Becca Portillo played on plenty of good field hockey teams during her high school career at Patuxent High School, a member of teams that won three Southern Maryland Athletic Conference titles as well as a couple of regional championships.
But as an assistant coach in the program, the 2010 graduate has been able to experience so much more as the Panthers have played to the state championship game three of the past four seasons. The team won the 2017 Class 1A state championship, the first for the program.
“It was kind of like a full circle,” said Portillo, who also played basketball and softball at the school and is now entering her fourth year as an English teacher at Patuxent after teaching two previous years at Northern. “It was neat to see girls have the same excitement that I did when I was an athlete, just to get to a regional championship and to see them continue through that. Not even just the state championship, but for three out of four years getting to that point. There were probably 20-plus alumni that reached out because they kind of felt the same way about that group of girls getting there. ... No matter where you end up, it was definitely something that mattered to you. So being a coach and being able to witness that, it was definitely a full-circle moment.”
Portillo is far from alone, as a great many Patuxent athletes have returned to the school to join its coaching ranks. Head girls basketball coach Kim Hutchison is a Patuxent graduate, as is baseball assistant Nick Nolan who previously served as the Panthers’ head golf coach. Assistant track and field coach Ish Kamara graduated from Patuxent, and so did head football coach Nick Allen and longtime assistant football coach Ricky Mason who are joined on the football staff this year by 2016 graduate Tim Nickisch.
Like Portillo, Allen and Mason also were able to celebrate a state championship as coach that had eluded them as players. Mason, who graduated in 2001, was gone a year before the Panthers made their first appearance in a football state final. But after he returned as an assistant coach in 2007, he has twice coached in a state championship game, in both 2013 and 2015 with the Panthers emerging with the 2A championship in the latter.
“It was everything,” Mason said of what being part of the championship team meant to him. “I graduated in ‘01, so I didn’t get to be part of the team that made the state the following year, but I played with a lot of those guys and I was there for that game and I know how it felt to lose that game. Coming back coaching in ‘13 and being able to reach the pinnacle of high school football and losing that game, it hurt a lot. Coming back in 2015 and to be able to win a championship was everything. It was a culmination of of all the years together, hard work and coming out on top.”
Coaching at Patuxent ended up having a bigger impact on Mason, who also played basketball and ran track, than he may have initially thought. Since returning to the school he has also coached track and unified bocce ball, in which he coached the team to a state championship alongside Allen.
“It’s been pretty life-changing,” he said. “When I first started coaching I was pretty young. I was 24. It forced me to grow up pretty quick, realizing that I was there to not only coach football, but to help change young men’s lives. It made me change a lot of my ways.”
In Portillo’s case, the love she found for field hockey did not even exist until she arrived in high school. Following four years in the Patuxent program, it was a huge part of her life.
“Truly the school kind of gave me the passion for field hockey, in general,” she said. “I had no clue what it was until high school. To be part of the program that [head coach Lynn Powell] has put together over time, and just that idea of team chemistry and a family, that’s always what it’s been and it’s something nice to have.
“I knew it was something that was different than probably any other school I could go to. It was by far different than a collegiate level. While that would be a great place to be, it’s hard to replicate some of the things Patuxent field hockey has done over the course of the years.”
Allen, who was in the school’s first graduating class in 1999 and has been part of the school’s football program as a player, assistant coach or head coach virtually every year it has existed, never wanted to leave because of the interest his coaches put into him.
“Honestly, it’s the investment that the coaches in the school and the community put in our athletes. It’s always been about more than just the sports,” he said. “Specifically with football, it’s always been a mentality of selflessness, making sure that everyone around you is successful by doing your part and doing everything you can. Just having that mentality made me want to give back to the program that had given me so much.”
As to why so many former athletes find their way back, Portillo didn’t think it was any real mystery.
“It’s always been about family and about loyalty at that school,” she said. “It’s a small school. It’s an area that people bypass a lot. Regardless, people continue to come back. It just has this atmosphere, a gravitational pull almost, that brings you back and it hasn’t changed. That’s the neat thing. It’s 10 years since I’ve been in high school. Kids change, but the atmosphere really doesn’t change there. It’s pretty awesome that it’s able to keep that for years. It’s how it should be. It’s a close-knit family.”
“I pretty much attribute it to the area,” added Mason. “It’s a great place to raise kids, a great school. I know a lot of people put the word family out there, but it really, truly is a family.”