St Francis, Frankfort Setting Title Sights

April 6, 2018

By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half

TRAVERSE CITY – After an MRI earlier this year revealed a torn labrum in his right shoulder, Traverse City St. Francis all-state pitcher Joey Muzljakovich decided on surgery that would end his senior season before it even started.

Then, Wayne State University coaches intervened.

“I was scheduled to have surgery two weeks after the MRI,” said the 18-year-old, who signed with Wayne State in November. “Wayne State called back and (the coaches) were super nice about it. They said, ‘Play your senior year.’ They said there was the potential that I could (damage it further) if I pitched or played third, where I would throw a lot, but that I could play first and hit. I’ll have to be careful with how intense my throws are (at first), but I’m so thankful for the opportunity.”

Muzljakovich, who said he will meet with the orthopedic surgeon at Wayne State and set a date for surgery after the season concludes, is a key cog for the Gladiators, who went 38-4 and finished runner-up to Madison Heights Bishop Foley in the MHSAA Division 3 Final last spring.

The Gladiators are ranked No. 2 in this spring’s preseason state coaches poll. A school St. Francis has close ties with, Frankfort, is ranked No. 1 in Division 4. Five St. Francis and two Frankfort players were on the A. Green North travel team last summer. The team was coached by Frankfort’s Mike Zimmerman, who was assisted by Gladiators head coach Tom Passinault. The team competed in tournaments across Michigan and the Midwest.

“(The St. Francis players have) become some of my best friends,” said Panthers catcher Brett Zimmerman, who was recently named a Collegiate Baseball preseason All-American. “We play and travel so much together in the summer that I know them about as well as I know my teammates at Frankfort.”

Coincidentally, Zimmerman and Muzljakovich will be teammates and roommates at Wayne State. The two were among six recruits the Warriors announced in November. Zimmerman’s older brother, Kyle, previously played for Wayne State.

Frankfort finished 36-1 a year ago. Its MHSAA title hopes were dashed in the Regional with a 2-1 10-inning loss to Muskegon Catholic Central.

Both the Panthers and Gladiators, who have ramped up their schedules, return talented rosters. And the St. Francis roster still includes Muzljakovich, who was the Traverse City Record-Eagle Player of the Year as a junior. On the mound, the righthander was 10-0 with a 0.58 ERA. He struck out 102 batters in 60 1/3  innings. At the plate, he hit .425 with two home runs and 35 RBI. He scored 38 runs.

“It was a devastating blow when we thought he wasn’t going to play at all,” Passinault said. “He was set to have surgery in February. It was very classy what Wayne State did. He had already signed with them.

“Just his presence on the field makes us better. The kids look up to him. He’s a natural leader.”

Casey Peterson, who teamed with Muzljakovich to give the Gladiators a potent one-two combination on the mound, will be the ace. The University of Dayton signee went 9-2 with a 0.47 ERA last season.

“He’s the man,” Muzljakovich said.

Juniors Josh Bradfield (5-0 with a 1.44 ERA) and Tyler Prichard will battle for rotational spots, too. Juniors Keaton Peck (5-1 with a 1.90 ERA) and Danny Passinault (3-0 with a 3.73 ERA) add experience, but their value in the field gives Tom Passinault pause to pitch them too much.

A year ago, Gladiators pitchers tossed seven consecutive shutouts.

“We were two innings off the state record,” Passinault said.

Pitchers were aided by a lockdown defense.

“That was a key last year,” Passinault said. “We were really good on defense. We made very few errors.”

With Cooper Peterson, a Hillsdale signee, behind the plate, Peck at shortstop and Danny Passinault in centerfield, St. Francis is strong up the middle.

At the plate, Peck hit .388 and drove in 28 runs last season. Peterson, who will probably bat fifth behind Muzljakovich, had a .330 average with three home runs and 28 RBI. Outfielder Artie Dutmers, who can also play the infield, hit .289 while Passinault was at .284.

The 38 wins last season set a school record.

“The road’s a little tougher – we play 11 games against Division 1 schools – but I think we’ll be good,” Passinault said. “Our thought (in scheduling) was that facing better pitching during the year will prepare us for the tournament. We may not have as impressive a record, but that’s not the goal. The goal is to try to get to East Lansing (for the MHSAA Finals).”

One thing is certain: The Gladiators will not sneak up on anybody.

“Last year we went into the season unranked, unproven because we had lost in the Districts the year before,” Muzljakovich said. “Nobody thought we were going to be good. We were the underdogs.

“Now, coming into this season, we have high hopes. We know we’ll have a target on our backs. We’ll have to be on our toes.”

Optimism is high at Frankfort, too. Mike Zimmerman returns three of his top four pitchers in Jack Morrow (11-0 with a 0.97 ERA), Kirk Myers (12-1) and James Eno. Morrow, who struck out 94 in 65 innings, will pitch at Albion College next season.

In the field, the Panthers will have veteran experience with Matt Stefanski (.422) at first, Myers (.404) at short, Adam Witkop at third, Griffin Kelly (.434) in center, Eno (.400) in right, Morrow (.407) in left and, of course, Brett Zimmerman (.506 with five home runs and 39 RBI) behind the plate.

“It’s a well-rounded team,” Mike Zimmerman said. “Our pitchers do a nice job of keeping guys off base and Brett does a nice job stopping guys from running. He threw out 80 percent of runners trying to steal last year.

“And offensively, you can’t pitch around one or two guys. We have any number of guys that can hurt you.”

The first three hitters in the lineup can run. Kelly, Myers and Zimmerman combined for 89 steals last season.

Brett Zimmerman said the players are as tight as any team he’s played on.

“We’re always finding ways to get together and make connections,” he said. “The other night we all went to a restaurant to watch the national championship basketball game. When you can (bond) like that it really helps build trust.”

Although his dad was a coach and his older brother a star player, Brett Zimmerman didn’t pick up baseball until he was 9. He was into motocross until an accident prompted him to turn to baseball.

Meanwhile, Kelly, Stefanski and Myers are all three-sport standouts. Kelly and Stefanski signed to play football at Northern Michigan and Grand Valley, respectively.

A year ago, the Panthers were riding high and ranked No. 1 when they fell to Muskegon Catholic.

“We had our chances,” Mike Zimmerman said. “It was a fun game. We couldn’t get the break when we needed it. They did. That’s baseball.”

“It was a heartbreaker,” Brett Zimmerman added. “We had high expectations.

“And we have expectations this year. We’re fortunate to be ranked No. 1 going into the season, but we know that number on the rankings sheet means nothing if you don’t win the last game of the season. We had one loss last year, and everybody was mad and devastated.”

Like St. Francis, which is scheduled to open at Coldwater on Saturday, Frankfort has beefed up its schedule to include Climax-Scotts, Muskegon Catholic and Traverse City Central in nonleague play. This week’s games with Gaylord and Kalkaska were wiped out by a spring snowstorm.

“It’s northern Michigan,” Mike Zimmerman said. “There’s nothing you can do to change it.”

The delay – St. Francis has been on the diamond once this preseason – doesn’t bother Muzljakovich. He’s just glad to be able to play this season.

He believes he suffered the shoulder injury in football, although he doesn’t remember one particular play that caused it. As a middle linebacker-fullback, Muzljakovich rarely came off the field for the 11-2 Gladiators.

“There were times my shoulder would ache, but I didn’t think it was anything big,” he said.

After Danny Passinault, the quarterback, went down with a broken collarbone during the season, the Gladiators decided to add trickery to the playbook just in case they might need a jolt on offense.

In the playoff game with Maple City Glen Lake, St. Francis went to its bag of tricks with a direct snap to Muzljakovich, who took off as if to run. He pulled up and tossed a touchdown pass.

On the play, however, he again felt pain in his shoulder.

“Oh, it will get better,” he rationalized.

But once football ended, and he started throwing in weekly workouts with his summer travel team, the shoulder continued to bother him.

“I couldn’t get loose,” he said. “It felt tight … and it was aching.”

So he started physical therapy and called Wayne State to let the staff know what was happening. He said the staff told him to continue with physical therapy, but if he didn’t notice any improvement he should go in for an MRI.

Muzljakovich was heartbroken when he learned of the MRI results.

“I was holding back the tears,” he admitted. “I didn’t want my high school career to end like that.”

The decision was made to have surgery almost immediately so Muzljakovich could start the recovery process and improve his odds of pitching at Wayne State as a freshman. He said the subsequent phone call to Wayne State was not easy.

“I was trembling in my boots,” he said. “I didn’t know how they would take it. I felt I let them down. But they are outstanding coaches and even better people. I am so grateful.”

He also called Brett Zimmerman, who has been one of his catchers in travel ball the last two summers.

“It was tough for me to hear that,” Zimmerman recalled. “I know his passion, the work he’s put in. At that time, he didn’t think he would get his senior season in. I felt terrible for him.”

Two years ago, as a sophomore, Muzljakovich tore a knee ligament in football and had to sit out the baseball season. At that time, he thought about giving up football.

“Baseball is my first love,” he said. “I didn’t want to mess it up with another injury.”

But not wanting to let his teammates and coaches down, Muzljakovich decided to give football “another year to see how it goes.”

“My junior year went great,” he said. “I was a little hesitant my senior year because I had just verbally committed to Wayne State. But I figured I’ve had a lot of memories created on the football field, and I wanted to create some more my senior year. It didn’t work out how I wanted (with the injury), but I made bonds with my teammates that are priceless.”

As for Brett Zimmerman, he has another St. Francis connection. He’s dating Gladiators volleyball standout Molly Mirabelli, whose father Doug is a former Major League catcher.

“He offers advice and Brett soaks it up like a sponge,” Mike Zimmerman said.

“He’s a great source to go to with questions,” Brett added.

The most pressing question now is – when will the season start?

When it does, expect St. Francis and Frankfort to be in the state conversation.

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 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) St. Francis’ Joey Muzljakovich eyes a pitch during last season’s Division 3 Final against Madison Heights Bishop Foley. (Middle) Frankfort’s Brett Zimmerman settles under a pop-up last spring. (Below) Jack Morrow unwinds toward the plate during last season’s all-state campaign. (Frankfort photos courtesy of Frankfort baseball program.)

Marcellus Baseball Making History with 1st League Title, Perfect Regular-Season Record

By Scott Hassinger
Special for

May 28, 2024

MARCELLUS – Crowds have grown so big at Marcellus baseball games this spring that Don Price, the school's athletic director, had to hire extra gate help and make sure the athletic boosters had the concession stand well-stocked.

Southwest CorridorThe Wildcats have put together a memorable baseball season for this community of just more than 1,000 residents located in Cass County.

Marcellus, ranked No. 8 in Division 4, ended its regular season last week at 27-0, which included capturing first place in the Southwest 10 Conference title with a 19-0 mark.

It was the first unbeaten regular season and conference title in the history of Marcellus' baseball program.

With all of that behind the team now, coach Christian Hutson is busily preparing his ballclub for Saturday's noon District Semifinal clash against Burr Oak. Marcellus, just 13-19 a year ago, features a roster that includes four seniors, a pair of juniors, one sophomore and seven freshmen.

"We're hoping to make a run, but first we have to get through a tough District at Centreville. We have to approach it one game at a time. Any team can beat you on any given day," Hutson said.

"Our seniors have gone through lots of growing pains. They've all been asked to play a huge role for us from a young age,” Hutson added. “Now it's all come to life and they are playing real baseball, making plays and picking one another up. Everything has finally come together for these kids.”

A strong pitching staff has been one of the biggest keys to the Wildcats' success. Senior Dawsen Lehew is 5-0 with one save, a 1.04 ERA and 33 strikeouts. Nathan Mihills, another senior, is also 5-0 with one save, a 2.66 ERA and 32 strikeouts and he starts at first base when freshman Cale Hackenberg takes the mound.

"Dawsen won't be outworked. He comes in day in and day out and gives his best performance," Hutson said. "Nathan is Mr. Reliable. He's the guy who stays after practice and makes sure everything is cleaned up and that the field is raked and there's no trash left in the dugout."

Mihills also fills the role of lead-off hitter and threw a no-hitter against Bangor.

"The juniors and seniors have been through the hardship of it all, but it's helped shape us to where we are now. Our freshmen are a great addition. We're all great friends. I'm not a bit scared of who the ball is hit to because I know they'll come up with a good play,” Mihills said. “I'm a lefty and I feel pretty consistent when my curveball is on. Our coaches do a great job preparing us for game situations."

Marcellus freshman pitcher/third baseman Cale Hackenberg, left, stands with grandfather Ron Welburn, for whom the team’s field is named. Lehew agrees with his senior teammate: "Our confidence allows us to play with high energy. We've been hitting the rock very well and our pitching has been real solid. We have a new pitching coach (Ryan Coffey) who has helped me with my velocity and control. I feel like everything is flowing really well at this point."

Two freshmen have also filled big roles on the hill for Marcellus. Hackenberg has been one of the Wildcats' top aces so far with a 6-0 record, including two saves, a 1.83 ERA and 76 strikeouts. Abram Coffey is 9-0 with two saves, a 2.21 ERA and 67 strikeouts.

"On any given night, any of one of our four pitchers could be our No. 1 starter. That's what makes us so special," Hutson said.

Hackenberg has played baseball since age 9. "It took us a couple games up on varsity to settle in as freshmen, but we've done okay. I have a couple pitches that have worked well for me this season" he said.

Hackenberg is the grandson of Ron Welburn, after whom Marcellus' home field is named. Welburn, a former village president, was instrumental in the construction of the field.

"When I was on the village council our old field was on the other side of town, and that was inconvenient for the school. We got a recreational grant from the State of Michigan to build a new field. I went and spoke to the school, and they thought that would be a fantastic idea. After running into some issues with the contractor, I resigned from the council and with the help of Rock Powell and Roy Mann we worked together and finished the field," Welburn said. "It's fantastic to see these boys having some success now. It's quite an honor to be able to come out and watch them."

Marcellus' team batting average is .348, and the Wildcats have scored 326 runs – an average of 12.1 per game.

Coffey, the squad's No. 2 batter and starting shortstop when he's not pitching, is Marcellus' top hitter with a .587 average, 15 doubles, four triples, four home runs, 49 RBI, 43 stolen bases and a .712 on-base percentage. Hackenberg, the No. 3 hitter, is batting .438 with 13 doubles, 37 RBI and 25 stolen bases with an on-base percentage of .566.

Batting in the clean-up spot is senior catcher Brock Buck. Buck is hitting .339 with five doubles, one home run, 17 RBI, and he has 20 stolen bases with .565 on-base percentage.

"Brock's been our glue behind the plate the last four years," Hutson said.

Senior centerfielder Cole Thornburgh is the Wildcats' No. 5 hitter with a .390 average, including eight doubles, 28 RBI, 23 stolen bases and a .465 on-base percentage.

 The Marcellus varsity baseball team and coaching staff hold up the Southwest 10 Conference championship banner last week after a doubleheader sweep of Cassopolis. "Cole keeps us on our toes and always has something funny to say. We asked him to step up this year, and he's answered the bell," Hutson said.

Other starters playing critical roles for Marcellus are juniors Parker Adams at second base and right fielder Brock McWilliams, along with freshmen designated hitter Zade Tyszka and left fielder Matthew Lehew, Dawsen's younger brother.

"At the plate, it's not just one or two guys – it's our entire lineup. Everyone on this team has contributed whether it's with a hit, stolen base or scoring the go-ahead run," Hutson said.

Trust is another huge factor. "Defensively, we have a lot of versatile kids who we can shift around to different positions. I trust every kid we have out on the field," Hutson said.

Hutson points to the Wildcats' team speed as another key element. Marcellus has 229 stolen bases this season.

"We have great team speed, and we pick and choose our spots. Our kids are fast, and that translates to good things happening on the basepaths," Hutson said.

Good team chemistry has also played a vital role.

"This group is just a bunch of good ol’ country boys. They'll go out together fishing or spearing after a night of practice," Hutson said. “Our community has rallied around us, been very supportive and bring so much energy for us. That makes it a lot easier to play at such a high level. Every night feels like a homecoming.”

Marcellus' head coach also pointed out the contributions of assistant coaches Chauncey Hackenberg, Kyle Kahler and Tyler Coffey.

"My three coaches are absolutely amazing. Chauncey is our accountability guy who gets things done. Tyler has been great developing our pitchers. Kyle, my cousin, works with our infielders and is the level-headed one. I'm more of an outfield guy and work a lot with our hitters," Hutson said.

Hutson lists former Decatur head coach Ben Botti and Keith Schreiber as his biggest mentors. Botti is a member of the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. Schreiber, previously the head coach at Glen Oaks Community College and now heading Dowagiac’s program, coached Hutson on the 2010 GOCC squad that won a Western Conference championship.

"I've had two really good mentors in Ben and Keith. They are amazing coaches with so much baseball knowledge. They both check in with me and are good resources," Hutson said.

For Hutson and his ballclub, the feeling of being undefeated so far hasn't quite sunk in.

"Baseball is a funny game,” Hutson said. “We've had a lot of tight and one-run games, but our kids continue to battle and scrap and get the job done."

Scott HassingerScott Hassinger is a contributing sportswriter for Leader Publications and previously served as the sports editor for the Three Rivers Commercial-News from 1994-2022. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Marcellus senior pitcher Dawsen Lehew makes his move toward the plate during a recent game. (Middle) Marcellus freshman pitcher/third baseman Cale Hackenberg, left, stands with grandfather Ron Welburn, for whom the team’s field is named. (Below) The Marcellus varsity baseball team and coaching staff hold up the Southwest 10 Conference championship banner last week after a doubleheader sweep of Cassopolis. (Photos by Scott Hassinger.)