Six people with vastly different lives, backgrounds and reasons found their way to Michigan. They came to write a new chapter, discover their purpose and recapture their love for the game.
Six paths merged into a single direction that led them to the heart of Ann Arbor.
As the seniors stepped off the field at Ray Fisher Stadium for the last time, their footprints sank into the crimson dirt, deepening their mark on tradition.
Though the impressions have since disappeared, raked over and smoothed into the ground, small traces of the rust-colored dust stuck to the bottom of their cleats and will follow them wherever their next journey lies.
Their stories were unwritten and untold until now.
The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far: A young John Lorenz slipped his hand into a glove.
As soon as he could walk, John was in the backyard of his home on Chicago’s South Side, learning the basics that would carry him to a college career across Lake Michigan.
John was fortunate to grow up on a block full of kids, and he spent many summer days playing pickup games in the street and a nearby empty lot.
But John always saved enough energy for when his father, Joe, would come home from work.
He would rush to his side.
“Dad, let’s go out and play catch.”
Joe knew a thing or two about the old ball game. After playing for Lewis University, he spent the next four years in the minor leagues at third base — the position he would one day pass down to his son.
After Joe’s stint in professional baseball with the San Francisco Giants and Atlanta Braves, he started taking his young son to high-school games and Lewis alumni games — where John got his first taste of competition, and that sparked a hunger that has yet to be satisfied.
John was in second grade and the sun was just peeking out of the early morning darkness. He woke up early to get ready for school — his mother, Erin, was impressed. But she soon realized there was an ulterior motive as her son sat in front of the television, mesmerized by last night’s double plays and home runs on ESPN’s “SportsCenter.”
During elementary school and beyond, teachers would ask him, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
John never hesitated to answer, “A baseball player.”
John’s grandmother — a diehard White Sox fan — further nurtured his dream, ingraining players and stats into his head. And that generational love of the game trickled down the family tree.
With baseball at the forefront, John added basketball and volleyball to his already hectic schedule. On the weekends, he would rush from one game to the next, switching uniforms in the car, barely making it in time for tip off or the first pitch.
Erin, who played collegiate volleyball and is the director of Ultimate Volleyball Club, and Joe were happy to share their passions with their son, but they never pushed him — John was competitive by his own nature.
At 14 years old, John made it to the Junior Olympics for volleyball, but his team fell short. Upset as he passed the bracket boards, John looked over the USA Volleyball All-American list. With determination in his eyes, he turned to his mother and said, “I want to be on that list.”
One year later, he made it, and he took his team to the championships.
But as the level of competition rose, John had a decision to make. In the back of his mind, he always knew his heart was in baseball.
John knew the rule.
“You can’t commit on the spot — we need to go home and discuss it as a family.”
After months of recruiting letters, scholarship offers and visits to different universities, John was faced with another decision that would define his future.
As soon as he stepped onto the Ray Fisher field, he imagined himself playing on that very grass. He felt at home.
During the tour of the facilities, John’s certainty only grew stronger. Then-head coach Rich Maloney escorted the Lorenz family into the Stephen M. Ross Academic Center, where he turned off the lights in the theater.
A feature of Michigan history played before them, ending with footage of the team that won three straight Big Ten titles. This was the legacy of which John so desperately wanted to be a part.
He leaned over to his mother in the dark and mouthed the words, “I’m committing right now.” But he knew the rule.
Walking through the rest of the Academic Center, three members of the reigning championship team — Chris Berset, Kevin Cislo and Ryan LaMarre — coincidentally crossed their path. That’s when Erin, too, was sold.
“Oh my gosh, these guys are what I want my son to be,” Erin thought to herself. “It made a huge impression on me as a mother with my 17-year-old kid, trying to project what he’s going to be like when he’s 22.”
So on the five-hour drive back to Frankfort, Ill., Erin and Joe listened to their son in the back seat plead his case, repeating with confidence, “This is it. This is the one for me.”
Almost immediately, John canceled his pending visits and called Maloney to accept — to become a Wolverine.
Shortly after, he received a card from his new coach that he displayed on the refrigerator, reminding him every day to “always do a little extra … work hard and then some.”
Happy Go Lucky: Everyone who knows Kolby Wood says his smile lights up the room and he shares the gift of laughter.
The sound of his laugh still echoes throughout his hometown of Berrien Springs, Mich., a place where it’s not an exaggeration to say everyone knows everyone.
Kolby calls it “hillbilly.” But above that, he calls it home.
He developed that infectious laugh long before his family moved from Oregon to the “homegrown” community in southwest Michigan. Kolby was in second grade and his brother, Shelby, in third when their parents left them home alone for the first time.
“We can handle it. We know the rules: keep the door locked, don’t answer the phone,” they pleaded.
Their mother, Jill Pierce, and father were just going to the grocery store down the street. That left plenty of time for the Wood brothers to raid the underwear drawers and put up a display for the audience of cars that drove by.
With the decoration of undergarments draped on the couch and over the curtain rods, the parents pulled into the driveway. Jill came into the house only to find that her sons had gone into hiding, cracking up over the scene of the crime.
When he got to middle school, Berrien Springs High School coaches John Donley and Dean Garcia took an immediate interest in Kolby. They noted his potential and invited him to their summer clinic.
While the years passed, Donley and Garcia became more than just mentors for Kolby.
“They taught me to be accountable on and off the field, work ethic, life skills that correlate with baseball — how to be a man in life,” Kolby said.
Donley continues to instill the importance of academics in every one of his students. And to this day, he repeats the same words of critical encouragement that Kolby had heard over and over again.
“How are your grades? I don’t want to see you if you drop out.”
Donley received an e-mail with an attached picture of Kolby dressed in cap and gown. The seeds of a permanent friendship were planted.
Though he had been in the picture as a coach since Kolby was 12, three years ago, Garcia stepped into an additional role — as a stepfather. He used to half-jokingly nudge Kolby, “You better be prepared because I’m going to date your mom.”
“Oh whatever, no you’re not,” Kolby said, unconvinced. But in the back of his mind, he probably knew all along that they were compatible.
“He’s the perfect fit for our family,” Jill said. “They are his kids.”
As they prepared Kolby for the next step, Donley valued Michigan for its educational opportunities while Garcia saw it for its athletic prestige.
In July 2006, just before his senior year of high school, Kolby earned $180 to register for the Michigan High School Baseball Showcase in Grosse Pointe, Mich. Garcia knew this would give Kolby the exposure he needed to play at the next level.
He was a “string bean” on the mound — 170 pounds soaking wet. He threw 10 pitches in the bullpen, and that was it. But those 10 pitches were enough to catch Maloney’s eye. He saw a good-sized kid who threw with intensity.
The bellyaching laughter may have started when he was just a boy, but it’s transformed into the hearty chuckle of a six-and-a-half-foot man.
Shelby recalls a misplaced photograph from Kolby’s junior season at Berrien Springs. It could’ve been any game, Shelby at third base, longtime friend Scott Snyder at shortstop and Kolby on the mound.
Kolby had just thrown a curveball, and his opposing batter buckled his knees and bailed out of the batter’s box.
Kolby amused himself, grinning with satisfaction while Shelby and Scott buried their faces into their mitts, unleashing their laughter into the leather.
But even though Kolby has been called the class clown and everyone recognizes his lighthearted nature, his maturity stands in contradiction.
He handles every hardship, no matter the weight or magnitude, with a mellow smile.
By the time Kolby had the opportunity to play professional baseball out of high school as the Detroit Tigers’ 44th-round pick, he had already committed to Michigan. Two years later, he was offered a contract with the Chicago Cubs, and once again Kolby turned it down.
Shortly after, a bicep tendon injury put his career on hiatus. Most people would look back and think, what if?
“It’s got to affect him deep down inside,” Jill said. “That’s what’s been really tough for me, feeling like we’ve talked him out of it twice, and now that chance may never come again.”
But Kolby has no regrets.
“It is what it is,” Kolby said. “If it was supposed to happen, it would’ve worked out.”
As he leaves Michigan, Kolby anxiously searches for the next adventure in life. For him, there’s life after baseball.
Blood, Sweat and Baseball: In April 2008, Kevin Vangheluwe lay in a hospital bed, missing three pints of blood and one of his ribs.
A week earlier, he stood on the mound in perfect health. He was on the path toward a long-lived baseball career. In his junior year at Lake Shore High School in St. Clair Shores, Mich., Kevin posted an 11-2 record with 90 strikeouts and was named to the Detroit News All-State Dream Team.
But just days after pitching a shutout game in a tournament, Kevin walked up to his father, Mark, without a shirt and said, “Dad, look at this.”
Kevin stood there, his right arm stained purple from his shoulder to his fingertips. Inevitably, Mark took him to the hospital only to learn that his son had a 10-inch blood clot trapped in his pitching arm.
Maybe it was dehydration. Maybe it was his broad, athletic body type. Maybe it was one too many fastballs. Regardless, Kevin just calls it a “freak thing.”
Because he had already committed to Michigan, when Maloney learned of Kevin’s condition, he arranged for a transfer to the University’s hospital.
Kevin immediately went into surgery, where Dr. Enrique Criado, clinical professor of vascular surgery, removed the clot and his top rib. But in a week’s time, it had re-clotted. He suffered from internal bleeding and was rushed to intensive care where he lost copious amounts of blood.
“I was scared out of my mind because he was gray,” said Kevin’s mother, Lori. “The doctors are telling you, ‘It’s going to be OK.’ But when you look at your kid like that, it’s the worst experience you could ever imagine.”
Lori was on lunchroom duty for the first time. While the rest of the first graders scarfed down their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and sipped on juice boxes, Kevin was nowhere in sight.
He was in detention.
When she went to find her mischievous son, she thought to herself, “What the heck did he do?”
Lori found her son sobbing in the empty classroom.
“All I did was throw a crayon, Mom — that’s all I did.”
But not long after that incident, Kevin started growing into the character he has today. Nothing really bothers him. He accepts life’s curveballs as they’re thrown.
Every freshman entering college thinks, by the time he’s a senior, he’ll be the Friday night ace, under the lights, basking in the glory. Though things don’t always work out that way, Kevin remains hopeful.
“I still think that,” he said with a laugh, before returning to a more serious tone. “I think relief is a better role for me just the way my arm has been since high school. Ever since that, I’ve never really been able to stretch it out as long … it’s just kind of the role I was built into.”
Whether he’s on the mound or in the dugout, for Kevin, being a part of the team is good enough.
After five surgeries in two weeks, Kevin wasn’t sure if he’d ever pick up a baseball again.
“It’s up to you and God whether you ever play again,” the doctor said.
For six months, Kevin wasn’t allowed to do much of anything. And when he first arrived at Michigan, he was finishing last in every conditioning test. His confidence was sinking. His arm wasn’t ready, and his 23.62 ERA proved it.
But three years later, Kevin felt healthy, and the swelling in his arm disappeared. It was his junior season at Michigan and he recorded 30 strikeouts in 31.1 innings of work.
Though not everything went according to plan, his future isn’t measured by what used to be his 90-mph fastball. It’s defined by what happens next.
“There have been a lot of great players that were told at one point in their career that, ‘You’re not going to be drafted,’ or, ‘You’re not going to be a starter,’ ” Mark told his son. “You’re done when you say you’re done, not when someone else tells you.
“Things work out for a reason. We’ll see — I don’t think his book is totally written yet.”
West Coast Swing: A hearty man with a salt-and-pepper beard and working man’s hands sat in the conference room of the Wilpon Baseball and Softball Complex just days before his son would play in the final game of his Michigan career.
Thousands of miles from his home in Pinole, Calif., Coley Crank’s father, Harold, sported the block M on his cap and his son’s No. 3 on a faded sweatshirt. He opened up a black-and-white composition notebook. The ink was fresh, written just days before to keep the stories of his son detailed in his mind.
Harold read aloud what he titled The Candy Jar.
Coley was about five or six years old and he was up to bat and let one go. It went over the center-field fence, and the ball went into the window of the candy shack or the little hot dog stand thing, and it went in and hit a candy jar, broke the candy jar and candy went all over. The person inside got the ball and came running out. “You broke the candy jar. You broke the candy jar. Who did that?” All the kids were excited because they broke the candy jar, and Coley was real proud of hitting a home run and having it go inside the window. So sometimes I wonder if when he’s at bat if he ever thinks about that candy jar, trying to put one out again.
That was just the beginning. Coley would watch balls fly over the fence for years to come.
Coley was in his junior year at Pinole Valley High School and the local newspaper happened to attend a game against Alameda.
The buzz started immediately after Coley smacked a home run well over the fence. Some may say the wind was blowing a little extra that day, but others swear by its 500-foot measure.
That was exactly the kind of power people wanted. Oakland Athletics scouts would travel along the Bay area and take notice of Coley’s presence at the plate. But University of California, Berkley and University of California, Santa Barbara, as well as a handful of other schools, also wanted him on their side.
When the call finally came through that he was being drafted in the 47th round, Coley was ecstatic. But he realized an education would carry him further than he could hit a home run.
Though Harold wanted him close to home, he knew he had to cut the strings at some point. He and Coley made the visit to Michigan, where they were brought out to the 50-yard line of the Big House before the game against Minnesota.
It was a tad overwhelming, but Coley was here to stay.
“Michigan is going to make a man out of him,” Harold thought. “You could just see it in his eyes.”
Coley’s mother, Sue, thinks of major league catchers Yadier and Bengie Molina when he’s behind the plate. But it’s when he’s gripping a bat that people hold their breath and wait to witness something miraculous.
When he was 15 and playing for Say Hey Kids Baseball Academy under coach Ben Juarez Jr., Coley was at a wooden-bat tournament, and he ripped a pitch over center field. A nearby stranger watched the ball soar and said, “That name is going to be in the major leagues someday.”
Throughout his career at Michigan, he’s lived up to his “monster-hitting” reputation, crushing ball after ball after ball.
In his sophomore year, the team was playing in the Texas Tech Red Raider Classic in Lubbock, Tex. As the designated hitter, Coley was only supposed to play in the first outing against Jacksonville, but his Uncle Tom’s advice sank in.
“You got to hit so good the first game that he doesn’t take you out the second game.”
Coley belted three home runs in a row.
Every time he steps up to the plate, it’s like he’s trying to smack one so hard that it doesn’t hit the ground until reaching his home in Pinole. Or maybe he’s just aiming to split open another candy jar.
From Ice to Mound: Brandon Sinnery was growing up in Franklin, Mass. — a typical New England hockey town where it was almost mandatory that he learn to skate.
And he was a natural.
By the time sixth grade rolled around, Brandon was playing for the Middlesex Islanders at an elite level. His team had just won the Metropolitan Boston Hockey League championship, and the celebration was in full swing.
The manager of the Islanders pulled Brandon aside just 15 minutes after the victory and said, “Next year, we’re competing for the world championship, and we don’t think you’re going to make the team.”
Brandon was devastated. He had already signed the contract, committing himself to the team for the following year, and tryouts were only a day away. Neither mattered, because the team rosters were already decided and changes were rarely made.
Though the chance of making the team was slim to none, Brandon went to try out anyway. He skated better than he ever had. The coach refused to let him go.
Not too long after, the team made it to the world championships in Quebec, where Brandon scored the two winning goals and was named MVP.
Brandon was out to dinner with his friends in North Carolina, where he was interested in playing for Elon University. He called his father, Don, who was back at the hotel, and said, “I got a call from Michigan, and they want to send me out there next weekend.”
But by then, Brandon was certain that he would pursue baseball, not hockey, and he pitched an inning at a showcase in Wareham, Mass. Thirty schools from around the country, including Michigan, saw what he had to offer — what his mother, Donna, calls “a God-given talent in his arm.”
Though his parents were slightly skeptical about his showcase performance, Brandon immediately started receiving letters, phone calls and text messages from a long list of universities.
At that point, Brandon didn’t have any major expectations and wasn’t leaning toward any particular school when he told Pete Zabrowski, his Team Connecticut Baseball pitching coach, about his upcoming visit to Michigan.
“You will commit,” Zabrowski said with confidence.
And he was right.
After touring the facilities and watching the team practice, Brandon and Don went to the Notre Dame game. He tugged at his father’s sleeve and said, “I’m going here.”
Don responded like he already knew what his son was thinking, “No kidding.”
That night, Brandon committed.
After Maloney gave him the congratulatory handshake and hug, Don told his son two things. The first: “Call your mother.” The second would outline the rest of Brandon’s life: “You’ll be a Wolverine forever.”
Brandon and his family were packing up all his things into a rental Suburban headed for Michigan when Don said, “You’re going to want to take your hockey gear.”
But he refused — he was going to college to play baseball and get an education, not play hockey, so why bother?
Just two days passed when Brandon called, “Dad, there’s six guys on the team that play intramural hockey, and they want me to skate with them, so you got to send out my gear.”
The next day, he called again, “Dad, I need this stuff by the weekend — the first game is on Sunday.”
$638 in postage later and Brandon was back on the ice. His team ended up making it to the finals later that year.
The Michigan coaching staff didn’t like the players putting themselves at risk for injury, especially in a sport known for hard-hitting collisions. But surprisingly, Brandon didn’t break a bone while in the hockey rink.
In his sophomore year at Worcester Academy, the team was warming up on the field before the doubleheader. They were throwing in cycles when Brandon glanced at a ball that another player had failed to catch.
Meanwhile, the next ball was headed his way and it hit him square in the nose. His parents took him to the hospital and the bleeding had barely slowed when the second game started and Brandon demanded to be put in the game.
Brandon always sacrificed more for the game of baseball, which led him to trade his skates for cleats, pucks for pitches.
Longhorns, Aggies and Wolverines: Casey Smith was in high school when he met his future wife, Debbie. They went to the senior prom together just before attending rival schools in the Lone Star state — University of Texas and Texas A&M.
Casey was heavily recruited by Southern Methodist University for football during its winning era. Two of his brothers went to play for A&M, which gained the reputation for being the ultra-conservative, military, agricultural college. In contrast, Casey went to play for the Longhorns in the liberal speck of the south.
Their parents had always warned them about the blue county in the sea of red: “There’s nothing but a bunch of hippies in Austin.”
But that’s where Casey and Debbie eventually settled down to raise a family.
And then there was Travis.
He didn’t follow the same path as his father. Travis was the quarterback through junior high, but one day he asked Casey, “What was it about football that you liked?”
“That was a hard question to answer,” Casey said. “Because it wasn’t the games, it wasn’t the practices, it wasn’t the off season conditioning. It was hot. It hurt. You got me there, Travis.”
That was the end of Travis’s football career. But baseball had been there since the very beginning and remained at the forefront until the very end.
“You can’t go to Michigan,” Debbie said. “You don’t have snow tires on your car.”
To Texans, Michigan never made much sense, just ice and snow. But when Travis and his mother visited, they both realized that the coaches, facilities and Ann Arbor trumped the frigid weather.
Before Travis even considered Michigan, he took a serious interest in Kansas State University, Baylor University and Notre Dame. And they took a serious interest in him.
He knew Texas and Texas A&M weren’t realistic options with the premier programs and level of competition, yet he still wanted the environment of a big school.
Baylor was basically “a trucker stop between Austin and Dallas” and wasn’t a consistent contender in the Big 12, and Notre Dame’s pond was a bit too small for the big fish. Michigan was the perfect fit.
And since “Austin, in a lot of ways, is Ann Arbor-ish,” the northern move wasn’t so bad after all. Debbie and Casey packed all of Travis’s things into nine suitcases and boarded the plane that would take them more than a thousand miles away from home.
When they arrived at South Quad Residence Hall and started moving in, a few of his new teammates called out to him, “Smith, we’ve been waiting for you.”
Travis quickly threw on a Michigan t-shirt and left his parents behind, and at that moment, Debbie’s maternal nerves subsided.
Travis was used to playing ball outdoors year round and feeling the blister of the sun. But suddenly, the South Quad fire alarm rang as the first blanket of snow covered the ground.
It was the annual West Quad versus South Quad snowball fight. Travis didn’t realize what he had signed up for. He was so used to 100-degree heat and big blue skies, not shoveling the outfield before the home opener in March.
A few snow storms later and summertime finally came around. It was time for Travis to return to the heat of the south and play for the Brazos Valley Bombers in the Texas Collegiate League.
He and the other pitchers would be sitting in the bullpen during a game, bored, hot and hungry. Little kids would come up to them and ask for extra balls as souvenirs, so the hurlers would strike a bargain.
“If you bring me a box of popcorn, I’ll give you a ball.”
But after another summer flew by, Travis returned to Michigan for his junior year. That’s when he battled a slew of injuries — he pulled his hamstring and underwent two Tommy Johns surgeries.
His recovery was slow, and his timeline was coming to an end. Moving forward, Travis knows his welcome in Austin will never expire. Though he found an unusual path to Michigan, his heart was always still in Texas.
John, Kolby, Kevin, Coley, Brandon and Travis each discovered the moment that Michigan became their home. Every twist and turn in their life before then led them to something greater than themselves.
They became a part of an ongoing legacy that will continue to grow without them. But those six people leave behind their names and impressions on the Michigan tradition.
Six stories became one.