Before East Lansing Baseball Took the Diamond in 2021, They First Climbed a Hill
Well before the East Lansing baseball team swung a bat, threw a pitch, or made an out this past season, they carried logs up a hill.
In light of spring teams not getting to play their seasons due to Covid-19 closures and restrictions, the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) granted spring teams 18 outdoor fall workouts with their teams, in an attempt to make up for lost time.
Once those were done – and without the ability to practice indoors where they could do things like take batting practice or field ground balls – the Trojans lugged logs up and down the snowy hill that neighbors their field.
“We worked out outside five days a week during the winter. We were at the field and we just — we just had these big, old logs that we carried up and down the hill,” Head Coach Mark Pendred said, describing the regimen.
Besides the apparent benefits to physique that the oft grueling offseason workouts provided, Pendred thinks that the chance for the players to be together — and to mutually endure the workouts — benefitted the Trojans down the line. He’s probably right.
As the season wore on, the Trojans started to look better and better: splitting a pair of games with a strong Howell team, qualifying for the local invitational tournament the Diamond Classic, and making it to the district title game where they lost to powerhouse Grand Ledge.
“They went out there and they competed every day, and they played the best they could,” Pendred said. “And some days we did alright. And some days we didn’t. And I think our record shows that we did alright more times and we didn’t do alright.”
Before things clicked for the Trojans, they endured a rusty start to the season. As Pendred described it, the issues weren’t glaring, but were small lapses here and there, like booting a ground ball or misplaying a flyball in the outfield.
It takes repetition — which takes time — for batters to get their eyes in, pitchers and catchers to build their rapport, and infielders and outfielders to start reacting instinctively to a ball put in play.
A major chunk of time for those repetitions was lost when the Trojans couldn’t practice or play in the spring of 2020. When they could get back together finally, conditions were not conducive to things like batting practice or pitchers throwing to catchers — so they carried big logs up a hill as a team.
While that might’ve contributed to a less-than-sterling beginning to the season, it also likely contributed to East Lansing sticking with it and enduring that slow start before things picked up later in the season.
“I think that helped a lot, just getting the kids together,” Pendred said. “And it was hard and it was in the snow and it was dark. And it was just all those things that the kids just didn’t like to do. But I think you look back at it, the kids were pretty proud of what they accomplished.”
On May 17, the Trojans hosted the Howell Highlanders, a regional power. They split the double header, picking up a win in the second game; senior pitcher Nolan Ballard tossed a strong handful of innings in the first game, but the Trojans’ offense couldn’t keep pace.
Shortly thereafter, East Lansing was selected for the Diamond Classic. The Trojans squared off with St. Johns in their first game of the tournament on May 24.
This time, Ballard came on to pitch in relief and shut down the Red Wings offense, ensuring the Trojans cruised to a 12-7 victory. Leading the offensive charge that day for the Trojans was junior catcher Connor Gott, who blasted a 3-run home run in the second inning.
Next up in the Diamond Classic for East Lansing was DeWitt. The Trojans and Panthers squared off on May 27 with a spot in the quarterfinals on the line. Senior pitcher Marty Johnson took the mound for East Lansing and hurled a gem, allowing just three hits. But DeWitt’s starting pitcher was just a little bit better, and the Trojans fell, 1-0.
The MHSAA district tournament came next. The Trojans dispatched Waverly, 5-2, in a first-round game. In the semifinals, they topped rival Okemos, 5-3. That set up a district championship showdown with Grand Ledge.
“They beat us, they played better than we did,” Pendred said of the season finale. “You know, we had some opportunities come and we didn’t get the two-out hit or whatever it was.”
It was a close, competitive end to the season — both that game and the preceding weeks — and unfortunately the Trojans were on the wrong side of things a few times.
But for their efforts, six Trojans earned Capital Area Activities Conference blue division all-conference honors. Johnson, Gott, and senior Ethan Cullen were all-conference, and Ballard, along with fellow seniors Will Knapp and Kyle Johnson, earned honorable mentions.
Besides all that, there’s the fact they got to go play baseball this year, and Pendred hopes his players learned to see it’s about more than just trying to win your last game. It won’t define them.
“It’s a lot more than just that last game,” Pendred said. “It’s the whole four years of being together and doing things together as a team.