Grandville Backstop Home Again Behind the Plate

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for

April 16, 2021

GRANDVILLE – Spencer Verburg understands his position on the baseball diamond isn’t the most glamorous. 

It doesn’t bother the Grandville senior standout one bit. 

In fact, he takes pride in his role as one of the top catchers in the Grand Rapids area.  

“I like to do the dirty work,” said the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Verburg, who recently signed with Central Michigan University. “Not many people want to do that, and everyone wants to be a shortstop or center fielder where you look cool and get the girls.

“I feel like a team can't take it to the next level without a dude behind the plate that is willing to block and get down and dirty to help the pitchers look pretty.” 

Verburg is a defensive stalwart who embraces the opportunity to help his pitching staff. 

“I like receiving because I’m able to stick pitches that other catchers would drag out of the zone,” Verburg said. “It’s such a confidence booster when you stick and steal one and it can change the whole game because your pitcher gains the confidence he needs and then he starts rolling. 

“I’ve always focused on defense because it's hard to find good catchers out there. I feel like so many people have focused on hitting, so I focused on catching where I knew not as many people would focus on.”  

Grandville baseballVerburg’s prowess and maturity was on display in Grandville’s first tournament of the season last weekend. 

Bulldogs head coach Matt Cook was impressed by Verburg’s ability to block out his offensive struggles and remain focused on his catching duties. 

“He didn’t have a great day at the plate and I sent him a text telling him that the way he talked to our younger pitchers, the way he carried himself behind the plate and the way he talked to umpires is going to pay such dividends in the long run,” Cook said. “He didn’t let the other things bother him at all.” 

Verburg is thrilled to be back on the field with his teammates after the pandemic wiped out his junior season. 

Last year was a challenging time for all spring sports athletes in the state.  

“It hit hard because baseball is such a big part of my life,” Verburg said. “I didn’t get to play with my teammates and see them every day. There weren’t any places to work out or throw or hit because so many places were shut down because of COVID.” 

The Bulldogs had just wrapped up tryouts before they found out the season would be put on pause. It eventually turned into a cancellation. 

“There was no way I thought they were going to cancel the season, and we thought we would just wait it out for a couple weeks,” Verburg said. “It felt like it dragged out, and eventually we sensed that we wouldn’t be playing at all.” 

Verburg had mixed emotions because he knew he had another year of high school baseball. 

On the other hand, he knew that wouldn’t be the same for his senior teammates. 

“I felt really bad because I’ve been playing with those guys since I was a freshman, and I’ve been through so much with those guys,” he said. “It was hard to not be able to go out and play that last season with them and know they were not going to enjoy senior night and everything else.” 

“It was heartbreaking for everyone around the state and the country,” Cook added. “Guys like Spencer and others who had been waiting in the wings and they knew they were going to be day-one starters and play every single inning. And then for the season to get canceled ... I know it was really tough on those guys.” 

Cook saw a noticeable difference in his players’ preparation upon learning of their return this spring. 

“They have been so locked in this year, and I think a lot of it is because they lost a year and are not taking anything for granted,” Cook said. “We’ve had our best practices so far this year than we’ve had in my four years here. 

Grandville baseball“Guys are more locked in because of that missed year. They don’t take practice for granted, and they want to be there.” 

Verburg feels blessed to have the opportunity to play in his final season. 

“I’m so thankful because last year it was obvious to everyone that things can be taken away so fast,” Verburg said. “This is the first year I’ve been able to play with all the guys I grew up with since kindergarten. It’s nice to go out and play the game that we love together and just have fun doing it.” 

Verburg has been on the varsity since he was a freshman. As a sophomore, he spent time playing behind then-senior Jake Paganelli. 

The following offseason, playing with his Diamonds travel team, Verburg began to show promise at the plate.   

The combination of defense and hitting helped him earn interest from college scouts. 

“Things just started to click for me at the plate,” Verburg said. “It’s this feeling you have when you step up to the plate and you knew you were not going to strike out. You knew you were going to find a way on base no matter what pitcher was out there and no matter what situation it was.” 

Verburg fit in right away as an incoming freshman on varsity.  

“He was business-like then, and had goals early,” Cook said. “We recognized him as a kid that was only going to work and work and work, It’s rare when you find a freshman that carries himself the way he did. He carried himself like an upperclassman.” 

The Bulldogs possess a lot of potential this year after winning 24 games in 2019. 

“I think we’re being slept on, but we're scrappy,” Verburg said. “I  think we can make a deep run in the tournament.”

Dean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for four years after serving at the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years along with shorter stints at the Ionia Sentinel and WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties. 

PHOTOS: (Top) Grandville catcher Spencer Verburg gets ready for another inning behind the plate during his team’s doubleheader against Grand Ledge earlier this month. (Middle) Verburg signs with Central Michigan in November. (Below) The then-sophomore drives a pitch for the varsity in 2019. (Photos courtesy of the Verburg family and Grandville baseball program.) 

Softball Standout Finds New Home in Addison Baseball Lineup

By Doug Donnelly
Special for

April 23, 2024

ADDISON – Alisha Gahn has a new bat, new mitt, and new uniform this season.

Greater DetroitThe Addison senior didn’t transfer schools or move into a new district. She picked up a new sport – baseball.

“She’s doing really well,” said Addison head coach Rick Gramm. “She’s adjusted just fine.”

Gahn has had a love for softball from a young age and jumped into recreation and travel leagues early on while starting to pitch to her dad, Kelly.

She played for three years with the Addison varsity with her dad a co-head coach. When Addison decided to re-post the coaching job this past offseason, Kelly said he stepped aside. In the aftermath, Alisha decided to not play softball for Addison this spring.

Baseball became a possibility, and Kelly Gahn told his daughter he’d support whatever she decided.

“I just wanted to do something,” Alisha Gahn said. “I didn’t want to sit around and be sad that I didn’t play softball.”

She started attending Addison’s offseason baseball workouts.

“She told me she was leaning toward playing baseball rather than softball,” Gramm said. “We talked about it and checked into it. Opening day came, she showed up to the tryouts and she did well in the cage, and she throws the ball well.

“She’s just got a mind for the game. The rules of baseball and softball are basically the same, so she knows what she is doing out there.”

Gahn, who recently turned 18, is having a blast.

In a doubleheader against Tekonsha on Friday, Gahn went 2-for-3 at the plate. She’s playing mainly rightfield but also has been penciled into the Panthers lineup as a designated hitter.

The biggest thing for her personally is she’s no longer a pitcher. Last year she went 12-6 with 177 strikeouts in 107 innings for the Addison softball team in earning a Division 4 all-state honorable mention.

“Pitching is my thing,” she said. “That’s what I’ve done for years. That is what I did. That was my place on a team. That’s not my place in baseball.

It took some time to adjust to high school baseball pitching as well.

“The hitting is definitely different,” she said. “But I think that is what we work on as a team the most, so that helps.”

Gramm said Gahn - who hit .357 in 115 at-bats in softball last year - can hit on this diamond as well.

Gahn, at bat, steps into a swing.“We didn’t know how she would adjust to the pitching – the smaller ball, the distance (from the pitcher’s mound to home plate). She connects. She puts the ball in play. She does very good at the plate.”

Gahn said she likes baseball so far. She's even adjusting to her new mitt.

“I always knew there were differences between baseball and softball,” she said. “Whenever I watch Major League Baseball on TV, it looks like a bunch of guys trying to get home runs. After playing it, I like it. It’s pushed me and forced me to grow in the other positions.”

One of main differences is on the basepaths.

“On Friday, I got a hit and got on base,” she said. “My first base coach was talking to me. I got a little bit distracted, and I got picked off. I definitely learned something.”

Gahn said her new teammates have been great.

“Getting to know how to interact with a team of guys is different,” she said. “I have to find ways to connect with them. We are all playing the same sport, though. We are just players on the same team, just playing baseball. It’s slowly getting more comfortable. (But) there are times I miss playing on a team of girls.”

“She fits in just fine,” Gramm said of her move to baseball. “She’s part of the guys and part of the team. They just want to play and just want to win. The team has taken to her. They know her, and she’s part of that senior group anyways. I think she is having a good, fun time. It hasn’t been much of a transition at all. She’s been a welcome addition.”

Softball is still part of Gahn’s life.

Missouri is one of the few states that plays softball in the fall, which means travel softball season is in the spring. Gahn and her family pack up on the weekends and head south to play on a travel team, something the MHSAA allows since she is not currently playing softball in Michigan. It’s a seven-hour drive, one way.

“At first I was just going to go down south on the weekends and play softball,” she said. “Then I got to thinking what about baseball. We looked it up, went through the rules and it worked out perfectly. The MHSAA says softball is not the same sport as baseball. I can play baseball for Addison and go down south to play softball.”

Gahn, who also dances competitively and golfs – she tied for 18th in the latter at the Lower Peninsula Division 4 Final in the fall – wants to play softball in college. She’s talked to a few coaches, she said, who are supportive of her decision to play baseball this spring.

“I’ve put so much work into softball,” she said. “College is the next step for me. I’m super excited. At the end of the day, I just want to play softball.”

Gahn said her and her family did have a conversation about moving to a new district, but she was against that.

“I just want to graduate with my friends,” she said. “Sports are important to me, but I didn’t want to uproot my life. The easiest decision might have been to just move and go somewhere else. I didn’t want to do that. I’m happy right now.”

Doug DonnellyDoug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Alisha Gahn hangs out with her baseball teammates in the dugout this season. (Middle) Gahn, at bat, steps into a swing. (Photos courtesy of Kelly Gahn.)