Decades Later, Wernette's Wondrous 2003 Remains Nearly Unchallenged

By Steve Vedder
Special for

April 24, 2023

Nate Wernette knew his final spring at Morley Stanwood had been special, but he had no idea just how historic it was until a strange visitor showed up at the family home near Stanwood just weeks after the baseball season ended.

The man, completely unknown to the family, produced a number of framed newspaper clippings and several pages of well-documented statistical research on Wernette's recently completed senior season at Morley Stanwood. The numbers showed that Wernette, a pitcher whose skill set fell somewhere between being a hard thrower and crafty left-hander, had accomplished even more than suspected at first glance.

In fact, the research showed that Wernette's senior year arguably was the single greatest pitching season in the history of Michigan high school baseball.

"We never had any idea," said Wernette on the eve of the 20th anniversary of that historic season in 2003.

Wernette was vaguely aware that his 20 pitching wins had broken the state record of 19 wins set by Brandon LaTour of Blissfield in 1992. The pair remain among only four pitchers in state history with at least 17 wins in a single season.

But as the man's research pointed out, that feat was just the tip of the iceberg. The 20 wins pushed Wernette's career total to 56, a state record that remains seven better than Homer's Josh Collmenter's eventual total of 49 from 2001-04. What Wernette also didn't realize was his 272 season strikeouts smashed the previous record of 215 by Southgate Aquinas’ Dan Horvath from 1998 and would outlast a challenge of 223 by Collmenter in 2004, and that Wernette’s average of 15.2 strikeouts per game was at that time second (and now fourth) all-time in state history. Wernette finished his career with 583 whiffs, second in state history. 

He also tossed four no-hitters that season, second on the all-time list. Three of those no-hitters, in fact, came in consecutive dominant starts from May 6-10.

While Wernette was pitching himself into the Michigan high school record book, National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) research shows where Wernette's numbers stand nationally. It turns out that only 10 pitchers in the country's history have won more than 20 games in a season. The all-time mark is 25 by Randolph Slaters of Mooreville High School in Missouri in 1985. Wernette’s 272 strikeouts is fourth all-time, with Salters also holding that record at 336. The 56 career wins is sixth all-time, with Terry Heiderscheit of Lansing Kee High School in Iowa holding the record of 69 from 1975-78.

Wernette admits it's probably best that he was unaware of the records at the time. His focus was on being the only senior on a young 10-player Morley Stanwood team that many suspected would be lucky to break .500 in 2003. But behind Wernette's sensational season, Morley Stanwood finished 41-3, with Wernette suffering his only defeat 3-1 to Blissfield in the Division 3 championship game.

"I was kind of glad I didn't know. Who knows what would have been in the back of my mind if I knew I was that close (to the records)," he said. "I never thought that much about it. I didn't know about the strikeout record, and I never looked at my (won-loss) record until someone mentioned that I was close to 50 and that I could break the state record."

Wernette remembers starting about 17 games that season as at least a couple of the wins came in relief. The success also didn't exactly come out of the blue as Wernette went 7-5 as a promising freshman, then put together 14-3 and 15-4 seasons as a sophomore and junior, respectively. The 15 wins remain tied for 10th all-time in state history.

Wernette's catcher his final season was sophomore Drew Thompson, who remembers Wernette as having a fastball that touched 90 mph at best. He never threw a curveball until making the high school team and really didn't master it until his last season and a half for Morley Stanwood. But Wernette, an all-conference football linebacker, had a relentless competitive streak, Thompson recalled.

Wernette’s record-setting win made the statewide news wire, appearing in various newspapers including as this clip in the St. Joseph Herald-Palladium."There was his velocity and the way he threw balls that tailed away from batters," Thompson said. "A lot of high school hitters never saw balls that would move away like that. But he was a gamer who just wanted the ball in his hand. If he got into trouble, he wanted a strikeout and he had the stuff to do it.

"Everything fit together for him that year. He had confidence we would win whether we were down 1-0 or 2-1 or we were up. I remember him always being relaxed."

Wernette agrees everything indeed did fall into place that season. One of four Mohawks pitchers who could throw at least 80 mph, Wernette's place in the rotation included starting twice during the week while occasionally relieving in a weekend tournament. By the time the team was around 16 games into the season, Wernette realized something special was happening. The team played well in the usually strong Big Rapids Tournament, where the Mohawks swept Remus Chippewa Hills and Big Rapids. Morley Stanwood split a key doubleheader with Howard City Tri County, and suddenly Wernette and a painfully young Morley Stanwood club that virtually had returned little else than its No.1 pitcher was catching fire.

Wernette's 20th win came in a 3-2 decision over Rudyard in a Quarterfinal at Gaylord. Because rain on Tuesday had pushed the game back a day to Wednesday, Wernette was unable to start the team's Semifinal on Friday. But even without Wernette, the team's No. 3 hitter and first baseman when he wasn't on the mound, Morley Stanwood beat a 35-4 Goodrich team 4-3 in the Semifinal, paving the way for Wernette to pitch the Final. But Morley Stanwood made a couple key errors in the title game, and Blissfield pitcher Jake Recker – who had only a modest 4-4 record heading into the day – was excellent in a 3-1 win. The championship was part of three Finals titles over four years for Blissfield.

Wernette said his reflections on his heavy pitching load that season haven't changed in 20 years. He would take the ball whenever coach Ron Ford asked him.

"I never told him I couldn't pitch," Wernette said. "My arm never bothered me. I'd ice it after a game, and I never had an arm issue. Looking back now I know I threw more than a lot of high school pitchers, but I was all for it. I wanted the ball every chance I could get it."

While Wernette never suffered a sore arm during four years in high school, his pitching career ended five months after graduation. After attending a Detroit Tigers tryout in Grand Rapids, Wernette was advised he needed a year in college. So he shuffled off to Muskegon Community College, where during the opening weeks of fall ball, Wernette hurt his shoulder during a long toss exercise. While medical evaluations have made great strides in the last 20 years, Wernette said the numbness he felt probably meant a torn rotator cuff. He never tried pitching again.

"I probably should have stuck with it, and that's the biggest thing with me because baseball was so special," he said. "I took the game seriously, but the rest of it – like school – I wish I would have put more into it.

Wernette's spark for pitching is reflected in his two young daughters, Brooklynn, 11, and Jaycee, 8. Both are travel softball pitchers. Wernette said the family has a pitching machine set up to hone their talent.

"They're definitely into it," he said.

The records that Wernette set are probably untouchable as high schools have instituted tight mandates on the number of pitches that can be thrown over a certain number of days. For instance, the top pitchers on last year's 16 MHSAA semifinalists averaged 10.6 starts and 57.5 innings pitched. Wernette threw 125 innings as a senior. 

Wernette heartily agrees there should be definite pitch limits on youngsters whose arms are not fully developed.

"I definitely see it as a good thing," he said. "Back then you never heard much about Tommy John surgeries of rotator cuffs. I never learned about that stuff until after school. I never had any concerns; I just wanted the ball every chance I could get it."

As for Wernette's remarkable season, he spends little time thinking about the achievements unless someone mentions them. But it's hardly comparable to the Bruce Springsteen "Glory Days" song of yesterday's greatness.

"Somebody will bring it up, and I have a lot of good memories. But I wish I would have done some things differently like paying more attention to school and applying myself. There was too much of just trying to get by," he said.

"But it was an honor to accomplish what I did. I'll always think that."

PHOTOS (Top) Morley Stanwood’s Nate Wernette makes his move toward the plate during the 2003 Division 3 Final against Blissfield. (Middle) Wernette’s record-setting win made the statewide news wire, appearing in various newspapers including as this clip in the St. Joseph Herald-Palladium.

For Coach: Powers Completes 1st Title Run for 42-Year Leader Dutkowski

By Keith Dunlap
Special for

June 15, 2024

EAST LANSING — On behalf of this current Flint Powers Catholic baseball team, Saturday’s message was loud and clear to past players, alumni and school officials:

We finally did it for Tom. 

Tom would be longtime head coach Tom Dutkowski, who after 42 years and 872 wins finally got to coach in a state championship game Saturday. 

Not only did Powers get there for Dutkowski, but the Chargers delivered win No. 873 and his long-awaited first title as coach with an 11-0 defeat of Spring Lake in the Division 2 Final at McLane Stadium. 

“We just made Flint Powers history, and to be a part of that is amazing,” Powers senior Fischer Hendershot said. “We have a lot of alumni and a lot of alumni on the coaching staff. To do it for the coaching staff, everyone here, everyone in Powers, every alumni and everyone who cares about us is a great feeling.” 

The Chargers’ Fischer Hendershot delivers a pitch.After accepting the championship trophy and raising into the air triumphantly, Dutkowski reflected on the journey and long wait.

It was the third title for Powers baseball, joining the 1974 and 1980 championships. Dutkowski was an assistant on the 1980 team. 

“I played in ’73 here, and my joke for that was that I taught the ’74 guys everything they knew and then they won a state championship the next year,” Dutkowski said. “We won it in ’80 with just a gritty team. My third year as a head coach we got to the final four in Class A, and I figured this was going to happen every three years. And then it was a 39-year drought in terms of that.”

The game ended after five innings via the run differential rule and capped off a fairly dominant season for Powers — or at least as dominant as a baseball team can be for a season.

The Chargers finished 37-6 and outscored opponents by a combined 57-13 during the MHSAA Tournament.

The only close call during the playoffs came in Friday’s Semifinal, when Powers blew a 3-0 lead to Trenton before prevailing in the bottom of the eighth inning, 4-3, on a walk-off single by senior Gavin Darling. 

“These guys, they never flinched and they never wavered,” Dutkowski said. “They developed into being a great team, not just individual talent.”

Powers wasted no time against Spring Lake, taking a 2-0 lead with one out in the top of the first inning on a two-run double to the gap in left-center by Darling. After a ground out, Darling scored on a Spring Lake throwing error to give Powers a 3-0 lead. 

Powers added another run in the second inning on a bases-loaded walk to make it 4-0. 

Teammates congratulate Michael Klein (6) as he returns to the dugout.In the third, Powers scored four runs to take an 8-0 lead on an RBI single by Hendershot, a walk with the bases loaded and a two-run single by freshman Connor Kelly. 

Powers then put three more runs on the board in the fourth inning to take an 11-0 lead. 

Hendershot was the winner on the mound, allowing two hits and striking out five in five innings of work. 

Spring Lake also was attempting to win its first Finals title, but had to settle for its third runner-up finish (to go with those from 1995 and 1978). 

The Lakers finished 32-10. 

“They are a good team, and this was their year,” Spring Lake head coach Bill Core said. “We just couldn’t keep them off of the bases, and our pitching wasn’t as sharp as it’s been. We gave them a couple of free passes, and they mixed in some good hitting. That’s a good team, and that’s why they’ve been ranked No. 1 in the state all year.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS (Top) Flint Powers Catholic raises its championship trophy to complete the 2024 baseball season Saturday evening at McLane Stadium. (Middle) The Chargers’ Fischer Hendershot delivers a pitch. (Below) Teammates congratulate Michael Klein (6) as he returns to the dugout.