Troy — Birmingham Brother Rice head baseball coach Bob Riker was hitting ground balls on the infield of the program’s state-of-the-art stadium Wednesday while his players loosened up in the outfield.
Brother Rice was looking forward to practice in preparation for Saturday’s regional after getting knocked out of the districts the past couple of years.
Brother Rice, 27-8 and ranked No. 5, feels it has the pitching and hitting to get to Michigan State to play for the Division 1 state championship. Brother Rice will play Lake Orion in a 12:30 p.m. regional semifinal Saturday at Clarkston.
Ohio-bound left-hander Alex Kuster tossed a gem in a 3-1 victory over Detroit Catholic Central to give Brother Rice its sixth straight Catholic League title. Shortstop Chris Faust has been outstanding at shortstop and on the mound.
Riker is proud of Brother Rice’s stadium which showcases artificial turf and a locker room, along with chairback seats behind the plate.
“I think the whole thing, from start to finish, buying the land and stuff is upwards of $4 million, and we’re not even finished yet because we don’t have any of the couches and TVs,” pointed out Riker. “It’s been a work in progress so it’s very nice and we’re very fortunate. Like I said, I try to get them to not take it for granted because we used to play in a park that was a city park that had no fences, no dugouts.”
Yes, Riker knows how things were since he played for Brother Rice, graduating in 1985, then playing at Central Michigan before playing in the Tigers’ minor-league system before moving back to Brother Rice to coach and teach.
Riker was on Ron Kalczynski’s staff when Brother Rice won Class A state championships in 1992 and ’94, then soon after took over the head coaching job, guiding Brother Rice to the Division 1 state title in 2008 and runnerup spots in ’03 and again in 2013. Kalczynski is now one of Riker’s assistants.
Riker has coached some outstanding players, including DJ LeMahieu who went on to lead LSU to the national championship before winning the National League batting crown last year, and outfielder Nick Plummer who became a first-round draft pick two years ago.
No. Brother Rice doesn’t have a LeMahieu or Plummer on this year’s team, but it does have Kuster and Faust, along with junior center fielder Reese Trahey, who is hitting .390 at leadoff; catcher Gabe Sotres .370; and sophomore third baseman Jack Orlowski .390 from the No. 3 slot.
“These kids have been a part of six straight Catholic League titles and I know it hasn’t been done in a while if it’s ever been done,” Riker said. “They can go as far as they want to go, it’s a matter of playing the game the right way and getting a few breaks. Really, it’s all about putting the ball in play and putting the pressure on the opponent, you know, throwing strikes and making plays.”
And, it is big to win six straight Catholic League titles since Warren De La Salle won the Division 1 state championship last year and Orchard Lake St. Mary’s won the Division 2 state title in 2015.
Brother Rice has scored 45 runs during its last four games, defeating Bloomfield Hills, 7-3, in the district semifinal and Troy, 10-2, in the title game.
But, pitching could be Brother Rice’s strength.
“We’re deep on the mound,” Riker said. “Kuster is 6-2 and then Chris Faust, my senior shortstop is 9-1 with six or seven saves and he’s only given up one earned run. He’s a guy I go to in the back end of the game. Those two guys have done a great job. They just know how to pitch, throw strikes and change speeds.
“Then, there’s J.D. Allen who kind of goes unnoticed. If I had to pick a guy that has really kind of kept us together and does all the things right, it’s J.D. He plays third base, plays second, pitches. He won the district title game.”
Faust enjoys being in pressure packed situations.
“Usually I’ve been coming in like in tight situations so it’s a little pressure, but I love playing under pressure, and at shortstop a lot of balls are hit my way so I just really focus on making every play because if I don’t make them I know it will come back to haunt the team,” said Faust who will play next year at Grand Valley. “It’s exciting to be playing at this time of year, and our practices have been intense so that’s good leading up to these games.”
Said Kuster: “Our one-through-four hitters (Trahey, Caleb Jackson, Orlowski, Sotres) can take one deep at any time and the bottom of our lineup is really getting hot right now so we have good strength throughout our whole lineup that can produce runs.
“Gabe (Sotres) hits the ball well and he’s got a laser arm so he helps keep the running game in check if I ever get runners on. He’s got a good mitt, knows how to stick pitches and is great at blocking balls.
“It felt great to win the district title after getting knocked out last year when I felt we had a good team. I feel we can make a run since we’ve been producing runs, playing good defense and have a good pitching staff.”