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One look into a dugout during the Michigan high school baseball or softball state championship games and you’ll probably notice a common theme.

Most of the players competing for state titles in June will be sporting bat bags and paraphernalia from travel-league programs that they’ve been training with year-round to prepare for the opportunity in front of them.

After a global pandemic wiped out the entire 2020 spring sports season, the gap between state-title contenders and their competition has never been more evident thanks to a seismic shift in philosophies by high school coaches to embrace the world of travel-league sports.

“It’s just the nature of the beast,” said Michigan Sabercats 16-17U head coach Red Pastor. “You have kids that are playing 60-100 more games a year during the summer, combined with the amount of offseason work that a lot of the kids that play travel ball do and it’s no surprise those are the same kids and the same programs that have success in the spring.

“If you look at where the high-level (travel) programs are located across Michigan and then look at the surrounding areas, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a lot of the high school programs in proximity to those travel teams are also Top 10 competitors in the state every season.”

Pastor, who doubles as an assistant coach for the Muskegon Oakridge varsity softball program, has seen first-hand the difference that a year away from the game has done to the quality of competition at the high school level.

“If you look across the state on a nightly basis and see the boxscores of some of these games this spring, it’s pretty clear how big of a gap has been created by travel-ball leagues,” he said. “I’ve never seen so many games ending in four or five innings on such a consistent basis like they are now. It’s simply because one school has a ton of travel kids and the other schools that they play against are just picking up their gloves for the first time in March.

“That might have worked 10 years ago, but it’s just not going to work that way anymore.”

One of the biggest areas of the game that has been affected by the long layoff has been pitching and the Wildcats have feasted on free passes so far this season on their way to a 14-0 start to the season and a 129-27 run differential.

“We’ve had 82 free passes with 71 walks, and we’ve been hit by a pitch 11 times, so that tells you the type of pitching you’re seeing in some areas,” Pastor said. “If these kids don’t pitch all year round it’s just hard to compete. I can’t sum it up any better than that. You’re just not going to be successful anymore if your program doesn’t have at least four or five kids that played all year round and