Early End to 2017 Drives Veteran Sturgis

May 8, 2018

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.)

No Runs, No Hits: East Jordan Aces Toss 4 Straight Shutouts, 3 Straight No-Hitters

By Tom Spencer
Special for MHSAA.com

May 17, 2024

Playing shortstop this year for East Jordan High School admittedly has become rather boring at times.

Northern Lower PeninsulaThere hasn’t been a whole lot of action at what’s usually the busiest spot in the infield — no matter who is playing it.

Junior Eli Burns knows that better than anyone. He is the Red Devils’ regular shortstop. He also pitches.

Ryder Malpass knows what it’s like to play short this season as well – he’s normally in the spot when Burns is on the mound.

But he also has a feel for how little the shortstop does regularly for the Division 4 No. 16 Red Devils from his usual spot at catcher – receiving behind the plate for a pitching staff averaging almost two strikeouts per inning. 

Just recently, East Jordan put together three straight no-hitters and four straight shutouts.

“It’s good,” Burns said of playing short. “When you have confidence with your pitchers you don’t have to worry about the ball being hit to you that much.”

Ryder Malpass keeps an eye on a runner before making his move toward the plate. Malpass, a junior, started the shoutout string himself with a 4-0 win over Bellaire last week, when he earned the win throwing 5 1/3 innings with seven strikeouts while going 2 for 3 at the plate with a double and RBI. Junior Korbyn Russell closed out the game.

Then Burns started the no-hitter run in the second game that night with Bellaire, a 6-0 Red Devils win. Burns had 10 strikeouts and just a single walk allowed. He also tripled in the game.

This week the no-hitter string continued with 1-0 and 2-0 wins over Boyne City. Russell and senior Lucas Stone threw the Red Devils’ third and fourth no-hitters of the season.

Stone threw a perfect game across six innings. He struck out 12 batters on just 70 pitches and also went 2 for 3 with an RBI against the Ramblers. Russell earned the 1-0 win over Boyne City with 5 1/3 no-hit innings behind 11 strikeouts and with just a lone walk allowed. Stone followed Russell to pick up the save for the Red Devils, now 13-9-1 overall on the season and 6-4 in Lake Michigan Conference play.  

Russell is 6-2 on the season with two saves. Going into Thursday’s game with Charlevoix, he had struck out 92 batters over 42 innings while compiling a 0.86 ERA. Stone is 5-2. Before suffering his second loss of the season to the Rayders, his ERA was 1.17 and he had fanned 38 in 36 innings of work. Burns has racked up 17 strikeouts so far in just over 14 innings.

“It’s pretty special to be a part of something not many teams can do,” Russell said. “We have a special group of pitchers to get the job done.”

Stone credits the Red Devils’ defensive play for the pitching staff’s success.

“Our defense has helped the pitching a lot because they don’t make a lot of errors,” Stone said.  “It makes it a lot easier when you know they are going to make plays behind you.”

Korbyn Russell prepares to unload a pitch.East Jordan came into this week beginning to approach the state records for consecutive shutout innings and games. That ended yesterday in twin bill losses to Division 3 No. 11 Charlevoix. But the Red Devils still can chase the national record of nine no-hit games in a season. (No official record is kept for no-hitters by a Michigan high school team in a season.)

There is also no known record of any East Jordan team racking up three no-hitter wins in a row.

“I don’t think there’s been any stretch with three no-hitters in a row, so that is pretty special,” noted East Jordan coach Adam Grybauskas. “We’re kind of picking up where things were last year and trying to build on last year’s success and make it even better this year.”

The Red Devils captured a Division 4 District championship in 2023 and then a 9-6 Regional Semifinal win over Gaylord St. Mary. The season came to an end in the Regional Final with a 2-0 loss to Painsdale Jeffers.

Russel, Stones and Burns were on the pitching staff last year as East Jordan made that run. The Red Devils will host the District tournament this year as familiar opponents Bellaire, Central Lake and Ellsworth will vie to stop East Jordan’s attempt at repeating as champion. The doubleheader loss to undefeated Charlevoix ended the Red Devils’ hopes of sharing the LMC title with the Rayders.

“I think we’ve played a little bit better competition this year,’ Grybauskas said.  “Our focus this year is taking each doubleheader at a time, and try to get better each week.

“It’s really been game by game and week to week,” he continued. “You’re always looking to do better than last year so obviously that will be something we’ll talk about in the future.”

Tom SpencerTom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected] 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) East Jordan’s Lucas Stone winds up during a game. (Middle) Ryder Malpass keeps an eye on a runner before making his move toward the plate. (Below) Korbyn Russell prepares to unload a pitch. (Photos courtesy of the East Jordan athletic department.)