ONEKAMA – After being involved with Onekama’s baseball and football programs for the past 17 years, head coach John Neph is officially retiring.

His friendly manner, funny quips, style and awards cannot be underestimated as he has been a significant influence on several student athletes over two decades including Justin Sedelmaier who is a former Onekama soccer player and defensive coordinator in 2022 and now becomes the new captain for the Portagers in 2023.

“It means a lot to me that players I’ve coached had an experience that they thought about so much that they wanted to coach,” said Neph. “It was such a good experience that they wanted to continue.”

Neph began his career at his alma mater Gaylord St. Mary from 1994 to 2004 and won six District Coach of the Year awards and two Regional Coach of the Year awards. In his final season at the school, the team had a record 31 single-season wins and entered the playoffs as the No. 1 team in Division 4 High School Baseball.

He became a Portager teacher in November 2004. He then took over the baseball team the following spring, where he eventually won seven West Michigan D League championships, two district titles, and four other District Coach of the Year awards. In 2020, Neph was inducted into the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. Overall, he achieved 425 victories in 26 years.

“It always seemed competitive in the West Michigan D League,” he said. “The players we had were really strong at being in every game and keeping it close together. And then we kind of always seemed to win some games in the late innings. We had some great pitchers… it certainly wasn’t easy. Our guys just wanted to do well.”

In the fall of 2005, Neph insinuated himself into the soccer program, transitioning between the middle school program, junior varsity, and varsity. He was hired as head varsity football coach in February 2017, the same year the school switched from 11-man to 8-man football, a transition Neph says has been smooth.

From 2017-19, the Portagers had the highest three-consecutive-season winning percentage in school history, amassing a 26-9 record (74.2%) and reaching the 2018 state finals, losing to Rapid River 30-18 Annual honors in the same campaign.

But it’s the semifinal win over Portland St. Patrick that Neph remembers most.

“The super season 2018 where we went to The Superior Dome (was amazing)” said Neph. “But I would say the highlight of my career as Onekama football coach was winning the semi-final game at home against St. Patrick. In the morning a big snowstorm came up so that the field was covered with snow.

“So, a bunch of our community members came in and cleared the yard markers and the lines…then we just played a perpetual power at Portland St. Patrick and our boys played brilliantly…I get goosebumps thinking about it again.” It meant so much to our community and our players.”

In addition, Neph enjoyed coaching his son Johnny, who was promoted to offensive lineman in his junior year from traffic jams due to an injury. As a senior, he transitioned to quarterback and defensive back, progressed into an All-State player, and earned a spot on the all-region team, one of four defensive backs to do so.

“He took charge and played left guard,” Neph explained. “He fought like crazy there and was often too small. He’s done some great things for us in terms of blocking… he came back his senior year and was the starting quarterback… that was a season that had a lot of difficulties for us and Johnny kept showing up.

Neph adds that the achievements are fond memories, but they won’t be what he misses the most. Those thoughts, feelings and emotions are saved for a much greater accomplishment – the incredible bond he has formed with the players and their families.

“All of these achievements are a direct result of the never-ending support of my wife, Betsy, and my children, Johnny and Sylvia. I’m so lucky to have such a wonderful family,” he said. “I’ve had lots and lots of positive feedback from former players who have thanked me for the experience playing on a team I’ve had the opportunity to coach.

“It means so much to me that they had a good experience… that’s the part I’m going to miss the most. It’s the interactions with the players in the hallways, in the classrooms and down the field in a competitive environment… those were special times.”

Neph will continue to teach at Onekama but says the coming fall will be different. He won’t be on the sidelines and occasionally he’ll relax at home, completely away from football, and that’s fine too.

“It’s like the first year I didn’t play football in high school,” Neph explained. “It’s a different feeling and there’s a lot of emotion… I’ll miss it. I wish I was still out there in a way, but I know now is the right time to move on.

“I am so grateful for all the support I have received from parents, the school administration and the Onekama community. Thank you to all the people who have served as assistant coaches on our programs including Phil Sedelmaier, Jason Torrey and Ben Mauntler. And a special mention to Justin Sedelmaier and Jim Kosiboski, who I was able to coach and who then came back to me as excellent assistant coaches.”

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