When a Lakeview baseball team with high expectations lost in its first game of the district tournament last year it was devastating.
The feeling of losing that came over the players was something they never wanted to experience again.
And for the players that have returned this season for Lakeview, they haven’t.
The Spartans remain undefeated on the season and jumped into the rankings this week, rocketing to No. 5 in Division I in the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association poll.
At 10-0, Lakeview is one of the few undefeated teams left in the region. And even though remaining undefeated for an entire season is unlikely, the Spartans are on a mission to make this season special and put the disappointment of last year behind them as they get ready to host the Lakeview Invitational on Saturday.
“After last year, and what happened, we have a chip on our shoulder,” said Lakeview senior Nick Jones. “We have the mindset that we can do big things if we work hard.
“Going into the season, you could tell there was something special about this team. We all love each other, all care about each other, and you can tell everybody is buying in. We are all just trying to play hard and keep going forward.”
It’s more than the fast start and the undefeated record that has given Lakeview some early confidence that this season could be big for the program. It is the names of the players in the lineup card every day as well.
Lakeview features two Division I college prospects as four-year starter Nick Jones has already signed with Eastern Michigan University. Three-year starter Nate Jones, a junior, also has committed to EMU and will sign next year. The Spartans also feature players still getting recruited at the Division I level in three-year starters Gavin Homer and Travis Snyder. All-around good athlete Skyler Nichols also returns as a three-year varsity player and has committed to play football at Kalamazoo College.
That senior group has been backed up by the pitching of Ethan Eldridge, a three-year varsity player as a junior, and underclassman Taylor Perrett, who is 3-0 already as a starter.
“When you have guys like that, it makes it easy to be coaches,” Lakeview assistant coach Kyle Kracht said. “These guys have played a lot of baseball at a high level and there’s some confidence that comes with that and I think you are seeing that in our early start.
“So now, the concern is complacency, being content. We want to expect to win, but we have to get it done. We still have goals ahead of us, win the SMAC, competing in the district.”
Goals that weren’t all realized last year.
Lakeview went into the postseason last year with a division title and 22 wins with the hopes gaining a district title. But when Grand Ledge rallied late to beat the Spartans, 4-2, in the district semifinals its 2015 season came to an abrupt end. But at the same time, the Lakeview 2016 season began.
“It all actually started last year when we lost in districts,” Kracht said. “Ever since that game ended, this team has talked about making sure they were getting better every day to get ready for this year. The guys were in contact with us all offseason to get extra work in, we started earlier doing stuff than any of the 12 years Coach Sov (Jeff Sovern) and I have been doing this.
“They know they can be good, but they are also humble. They know they have to go out and prove it, not have a big head, but put in the work to get better so they can reach their potential.”
Lakeview knows its fast start isn’t a fluke and the Spartans have a good chance to have a special season. Lakeview is the only undefeated team in the top 10 in the Division 1 state rankings currently, and one of only four total undefeated teams still left in the four divisions in the state rankings combined – the other three being in Division 4.
They also know having a special season is a possibility because they have done it before. Several of the top players on this year’s team are three- and four-year starters who were also part of a Lakeview team that went to the state semifinals two years ago. So with that as a backdrop, the players aren’t afraid to have high goals.
“Our fast start comes from everybody coming together as a team, we are pitching well, we are all hitting well, making plays in the field,” Homer said. “Our expectations are high. We want to win conference, then make a run like we did two years ago. We aren’t afraid of those expectations. But we also don’t want to be too cocky, so we are making sure we are putting in the work to accomplish those expectations.
“But I also know the guys on this team our very competitive, so it would be pretty disappointing if we fall short and we don’t see all of our hard work pay off.”
The early numbers, beyond the undefeated mark, are encouraging.
Nate Jones is among the leaders in the state in batting average at .571 with two home runs, with Homer, Nichols and Nick Jones all batting over .450 as well.
“Having the high-caliber players we do have means we have a target on our back. Plus the history of the program and our success over the years means teams will come after us,” Nate Jones said. “But I think we are ready for it. I think this team is special and we have a chance to do some big things.”
Contact Bill Broderick (269) 966-0678 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @billbroderick