Since their de facto state title in 1961, following the completion of a perfect season with a No. 1 ranking, the Buccaneers haven’t sniffed the top of the Division 1 mountain apart from a regional tournament victory in 1989. This run into the Final Four is something to behold on the Lakeshore.
However, Grand Haven won’t be the only team chasing ghosts today at 9 a.m. at Kobs Field on the campus of Michigan State University. Their opponent, the Mustangs of Northville High School, have written a Cinderella story of their own this postseason.
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Northville is in the midst of their most successful run through the state tournament since a semifinal appearance in 1972.
While the Bucs’ historic threshold has long been crossed, the Mustangs have one more win before they are eternally etched into the Northville record books, one Grand Haven won’t give up easily.
The Mustangs have made their living in the playoffs capitalizing on rare mistakes from more talented opponents and by employing unconventional pitching tendencies, much like the Bucs.
Northville last defeated a juggernaut Rochester team after falling behind by an early three run deficit. The Mustangs continued to fight until a five-run inning propelled them to an eventual 9-5 victory. It seems these boys from the North thrive on sudden bursts of hits to manufacture their runs.
Pitching has been a strength for Northville, who has a solid three-man lineup they are comfortable throwing in any capacity to get a win. In their victory over Rochester, Ben Schmidt threw just one inning before longtime head coach John Kostrzewa made the switch, saying after so much time with these boys he knows when something is not right. The mound was tall at Wayne State for their quarterfinal, which does not mix well with a lanky pitcher like Schmidt.
Jon Michalak entered in relief and finished off the game with six innings pitched, five runs, fewer hits and even fewer strikeouts, leaving both pitchers and their No. 1 ace with plenty of throws remaining on their three-day pitch count.
The pitch switch is reminiscent of both the Bucs’ mound game and the managing style of head coach Mike Hansen. Kostrzewa recently earned his 300th win with Northville in his 13th year at the helm of the Mustangs and seems to go with his gut, just as Hansen followed what the baseball manual told him in the wild final inning of their quarterfinal.
Northville competes in the Kensington Lakes Activity Association, which is split into four divisions between the merged Kensington and Lakes conferences. Prior to this season, their last district title came in 2014, and they had never claimed a regional championship before this spring.
KEYS TO THE GAME
“Nothing should change,” Hansen said of the gameplan for the semifinals. “I imagine the team we play is probably more talented than we are. They will probably throw the ball harder and hit the ball harder than we do and all that stuff, but we will show up and see what we can do.
“It is baseball, whoever catches it, pitches it and hits it better that day will win. Maybe (today) will be our day, you just don’t know until you go out there and play.”
With both teams playing above their heads, two coaches who are willing let baseball rule and no pitchers present with a dominant strikeout style, this semifinal is looking to be a long one.
Coach Kostrzewa was quoted after their quarterfinal win saying their pitchers may not have the speed some other rotations do, but they have good stuff, similar to Hansen’s evaluation of his rotation’s lack of speed, but presence of mind and defense.
Defensive efficiency is going to be key for the Bucs, something they have not lacked thus far in the 2017 postseason.
In a unique twist, this happy-go-lucky Grand Haven team has met a team just as thrilled to come this far, something coach Hansen does not see as a distraction.
“They are mentally tough, they have been doing this a long time,” Hansen said of his squad. “We have been pounding them to make them believe they are better than they think they are. I think they are starting to realize, ‘oh, hey, maybe we can do this now.’
“We are just out here having fun. These kids have been playing together for years; they know each other so well. It is kind of ho-hum baseball, but it works.”
Intensity may take the cake in today’s early morning matchup, although I don’t think it will be lacking from either side.
Both teams are capable of scoring at any point in the game, but the Mustang offense is more prone to explosions of three to six runs. Grand Haven will have to buckle down to avoid being buried should they make a mistake in the field, which is hardly likely.
The improbable run of both these teams makes each of them tough to wager against. With so much magic and history on the field at once, anything could happen. The Grand Haven defensive unit has been unwavering throughout the regular and postseason. I expect them to stifle any momentum switches by Northville. As long as the Bucs get ahead early, I see a trip to the state finals looming for the weekend.
FINAL SCORE: Grand Haven 3, Northville 2