By Steve Gunn
MUSKEGON – Sometimes you just have to seize the opportunities that life presents, regardless of possible conflict or inconvenience.
Schuitema had been a wildly successful little league coach for years, and many people were encouraging him to seek the MCC job. But he was a busy realtor working for a successful company, and he doubted he had time to do both jobs well.
Then tragedy struck at Schuitema’s workplace that made headlines across the nation. A disgruntled former client walked into the office and shot one of his colleagues to death. The victim was a 33-year-old husband and father of two.
The horrible news stunned a lot of people in different ways. For Schuitema, it meant taking a long look at his own life, and asking himself what he wanted to do with the rest of it.
“My son was playing in a tennis tournament that day at Mona Shores, and I sat in the bleachers reflecting on life and how short it really is,” said Schuitema, 66. “I realized I really wanted to (coach high school), and I found a way to make it work.”
Obviously Schuitema applied for and got the job at MCC, and the rest is happy history. He has had a lot of success in his 12 years with the Crusaders, winning a slew of championships, including seven at the conference level, nine in districts, five in regionals, and one very exciting state title.
On Tuesday the Crusaders defeated Western Michigan Christian in the first game of a doubleheader and Schuitema hit a benchmark, winning his 300th career game. He currently has a career record of 302-81, and there’s no telling how much that victory total might increase, because the old coach has no plans to retire any time soon.
Schuitema said he wasn’t aware that he was approaching 300 wins until his son Jacob, who keeps the books for the team, mentioned it, “and my wife decided to blab it to everyone,” he added with a chuckle.
On Thursday, before a home game, MCC baseball announcer Ron Jenkins announced the news to the crowd, prompting Schuitema to grimace a bit and think to himself, “Come on, let’s move on with it.”
The coach might cringe at the attention he’s receiving, but he brought it on himself by winning so much, and by gaining the respect of his players and their parents over the years.
Amazingly, Schuitema had no experience coaching teenagers when he took over the MCC program, but he did have a strong baseball resume. He coached both of his sons – Scott and Jacob – through their years in the Roosevelt Park Little League, and his teams usually won big.
He took one of his Roosevelt Park All-Star teams to a national regional final game that was televised on ESPN. Two of his little league All-Star teams won Michigan state championships.
But little league baseball is a long way from high school baseball. So where did Schuitema gain the knowledge to coach the big kids, and be so successful at it?
He said he simply learned by being a student of the game, starting back in his playing days, when he was a standout at Muskegon High School and Muskegon Community College.
“I learned a lot of the hitting side from Kevin Dalson, who is the softball coach at Muskegon Community College,” he said. “I learned a lot from guys like Randy Forton, who helped me coach in little league and the first few years at MCC. And you just pick stuff up. I attended as many clinics as I possible could. I probably have a full rack of instructional videos at home.
“I’ve always been around baseball, and I’ve always loved the game. I love coaching on game day, just to see what we can do to get a win. I just enjoy doing it.”
It took a few years for Schuitema to become a big winner at MCC, but once he got the program rolling, there was no slowing down.
The Crusaders won their first district championship under Schuitema in 2012, and they’ve been at least district champions every season since then.
Some years the Crusaders have gone much farther than districts. The best example was 2015, when MCC rolled all the way to a Division 4 state championship by beating Centreville 10-8 in the finals at Michigan State University.
The team was amazing that year, posting a 32-1-1 regular season record, then cruising through the state tournament unscathed. MCC won the state championship game in an unorthodox fashion, being outhit 17-10, but still pulling out the victory.
Senior pitcher Nick Holt managed to gut out a complete game in the finals and get key outs when he needed to, despite giving up so many hits.
It was MCC’s first state baseball championship, and only the second in history for a Muskegon County team.
“That was a pretty crazy game,” Schuitema said. “Everything was set up the way we wanted it. Nick had won 27 consecutive decisions. Then he gave up 17 hits and we still won.
“That was a group that had been playing together a long time. We had three first-team All-Staters, and should have had four. Our captains were real leaders. Before the tournament started, Nick Holt and Anthony Woodard wrote letters to every kid on the team, telling them how important they were, and how we needed everyone on board to be successful. They did a great job of leading us.”
The 2020 season that never happened was difficult for Schuitema and MCC.
It was the fifth anniversary of the 2015 state championship, and the coaches and players had planned to get together and attend a West Michigan Whitecaps game as a reunion. But of course COVID wiped out the Whitecaps’ season, so there was no reunion.
Even worse, Schuitema’s 2020 team had all the makings of another state championship contender, with every player expected to return from the 2019 squad that finished with a 27-3 record.
Because of COVID, there was no high school baseball, either, and 10 MCC seniors graduated without the chance to show how well they could do.
“That was a tragedy,” Schuitema said. “I talked to one of the kids, Ryan Gillings, who is playing as a true freshman at Aquinas College, and I mentioned that at least he got the chance to go on and play college baseball. He said he would give up all four years at Aquinas for the chance to play that senior year. That’s the way all of them felt.
“That was a group we were looking forward to for a long time. They were very talented, but they never got the chance.”
As difficult as it was to accept the lost season, Schuitema was back out on the field this spring when baseball began again, and he’s still coaching as hard as he can, with his eyes still on the biggest prize.
His 2021 Crusaders are currently 12-6 overall and 8-1 in conference play, and are within a few victories of clinching another Lakes 8 conference title. Despite the six losses, Schuitema thinks his team could be very competitive again in the state tournament, because MCC will be playing other Division 4 teams, after a regular season of games against a lot of bigger schools.
The idea, of course, is to toughen up for a postseason run, even if that means a few extra losses in the regular season.
“I think we have a shot,” Schuitema said. “We purposefully schedule tough. We’re a Division 4 team that plays hardly any Division 4 teams. We plays a lot of teams like Reeths-Puffer and Fruitport. We want to play teams that are as good or better than us as much as we possibly can.”