Indians capture title in rivalry showdown

GLADWIN, Mich. – Roughly seven miles and four runs was what separated the top two Class A American Legion baseball teams in the state.

In a state title matchup that spoke to the high quality of baseball in Delta County, the Gladstone Indians wrapped up a perfect season against the rival Cubs, just minutes down US-2, with a 4-0 victory Saturday at Wilmot Field.

The title is Gladstone’s first in program history and the first for a Delta County team since Escanaba won the title in 1955.

Gladstone did all of its damage early, almost by necessity due to the hot and muggy conditions, and then hung on for the Indians’ first state championship.

“Part of our gameplan from the get-go was to make their pitchers work. They’ve (Escanaba) been playing a lot of games the last few days and we wanted to get on them early,” said Indians manager JIm Groleau. “We did just that. We made them throw a lot of pitches the first couple innings, and lucky for us, we took advantage of it.”

Gladstone, playing as the home team, loaded the bases with no outs in the first inning, before Jake Pearson hit a sac-grounder to score Christian Tackman. Escanaba starting pitcher Brandon Punzel was able to get the next two outs via striking out Hayden Hardwick and getting Christian Groleau to fly out, but the Indians came right back in the bottom of the second.

Sam Pouliot led off with the first of his three hits in the game. Jake Peterson followed, getting on via a throwing error that moved Pouliot to third. Then, with two outs, Justin Jurek walked to load the bases again. Hunter Garling was issued a bases-loaded walk to give Gladstone a 2-0 advantage and Pearson came through again with a 2-RBI single just inside the foul line.

“I ripped it down the third base line and I didn’t know if it was going to stay in,” Pearson said. “But it got through, it went right over the top of the bag to get the guys in.

“Before the district tournament, coach (Robert) Hardwick worked with me on my batting stance.”

For Pearson, as well as many of his Indians teammates, the game represented their last high school athletic competition. Pearson will play football at Northern Michigan University this fall.

“This was a great way to end it, I couldn’t ask for anything better,” Pearson said after finishing the game with three RBI’s and a fielder’s choice.

Pouliot was named the Hal Newhouser Most Valuable Player after going 3-for-3 and Hunter Garling pitched a complete-game two-hitter on the mound, striking out three with one walk.

Garling, who just completed his sophomore year of high school, now has a Legion state title and a state semifinal appearance with the Gladstone Braves and was named All-State for the 2014 season. At bat during the game, he had a single and walked twice. Though Gladstone went 5-0 against Escanaba in Legion baseball this season, Garling said it doesn’t really get easier facing the Cubs.

“We really know what to expect from their hitters and what everyone is capable of,” he said. “But every day is different.”

On Saturday, Escanaba put plenty of balls in play, but most ended up being fly-outs, 14 of them in fact. Esky manager Tom Ohman kept count.

“I counted them because we kept putting everything in the air. We got into a funk where our hands were dropping and we were just hitting everything in the air,” he said. “After five games on on this field I think I’ve gotten to know it pretty well. The ball hangs up here. It stays up in the air a while and gives the defense an opportunity to get under it.”

Earlier in the day Escanaba handled Gladwin 5-1 to get out of the elimination bracket. It was a hard road for Escanaba, which had to play five games compared to just three for Gladstone. Escanaba was also without pitcher Andrew Sedlar, who injured his wrist in practice earlier in the week.

By the title game, Esky’s pitching was running thin.

The Cubs put Brandon Punzel on the mound. Punzel, who had pitched Friday as well, went 3.1 innings absorbed the loss, striking out 4 and allowing six hits and four walks before being relieved by Lewis Ostrander. Ostrander allowed two hits and walked one with one strikeout for the remainder.

“It was probably tough from the get-go to beat the best team, I feel, in the state, Gladstone,” acknowledged Ohman. The Indians went 5-0 against Escanaba this season, including a 14 inning marathon earlier in the month.

“At least we’re one of the few teams that kept everything close with Gladstone. I’m sure they were scared of us a little bit, we were always right there with them, we just couldn’t get more.”

Tyler Skufca and Punzel collected Esky’s lone hits.

In 2015, the Class A state tournament will be held in Escanaba at Al Ness Field.