Members of the Lawrence Tech football team hold up three fingers following an Aug. 1 practice. The three fingers represent a trident, part of the school’s logo and a rallying cry for the group as it embarks on its inaugural season.

Members of the Lawrence Tech football team hold up three fingers following an Aug. 1 practice. The three fingers represent a trident, part of the school’s logo and a rallying cry for the group as it embarks on its inaugural season.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes


Local products leading the way for inaugural Lawrence Tech football team

By: Timothy Pontzer | C&G Newspapers | Published August 24, 2018

 Lawrence Tech freshman quarterback Tyler Kulka fires a pass during an Aug. 1 practice. A 2015 graduate of Clinton Township Chippewa Valley, Kulka is one of the many local products on the LTU roster.

Lawrence Tech freshman quarterback Tyler Kulka fires a pass during an Aug. 1 practice. A 2015 graduate of Clinton Township Chippewa Valley, Kulka is one of the many local products on the LTU roster.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

SOUTHFIELD — Set against the dull roar of midday traffic on Northwestern Highway and the skyline of Southfield, a group of young men look to make history on the gridiron.

Tucked away on the corner of Lawrence Technological University’s campus, a new turf field hosts the school’s inaugural team. Established in 1932, the university has never forayed into football until now. Boasting a roster of 95 players — many with local roots — the group will host its first contest against the Oakland University club football team Sept. 1.

“One of the huge advantages of starting a program like this is you don’t inherit any culture. You’re literally building and molding that every day,” Blue Devils coach Jeff Duvendeck said after an Aug. 1 practice. “It is unique to play with all freshmen, so there has to be patience and growing pains. But every piece that is here is on us. The blame can’t go anywhere else.”

 

Coming home
A 1996 graduate of Flushing High, Duvendeck played running back at Central Michigan University. His coaching stops in between his playing days included assistant and coordinator roles at Tiffin University, Grand Valley State University, Michigan Tech, Northern Michigan and Michigan State. Most recently, he was the head coach at Culver-Stockton College in Missouri.

Duvendeck said it was a thrill to return to his home state, a place he called a fertile ground for recruiting.

“The whole state of Michigan is full of football talent. Within a 15-minute radius of here, you’re looking at many quality schools where the high school coaches do a great job,” Duvendeck said. “Within a five-hour radius, we can get to so many major cities: Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Milwaukee. But we hit Michigan hard. We got 40 of our 57 recruits this year out of Michigan.”

While Duvendeck embarks on his first season at LTU, this actually marks his second year at the helm. The program started last year, recruiting over 30 players. All of those student-athletes are now redshirt freshmen.

“While we didn’t actually play a game, that year was crucial,” Duvendeck said. “Starting something like this from the ground up takes time. That helped us find kids who wanted to build a team. … We were able to focus entirely on us and not an opponent.”

 

Here to build
Much of the roster is devoted to players up front, with 20 offensive linemen and 16 defensive linemen.

“Except for a couple years with running backs, most of my career I’ve coached the offensive line,” Duvendeck said. “That is where the game is won. Our focus was in the trenches to start. If you want to build a program, you have to put an emphasis there.”

Each player earned a partial scholarship, with many choosing to take advantage of the prestigious engineering programs offered.

“They have an excellent electrical engineering program and allowed me to play football at the same time,” said Mike Fox, a 2018 Utica High grad and now a punter for the Blue Devils. “That’s exactly what I wanted to study, so it was perfect. Plus, it was local, so I didn’t have to go too far.”

Fox said it is exciting to be on the inaugural roster.

“We get to build something from the ground up, and I get to be part of that,” Fox said. “If Lawrence Tech goes big time in a few years, I get to say I was there for the start. We have to make our mark and let people know what we can do.”

Fellow 2018 Utica High grad Kavon Higdon agreed on both points.

“The No. 1 thing is my degree. I wanted to major in software engineering, and this is a top-five school in the state and it’s close to home,” said the running back. “I really like the vision of the coaches. They want to do something great right away, and I want to be part of that. It’s exciting that you get to set the tone for players that come after you.”

Higdon is now the second college tailback in his family. His older brother, Karan, is the current starter in the backfield for the Michigan Wolverines.

“My work ethic and drive is from my brother. He’s been through it, and I obviously haven’t yet, so he’s taught me everything I know,” Kavon Higdon said. “Utica gave me a leadership role. It taught me that it’s not just being a leader on the field, but a leader off of it as well.”

Tommy Larson, a 2018 alum of Walled Lake Northern, admitted that there will be growing pains both personally and for the team as a whole, but he believes it will be worth it.

“It’s very exciting, but over the past few days it hasn’t been easy,” said Larson. “For me, I’m away from home for the first time in 18 years. But it’s cool to be part of the team and go through this together. When you graduate, people will ask where you went and you can say, ‘I played for Lawrence Tech in the inaugural year.’” 

 

‘Earn their trident’
Found in the school’s logo is a forked spear or trident. Literally going hand in hand with the Blue Devils moniker, Duvendeck has utilized it as one of his main rallying cries for the program.

“It’s something I borrowed from the Navy Seals. They have to earn their trident every day with respect, honor and their code,” Duvendeck explained. “So every day we challenge our guys to earn their trident. We have our grip, base and prongs. Our prongs are the three controllables: attitude, effort and actions. The base is love, serve and care. The grip is ‘ECG,’ which is empathy, compete and grind. Our focus isn’t necessarily on outcomes, but on growth. If they earn their trident every day, the success will come.”

The projected starter under center this season, Tyler Kulka, said the team has bought in to the trident mindset.

“Earning the trident is something we all try to do every day,” said Kulka, a 2015 graduate of Clinton Township Chippewa Valley. 

A mechanical engineering major, Kulka, 21, is one of the oldest players on the club. After graduating from Chippewa Valley, Kulka went on a two-year Mormon mission to the Bay Area in California.

Kulka planned to walk on to Brigham Young University’s football team, but three months ago LTU coaches called. He jumped at the chance to join the Blue Devils. 

“My dream was to play college football. The Lord blessed me with this opportunity, and honestly, I’m living the dream here,” Kulka said. 

 

Ready to win
Duvendeck praised each player on his roster, saying they understand that it is a unique opportunity to lay the groundwork of a program.

“We were very blunt in the recruiting process. It turned some kids off, but at the same time, it drew in kids that wanted to build a program,” Duvendeck said. “There was no promise for playing time, awards or even what we were going to do on the field. We talk about putting together a team and focusing on personal growth.”

Duvendeck admitted that there were some hiccups early on, including a complete lack of a weight room when he started and failing to have actual footballs two days before the first fall practice last year. However, he is committed to Southfield for the long haul.

“I love it here. I’d be happy to retire here,” Duvendeck said. “My family loves it here. The administrative staff and campus have been extremely supportive. If we can continue to build this the right way, I’d love to stay here for a long, long time.”

LTU will host four home games this season, including the opening against Oakland University’s club team. 

The Blue Devils will compete as an independent this season before joining the Mid-States Football Association next year.

“As much as we don’t focus on outcomes, I love winning. I’m a competitive person and won a national championship at Division II (GVSU, 2002), a (Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference) championship (Michigan Tech, 2004) and a Big Ten championship (Michigan State, 2010),” Duvendeck said. “It’s very hard to keep kids motivated and bought in if you’re not winning. If I didn’t think we can compete for national championships at this place, I wouldn’t have taken the job.”