Portage Northern baseball took home the top prize in Division 1 Saturday morning at Michigan State, as the Huskies defeated Rockford 10-4 for the program’s first state championship.
“It’s just an amazing feeling, it’s awesome,” said head coach Chris Andrews. “It’s special, it just hasn’t really sunk in.”
The pregame coin toss put the second-ranked Huskies as the visitor, which paid dividends yet again for their high powered offense as Portage Northern tallied four runs in the first inning.
“We like being visitors because it gives us a chance to score first,” said senior centerfielder Tyler Helgeson.
“(Rockford) started to panic a little bit after that,” noted senior first baseman Cam French.
Helegson and Zach Quinn started with back-to-back singles, then Nolan McCarthy walked to load the bases. Ram pitcher Luke McLean nearly escaped undamaged as he got a strikeout and coaxed a potential double play ground ball. However, an error at shortstop kept everyone safe and scored Helgeson.
French brought home both Quinn and McCarthy on a two RBI single and Gannon Andrews scored Parker Brey via sacrifice fly for a 4-0 lead. The fast start took some pressure off Husky sophomore pitcher Xander Morris, who finished with a complete game and only one earned run against him.
“It’s a big relief off your shoulders,” said Morris.
Portage Northern made it 5-0 in the second inning as nine-hitter Jack Beffel drew a leadoff walk, then was later singled home via Greg Lapetina. Rockford would chip away though, using two hits and two rare Husky fielding errors to score twice in the third inning.
The Huskies would ultimately put the game away with a five-run fifth inning. A Ram error put Brey on to begin, followed by a French double and Andrews RBI single. Another error sent French home and placed Malcolm Gaynor aboard. Helegson returned to the plate and the future Eastern Michigan Eagle crushed a mammoth home run to right field for a 10-2 lead.
“After I looked up and saw it, I was pretty sure,” said Helgeson, who added that it was probably the longest homer he’s ever had.
“I could tell right away, that one I think sealed it,” noted Andrews. “To see him come through in the state championship game like that was awesome.”
Rockford’s Zach Schamp had a solo homer in the fifth and they scored once more in the sixth, but the hole was too great to climb from. McLean allowed five runs (four earned) over three and 1/3 innings. Grant Martin allowed five (one earned) over the rest of the game in relief. The Rams end at 28-10, having only one other time advanced to the final with their 2011 title season.
For the Huskies, their only other championship berth ended in heartbreak with a 10-inning 2-1 defeat to Hartland in the 2015 finale. Two key players from that squad, Tommy Henry and Ben Keizer, recently helped send the University of Michigan baseball team to the College World Series in Omaha.
“It’s a heck of a lot better being up there (on the award podium) after winning than losing,” said Andrews, who completed his 19th season as head coach Saturday.
It was a special moment for coach Andrews also as a father with his son Gannon getting two RBI, a hit, and run from his catcher spot.
“He told me when he was a freshman, he’s like ‘Dad, we’re going win you a state championship when I’m a junior,” said Andrews. “I’ll have that forever, I’m sure I’m going to cry a few times thinking about that.”
Helegson ended with three hits, a walk, four RBI, and two runs scored. Quinn picked up three singles and a run. French notched three hits, two RBI, and a run. Portage Northern finished with a 39-7 overall record, a team best for wins. It was the ultimate culmination for seniors Helgeson, French, Quinn, Eli Caranci, and Alex Cox.
“Being able to know that I left my mark and I gave it all I had definitely feels good,” said French.
“Every single one of them led the team in some way,” said Andrews. “We had Eli Caranci, wasn’t even voted a captain, yet he won the award for best leadership. They stepped up and provided the leadership. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
“I look up to every single one of them,” said sophomore pitcher Morris. “We just need to follow in their footsteps and we’ll be really set.”
W- Xander Morris 7 IP, 7 H, 4 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 4 K
L- Luke McLean 3.1 IP, 5 H, 5 R, 4 ER, 3 BB, 3 K