Inspired Norway Earns 1st Finals Trip, Set to Face Reigning Champ Beal City

By Scott DeCamp
Special for

June 14, 2024

EAST LANSING – Cameron Varda’s go-ahead single scoring Ian Popp with two out in the sixth inning Friday may have been the greatest moment in Norway’s brief 15-year history as a high school baseball program. 

It lifted the Knights to a 3-2 victory over Marine City Cardinal Mooney in an MHSAA Division 4 Semifinal at Michigan State University’s McLane Stadium. 

That may not have been the best moment of the day, however. Coach Tony Adams had a surprise for his team, which hails from the western edge of the Upper Peninsula near the Wisconsin border.

U.P. legend Jason Whitens, a 2017 Powers North Central alumnus who led the Jets to three Division 4 basketball titles and two 8-player football championships, was on hand for the game and spoke to the Norway team after the program’s first Semifinal appearance.

Whitens played basketball for Michigan State after beginning his career at Western Michigan. He’s now an assistant strength coach for the MSU men’s basketball team.

“That’s Jason. I worked at North Central for a couple of years and I became really good friends with his mom and dad, Gerald and Faye, and that’s the kind of kid they raised. Back home, he’s larger than life,” Adams said. “I knew he was going to be here and I said, ‘Hey, will you say a few words?’ because I knew he would. I thought it was a phenomenal moment for our kids.”

Norway (28-3-1) is looking to make the weekend even more memorable as it faces perennial power and reigning champion Beal City (33-6) in Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. Final. Beal City defeated Vermontville Maple Valley, 5-1, in Friday’s first Semifinal.

With Norway and Cardinal Mooney (23-11) tied at 2 in the sixth inning and two out, Knights No. 9 hitter Popp singled up the middle. He attempted to steal second base, and as the ball skidded to the backstop on a wild pitch, he never stopped running and made it safely to third base. Leadoff batter Varda delivered a line single to center field to give Norway the lead.

Starter Cole Baij worked the sixth inning for the Knights, and Owen Baij closed it out in the seventh.

“I started off with a single with two outs. I wasn’t really thinking of it, but (my coach) gave me the steal sign and I was going and I looked at him and he said to keep going, so I thought Cameron put the ball in play and had a nice hit,” Popp said. “He told me to slide and I slid and turns out, the ball just went behind the catcher. All in all, it worked out very well.”

Said Varda: “I was just thinking, ‘Put the ball in play, score the runner on third.’ I just did a short swing, put the ball in play, and scored him.”

Norway got bats on the ball throughout its lineup, finishing with nine hits total. Owen Baij and Alex Ortman had two hits apiece.

Cole Baij earned the pitching win for Norway. The right-hander allowed two runs (one earned) on four hits with three strikeouts and four walks over six innings. Owen Baij allowed one hit and struck out one with no walks in his one inning to pick up the save. 

Mason Martin took the loss for Cardinal Mooney in relief of George Szep. Martin allowed one earned run on four hits with one strikeout and no walks in two innings.

Cameron Spezia went 2-for-4 to lead the Cardinals.

“It’s hard, but it comes down to they executed more plays than we did and that’s how they won the baseball game,” Cardinal Mooney coach David Bowen said. “It just comes down to execution; that’s why you play a baseball game. They understand. They don’t like it, but they understand.”

Whitens delivered an inspirational message to Norway’s team, proving that “U.P. Power” still runs strong.

He said that Yooper pride definitely is a real thing.

“We’re such a strong community when you look at it. We’re such a small community when you look at it,” Whitens said. 

“I grew up 15 minutes from Norway. There’s a lot of ties, a lot of my good friends are from Norway, a lot of my dad’s friends are from Norway, so there’s a lot of close ties. Whenever you see a U.P. school competing for a championship down here, you’re always pulling for them. Those ‘U.P. Power’ chants never get old in my head.”

The Norway players and coaches, who used to cheer for Whitens, now find him pulling for them – and it couldn’t be cooler for the Knights.

“It was really cool (with Whitens’ speech) because when we were younger and we were growing up and we were watching him play and everybody in the U.P. knew who he was, and to see what he did in his journey, it was awesome,” Popp said. “And now that he can speak to us and give us some wisdom, it’s very cool.”

Click for the full box score.

Beal City 5, Vermontville Maple Valley 1

The Beal City baseball machine operated in top form Friday morning at McLane Stadium.

Seven players had hits, the defense made a couple of highlight-worthy plays to prevent a big inning, and Josh Wilson was effective on the mound.

Beal City (33-6) is seeking a second straight Division 4 title and sixth overall. Maple Valley, which made its first Semifinal appearance in 49 years, closed the season 29-8.

Beal City’s Cayden Smith scores under the tag of Maple Valley’s Jakeb McDonald (18)“It’s these guys. It’s a testament to these guys – these guys just play good ball and they’re good kids with great families and a great program. They bought into my style of baseball, and they’ve done a great job with it,” said Beal City coach Brad Antcliff, who returned to the team last season after stepping away from 2017-2022 to focus on his daughters and their softball teams.

Beal City wasted no time taking the upper hand against Maple Valley. After Wilson retired the Lions in order in the top of the first inning, the Aggies went to work in the bottom half scoring three runs without making an out.

Cayden Smith led off with a double to right field. He took third on a passed ball and scored on the same play with a head-first slide at home after the ball got away from the Lions’ catcher.

Jack Fussman’s triple into the right-field corner scored Owen McKenney, who had walked. Wilson followed with a double to center field to score Fussman.

Beal City hit throughout its lineup and continued to keep the heat on Maple Valley pitcher Jakeb McDonald. Jake Gauthier also doubled for the Aggies.

“The bottom half of the order has come up huge in the playoffs so far, and it puts a lot of pressure on the pitcher to take every batter seriously,” said Wilson, who led the Aggies with two RBIs.

Wilson, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound right-handed senior, took care of business on the mound, too. He allowed one unearned run on three hits with eight strikeouts and two walks in a complete-game effort. Wilson (8-3) also retired the Lions in order in the sixth and seventh innings.

“I felt good. First couple innings, I was struggling a little bit, couldn’t really get in the zone,” said Wilson, a four-year varsity player. “Found it and the defense played good behind me.”

Teegan McDonald led Maple Valley, going 2-for-3 with an RBI double in the fourth inning that pulled the Lions within 3-1. In the fifth, Beal City right fielder Bennett Gilde made a nice, sliding catch near the line to start the top half of the inning, and second baseman Cuyler Smith made a leaping snag of a line drive to end it.

The Lions had grown accustomed to winning close games and comebacks during the tournament, taking them by 3-2, 5-4, and 4-2 counts in two Regional contests and a Quarterfinal. They kept battling against the Aggies but could not come back this time.

“We know it takes 21 outs to finish a game, and we’re going to fight through every one of them,” Maple Valley coach Bryan Carpenter said. “I hope (the Semifinal experience) makes them hungry. I hope they now have a belief that this is possible and that we can do this on the regular. This doesn’t have to be once-in-every-49-years kind of thing for Maple Valley.”

Antcliff is seeking his fourth Finals championship as Beal City’s baseball coach. He also guided the Aggies to titles in 2009 and 2010. This is his eighth 30-win season in 12 years at the helm.

Beal City has been a model of consistency over the years. Friday’s game showed some reasons why that is the case.

“Our 1 through 9 are solid. We may not swing it every time and great at-bats, but at any time I feel like we can have nine base hits in a row. We do the little things right, getting bunts down and stuff, and that’s a testament to these guys and buying into (the culture),” said Antcliff, who expects his team will need more of the same to add another championship Saturday.

“Win the first pitch … We’re going to have to bring our ‘A’ game and see what happens.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS (Top) Norway’s Cole Baij delivers a pitch during his team’s Division 4 Semifinal win Friday at McLane Stadium. (Middle) Beal City’s Cayden Smith scores under the tag of Maple Valley’s Jakeb McDonald (18).