(This article originally appeared in the October 1, 2011 edition of Collegiate Baseball. The win streak continued into the 2012 season. Martensdale-St. Marys (IA) ended its streak with 88 wins while Portsmouth (NH) finished with 89 straight victories, claiming the all-time national high school record.)
By LOU PAVLOVICH, JR.
© 2011 Collegiate Baseball
PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Portsmouth High School (N.H.) Head Coach Tim Hopley has suffered through a torture chamber of horrors.
Sixteen years ago at the age of 25, he took over as head baseball coach of the Clippers and inherited a 30-game losing streak. Slowly, ever so slowly, he got the program back on track to the point of being respectable.
In his first year as head coach of the program in 1996, the Clippers won three games followed by successive years of two wins, two wins and three wins. Then Portsmouth finally got to five wins one year — eight another — then 12.
Four years ago, his team started winning and never stopped as the Clippers have now won 83 consecutive games, the second longest high school streak in the history of prep baseball and captured four straight state titles in the process.
Portsmouth is only behind Martensdale-St. Marys H.S. (Martensdale, Iowa) which is currently riding an 87-game winning streak, the No. 1 streak in high school baseball history.
It only took Martensdale-St. Marys two years to compile its streak. But because high school teams in New Hampshire are only allowed to schedule 16 games a season, it has taken four long years to compile their incredible 83-game winning streak.
“In each of the last three seasons, we finished 20-0 (including the playoffs),” said Hopley. “Back in 2008, we finished 23-0. After that season, administrators voted to allow teams in our division to only play 16 regular season games because of weather issues some of the northern teams in the state have during the early part of the season. We previously could play 18 regular season games.
“But the last three years in Division 2, all teams were only allowed to play 16 regular season games and four rounds of playoff games.”
The 83-game streak was in serious jeopardy last season against Oyster River (Durham, N.H.).
“We trailed most of the game and scored a run in the top of the seventh to take the lead by a run. Oyster River had the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the seventh with a chance to win it. Their batter hit a fly ball to right field. Our rightfielder caught the ball and threw the runner out at home who was tagging from third for the final out of the game as we won by a run.”
Hopley said that there have been other games along the 83 wins where his team trailed in the early part of games. But his ball clubs have been resilient and always found a way to win.
“Back in 2009, we were down in the state championship game, 6-5. Then one of our players hit a 3-run homer to put us ahead, 8-6 in the bottom of the fifth. We wound up winning the game by that margin.”
Hopley was asked how his teams have gone unbeaten in four consecutive seasons.
“It has been truly amazing to see this streak grow and grow over the last four years. The number of kids who have been a part of the streak is just over 40. Many of the best players on our team have been our hardest workers. They show up every day for practice and are the last to leave.
“And hard work is the backbone of any good team. In addition, we respect each opponent we play regardless of their record. Any team we play can beat us on any given day. The nature of baseball itself will find you losing because of one bad hop or one bad pitch. One little miscue can make the difference between a win and a loss.”
Focusing On Today
Hopley said his team is always focused on today and not what happened yesterday or in the future.
“We focus on what we are doing right now pitch-by-pitch. The guys have done a very good job of grasping on to that. Each day is separate and unto itself. If you take care of today, then you can concern yourself with tomorrow.”
Hopley was asked if he does anything unusual which allows his teams to be so consistently good. It is hard enough to win 20 games in row. But 83 games and counting is incredible.
“As a coaching staff, we try to be as consistent as we can every single day. When the players get to practice, they know what is expected. They know our routine. We don’t necessarily vary our daily practices much. We have two or three different type of practices that we utilize depending on how many days we have before our next game.
“We also try to prepare our players for as many scenarios as possible which might crop up. We had a situation earlier this season where we had one of our runners on second. A ground ball was hit up the middle, and the second baseman dove for the ball. Our runner kept going around third and scored because the second baseman wasn’t prepared to make the throw home.
“We practice that play regularly to take advantage of fielders who might be off balance and can’t make the play at home. Just because it might not seem to be a smart fundamental play doesn’t mean we can’t execute it to score a run.
“Our ball club utilizes two or three types of batting practice which involves batting tees, flip drills and play mini games where they hit the ball up the middle or in certain areas to advance runners. We are constantly working the hands and trying to put ourselves in good hitting positions.
“Making sure our players know the fundamentals of the game is crucial. If a runner is on second base with nobody out, you try to hit behind the runner to move him over. We try to play small ball effectively by getting bunts down. Our players work on reading signs properly on a consistent basis so they don’t miss them during games.
“The small things missed in games can kill you. So we try to have our teams very well prepared for games, and it has worked out well.”
Hopley said he has been fortunate to have some extremely talented players participate in his program the last few years.
“In the last three or four years, we have had six or seven players land NCAA Division I scholarships which is incredibly rare from one New Hampshire high school. We now have kids on scholarship at Massachusetts, Maine, Maryland, Wake Forest, Manhattan, and Northeastern. We had a kid turn down Yale to go to a university a little closer to home.”
Hopley said another reason for the success of his program is the hard work of his two unpaid assistant varsity coaches who have been with Portsmouth for the last 8-10 years.
“Matt Gladu has been a terrific assistant coach for us. He is a teacher at Portsmouth High School and an American Legion coach as well. He works with our outfielders and small game. Jim McKenzie is another guy who has been extremely important to us. He is our first base coach and does a lot of work with our infielders. As far as myself, I put a finger in everything.
“I make sure we are practicing the fundamentals the right way in a focused way. We trust that our players understand they have an ownership in the program. That is one of the big things we try to impress upon them from day one.
“This isn’t about me or my staff. It’s about the program and what our players are willing to put in and get out of it. If they are willing to put the work in, great things can happen. And obviously, that’s been the case the last four years specifically.”
Loss After Loss
Hopley said he is proud of where his program has come.
“When I took over 16 seasons ago, I inherited a 30-game losing streak. It was not something that happened over night. When I took over, we struggled for a long time. In my first year, 1996, we won three games (3-15) followed by identical 2-16 records in 1997 and 1998. In 1999, we were 3-15. In 2000, we were 5-13 and missed out on the playoffs the last day of the regular season.
“When I was a senior at Portsmouth H.S., we won the state title in 1988. We didn’t make a playoff appearance again until 2001. It was a long drought, and we were starved for it.
“Then we won our first playoff game in 16 years during the 2004 season. Then 20 years after our last state title in 1988, we won another one in 2008 by going undefeated (23-0). And we haven’t lost since in 83 games.
“When I was 25 years old and inherited the program, losing was extremely difficult for me. I will never forget that first year as head coach. I was certain I wasn’t going to make it out of that first season losing all those games. I knew there was no way I would be re-hired. But we managed to hold on and change the face and direction of the program.
“I am so proud of what we have accomplished over my 16 years with the program. It is directly related to the players and how they have put the time and effort into being exceptional ball players.”
It was brought up to Hopley that most coaches would have quit after a year or two of dealing with virtually all losses.
“I went to Portsmouth High School and played on a state championship team here in 1988. I was never the greatest high school athlete. I was a centerfielder and point guard in basketball and a thinking player. I knew I wanted to be a coach during my freshman and sophomore years of college. I made sure I turned myself into a sponge to acquire knowledge.
“The fear of failure was a huge motivating factor for me when I began coaching. It has taken us so long to get the program to the level that it is now that the players don’t want to be the team who lets the rope fall. As long as they take that mind set during the off-season and get themselves prepared for the middle of March when we start our season, then we will take our chances.
“Whether we continue on with the streak or not will be determined. Our ultimate goal is to be the last team standing in New Hampshire at the end of the season. We have been very fortunate the last four years to be that team.”
Small Things Matter
Hopley was asked if he changed anything in his coaching philosophy after having teams that struggled so mightily his first few seasons at Portsmouth H.S.
“I don’t feel the approach and philosophy our staff takes on coaching has changed that much over the last 16 years. We have always demanded that the players respect the game. Maybe in the mid to late 1990s when we were getting our feet wet as coaches, maybe we focused more on the big picture.
“We weren’t prepared to break the game down even further. Maybe that’s the inexperience of a young coach back at that stage where you don’t worry about the little things. In baseball, the little things can become a huge problem if you don’t pay attention to them.
“I know our teams have gotten much better by simply executing the fundamentals of the game. We had players in the early years of my coaching career at Portsmouth H.S. who weren’t able to get bunts down. They weren’t able to even make contact. In 1996 and 1997, we swung and missed at an absurd number of pitches.
“Something had to change. While our players came in with more talent and worked hard, we also made sure we didn’t take a standard, every day batting practice where a coach throws from 40 feet away on the field behind an L-screen. Now we work more on breaking swings down and keeping the hands inside the ball and being more selective with pitches our batters go after.
“And being able to do this consistently separates us from some of the other schools we play. You read a lot about the Yankees and the Red Sox grinding it out every day and getting into other team’s bullpens. Without consciously saying that to our kids, this is one of the things we do.
“During this entire streak, all we talk about is taking care of today. Back in the beginning of my coaching career, we were worried about winning five or six games just to get into the playoffs.
“But we have learned that if we prepare our team properly, our team should be able to get in the tournament every year. But we want to make sure we hit the ground running. The goal isn’t to just make the tournament any more. The goal is to win the tournament.
“It’s been a great ride, and hopefully it will continue. In each of the last four years when we have taken that joyous bus ride back from winning the state championship, I have taken the time to text our new generation of players.
“I would text something along the lines of, ‘This is Coach Hop, and we are sitting in the bus on the way home from Manchester enjoying the ride from winning the state championship. How will you prepare yourself to be on this bus next year?’ Our players have responded to that. The guys who have received those text messages have come in ready to play. They have allowed us not to miss a beat.
“Hopefully that will hold true into 2012.”