The Grand Haven baseball team and their fans were riding high Saturday as they pulled off not one, but two seventh-inning wins to clinch the program’s first regional tournament victory since 1989 and their first-ever regional title.
The historic mark for the program was enough to rile up coach Mike Hansen and his Buccaneers, who couldn’t be happier to continue their season into mid-June.
“Now, we get to play more baseball,” Hansen said after the win. “We play all summer anyway, these kids are used to being with me into July, so this is old hat. Playing in the state tournament isn’t.
“You are with your buddies, playing baseball, it is summer time, and school is out for some of these kids. It is a hoot. They have fun, win or lose. These kids are going to have a good time, and we are just going to try and do it the right way. That is all a coach can ask for.”
With a grand stage to take on and the lights at record-breaking temperatures, focus may be tough for a Grand Haven team that has never experienced competition this far into the postseason. A fact that Hansen has been preparing his team to take in stride all season.
“Everyone we played now are exceptionally good teams, you can’t take anything for granted. We play baseball,” he said. “There are seven innings, if there is one out left, it doesn’t matter. I don’t give ra-ra speeches during the game. We don’t meet after every inning. We talk about playing good baseball, doing the right thing at the right time at the right pace.”
Late-game heroics have served as Grand Haven’s mantra this season, with huge wins over Holland Christian, Spring Lake and both their regional opponents in the final inning. The secret? Take things one play at a time.
“They are concerned with their next task,” Hansen said of his team’s mentality in tight games. “Field the ball, hitting the cutoff man, hitting a good pitch, I just want them to play god baseball.”
The Bucs will need to continue bringing perfection down the stretch if they want to sniff the final four. Saginaw Heritage will meet Grand Haven at Central Michigan University in Thenussian Stadium to fight for a spot in the state semifinals.
The Hawks sit at 31-6 on the year and are coming off an emotional 3-0 victory over Midland in their regional final matchup. The win gave Heritage their first regional title since 2010.
“I don’t even care about their record,” Hansen said when asked about their potential challenger. “They can ground out to second just like anybody else can. It doesn’t matter, we just play our game and we will be judge how we play based on how we play and not how they do.
“If they are hitting balls off the wall and getting shots and beat us 15-0, they earned it, but if we play well, that is fine, we will just play well, that’s it.”
The Hawks boast a Nebraska-committed ace on the mound in Spencer Schwellenbach, but the Big Ten bound junior took their regional win, so Heritage will throw their No. 2, Brandon Smith.
Rotation does not seem to affect the Hawks too much, over the course of their playoff run they have allowed just three total runners to score. Before shutting out Midland Heritage faced Alpena in the regional semifinals, defeating them 11-2 in five innings.
In the district tournament, the Hawks kicked off their playoff run with a drubbing of Flint-Carman-Ainsworth, 11-2, before shutting down Swartz Creek, 4-0.
KEYS TO THE GAME
With stellar pitching and stifling defense, the Hawks will not be keen on giving up late runs, the Bucs will have to work on early hitting and capitalizing on every opportunity.
Throughout their playoff run, Grand Haven has stranded its fair share of base runners, and utilized sacrifice plays to advance into scoring position. Every base hit will have to be employed carefully to ensure run support for whichever ace gets the start.
That ace will have to keep up with a high-octane Hawk offense, which likes to score early, often and in bunches. If the Bucs can keep calm and take the game one out at a time, as is their goal, the mighty Hawks may be vulnerable.
The Bucs are firing on all cylinders, it can be tough to remotivate after capturing a milestone, but I don’t see this Buc team getting bigheaded. The Hawks finished the regular season ranked No. 12 in Division 1. That fact alone will motivate Grand Haven to give this team respect.
It will take a strong performance on the mound, early hitting and a little 2017 Buc magic to push Grand Haven past Saginaw Heritage, but with the way the Bucs are playing, I wouldn’t bet against them.
FINAL SCORE: Grand Haven 4, Saginaw Heritage 3
First pitch is scheduled for 4 p.m. at CMU today, with the victor advancing to the state semifinals against the winner of Rochester vs. Northville at Michigan State University on Thursday at 9 a.m.