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No. 10 Norway ready for first trip to D4 state semis

Norway seniors Ian Popp (1), from left, Alex Ortman (20) and Hayden Amundson (9) accept the Knights MHSAA Division 4 District championship trophy on May 31, 2024 at Mike Maule Field in Norway. (Sean Chase/Daily News)

NORWAY — There are four teams left in the MHSAA Division 4 state baseball tournament. And for the first time in school history, one of the semifinalists calls Norway High School home.

“Here’s my thing, that I texted them on (Monday), I said, ‘Tony, this is the first time in the state championship playoffs at East Lansing that a team from a different time zone is there,'” Norway assistant coach Randy VanGasse said. “What is unique about this is 15-years-ago, when we started this program, there was no baseball.”

For some teenagers, that kind of potential to make history would carry pressure. However, the Norway varsity baseball team seemed unfazed on Tuesday.

“I don’t sense pressure right now,” Knights head coach Tony Adams said. “I sense accomplishment. And looking at the kids (on Monday), talking with them, they’re doing what they’ve done all year. It’s always been about, this is what we did today. What’s our challenge tomorrow? And we’re going to try and keep as much the same in our process as we possibly can.”

Instead of focusing on the magnitude of the moment, Norway is keeping things simple.

“I think we’re going down there with nothing to lose,” Hayden Amundson said.

Senior Ian Popp agreed with Amundson’s sentiment.

“Most kids just dream of it happening and we can genuinely make it a reality,” Popp said. “We’re going after it.”

And, after years of practice, Norway is on the cusp of cashing in on the hard work.

“We go after it every practice, we know what we’re capable of and we’re chasing that one thing. … That state championship,” Alex Ortman said.

However, the success hasn’t come without sacrifices for the Knights’ seniors.

Players have been willing to accept change, Adams said.

“Alex Ortman, all-state everything. ‘Alex, we’re thinking about playing you at first base.’ He’s been a shortstop and a pitcher his entire life. And you know what he said, ‘OK.’ And he’s owned it when he’s been there,” Adams said.

“Hayden Amundson, the best defensive outfielder I’ve seen on our schedule this year. At some point during the season, ‘Hayden, we’re going to DH for you.’ And he owns the outfield.”

And then there’s Ian Popp, who has battled injuries the past two baseball seasons.

“Ian Popp had basically another season taken away from him through injury,” coach Adams said. “So he came back, he didn’t know what he was going to be. I said, ‘Ian, you’re not going to bat leadoff for us, we’ll put you somewhere else in the lineup and see where you’re at. He said, ‘OK.’ And there’s a lot of kids that wouldn’t have done that. All three of them. … That speaks to how tight they are. They’ve grown up together, they hang out together.”

Coach VanGasse agreed.

“They really like each other, they play for each other,” he said. “We have a saying, which is, ‘Play as one, play as one.’

“There’s nobody that puffs their chest, ‘I’m the star.’ That’s cool and it’s good to see. … There’s no friction.”

WHAT LIES AHEAD

The Knights (27-3-1) enter Friday’s 10:30 a.m. semifinal matchup ranked No. 10 by the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association in Division 4. Cardinal Mooney Catholic (23-6) is No. 6.

“We’ve seen some things that are out there (on Cardinal Mooney Catholic),” coach Adams said. “They’re a good team. A quality, quality program. They’ve been to the finals in the last five years or so. They’ve been to the semis.

“Their program knows how to get there. … We’ve got a lot of respect for them.”

Beal City (30-7), on the other side of the bracket from Norway, is the reigning MHSAA Division 4 state baseball champion.

“Beal City is on a whole ‘nother planet,” coach Adams said. “But, that’s where we want to be. It’s good to be there.”

Although Beal City is a known commodity in the Division 4 baseball world, the Knights are no slouches either.

“Our pitching has been a strength all year,” coach Adams said. “Our defense has been a strength. It’s been about maintaining that, improving in small areas. And then offensively, when you get against really good teams it’s hard to score.

“Our strength offensively has been, in the tournament, we’ve cut down on strikeouts, we’re putting the ball in play, we’re putting pressure on.”

Coach Adams was keeping his cards close to his chest in terms of who will start for the Knights on Friday.

Junior Cole Baij has led the way, pitching 54.2 innings while maintaining a 1.02 ERA and tallying 85 strikeouts. Ortman was dominant as well. Posting a 0.202 ERA over 34.2 innings of work while fanning 67 batters. Sophomore Owen Baij (0.408 ERA, 49 strikeouts), sophomore Cameron Varda (1.31 ERA, 27 strikeouts) and Bryce Adams (3.40 ERA, 19 strikeouts) are all available to start.

As impressive as the Knights’ arms have been, their bats have been just as outstanding throughout the season. They have seven players with over a .300 batting average on the year.

Owen Baij is leading the way with a .435 average. He has also driven in 27 runs.

Landon Amundson (.425, 25 RBIs), Cameron Varda (.405, 19 RBIs), Ortman (.395, 28 RBIs), Cole Baij (.390, 34 RBIs), Popp (.368, 7 RBIs) and Bryce Adams (.313, 27 RBIs) are all above .300 at the dish.

Once Norway gets on base, they’ve made it a point to cause teams issues on the base paths. The Knights have tallied 173 stolen bases in 183 attempts this season.

But, as the talent level increases, coach Adams believes those opportunities will diminish.

“It tightens way up,” coach Adams said. “You’re going to run into a pitcher who knows how to handle the running game and catchers who can throw you out.

“So then it becomes about moving the runner over, however which way you can.”

THE BLEACH BANDITS

If you haven’t attended a Norway baseball game since the post season started, you may be confused by the group of bleach blond athletes wearing navy blue and white uniforms on Friday morning.

That’s because, prior to the pre-district matchup with North Central, Ortman had an idea to help strengthen the Knights’ chemistry.

“I think it’s awesome that everyone was able to bleach their hair and have fun,” Ortman said.

Amundson and Popp were among the final people without the bleach blond hair.

“I said I was going to wait until we made history and then I’ll do it,” Amundson said.

Albeit for different reasons.

“It’s hard being the best looking on the team and I didn’t want to mess that up,” Popp said through laughter.

Whether it’s because of the postseason success or an infatuation with the bold style choice, they’ve affectionately become known as “The Bleach Bandits” in Norway.

“It’s like trending now,” coach Adams said.

Although the coaching staff has joined in on the fun, bleaching their hair as well, there is one coach who hasn’t jumped on the train.

Yet.

“The only one left is going to be coach VanGasse and we’re working on him,” coach Adams said.

RETURNING TO MSU

While the Norway varsity team isn’t familiar with the campus of Michigan State University, there is one person with a special connection to East Lansing.

“That’s my alma mater,” coach Adams said. “My senior year in college, many days walking to class I walked by that field, not ever dreaming of this. So is it a little extra special, personally, absolutely.”

Although the return to familiar scenery will be nice for coach Adams

“Coach Amundson, coach Baij and myself, we’ve been around these kids since tee ball, the little league to travel,” coach Adams said. “They get to high school, what can we say that we haven’t said in the last 10 years. Coach VanGasse, when they get to high school, is a different voice. He has a different perspective and the kids love it.

“This whole staff, I get to work with three of the best people every day and it’s great for our kids.”

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