Lansing Community College baseball sets winning standard
The JUCO program has built a legacy of winning, attracting strong players into its system.
There are many different levels of baseball that a player can enter after they graduate high school. Some may declare for the Major League Baseball draft, some might go to NCAA or NAIA schools, and some choose to attend a junior college.
Commonly referred to as JUCO, junior college teams usually carry a roster made up mostly of college freshman and sophomores, although juniors also play if they redshirt in one of their first two years of college athletics.
Lansing Community College baseball team is coming off of state championship seasons in 2021 and 2022, as well as being regional and conference champions in 2022.
Part of its success comes from the team’s standards to be uncommon, selfless and excellent.
“We really got that from our head coach, Coach [Steven] Cutter. He's a great coach. He brought a lot of great things here and that's just how we're living day by day, to live to our standard and play to our standard,” said sophomore outfielder J.T. Brandenburg.
Cutter led the Stars to a 44-11 record as head coach in 2022. The team is off to a great 2023 start as well, with a win percentage of over .800.
“We really don't try to play the scoreboard or anything, we try to play to our standard,” Brandenburg said.
Members of the team have something to do most days of the week between practices, weight lifting, study tables, leadership and games. The coaching staff utilizes a Google Sheet to help their players stay organized and know what they have to do and when in advance.
The Stars usually play at least three games a week during the season, adding up to a schedule that can seem quite daunting.
“[There is] not a lot of free time but it's good because it [keeps you] locked in on what you're doing, whether that's for school or for baseball. We just have stuff going on. So it's good to stay busy, and that helps us out a lot so we don't get off track,” said sophomore Alec Cutter.
Mental performance and leadership are aspects of baseball that the Stars make sure to highlight in their training.
“On Mondays, we have leadership… Leadership consists of two hours where we get the whole group together, we go over our core values and important stuff that our team needs to build on and get better as a group,” said freshman pitcher Will Case.
Brian Cain is the team’s mental performance coach, who works the players through a 30-day program. He also releases a podcast that many of the players tune in to.
“[Cain] releases his podcasts every morning and all of our guys at least try to listen to those every morning. They just start us off on the right foot, and give us those little tricks that we need in-game that help us out when we're struggling mentally, physically, and we can just go back to our mental game to help us out if we're struggling,” said Brandenburg.
Players have many different reasons for deciding to play for the Stars, but agree that the culture is an important factor in why they enjoy it so much.
Alec Cutter is an infielder who previously played for a school in New York during his freshman year. He was able to redshirt, so he will still get two years of eligibility with LCC.
“Originally I'm from Muskegon, and I went pretty far… I didn't have a great experience in New York. I didn't, I don't know. I lost myself a little bit and I wasn't really enjoying my time out there. And that was my own fault… I just didn't have as much structure out there. There wasn't as much of a set like you're doing this on this day, and this on this day. So I felt like it was easy to get off track. And that's kind of what I did. So I struggled in school a little bit and I struggled in baseball. I just wasn't really having fun anymore,” Alec said.
Alec said the standards at LCC are a lot different, and the team has higher expectations here.
“When I made the change here, you know, it was a little bit nerve-wracking at first, but now looking back it's one of the best decisions I've ever made,” Alec said. “I'm really glad this year that I got the redshirt [so] I can have another year here and get to experience two years of junior college here at Lansing. Lansing is different… I don’t even know how to explain it… It’s an awesome place to be.”
Case is from Kinde, Mich. Like many other collegiate athlete hopefuls, where he lived played a part in the options he had once he graduated from high school.
“They're a team that wins. I like their culture. I mean, myself coming from a small area, I didn't really didn't get very many looks. I got [overlooked]... Nobody really knew about me. I was able to get a spot on this ball team, at this school. And I've just enjoyed it ever since day one,” Case said.
Brandenburg is from Cincinnati, Ohio and said that he knew he wanted to go to a Junior College to play baseball.
“I definitely wanted to go JUCO because I know JUCO players are built a little different because they don't get everything handed to them, they have to work for it,” Brandenburg said.
“When I came here, and I first toured I met some of the guys and they were just really great guys and they were really inviting and they just wanted the best for me,” Brandenburg said. “I saw that and I didn't see that anywhere else that I was thinking about going to… LCC [has a] great atmosphere, great standards and the other guys here are just great. I mean I've never had a team or coaches like the people here so the people are just amazing.”
One thing the players hope people realize is that playing at a Junior College is probably not what they think it is.
“JUCO is often overlooked, but now in the modern day, more and more Division 1 colleges are looking to JUCO guys over guys coming straight out of high school,” said Brandenburg. “If you're a senior in high school and you know exactly where you want to be, to get to the college you want to be at, then JUCO is the best route you can go because you get those two years to really just grind on your body and your mind and it's just JUCO is a great spot to do that, and you just get a lot of opportunities.”
Aside from the opportunity to spend more time developing as a player, many athletes choose the JUCO route to help with expenses and keeping any possible student debt to a minimum while still getting opportunities to play the game they love.
“Money-wise it’s smart and there’s good competition,” Alec said. “You [also] get a couple more years to develop yourself, and get some good grades and everything. So that always helps to move on to a new school.”
In recent years, more and more players have chosen to attend a Junior College before moving on to the next step, whether that be a four-year institution, the MLB draft, or whatever else their next path may be.
“I feel like a lot of people don't actually understand the level that we play at and that that's a big, big thing for me,” Alec said. “We went down to Mississippi, and we played Meridian and Pearl River and all these prestigious JUCOs and it's like this is a very high level of baseball. I think a lot of people don't understand that and you know think ‘JUCO that's a low level’, but in all reality, there are a lot of good baseball players in JUCO.”
There is a lot of talent in the Junior College level of baseball, and that leads to good competition, both with other teams as well as with your own teammates. At the end of the day, there are always only going to be nine spots on a baseball field.
“Every day is a challenge,” said Case. “Everybody's trying to come for you and that's what makes it fun. Everybody's competing with everybody [to make] each other better.