WISL Honoree Leads by Making Connections
By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com senior editor
January 29, 2020
Nikki Norris received her life’s education from professional educators. Her father Howes Smith served as an assistant principal and then principal at Ithaca High School, and her mother Maple was a teacher. Howes’ mom also taught.
Their influence and example certainly rubbed off on Nikki and her siblings. Norris has worked in education for more than 30 years, while her sister is a school guidance counselor and their brother a college professor.
In fact, Norris has impacted educational athletics in nearly every role possible as a teacher and athletic director at multiple schools, coach at various levels and game official. She is in her second year as athletic director at East Lansing High School after eight in that position for Corunna Public Schools. She previously taught for six years at Carson City-Crystal and then 11 at Corunna before taking over the Cavaliers’ athletic department during the summer of 2010.
She also coached volleyball at multiple levels over more than 15 years including Corunna’s varsity from 1999-2002 and 2006-09, and coached high school basketball for a combined eight years during her time at the two schools where she taught. Before and between her volleyball coaching stints, Norris also has served as an MHSAA registered volleyball official for a total of 12 years.
Norris’ many and continuing contributions will be celebrated Sunday, Feb. 2, when she receives the Michigan High School Athletic Association’s 33rd Women In Sports Leadership Award during the WISL Banquet at the Crowne Plaza Lansing West.
“I try to connect with all students, athletes or not, because there are so many kids who just need a connection," Norris said. "And if we can find it through sports, or through clubs, or teaching – I do look at them all as my own children, to a certain extent. We used to say in Corunna, 'They're all our kids.' And I want them to be successful in whatever it is they want. And if I can help them, that's what I'm there for.
“So many people did it for me. Coming from a family of educators, and my dad an administrator, I knew what that entailed as far as how they get into your heart. I want to do that for kids.”
Each year, the MHSAA Representative Council considers the achievements of women coaches, officials and athletic administrators affiliated with the MHSAA who show exemplary leadership capabilities and positive contributions to athletics.
Those who wrote letters recommending Norris for this year’s WISL Award especially noted that personal impact she has on students, staff and colleagues.
Fowlerville athletic director Brian Osborn – one of her former coaches – wrote of how Norris goes above and beyond to care for and connect with her student-athletes. Owosso athletic director Dallas Lintner wrote of Norris’ dedication to children’s safety and educational values. Fenton athletic director Mike Bakker noted how fortunate her students are that Norris made the decision to leave coaching for administration, where she can have an even larger impact.
“Someone asked me once, why do you want to be an athletic director? Well, I can go from impacting 100 kids a day, at that time (as a coach and teacher), to maybe 600 kids a day, to now 1,200 kids a day (at East Lansing),” Norris said, then quipping, “Well, maybe (not all) 1,200 every day.”
But she does continue to lead on wide-ranging levels, both at her much larger school and beyond.
While at Corunna, Norris served as master scheduler and part of the constitution committee for the Genesee Area Conference. Her schools have hosted various MHSAA Tournament events in multiple sports, in addition to local invitationals and conference meets. She’s served on every type of MHSAA Committee, providing input on a variety of sports, site selection, officials selection and the Scholar-Athlete Award. She also annually volunteers as a tournament administrator at the MHSAA’s Volleyball Finals in November and Baseball/Softball/Girls Soccer Finals in June.
A certified Red Cross instructor, Norris has provided CPR/AED training to coaches, bus drivers and staff members. Corunna in multiple years received the state’s HEARTSafe School designation recognizing preparedness to respond to cardiac emergencies.
As a member of the Michigan Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (MIAAA), she has facilitated sessions and presented at its conferences and served on the newsletter committee.
She was named the MIAAA’s Region 7 “Athletic Director of the Year” in 2016. She also has received “Certified Athletic Administrator” designation from the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA).
“Nikki is one of the most genuine, caring and hard-working people I’ve ever met in athletics,” MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said. “She has worked extremely hard in both Corunna and East Lansing to develop a first-class program that produced high-character people. Nikki is truly a role model to everyone in the world of athletic administration.”
A 1987 graduate of Ithaca High School, Norris received her bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in exercise health science from Alma College – where she also competed as a runner and thrower in track & field – and then earned master’s degrees in biological sciences from Michigan State University and educational leadership from American College of Education.
Norris lives in Bancroft and is the mother to two daughters, Meredith and Elizabeth Norris. Neither is planning to go into education – but sports is a big part of both their current lives and likely futures, and no doubt the impact of growing up in a sports family has played a significant part. (Their dad, Dr. Robert Norris, played basketball at Alma College and serves as physician for the MSU hockey, volleyball and baseball programs and Lansing Lugnuts.)
Meredith was named the state’s Miss Volleyball Award winner in 2017 as a senior at Corunna and plays currently at Michigan State. Elizabeth is a senior at Corunna and was a finalist for the same award this past fall, and will continue her academic and volleyball careers at University of North Dakota. Meredith is majoring in kinesiology, and Elizabeth is planning on orthopedic surgery.
“I look at the names that are on the (WISL Award) list, and there are so many deserving women who over my career I've looked up to and aspired to be like when I 'grow up,'" Norris said. "So to even be considered in that group is amazing, humbling. It's an honor."
Past recipients of the Women In Sports Leadership Award
1990 – Carol Seavoy, L’Anse
1991 – Diane Laffey, Harper Woods
1992 – Patricia Ashby, Scotts
1993 – Jo Lake, Grosse Pointe
1994 – Brenda Gatlin, Detroit
1995 – Jane Bennett, Ann Arbor
1996 – Cheryl Amos-Helmicki, Huntington Woods
1997 – Delores L. Elswick, Detroit
1998 – Karen S. Leinaar, Delton
1999 – Kathy McGee, Flint
2000 – Pat Richardson, Grass Lake
2001 – Suzanne Martin, East Lansing
2002 – Susan Barthold, Kentwood
2003 – Nancy Clark, Flint
2004 – Kathy Vruggink Westdorp, Grand Rapids
2005 – Barbara Redding, Capac
2006 – Melanie Miller, Lansing
2007 – Jan Sander, Warren Woods
2008 – Jane Bos, Grand Rapids
2009 – Gail Ganakas, Flint; Deb VanKuiken, Holly
2010 – Gina Mazzolini, Lansing
2011 – Ellen Pugh, West Branch; Patti Tibaldi, Traverse City
2012 – Janet Gillette, Comstock Park
2013 – Barbara Beckett, Traverse City
2014 – Teri Reyburn, DeWitt
2015 – Jean LaClair, Bronson
2016 – Betty Wroubel, Pontiac
2017 – Dottie Davis, Ann Arbor
2018 – Meg Seng, Ann Arbor
2019 – Kris Isom, Adrian
PHOTOS: (Top) East Lansing athletic director Nikki Norris confers with Grand Ledge athletic director Steve Baker during a 2018 football game. (Middle) Norris with daughters Elizabeth, left, and Meredith, after Nikki presented the Cavaliers with a District championship trophy won in 2016. (Top photo courtesy of the Lansing State Journal; middle photo courtesy of Nikki Norris.)
2023 Forsythe Award Celebrates Leinaar's 40 Years Dedicated to School Sports
By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com senior editor
March 8, 2023
Few people in Michigan have had a longer-lasting influence on the rules and policies of educational athletics than Frankfort’s Karen Leinaar, who has served in several roles locally, statewide and nationally over more than 40 years contributing to the school sports community.
Thank you, Bill Baker.
The longtime teacher, coach, principal and superintendent during a career that stretched across multiple schools – including Leinaar’s growing up, Delton Kellogg – made an impression on the standout multi-sport athlete before she graduated from high school in 1977. Baker’s philosophy and work led Leinaar to study education at Michigan State University and then brought her back as Delton’s athletic director to begin four decades of making the same impact on children in her hometown and eventually in hometowns all over Michigan and beyond.
Baker died in 2009, but not before continuing to mentor Leinaar through many good times and tough ones.
“The man had two daughters that I grew up with, his wife was a teacher, and he demonstrated to all of us – he never missed an event – that we were important to him. That even though we weren’t his kids, we were his kids and athletics was a way to help kids become better people – and for some kids it was the only thing that they had positive in their life,” Leinaar said. “And he made it known just to that individual kid how important their participation was and their involvement, and how that helped them become the person that they were.
“That to me was such an example of how to help people be good people, that I just took that role on.”
It’s a role in which she continues to serve. Leinaar began her career as an athletic administrator in 1982, and as the interim athletic director currently at Frankfort High School is serving her fifth district in that position. Since June 2019, she also has served as executive director of the Michigan Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (MIAAA), the professional organization for school sports administrators in the state with a membership of nearly 700.
To recognize that longtime and continuing impact, Leinaar has been named the 2023 honoree for the Michigan High School Athletic Association’s Charles E. Forsythe Award.
The annual award is in its 46th year and named after former MHSAA Executive Director Charles E. Forsythe, the Association's first full-time and longest-serving chief executive. Forsythe Award recipients are selected each year by the MHSAA Representative Council, based on an individual's outstanding contributions to the interscholastic athletics community.
Leinaar also served 22 years on the MHSAA’s Representative Council and a four-year term from 2009-13 on the Board of Directors for the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), and just last week was named to the 2023 class of the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA) Hall of Fame.
“It is impossible even to estimate the number of students, coaches, administrators and others who have been affected by the work Karen Leinaar has done to make school sports the best they can be – not only in her communities, but across Michigan and throughout the country,” MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said. “There are few who have equaled her dedication and her support and promotion of the ideals of school-based sports. She has always placed an emphasis on being in the room, on the field or at the arena, actively participating in her leadership roles, and our programs are better for it.”
Leinaar first served as athletic director at Delton Kellogg for nearly 17 years, from March 1982 through October 1998. She spent three years at Gaylord, then 8½ at Benzie Central before taking over at Bear Lake in November 2010 and spending the next decade organizing athletic programs for students in grades 5-12 before retiring in January 2021. She came out of retirement to return to the athletic director’s chair this past fall as interim AD at Frankfort. She has completed nearly four years as MIAAA executive director, moving into that position after previously serving nine years as an assistant to the executive.
Leinaar began her service on the Representative Council in Fall 1999 and completed her last term as a statewide at-large representative at the Fall 2021 meeting.
She has been honored several times for her contributions. She received the MHSAA’s Women In Sports Leadership Award in 1998, a Citation from the NFHS in 2000, and she was named MIAAA Athletic Director of the Year in 2001. She received an MHSAA’s Allen W. Bush Award in 2014 – recognition given for work done generally behind the scenes and with little attention.
“This is the top of the mountain, per se. This one does mean so much,” Leinaar said of the Forsythe Award. “The names that are associated with this over the years, I never thought I’d be put in that group.”
Leinaar remains a continuous source of support at a multitude of MHSAA championship events, and during her time on Council was one of the most frequent representatives handing out trophies and medals to champions and runners-up at Finals events. She began while athletic director at Delton Kellogg hosting the MHSAA Volleyball Finals in Class B and Class C and continues to assist with those championships now played at Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek.
She also hosted Competitive Cheer Finals at Delton Kellogg in 1996 and 1997, Ski Finals while at Gaylord, and many more championship events across the Lower Peninsula. She continues to assist at the MHSAA’s Lower Peninsula Cross Country and Track & Field Finals.
After attending Delton Kellogg High School, Leinaar earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education, health and recreation, with a minor in driver education, from MSU in 1982. She completed a master’s in athletic administration from Western Michigan University in 1994.
Leinaar has been a member for 40 years of both the MIAAA and NIAAA, and has served as chairperson of the MIAAA Annual Conference and awards chairperson for both the state and national bodies. She’s also served as chairperson of the MIAAA’s Exemplary Athletic Program.
Past recipients of the Charles E. Forsythe Award
1978 - Brick Fowler, Port Huron; Paul Smarks, Warren
1979 - Earl Messner, Reed City; Howard Beatty, Saginaw
1980 - Max Carey, Freesoil
1981 - Steven Sluka, Grand Haven; Samuel Madden, Detroit
1982 - Ernest Buckholz, Mt. Clemens; T. Arthur Treloar, Petoskey
1983 - Leroy Dues, Detroit; Richard Maher, Sturgis
1984 - William Hart, Marquette; Donald Stamats, Caro
1985 - John Cotton, Farmington; Robert James, Warren
1986 - William Robinson, Detroit; Irving Soderland, Norway
1987 - Jack Streidl, Plainwell; Wayne Hellenga, Decatur
1988 - Jack Johnson, Dearborn; Alan Williams, North Adams
1989 - Walter Bazylewicz, Berkley; Dennis Kiley, Jackson
1990 - Webster Morrison, Pickford; Herbert Quade, Benton Harbor
1991 - Clifford Buckmaster, Petoskey; Donald Domke, Northville
1992 - William Maskill, Kalamazoo; Thomas G. McShannock, Muskegon
1993 - Roy A. Allen Jr., Detroit; John Duncan, Cedarville
1994 - Kermit Ambrose, Royal Oak
1995 - Bob Perry, Lowell
1996 - Charles H. Jones, Royal Oak
1997 - Michael A. Foster, Richland; Robert G. Grimes, Battle Creek
1998 - Lofton C. Greene, River Rouge; Joseph J. Todey, Essexville
1999 - Bernie Larson, Battle Creek
2000 - Blake Hagman, Kalamazoo; Jerry Cvengros, Escanaba
2001 - Norm Johnson, Bangor; George Lovich, Canton
2002 - John Fundukian, Novi
2003 - Ken Semelsberger, Port Huron
2004 - Marco Marcet, Frankenmuth
2005 - Jim Feldkamp, Troy
2006 - Dan McShannock, Midland; Dail Prucka, Monroe
2007 - Keith Eldred, Williamston; Tom Hickman, Spring Lake
2008 - Jamie Gent, Haslett; William Newkirk, Sanford Meridian
2009 - Paul Ellinger, Cheboygan
2010 - Rudy Godefroidt, Hemlock; Mike Boyd, Waterford
2011 - Eric C. Federico, Trenton
2012 - Bill Mick, Midland
2013 - Jim Gilmore, Tecumseh; Dave Hutton, Grandville
2014 - Dan Flynn, Escanaba
2015 - Hugh Matson, Saginaw
2016 - Gary Hice, Petoskey; Gina Mazzolini, Lansing
2017 - Chuck Nurek, Rochester Hills
2018 - Gary Ellis, Allegan
2019 - Jim Derocher, Negaunee; Fredrick J. Smith, Stevensville
2020 - Michael Garvey, Lawton
2021 - Leroy Hackley Jr., Byron Center; Patti Tibaldi, Traverse City
2022 - Bruce Horsch, Houghton
PHOTOS (Top) Karen Leinaar, left, awards the 2022 Division 4 volleyball finalist trophy to Indian River Inland Lakes coach Nicole Moore. (Middle) Leinaar accepts the MHSAA's Women In Sports Leadership Award in 1998.