The New Lothrop baseball team has had a successful season, by almost any metric.
The Hornets, fresh off their ninth straight district title, take a 29-8-1 record into Thursday's Division 3 regional semifinal with Burton Bentley at Burton Bendle.
“It’s a very good season,” Hornets coach Ben Almasy said, “but everyone expects more after winning 40 (games) in a year.”
Those people will have to be happy with 34 wins, which is what the Hornets will have if they win the whole tournament. To get there, the journey starts with a 1 p.m. first pitch against the Bulldogs (18-12).
“They hit the ball well. They scored a lot of runs in districts,” Almasy said. “They’ve had some ups and downs, but they’re getting hot at the right time.”
So, too, are the Hornets, who have bounced back with a sense of purpose after a listless 2-1 loss to Saginaw Valley Lutheran on May 20.
“It was a rock-bottom day,” Almasy said. “We were lifeless, playing like ‘Let’s get through it.’ And it ticked me off. We had lost to Beaverton in a tournament earlier in the day, and we went through the motions, myself included. We can’t do that now. If we do that again, we’re done.”
The approach, he said, wasn’t typical of the Hornets, who go to great lengths to encourage each other on and off the field.
Almasy said the team, and some alumni, picked him up Monday after he had gone through a medical procedure that curtailed his pregame activities before their district games against Byron and Durand. But he also pointed to the seventh inning against Durand, after right fielder Gavin Drager misjudged a fly ball.
“It was one mistake, and you know what? All I heard was three guys telling me they had his back, and that’s all I needed to hear,” Almasy said. “That’s the way these guys are. They’re always supporting each other.”
That came in handy early in the season, when the Hornets were trying to replace six starters who had graduated.
“We lost a lot of guys, but we knew if we stayed grounded and kept working every day, at the end of the day baseball is baseball,” senior Kollin Lienau said. “Our coaching staff is special, too. When we need someone to throw to us or get extra work in, everyone’s always there. They focus on us and take time out of their work schedule and family time to help us get to what we want, and we appreciate that.”
Lienau has been a leader for the Hornets, despite not batting for a month due to a broken bone in his hand. He didn’t miss an inning in the field, making adjustments where he could and playing through pain.
“He’s probably going to be an all-state pick,” Almasy said. “He’s had one error this year. That’s unheard of for a shortstop.”
Lienau was a freshman on the 2016 team that reached the Division 3 championship game.
“He’s been through it all the last four years,” Almasy said. “He and Nathaniel (Lane) have been a big part of getting these guys ready for what’s to come.”
As for the matchup with Bentley, Almasy said his team can expect a lot of action in the field.
“We don’t have that arm that can throw in the mid-80s,” he said. “We’ve got to field it. We have a lot of innings where guys get on base and we have to make plays.”
Cam Orr (7-0, 1.79 ERA) will get the start vs. Bentley, but Lienau and Brady Birchmeier — who struck out the last two Durand hitters Monday — are available.
“They’re all capable of getting the job done,” Almasy said. “It’s probably going to be a hitter’s day. The winds gust out of that place. There will be chances to score on each side. It’s one of those days where we’ll have to make a lot of plays. There could be a lot of runs, like Monday. It was a low-scoring day, then the hitters got familiar with the pitchers and it took off a bit.”
The path to the state championship will be slightly different this year with the MHSAA implementing a super regional format. Teams will play regional semifinals today, and two different regional finals will take place Saturday at a super regional site. The regional winners will play each other in the super regional final.
The super regional winners advance to the state semifinals June 14, eliminating the Tuesday state quarterfinal of previous seasons.
Due to field conditions at Bendle, the game with Bentley was pushed back from today to 1 p.m. Thursday. Even if there was no delay, Almasy would have looked to play another team Thursday anyway.
Jacob Graves, who threw 6 1/3 innings in the district championship against Durand, was unavailable for a Wednesday start. It's unclear if he'll be ready with the new start time.
“At this time of year, playing the game is the best rep you can get,” he said. “If we’re fortunate enough to win, hopefully we can find someone who’s won just to get the competition and the reps. It’s different when you’re playing a game.”
The winner between New Lothrop and Bentley will play either Valley Lutheran or Vassar in Saturday’s 12:30 p.m. regional championship at Brown City. The super regional final is at 3 p.m.
The top half of the bracket features two powerhouses in Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett — a five-time state champion — and Madison Heights Bishop Foley, last year’s runner-up. Foley swept the Hornets earlier this year and beat New Lothrop in the 2018 quarterfinals.
If the Hornets lose, Almasy says he can live with that, too.
“I’m so happy with the way we’re playing,” he said. “Nothing would let me down, because this team has been such a great surprise this season.”
Division 3 Regionals
at Burton Bendle
Burton Bentley vs. New Lothrop, 4 p.m.
Valley Lutheran vs. Vassar, 5 p.m.
at Bishop Foley
EPBP Laker vs. Madison Heights Bishop Foley, 4:30 p.m.
at University Liggett
Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett vs. Rochester Hills Lutheran NW, 4:30 p.m.
at Brown City
TBA, 10 a.m.
TBA, 12:30 p.m.
Regional winners, 3 p.m.