The Buccaneers fell behind early to Northville in Thursday morning’s Division 1 semifinal at McLane Stadium on the campus of Michigan State University, and never truly found their footing in a 9-1 loss to the Mustangs.
Northville (30-10) advances to play Saline (38-3) in Saturday’s Division 1 state championship game.
“The game kind of got away from us early on,” said Grand Haven head coach Mike Hansen. “We got down 2-0 early on, and it just kept sliding and sliding, and we kept slipping and slipping, and never got a grip on the game. We’ve usually been pretty good at getting out of jams and slipping out of dangerous situations, but we weren’t able to do that today. Northville just played better than we did today, and that’s the result.”
The game started off with some fireworks for the Buccaneers, as leadoff hitter Ryan Mattson opened the contest with a stand-up double. However, the Buccaneers weren’t able to take advantage of what would be a rare scoring opportunity.
In the bottom of the first inning, Northville third baseman Jake Moody knocked in two runs with a double to give the Mustangs an early 2-0 lead and put the Buccaneers on their heels.
Northville would add another run in the second inning on an RBI single by Christian Williams, followed by an RBI bunt single by Kevin Morrissey in the bottom of the fourth to build a 4-0 lead.
“Even when we were down 3-0 and 4-0, I felt like if we could just get a couple of key hits or had a key defensive play that we could create some momentum for ourselves,” added Hansen. “Unfortunately, that didn’t happen today.”
The game was put out of reach in the bottom of the fifth inning when Northville’s Aram Shahrigian reached second base on a stand-up double, then stole third base and proceed home on a throwing error to build the lead to 5-0.
After a hit batter awarded the Mustangs a runner on first base, Jack Sargent crushed a shot to deep right field for an RBI triple. Michael Lionas would elevate a pitch to right field in the next at-bat, which Grand Haven’s Hunter Brown would snare and deliver a cutoff attempt to home plate. The attempted putout at home was ultimately bobbled and dropped, scoring Sargent from third and helping Northville build a 7-0 lead.
After another scoreless inning by the Bucs in the top of the sixth inning, Northville would add two more runs on a sacrifice groundball by Nick Prystash and a sacrifice pop-up by Moody to build a 9-0 lead and put the Bucs on the verge of being mercied by the Mustangs.
Grand Haven would avoid the shutout in the top of the seventh inning when freshman Owen Kizan drew a walk, senior Brandon Tuuk singled and senior Max Schweikert bounced into a double play attempt. However, the play would go awry for the Mustangs, as the throw to first base would sail over the first baseman’s head and score Kizan from third to cut the score to 9-1.
The would-be rally attempt would be snuffed out in the next two at-bats with a flyout to left and a strikeout to end the game and an amazing and unexpected postseason run for the Buccaneers.
“We went 6-1 in the postseason,” Hansen reflected. “If you go to any tournament and finish 6-1, regardless of the sport, you’re probably saying, ‘hey, that’s a heck of a tournament we just had.’ The takeaway is really that today will be tough for us, but it’s been a great overall season.
“Hopefully, the kids will only be disappointed for an hour or so, and then they can look back and say, ‘hey, that was one heck of a run we just had.’ One of the best runs, if not the best run, that this school has ever had in the postseason. I hope they can take that from this season, so when they are older, like me, they can sit around the campfire and tell stories to their kids about how the 2017 baseball team made it to the state semifinals and played at MSU. I hope these boys have a lasting memory for a lifetime.”
Hansen knew the 2017 version of the Buccaneers had a chance to be special, because of the foundation it was set on.
“I was talking to Nate Bonter, last year’s senior MVP, and we were talking about the makeup of last year’s team and this year’s team and how similar they are,” he added. “The big difference is that last year’s team couldn’t catch a break and this year’s team got a break. They also had the mentality that we can win when things get tough. The difference between winning and losing can sometimes be as simple as that, and this team had that mentality.”
That mentality served Grand Haven well in the postseason, as they entered their pre-district matchup with Holland hovering above .500 with an 18-15 overall record. The Buccaneers defeated Holland, 4-2, and then knocked off O-K Red Conference co-champion West Ottawa, 4-3, in the district semifinals.
The team’s postseason momentum started to hit its stride when they defeated Mona Shores, 6-4, in the Division 1 district finals and put themselves in position to make history.
As they advanced to the Division 1 regional at Jenison High School, the Buccaneers defeated O-K Green Conference champion Byron Center, 6-3, to win the program’s first regional contest since 1989. Grand Haven fully embraced their underdog status and took a bite out of another O-K Red Conference co-champion in the Bulldogs of Grandville with a 3-1 win and the program’s first regional crown in its long-standing history.
The Buccaneers next went toe-to-toe with a 31-win Saginaw Heritage squad that featured the state’s top-ranked junior recruit in Spencer Schwellenbach in the Division 1 quarterfinals. Grand Haven shutout the Nebraska-bound standout and his Hawks teammates to the tune of a 2-0 win to advance to the program’s first-ever state semifinals appearance Thursday.
Freshman Owen Krizan, who scored the team’s only run on the day and pitched one and two-thirds innings in relief of starting pitcher Sean Casey, credited the senior class for making the 2017 Grand Haven team a special one.
“It is a blessing,” he said after the game. “These seniors have coached us up and built this team and taught me everything, and if it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t be here. The seniors brought us here and it is just amazing.
“Their coaching ability, the way they taught us, is what made them special. If you made a play, you got a pat on the back. If you missed it, they taught you what you did wrong, and they showed you how to do it. The next time you make the play, they build you up. It was great.”
Hansen hopes this year’s postseason run will motivate the underclassmen, like Krizan, to work harder in the offseason, so that Grand Haven’s next postseason run won’t be a surprise.
“The young kids that were here that didn’t get to hit or play defense, I hope they got the impression that, when you’re playing against good teams like Northville in the semifinals, you aren’t that far away,” he added. “You aren’t that far if you simply play clean baseball. If you field the ball, catch the ball, throw the ball and hit the ball on the barrel, things are going to go your way.
“So, we aren’t that far away, but they have to bring that mindset to next season. The expectations might be raised a little bit, but now maybe we can have the confidence to compete harder in the O-K Red season and in the state tournament. That’s my hope for next year’s team, and that’s what we’re going to strive for.”
The Buccaneers lose eight seniors from this year’s team: pitcher/catcher Max Schweikert, center fielder Brady Jonas, first baseman/pitcher Sean Casey, pitcher Rick Struntz, shortstop Jake Hansen, third baseman Joey Zelenka, right fielder Brandon Tuuk and left fielder Kyle Hoover.
“It feels nice being in the record books, but I know these guys are going to come back next year and go farther than we did,” said Hoover after the game. “I know I left it all out on the field today, and I think the whole team did. We didn’t have our best game, but we played our buts off, you could tell in the dugout that we were all into it.”
Hoover’s coach knew this particular senior group would always be committed to the sport.
“This senior class means everything for this program,” Hansen said. “I think we had six seniors in our starting lineup today. They’ve been playing together their entire youth career and not one of them every quit on this team. Every single one of them wanted to play baseball over the summer. It’s June 15, and they still wanted to play baseball.
“That’s what’s so fun about this group. Sometimes you get a few seniors who graduate from high school, it’s May 25, and the beach is calling their names and they let all these other things get in the way of baseball, but not these boys.”
One of the boys on the roster — Hansen’s son — Jake helped make the memorable dash through the Division 1 playoffs even more emotional for Hansen.
“As a coach, I try to pull myself away from that during the moment, but I know next year, next month or next week, I’ll look back at that and say, ‘gosh, it doesn’t get a whole lot better than that,’ he said. “Maybe we could have played one more game together, but that’s about it. So, we’ll have lasting memories together.”
And after one of the more remarkable turnarounds in recent memory, this 2017 Buccaneer bunch will not soon be forgotten by the community that surrounds it or the history books that it keeps.