Area baseball teams prepare for postseason

Local prep baseball teams ready to defend their district titles as the postseason begins

HOWARD CITY — Area prep baseball teams will begin the postseason Saturday with the start of district play and many local teams will be looking to defend their district crowns this postseason.

In Division 2, Chippewa Hills (17-14) will be looking to win its fourth-straight district title as the Warriors head to Tri-County High School to take on the host school in the district semifinals to see who will face the winner of Saturday’s other semifinal game between Newaygo and Grant in the title game at 2 p.m.

DELIVERY: Pine River’s Greg Park sends a pitch home during prep baseball action earlier this season. The Bucks will begin Division 3 district play at home Saturday with a semifinal contest against Reed City. (Pioneer file photo)

DELIVERY: Pine River’s Greg Park sends a pitch home during prep baseball action earlier this season. The Bucks will begin Division 3 district play at home Saturday with a semifinal contest against Reed City. (Pioneer file photo)

The Warriors started their 2013 postseason run, which ended with a trip to the state semifinals, with a 3-2 victory against Tri-County in the semifinals last season and Chippewa Hills coach Ben Wright said he has the upmost confidence in his team right now after the Warriors started to put things together at the end of the regular season, including an 11-3 win against Big Rapids in a pre-district matchup on Tuesday.

“We are hands-down playing the best ball we’ve played all year right now,” Wright said. “This team is very similar to last year’s team and they’re ready to play. Two weeks ago, I would not have said that we’re ready, but we’ve played very well lately, especially in these last two weeks.”

Wright said the team has gotten a lift from a slew of players who have stepped their play up late in the regular season, specifically mentioning Tyler Williams, Hunter Conley, Zack Sellers and Austin Issette as players who have improved.

In addition to getting some increased contributions, Wright said the Warriors also come into the postseason finally having their full roster healthy after many players battled through nagging injuries during the regular season.

“I think we’re as close to full strength now as we’ve been as season,” he said. “We spent a large portion of the season dealing with some injuries. Now that we’re finally healthy, I think you’re starting to see what we can do when we’re at full-strength.”

For a program that has also won two-straight regional titles in the previous two seasons and has a strong tradition of postseason runs, Wright said the Warriors also benefit from having a roster that returned many key contributors from last year’s squad that made it to the state semifinals.

“A large portion of this year’s team got to play in the postseason last year,” he said. “They understand what it takes to win and they know the tradition of our program. They’re not ready to stop playing.”

Like the Warriors, Pine River will be looking to keep the district crown after taking the title the past two seasons in Division 3 district action as the Bucks play host to Reed City at noon to determine who will face the winner of the 10 a.m. semifinal between Lake City and McBain in the district final at Pine River High School.

The Bucks (24-5) took two games from the Coyotes (6-18) in their only meeting in the regular season and they also defeated Reed City in last year’s district final by a score of 4-0. For a pair of teams that are well-acquainted with one another, Pine River coach Shawn Ruppert said the Bucks will have to stay on their toes against the Coyotes if they want to keep their title of district champion.

“I think we’re feeling pretty confident, but we’re realistic that anyone can beat anyone when they postseason starts,” he said. “We’ve had some good games with Reed City over the years and we always seem to open districts with them. I think Reed City is a good team and they have some guys who can play. I think it’s a tough draw for us.”

Even with the loss of two of their veteran leaders from last year’s team in pitchers Lincoln Erickson and Devin Ruppert, who helped the Bucks reach the state quarterfinals last season, the Bucks have had guys like Greg Park and Mitchell McDonald step up and bolster the pitching staff once again.

While his pitchers have continued to do the job for the Bucks, Ruppert said after their pitching staff carried the team for most of last season, he believes this year’s squad is more of a well-balanced outfit.

“I certainly think our pitching staff is still one of our strengths, but I think we have a little more balance this year,” he said. “I think last year, our pitching staff really led us through the season. This year, I think we’ve been much better defensively and at the plate and I think we’re more balanced than we’ve been in the past few seasons.”

Just like Wright, Shawn Ruppert said he feels the experience many of this year’s players received during the Bucks’ run to the quarterfinals last season will prove to be a big benefit for the team this postseason.

“Those guys played in a lot of big games last season and this season,” he said. “They’ve responded pretty well in those games. We’ve laid a few eggs in some of those games, but we’ve played well in a lot of those games. Hopefully it helps our mindset so when the guys get in a big game, they know not to get too excited or get too down when something happens.”

The Morley Stanwood Mohawks (12-8) will be yet another team that will try to hold on to their district crown after winning their first one since 2009 last season in Division 3. The Mohawks will battle Lakeview in the district semifinals at 12:30 p.m. at Lakeview High School to see who will battle the winner of the 10 a.m. semifinal between Evart (8-14) and Central Montcalm in the finals at 3 p.m.

After grinding through a regular season of competition in the Central State Activities Association (CSAA), Morley Stanwood coach Josh Bull said he feels his young team is prepared to defend its district crown this Saturday.

“I feel like we’re very battle-tested,” he said. “Our league has really prepared us for postseason play. Our pitchers have really bailed us out many times this season, but we’re starting five freshman and sophomores who now are starting to get comfortable out there. I think at this point in the season, those guys aren’t playing like freshman or sophomores anymore and I think they’re ready for the postseason.”

The Mohawks have had the luxury of relying on one of the best pitchers in the area in Tim Cairnduff and Bull said the Mohawks will once again look to their experienced pitcher to lead them back to the district finals.

“Tim gives our team so much confidence,” he said. “He leads us in every statistical category as a pitcher. Tim is going to pound the strike zone and get ahead of batters. He puts batters in defensive counts and he is a guy that’s so competitive and who isn’t sacred to battle with anyone.”

Bull said the biggest improvement he’s seen from Cairnduff as the season has went on is Cairnduff’s ability to trust the defenders playing behind him.

“Early in the year, he was going five innings a game and piling up 10 or 12 strikeouts a game,” Bull said. “Now, he’s relying more on his defense and he’s done a great job getting guys in defensive pitch counts to where he can use his changeup and other pitches to get the batters to hit a soft ground ball and let our defense do the rest. We really worked with him on his changeup this year and he’s been able to stay in games longer as the season’s went on.

“He can still reach back and strike out guys when he needs to, but he’s definitely gained a lot of trust in his defense as the season’s went on,” he added.

In addition to Cairnduff, Bull said the Mohawks have gotten increased production at the plate from players like Chase Huntey, Mike Carey and Tom Carey as the season has progressed.

“Chase is our leadoff guy and he is hitting near .500 for the season,” Bull said. “He does a great job at the plate and running bases. He’s as good or even better that some of the better players in our area. Mike Carey has hit in our No. 3 hole and he’s a kid that is leading us in every power statistic that Chase isn’t leading. Tom Carey is hitting in that No. 5 hole and he’s done a great job of getting on base and advancing runners. He’s also only made one error in centerfield all season, so we’re going to need that kind of defensive play in the outfield on Saturday.”

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