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.)

Algonac Diamond Teams Hope Matching Successes Lead to East Lansing

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

May 24, 2023

Kenna Bommarito remembers how many people were in East Lansing a year ago to support her and her Algonac softball teammates at the Division 3 Semifinals.

Bay & ThumbSo, she has an idea of how many people from the town would show up if both the softball and baseball teams were there this time around.

“I think everyone would be,” the junior pitcher said.

There’s a decent possibility that Bommarito’s theory could be tested. The Muskrats softball team is ranked No. 2 in Division 3, and Tuesday night clinched the first Blue Water Area Conference title in program history.

That came one night after the baseball team – ranked No. 1 in Division 3 – also won its first BWAC title. The BWAC was created in 2002, and Algonac was an original member.

“It’s amazing – this town loves it,” said senior baseball player Tyler Schultz. “We’ve got a small community, and everybody is tagging along. I remember last year, a couple of our final postseason games, that was the most people I’ve ever seen at a game. All of the sports here are starting to build up. We have athletes all around the school. I think as time goes on, I think each sport will get better and better.”

Bommarito’s imagined scenario nearly played out a year ago, as both teams made their deepest postseason run.

While the softball team was making its historic run to the Semifinal, the baseball team was making one of its own, advancing to the Quarterfinal for the first time in program history.

Matthew Rix slides into home as a throw comes in.The baseball team’s movement toward this started with the 2017 and 2018 seasons, when the Muskrats won back-to-back District titles.

“We had a couple DI (college) players, and when you have those players come through, it generates excitement through the youth,” said Algonac baseball coach Scott Thaler, who took over the program in 2017. “It’s been a trickle-down effect from that initial first two years. That really set the bar. We’ve had some really good baseball players come through, and I have a great staff.”

Thaler had stressed back then that he wanted to build a program at Algonac and not have it be a flash in the pan. That certainly looks like it’s happening, and not just because his Muskrats are winning and sitting atop the state rankings.

Algonac – which has fewer than 500 students in the entire school – has junior varsity and freshman baseball teams. Thaler also said there are 25 eighth graders coming into the program next year.

“I think that when I was smaller in little league, we didn’t really have that where we went out on the field with the varsity players,” said junior pitcher Josh Kasner. “Now, that’s gotten a lot better. A lot of the smaller kids we see around town, they know who we are and about (the program).”

Of course, talent wasn’t enough to get there. Thaler needed to instill belief in his team in order to help the younger generation see what was possible.

“I was a (football assistant) coach under Scott Barnhart, and one of the things we preached to the kids back then is ‘To believe in the things you haven’t seen before,’” Thaler said. “That’s the mantra we brought to them last year, ‘Why not us?’ Just because it hasn’t happened before here doesn’t mean you can’t believe in that. We had to get them to believe.”

The Quarterfinal run provided proof beyond the belief for the Muskrats, and then the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association added to it all, naming Algonac the preseason No. 1 team in Division 3.

Luckily for Thaler, his team took it in stride.

The Muskrats huddle up in the baseball outfield.“I mean, it was a great feeling, but part of me had some doubts,” Schultz said “We’ve got some younger kids on the team, and I thought that maybe they might look at that and might get complacent, but me and some of the other seniors have done a good job of keeping all of these guys looking forward. We’ve still got one goal, and that’s to finish (with a Finals title).”

While the softball team didn’t enter the season with a No. 1 ranking, the expectations were certainly there, as was a new target on its back.

But bigger than both was motivation following a walk-off loss to Millington in the Semifinal.

“I think it just shows us that in those big games with those types of teams, you can never say never,” said first-year softball coach Natalie Heim, who was an assistant on last year’s team. “You really have to bear down. That Millington team that beat us, they fought hard. But I definitely think it fuels us more to get back.”

The softball program’s rise may have seemed more sudden to those on the outside, but senior Ella Stephenson said it had been bubbling for a while.

“My sophomore year, we had some talent for sure,” she said. “We had a really good season, but not as good as junior and senior year. The class above me was really talented. But they kind of turned the program around in my eighth-grade year, and it kind of kept building from there.”

During Stephenson’s sophomore season, the Muskrats lost a tough District game against Richmond, which went on to win the Division 3 Finals title. Not only are the Blue Devils a common early postseason opponent for the Muskrats, they’re also a conference rival. As is Almont. And Croswell-Lexington. And … It’s a brutal conference.

The Algonac softball team stands together for a team photo.So, much like the baseball team, even during the softball team’s historic 2022 season, winning the conference this spring proved to be tougher than making a deep postseason run.

That made Tuesday night’s sweep of North Branch to clinch the BWAC that much sweeter.

“Honestly, it’s a rush of just happiness,” Bommarito said. “We’re all so excited and just can’t believe we did it. We just played game-by-game today, and really took it one pitch, one out at a time.”

Not only has the BWAC prepared the Muskrats for the possibility of another deep postseason run, it helped keep them focused throughout the season.

“I think a lot of teams don’t have that luxury of facing the best competition during the season,” Heim said. “I think it keeps (the Muskrats) not looking too far ahead. We try to have that approach of one game at a time, one inning at a time, one pitch at a time. It helps with having goals that are a little tougher to achieve. Winning our league, it’s tough. It’s not an easy feat. Especially after last year’s success, it would have been easy to look ahead.”

Now, with league titles secured, both teams can focus on their ultimate goals and the postseason that is directly in front of them.

All with the hope that their similarities – on top of the league titles, both teams are 29-2 as of Wednesday, and both have a University of Michigan-bound player (Kasner and Stephenson) – continue through the third weekend of June with matching trips to East Lansing.

“That’d be unreal. That would be so cool,” Stephenson said. “We all have really good friendships on the baseball and softball teams. Our records are identical. We both won our conference. It’s just really cool. I’m really happy for their success, and ours, too.”

Paul CostanzoPaul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Algonac pitcher Kenna Bommarito makes her move toward the plate during last season’s Division 3 Semifinal against Millington. (2) Matthew Rix slides into home as a throw comes in. (3) The Muskrats huddle up in the baseball outfield. (4) The Algonac softball team stands together for a team photo. (Baseball photos and softball team photo courtesy of the Algonac athletic department.)