Gielczyk: Frankfort Sets Sights on 1st State Title

Griffin Kelly and Matthew Stefanski are not only playing their final baseball seasons at No. 1-ranked Frankfort, but spending their last as teammates. The pair recently signed National Letters of Intent to play football at different colleges, Kelly for Northern Michigan and Stefanski for Grand Valley State.

But, that’s still months away.

Right now, the pair are deep in the midst of preparations for the 2018 baseball season which holds the promise of further success on the diamond after last season’s 36-1 run to Northwest Conference and Division 4 district titles.

Also coming back from last year’s team is veteran catcher Brett Zimmerman, who earlier this year was named a Second Team prep All-American by Collegiate Baseball.

Zimmerman finished last season with a .506 batting average that included five home runs, 39 runs batted in as well as 32 stolen bases. Base runners who tested his arm found a decided lack of success, as Zimmerman threw out 80 percent of runners attempting to steal.

The Panthers ran into Muskegon Catholic Central, a familiar nemesis, in the regional semifinal played in Beal City and lost a 2-1 heartbreaker in extra innings.

Frankfort flirted with disaster early, including the top of the second inning when the Cougars loaded the bases with no outs on a hit batsman, a single that went just fair and a walk.

But, the Panthers escaped without any damage when starting pitcher Jack Morrow struck out the next three batters to end the threat to keep the game scoreless.

Kelly would plate the first run of the game with a single in the bottom of the third after Kirk Myers drew a leadoff walk and Zimmerman moved him to second with a sacrifice bunt.

Muskegon Catholic pushed in a run with a two-out double in the fourth to make it 1-1. That’s the score stood until the top of the 10th, with a wind aided triple followed by a single brought home the winning run.

“It didn’t end the way we wanted it to, but they never do it doesn’t seem like,” longtime Frankfort coach Mike Zimmerman said. “Hopefully, that’ll inspire our kids to work a little harder, and make up for some of the areas that we were weak in.

“We had a chance, but just didn’t get the breaks when we needed them.”

Like the ninth inning, when the Panthers had Adam Bower on second with two outs. Tige Stockdale laced a sharp single to right on which Bower was forced to hold at third.

A walk to Ben Tiesworth loaded the bases, and Myers quickly got ahead in the count. With the count full, Myers stayed off a pitch he thought was out of the strike zone, which would have given him a walk to force in the winning run. But, the umpire called it a strike. Game over.

“We didn’t execute when we had to, and they made the plays when they had to,” said Zimmerman. “It was just a very well-played game. We have a very good group of players coming back, and hopefully we’ll get a little better.”

The Panthers, No. 1 in the pre-season rankings, have three of their top four pitchers returning, but they’re not quite as deep as they were a year ago. Suspension took away what probably would have been their No. 3 pitcher.

Myers finished the season 12-1, while Morrow went 11-0 and recorded 94 strike outs in 65 innings while holding opposing base runners to a .200 on base percentage and had a .97 earned run average. He signed a NLI to play for Albion College next year.

Not a bad pair to draw to.

Frankfort has to replace its right fielder, but otherwise the Panthers have experienced players at every position.

When he’s not pitching, Myers will be at short. Right now, freshman Jack Stefanski is penciled in at second while Matt Stefanski returns at first base, while third will be handled by Adam Witkop.

“Griffin Kelly is as good a centerfielder as anybody has, and covers a lot of ground,” Zimmerman added. “As long as he’s out there, we’ll be all right.”

The Panthers also have their top eight hitters back. Last year, the Panthers had a batting average around .350.

“We should be able to hit the ball and play defense,” said Zimmerman. “Our pitching should be okay. If we can get some breaks here and there, we should be okay.

“Right now, they think they’re going to step in and hit where they were at the end of the year. It’s just not that easy.”

As far as the conference is concerned, Zimmerman expects Glen Lake to be a very real threat. While both Benzie Central and Kingsley are going to be young, Zimmerman isn’t dismissing them out of hand, and Onekama is always a dangerous team.

Zimmerman said this year’s non-conference schedule could be the toughest Frankfort has ever played.

The Panthers open the season with Gaylord, which is ranked 10th in Division 2. Also on the schedule is Kalkaska, traditionally a great team, as well as Division 4 powerhouses Muskegon Catholic Central, ranked No. 3, and top-five ranked Climax-Scotts. Frankfort also has Division 1 Traverse City Central on the slate.

Frankfort took over the No. 1 ranking early last season, and has been there ever since.

“I think the guys have kind of gotten used to it a little bit,” Zimmerman said. “They realize that it doesn’t really matter. We were No. 1 last year when Muskegon Catholic beat us. They were third then.

“We don’t talk about wins and losses. We talk about doing things right, and the rest will take care of itself. We’ve been pretty successful with that philosophy, and doubt we’ll change it now.”

The Panthers are hoping they take another fun ride in the post-season, and go a little further this year.

Greg Gielczyk is an award-winning sports columnist and sportwriter who worked a total 36 years — interrupted for an 18-month period from 1997-99 — at the Manistee News Advocate as sports editor until 2006 and is now retired. He currently is a freelance sportswriter for the Ludington Daily News. Gielczyk can be reached at ggielczyk@jackpine.net for story ideas. 

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