The roots of Jerry Baltes' track and cross country coaching career are quite literally in the soil, the grounds of the family farm where the former New Prairie runner learned the qualities that are fundamental to his success.
"Growing up on the family farm taught me a lifestyle of hard work," the Grand Valley State University coach said. "Anything you want to be good at, you have to work hard at it. That carried over. Cross country is a blue-collar lifestyle. It's not just the two hours of practice."
With 11 team and 52 individual national championships, 111 Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference titles and 780 All-Americans at the NCAA Division II school in Allendale, Mich., Baltes has earned GLIAC Coach of the Year honors 64 times.
"I get asked all the time, 'What's your secret?'" Baltes said. "I've never focused on the numbers. It's always the next race, the next competition, the next practice. We focus on the day-to-day process and work really hard. It's the combination of a lot of support, university administration, support staff, all the assistant coaches, the school building facilities and increasing scholarships to recruit really, really good student-athletes who put us in a situation to be very successful. They're the ones who get the job done, who make us look good."
Former New Prairie coach Doug Snyder may not have predicted Baltes' success, but he certainly called his shot when he said Baltes would become a coach during the team awards night his senior year.
"He was a real good leader and captain," Snyder said. "He loves the sport, he studies it."
Snyder collected stacks of historical information on New Prairie track and cross country and all the state meets dating back to 1945, a compilation known as the 'archives' and Baltes would spend practically every day after practice digging through it.
"I'd always tell him to put it back in the same place so I know where to go if I need to get it," Snyder said. "I'd ask him, 'What the heck are you copying down?' He had a notebook and he just filled up."
Baltes ran on three New Prairie teams that qualified for the state finals and also played basketball for the Cougars.
"I had a passion for sports," he said. "As a person, I was always very competitive. I had very high expectations. I knew at a young age I wanted to coach, to get a teaching degree. It was largely because of people like Thom Smith, Doug Snyder, Harry Beebe and Dan Shead that I got an opportunity to use athletics as a way to get into education. People ask me, do you teach? I see myself as being an educator every single day. I teach in practice, at meets, talking to kids in the office."
From New Prairie, Baltes went to Butler, where he lettered all four years and was team captain. It's there where his coaching career started as an assistant under Joe Franklin, who went to national success at New Mexico. In 1998, Butler finished 16th place at the NCAA Championships with distance runner Julius Mwangi becoming the first Bulldog to qualify for nationals in 27 years.
"It was a great opportunity for me," Baltes said. "We had a great partnership. Joe gave me an incredible opportunity."
Just 24 at the time, Baltes was hired by Grand Valley.
"(Athletics Director) Tim Selgo saw something in me," he said.
Grand Valley wasn't a track and cross country powerhouse at the time. In fact, it hadn't won a single conference championship. It promptly won four in Baltes' first season.
"We didn't have a bunch of super talented kids," he said. "We just raised expectations, instilled a competitive environment with higher expectations where we worked very hard and were really hungry to get better."
The Lakers quickly became not just a regional power but a national one, and Snyder was there in Louisville when Baltes and Grand Valley won its first NCAA title in 2010.
"I had tears in my eyes, he had tears in his eyes," Snyder said. "I said, congratulations, coach, and he tells me, "Two-thirds of the stuff I used was from your program.' It doesn't get any better than hearing something like that."
The women's cross country, track and field teams have won all three (cross country, indoor track, outdoor track) GLIAC championships since 2001, while the men won all three for a streak of five seasons (2003-07) including back-to-back sweeps during the 2017-18 and 2018-19 year. Cross country has a combined 35 top 10 finishes with 13 top five finishes and a national title in 2018 from the men, and 19 top five finishes by the women, including six national championships since 2010.
"Jerry is very interesting, but in a good way," said Boone Grove graduate Jordan Chester, a four-time All-American at Grand Valley. "He knows when to be serious and ask for everything out of his athletes, but also has a fun side. He always seemed to come up with quirky, yet funny sayings while we were in the midst of a difficult workout, things like 'ride the train' or 'join the party,' something you might have heard from the lips of Happy Gilmore almost. On the serious side, he knew when ti push is out of our comfort zones because he believed in us more than we did ourselves most of the time. He saw the potential we had."
Chester credits Baltes for her continued success in the sport, where she became a marathoner and qualified for the Olympic Trials.
"He helped to build up my confidence that I could achieve something like that," she said. "I think my favorite part about him was he would rather have a blue-collar athlete who was just OK than someone who excelled right out of the gate,. He's all about putting the work in to find success. That kind of drove me to strive for more than I could've ever imagined. He's no longer my coach, but he gives me the resources I need to succeed still, which I couldn't be more grateful for."
While the Indiana ties to talent like Chester remain strong for Baltes, his recruiting reach is now both national and international.
The Lakers began their postseason last Saturday at Purdue Northwest, dominating the GLIAC meets in typical fashion with its 18th straight sweep. Their national title defenses start with the NCAA Regional on Nov. 9 in Evansville.
"We just stay focused on the day-to-day process, what it takes to stay at a high level, to compete for and win championships," Baltes said. "Most importantly, what we do is prepare student athletes for competition in life, ultimately to get their degree and go out in the real world and be successful in their career."