By Mark Lewis
Local Sports Journal
High school sports teaches student-athletes more than just how to properly throw a ball, run a sprint, how to tackle, or how to block a volley.
Just ask Whitehall pitcher Jake Gillhespy.
“Before this year, I was really weak emotionally,” admitted Gillhespy, just days before his squad takes on Gladwin in a Div. 2 regional semifinal game at Cadillac. “I would let other teams get to me. When things went bad, I did not handle things very well.”
But where Gillhespy’s attitude may have been a liability in the past, he is now one of the team’s most solid pillars.
He’s come a long way.
“I have never seen as much growth out of a player as I have seen with (Gillhespy),” said Viking head coach Warren Zweigle. “Two years ago, Jake was a selfish, egotistical, mentally weak player — he was one of the poorest teammates I had in my program. A year ago, he was a pitcher who couldn’t throw strikes, questioned authority, and pouted on a regular basis.”
Put, as Gillhespy has matured, those traits appear to be a thing of the past.
“Coach Zweigle and assistant coach Kurt Huizenga really helped me see that there is a lot of stuff that is going to happen that is beyond my control. They helped me realize I wasn’t helping anyone unless I was able to keep things within myself.”
That was a real problem for Gillhespy in the past. He would glare at his teammates when they’d make a mistake on the field, and he would demolish his own morale when he made a mistake of his own. In years past, Zweigle often would pull Gillhespy when the coach noticed his young pitcher’s emotions were starting to get the better of him. At the time, Gillhespy couldn’t understand why his coach was taking him out of the game, so when it happened, he’d often sulk in the dugout.
“I’d wonder what I’d done wrong,” he said. “I thought Coach was being mean or something. I didn’t really realize what part I had in all of it.”
Eventually, though, Gillhespy realized it was his own ego that was holding him back.
“I realize now that Coach really cares for me,” he said. “He was trying to help me see that I needed to control my ego. There is a team out there that is depending on me to play my best. I started to understand that, if I can’t control myself, how can I expect my teammates to?”
Gillhespy admits the new attitude has taken off a lot of the pressure he’s felt in previous years.
“Now, when someone makes a mistake, I try to show a face of ‘Do not worry about it’,” said Gillhespy. “Instead of letting my ego get to me, I try to ask how I can do something positive to help our chances instead of bringing us down.”
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Vikings have been one of the area’s most consistently successful teams on the diamond, having just wrapped up its fourth-straight district title – its 10th such title in Zweigle’s 20 years at the helm of the program.
For Gillhespy, Zweigle and crew have created an environment that breeds not fear of failure but a expectation of success.
“We are never walking on eggshells with our coaches,” said Gillhespy. “They kind of let us do our own thing until they think we need help. They aren’t afraid to punish us when we aren’t doing things the right way. They let the team go its own way.”
It was tough for anyone to make his or her own way this spring, as poor weather pretty much obliterated the first month of the spring sports season. Gillhespy said the stunted, back-loaded season affected the entire roster. Standout teammates Noah Robart and Cheston Manns, among others, limped through much of the season nursing a variety of injuries.
“It wore us down,” he said. “There were lots of injuries; we had to play, like, 10-to-12 games in two weeks. We had no choice but to squeeze it all in. But Coach really helped keep up our energy. He gives us rest when we needed it, and he got on our case when we needed that too.”
Having weathered that brutal early season, completing the regular season with a 24-10 overall record, and a solid finish in the upper half of the West Michigan Conference, the Vikings went to work at last weekend’s district tournament, allowing just one run across three games, a 10-0 win over Ludington, a 3-0 victory over Orchard View, and a 5-1 win over Fremont to secure the district title.
Gillhespy was masterful in the district final game, allowing four hits an one run with five strikeouts and two walks to power his team to the victory.
“Our kids played great baseball today,” said Zweigle at the time. “Our pitchers threw strikes, our defense was outstanding and we got timely hitting.”
Now, as the regional tourney awaits, Gillhespy said he thinks his squad is coming together at the right moment.
“We want to do better in the (regional tournament) than we have in the (recent) past,” he explained. “This is one of the tightest teams ever, in terms of how close we are. We don’t want to lose because we want to keep this thing going. We don’t want to lose because we don’t want it to be the last time we are together.”
The pitcher said that he wins just by the lessons sports have taught him.
“Becoming a better pitcher doesn’t really help me after I am done playing,” said Gillhespy. “But the things I’ve learned about myself, the way that I’ve progressed personally…that is the kind of thing I will take with me after I am done playing baseball.”
For Zweigle, Gillhespy, always a work in progress, has surpassed all expectations. “Today he has grown into a good teammate,” said Zweigle, “a No. 1 pitcher who dominates. And (he) is becoming one of the most mentally tough kids on my team. He has worked so hard to become a better person and baseball player.”
And that makes Gillhespy a winner no matter how his team does this weekend.
Whitehall is set to square off Saturday, June 7 versus Gladwin at Cadillac in a Div. 2 regional semifinal game. The first pitch is slated to start at noon. Newaygo takes on Escanaba in the 10 a.m. regional opener game.
The winner of both contests will face off at 2 p.m.’s regional final.
The winner will head to June 10’s state quarterfinals, which will take place at four sites across the state, with the semifinals (June 12) and finals (June 14) taking place next Thursday and Saturday at Michigan State University.