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.)

Inspired by Dad's Memory, Lawrence's Vasquez Emerges After Family Losses

By Pam Shebest
Special for MHSAA.com

January 16, 2024

LAWRENCE — While COVID-19 affected many students in different ways, it definitely made an impact on Austin Vasquez.

Southwest CorridorAs a freshman at Lawrence High School during the pandemic, Vasquez lost his grandmother Theresa Phillips to cancer on March 25, 2021.

Two days later, on March 27, his father Tom Vasquez, died of complications from COVID. And on April 19 that spring, his grandfather Darrell “Gene” Phillips also lost his fight against the coronavirus.

“There is no way (to cope). You just have to keep on moving,” Austin said. “It’s what (my dad) would want me to do.

“He was my biggest (influence) in sports. He talked to me about never giving up – leave everything you’ve got.”

That is just what Vasquez is doing in the midst of his three-sport senior year.

He is the top wrestler at the school, competing at 175 pounds with a goal of making the MHSAA Tournament. He was a versatile contributor on the football field this past fall, and he’s planning to join the baseball team this spring.

Vasquez works on gaining the advantage in a match against Mendon. He’s 8-3 with six pins on the mat this winter after a busy summer of camps and tournaments. Those experiences helped lessen the nerves he’d felt during matches previously, and now he’s wrestling with an outlook of “everything to gain and nothing to lose.”

And Vasquez said he feels his dad’s presence as he prepares for competition.

“Before every match, before every game, I just think about what my dad would be telling me,” he said. “Everything he’s always told me has taught me to get better. 

“In life, I still remember everything he taught me. He was definitely a great man, and I want to be like him someday.”

Wrestling also has made Vasquez more in tune with his health.

His sophomore season he went from 230 pounds to 215, and by his junior year was down to his current 175.

“I just wanted to be healthier, not just for wrestling,” he said. “I started going to the gym every night, watched my calories, and from there grew (taller).

“Now I’m at 6-(foot-)2, and I don’t know how that happened,” he laughed.

Lawrence coach Henry Payne said Vasquez always has a positive attitude and helps the other wrestlers in the program.

“When he notices a kid next to him doing a move wrong, he’ll go over and show him the right way,” Payne said. “We have a lot of young kids that this is their first year, and he’s been a good coach’s helper.”

The coach’s helper gig will continue after graduation.

"Next year we’re hoping to open up a youth program here, and I got him and an alumni that graduated last year and is helping the varsity team this year (Conner Tangeman) to take over the youth program for us,” Payne said.

 From left: Lawrence wrestling coach Henry Payne, athletic director John Guillean and football and baseball coach Derek Gribler. On the football team, Vasquez was a jack of all trades.

“He started at guard, went to tight end, went to our wingback, went to our running back. He was trying to get the quarterback spot,” football coach Derek Gribler laughed.

Vasquez said there is no other feeling like being on the field, especially during home games.

“Wrestling is my main sport, but I’d do anything to go back and play football again,” he said. “I just love it.”

Although the football team struggled through a 1-8 season, “It was still a really fun season,” Vasquez said. “Everybody was super close. Most of us never really talked before, but we instantly became like a family.”

Vasquez had the support of his mother, Heather, and four older sisters: Makaylah, Briahna, Ahlexis and Maryah. He also found his school family helped him get through the end of his freshman year.

“(My friends) were always there for me when everything was going on,” he said. “I took that last month off school because it was too hard to be around people at that time.

"Every single one of them reached out and said, ‘Hey, I know you’re going through a rough time.’ It really helped to hear that and get out of the house.”

Vasquez also was a standout on the football field. The family connection between Vasquez and Lawrence athletic director John Guillean goes back to the senior’s youth.

“I was girls basketball coach, so I coached his sisters,” Guillean said. “I remember him when he was pretty young. I knew the family pretty well. I knew his dad. He was pretty supportive and was there for everything.”

Vasquez said that freshman year experience has made him appreciate every day, and he gives the following advice: “Every time you’re wrestling, it could be your last time on the mat or last time on the field. Treat every game and every match as if it’s going to be your last. If you’re committed to the sport, take every chance you have to help your team be successful.”

Gribler has known Vasquez since he was in seventh grade and, as also the school’s varsity baseball coach, will work with Vasquez one more time with the senior planning to add baseball as his spring sport.

“When we talk about Tiger Pride, Austin’s a kid that you can put his face right on the logo. His work ethic is just unbelievable,” Gribler said. “Everything he does is with a smile. He could be having the worst day of his life, and he’d still have a smile on his face. He pushes through. It’s tough to do and amazing to see.”

The coach – who also starred at Lawrence as an athlete – noted the small community’s ability to rally around Vasquez and his family. Lawrence has about 150 students in the high school.

“It goes beyond sports,” Gribler said. “Austin knows when he needs something he can always reach out and we’ll have his back, we’ll have his family’s back. It’s not so much about winning as it is about the kids.”

Vasquez is already looking ahead to life after high school. He attends morning courses at Van Buren Tech, studying welding, and returns to the high school for afternoon classes. 

“I’d like to either work on the pipeline as a pipeline welder or be a lineman,” he said, adding, “possibly college. I would like to wrestle in college, but let’s see how this year goes.

“I’m ready to get out, but it’s going to be hard to leave this all behind.”

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) Lawrence senior Andrew Vasquez, right, wrestles against Hartford this season. (2) Vasquez works on gaining the advantage in a match against Mendon. (3) From left: Lawrence wrestling coach Henry Payne, athletic director John Guillean and football and baseball coach Derek Gribler. (4) Vasquez also was a standout on the football field. (Wrestling and football photos courtesy of the Lawrence athletic department. Headshots by Pam Shebest.)