By Nate Thompson

WHITEHALL – Oakridge senior Jaxon Fri didn’t have to think long when asked what would be the key for the Eagles baseball team this season.

“Hitting,” he said simply. “Bats are huge for us.”

Hitting could have been the difference last spring, when the Eagles were one win away from reaching the Division 2 state semifinals, but were limited to just one hit in a quarterfinal loss to Saginaw Swan Valley.

The Eagles have eight of nine starters back from that squad, but they know they will need solid production at the plate to support their outstanding pitching if they want to duplicate or exceed last year’s accomplishments.

They showed some real promise in that respect on Tuesday, opening up their West Michigan Conference schedule with a 10-3 and 12-1 doubleheader sweep of Whitehall.

Head coach Brandon Barry was encouraged with his lineup’s ability to string hits together against the Vikings, a skill that was missing in a pair of non-conference losses prior to spring break against Grand Rapids West Catholic and Grant.

“We had some hits with some lift, which was nice to see,” said Barry, whose team is now 2-2 overall and 2-0 in conference play. “We got some doubles going and were able to string some hits together.”

In Game 2, the Eagles had just a 3-0 lead after three innings. Fri had an RBI double in the bottom of the second to get Oakridge on the board, and Blake Masterman added an RBI single in the third to make it 3-0.

But Oakridge exploded with a nine-run fourth to knock out Vikings’ starter Austin Groeneveld and put the game out of reach.

Oakridge had just four hits in the inning, but each were pivotal. Jalen Hughes had a two-run single; Koleman Wall drilled a shot that rolled to the left field fence and plated three base runners; and Kolbe Stewart made it a 12-0 game with a two-run double.

Wall didn’t quite secure the shutout on the mound, allowing a single run to the Vikings in the fifth, coming on an RBI single from Kayleb Venema.

Wall, who has committed to pitch at Concordia University, was otherwise dominant, striking out 12 batters and allowing just five hits.

“He’s just so good,” Fri said about Wall. “We’re pretty confident when he’s throwing for us.”

Barry said the goal is to have Wall throw a number of complete games this season, but a key is to limit his pitch count.

“We’ve been really preaching to him that he doesn’t have to strike kids out in order to be effective,” Barry said. “We want him to keep the ball down, force some ground balls and keep our infield and outfielders active. We want to keep his pitch counts down.”

In the opener, Oakridge jumped out to a 3-0 lead then rolled to a comfortable win. The VIkings were plagued by numerous walks and miscues in the field.

Austin Fairchild was a nuisance to Vikings’ pitching, walking four times and scoring two runs. Wall contributed two hits and an RBI, while Mason Weaver swung a solid bat at No. 8 in the lineup with two hits.

Senior TJ Ruel earned the victory on the mound.

“It’s good to see, because we had our heads down a little (after two losses),” Barry said. “We’ve got so many seniors, but you tend to worry because they got so much in their heads with jobs and graduation and spring break.

“You want to have those older kids to have a sense of urgency. Some of those kids will have the opportunity to play college baseball, but there’s nothing like making a deep tournament run or winning conference your senior year. Hopefully this is our first step toward that.”