By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half
TRAVERSE CITY – Tom Passinault does not like to put unnecessary pressure on his Traverse City St. Francis baseball team.
So, when his team took over the No. 1 ranking in the Division 3 baseball coaches poll, he made it more of a lighthearted moment.
“We were joking when we got ranked No. 1,” Passinault said. “We said, ‘That honor is usually reserved for the football team.’”
But now, two weeks away from the start of the MHSAA Tournament, the 27-2 Gladiators are in that envious position.
And it’s no accident.
St. Francis returned its entire starting lineup from last season’s 25-11 squad. Plus, the Gladiators added junior pitcher/first baseman Joey Muzljakovich, who tore a knee ligament in football and missed last season; and second baseman Gabe Callery, who ran track last spring.
“We expected to be a good team,” junior catcher Cooper Peterson said. “We’re doing really well, even better than I thought.”
The only setbacks have been to Division 1 No. 15 Brownstown Woodhaven and Muskegon Mona Shores. The 27 wins are a school record.
Passinault is in his fourth season as head coach – and the Gladiators are closing in on a fourth consecutive Lake Michigan Conference title.
The keys to success? Pitching and defense.
“In basketball, you talk about how you can always play good defense because you’re not always going to shoot well,” Passinault said. “We (apply) that to baseball. You can always pitch and play defense because your hitting is going to be sporadic at times, although we’ve been pretty successful one through nine hitting the ball.”
St. Francis pitchers sport a 1.45 earned run average. Seven pitchers have earned wins. Muzljakovich is the ace. He’s 7-0 with a 0.58 ERA and has struck out 67 hitters in 36 innings. Junior lefthander Casey Peterson is 5-0 and has yet to allow an earned run. He separated a shoulder in the Mona Shores game, missed about three weeks, but has returned to action. Peterson has 42 strikeouts in 24 innings. Sophomore Keaton Peck is 4-1 with a 2.05 ERA, while senior Connor Sweet is 3-1 with a 1.48 ERA.
“First of all, there’s great depth,” pitching coach Mike Muzljakovich said. “We have four guys that most years we would gladly call our No. 1.”
Mike Muzljakovich believes Joey Muzljakovich and Casey Peterson will pitch in college. In addition to Joey Muzljakovich’s injury last season, Peterson missed time with elbow issues. Sweet stepped up and won 10 games.
Now, everyone is healthy. And with the MHSAA implementing pitch count limits, that depth is a blessing.
“When the pitching limitations came out, we felt like it would be to our advantage because we have more depth than most teams,” Mike Muzljakovich said. “That won’t always be true, but we’re going to ride it for the next three or four years.”
When St. Francis has needed an extra arm, particularly for weekend tournaments, Passinault has called up Josh Bradfield from the JV. He’s 4-0 with a 1.75 ERA.
“Normally, he would be solidly in our rotation,” Mike Muzljakovich said.
What impresses Passinault the most is the command.
“Our strikeout (207) to walk (56) ratio is very impressive,” he said. “We walk (an opposing batter) about every 3.2 innings.”
That’s not lost on the players in the field.
“We have phenomenal pitching,” sophomore centerfielder Danny Passinault said. “Our pitchers throw strikes, and our defense makes plays.”
The Gladiators are especially strong up the middle with Peterson behind the plate, Peck at shortstop, Callery at second and Passinault in center.
“Watching (Passinault) track a baseball is the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen,” Peterson said.
Tom Passinault notes that he has a “really good defensive team,” and he’s quick to praise his other regulars, including Sweet at third, Muzljakovich at first, senior Peter McAndrews in left and sophomore Artie Dutmers in right
“As hard as our pitchers throw, (Dutmers) gets a lot of action,” Passinault said.
Assistant coach Brad Peterson works with the infielders.
The Gladiators are also hitting .338 as a team. The leaders include Muzljakovich (.414), Sweet (.405), Peck (.395), McAndrews (.392) and Cooper Peterson, junior Matt Westman and sophomore Nathan Schmuckal (all at .333). Muzljakovich leads the team with 25 RBI.
“We’re getting clutch hits at the right time and scoring runs when we need to,” Passinault said.
A year ago, the Gladiators were surprised in the District by Lake City.
“Losing to Lake City did not sit well with us,” Cooper Peterson said. “It’s been a major motivator this whole year.”
“We had one of those games you want to avoid,” Passinault added. “In the tournament, it’s one (loss) and done.”
Passinault called the 2016 season a “unique year” because he did not have a senior.
“It made last year tough leadership-wise,” he said. “But the good thing is we brought a bunch of players back that had experience.”
Callery, who had played baseball previously, decided to come back after running track. He’s one of four seniors on this year’s roster.
“I missed it,” he said. “It’s fun being around these guys. Plus, I knew we had a chance to be really good.”
Passinault, who coached Grand Rapids Catholic Central to the Division 4 Football Final in 2005 and then turned around the Traverse City Central football program before stepping down after the 2014 campaign, said the Gladiators have “high goals” as the postseason nears. But he knows there will be difficult challenges ahead.
“One of the things we know we’ll have to do is beat a very good pitcher,” he said. “We challenge the kids – what can you do when we face that good pitcher? Not everybody is going to drive the ball in the gap. Is it stealing bases? Is it making a play? We’re really trying to get the kids to understand what they can do to make us better.”
It’s already been a good year for the Passinaults. Tom and Teresa’s oldest son, Noah, a senior at St. Francis, received a scholarship and will attend Notre Dame, Tom’s alma mater. Noah, who’s involved in band and choir, is thinking of trying out for the marching band, his father said.
“I told my wife, ‘I knew I’d have a son playing in that football stadium,’” Tom Passinault said. “I thought he might be a running back, but he’s a clarinet. It’s awesome. He’s going (to Notre Dame) for the right reasons. He likes math and philosophy and he made it into their honors college, which is quite a feat.”
As a sophomore, Danny Passinault has been a primetime varsity player in football, basketball and baseball. He was the quarterback on the 11-1 football team that lost a heartbreaker to eventual champion Pewamo-Westphalia in the Regional Final.
The Passinaults’ daughter, Gwyneth, a seventh-grader, just set the school record in the 70-meter dash.
“It’s been quite a spring,” Passinault said.
And it looks like it could get even better. The Gladiators will host the baseball District.
“We stress to the kids, that no matter what happens, it’s been a good year,” Passinault said. “We don’t want to put too much pressure on the end result. But we do have high goals. We want to go as far as we can.”
Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. He can be reached at email@example.com with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Traverse City St. Francis senior Conner Sweet prepares to deliver a pitch during a game this season. (Middle) Senior Gabe Callery stretches his lead off first base. (Below) Peter McAndrews (3) holds an Elk Rapids runner close to first base. (Photos by Toni Sweet.)