Gielczyk: Frankfort’s Zimmerman Reflects on Historic Season
Frankfort baseball coach Mike Zimmerman reached a milestone this season when he posted his 500th career victory in the Panthers’ 10-0 mercy win over non-conference foe McBain on April 21.
The Panthers improved their record to 10-0 at the time, and they would go on to finish the regular season 34-0, which included a 14-0 mark in the Northwest Conference that gave them their third straight league title.
It was the first time a Frankfort baseball team had gone undefeated in the regular season, and also the first time the Panthers had finished undefeated in the league.
And the beat went on, too, with the Panthers sweeping to the MHSAA Division 4 district championship with victories over Buckley and Forest Area, both by 11-0 scores to advance to the regional with a 36-0 record.
But, there the run ended as the No. 1 ranked Panthers were edged, 2-1 in the regional semifinal by their old post-season nemesis, the No. 3 rated Muskegon Catholic Central Crusaders, who had to rally from a 1-0 deficit.
The Panthers pushed across their only run of the game in the bottom of the third when Kirk Myers walked to lead off the inning, moved to second on Brett Zimmerman’s sacrifice bunt and scored on Griffin Kelly’s single.
Frankfort had earlier dodged a bullet when Jack Morrow pitched his way out of jam in the top of the second when the Crusaders loaded the bases with nobody out with a hit batsman, a single and a walk. Morrow put that fire out when he fanned the next three hitters. He recorded six strike outs for the game before leaving after seven innings when he eclipsed 100 pitches.
"I thought we were going to win after that," Mike Zimmerman said. "I thought it was destiny, but I was wrong. We had our chances, but we couldn’t capitalize."
The Crusaders tied the game with a two-out double in the fourth, and then the wind came to their aid in the top of the 10th when a ball that looked like it was going foul suddenly came back into fair territory for a single. The next batter doubled to send the winning run home.
Despite the emotionally deflating loss, the Panthers could look back with pride at what they had accomplished.
But the Panthers didn’t look like they were going to be anything special before the season began, though.
Far from it, actually. If anyone had stopped by Lockhart Field when the Panthers conducted their first outdoor practice this spring, they would not have guessed in a million years what would transpire.
Zimmerman admitted it’s a guessing game for a coach, and that those first few days practicing outside weren’t a true indication of what was in store.
It would take time, and game experience, to learn just how good this group of Panthers could be.
"You kind of take a guess off what you finished off with last year, and who’s back," said Zimmerman over breakfast Tuesday morning. "We knew we had a lot of nice players coming back, and they were a year older and stronger.
"We thought we’d be okay. We lost three or four (seniors) from last year’s team. We had five or six sophomores that started who came back as juniors. We knew they were going to be pretty good. We never expected that (to be undefeated in the regular season).
"You expect to stub your toe somewhere along the way. It takes a lot of luck, and we had some games that we just got really lucky in. We almost got to a point for a while there, around 25 (wins), where I thought if we lost, we’d start playing better, because I thought the pressure of undefeated got to the kids."
After a couple of weeks, the Panthers began play a little more relaxed and didn’t seem at all bothered by the continuing undefeated streak.
Just the same you had to wonder, did going into the district tournament undefeated having any adverse effect on the team?
"Our kids are fortunate that they’ve been successful in all the sports, so they understand when you go into the tournament everyone has an equal record," said Zimmerman. "That’s kind of how you have to approach it. So, it was fine."
The Panthers enjoyed outstanding pitching depth, with six posting earned run averages under 2.00. Morrow led the way, finishing 10-0 with a 0.97 ERA. Kirk Myers posted a 12-1 record with a 1.07 ERA while Tige Stockdale was 7-0 with a 1.32 ERA.
Frankfort’s defense backed them up with nearly flawless play, and catcher Brett Zimmerman threw out 80 percent of runners trying to steal.
Knowing their catcher had their back, and would be able to hold runners on base allowed the Panthers pitchers to take the mound with the confidence and not have to worry about walking a batter or two.
Zimmerman also led the team in hitting with a .506 batting average, followed by Kelly with a .434 mark and Matthew Stefanski hit .422 for the season.
Pitching and defense were key for the Panthers, as it most often is with teams that are exceedingly successful.
"Tige was a huge surprise for us this season," Mike Zimmerman said. "We knew he could eat up some innings for us, but we didn’t expect him to be unhittable. His first game of the season he allowed four runs, and then I think he only allowed six the rest of the year.
"James Eno, who really doesn’t like to pitch, but we stuck him out there and he ended up 5-0 with a 0.90 ERA. But they all threw strikes, they all stayed away from walks and they all let their defense work for them.
"With Brett catching, you almost had to have two hits or a big hit to drive a run in from first, because they weren’t going to steal very often. That really helped us out. We didn’t have a lot of passed balls. He stops the ball from going to the screen."
Both seniors played what Mike Zimmerman felt were the best games of their careers defensively, and the Panthers hit the ball solid all season.
Frankfort baseball has grown accustomed to winning, and making long runs in the post-season. With all but two players expected to return next year, the Panthers have the potential for another outstanding season, and perhaps a long tournament run.
Much can happen between now and then, however, to spoil those plans and Zimmerman is all too well aware of the potential land mines after 29 years as the Panthers head coach and a few years before that as an assistant.
"The possibility is there (for a great season), but we’ll just have to wait and see," the coach said. "if they stay gelled together, or if there is something that happens over the school year that pulls them apart a little bit.
"You always have to worry about a kid getting hurt, or just losing interest. I don’t think that will happen, but you never really know."
For Zimmerman, next year is the end of the line, too, as he has made it known to the administration that he plans to retire when it’s over.
He has sacrificed a great deal the last four years, especially missing out on seeing his older son, Kyle, play in college and he’s not making the same mistake with Brett.
It also seems to be the right time, Zimmerman added.
But, it would be sweet for him to step down after 30 years and a state championship in his final season at the Panthers’ helm.
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.