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Published: Friday, 6/11/2010

Blissfield jersey comes with bull's-eye

BY STEVE JUNGA
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

BLISSFIELD, Mich. - It is mid-June and perennial Michigan baseball power Blissfield is in the midst of another state tournament run.

The only question each year is how far will the seven-time state-champion Royals of veteran coach Larry Tuttle go?

Last year the answer was not far enough.

Just ask the six returning starters from a 32-12 Royals squad that lost 4-0 to Shepherd in last year's Michigan Division 3 state championship game in Battle Creek.

"That left a bad taste in my mouth," said Blissfield junior standout pitcher-third baseman Eric Schmidt, who took the loss in the 2009 title game.

"This year I hope I can get the ball again on the mound for the state final, and hopefully win it this time."

Before that opportunity can present itself to Schmidt and the Royals, they have four steps to take in tournament play.

The first one comes tomorrow in D-3 regional play at Madison Heights Bishop Foley, north of Detroit.

Blissfield (36-6), ranked No. 5 in the D-3 state poll, will face Allen Park Cabrini (26-8) in a regional semifinal scheduled to start about 30 minutes after the conclusion of the 10 a.m. semifinal between host Bishop Foley and Harper Woods.

If the Royals can get past Cabrini, they would face the other semifinal winner 30 minutes after the second semifinal concludes.

"We never want to look past anybody," Schmidt said.

"On any given day, any team can beat anybody. We just focus on our next opponent and try not to get ahead of ourselves."

Blissfield topped Foley 6-4 in last year's regional semis, then edged Cabrini 5-4 in nine innings in the regional final.

Those games were held at Blissfield, so this year's regional comes with a higher degree of difficulty for the Royals.

"That was a tough regional last year and it will be tough again this year," senior second baseman Adam Warner said.

"But, I think if we keep our bats going like we have, we should be fine."

The hard-throwing, 6-1, 175-pound Schmidt, who is the only junior in the program, is 10-1 pitching with a 1.82 earned run average and 96 strikeouts in 69 innings. At the plate, Schmidt, who bats third, leads the Royals in hitting (.421 average), home runs (4) and RBIs (41).

Other returnees from the lineup of 2009 state runners-up include senior leadoff hitter Cody Spotts (SS-P, .308), sophomore No. 2 hitter Josh Knorr (C-RF-P, .419, 21 RBIs), cleanup hitter Warner (2B-C, .394, 38 RBIs), senior No. 5 hitter Travis Babbitt (DH, .402, 3 HR, 33 RBIs), and senior No. 7 hitter Dylan Esterline (1B, .357, 28 RBIs).

"It's definitely a motivating factor because we've been to the state championship and we all know what it's about," Warner said of losing in the 2009 final.

"On the way home from state last year, we made that our goal - to get back and win it."

The battled-tested tourney veterans are joined by senior first-year starter Kyle Wehner (CF, .301, 33 RBIs), and two other sophomores who have made a major impact at the bottom of the order in their rookie varsity seasons - Blake Haupricht (LF, .408, 24 RBIs) and James Trevino (2B-3B, .390, 20 RBIs).

"You try to win and build at the same time," Tuttle said of the sophomores' contributions. "If you can do that then you're going to be in good shape, and you're not going to leave the cupboard bare."

Complementing Schmidt on the hill are senior right-handed starter Devin Suiter (9-0, 2.29 ERA, 51 strikeouts in 65 innings), Spotts (6-1, 2.49 ERA), and Knorr (4-1, 2.70 ERA). Senior Jake Waldvogel typically starts in right field.

"We had a lot of senior experience coming back this year, and another big part has been our sophomores," Schmidt said. "They've really stepped up big this year and helped contribute to our success. We just want to keep building the tradition."

The Royals reached this stage of the tourney by winning their ninth straight district title last Saturday, taking five-inning, mercy-rule wins over both Erie Mason (23-7) and Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central (15-5), pounding out 33 hits in the nine innings they batted.

The Blissfield tradition includes 34 league titles in Tuttle's 43 years, including 17 in a row and 20 of the last 21. Last Saturday's was the Royals' 29th district title in the last 33 years. This year is the team's 16th consecutive 30-win season.

The motto printed on T-shirts worn by the 2010 Royals states: "Don't live off the tradition. Add to it."

"We have high expectations for the kids," Tuttle said. "From day one we talk about being the best program in the state, and getting the opportunity to play at one of the finest facilities. We tell them you'll come out with a bull's-eye on your back every year.

"It's gotten to the point now where the kids don't want to be that senior group that isn't able to add to the tradition."

Contact Steve Junga at:

sjunga@theblade.com

or 419-724-6461.



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