By Nate Thompson

MUSKEGON TOWNSHIP –  Reeths-Puffer’s varsity baseball team faced some serious adversity to start its season, and it didn’t have anything to do with COVID-19.

The Rockets stumbled out of the gate without their leader, third-year head coach Butch Attig, who underwent what he thought would be minor lower back surgery in late January, before it turned into a much more serious ordeal.

Reeths-Puffer Coach Butch Attig walks to the dugout after coaching at first base. Photo/Joe Lane

“A week later, I still couldn’t walk, so I went in for a follow-up surgery, and then three weeks later, I developed an infection that put me in the hospital,” Attig said. “All together, I ended up spending 41 days in the hospital.”

Attig said there are four screws and three brackets in his back now, and until he’s closer to 100 percent, he feels more comfortable using a walker. 

“You know, there were days sitting in that hospital where you’re just angry at the whole situation,” he said. “But it’s so good to be back out there around the team. I’m getting stronger every day. My goal is to get back to being out there as the third-base coach. I like to be out there involved in the action.”

Attig missed the first five games of the season, and the Rockets limped to a dismal 1-4 record.

Attig’s first game back, on April 22, was against rival Mona Shores, which was going for a three-game conference sweep over the Rockets.

But Reeths-Puffer found a successful formula to win that game 8-5, and a lot of games since – outstanding pitching from senior Kaleb Mitchelson and consistent hitting throughout the lineup. 

“That win really turned the tables,”  said junior catcher Alex Johnson. “At the beginning of the season, with Coach being out, I think it took a toll on us. We had other coaches fill in, but I think we were missing that intensity to pull out close wins. And Coach definitely brings the intensity.” 

Since that victory, the Rockets have been red hot, going 15-2 and putting themselves in position to  achieve a couple of their major preseason goals – winning the O-K Green conference championship and ending a 20-year district championship drought.

Reeths-Puffer’s leading hitters during the hot streak, Kaden Edwards (left) and Alex Johnson. Photo/Joe Lane

After Tuesday’s impressive sweep of a solid Wyoming squad, which improved their conference record to 10-4, the Rockets have a chance to force at least a tie with league-leading Zeeland East when they face the Chix in a three-game series that begins with two games at R-P on Tuesday, May 25, and concludes with a single game in Zeeland on the 27th.

With his opening-game win over Wyoming, Mitchelson improved his pitching record to 7-1. He has a tiny earned run average of 0.93 with 36 strikeouts in 37 innings of work. 

Also an all-conference point guard in basketball, Mitchelson has committed to play hoops at Aquinas College. Running the show on the hardwood has carried over to the baseball diamond, his teammates say. 

“Kaleb is a great motivator for all of us,” Johnson said. “He’s definitely my favorite pitcher to catch. We’ve got a good connection between us. We think a lot alike, so I think that helps in knowing what to call in tough spots.”  

Although Mitchelson can dial it up to 81 miles per hour on his fastball, Johnson said his favorite pitch to call for the senior is his deceiving change-up. 

“I have confidence in calling that on a 3-2 count,” Johnson said.

The catalysts for the offense during the hot streak have been Johnson and fellow junior Kaden Edwards, the Rockets’ shortstop, who bat No. 1 and No. 2 in the lineup. Both are hitting in the .360 range and have on-base percentages over .500.  

“They were both up as freshmen,” Attig said. “Kaden started at second base and Alex backed up our top catcher. They went through the gauntlet. The key thing about those two, they’re baseball junkies. It’s not often you come across kids who have baseball as their top sport, but when you do, you embrace it.” 

Edwards said he’s really enjoying the Rockets’ recent hot stretch because it involves a group of teammates who have  been playing together for years.

Kaleb Mitchelson whips a pitch to home plate during a Reeths-Puffer game at Marsh Field on May 7. Photo/Leo Valdez

“I’ve been throwing the ball since I was a little kid and it’s continued through T-ball, all the way through travel teams when we were 10-11 years-old,” Edwards said. “And a lot of those guys are on this team now, Alex included.”

Johnson said the only reason he began catching was due to a lack of depth at the position on varsity. He’s progressed to being one of the best in the area behind the plate, with arguably the strongest and most accurate arm when throwing out base runners.

“I honestly hated (catching) early on,” Johnson said. “But now I love it. I like being involved in every play and being a leader out on the field. 

“There have not been many (stolen bases) against me,” he added. “It’s due to quick transfers from my glove. It’s been a lot of practice. One of the key things is throwing from my ear instead of winding all the way up like some catchers do.” 

Johnson and Edwards, who both have aspirations at playing baseball at the next level, said they’re  determined to add a long-awaited district title to the Reeths-Puffer trophy case. If they can capture the title, the Rockets would celebrate on their home field. Reeths-Puffer hosts the June 5 district, which includes semifinal contests of Muskegon against Mona Shores and the Rockets against Grand Haven. 

“Twenty years without a title, that’s pretty motivating right there,” Johnson said.