The Milan Big Reds varsity baseball team, per their standards and expectations, had a sub-par year in 2016.
Despite having another year over .500 with head coach Adam Gilles leading the way, the team had their worst-ever record under Gilles a season ago, finishing 20-15 and losing in the district semifinals.
The Big Reds head coach, heading into his 16th season, saw last year as an anomaly from most of his teams. “The biggest thing was that we lacked leadership and people buying into the way we’ve always done things,” he said. “They wanted to do things their own way, and that was evident. Having three of our four top pitchers hurt last year didn’t help.”
Ten players have graduated from that squad – including key contributors Jordan Hendricks, Daniel Norzaimi, and Eric Price, among others.
The 2017 team – 16 players strong – returns several players from last year’s team. Among the returners are Justin Beck, Jared Grubke, brothers Chase and Jaden Riling, and Antonio Walker.
Depth-wise, the new ballclub has eight pitchers firmly in the fold, with 10 being a possibility. Gilles also sees catching and the middle infield being strong areas for the new roster, while the weakest area – as has been somewhat of a custom in recent years – is the outfield. Of the 16 players on the roster, 12 are listed as pitchers, while only three are limited to one spot on the field.
The state of Michigan has a new rule in high school baseball in effect this season – a pitch count capped at 105. While not directly related to pitch count issues, the Big Reds have suffered losses to their pitching depth in recent years. Thomas Lindeman was out of the pitching lineup for most of 2015 with a shoulder injury, while Jaden Riling had the same fate last season.
“For that reason [the pitch count] – we’ve got more arms,” Gilles said. “We’re really focused on shoulder injury prevention.”
Gilles is praising his new team for their intelligence on and off the field. “We have a very smart team,” he said. “This is a team that has a 3.5 GPA, which we haven’t had in the last few years. One of my favorite things is that the smarter team is usually a winning team – not just smart academically, but also on the field. We’ve had a lot of smart teams, but in the past, we’ve lacked a little bit of leadership and the ability to buy in to what we try to do.
“So far, this team has bought in.”
The players have a determination to not repeat last year’s mistakes. “A lot of the guys know the system,” Gilles said. “They know what’s supposed to be done, and they were very frustrated last year with some things that happened on the team. They’ve already come through and said, ‘Coach, we just want to take last year and learn from it, and make sure we don’t make those same mistakes.'”
The pitching depth will be led by Jaden Riling and Walker, as well as newcomer Tyler Hall. Walker was a surprise last season, providing unexpected support to the pitching staff and outfield as a sophomore. Hall, a senior who is homeschooled, is playing high school baseball for the first time; he has played travel baseball in the past.
Chase Riling and JV callup Josiah Livingston will be the top two catchers, while the middle infield will be shored up by Riley Bergeron, Jaden Riling, and Walker. Bergeron will be the Big Reds’ starting second baseman; Grubke will maintain his starting spot at 3rd base and be the team’s third catcher, while Beck will be the team’s primary designated hitter.
The team also has several options at first base – Beck, Christian Diaz, Denver Jackson, and Cam Straub.
The outfield, Gilles says, is a question mark after Walker. The plan for the junior is to play shortstop when Jaden Riling pitches, and play in the outfield when neither he nor Riling are on the mound.
“Even after (graduating 10 players), we still have a decent core coming back,” Gilles said. “All these years, I’ve said, ‘Give me five to seven core players, and we’ll find the other three or four. We’ll figure out what they are.’
“Basically, what it comes down to is finding the best defense we’ll be okay with, with the best nine hitters in our lineup. We’ll sacrifice a bit of defense to be able to score a few more runs, if it’s possible. If not, we’ll flip-flop it. It’s all just a trial-and-error thing. That’s why we play so many non-league games.”
The Big Reds finished 8-6 in Huron League play in 2016. The record resulted in the Big Reds being part of a tie for third place.
Gilles figures the top competition this year to be Airport, Jefferson, and SMCC. “It’s going to be like it has the last few years,” he said. “There’s not going to be that one team like it used to be, where you could throw your No. 5 pitcher and you’d be fine. You have to throw your No. 1 or 2 every day. It’s going to be as competitive as ever, and it’s going to be fun.
“I see no reason we shouldn’t be competing for first place in the Huron League. That’s the goal.”
Milan’s schedule begins on March 23 with a single game at Pinckney, following with a doubleheader at Ypsilanti on March 30. Their April slate features only three home dates, including the opener on April 1. May, however, has nine of the 13 days slated with games being at home. Eight of the last nine days in the regular season schedule will be home contests.
“It’s all on purpose,” Gilles said. “Our field is usually the last field to be ready to go. We need our field to dry.
“I like being on the road. I think it relaxes us a little bit more, just getting away from here. It’ll be nice going to Pinckney on Thursday.”
Gilles is also nearing history, as he is six wins away from 350 as Milan’s head coach. He is the all-time win leader in the history of the Big Red baseball program. “It’s kinda cool,” he said. “I want the kids to do well. I want to win championships. In the end, we just want to win games (because) winning’s fun.
“But you’ve got to have selfish goals once in a while. I always said I wanted to get to 300, and I got there a couple years ago. I keep getting good groups of kids, and now I think 400 sounds like a better number.”
Overall, the head coach hopes to continue the string of success that Milan baseball has built in recent years. “A goal is to get to 20 wins,” he said. “Twenty-five sounds even better. We want to win as many as we can. But in the end, I don’t care if we win or lose; we just (need to) play solid baseball and hustle.”
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Coaching staff: Head coach Adam Gilles (16th year, 344-157-4 record), assistant coaches Vaughn Price and Randy Smith
Saying goodbye: 10 seniors graduated from last year’s team – Zach Allen, Dan Armstrong, Brendan Ferenczy, Josh Hall, Jordan Hendricks, Daniel Norzaimi, Jackson Pahle, Eric Price, Jordan Sparks, and Aaron Taylor. Seven of the 10 were significant contributors last year.
Welcome back: Milan has 9 players returning to the squad – Justin Beck (P/1B, Jr.), Riley Bergeron (P/IF, Jr.), Jared Grubke (C/3B, Sr.), Denver Jackson (P/1B, Jr.), Josiah Livingston (C/IF, Soph.), Chase Riling (C, Sr.), Jaden Riling (P/IF, Jr.), Cam Straub (P/1B, Soph.), and Antonio Walker (P/UTIL, Jr.).
Beck, Bergeron, Livingston and Straub split time between the JV and varsity squads last season, while Grubke, Chase Riling, and Walker were played key roles for varsity.
New faces: Milan has seven newcomers to the big club in 2017 – Dustin Dapprich (P/OF, Soph.), Christian Diaz (P/1B, Jr.), Gage Feeman (P/OF, Jr.), Tyler Hall (P/OF, Sr.), Jake Isaacs (OF, Jr.), Jakob Sawinski (OF, Jr.), and Lucas Schrader (P/UTIL, Soph.).