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Bronson raises the bar

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 By Mike Capshaw

Special to the  Pioneer

The Bronson Eagles baseball team soared to new heights with a trip to the state’s Elite Eight for the first time in the modern era. After coach Allen Strickland did some research, it may not be the program’s deepest postseason run ever, though.

“Since it’s been the FHSAA, it’s the first time we’ve been that far and the first time since 2002 that we’ve been to the state tournament,” said the third-year coach. “I talked to some older men and back in the 50s or the 60s, Bronson actually made it to the state championship game. They played down south somewhere and lost 2-1.”

This year’s Eagles were successful despite fielding just two seniors and 13 total players, including two pulled up from junior varsity for the postseason.

Strickland credited the postseason success, which included losses against Trenton in the district finals and the state quarterfinals, to “not thinking too much” and “just having a blast trying to win.”

After going 4-17 in Strickland’s first season and 8-13 a year ago, Bronson set its sights on making another four-win improvement this season.

“We wanted to get to 12 wins and get to the playoffs, then once we made the playoffs, they were just having a ball,” Strickland said. “They said, ‘Now that we’ve made (the playoffs), let’s just keep having fun and keep playing.’”

Bronson stuck with its game plan against Trenton, a team that’s 25-1 heading into the Class 1A semifinals, of taking away the Tigers’ “small ball” and trying to rattle them early. The Eagles did just that by jumping out to a 1-0 lead and forcing Trenton coach Todd Bryant to make an early pitching change.

“We said they will have to beat us swinging the bats, and that’s what they did,” Strickland said of his team’s 13-1 loss on Friday. “I put our No. 1 guy on the mound, Timmy Gibson, and I was worried about how he was going to feel after the game. But he pitched a heckuva game. I told him, ‘You won’t see another team like that.’”

Strickland, who mentioned how coach Bryant has helped by giving him advice over the past few years, said he believes Trenton is the team to beat when the state semifinals begin in Fort Myers on Wednesday.

“We played as hard as we could, but Trenton was the better team, so we tip out hats to them,” Strickland said. “If they keep hitting like that, I don’t see anyone beating them.”

Bronson finished 14-11, two wins better than its preseason goal. A large part of it was due to a group of talented underclassmen that will all return next season. Each contributed during key moments throughout the season.

Sophomore Ty Barber batted leadoff and led the team with a .371 batting average. 

“Ty was just an excellent leadoff guy,” Strickland said. “He’s real smart, good on the base paths and I called on him a few times to lay down a squeeze play … and he did a great job at shortstop for us and as our No. 2 pitcher. 

“He pitched six innings to give us our fist win ever against St. Francis.”

Junior centerfielder Brock Bower, a three-year starter, flirted with the .300 mark as well while batting in the No. 2 hole. He was instrumental offensively and defensively.

“He was solid when he got on base, very fast and a great base runner and if he got on base, the chances were he was going to score,” Strickland said. “He generated a lot of runs and definitely did an excellent in centerfield by giving us a shot in the arm with diving catches.”

Junior catcher Landon Smith missed most of last season after suffering a severe broken leg while sliding into second base in the second game of the season. He ended up batting above .330 and drove in “double digit” runs, including a two-run double that helped lift Bronson to a win against Hilliard in the district semifinals, which got the Eagles into the state playoffs for the first time in 11 years.

Smith also executed a rare suicide squeeze play with two strikes to drive in a run that essentially was the final nail in Hilliard’s coffin.

“I didn’t even know if he would be able to play, but the kid must have been above and beyond in the rehab process because I swear he’s faster now than he was before,” Strickland said.  “I was worried about him playing catcher because of pins in his ankle. But he kept asking to let him try it and so I finally let him try it and he locked it down.

“I don’t even call pitches, which most high school coaches do. He calls the pitches. He’s smart and knows what I want and did a great job back there for us.”

Besides being the No. 1 pitcher, Gibson also batted cleanup most games. The junior hit a “no doubter off the bat” for a home run against Trenton on Bronson’s long field during the regular season.

“He had times he knocked the cover off of the ball,” Strickland said. “If he can become a little more consistent, he’ll be tough to deal with. He just hasn’t fully tapped into his power, so I expect really good things from him after he keeps working on it this offseason.”

Gibson, who finished as the area leader in all classifications with 98 strikeouts, threw a complete game, three-hitter to beat Melody Christian in the Sweet 16. Strickland was impressed with Gibson’s resiliency and stamina in being strong enough to pitch multiple times per week.

Another iron man on the squad was Brandon Mercer, who often leaned into pitches to get on base because to help his team. Against Eastside, he had a breakout game with seven RBI.

“Brandon is one of the toughest, if not the toughest, kids that I’ve ever met — physically and mentally,” Strickland said. “He went threw a lot this season and to play the way that he did every game, I just love that kid. 

“He’s still not as good as he’ll be if he’ll stick with it and work in the offseason. He has a lot of potential and I expect him to be a big part of our leadership next year, just the way he plays.”

Junior Tyler Beauchamp may have been the best overall athlete on the team. He served in a utility role, playing shortstop, second base, in the outfield and where ever he was needed based on who was pitching.

“Some people would think being the utility player is a bad thing,” Strickland said. “But I did it in high school and told him that he was one of a coach’s favorite type of players because he could play anywhere. His goal was to steal seven or eight bases and he ended up stealing 14, so he was a big part of our success offensively and defensively.”

Strickland called junior Jake Morrison the most improved player, who “took to heart” everything his coach told him during last season’s individual exit meeting, which is where Strickland builds up each player while also outlining areas to improve. 

“He worked his butt off in the weight room in the offseason and pushed himself and saw results, then got excited about it,” Strickland said. “He made some great plays for us, tracked down some fly balls that last season he wouldn’t have got to because he got faster. He’s going to be a big-time outfielder for us next year.

“Offensively, his hitting improved and I think that was also from him getting stronger.”

Another much-improved player was junior second baseman PJ Shipp, a player Strickland said constantly asked about what he needed to work on to get better.

“He’s a lefty and he can hit. He got a base it for us, just about every game,” Strickland said. “He had the right attitude every day and if he lifts weights and gets stronger, he’s going to be a really good second baseman for us.”

Leadership qualities and the right attitudes are what resulted in Jason Ranalli and Cole Crain being able to join the varsity squad for the postseason after they played junior varsity all season. Strickland said they gelled with the team well because they had the “type of attitudes we needed to be successful.”

Seniors Justin Godkin and Dakota Robertson also had positive attitudes. Godkin hammered his first career homer against Cedar Key, which made Strickland smile.

“If anyone deserved it, he deserved it,” Strickland said. “I couldn’t have been more proud of him.”

Robertson transferred to Bronson from a school that didn’t field a baseball team, but he brought a “love” for the game and a ton of baseball knowledge to the table.

“He was the missing part that we needed,” Strickland said. “I was glad that he came when he did.”

All 13 players played a major role in the team’s success this season. Now, expectations will be raised even higher next season.

“If we worked hard in the offseason and use this as motivation to keep throwing and keep hitting with the goal in mind if getting to the postseason, we can go farther next year,” Strickland said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that we can keep improving.”