Braves have much to prove entering regionals

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. – The Gladstone Braves baseball team enters regionals freshly christened as the No. 2-ranked team in the state according to the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association. Now they want to prove they’re deserving of that ranking.

Gladstone (26-4) will get its chance to do just that Saturday at the MHSAA Division 3 regional at Traverse City.

Gladstone is set to face a stiff test in facing the host St. Francis Gladiators in the semifinal. On the other end of the bracket, Whittemore-Prescott takes on Boyne City.

“We haven’t seen St. Francis on film, but one of the coaches that plays in their conference e-mailed me with a quite lengthy scouting report,” said Braves manager Don Lauscher. “Their No. 1 pitcher isn’t overpowering but he has good stuff, good movement. Their No. 3-4 hitters are very good and their catcher has a rocket for an arm.

“In his opinion, and he’s played all the teams in this regional, he says for sure Gladstone and St. Francis are the elite teams in the region. He said if we get by St. Francis, we should be in the drivers seat.”

The Braves feel confident heading into regional play. That’s because they’ve already faced elite pitching talent such as Escanaba’s Devin Olsen and Negaunee’s Tyler Jandron.

“Esky has two quality pitchers, and to face Jandron and finally beat him, the kids are swinging with confidence right now,” said Lauscher. “No matter how good the pitchers downstate are, they’re confident they can put the bat on the ball and make quality swings.”

St. Francis punched its ticket when it defeated Kalkaska 10-4 in its district title game. Jake Duell and Tyler Waslawski each had four hits and Rob Williams and Dru McFadden each had three RBIs. Tanner Kaplan had three hits.

Pitcher Matt Seybert pitched five innings of one-run ball, improving his season record to 7-1.

In their district opener, the Gladiators beat Kingsley 3-1 as Waslawski went the distance on the mound, striking out 12.

Even so, Lauscher said there is a feeling of confidence with his team.

“When we go downstate, our teams are a little intimidated, but once they see we can play with anyone, you can see their play rises to the occasion,” he said. “They’ll be just fine.”

Lauscher mentioned how earlier this year, the Braves swept a Charlevoix team that was 26-2 last season and 7-2 when Gladstone played them.

“They were elite in their region and we beat them twice,” said Lauscher. “The kids now know that we can play with anyone. I truly feel that these kids are ready for the regional. We won’t be intimidated by anyone.”

Gladstone will bolster the mound with pitchers Sam Pouliot and Jake Peterson. Justin Jurek will be unavailable to pitch, and likely unable to play second base as well after a possible ligament strain, but can still DH.

“With Justin hurt, it really affects how far we could go. If we had him at second base and our No. 1 pitcher and Pouliot at No. 2, we could (go the distance), and we still may, but it’s definitely a big blow to our team,” said Lauscher.

“If we get beyond regionals and onto the quarterfinal and final four, there’s only two days of rest. That’s when you have to be 3-4 deep in the rotation.”

In preparation for the regional, Gladstone scrimmaged Escanaba, Wednesday. The Eskymos won their district in Division 2 and will face Newaygo in their regional on Saturday.

“It was a lot of fun and very productive, I thought,” said Lauscher. “All the pitchers pitched one inning and we had some quality at-bats. It was beneficial for both Escanaba and us.

“Between (Escanaba manager) Kirk (Schwalbach) and I, we’re really excited and I hope the kids are too. I felt that after the scrimmage, we’re ready. We’re anxious to get going and looking for positive things to happen.”

Lauscher mentioned that despite the prestigious ranking and success over teams that are still alive in the tournament this season, that Upper Peninsula teams still struggle to gain respect below the bridge.

“We found out over the years, when I was in Esky, when we went down below, we don’t get the respect we deserve, in my opinion. Ever year, we have to prove we’re a good team, and more times than not, we do.

“The rankings are more for the kids than the coaches. It’s a great honor to be No. 2, but now we have to go downstate and prove it.”

And as for that district title? It’s a nice building block for a second-year program, but Lauscher sets the bar higher.

“I am definitely looking for a lot more, as are the seniors,” he said. “My expectations are to take it all the way to the state. I’ve been to the regional three times at Escanaba, I’ve been to a quarterfinal. I tell the kids, don’t look up to these teams, don’t be afraid. Don’t go down with the expectation that this team will be great, because they’re not going to be. We’ll be as good as anyone we see.”