By Dave Hart

MUSKEGON – The Muskegon Clippers’ first season in the Great Lakes Summer Collegiate Baseball League did not go as well as they hoped.

After dominating in their first three years of existence in the Michigan Summer Collegiate Baseball League, winning two titles in three seasons, the Clippers finished with a disappointing 18-23 record last season. They finished in fourth place of the five-team Northern Division and failed to make the playoffs.

But after one go-round in the tough GLSCBL, they feel like they’ve learned enough to build a stronger roster this season and be more competitive.

The Clippers will open their 42-game 2018 season on Friday, starting a three-game weekend series at Marsh Field against the Saginaw Sugar Beets. All games will start at 7:05 p.m.

Clippers manager Walt Gawkowski congratulates a player after a home run last season, Photo/Jason Goorman

“We discovered the importance of building a competitive roster, and we are hoping we did that this year,” said Clippers manager Walt Gawkowski, who is entering his fifth season with the team. “We pretty much knew last season that this league would be competitive, and we know this year will not be any different.”

Muskegon will actually have tougher competition this season, playing all of the teams in the Great Lakes League, including the Southern Division teams they did not play last year. The Clippers will face each team in the seven-member Southern Division two times, once at home and once on the road.

Of course they will still play their fellow Northern Division rivals like Saginaw and the Irish Hills Leprechauns (six games against each team) as well as the St. Clair Green Giants, Lake Erie Monarchs, Grand Lake Mariners and Lima Locos (four games against each).

“We are excited about playing all the teams in the league,” Gawkowski said. “It will be better for our fans to see more teams, and they will see better baseball on the field.”

The Clippers will return four position players from the 2017 roster, including catcher Ryan Blake-Jones, outfielder Connor Henderson and infielders Nolan Bryant and Jimmy Roche.

Blake-Jones led Muskegon last year with 34 RBIs, despite having his season shortened by injuries. He was also third on the team with 38 hits.

Clippers second baseman Nolan Bryant, seen turning a double-play last year, is back for another season. Photo/Leo Valdez

Bryant returns for his second season after an impressive rookie campaign, when he was second on the team with 43 hits.

Both Henderson and Roche are coming off strong 2018 seasons at Western Michigan University.

Muskegon also returns three pitchers from last season.

Brian Taggett is back after appearing in 18 games last year out of the bullpen, while Cameron Miller and Adam Biss return after starting seven and four games last year, respectively.

The Clippers also have brought in a bunch of new players who will be counted on to help them find more success this season.

One very promising newcomer is outfielder Blake Dunn, who was Western Michigan University’s everyday right fielder this spring. He batted .308 for the Broncos with 44 hits and 18 RBIs in 44 games.

When he’s not doing damage with his bat, Dunn will be spending some time on the pitching mound this season, according to Gawkowski.

Gawkowski said he was also impressed with new pitchers Jacob Kieffer, Bryce Davis and Jarod Melle after watching them in a bullpen session.

“Our team mission is to give the kids a good experience, make sure we stay healthy, and let’s be real, we also want to win a Great Lakes league championship,” Gawkowski said.

The top three teams from each division will qualify for postseason play, with the two division champions earning a first round bye in the playoffs.