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BATTLE CREEK, Mich. - Late in his 42nd season as baseball coach at Blissfield, Larry Tuttle is suddenly expecting the unexpected with his underclassmen-dominated Royals.
Blissfield will bid for its eighth state championship Saturday after taking a 10-5 victory over Muskegon Oakridge in a Division 3 state semifinal Friday at Morrison Field at Bailey Park.
The Royals (33-11), who last won a state crown in 2003, will take on Shepherd (38-3-1) in Saturday's 3:30 p.m. state final here at C.O. Brown Stadium.
Blissfield fell behind 2-0 in the top of the first inning before using seven hits to plate five runs in the bottom of the first to give lefty starter Dean Eisenmann a 5-2 lead.
"Obviously getting behind was a concern, but to be able to come back and put a five-spot up was good," Tuttle said. "I knew we were going to score, but I didn't know that we were going to score quite that quick. We were able to put the pressure back on the other side of the field, so that was huge."
The Royals, who ultimately banged out 13 hits, had a 10-2 lead after four innings, enabling Eisen-mann (5-2) to scatter 11 hits and survive into the seventh inning.
"That helped me settle down," Eisenmann said of the first-inning rally. "My teammates getting those runs helped me get through the game."
Sophomore ace Eric Schmidt closed things out, escaping the bases-loaded, no-out situation he inherited by retiring the final three batters on eight pitches, including two strikeouts. Schmidt (8-2) will start in Saturday's championship game.
Junior shortstop and leadoff hitter Cody Spotts was the catalyst for Blissfield with four singles in four at-bats and three runs scored. Junior first baseman Dylan Esterline was 3-for-4 with a double and two RBIs.
"We said before the game, that if we got down early we were just going to keep doing what we've been doing all year - fight back and win the inning," Spotts said. "We've faced Division 1 and 2 pitchers all year, and that helps us when we get to the tournament. We're used to seeing good pitchers that throw hard."
Coming in, Oakridge starter Jamie Potts was 10-3 with an 0.83 ERA and just 39 hits allowed in 76 innings. Blissfield chased him after three innings, striking out just once and scoring six runs on 10 hits, including four doubles.
Mixing in some small ball, the Royals got the first two of their four fourth-inning runs when senior center fielder Jake Decatur's bases-loaded squeeze bunt brought two runners home. Junior second baseman Adam Warner came around from second when Oakridge threw to first for the out. Blissfield also executed a two-run squeeze in Tuesday's 4-2 state quarterfinal win over Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard.
Starting four juniors, a sophomore and a freshman, Tuttle, Michigan's all-time wins leader (1,038-307-5), was hoping for a decent season with a group he thought would fully blossom next year.
"I figured going in, if we got through the districts it would be a great year," Tuttle said. "But this group of kids has been getting better and better. I felt like next year would be the year for us to get through, but we've been getting better defensively, and the big thing has been our hitting."
Eisenmann was an unheralded senior who struggled to get even halfway through most of his 14 prior starts this year.
But the young Royals have arrived ahead of schedule, and Eisenmann has come into his own just in the nick of time.
"Dean is quite a story," Tuttle said. "This was his 15th start, and the first 11 starts we took him out by the third inning in about every one. We said, 'We're going to keep giving you the ball, and you've got to get the job done,' and he did.
"Since the tournament trail started, he's been throwing around the plate and nibbling on the corners. It's unreal."
Oakridge (25-10) touched Eisenmann for three runs on three hits in the fifth inning, but got no closer thanks to Schmidt's relief help.
Blissfield, making its 11th appearance in the final four at Battle Creek, won previous state crowns in 1973, 1976, 1977, 1992, 2000, 2002 and 2003. The Royals' only loss in the state final came in 1999.
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