Father, Son: Diamond Rivals No Longer

By Pam Shebest
Special for MHSAA.com

March 18, 2016

MATTAWAN — As Mattawan’s Brady Neel stepped to the plate, the Kalamazoo Loy Norrix baseball coach called for a shift, expecting the batter to hit toward right field.

When Neel sent the ball into the gap between second and third, driving in a run with the hit, a voice in the crowd yelled, “Nice shift, coach.”

That incident during last year’s MHSAA Division 1 District still makes for some ribbing.

The Loy Norrix coach was Brian Neel, Brady’s father, and the voice heckling the coach was Neel’s wife, Lorri.

That situation will not arise this season.

After 20 years as Loy Norrix’s baseball coach, Brian Neel resigned so he can attend the games of his sons, sophomore Brady and 13-year-old Parker, a seventh grader at Mattawan Middle School.

“We knew with Brady playing at a different school (than Brian), that’s what had to happen,” Lorri Neel said. “Last year, Brian was blowing up my phone every game wanting to know what was going on.

“I am a little relieved Brian resigned his coaching position because family comes first.”

Brian Neel knew his son had a good chance to make the varsity team as a freshman, but didn’t know he would be a starter.

That made for some interesting table talk last year.

Both father and son had their first clash, a doubleheader, marked on the calendar.

“Right when I knew I was on varsity, I had the days counted out,” Brady said. “I DH’d that day, hitting fifth. I was kind of nervous at first.

“It was kind of a weird day. When I woke up that morning, we didn’t say a word to each other. It was awkward. I got to the field and just stayed calm and played another game of baseball.”

Said Brian Neel: “I don’t normally call pitches but his very first at bat I was just trying to strike him out. I kinda know where his weaknesses are.

“He doesn’t have a lot but I know where to pitch him. It didn’t work. After him, I just let the catcher call the pitches. It was weird.”

Said Brady: “I knew he just wanted to strike me out. I just wanted to get the job done and get that run in.”

He not only knocked in the run, but went 3 for 6 including a blast off the fence as Mattawan took both games, 15-0 on a no-hitter and 10-2 in the second, giving Brady family bragging rights.

The third meeting was at the District where Mattawan won 2-1, highlighted by the infamous “shift” strategy.

“Kind of weird how Brady (and the Wildcats) ended his dad’s coaching career,” said Mattawan baseball coach Cory DeGroote, who teaches physical education at the middle school.

Being a coach’s son is one thing that helped Brady’s baseball success, DeGroote said.

“I think there’s something about a coach’s kid,” said DeGroote, who has coached the Wildcats the past 12 years. “Your baseball IQ is higher than most.

“Brady’s an extreme competitor. He’s mentally tough; he’s physically just as big and strong as most of the kids on our team. He’s played at a high level for a long time. He just fits right in.”

Brian Neel, who teaches world history at Loy Norrix, said he didn’t expect it to sink in that he was no longer coaching until tryouts, but there is one perk.

“The winter was pretty busy usually,” the coach said. “On Sundays I was at (Loy Norrix) from 8 until 1 or 2 because there’s rules on how many kids you can have.

“So it’s been nice to sleep in on Sundays. I miss being there but I don’t miss getting up at 7 a.m. or when the day is crummy, contacting people about the schedule.”

Lorri Neel, who was an all-state softball player at Mattawan and is now a surgical nurse at Bronson Methodist Hospital, said her life should be a bit easier with her husband not coaching.

“It’s going to be easier as far as having a partner to transport, but I think it’s going to be a difficult year for Brady. If he doesn’t succeed, I’m afraid he’ll blame it on his dad being around.

“(Brian) and I never sit together, ever. I’m a crazy sport, competitive. He’ll ask me after the fact what I think and I’m like, ‘Well, you asked’ … I don’t hesitate to tell him.”

Neel taught physical education for 13 years before switching to history, and that had a huge impact on his son’s life.

“He grew up in the gym ever since he was able to walk,” Brian Neel said. “My players throughout my career have been outstanding to both my boys, like big brothers. He would go around shooting baskets, hitting off the tee.

“He played Little League until (age) 10, then played travel. We have a batting cage in our backyard and we have a net he can hit into, so he’s worked his tail off to get where he’s at.”

As this season gets underway, Brady, an outfielder who also catches, has his eye on one school record.

“I didn’t have any home runs (last year) but I hit a lot off the fence and had 12 doubles, three away from the school record, which is one of my goals, and I have three more years to do that,” he said.

Neel hit .313 last season, had 23 RBI and scored 14 runs.

“His numbers for a freshman were as good as we’ve ever had,” DeGroote said.

The Wildcats, who posted a 23-13-1 record last season, lost seven seniors to graduation.

They have just four seniors this year: Sam Miller, Mitchell Dundore, Kyle Woods and Nate DeBoer.

“We lost our Nos. 1 and 3 pitchers and have a bunch of kids who are going to fight for those spots,” DeGroote said.

Woods, Cam Doornweerd and Hunter Ashmus will pitch for the Wildcats and Miller, an infielder, will also log some innings on the mound.

DeGroote said this year’s players are committed to the weight room and morning workouts.

“As a coach, you get attached to groups,” he said. “If our preseason is any indication what our season is going to be, we’re going to be all right. It’s probably the best preseason workouts I’ve ever had. 

“We’ve got tremendous leadership, extremely unselfish kids. To beat us, you’re going to have to compete for 21 outs because our kids are going to roll up their sleeves and come at you. I like that.”

As for the rivalry with Loy Norrix, father and son definitely disagree.

“We’re a pretty good hitting team, put the ball in play a lot,” Brady said. “We need to get better defensively.

“I think it will be the same (Mattawan wins) because I grew up going to (work out) at Norrix with all those guys. I have a lot of friends there, so there will still be a big rivalry. There are few kids on that team that are on the Maroons (travel team) with me.”

Said Brian Neel: “I personally think that Norrix is going to beat them this year. I want Brady to be successful in the game, but I’d probably like to see Norrix beat them.

“But then the (Loy Norrix) parents will probably say, ‘They got him out of there and now they’re winning games,’” he added, laughing.

Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Brady Neel and his father Brian share a laugh during a game in 2015. (Middle) Brian Neel, Lorri Neal, Brady Neel, Cody DeGroote. (Below) Brady Neel catches during a game last summer. (Top and middle photos courtesy of the Neel family.)

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.)