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.
When 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.”
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.”
Steve 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.”
Brice 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 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.)
Standish-Sterling’s run to the 2022 Division 3 Semifinals was driven in part by a record-setting offense, including a pair of senior standouts who posted single-season and career highlights.
The Panthers made the team record book in four categories, topped by a record 28 triples over 42 games. They also were added for 371 RBI (fourth all-time), 425 runs (12th) and 414 hits.
Cole Prout tied the MHSAA record for runs scored in one season with 84 and set the record with 27 career triples over three seasons (with 2020 canceled due to COVID-19). His 13 triples in 2022 tied for third on that list, while Chase Raymond’s 10 tied for 11th. Prout also tied for 12th all-time with 182 career runs, while Raymond is eighth on the single-season RBI list with 77 over 42 games in 2022 and earned a career RBI entry with 140.
Prout plays now at Central Michigan, and Raymond is playing at Saginaw Valley State.
See below for more recent additions to the MHSAA baseball record book:
Alden Stefanovski played a major role in Whitmore Lake reaching the 2022 Division 4 Semifinals. The senior also made the record book with 20 doubles over 33 games, the first from his school to earn a listing. He was joined in 2023 in the records by senior Alex Di Dio, who hit nine triples over 29 games and also three home runs in one game April 13 against Adrian Madison. Di Dio also was added for 13 triples and a .460 average for his three-season career, and he’s continuing at Kalamazoo College.
Trenton senior Jason Marshall was nearly unstoppable on the base paths during the 2022 season – and perfect stealing on them. He made the record book with 49 steals in 49 attempts, and also for seven triples over 35 games. He’s playing football at Eastern Michigan.
Trent Hagenbach finished his Saginaw Valley Lutheran career in 2022 tied for 11th on the career triples list with 16 despite not having a 2020 season and hitting all of them over the final two. He also made the records for his seven as a junior and nine as a senior.
Dansville had 10 pitchers contribute to its 388 strikeouts over 38 games during the 2022 season, a total which placed the Aggies second all-time. Tucker Mosley paced the team with 137 strikeouts.
Parchment’s Aaron Jasiak finished his three-season varsity career with seven record book entries, including one of the most impressive winning streaks all-time. He won all 26 pitching starts over his career, which didn’t start until his sophomore season because of the COVID-related cancelation of 2020. His winning streak is the seventh longest in MHSAA history, and his 0.87 ERA ranks 11th. He also made career lists with 163 runs scored, 112 stolen bases and a .460 batting average over 103 games, and his 60 steals over 38 games this spring rank 10th. He’s continuing at Hillsdale College.
Bay City Western finished 42-2 in winning the Division 1 championship in 2013, ranking sixth for most wins in a baseball season. The Warriors also tied the record with 21 shutouts, and their 1.02 ERA ranks fifth all-time.
Grandville Calvin Christian senior Blake Pettijohn struck out 20 batters in a 7-0 win over Belding on May 11, which tied for seventh-most for a seven-inning game. He’s continuing at Hope College.
Grant’s Oakley Obenauf made the single-season stolen bases list in the spring with 45 over 29 games – and was a major contributor as his team made the single-game list multiple times. He had a combined eight steals over two games as Grant swiped 13 and 11 bases during halves of a doubleheader May 11. Obenauf is a senior this school year.
Paw Paw reached the team record book this past spring after being hit by 50 pitches over 30 games. Seven players were hit by at least five pitches, with the team leader totaling 10.
Lansing Eastern earned its first record book entries from a pair of graduating seniors this spring. Dominic Wilson capped his three-season varsity career with 134 stolen bases, which rank 10th. He swiped a career-high 51 as a senior. Teammate Matthew Stevenson made the career batting average list at .472 despite getting only eight at bats as a sophomore because of an injury.
Benzie Central’s Wyatt Noffsinger enjoyed a memorable run to nearly finish off his high school career, throwing consecutive no-hitters against Buckley on May 24 and then Manton on June 3.
Okemos then-junior Caleb Bonemer earned his first record book entry with three home runs June 3 against Grand Ledge as his team clinched a Division 1 District title. Bonemer has committed to sign with Virginia.
After 45 years, Flint Southwestern’s Ruben Luna and Risto Nicevski were added for their accomplishments on the 1978 Class A championship team. Luna made the wins list with a record of 14-0 and the ERA list with a 0.71, and Nicevski made the ERA list with a 0.72. Both went on to play at Michigan State.
East Lansing’s Sam Busch enjoyed a career day on April 12, 2019, when he hit three home runs in consecutive at bats against Ionia. A junior that season, he’s now playing at Michigan State.
Powers North Central’s Adrian Mercier enjoyed a record-worthy junior season this spring. He hit .619 over 32 games, ranking 10th all-time for a single season.
Whitehall senior Cayden Ritchie chased and nearly caught the single-season stolen base record in 2021, when he tied for second with 72 steals over 36 games. He also made the single-game steals list five times, twice with a high of six.
Aidan Liedeke capped his Brighton Charyl Stockwell career in the spring with some of the most impressive strikeout numbers in state history. Already listed for averaging 15.41 strikeouts per game as a junior in 2022, he averaged 14.92 Ks per game this spring to finish his three-season career at 15 strikeouts per game. He posted a 0.88 ERA in the spring as well to finish with a career 1.52. He’s playing at Kalamazoo College.
Killian Bies finished his Marshall three-season career in the spring among leaders all-time for getting hit by pitches. He already had tied for sixth as a sophomore in 2021 with 22 HBPs, and with 14 more both his junior and senior seasons he finished with 50 to rank fifth on that list. He’s continuing at Cornerstone.
PHOTO Standish-Sterling's Cole Prout (8) readies for a pitch during his team's 2022 Division 3 Semifinal.