Graham Couch, Lansing State Journal
Lansing Community College remains an outsider in the junior college baseball world, even as it prepares to play in the World Series.
Such is life for a program turning heads for the first time.
The Stars never received any love from the NJCAA Division II top 20 rankings. And, at 37-15, after winning their regional by pounding 11th-ranked Sinclair (Ohio) 12-0 last weekend, they are the No. 8 seed in the 10-team World Series field, meaning they'll play an extra game. Never mind that only four ranked teams won their regionals to reach this point.
LCC plays 9-seed Southeast (Nebraska) at 11 a.m. Central Time on Saturday. If the Stars win, they'll play top-seed Murray State College (Oklahoma) at 2 p.m. Sunday in this double-elimination, week-long tournament.
"We've played the underdog role pretty much the entire season. It's nothing new to us," first-year coach Drew Huard said Wednesday by phone from a bus on its final leg of a 15-hour trek to Enid.
"It was a little bit of a surprise to us, just looking at the rankings. I thought we'd be right at the 6-spot. Looking at the bracket, if you're in the 6-spot, you don't have to play that extra game. We're not disappointed by it. We're coming down here to play baseball and compete at the highest level. Everything else will work itself out."
The win over Sinclair – which has eight Division I signees – is the signature moment so far in a historic run for a program that hasn't seen much baseball success.
But again, Huard said, the brand doesn't appropriately reflect the caliber of baseball being played by a roster loaded with local talent.
"I think what goes unnoticed, we have a lot of good players, too," Huard said. "I think most people see us as an underdog story, a bunch of guys that are not very talented that are just winning baseball games. We have a lot of talent in this bunch that's kind of going unnoticed."
Not entirely unnoticed, though. Huard believes "10 or 11" of his players will continue their careers at four-year programs, two or three at the Division I level, a handful at Division II and few at NAIA schools. About 30 coaches watched LCC win its regional opener. Another 10 saw the Stars beat Sinclair.
The top prospect on LCC's roster, Jake Crum, embodies this no-frills team. Crum, an outfielder from St. Johns who's batting .417 with 11 home runs, 55 RBIs and 19 stolen bases, began his college career at Spring Arbor as a scrawny, underwhelming prospect. He's now drawing heavy Division I interest and looks from pro scouts.
"Out of high school, I expected to play four years at Spring Arbor and that would be it," Crum said.
Crum credited Spring Arbor's coaches for improving his strength and the coaches at LCC for simplifying his swing.
To Huard, junior college baseball is all about kids like Crum — giving them the opportunity to develop physically beyond high school, to hone their game and eventually to show recruiters a more mature version of themselves, as Crum and his teammates will again in Enid.
"He was always a kid who was very gifted physically," Huard said. "The big thing in baseball is the 60-yard dash. He ran 6.48 (seconds) to 6.52. That's plus, plus speed even at the major league level. And his velocity, he throws 93 miles per hour from right field. He's very, very gifted physically.
"His exit velocity off a tee was 94 mph, which is again a very strong trait for the major league level. So the tools were all plus in every category. It was just kind of figuring out the game of baseball, being involved and being coached at a high level."
And being hungry. That's what Crum said this roster has in its favor above all else.
"They're competitors," Crum said. "We have guys that get down in a 3-2 count and grind down on the bat and end up with a double.
"We'll see how we stack up against national talent here. I'm not worried about it. We have as good of a chance as anyone in the tournament."