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Whitehall aims to make ‘better people and baseball players’ with annual retreat

Veteran Vikings coach Warren Zweigle takes young team up north in preseason to Eagle Village and Barothy Lodge.

Warren Zweigle wouldn’t care if Whitehall’s baseball team didn’t win another game this season under one condition: His players become better young men, better leaders.

Don’t misunderstand, the Vikings’ 28th-year head coach and Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer loves to win. He’s as competitive as the next guy. He’s coached great teams and fantastic players, many of whom went on to play Division I ball and even professionally.

The 2022 season has been a bit of a roller coaster for a young Whitehall squad featuring only one senior. The Vikings currently sport an 13-17 record – fewer ups than downs. But while Zweigle would like his team to earn more victories, he’s willing to sacrifice those for their development as people.

Photos by Scott DeCamp | CatchMark and Zach Zweigle

That’s why, in lieu of practice time in late-March, he instructed the Vikings to leave their mitts, bats and baseballs at home. Collectively, 14 players and a handful of coaches and chaperones headed north for a four-day retreat in remote locations where cell-phone service is spotty, first at Eagle Village in Hersey, then at Barothy Lodge in Walhalla.

No baseball activities and no distractions. Very little texting, TikToking or Snapchatting. All team-bonding and personal-growth exercises.

For a few days, hustle and bustle gave way to introspection and some tranquility.

That weekend, the Vikings grew closer as a team. They developed as people.

Video by Scott DeCamp | CatchMark

“We needed it. It helped us all grow closer – I think we all did,” Whitehall junior Jaden Brinkert said. “I learned a lot about everybody here.”

Said freshman Ryan Goodrich: “We were all together, we were all talking any chance we got. I feel we really grew close.”

Throughout his tenure at Whitehall, Zweigle has taken his teams on spring trips prior to the season beginning, many times in southern locations.

This spring, the Branch native decided to take the Vikings north, closer to his old stomping grounds.

Zweigle has previously taken teams to Barothy Lodge, a year-round wilderness retreat on the Pere Marquette River. But this was the first time under his watch that the Vikings have gone to Eagle Village, a 681-acre rural campus east of Reed City, where people can engage in adventure learning.

Whitehall’s softball team joined the baseball squad up north. The girls stayed in separate living quarters from the boys and they took part some of their own activities.

At Eagle Village, Vikings baseball and softball players took part in icebreaker and team-building exercises as well as physical activities in the ALC Arena, such as Giant’s Ladder, Rock Wall & Confidence Pole, and the Ropes Course. They were immersed in stressful situations, including tight-roping 15 to 20 feet off the ground.

Photos by Scott DeCamp | CatchMark and Zach Zweigle

That experience stripped away any machismo from the baseball players, forcing them to find strength within and put them under trying conditions where they found it beneficial and reassuring to lean on their teammates.

Watching his players achieve personal victories and break down barriers at Eagle Village brought tears to Zweigle’s eyes on a couple occasions.

“They’ve gone from being a little squirrely and a little flighty and a little distracted to really supporting each other and really reach out. Physically reaching out, and mentally and emotionally reaching out. It’s just really fun to watch and see,” said Jamie Samuels, camp and retreat center coordinator at Eagle Village.

“There have been a lot of tears. Tears happen all the time – it’s a very unnatural experience to be 15, 20 feet up in the air, and so you’re taking someone completely out of their comfort zone and challenging themselves.”

Samuels instructed players to write their team goals on paper as well as things that hold them back.

Jamie Samuels, bottom right, who is camp and retreat center coordinator at Eagle Village, helps Whitehall sophomore Ryne Christensen, middle, down from the ropes course during a retreat Friday, March 25, 2022, in Hersey, Mich. (Scott DeCamp | CatchMark)

Scattered about ALC Arena are signs on the walls with messages such as “believe,” “dare,” “dream,” “inspire” and “encourage.” Another sign reads a well-known quote by Mahatma Gandhi: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

“We use the equation of success: Events plus your response equal the outcome, and all we can control is our response,” Samuels said. “We teach a lot of, ‘What is your response in this really scary situation? How are you feeling and how are you going to control that emotion and bring yourself back to center?’

“So, despite the uncomfortable feelings that we all have every day – every day, without being 20 feet off the ground, we’re going to be in uncomfortable situations – it’s how we choose to respond in those moments.”

At Barothy Lodge, Zweigle guided his players through several planned activities that tested body, mind and spirit. Those activities included a Baseball History Quiz, Plank Challenge, Treasure Hunt Exploration and Aqua Trail Run. They took part in a billiards tournament. Brendan Schmehil, the team’s lone senior, gave a speech in front of only his teammates, who by the end rose from their seats and gave him a group hug.

One of the more notable activities from the weekend was called “The Vulnerability Warrior,” which harkens to Zweigle’s Indian heritage. Players were asked to write on poster boards things that hold them back in life. After applying war paint on their faces and clay on their bodies, they went into the woods where there was a light dusting of snow. Many wearing only shorts, socks and tennis shoes, the players raised wooden spears carved by Zweigle and stabbed their posterboards, which were attached to a clothesline.

Zweigle beat a buffalo drum and implored to his players, “Destroy it! Destroy it! Step on it!”

Before the team departed Barothy Lodge, awards were handed out to several players and exit interviews were conducted. Lessons learned that weekend were expressed by the players.

Zweigle is certain that five, 10, 20, 30 years down the road, the Vikings will remember that weekend more than any championship, any win or loss.

Whitehall’s baseball team started the season with losses in seven of its first nine games and the Vikings were sitting at 4-11 overall before they reeled off five straight victories, three of them in one day en route to the Greater Muskegon Athletic Association Tier 2 championship on May 7.

“I think it helped a lot because ‘Z’ made us go through some hard times that weekend (on the retreat) and we’ve been tested so far this year,” Whitehall sophomore Kyle Stratton said. “We’ve played some hard teams, some ranked teams. I think we know that no matter what, we still battle back and fight through it. I think we learned that from the weekend at Barothy.”

Said sophomore Ryne Christensen: “I definitely think we’ve become a way closer ball club. We all made a lot of friendships that weekend for sure and I think that correlates out on the field and I think everybody can see that we’re way happier … I don’t know, we’re just better in the dugout this year.”

Zweigle pointed out that young people have missed out on some experiences the last couple years because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He reiterated the importance of their growth and teaching them leadership skills.

The 2022 Whitehall baseball team is young and it’s taken some lumps. But the Vikings appear to be pointed in the right direction, regardless of what happens on the baseball field going forward.

“My ultimate goal is to make kids better people and baseball players. I don’t believe you have one without the other,” Zweigle said after the Vikings won the GMAA title, after which players lingered for several minutes on historic Marsh Field to take photos and soak in the moment. “I’m proud of how hard they’ve worked (leading up to the GMAA title) and I think all that comes out of there.

“They still believed in the process when we were 4-11 and got shut out five times in a week and they still believed in it and they were still willing to work hard and they’re still respectful. I think there’s a ton of connection to what we’re doing and what they learned and what they contributed up there (at Eagle Village and Barothy Lodge).”

Photos by Bethany McCullough and Scott DeCamp | CatchMark

Lead writer for CatchMark SportsNet and Web Services leader for CatchMark Technologies.

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