By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Blake Ballard looked out at the snow covering Gladstone last month and figured it would never melt. When he and his teammates finally played in their first tournament of the season April 20, the temperature couldn’t have broken 30 degrees.
It’s the annual plight of a high school baseball player. And Ballard and teammates are glad to enjoy it for the first time – as members of Gladstone’s first high school baseball team since 1959.
The Braves made their re-debut last month thanks to a full community effort that included deft advising from the eventual coach, creative thinking by the administration and school board and enthusiastic fundraising by parents and supporters – none of which is lost on a group of athletes who are off to a 10-3 start heading into Thursday’s doubleheader against Escanaba.
“Once we figured out it was going to happen, we were excited. Kids started practicing a lot,” said Ballard, one of the team’s two seniors. “It’s going to be pretty sweet later on. Whoever didn’t (play) will regret it.”
Gladstone has roughly 5,000 residents, and baseball has remained a staple of the community over the last half century – just not as the high school level.
Children grow up playing in the local little league and on travel teams, and then graduate to American Legion ball when they are older. But for any number of reasons – including weather-related difficulties in scheduling, low interest or lack of facilities – only 19 Upper Peninsula MHSAA high schools offer baseball.
At Gladstone, boys instead played and can continue to choose from track and field, golf and tennis during the spring. Ballard, for example, was a golfer before getting his chance on the diamond this year.
A football and basketball player too, he often was asked why his school didn't play baseball – and really had no idea how to answer.
Community members had campaigned for baseball in the past, said athletic director Matt Houle. He’s worked at Gladstone for more than 30 years, and has seen four or five strong pushes over the last decade alone.
But those efforts faced two challenges. The first was funding – all programs at Gladstone previously were funded by the school, but baseball if added would have to raise its own money. And the school also wanted to make sure to continue complying with Title IX, which meant finding more opportunities for female students as well if a baseball team was added for the boys. (Gladstone already has a softball program, and it’s one of the state’s best of the last decade with two MHSAA titles and a runner-up finish last season in Division 3.)
Enter former Escanaba baseball coach Don Lauscher.
He and two others keyed a similar effort that led to Escanaba High School creating a baseball program in 2002, and he also assisted Marquette when it added baseball four seasons ago. He had coached Gladstone Legion teams in 2005 and 2006 and Escanaba's varsity to a 130-27 record from 2007-11, but wasn't looking to become coach of a new program – he just hoped to lend his knowledge on getting it started.
Rallying the community was the easy part. And to keep with Title IX, Gladstone added self-funded co-ed swimming and bowling programs.
Supporters convinced the school board they could fund the program – and already have the team two years ahead on its expected financial obligations thanks to special events but also additional donations from local foundations and independently by other members of the community.
“Our community has always been supportive of our athletic teams. And being a town looked upon as a strong baseball/softball program, it was inevitable it would happen,” Houle said.
“People kept coming up and saying, ‘Congratulations Coach. We’re really behind you,’” Lauscher said of a recent breakfast fundraiser. “It’s amazing.”
The community is getting its money’s worth.
Ironically, an uncle of Lauscher's wife played on that 1959 Gladstone team. That didn't play into his taking over as coach, but he had other reasons.
Perhaps most of all, Lauscher missed teaching the game. He's coached it at just about every youth level and attended clinics as far away as Georgia and Louisiana, and enjoys passing on what he's learned. And life events fell into play to allow the opportunity to be assisted by his son Kurt and nephew B.J.; both played at Grand Rapids Community College and Kurt also pitched at Central Michigan University.
Again, because of the summer programs, Lauscher didn’t start completely from scratch. A core group including Ballard, juniors Christian Groleau, Christian Tackman, Sam Pouliot and sophomore Justin Jurek gave the Braves a quality pitching staff and some high school-comparable experience. Still, the team didn't have a catcher when practice began and fundamentals have been the focus as the coaches bring everyone up to speed.
As a whole, the 14-player roster has caught on quickly.
“Seeing the things these kids didn't know to where they are now, I’m very surprised where they are now,” Don Lauscher said.
The team plays at its local Legion field, which has lights and is only about a quarter-mile from the school. The Braves hosted their first “Parents Night” last week and truly are inclusive of the full student body with Lucas LaCosse joining Ballard as the seniors, followed by five juniors, four sophomores and two freshmen.
Gladstone’s other spring sports haven’t lost out much, if at all. The track and field team has 41 athletes and the golf team has 16; the tennis team is down to 11, but graduated a large senior class last season.
More Upper Peninsula schools are talking about adding baseball and softball, Houle said; Hancock softball played its first games ever Wednesday. Schools looking to get a program together would be wise to follow Gladstone’s road map.
“There is so much enthusiasm for it right now,” Houle said. “Just being at the diamond around kids I know so well, to see in their faces the excitement ... I’m very honored. There’s a great sense of pride among these kids.”
After the team's first four dates were canceled, Ballard threw the first game of Gladstone High's modern history.
“It was weird. (But) everyone liked it," he said. "It seemed like a big difference, playing for our school now."
PHOTOS: (Top) Christian Tackman (10) prepares to throw to first base while shortstop Blake Ballard follows behind during a game this spring. (Middle) Gladstone catcher Justin Jurek looks toward the dugout for a signal. (Photos courtesy of Lori Jurek).