GVSU track and field success driven by recruiting, culture
The Lakers have consistently been one of the top teams in the nation for the past two decades
For college cross country and track and field athletes, the end of May means nearly a three-month break from competition, but for the coaches the work never stops. Recruiting season isn’t a season at all—it’s a year-round affair.
Grand Valley State cross country and track and field head coach Jerry Baltes tries to tie a few highlights into each recruiting pitch he does: GVSU is a perennial championship program, has a proven ability to develop runners into more dominant athletes, and has top-level resources from facilities, to athletic training, to teammates, to training equipment.
Baltes has been around GVSU for nearly two decades and has tweaked his recruiting approach as the years have gone by.
“Before we had the indoor facility, we really didn’t have any bells and whistles,” Baltes said. “Our program was built on a blue-collar approach: hard work and a day-to-day grind. We have a lot of bells and whistles now to go with the hard work.”
The goal is to bring in one “blue-chip,” or high-level high school recruit, about every four years, and if the Lakers are fortunate enough to land more than that, even better, Baltes said. Generally, the top runners in the area head to the biggest Division I schools, so when GVSU can boast signing big names like Kristen Hixson, Kendra Foley, or Zach Panning onto their roster straight out of high school, it’s a proud moment.
But championship teams don’t come from just one or two athletes. That’s where the development part of the recruiting pitch becomes so important.
Baltes spoke of finding “the diamond in the rough,” something he has been fortunate enough to find on multiple occasions throughout his tenure, most notably in distance star Courtney Brewis.
“Courtney Brewis is a pretty incredible story,” Baltes said. “I always say I accidently let her on the team because I thought she was someone else. I saw her at one of our college meets and she came up to me and told me she wanted to come to Grand Valley and run for us. I said, ‘We’d love to have you.’ I thought she was the second-best runner in the state and…Courtney was not the second-best runner in the state.”
She came into the Laker squad as the last runner on the team her freshman year, but slowly worked her way up. By her junior year, she was pushing for the national level.
Brewis helped the Laker cross country teams win back-to-back cross country national titles in 2012 and 2013 and then went on to finish second in the 5,000-meter run at the 2014 indoor track and field national championships.
Brewis continued to improve after her eligibility at GVSU was gone, earning a berth at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials where she finished 106th in the marathon.
The recruiting expertise of Baltes and his coaching staff are evident in success stories like Brewis, but also through their ability to drive home different aspects of being a Laker to a prospective student-athletes. Each recruiting pitch needs to be adapted to each individual athlete and that’s something the GVSU staff can do with great effectiveness.
“It really depends on each individual,” Baltes said. “For some kids it’s about having great teammates. Other kids care more about the facilities. Some of our ladies probably don’t care so much about the running side of things and are more concerned about the academic side of things or their friendships on the team.
"That’s what makes it challenging because there isn’t a cookie-cutter approach. You really have to read the recruit and figure out what’s important to each individual.”
Different pitches connect with different people. Some athletes might be nervous about not knowing anyone as a college freshman, so highlighting GVSU track and field’s family-like atmosphere might be the selling point.
Junior long jump specialist Isaiah Thomas transferred to GVSU from Vincennes University in 2016 to become a part of that Laker family. Thomas had competed in the GVSU Big Meet the year before and everything he witnessed matched up with the recruiting pitch he heard from Baltes and jumps coach Steve Jones.
“The whole team aspect was special,” he said. “They did a warmup and then a breakdown at the beginning of the meet. I always saw people lined up at the end of the long jump pit and they’d be cheering the long jumpers on, and with the 4x4 I always saw everybody lined up on the outside of the track.
“That was one of the biggest things Jerry (Baltes) and Steve (Jones) stressed to me about coming here. About how it’s a team, but at the same time it’s a family. It was cool. My old school was close, but I’ve never had a team closer than what I’ve had here.”
For others, the coaching staff, and the success they have brought for themselves and their athletes over the years, might be the most important point to drive home.
“Having Steve (Jones) here is probably the greatest thing for me,” said Hunter Weeks, the indoor high jump record-holder at GVSU. “That’s why I’m here. That’s why I came to this school, for Steve. He’s an amazing coach and he always has something for me to do.”
It is important to note the “student” part of student-athlete. The Laker track and field team may have All-American performers on the squad, but every one of them still needs to attend class. Several Lakers came to GVSU for the academics and competing on the track and field team is just a bonus.
Sprinter Emmanuel Arop came all the way from Nigeria to be a part of an engineering program like his father wanted, while still sprinting like he himself wanted to do. GVSU offered the perfect medium where he could passionately pursue academics and athletics at the same time, Arop said.
The facilities are also a point of interest that convinces an athlete to compete for GVSU. Not many universities can boast of an indoor facility like the Kelly Family Sports Center and an outdoor facility like the GVSU Lacrosse/Track and Field Stadium.
“A lot of places either don’t have an indoor track or they don’t have an outdoor track and Grand Valley had both,” said 400-meter hurdles specialist Jessica O’Connell. “A lot of the people I met on my visit I felt like I would be able to get along with and be around. I just really liked the atmosphere.”
The atmosphere O’Connell spoke of is the same thing that has drawn in so many talented athletes to GVSU’s campus over the past two decades.
If someone can compete at GVSU’s level, Baltes said he is willing to take them no matter where the athlete happens to be from. However, most of GVSU’s recruiting efforts are concentrated on the Midwest region of the United States in states like Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin. The farther away a prospective recruit is located, the harder it is for Baltes and his staff to get a chance to watch and meet the athlete in person, something the coaches always try to do.
“The more times you can see someone in person, the more you’re going to learn about their competitiveness, their attitude and how they are as a teammate,” Baltes said. “You can see way more in person than just looking at a time that’s on a piece of paper.”