Coming off one of the harshest winters the area has seen in some time, any indication of a warmer climate has been welcome.
And what better symbol for spring finally arriving than the thawed grass and clouds of dirt being kicked up on area diamonds, as the 2014 high school baseball season is underway.
Southwest Michigan has proven to be a hotbed for baseball talent, and 2014 should be no exception. There are several All-State caliber players back on the ball field, including Lakeview senior Jake Bivens, who is committed to play at the University of Michigan.
As far as teams go, this season will be a farewell tour of sorts for many area schools, as Harper Creek, Coldwater and Marshall compete in the Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference East Division for the final time before joining the newly-formed Interstate Eight. Pennfield, Maple Valley and Olivet will also say goodbye to the Kalamazoo Valley Association after one last go around.
Elsewhere in the area, Homer will look to continue it’s strong baseball tradition, as the defending Big Eight Conference champions hope to be playing well into June.
Any team that manages to still be playing ball June 12-14 will do so in a new venue, as Michigan State University will be the site of the MHSAA state finals for the first time after Battle Creek hosted the event for over two decades.
Here’s a closer look at the 2014 area prep baseball teams:
Battle Creek Central
Coach: James Young (third season)
Top returners: TreVahn Hale, sr. P/C; Nick Cramer, sr. P/OF; Jon Carson, sr. P/C; Jarred Miller, sr. INF; Jesse Mosier, sr. P/INF
Outlook: Despite winning just three games in 2013, the Bearcats never made it easy on opponents last season. And with a young influx of talent, BCC hopes it can turn a corner playing in the highly competitive Southwest Michigan Athletic Conference (SMAC) East Division.
“Last season, we just couldn’t seem to put it all together and take that next step. This season’s ball club is built a little differently,” Young said. “We are certainly younger, but much of that youth comes with talent. I look forward to seeing what Bret White can do at short, and what Riley Cramer can do at the hot corner. Tre Hale is a heck of a pitcher, and gives us a chance every time he’s on the bump. Jarred Miller is one of those effort guys, he does the little things that fasten a ball club together, and is one quality young man on a team full of them.”
Coach: Chad Dishaw (16th season)
2013: 19-9 (district title)
Top returners: Mickey Barea, sr. INF/P; Jason Mueller, sr. INF/P; Ben Sellen, sr. OF/P; Brennan Leson, sr. OF/P; Joe Stasa, jr. INF/P; Noah Hayes, jr. INF/P; Jack Thompson, jr. INF/P
Outlook: Coming off 19 victories and a district championship, the Beavers will look to continue the program’s strong winning tradition. Harper Creek will compete in the SMAC East Division for the final time before it becomes one of the founding members of the Interstate Eight Conference.
“We have a nice blend of returning players and new guys,” Dishaw said. “Our goals are to contend for the league championship and to be playing our best baseball as we enter the postseason. Our guys have been working hard towards these goals.”
Coach: Jeff Sovern (10th season)
Top returners: Jake Bivens, sr. SS; Jake Herbers, jr. P/1B; Nick Jones, so. 3B/C/P; Riley Davis, sr. INF
Outlook: After finishing runner-up in the SMAC East Division a year ago, the Spartans are back with intentions of finishing on top of the league. Leading the way will be senior shortstop Jake Bivens, who is committed to play at Michigan.
“Looking forward to a good season with lots of upperclassmen and returners on this year’s team,” said Sovern. “Exciting underclassmen are going to have to step up and contribute right away as well. Hoping to contend for a league championship and a district championship.”
Coach: Rob Moran (10th season)
Top returners: Tanner Dean, jr. INF/P; Tyson Banker, sr. INF; Andrew Eddy, sr. OF; Caleb Pizarro, sr. OF/P; Evan Thomas, sr. C/UTL
Outlook: Playing in the Kalamazoo Valley Association for the final time before it joins the newly-formed Interstate Eight Conference, Pennfield hopes finish on top. The Panthers will need their young arms to step up to make that happen.
“We have a good mix of talent this season and our goals are high,” said Moran. “If we can bring our young arms around quickly, we’ll be a difficult team to beat. Offensively we return two of our top hitters from a year ago in Dean and Banker… Competition has been high this spring trying to earn a starting spot and that should continue all season long as there are several spots up for grabs.”
Coach: Andrew Criswell (fourth season)
Top returners: Brent DeBree, sr. INF/P; Blake Groat, jr. INF/P; Nick Hurst, jr. C; Brendan Gausselin, so. INF/P; Zach Spiegla, jr. INF/OF
Outlook: The Tigers have strung together back-to-back 20-win seasons, and expectations remain high with a bevy of talented players returning. Junior shortstop/pitcher Blake Groat is already a two-time All-City performer, and will look to lead St. Philip to Southern Central Athletic Association and district titles.
“We will strive to improve our skills as individuals and as a team each and every practice and game,” said Criswell. “Our goal this year is to improve each day, have fun and win games. We have good young talent and leadership and we are expecting to do very well this season. We also have some freshmen who are really going to help us this year. It should be a successful season.”
Coach: Merl ‘Lucky’ Smith (fifth season)
Top returners: Devan Kinney, sr. P/INF; Hayden Bowersox, sr. P/INF; Ian Paulsen, sr. INF/OF; Devon Martinez, sr. P/OF; Austin Cole, jr. P/OF/INF; Preston Stemaly, jr. P/INF; Sam Wheeler, jr. C; James Phillips, jr. P/INF; Braxton Rivera, so. P/INF
Outlook: Athens’ three-win season a year ago is a bit misleading, because the Indians were competitive in arguably the best small-school baseball league in the state in the Big Eight Conference. With many experienced players returning to the diamond, Athens expects bigger things in 2014.
“Last year it seemed everything that could have gone wrong did. We were in position to win several games, but didn’t close the deal,” said Smith. “We have a lot of experience back with several three- and four-year varsity players and some good young players that makes us confident that this year we can get over the .500 mark.”
Coach: Rob Meyer (first season)
Top returners: Garrett Waterbury, P/SS; Jake Hall, C; Bryce Dolph, OF/P; Cody Rauschenberger, OF
Outlook: Bellevue could be a team on the rise, with an experienced roster that graduated just two players. The Broncos hope to make a climb in the SCAA and earn a district title after falling short in the district championship a year ago.
“Our goals are quite simple — work on individual goals, get better every day and improve on last year’s season,” said Meyer.
Coach: Matt Watkins (seventh season)
Top returners: Ryan Hagen, sr. P/UTL; Chase Carpenter, sr. SS/P; Blake Fox, sr. 3B/P; Logan Graybill, sr. 1B; Phillip Mandoka, jr. OF; Daniel McMichael, so. INF/P
Outlook: The Vikings fell a little short of a .500 season a year ago, and will look to get over that hump. Led by six returners, Bronson hopes to make a push for the St. Joseph Valley league title.
“We have a talented bunch this year with a good mix of experience, our versatility will be a valuable asset for us this year,” said Watkins. “I expect us to contend for a league title and be right there in the mix for a district title as well.”
Coach: Bob Millward (eighth season)
2013: 25-3 (SCAA title)
Top returners: Logan Simmons, sr. P/INF; Ethan Vosburg, jr. P/INF; Cody Campbell, jr. C/DH; Chase Audette, jr. 1B; Brandon Haynes, so. UTL; Kyle Bowering, sr. P/OF
Outlook: Climax-Scotts is excited about the return of senior pitcher Logan Simmons, who sat out most of last spring with a leg injury. The Panthers will try to defend their SCAA title, led by a returning All-State selection in junior pitcher/infielder Ethan Vosburg.
“(We have) solid pitching with experience. Still pretty young, with four sophomores, three juniors and five seniors — including two first-year senior players,” Millward said. “Need to score more runs this year and our defense needs to improve.”
Coach: Randy Spangler (26th season)
2013: 23-14-2 (district/regional titles)
Top returners: Grant Maurer, sr. P/INF; Ian Wright, sr. P; Ryan Mock, sr. 1B; Jeremy Harrell, sr. C/OF; Chris VandenHout, sr. OF; Brady Duke, sr. P/OF; Brendan Spangler, so. INF; Brandon Lewis, so. P/INF
Outlook: The Cardinals bring back plenty of experience from a team that advanced to the state quarterfinal round a year ago. Coldwater, led by 26-year head coach Randy Spangler, also hopes to improve on its third-place finish in the ultra competitive SMAC East Division.
“Obviously, we have had some success in the state tournament and we have worked hard to get to that point, but it is always tough to continue that success,” Spangler said. “Our team has to replace some quality pitching, so that will require some patience, but we want to compete for a conference title in a very competitive conference, and then hope our experience can help us battle for a district title and if luck and hard work pay off, we can continue the success we have had.”
Coach: Matt Swanwick (10th season)
Top returners: Ronny Moyer, jr. P/INF; Spencer Smolarz, jr. OF/P; Tyler Schipper, sr. P/1B; Brandon Hinkley, so. INF/P
Outlook: Colon is coming off an outstanding 2013 campaign in which it won 22 games and made a push for an SCAA title. But heavy graduation losses means a younger crop of Magi will have to develop quickly to sustain their success.
“We will be a very young team this year, with many underclassman seeing significant playing time,” Swanwick said. “With this young team, trying to be an above-.500 team and getting better and more confident every day will be good goals for us.”
Coach: Jesse Lyons (first season)
Top returners: N/A (9 returning seniors)
Outlook: Delton Kellogg begins a new era with Jesse Lyons taking over as head coach. The Panthers will look to continue their climb ito the upper tier of the Kalamazoo Valley Association after seeing a three-win improvement a season ago.
“The players have turned their goals in and winning the KVA conference and districts is at the top,” said coach Lyons.
Coach: Ken Duchene (first season)
2013 record: N/A
Top returners: Jordan Born, sr. SS/P; Bryce Doorlag, sr. C; Blake Patterson, sr. 2B/P; Dylan Whitney, P
Outlook: There’s plenty of new blood at Galesburg-Augusta as Ken Duchene takes over as coach for a team that features only four returners. Still, the Rams believe they can make a push for the KVA crown.
“We’ll be strong up the middle. My four returners will be leading the team,” Duchene said. “We’ll compete for the conference in my opinion, especially with the five good pitchers I’ve got. We’re young in the outfield, but we’re going to have a good year, I’ve got no doubts in my mind.”
Coach: Bill Blakely (22nd season)
2013: 27-3 (SMAC East champion)
Top returners: Drew Blakely, so. C; Jarod Burton, jr. 1B; Nick Miller, sr. P/OF; Walter Graf, sr. P/INF; Matt Kruse, sr. P/INF
Outlook: The Blue Devils have gone a combined 63-6 over the past two seasons alone, despite competing in a deep and talented SMAC East Division. But with much of the talent gone from those two teams, Gull Lake will have to rely on its returning players to lead it to another conference title.
“With two returning starters, we will be competitive in our third season in the SMAC,” said Blakely.
Coach: Scott Salow (14th season)
2013: 37-5 (Big Eight co-champion)
Top returners: Alex White, sr. INF; Jared Warsop, sr. 1B; Dylan Thomas, sr. P; Matt Butler, sr. P; Nate Sitkiewicz, jr. OF; Tyler Ridgeway, sr. INF; Chaz Hopkins, sr. OF; Kyle Winchell, sr. C; Steve Salow, jr. C; Brock Ridgeway, so. 1B; Preston Sherman, jr. INF; Gary Tomkins, jr. OF
Outlook: Coming off a 37-win season, expectations remain sky-high for a Homer team that brings back a wealth of experience and talent. First basemen Brock Ridgeway headlines a group of 18 returners, as the first baseman is coming off an All-State campaign as a freshman.
“Our strengths this year will be our athleticism and commitment to a team-first approach,” said coach Salow. “Outstanding team chemistry and a strong and passionate commitment to excellence, in the classroom and on the playing field, will also be contributing positive factors… As always, we hope to compete for a conference championship and to be playing our best baseball in June.”
Coach: Bryan Carpenter (13th season)
2013: 21-9 (district champion)
Top returners: Austin Gonser, sr. P/OF; Beau Johnson, jr. C/P/3B; Kyle Brumm, sr. P/INF/OF; Andrew Brighton, jr. OF/P; Sammy Benedict, sr. SS/P; Anthony Martinez, sr. P/2B
Outlook: Maple Valley would like to leave the Kalamazoo Valley Association in style, as the school is leaving to join the Greater Lansing Athletic Conference. The Lions have a lot of experience returning from a 21-win, district championship season, led by a first-team All-State selection in Austin Gonser.
“We look forward to continuing last year’s success with a strong group of experienced seniors,” said Carpenter. “Pitching and defense will be strengths. We look to compete for the KVA championship and another district title.”
Coach: Trevor Kelly (fourth season)
Top returners: Dan Welke, sr. P/C; Mitch Konkle, sr. INF; John Dorosh, sr. P/INF; Alex Walton, jr. 2B/OF; Drew Devine, so. SS
Outlook: Marshall hopes to improve on its fourth-place finish in the SMAC East Division in what will be its final year in the league before joining the newly-formed Interstate Eight Conference. The Redhawks have many seniors back from an 18-win team, so the hope is that translates to an even better season.
“We have 10 seniors this year and will rely heavily on their leadership,” said Kelly. “Overall this is a nice group of players that have played a lot of baseball together. Our team goals include winning the SMAC East and our district.”
Coach: Heath Otto (second season)
Top returners: Tyler Andrews, sr. OF; Joe Barr, sr. OF/INF/P; Dylan Coolidge, sr. OF/INF/P; Shane Loney, sr. OF/INF; Evan Davis, se. INF/P; Ty Pion, sr. OF;
Outlook: Olivet will seek its first and last title in the Kalamazoo Valley Association, as the Eagles are leaving to join the Greater Lansing Athletic Conference. Olivet hopes a strong senior group, led by Joe Barr, can help it go out on top.
“With senior leadership and teamwork, we look to be competitive in our league and continue to expand upon our postseason success,” said Otto.
Coach: Tim Brockway (first season)
Top returners: Jimmy Strock, sr. C; Bryce McCavit, jr. P/INF; Tristin Haylett, sr. OF; Tyler Powell, jr. P; Jordan Cekander, sr. 3B; Jake Rider, jr. P/1B; Ben Stayner, sr. OF/C
Outlook: Coming off 18 wins and a district title, Quincy hopes it can find similar results under first-year head coach Tim Brockway, who was the school’s JV coach for the past 23 years. The Orioles compete in one of the toughest small-school baseball conferences in the state — the Big Eight — which should prepare them for another postseason run.
“Jimmy Strock is the leader from behind the plate. The four-year starter will bat leadoff and supply plenty of speed to the top of the lineup,” said Brockway. “The pitching staff is dominated by juniors with a year of varsity experience under their belts. Quincy’s success will depend on quality pitching and eliminating errors on defense.”
Coach: Lonnie Newland (fourth season)
Top returners: Riley Lloyd, C/INF; Kody Brashears, INF; Mark Copas, P/INF; Andre Stumpos, P/INF/C; Johny Grafton, UTL; Jake Kempenski, OF; Justin Evans, P/OF
Outlook: Tekonsha is one of the more experienced teams you’ll find without many seniors in the fold. The Indians have a core group of juniors in their third varsity seasons, and some fresh blood has added depth to the program.
“Numbers are much improved and so is the competition level in practice,” said Newland. “We took a step to get better last season. We are still very young and hope to take another step and make it a bigger step of improvement this season.”
Coach: John Bain (sixth season)
2013: 23-8 (Big Eight co-champion)
Top returners: Hunter Johns, se. OF/1B/P; Nolan Loss, sr. INF; Darren Austin, jr. 3B/P; Cody Cable, sr. OF/2B
Outlook: The Chargers claimed a share of the Big Eight Conference crown last season, their first league title since 2001. But Union City saw an experienced core group of players graduate, so it will need to see players step up into greater roles to replicate some of last season’s success.
“Our numbers are down this year, but we will look to be competitive in the middle of the Big Eight,” said Bain. “Our goal is to improve each and every day through hard work, determination and competition.”