Gremlins step up to the plate

HOUGHTON – The Houghton-Portage Township Schools Board of Education gave the “Play ball!” to what will be the Upper Peninsula’s 15th high school baseball program Monday night.

The self-funded program will begin play this spring. It is Houghton’s eighth varsity boys’ sport, matching the total for girls.

Jim Cortright, who along with John Bostwick and Rob Scholie submitted the proposal to the district, said the program is an outgrowth of the success experienced within the Portage Lake Little League, of which Houghton-Portage Township is the largest feeder school district.

“It’s hard for us, being in Little League, you get maybe two practices a week for an hour and a half. There’s a lot you want to do with the kids and you don’t have the time. It’s going to give kids more opportunities to get better, that’s the big reason behind it,” he said.

Cortright said the model for getting baseball off the ground in Houghton has been set by the school’s softball program, which has gained significant traction since its establishment in the spring of 2008.

According to the report submitted to the district, 23 boys from grades 9-11 indicated interest in prep baseball, more than enough to establish a varsity program, which typically has a roster size in the mid- to high teens.

“They’ve certainly done their homework and the parents put in the time,” H-PT superintendent Doreen Klingbeil said during the meeting. Athletic director Bruce Horsch was not available for comment Monday.

The report estimates start-up costs of roughly $4,000 for equipment and uniforms, in addition to annual expenses of $2,600. If it is allowed by school policy, players would transport themselves to and from road games and coaching is expected to be provided by to-be-selected volunteers, at least in the early years of the program. Administrative tasks such as scheduling would be handled by the athletic department.

“Obviously there’s going to be a lot of fundraising and we are going to ask players to contribute,” Cortright said.

The Michigan High School Athletic Association calendar allows for practice to begin March 11, with games as early as March 20 in advance of district tournament play the last week of May and the state finals in Battle Creek June 14.

The U.P. winter means early season practices will be indoors and game scheduling could be complicated, but that’s a burden those making the proposal are willing to bear.

“It’s not going to stop us from going forward. We live where we live because we love where we live,” Cortright said.

Escanaba became the first U.P. school to establish baseball within the MHSAA’s spring season in 2002. Several U.P. programs have had success in the postseason, with the Eskymos finishing as Division 2 state runner-up in 2006. The closest schools geographically with programs are Negaunee, Marquette and Ironwood, all about 100 miles away.

Another complicating factor is the lack of a baseball field with 90-foot basepaths anywhere within the H-PTS boundaries. Hancock Driving Park is the closest such field at 3 1/2 miles from HHS, but commitments from PLLL teams, the Hancock Post 186 American Legion baseball program and Finlandia University could make scheduling unworkable and necessitate the team be based out of Stanton Ballfield (9 miles) or Dollar Bay (5 miles). In the future, the program’s leaders would like to work with government leaders to build a home closer to the school.

“We are certainly expecting to play a lot of road games in our first season,” Cortright said.

One door the creation of baseball does open is for both programs to host postseason games. MHSAA rules prohibit schools that do not have both sports from hosting district tournaments in either.

Still to be determined is the impact on and relationship with the Legion program in Hancock. In Escanaba, Legion ball begins immediately after the prep season ends in early- to mid-June, while areas such as Gladstone run Legion and prep teams simultaneously, adding players to the roster after the high school season ends.

The Hancock Post 186 program included several HHS players last year, but also drew from the Hancock, Lake Linden-Hubbell, Jeffers and L’Anse school districts.