As the Michigan weather warms up, and a new baseball season is on the horizon, the players and coaches in the Milan Big Reds varsity program are starting to feel excited – not only for another spring to arrive, but for their chance to shine in the months ahead.
Amidst annual turnover on the roster ahead of the 2018 season, redemption, for some, is at the forefront of goals to accomplish.
Milan was 15-21 a season ago, and finished – uncharacteristically – in last place in the Huron League with a 3-11 record.
For head coach Adam Gilles, the all-time winningest coach in the program’s history, it was also a first – he’d never had a season where a team he led finished under .500.
“Honestly, (the win-loss record) wasn’t quite a depiction of how our season went,” Gilles said. “We lost a lot of one-run games. We were in every game.
“Even though we had a losing record last year, I still think we had a pretty good team. The (returning players) know that. We were pretty young last year, and they know what it takes to win.”
Milan graduated four players from last year’s team – Jared Grubke, Tyler Hall, Denver Jackson, and Chase Riling.
Riling led the Big Reds in the three major offensive categories – batting average, home runs and runs batted in – in 2017, hitting .394 with three long balls and 22 RBIs. Hall and Grubke were second and third in batting average, respectively, while being third and fifth in RBI totals. Jackson – who played occasionally – was known for his leadership role on the bench.
Milan also lost pitcher and utilityman Antonio Walker, who transferred to Lincoln for his senior year. Walker was the workhorse of the pitching staff in 2017, throwing the most innings (48 1/3) and leading the team in strikeouts (50). Offensively, he knocked in 15 runs, good for second on the squad.
Another new wrinkle lies with the coaching staff. Randy Smith, who had been a varsity assistant for five seasons, opted not to return for the 2018 campaign. Smith had been in a role equivalent to a Major League Baseball bench coach during his years with the Big Reds, volunteering to coach on his own time; unlike Gilles and assistant coach Vaughn Price, Smith does not work within the Milan school district.
“Randy gave an outsider’s perspective,” Gilles said. “The biggest thing was that he always ran the pre-game (routines) with the pitchers. Now, the pitchers will have to do that on their own.”
Gilles also noted that the change will have an effect in on-field decision making. “With two coaches (on the staff) … if we agree on things, we’ll do that,” he said. “If there’s three coaches, and one disagrees, we’ll talk about why.”
Even though there is no one currently filling the position, the team is actively searching for a volunteer to replace Smith. In the initial quest, Gilles looked at in-house options, such as junior varsity coaches Steven Price and Kyle Schrader, and Herb Morelock, a teacher at Milan High.
Morelock was a likely candidate, but will coach a newly-revitalized freshman team instead. The upcoming season is the first time since 2015 that Milan has had enough freshmen try out to field such a squad; in all, 27 ninth-graders signed up to play baseball, 16 of whom remain between the three clubs. Despite one-time consideration, Price and Schrader will be returning to their JV roles.
Even with the on-field shakeup at the varsity level, the head coach is optimistic in his returning players. “These guys got a lot of experience last year,” he said. “They’ve worked pretty hard on making sure (a disappointing season) doesn’t happen again.”
The 2018 roster features just 12 players, ten of whom played on varsity in 2017. Of the returning group, five are pitchers who combined to throw 148 of the 229 innings in the last campaign.
Given their lack of strength in roster size, injuries are a main concern, but there are a handful of players on junior varsity that could be called up if a need occurs. “It happens every year,” Gilles said, referring to the lineup changes over the course of a typical season. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a season where the lineup on day one is the same as a lineup in districts. You have different guys, you have injuries … it’s constantly evolving.”
As a whole, the team has depth at most positions, primarily in the middle-infield and outfield.
“We have seven guys in the program that I trust playing shortstop or second base,” Gilles said. “We have a lot of guys that can play in the outfield. We have a freshman that can play everywhere except for catcher and first base.”
Catching depth could be an Achilles heel for the varsity squad this year, as Josiah Livingston is the team’s only listed catcher on the roster. Possible backup options include Justin Beck and current JV players Dylan Jones and Ethan Hunt, though Gilles isn’t counting any other varsity players out as the No. 2 backstop. “Realistically, I could take any of these guys and throw them back there, and we’d be ok,” the head coach said.
Gilles expects the Big Reds to play better in the conference than last year’s subpar record showed, and pointed to traditional stalwarts SMCC and Carleton Airport as teams vying for a Huron League crown in 2018. “I see SMCC and Airport being pretty good, but every team has at least one stud pitcher,” he said. “We should be right in the mix.
“Last year, we only had three conference wins, but two of them came against Airport – who tied for the championship – and New Boston Huron, who came in second place. I think anybody can beat anybody, just like last year.”
Weather-permitting, the new season is set to start on Saturday, March 24, with a doubleheader at Sand Creek High School. The Big Reds will play Jonesville at 10 a.m., followed by a match against host Sand Creek at 2 p.m. Scheduled road games against Ypsilanti on March 28 and Pioneer on April 3 precede Milan’s home opener on April 7; the Big Reds begin their home schedule against Cabrini that Saturday.
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Coaching staff: Head coach Adam Gilles (17th year, 359-178-4 record), assistant coach Vaughn Price
Welcome back: The Big Reds have 10 players returning in 2018 – Justin Beck (P/1B, Jr.), Brendan Bellore (OF, Soph.), Riley Bergeron (P/2B/3B/SS, Sr.), Dustin Dapprich (P/OF, Jr.), Gage Feeman (OF, Sr.), Jake Isaacs (OF, Sr.), Josiah Livingston (C/3B, Jr.), Jaden Riling (P/2B/SS, Sr.), Lucas Schrader (UTIL, Jr.) and Cam Straub (P/1B, Jr.).
Bellore was a JV callup towards the end of last year, while Schrader – due to illness – missed all of 2017. The other 8 saw significant playing time last spring.
New kids in town: Two freshmen are joining the big club – Zach Abbey (P/1B) and Hunter Osborne (UTIL). Abbey is one of two southpaw pitching arms on the Big Reds, joining Straub and giving the Big Reds two types of lefty pitchers. Per Gilles, Straub relies on pitch movement to get batters out, while Abbey impresses more with pitch speed.
Osborne is a right-handed arm and bat, one of 9 such players on the roster.