Family Ties Bind Verduzcos, Reigning Champ Hackett Catholic Prep

By Pam Shebest
Special for

March 15, 2022

KALAMAZOO — When Nick Verduzco learned his grandfather applied for the baseball head coaching job at Hackett Catholic Prep three years ago, he could not believe it.

Southwest CorridorWhen he found out his grandpa got the job, “I was pretty shocked,” the current junior said. “I didn’t really feel like it would happen.

“Once he applied, I was like ‘Wow, he’s actually going to do this.’ He called me right away when he got the job and I was like really emotional, overcome with joy because I knew it was going to be a lot of fun.”

While Smiley Verduzco’s first season leading the Irish was scrapped because of COVID-19, his second was a definite success. Hackett is the reigning Division 4 champ heading into the new season.

Fun and family are the themes running through the Irish baseball program. While Smiley Verduzco is the head coach, his son Steve is one of four volunteer assistants.

And the Verduzcos aren’t the only family filling the Hackett roster. Assistant coach Daniel Backman has two sons, Isaac and Eli, on the team. Catcher Brice Brown’s dad, Steve, is also a coach, and the fourth assistant is Adam Hall.

“I think the thing we found is in small schools like this, we’re pretty tightly knit in our group,” Steve Verduzco said. “We had 12 players on our team last year and will be similar this year. You get to know these kids so well, you learn to love them. They’re all my sons when we’re out there.”

The coaching position also gives Steve Verduzco a bit of leverage over his son. “I can sit him on the bench if he doesn’t make his bed,” he joked.

But all kidding aside, nepotism is not a thing, Brice Brown said.

“The kids don’t treat any of us differently,” he said. “We’re all family.”

Generational Knowledge

The Verduzcos bring tons of experience to the team.

Smiley Verduzco, 78, a retired electrical engineer, has coached youth baseball teams since his son was young.

“He grew up in a poor area and got a football scholarship to go to college (University of Pacific),” Steve Verduzco said of his dad.

“This is who he is. He was captain of the football team, he was student body president, had injuries he played through, got a scholarship for his masters at Stanford, was CEO of companies for years out West.”

Kalamazoo Hackett Catholic Prep baseballSteve added that it is that kind of leadership his dad brings to the team.

“He sets the tone in leadership for how we treat these kids, how we coach them, we encourage them, we love them, we challenge them,” Steve said.

Steve Verduzco played baseball at Notre Dame and was drafted by the Houston Astros in the fourth round of the 1993 amateur draft.

He played in their farm system for three years before leaving to raise a family.

At age 49, Steve Verduzco laughed: “I’m still young enough that I can throw batting practice and can run around a little bit. It’s getting less every year.”

Nick Verduzco said he is thankful for the opportunity to share the experience with both generations.

“To work with my dad and grandpa every day, especially having such a season like last year, and with all their baseball knowledge is great,” Nick said.  

“They are also setting an example as a role model.”

However, the father-son coaching styles are not at all the same.

“My grandpa is more level-headed and calmer,” his grandson said. “He sets a really good tone, making sure we’re always keeping our faith and baseball intertwined.

“My dad does more the approach part of the game, coaches third base. He has a good feel as to what’s going on in game situations.”

Besides coaching, Smiley Verduzco is a spiritual leader of the team.

He borrows from the book “The Soul of a Team” by former NFL coach Tony Dungy.

“S is for selflessness,” Smiley Verduzco said. “O is for ownership; take ownership of what you do in school and on the field. U is for unity. We come together, and L is for the larger community.

“We play for the archdiocese, we play for Hackett, for all the teachers in school, all the students in school. We represent ourselves on the field for that community.”

He also said faith is an important component of the team.

“We pray before every practice and game, and afterwards,” he said. “It’s such a special place because there’s that element in faith and trust in Jesus that brings them together.”

Chips on the shoulder

Despite graduating four top players, the team is even more motivated this season.

“Last year, we were unranked in the preseason state rankings and ended up winning it all,” Nick Verduzco said. “This year, we’re ranked third in the state.

“It seems like we lost a lot, but we returned a lot, as well. No pressure, a lot of motivation, just fuel.”

Kalamazoo Hackett Catholic Prep baseballBrice Brown backed up that feeling.

“We always have a chip on our shoulder and this year is no different, even after winning states,” he said.

Practice began Monday and the coaches will get a look at the new team during its first game March 23.

Steve Verduzco said the team will be built around four players beginning with senior Brenden Collins, who earned first-team all-state honors last year with a .537 batting average.

“He’s one of the best two-way players in all of West Michigan, pitching and hitting,” Verduzco said. “He drove in almost 60 runs in spite of missing two weeks. He’s unbelievable. He’s a returning captain.

“Nick had a big year last year and will bat in the middle of the lineup.”

The junior Verduzco drove in 36 runs and posted a .421 slugging percentage.

The Backman brothers round out the preseason top four.

“Senior Isaac Backman had a tremendous year and will be running track this year as well and had a great second half last year,” Smiley Verduzco said. “His little brother Eli is tremendous. Hit .330 as a freshman playing second base and really came through in the playoffs in some really big moments, so that should give him tons of confidence.”

Other returning starters are seniors Brown, Chris Bullard and Zack Johnson, junior Patrick Ogrin and sophomore Andrew Rann.

“We’ll count on some freshmen, too,” Verduzco said. “Small school. You’ve got to have freshmen.”

Nick Verduzco sums it up.

“I’m really appreciative of how much fun I have, not only with my dad and grandpa, but with all my teammates,” he said.

“The camaraderie we had, the state championship, all the lights, all the attention we were getting, was all cool. But at the end of the day, I’m just really grateful for the relationships I made, especially with my teammates.”

Pam ShebestPam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Nick Verduzco, here during last season’s Division 4 Final at McLane Stadium, represents one of three generations from his family currently connected to the Kalamazoo Hackett Catholic Prep baseball program. (Middle) From left: varsity assistant coach Steve Verduzco, son Nick, and his father Smiley Verduzco, the varsity head coach. (Below) Smiley and Nick share an embrace after last season’s championship game win. (Top photo by Hockey Weekly Action Photos; middle and below photos courtesy of the Verduzco family.)

Longtime Chelsea High School Administrator, Coach Bush to Join MHSAA Staff as Assistant Director

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

December 21, 2022

Brad Bush, a highly-respected educator, administrator and coach over the last three decades, has been selected to serve in the position of assistant director for the Michigan High School Athletic Association, beginning Jan. 17.

Brad BushBush, 52, taught and coached at East Kentwood High School for four years before beginning a tenure at Chelsea High School in 1997 that has included teaching, then serving as athletic director and later also assistant principal and leading the football program as varsity coach from 1997-2002 and again from 2004-18.

He also has served as a statewide delegate on the MHSAA Representative Council during the last year and provided leadership in multiple roles, including president, for the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association (MHSFCA) since 2005.

Bush will serve as the MHSAA’s lead administrator for baseball and also among lead administrators for the officials program, which includes more than 8,000 registered officials in all sports. Bush also will be assigned additional duties in other sports based on his vast experiences. He was selected from a pool of 34 applicants.

“I’m incredibly excited to have Brad join our team,” MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said. "He’s been an outstanding athletic director and coach who is highly-respected by those who know him.”

As Chelsea athletic director, Bush annually has supervised a staff of 110 coaches across 31 programs, with nearly 70 percent of the high school’s 800 students participating in athletics. As a teacher and assistant principal, he has served on Chelsea’s School Improvement Team and on multiple committees that provided instructional leadership including in the development of the district’s new trimester schedule. In his roles with the MHSFCA, Bush helped direct an organization with more than 2,200 members and also served as the association’s treasurer and liaison to the MHSAA.

Bush is perhaps best known, however, for his coaching success. Over 22 seasons, he led Chelsea’s varsity football team to a 169-60 record, 13 league championships, 18 playoff appearances, seven District titles and a Division 3 runner-up finish in 2015. During his break in tenure as Chelsea coach, Bush served as an assistant football coach and recruiting coordinator for Eastern Michigan University during the 2003-04 school year, and he has served as an assistant coach at Albion College the last four seasons contributing to the team’s two league titles and appearance in the 2021 NCAA Division III Playoffs.

“I feel like joining the team at the MHSAA is an opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” Bush said. “The 26 years I spent at Chelsea were some of the best times of my life. It’s a professional transition that in the back of my mind, if this opportunity came, was something I needed to do.

“Over time, I’ve grown to care about the bigger picture of athletics and appreciate the role of the MHSAA in protecting high school athletics in Michigan.”

Bush is a 1988 graduate of Ypsilanti High School. He studied and played quarterback at Cornell University before returning and graduating from EMU after majoring in history and minoring in social studies. He earned his physical education endorsement from EMU in 2000 and his master’s in physical education and sports management from EMU in 2002. He has earned continuing education credits in sports management from Drake University and completed the Path to Leadership program from the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals (MASSP). 

Bush was inducted into MHSFCA Hall of Fame and Ypsilanti High School Hall of Fame both in 2019. He and his wife Laura have three adult children, two daughters and a son.

PHOTO Chelsea coach Brad Bush directs his team during the 2015 Division 3 Final at Ford Field.