Sunday, June 1, 2008

There's Never A Dull Moment At The Yard

To the casual fan, yesterday's MHSAA district baseball results from West Bloomfield High School were nothing out of the ordinary. Birmingham Brother Rice marched to yet another district title, dismissing Birmingham Groves 10-0 before a mercy of Southfield Lathrup, 18-3 to advance to next week's regional at Birmingham Seaholm.

Sandwiched between the seemingly one-sided day was a dominant no-hitter and a stunning upset that sent Lathrup to a district final of consequence for the first time in several years. Rice hurler Matt Conway was just one of many thorns in the side of Groves and Lathrup scored a victory over Birmingham Seaholm that would have been as difficult to predict as it was to describe as it happened.

In commenting on his no-no, Conway was equal parts prideful and practical. "It feels great, that's for sure, but it feels great to finally step up and contribute, because this hasn't been my best year," explained the Rice junior. "Focus has been something I've had to correct. We knew Groves had a great team and they had a good pitcher going today so we really prepared for them. I really had my fastball working today. I'm just glad I did my part."

Brother Rice was methodical and mechanical in their surgical dissection of Groves. The Warriors nickeled and dimed the Falcons all game long, taking base after extra base and forcing Groves to make one perfect throw after another. The Falcons did complete an inning-ending double play that saw Jamey Sackett tag out a Warrior at the plate, but that was to be the only highlight for Groves. At day's end, all that spare change turned into $10 worth of runs on the scoreboard, resulting in an unceremonious end to a Groves season that was just one win short of sharing an OAA regular season title.

Taking it all in was a Birmingham icon, basketball coach Bill Norton. After coaching Rice for over 15 years in the 1970s and 80s, Norton left for Michigan State University. He returned to Rice for a cameo stint of five years before moving off Lahser Road for a nine-year run on 13 Mile Road at Groves. "Today I find myself talking about Groves but saying the word Rice and vice-versa, because I have a history at both schools," Norton said with a laugh.

"You know, baseball is the one game where all your players have to be clicking or this type of game can happen," Norton observed. "We (Groves) had a good team this year but we ran into a pitcher like Conway and Rice made no mistakes. They kept the pressure on us all day to make good plays and this is what happened.

Norton continued that his basketballers suffered a similar fate in this past season's district game with Orchard Lake St. Mary's that the baseball Falcons suffered with Rice yesterday.

"We were down 40-30 during about 10 consecutive possessions for each team in that game, and we got the looks and the shots for the players we wanted, but the triples that fell in the district opener with Walled Lake Northern didn't go down," Norton recalled. "By the time Orchard Lake started to respond with a run, our chance was gone. Our guys really wanted it but we weren't ready to pull off that upset.

"The other thing is, if you have two evenly-matched teams, you usually don't get a 80-40 game in basketball," Norton said. "You get three really good players, you can have an outstanding season. Boston won 24 games last year. They added three studs. They're in the finals this year. In baseball, just a pitching matchup alone could create a situation you can't recover from. Add a few mistakes and even though you have two good teams like Groves and Rice, you get a mercy."

The game of the day was the second semifinal. 20 years ago Seaholm's 'Maple Miracles' won the Class A state championship, but Seaholm was on the other end of glory yesterday. While it wouldn't have surprised anyone to watch Lathrup advance to a district final 20 years ago, today Lathrup is rebuilding under coach Darren Mosley and the Chargers haven't had a significant district win in recent memory...until yesterday. After surviving a first frame scare, Lathrup took a commanding 5-1 lead only to see the Maples take a 7-5 lead with three innings to play. Deadlocked at 10 in their final at-bat, Lathrup pushed across the needed run to hand Mosley the win his program has looked for to cement the idea that baseball can again be a winner at the tony Southfield high school.

"There were so many games this year that we should of won, but we'd squander the game away defensively," Mosley explained. "North Farmington is a game that comes to mind immediately, the classic example of our guys having no trouble putting the bat on the ball or throwing strikes, but we kicked the ball all over the place and lost a game we should have won.

"That's what makes today's win in an elimination game important," Mosley beamed, even after Rice disposed of his Chargers in the final by scoring 14 runs before an out had been recorded in the first inning. "A lot of black kids just don't play baseball, and when they play with no success, it makes them want to quit even more, so this win is important. We now have a win to point to and say, 'If you give us the preparation and attention to fundamentals, we could put this program back on the map in a hurry'.

Lathrup has had more than a handful of successful teams in football, basketball and track and field in the same manner their baseball team used to win on an annual basis, and Mosley is convinced it can be done again.

"We have good athletes in our school, and if our guys are willing to build on this, we can turn them into a skilled team that could win a lot of baseball games."

~T.C. Cameron is the author of Metro Detroit's High School Football Rivalries, due August 25th, 2008 from Arcadia Publishing

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