By Steve Gunn
NORTH MUSKEGON – Really good teams know how to bounce back, particularly at key points of the season.
The North Muskegon baseball team has been doing just that for the past few weeks, and now the Norse have reached the Final 16 of the Division 3 state baseball tournament, with big plans for the next couple weekends.
North Muskegon’s latest comeback came on Tuesday night, when it overcame an early three-run deficit to defeat West Michigan Conference rival Ravenna 13-8 in the opening round of the Division 3 regionals. The Norse, 30-9 on the season, now advances to play Buchanan on Saturday at 1 p.m. in the regional finals at Cornerstone University, with the winner advancing to a state quarterfinal game at 4 p.m.
Any future opponent that’s taking the Norse lightly at this point should think twice, because this is a team with a lot of skill that doesn’t go away.
Ten days ago, the Norse squared off against Montague at Marsh Field for a doubleheader with the West Michigan Conference title on the line. North Muskegon lost a marathon heartbreaker 10-6 in the first game, which went 14 innings and lasted nearly 4 ½ hours. But the Norse pulled themselves together in the nightcap – which started very late at night – and won 12-3 to secure a share of the league championship.
Last Saturday the Norse plowed into the Division 3 districts with a head of steam, defeating Western Michigan Christian 5-2, than dismantling the same good Montague team they split with the week before, 13-3 in the championship game.
On Wednesday, it was another case of North Muskegon having to come back. Ravenna jumped out to an early 3-0 lead in the top of the first inning, paced by a leadoff homer by Thomas McCullough, and led 5-2 in the second inning, following a two-run homer by Travis May.
But the Norse weren’t flustered. After leaving the bases loaded in the bottom of the second, and stranding runners at first and third in the third inning, North Muskegon exploded in the fourth, scoring six runs to take a 10-5 lead and control of the contest. Big hits in the inning included a two-run, bases loaded double by Shamus Corbett, and a two-run single by Troy McManus.
“We’re a resilient team,” said a proud and confident North Muskegon Coach Steve Cutter. “At Marsh (against Montague), we came right back out in the second game and scored five runs in the first inning. And tonight our energy never changed through seven innings of baseball. Resilient, battle-tested teams are not afraid when they get down.”
McManus, who finished with two hits and four RBIs, was also the pitching hero of the day. After North Muskegon starter Matt Herniman was roughed up in the first inning, McManus came in and tossed four strong innings to collect the victory.
He gave up the two-run homer to May in the second, but only allowed those two earned runs while scattering four hits, with two strikeouts and two walks.
Charlie Branch pitched the last two innings for the Norse.
“He’s been very consistent for us,” Coach Cutter said about McManus on the mound. “He throws a lot of strikes and gets a lot of weak contact. It was huge tonight when he was able to come in and calm things down.”
The top hitters for the Norse were McManus, Ben Myers (two hits and two RBIs), Alec Cutter (three hits and one RBI), Corbett (two hits and two RBIs), Herniman (two hits) and Joe Duplissis, who had two hits, including a one-run homer in the fifth inning.
The Norse totaled 16 hits in the game, which was not surprising, since they have already set the single-season school record for hits. They also stole two bases and moved into second place on the all-time single-season state leader list in that category. North Muskegon has a total of 211 steals, and passed the 1999 Whitehall squad, which had 210. The leader is the 1999 Lowell squad with 255 steals.
Leading hitters for Ravenna were McCullough with two hits and one RBI, May with two RBIs, Joel Emery with two hits, and Brandon McFarren and Dayton Thomas with one RBI apiece.
North Muskegon now faces a huge day on Saturday, with a chance to advance all the way to the state semifinals. That has been the goal from the beginning of the season, and the team is peaking at the right time, according to Coach Cutter.
“We’re in the regional finals,” he said. “There are 16 teams left. At the start of the year our goal was to get to Michigan State (which hosts the state semifinals and finals), and that’s still our goal. We are that good, and now we are only a couple games away.”