By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
A year ago, Richland Gull Lake coach Bill Blakely looked across C.O. Brown stadium and saw one of the state’s top power hitters of all-time – plus five sophomores battling through the nerves of playing in an MHSAA Division 2 Semifinal.
This spring, that big bat – catcher Zach Fish – played instead for Oklahoma State University. But now, the Blue Devils’ coach sees a team filled with big-game experience and capable of rolling despite the graduation of an all-state Dream Teamer or the recent loss of its ace pitcher to an injury.
Gull Lake is 34-2 this spring and 72-4 over the last two heading into Saturday’s District at Otsego. The Blue Devils are ranked No. 1 in Division 2 with wins over No. 2 Grand Rapids Christian, No. 7 St. Clair and previously-ranked Division 1 Portage Central – that last victory coming Saturday by a score of 9-7 in the Greater Kalamazoo Tournament championship game.
“They remember the games from last year, the importance of playing clean,” Blakely said of his team, which despite Fish's graduation returned this spring nearly intact. “They remember from last year that mistakes can just kill you, and you have to minimize those regardless of the competition.”
That perspective should continue to pay off as the Blue Devils attempt to reach Battle Creek again in three weeks – and this time advance to their first MHSAA championship game.
This week’s Second Half High 5 team honoree has gotten pitching wins from 10 players. Five have at least four wins, and together the staff has a 2.24 ERA. Three pitchers will do the same at Division I or II colleges next season – Nate Stegman (5-1) at Eastern Kentucky University, Lucas Hamelink (7-0) at Hillsdale College and Anthony Wargolet (4-0) at Lake Erie College.
That level of pitching depth is rare to say the least. But as of Thursday morning, Blakely still wasn’t sure who would start Saturday’s District Semifinal. Stegman, an all-state selection in 2011, suffered an arm injury a few weeks ago and might not make it back even if Gull Lake returns to Bailey Park.
So the Blue Devils also must continue to rely on a line-up that returned eight starters from last season’s Semifinal order. Three are hitting at least .400 – shortstop Colton Bradley (.488), third baseman Logan Holwerda (.467) and second baseman/catcher Patrick Gaudard (.402). More impressively, 12 players total have an on-base percentage of at least .400, and the team has 138 stolen bases while being caught only 20 times.
“We’ve talked about having the pieces in place where we could make a run for it,” Blakely said. “We’ll put the pieces together. We’ve won this year differently that last year – we’ve bunted a lot more, stolen a lot more. That part for us is completely new.”
But the pressure that comes now is not. Not only is most of the team back from last season, but Hamelink, Gaudard and junior Connor Owen were part of their 100th Gull Lake wins Saturday – the Blue Devils also went 30-11 when all three were on the team in 2010.
The tough part now will be extending the streak without Stegman. But that depth and experience will go a long way toward making it possible.
“The games when something is on the line, they’ve been more focused and less nervous,” Blakeley said. “And we purposely put together a difficult schedule to have that playoff game atmosphere.”
PHOTO: Outfielder Aaron Fadden is hitting .283 with 14 stolen bases this season after also starting for Gull Lake in 2011.