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Published: Thursday, 6/26/2003

State title was Blissfield's baseball answer

BY STEVE JUNGA
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

On the Blissfield Royals' small town high school version of the Field of Dreams in Lenawee County, Mich., the fences that separate the parking lot from the bleacher entrance are draped with six state championship banners.

There's no room for a 1999 banner from their state runner-up finish - not exactly an achievement to scoff at, but an acceptable omission to 36th-year Blissfield head coach Larry Tuttle.

So, until June 14, the capacity for banners on the fence was not an issue.

But the Royals added a seventh championship that day in Battle Creek, Mich., taking the Division 3 title with a 3-1 upset victory over second-ranked Morley Stanwood High School and its lofty 41-3 record.

Now Tuttle does have a challenge. Where will he put the 2003 banner?

This is nothing compared to the challenge he faced at the start of the season when his quest was figuring out where all his varsity starters would play in the field.

From the 40-4 state championship team of 2002, all that remained after graduation was one season-long full-time starter, senior outfielder Eric Rose. Only one other starter from last year's title game - senior outfielder Gus LaRoy - was back, and only one pitching victory from the 40 would return.

“In all sincerity, we felt like if we just got to the regionals this year it was be a good tournament run,” Tuttle said. “We knew we had some kids who could play, but we weren't sure how well. Our schedule was probably even stronger than last year, so that was a real concern.

“I thought if we could go 20-15, that would be a very good year considering what we had. But, when it started to come together, I knew we had a chance.”

A would-be catcher - senior Brad Emerson - became the left-fielder. A would-be pitcher - junior Zach Benko - became the catcher, replacing graduated first-team All-Michigan player Chris Hudson.

The fleet-footed Rose, who will play on scholarship at the University of Michigan next year, moved from right to center field, replacing another graduated first-team All-Michigan player, Mike Melvin. LaRoy switched from left to right field, assuring that no starting position was manned by the same player from 2002.

“Honestly, I probably didn't think we could do this because we lost a ton from last year,” said Rose, who stole 50 bases in 51 attempts this season. “But these guys just fought and fought, and played with their hearts all year.

“This is [championship] No. 3 for me and, gosh, what a privilege. I'm thrilled to be a part of this baseball program. This was an unbelievable season. I'll remember it the rest of my life.”

Senior infielder Adam Andrews, who missed the 2002 season after having knee surgery to repair a football injury, didn't decide to give baseball one more shot until about a week before preseason practice began. Tuttle played Andrews at second and third base before settling on him at shortstop.

In the state semifinal win over Kalamazoo Christian in Battle Creek, Andrews went 2-for-3 with two runs batted in. In the final, he was 2-for-2 with two-out, two-strike RBI singles in the fifth and seventh innings which proved to be the difference in the game.

“This was a heck of an experience,” Andrews said, “something I could only [previously] dream about.”

And then there was unassuming senior left-handed pitcher Jake Recker, who spent last season on the junior varsity squad, dressing varsity only for tournament games. All Recker did was toss a six-hitter against Morley Stanwood in the championship game, beating Comets ace lefty Nate Wernette, who entered the state final with an incredible 20-0 record and 0.42 earned run average with 258 strikeouts in 118 innings.

“This was great because it shows how much talent we have going through the program, and it shows how much we wanted it,” Recker said after the finals, speaking of his own late-bloomer status and the team's surprise finish. “I just tried getting my job done -- throw strikes and get 'em out. I just looked at [opposing Wernette] as a challenge.”

“He pitched like he was 20-0 and not 6-4,” Tuttle said of Recker's effort. “The tables were reversed.”

“He threw amazing and he's been doing that all year,” catcher Benko said of Recker's poised performance following the title game.

Recker's and Blissfield's win over foes like Wernette and Morley Stanwood was not as unlikely as perhaps perceived.

For the second straight season Blissfield did not lose to a single team at or below its own (Division 3) enrollment classification.

All 10 losses came against bigger schools like Ann Arbor Pioneer (Michigan's largest school), Monroe, Adrian, and St. John's Jesuit of Toledo's City League.

Tackling this type of quality schedule was pivotal in winning the title, according to Tuttle.

“Our kids really believe that our schedule is the thing that carries them through the state tournament,” the coach said.

“We play bigger schools and we may not always beat 'em, but we compete well against them.”

Another key for Tuttle was the unselfish attitudes of his senior group.

“The thing that probably goes unnoticed here is that only five of our 12 seniors started,” Tuttle said.

“That leaves seven kids that aren't getting to play much, and it's not like they could say to themselves, `That's OK, I've got a chance to come back next year and play.' This was it for them.

“They could have been working all spring and making money and getting ready to go to college, or whatever. But they came out and they accepted their roles and they contributed.

``The things they did, like pinch-running and pinch-hitting, were important to the ballclub.

“Obviously you're always going to remember teams that win a state championship.

``But what I'm going to remember is how this group pulled together and how good the team chemistry was. That's what helped us win this championship.”

Royals Stats: Batting leaders--Junior Zach Benko, C, .377 (43-114); senior Eric Rose, CF, .366 (37-101); sophomore Justin Wilson, 1B, .359 (28-78); senior Adam Andrews, SS, .323 (43-133); senior Zach DeCatur, DH, .317 (39-123); junior Kirk Sander, 2B, .312 (34-109); junior Ryan Terry, P-3B, .307 (27-88).

Pitching leaders--Ryan Terry, 10-2, 1.32 ERA, 99 strikeouts, 79 2/3 innings; senior Jake Recker, 7-4, 1.54 ERA, 74 strikeouts, 63 2/3 innings; Justin Wilson, 5-2, 3.69 ERA, 35 strikeouts, 43 2/3 innings.

Blissfield individual honors: Senior center fielder Eric Rose was named to the Michigan Division 3 all-state first team and to the Michigan Dream Team, the top 16 players from any division. He was the 31st Royal to make first-team All-Michigan under Tuttle, with 10 of those players receiving the honor twice. Twelve others have received second-team all-state recognition.

Tuttle's records: With a 3-2 win over Farmington on April 19, Larry Tuttle became the career leader in victories by a Michigan high school coach, surpassing Lincoln Park's Tom Noland, who was 814-332 between 1952-2001. Tuttle closed the season at 840-250-3. His seven state titles are easily the most for a Michigan coach since the state tournament format began in 1971. His record: Conference titles--(27); District titles--(19); Regional titles--(11); State final four appearances--(10); State runner-up finishes--(1) State championships--(7)

In second place is Jim Bresciami of Harper Woods Bishop Gallagher High School, whose teams won three Class A titles (1971, 1981 and 1985). Tuttle's prior state titles came in Class C in 1973, 1976, 1977 and 1992, and in Division 3 in 2000 and 2002.

Royals Pros: Seven former Blissfield players coached by Larry Tuttle eventually signed professional baseball contracts -- Greg Crist (free agent, Boston Red Sox, 1973); Brad Fischer (free agent, Oakland A's 1978); Ray Soff (10th-round draft choice, Chicago Cubs, 1980), current Blissfield assistant coach Dave Pagel (third round, Cubs, 1981); Mike Burgermeister (free agent, San Francisco Giants, 1982); Adam Benschoter (31st round, Giants, 1991); Nick Bates (22nd round, Kansas City Royals, 2002) Soff is the only one to make it to the major leagues (St. Louis Cardinals, 1986-88).



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