henry and back judge Kamaria Douglas made history and inspired others during a night that should be impactful for a long time.

And this also wasn’t the first time they’ve led in the officiating world.

Randolph is a Big Ten football official. As noted above, Jackson officiates Division II college football. Douglass, Little and Henry all are college basketball officials as well, and Little in March became the first woman to officiate an MHSAA Boys Basketball Final since 1995 when she refereed the Division 3 championship game at Breslin Center.

Here are thoughts from all five about their unforgettable evening on the football field:

Kamaria Douglas: “It was very well-received, which was an even better feeling,” she said. “There were a lot of people, whether we were in the parking lot afterward or just chit-chatting, who wanted to take pictures. People gave us kudos and flowers and said we did a nice job. It’s one thing to get an opportunity, but also to go out there and do a good job. They want to see more of it. Waterford Kettering’s coach said he was the father of three girls, so it just warmed his heart. He came over and got a picture with us, which was really cool.”

RanDee Henry: “This game, although historic, was even more amazing because I got to do it with friends,” she said. “All of these women have strong friendships on and off the field, making this moment even more amazing and monumental.”

Caryn Jackson: “For my children, I always tell them to leave your mark wherever you go and whatever you do,” she said. “Be a part of history. Who knew I would be refereeing high school, let alone doing it with all women? It feels good when I walk the football field and people are cheering just because they see a woman. People say ‘I’m glad you’re here, ref.’ I’ve had young boys walk up to me and shake my hand and say thank you for making history, and that you’re the first female official I have had. That stuff makes me feel good. To do it alongside four other women, that was amazing.”

Delonda Little: “Women are breaking barriers, and it’s nice to be acknowledged and to have some gender equality out there,” she said. “We all felt good to get the support during the game from the coaches and the fans. Both coaches told us we did a great job. Coaches wanted to take pictures with us to be a part of the historical moment. Fans as we were leaving told us we did a good job.”

Little continued: “Women, we still have a long way to go. But it’s good we are getting the acknowledgment we deserve. There should be gender equality.” 

Nicole Randolph: “The players kind of got the adrenaline going,” she said. “I was already a little nervous going into the day because it was really happening. When I got to the field, I was calm, cool and collected. When we all walked onto the field, the players were excited, and the coaches were excited. They asked for pictures and said they wanted to take pictures at the end of the game because they had never seen this many female officials at a game.”

Randolph continued: “We went in and said ‘Hey girls, this a great opportunity. Let’s make the best of it so we can continue to open the doors for other young ladies to continue to aspire (in) our footsteps.’”

PHOTO Thursday's crew at Detroit Mercy, from left: head line judge Caryn Jackson, umpire RanDee Henry, referee Nicole Randolph, line judge Delonda Little and back judge Kamaria Douglas. (Courtesy photo.)