PORTAGE — On the basketball court, Brooke Hoag and Grace Cheatham were “frenemies.”
But now that spring sports are here, that has changed.
The two seniors from rival schools are teammates.
Hoag, from Northern, and Cheatham, from Central, are both members of the Portage girls lacrosse team, a co-op composed of players from both schools.
When playing against each other, “you have to be focused on your team,” Hoag said. “When you come to lacrosse, it’s almost like you flip a switch because they’re your team now.
“Playing against them is just fun. You look at them and you know how they play in different sports, so it’s fun because you can kind of pick on them. It’s also a competition, and you definitely learn how to separate the two sports.”
After being shut down last year because of COVID-19 restrictions, the lacrosse team is having one of its best seasons ever.
Portage is 12-2 so far and currently ranked No. 8 in Division I, according to LaxNumbers.com
“For our returners, I think (the year off) has given them more motivation to want to play,” said Kate Twichell, in her seventh year as head coach. “There’s a fire lit, especially under my seniors.
“They’re playing so hard. They understand every opportunity is another opportunity they weren’t going to get.”
This season is different from any other, with mandated masks and rapid testing. Adapting to cool weather and then hot makes masking up a little more challenging, Hoag said, but worth it to have a chance to play. Twichell said Portage schools provide a mask that is easier to wear. “None of them will claim they love it,” she added. “The second we say they can take them off, they will 100 percent take them off.”
But in spite of the drawbacks, “This year, our varsity team is playing together the best I think it’s ever played together,” Twichell said. “The team chemistry is just phenomenal.
“That’s really all them. They’ve really taken extra time to make sure that they are putting in the work to come together.”
For the first time, Portage is hosting an MHSAA Division 1 Regional, facing Zeeland East on May 20. Finals are June 12 at Novi High School.
Other Northern varsity players are seniors Mairin Boshoven and Karly Turchan, junior Annie Galin and freshman Avery Kelly.
Central players include seniors Kyla Meyle, Jenna Camp, Calista Richmond and Lauren DeHaan; juniors Ryan Knauer, Olivia Jensenius and Lauren King; and sophomores Sam Swafford and Lexie Springman. Casey Hendrixson coaches the junior varsity team.
Neither Hoag nor Cheatham grew up playing lacrosse, but that is not a problem, Twichell said.
“My varsity players are all returning, so I have six returning starters on varsity right now,” she said. “My JV team, of the 15 of them, 10 are new to the sport this year.
“They’ve never touched a stick before. MHSAA gave us some small practices so we had a few in earlier, but most of them are brand new within the last 12 months.”
Learning that the stick is actually an extension of their hand is one of the hardest adjustments for new players, she said.
“I always tell the kids the first week is going to be the hardest – the frustration of dropping the ball and not being able to figure out the mechanics of it is always going to be the most difficult,” she said.
Hoag first played the sport when she was in eighth grade and took to it immediately.
“The only downside is the bruises you can get from it, but I like to say they’re like trophies showing you’re an aggressive player and it’s just something that you almost want to show that you play,” the midfielder said.
She kept in shape during the shutdown by working out at home.
“I have a net and a rebounder in my backyard, so I would practice shooting and my stick skills by myself,” she said.
Losing last season was especially difficult for the midfielder.
Not only is the junior season a big year for college recruitment but “my sister (Ashleigh) was a senior and I got my last chance to play with her taken away.”
Cheatham also has played lacrosse for five years, with her interest piqued by her father and brother.
Family helped her hone her skills during the shutdown.
“I live super close to Portage Central High School, so me and my brother (Andrew, a freshman who plays lacrosse at Central) used to go and play a lot of wall ball against The Stable. We did a lot of shooting drills on our own, just to keep busy.”
Both Hoag and Cheatham also played on summer and fall travel teams, which helped keep them in shape.
One unexpected moment for the two happened May 1 at the Matt Thrasher Memorial Games when each received a $500 scholarship, awarded each year to two players from the girls team and a player from each school’s boys team.
Thrasher played lacrosse and, while a freshman at Northern, died in a boating accident in 2004.
Cheatham echoed Hoag in saying it was an honor to receive the award.
“The fact that his family still does this is really amazing,” she said.
Hoag is headed to Trine University and will play lacrosse there, while Cheatham will attend Kent State in the nursing program and hopes to continue to play the sport, possibly at the club level.
While the ultimate goal is to one day have enough players to field a girls team at each school, the co-op team is under the umbrella of Portage Northern.
That poses one of the few problems for Twichell, who teaches Spanish at Hackett Catholic Prep.
“For me, honestly, the biggest thing is recruiting, getting into both schools equally to get enough kids to field a team,” she said. “Trying to get in the schools as one person from outside the school is pretty difficult.
“Likewise, especially during the offseason, getting enough practice time at both facilities so that each player gets their home facility or their home games or home practices, that can be a challenge.”
Next year that could be a bit easier. Twichell’s husband, Kurt, was recently named Northern’s head football coach after longtime coach Pete Schermerhorn retired. The past seven years, he was on the Portage Central football staff.
One future recruit for the girls team should be a shoo-in. The couple’s 2½-year-old twins – daughter Aubrey and son Griffin – already have lacrosse sticks.
Pam 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@example.com with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Portage’s Brooke Hoag fires a shot against Grand Rapids Northview this spring. (2) From left: Portage coach Kate Twichell, Grace Cheatham and Brooke Hoag. (3) Grace Cheatham (45) advances the ball against Ann Arbor Skyline. (4) Twichell and daughter Aubrey enjoy a moment with lacrosse stick in hand. (Action photos by Chris Boot. Head shots by Pam Shebest. Twichell photo courtesy of the Twichell family.)