By Steve Gunn

MUSKEGON – In less than a decade of existence, the Muskegon Clippers have quickly become a respected and beloved part of the area sports community.

That’s why it seemed so strange and wrong last summer to drive by historic Marsh Field and see no activity on the baseball field.

But COVID is on the decline, and the Clippers are back for their seventh (and what would have been their eighth) season. They will pick up where they left off in 2019, hosting their season opener against the Royal Oak Leprachauns on Thursday at 7 p.m.

For all the fans who have grown to love pleasant summer evenings at Marsh enjoying the summer collegiate games, the 2021 opener will be a welcome sight indeed.

Ty Olejnik reaches second base safely for the Clippers during a home game in the 2019 season. Photo/Leo Valdez

“I’m calling it a re-opening day, after being dark last year,” said Clippers manager Walt Gawkowski, who has managed the team since its birth. “That was a tough summer with no baseball. We are excited to get going again. A lot of planning and preparation has gone into getting the ballpark ready and building the roster.”

The Clippers have established a pretty consistent winning history during their six years on the field.

They spent their first three seasons in the Michigan Summer Collegiate Baseball League, winning the championship in both 2015 and 2016 with 24-7 and 22-2 regular season records, respectively.

At the end of the 2016 regular season the Clippers played in the National Amateur Baseball Federation Regional Tournament and won the regional championship by defeating Illinois D-20 Mules twice and the Holland Millers once.

After winning the regional title, they competed in the National Amateur Baseball Federation World Series in Toledo, Ohio. The lost in the quarterfinals to the Blaze Black after posting a 2-1 record in the first three games in the tournament. 

They joined the more far competitive Great Lakes Summer Collegiate League in 2017.

The Clippers posted a 22-19 record in 2019, the last season they played before the pandemic the amateur baseball world in mothballs. They qualified for the league playoffs for the first time and faced off in a three-game series against the eventual league champion Lima Locos.

The Clippers lost Game 1 in Lima by a 9-6 margin, then lost a 3-1 heartbreaker at Marsh Field in Game 2 to get eliminated in the series.

Gawkowski was very excited about the 2020 season, saying the team had a very strong roster that had a chance to compete for top honors, but the season was stopped before it was started.

“We were going to have a very strong roster last season, and that’s why it was so hard to tell the kids that we weren’t going to play,” Gawkowski said. “But it was the same way pretty much throughout the nation.”

Brady Miller delivers a pitch for Muskegon in 2019. Photo/Leo Valdez

The good news is that Gawkowski has the same type of feeling about this year’s team, even though he mostly knows all the new players by reputation, stats and videos, and has only had them in town to practice together for the last few days.

The roster is almost completely new this season, with only two players, both pitchers, returning from the successful 2019 squad.

Back on the mound will be Bryce Davis (University of Toledo) and lefty Billy Heil (Missouri Baptist), who both had a lot of quality outings for the Clippers two years ago.

It’s too early to tell who the stars might be, but Gawkowski mentioned just a few of the newcomers who will have a chance to make a real difference this summer.

That list includes pitchers Mitch White (Lansing Community College and Abilene Christian), Travis Keys (Aquinas College), Adam Berghorst (a Michigan State player who also plays football for the Spartans), and Ashton Wetzler (Seton Hill University).

The list of promising position players includes left-handed first baseman Noah Marcoux (Davenport University), shortstop Crew Cohoues (University of Oregon), and middle infielder Brendan Harrity (Western Michigan University).

“On paper, I think this team has a chance to be as strong as any team we’ve had here,” the manager said. “The middle infielders are highly skilled kids, I think the pitching will be pretty good with a few power arms that are going to through the ball real hard, and offensively, although it’s hard to tell until they see live pitching, but we have a lot of guys who can change games with one swing.”

Gawkowski, 67, has spent four decades coaching high school baseball at Mona Shores and North Muskegon, and six summers with the Clippers. He admits that the summer season can be trying for a veteran manager, with a lot of games stuffed into a short season, and a lot of necessary bus travel.

But once the games begin, he’s all in, and after sitting out a season, he’s more than ready to experience that competitive feeling again.

“I am very grateful that my wife Joan is so supportive. I am fearful that’s she might put her name in the transfer portal one of these days, but she hasn’t yet,” Gawkowski said with a chuckle. “It is an eight-week grind with 42 games. Part of the goal (of summer collegiate baseball) is to give the players as close to a minor league experience as we can. That means a lot of hours spent on a bus. It’s exhausting, I get tired, but when the games start, I get as excited as I’ve always been.”