By Wes Morgan
Special for Second Half
All the pieces are in place for the Sturgis varsity baseball team to potentially still be playing in June.
As of Wednesday’s Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association poll, the Trojans fit in at No. 19 in Division 2, though the rankings are somewhat arbitrary as some teams on the list had played as few as four games.
But after a 19-14 season in 2017 — without a single senior on the squad — Sturgis fourth-year head coach Drew Rutenbar knew the program had an opportunity to do something special this spring.
With 11 seniors this year and a five-man junior class that made a significant impact last season, the Trojans are gunning to win a Wolverine Conference championship after finishing third in the league in 2017, which was followed by a disappointing Pre-District ouster by St. Joseph County rival Three Rivers.
“First goal on our minds right now is the Wolverine Conference,” Rutenbar said. “In my time as a coach, that’s the piece that’s missing and this group is ready to make that happen. This is a group of guys that I have heard about since they entered middle school. Last year’s season came to an abrupt stop, and we didn’t take care of what we wanted to do. These guys are all in.”
The seniors are Dalton Smith, Sam Leck, Korbin Whitcomb, Jacob Morales, Jake Abbs, Avery Cleveland, Brian Jordan, Brecken Stewart, James Campbell, Tyler Lovelace and Anthony Harper. Juniors Isaac Harper, Zach Chapman, Drew Murphy, Parker Stephens and Braydon Bathgate round out the talented roster.
At 15-2 overall and 9-1 in league play (tied with Edwardsburg atop the standings), the Trojans have upped their offensive production from last spring and outscored opponents 100-55. Seven players are hitting above .300, and not a single pitcher in the rotation has allowed more than six earned runs. Defense always has been a strength, but Sturgis adds more speed and power with this year’s lineup.
Murphy is 3-0 on the bump with a 3.51 ERA, Leck is 3-1 operating with a 1.47 ERA, Jordan and Harper are both 2-0 and Stewart, Abbs, Lovelace and Campbell all have won games, helping to preserve arms for the final stretch.
Abbs leads the team with 22 hits to go along with 13 RBI, 11 stolen bases and 16 runs scored. Murphy is hitting .396 with 19 hits and 12 RBI, Whitcomb is hitting at a .395 clip and boasts 17 hits, a pair of home runs and 12 RBI; and Stevens, who has appeared in 12 games, is hitting .452 with 14 hits and 10 RBI.
Cleveland, Morales, Leck and Bathgate all are hitting higher than .300, Stewart is pacing the squad with 17 RBI, and Whitcomb and Leck have eight steals apiece.
“We’ve been in a handful of character-building games that we had to battle back or make last at-bat comebacks,” Rutenbar explained. “Our four go-to conference pitchers have come in and taken care of business. And a big help to our success this season is being so deep with guys who can throw.
“As coaches, it’s our job to find how each team works best. This group is laid back, goofy and plays best when playing relaxed. If our dugout was quiet and we were putting pressure on them because a game might be important, they don’t play their best.”
Beyond experience, talent and atmosphere, there are sometimes other intangible factors that can take a team to the next level. Whitcomb’s expedient rehabilitation after a torn anterior cruciate ligament early in the football season has been priceless. Originally told he would not be healthy in time for his final year of baseball, Whitcomb beat those odds and has been a driving force for the Trojans both in his play and his guidance.
“It was a long five or six months,” Whitcomb said. “It was rough. I got back into weight training 2-3 months after (surgery). I’ve been working on my hitting, and I learned a couple new pitches in the offseason. We had a lot of potential last year and we had a decent season, but we could have done a lot better. That’s been our motivation for this year.”
That and simply not taking the ability to compete for granted, which Whitcomb clearly understands. The mild-mannered student-athlete has stepped up this spring to vocally ensure everyone else is on the same page.
“With 11 seniors it has been interesting to see who will really step up and lead,” Rutenbar said. “Korbin has been that guy so far for us. I think he’s just happy to be able to play baseball this season, and he’s doing everything he can to make sure they live up to their full potential.”
Wes Morgan has reported for the Kalamazoo Gazette, ESPN and ESPNChicago.com, 247Sports and Blue & Gold Illustrated over the last 12 years and is the publisher of JoeInsider.com. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Sturgis teammates congratulate Korbin Whitcomb as he heads back to the dugout during a game against Marshall on March 26 at Notre Dame University. (Middle) The Trojans enjoy a lighter moment during that doubleheader. (Photos courtesy of JoeInsider.com.)