Braves return to MSU with goal of finishing as state champions
EAST LANSING — The Gladstone baseball team is in a familiar position. Last year, the Braves made it to the Division 3 state semifinals before being knocked out by Madison Heights Bishop Foley, but this year, they’re hungry to make it all the way to the top.
“(If we went all the way), it would mean our hard work paid off because our program at Gladstone shoots for this every year,” Braves’ coach Kelly Shea said. “We have lofty goals, and the goal is always to get to Michigan State. The pressure’s off us now because we got there. Now, we’ve just got to focus on winning the whole thing.”
The Braves have had a few close calls, including their 7-6 comeback win over Clare Saturday in the super regional, but their accomplishments this season speak for themselves; they won the Great Northern Conference in its inaugural year for baseball, shut out their district final competition and had the grit to come back in the aforementioned super regional. Their ability to make opportunities and capitalize on them has a lot to do with experience.
“Six of our seniors and three of our juniors — a total of nine guys — (were downstate with us last year),” Shea said. “We have the experience. We know what it’s like, and we’ve been there last year. We didn’t make it, so we’d really like to win this thing.”
The schools Gladstone will face on its road to the championship may be better equipped, better funded or have a deeper pool of players to draw from, but Shea and the Braves don’t have a problem being the underdogs.
“For sure we’re the underdogs because we’re a small school in the U.P.,” he said. “They have better facilities than we have, they can play ball earlier than we can and they have better weather, you know. We have no problem being the underdogs — that’s not going to phase us one bit.”
In that vein, the Braves have been working extensively with a new piece of equipment.
“What we’re working on … well, we brought the pitching machine out, and we cranked that thing up to 80-plus miles an hour because that’s what we’re going to be facing against Grosse Pointe (Woods University Liggett),” Shea said. “They have some pitchers that throw hard. We’re not used to that kind of pitching at that speed, so that’s the only way we can simulate it. We bought a pitching machine this year. We talked about it last year, and we ran into the same problem where we couldn’t get experience with those types of pitches. A pitching machine would be big to help simulate that speed. We’re letting the kids take lots of swings off of it, so the kids will be ready for that kind of pitch.”
On the defensive side, Gladstone is reinforcing the fundamentals.
“We’re just doing the usual,” Shea said. “We’re taking tons of grounders, working on our fundamentals, working on footwork and just working on the things that we’ve been working on all year. You know, working with our pitchers so that they know what their responsibilities are when the other team bunts and just the fundamentals overall.”
One thing Shea isn’t worried about is energy.
“Everybody’s excited,” he said. “Energy should not be a problem. To go to Michigan State and to play on that field in front of all those people, the kids are just really excited. So, I don’t think energy will be a problem.”
Echoing the feelings of the players, Shea said the community response has been fantastic.
“It’s been awesome,” he said. “We had a fundraiser (Tuesday) outside Pat’s IGA in Gladstone and Elmer’s (in Escanaba). Everyone is very excited for us, and they’d love for us to win the state tournament too. The support there has been fantastic, and we couldn’t do it without the community because we’re self-funded. They’re always there to support us through fundraising. So, the community is a big part of our success.”
The Braves leave Thursday for an overnight stay and practice in Mount Pleasant before heading to Michigan State Friday for their semifinal game against Grosse Pointe Woods at 11:30 a.m. If they win, the championship game is Saturday at 2:30 against the winner of Pewamo-Westphalia and Homer.
“As long as we continue to have good pitching, continue to play good defense and get some timely hits, I think we can win,” Shea said. “As long as we can hang around late in the innings and late in the games, I think we can win it.”