Fifth time a charm? Saline plays for elusive state baseball title this weekend
It takes roughly 90 minutes to travel from the doors of Saline High School to Bailey Park in Battle Creek, home of the MHSAA baseball tournament finals.
Hornets' coach Scott Theisen knows the route all too well. He knows where his team will stay, where they will eat and exactly how to get to the park.
Friday marks the fifth time -- and fourth in the last five years -- that Theisen will lead a Saline team on the trip. Unlike years past, Theisen hopes the trip home will be accompanied by some hardware, specifically a state championship trophy.
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“They seem to be calm and poised and feel like they’re going to come back and find a way,” said Theisen, who earned his 500th win as Saline's coach earlier this season.
Finding a way is exactly what will be on the Hornets mind’s Friday when they play Hudsonville in a 1 p.m. Division 1 semifinal. And it’s what helped them earlier this week, when they beat Livonia Stevenson, 5-1, to advance to Battle Creek.
With the game tied 1-1 in the top of the fifth inning, the Hornets got out of a bases loaded jam behind the arm of Brent Vaccaro. In the bottom half of the same inning, Michael Hendrickson broke the tie and put the Hornets ahead for good.
“Throughout the season I think we played a real formidable schedule. We’ve been battle tested and that’s part of the scheduling that we built,” Theisen said. “We had some tough games, some tight games earlier in the season that we came back to win.”
While the program has achieved unprecedented tournament success -- no other Class A or Division 1 team has reached three state championship games, as Saline did in 2008-10 -- they haven’t been able to bring home the trophy.
The Hornets lost to Pioneer, 4-1, in the 2010 title game. In 2009, Warren DeLaSalle won, 3-2, and Birmingham Brother Rice took the 2008 championship with an 8-0 win. The Hornets also played in the 1998 title game, losing 2-1 to Midland.
Vaccaro doesn’t think the shortcomings of past teams have any affect on the current squad.
“Most of us haven’t been to Battle Creek yet," Vaccaro said. "I think only two (players) might have been called up (to varsity), so it’s going to be a first-time thing.”
Because of that, Vaccaro is confident there won’t be any extra pressure on the team Friday when they take the field.
Hendrickson, a sophomore, is one of those players that hasn’t been to Battle Creek, but he has been told by teammates what to expect.
“They said it’s going to be the best time of your life," he said. "I look forward to enjoying it.”
Hudsonville (31-5) has been red-hot of late, beating Flushing in a quarterfinal for its 16th straight win.
Saline limped into the playoffs, winning two of its last six regular season games. Once the tournament started, however, the Hornets returned to form and have won all five postseason games by at least four runs.
Junior Gage Hammond is proud of the way his team has stepped up, but says there is still more they can do as a team if they want to win it all.
“It’s going to have to take a lot more intensity. We’re going to have to fight a little bit harder,” said Hammond. “We don’t have the D-I athletes or anybody that can do one thing alone. So we just have to fight harder as a team. We all have to contribute.”
Theisen said he will likely start Justin Goike on Friday with Vaccaro possibly on the mound Saturday for a championship game. Goike threw a no-hitter in the regional final, an 8-0 win over Allen Park, and has been Saline’s ace this season. That doesn’t mean Theisen and his players are taking Friday for granted.
“You can be set up as well as you want but, you still have to go out and make pitches and execute,” Theiesen said. “We’re in a good position. We’re happy to be where we’re at.”
Should the Hornets get by Hudsonville, they will face the winner of a semifinal between Howell and Warren DeLaSalle on Saturday.