Defending champ label ‘a blessing and a curse’ for Riverview Gabriel Richard coach

Riverview Gabriel Richard hurler Matthew Silka closed last season with a one-hitter against Bishop Foley in a state championship game, and opened this season against Foley with a no-hitter. (Photo by Anna Lisa Fedor)

GROSSE POINTE WOODS — Coach Mike Magier has a problem: all of his players from last year’s state championship team are back.

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he said before last Saturday’s doubleheader against University Liggett.

There were no seniors on Riverview Gabriel Richard’s roster that went 29-3 a year ago en route to the Division 3 title, a thrilling 3-0 win against defending champ and fellow CHSL member Madison Heights Bishop Foley.

The Pioneers made history on two levels: it was the school’s first state baseball crown, and pitcher Matthew Silka became only the fifth hurler in state history to throw a one-hitter in a championship game.

The spoiler was a single through the right side leading off the seventh inning.

A year older, now those former underclassmen — 11 seniors, seven juniors (and a freshman) — carry the “defending champion” pennant.

“I’ll have to keep them focused,” Magier said. “I don’t know if they realize how tough it is to repeat. A lot of stuff has to go your way, a lot of breaks.”

Richard is off to a 5-2 start. Three victories came with six ballplayers benched for taking part in an impromptu protest at the school. “It was a prank,” Magier said.

Fortunately, Silka wasn’t among them. A week ago, the slender right-hander opened the season against Bishop Foley — the same team he ended last year’s season against — and this time, he did even better, pitching a no-hitter in a 1-0 victory.

Magier called upon him in the sixth inning of the first game against Liggett to protect the Pioneers’ 4-2 lead. Silka slings the ball from a three-quarter or sidearm motion, keeping his pitches low, rarely above the batter’s belt.

The first batter singled, but subsequently was erased trying to steal second. Silka efficiently got the remaining five outs to save the win.

The Knights took a 2-0 lead in the second inning. A double by pitcher Alec Azar and singles by Patrick Ilitch and Nick Post loaded the bases. Andrew Zelenak singled Azar home, and Ilitch crossed the plate on Matt Greene’s sacrifice fly.

Richard finally solved Azar in the fifth inning. Nico Maloney singled and raced to third on a double by Haydon Burke. Frank Klamerus drove Maloney in, and Burke scored to tie the game on Hayden Flynn’s groundout.

In the sixth, Richard took the lead for good. Kevin Tuttle was hit by a pitch to start the inning, and came around two outs later on a ground-rule double by Burke.

Richard scored an insurance run in the seventh after two outs. Jacob Gosen walked and came home on David Zubor’s double.

Cole Atkinson went five innings for Richard, limiting the Knights to just one hit until Silka relieved him.

Liggett won the second game by a similar 4-2 score. They went ahead 1-0 in the second inning on back-to-back doubles to deep right center by Ilitch and Zelenak.

Richard tied the score in their third without benefit of a hit. Kevin Tuttle walked, advanced to second when Atkinson was also walked, and scored stealing third base, coming home when the catcher’s throw sailed into left field.

Liggett regained the lead in its bottom half of the inning on the combination of Greene’s double and Kellen Banaszewski’s single.

The Knights pushed across two more runs in the fourth. Mickey Walkowiak walked, Greene hit another two-bagger, and both scored on a Billy Kopicki’s single.

Left-handers Maloney (four innings) and Gosen (two innings) did the mound work for Richard.

Logan King did a superb job pitching for Liggett, especially tough in the first two innings when the Pioneers had two runners on base in the first and the bases loaded in the second without scoring.

For the game, Richard stranded nine runners on the bases, six in scoring position.

“We didn’t get the big hit when we needed it,” Magier said. “You got to give them credit.”

Gosen led Richard’s offense in the two games with three singles and a triple. Burke had a pair of doubles.

Greene, a freshman, also smacked a pair of doubles and scored two runs for Liggett. Zelenak had a single and a double and two RBI.

Coach Dan Cimini, in his 16th year at Liggett, has directed the Knights to Division 4 state titles in 2011 and 2013, and Division 3 championships in 2014 and 2016.

Liggett (3-1), a Division 3 school by enrollment, has opted to move up to Division 1 the last two years.

“Pitching and defense are what’s important,” he said. “It’s early in the season. We have a lot to work on.”