Lake Michigan Lakers continue to grow

Bennett Zeller, of the Lake Michigan Lakers’ 9-U team, delivers a pitch at a recent home tournament. The Lake Michigan Lakers program provides a platform for local youth to hone their skills on the diamond. (Dylan Savela/News Advocate)

The sports stars of tomorrow are sharpening their skills today, and when it comes to baseball, the Lake Michigan Lakers program is a perfect platform for development.

Now in their seventh year, the Lakers provide an outlet for budding local ballplayers to get dozens of games — and the invaluable experience attached — under their belts throughout the summer months.

“We get in a lot of innings and put players in a lot of situations,” said Dave Edmondson, vice president of the Lakers’ nonprofit organization, “and they get better and better because of it. That’s what we’re looking to do with this, and it’s the only way to grow: just keep playing.”

This summer, the Lakers mainly consist of three teams: 16-U (age 16 and under), 11-U and a freshly added 9-U group. A 13-U team has also been assembled for a handful of tournaments.

With more players than ever, an army of volunteers and a groundswell of support, the Lake Michigan Lakers have blossomed into something special.

“We’re growing team by team each year,” said Lakers president and founder Nick Fortier, “and it’s really starting to pay dividends in the kids’ development.”

Fortier, a 2013 Manistee Catholic Central graduate, established a modest version of the Lake Michigan Lakers in 2013.

“I was coaching Little League that year and thought there should really be another outlet for baseball players to get more games in,” he recalled. “Little League is great, but the kids only get 12 or so games in the summer, and that’s really not enough for a player or a program to develop.

“We started with only one team that first year — a 14-year-old group — but the next year, (Edmondson) came on board we were able to get more funding and get more people interested in it and volunteering.

“So it wasn’t just me; a lot of people stepped up to help put this together,” he added. “And we couldn’t do it without the volunteers: the coaches and the donors around town. Everybody wants to see it grow.”

In seven years, it certainly has already.

“Just this year we put in the 9-year-old team, and that’s what we really want: more interest at the younger ages,” he said. “We want the kids to start early and get better and better by the time they get to the high school level.”

Edmondson, who coaches the Lakers’ oldest group, is also the head coach of Manistee High School’s varsity baseball team.

“It really hasn’t trickled into the varsity program yet, because the majority of the kids who play Laker ball are going into ninth grade now,” he said, “but we’ll see the effects soon. … Over the next four years is when the varsity team will see the kids who have been playing for the Lakers.”

Edmondson expects the varsity team to improve because of the increased playing experience.

“For the Lakers, we go down to Whitehall, north Muskegon, Cadillac, Ludington — all over the place — and play good competition,” he said. “And it’s fun, because the kids who play in the summer are the kids who want to be good. They have that drive to get better, which is easy to coach because they want to be coached.

“They’re working toward something, not just to make the team,” he said. “They want to be a stud on the field. And at the varsity level, we’d like kids to come in with that drive and experience, and who have handled all sorts of situations.”

Fortier said on average the Lakers will play nearly 40 games a summer, from late May to early August.

“Depending on how many tournaments they play, they could get 50 to 60 (games),” he said. “Usually each team goes to about four or five weekend tournaments, not including the ones we hold here. And they’ll play scrimmages or doubleheaders on the weekdays.”

The Lakers hosted a weekend of tournaments in Manistee on June 21-23, and are scheduled to do so again this Friday through Sunday.

The U-9 team will be playing at Manistee High School’s softball field on Saturday and Sunday, games starting at 9 a.m. The U-11 tournament will start at noon on Friday and begin at 8 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday, with games being played at the baseball field in Eastlake.

Fortier said the home tournaments will typically draw 10 to 20 other teams to the area.

“That’s another thing about this,” he said. “When we host tournaments, it brings a lot of new people to town, and many of these teams like it here and want to come back.”

Fortier said he’s pleased with how far the program’s come in seven years and believes it will only get bigger.

“I’d say it has exceeded my expectations, especially with the amount of people who have come on board to help,” he explained. “This is what I envisioned, but you’re never sure when you first start. But now I know it’s going to continue to grow.

“The opportunity for growth is pretty big, especially with the funding and volunteers,” Fortier said. “And the enthusiasm for baseball is definitely up. Now that the kids see other players around them that love baseball and want to be playing, you can see a lot more excitement in the program.”

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Posted by Dylan Savela

Dylan is the county reporter for the News Advocate, he also is in charge of the Small Town Life, religion and senior pages. He can be reached at (231) 398-3111 or dsavela@pioneergroup.com.

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