Growing up on a farm in Rolling Prairie, Indiana, Jerry Baltes knew coaching was going to be his career path. Those early morning chores were too much for him, he said.
“We worked long hours growing up,” Baltes said. “So, I tried to spend as much time in the athletic offices, talking to my high school coaches after practice."
Ironically, the coach who averted his chores as a youngster has earned a reputation as a blue-collar coach who stresses attention to detail and a strong work ethic to get the most out of the students he recruits for Grand Valley’s cross country and track and field teams.
“He does everything with excellence in mind,” said Keri Becker, director of athletics. “He’s got an energy that’s off the charts. It’s a competitive energy. He knows how hard the student athletes have worked and how hard the coaches have worked.”
Baltes is the elder statesman among Laker coaches. The 2023-2024 season will be his 25th as the head coach of the men's and women's cross country and track and field programs.
Just how far have the programs come in his time?
In his first year, Baltes could only offer 6.5 total scholarships to the student athletes on the men’s and women’s teams. Gradually, with the full support of the administration, scholarships increased. By 2010, the Lakers could offer the NCAA maximum of 12.6 scholarships to the men’s and women’s teams.
The trophy cases in the Fieldhouse began to fill quickly.
“It's been a collaborative effort from top to bottom, from university presidents who have been very supportive, our vice presidents, the administration and all the way through our coaching staff, student athletes, athletic trainers, communications and event staff,” Baltes said.
His track and field and cross country programs have become two of the premier programs in the nation. Since 2010, they have become two of the most prolific as well.
Baltes’ teams have won 15 total national championships since 2010 with the women’s cross country team leading the way with six titles.
The 2010-2011 women’s cross country and track and field teams may have the most impressive athletic feat in Lakers history. The programs became the first in NCAA history to win the triple crown of national championships — cross country, indoor and outdoor track and field — in an academic year.
Along with their 15 national championships, 67 Lakers have NCAA titles and student athletes have claimed nearly 1,000 All-America honors during Baltes’ time. Not to be overlooked, Lakers have won a remarkable 127 GLIAC Championships.
One of those All-Americans is on his coaching staff now. Alan Peterson ran for the Lakers from 2010-2014 and accumulated his share of championships while on Baltes’ cross country and track and field squads. Peterson was an 11-time state champion in cross country and track and field at Luther Wright High School in Ironwood, but when Baltes recruited him, he realized his performance could be elevated even higher, he said.
“It’s that worker type of mindset and attitude,” said Peterson, now in his second year as an assistant coach for cross country and track and field. “I’m originally from the U.P., so that resonated with me quite a bit. I wasn’t the best out of high school, but I had some decent results and definitely knew I could get better.
“I wanted to go to a place where I knew I could get better as an athlete, but also ultimately set me up for whatever else I wanted to do.”
Peterson became a two-time All-American running for the Lakers, a six-time Academic All-American and was awarded the GLIAC Commissioner’s Award in 2014 and 2015. As a professional, he qualified for the marathon at the 2016 and 2020 Olympics.
Like Peterson, senior Natalie Graber was immediately drawn to Baltes’ coaching philosophy. An All-State distance runner at Barr-Reeve High School in Montgomery, Indiana, Graber said Baltes transforms student athletes who are ready to devote the time and effort.
“By the time they come here and they get some good training under their belt, they are going to be competing to be All-American and competing for national championships,” Graber said. “You have to really buy into the program and commit to that hard work and go to practice every day. If you put in the work, the results will come with it.”
After 24 seasons, Baltes’ hard work may not involve milking cows or tilling fields, but there’s no question as to the crop of student athletes he’s nurtured.
“The hardest thing is it doesn't happen overnight, so you’ve got to play the long game,” Baltes said. “You’ve got to preach persistence, patience and perseverance and just continue to get up every day and put the work in and get a little bit better each step of the way and win the day.
“We talk about being the best you can today, so tomorrow you’re one step ahead.”