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.)

Northville, Brother Rice Set Up Power-Packed Finale with Powerful Swings

By Keith Dunlap
Special for

June 13, 2024

EAST LANSING — For the first three years of his varsity career at Northville, Joey Broughton was one of the best two-way baseball forces in the state, excelling both on the mound and at the plate.

Unfortunately this year, Broughton has simply been reduced to a one-way force. 

An all-state pitcher the last couple of years who has signed with Pittsburgh, Broughton hasn’t pitched this season due to a flexor pronator strain in his arm, so he has focused on hitting more than he ever has  and possibly will again — in his baseball career.

“I’ve never considered myself to be an amazing hitter,” Broughton said. “But to come out here and work my tail off when I can’t pitch means a ton. Just getting pitches I love and smacking them.”

Broughton certainly did that better than anyone in the first Division 1 Semifinal on Thursday, collecting two hits and four RBI to lead Northville to a 9-2 win over Bay City Western at McLane Stadium. 

The biggest blow came with two outs in the fourth inning. 

With the score tied and two outs, senior and No. 7 hitter Luke Dieringer gave the Mustangs a 3-2 lead with an RBI single that scored Connor Vissotski, who reached on a two-base throwing error. 

Northville then got hits from its No. 8 and 9 hitters — junior Carson Eaton and pinch-hitter Justin Brown, respectively — to load the bases for senior Dante Nori.

On the first pitch, Nori was hit to force in a run and make it 4-2. That set the stage for Broughton, who hit a bases-clearing double just over the right fielder’s head to make it 7-2. 

In the sixth inning, Broughton and senior Carter Jurcisin each added an RBI single to make it 9-2 Mustangs. Overall, Northville scored eight runs in the game with two outs.

“We practice that every single practice,” said Northville head coach Dan Cimini, who is in his first year with the program after building a powerhouse at Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett. “We load the bases, put two outs and see what these guys can do. They practice it probably more than anybody. It’s a strength, and it has to be a strength in these playoff games.”

Bay City Western (35-7-1) made it back to the Semifinals for the first time since winning the second of back-to-back championships in 2014. 

“There is a lot of legacy in the teams in front of them, but they certainly left their legacy,” Western head coach Tim McDonald said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys in that dugout. I think every practice is going to pay off, and the experience (of getting here).”

Northville opened the scoring in the bottom of the second inning when senior Vissotski walked, went to second on a sacrifice bunt, took third on a groundout and then scored on a passed ball to make it 1-0.

Western responded in the third, going up 2-1 on a pair of two-out extra-base hits. First, junior Mikey Deluca laced an RBI double to the gap in right center, and then senior Bryce Neitzel hit an RBI double down the left-field line. 

Northville answered in the third inning, tying the game on a titanic home run to right by Nori. The ball went through the trees beyond the right-field fence and likely landed in the Red Cedar River. 

Northville senior Caden Besco came on in relief in the fourth inning with runners on first and third base, two outs and the game tied 2-2. He ended Western’s threat with a strikeout.

Besco threw just 41 pitches in 3 1/3 innings of scoreless relief, so he will be available for Saturday’s title game.

Click for the full box score.

Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice 5, Grosse Pointe North 2

Brother Rice had all it needed against Grosse Pointe North after just three batters. 

The Warriors wasted no time jumping on North senior ace Brennan Hill, putting the first two men on in the bottom of the first inning and then taking a 3-0 lead on a towering home run to left by senior Owen Turner. 

That proved to be the difference and propelled the Brother Rice (44-1) to its first state title game since 2013. 

Owen Turner sends a pitch over the leftfield fence in Brother Rice’s victory.“I have not faced him, but I’ve caught him,” Turner said of facing Hill. “He played on my summer team. I was his catcher all summer, so I kind of knew what he throws and what his velocity was.”

Those runs were all Brother Rice’s pitching tandem of junior Blake Ilitch and senior Chase Van Ameyde needed. The two combined to limit the Norsemen to one hit and no earned runs. 

Grosse Pointe North loaded the bases with two outs in the fourth inning and scored two runs on an error to cut the Brother Rice lead to 3-2. But the Warriors answered in the bottom of the fourth, taking a 4-2 lead on an RBI double with two outs to the gap in left-center by junior Cole Van Ameyde. 

GPN put runners on first and second with one out in the fifth inning, but Chase Van Ameyde relieved Ilitch and got out of the jam with two strikeouts. Van Ameyde didn’t allow a hit in 2 2/3 innings of scoreless relief. 

Brother Rice got an insurance run in the seventh inning on a two-out single to left by Cole Van Ameyde that made it 5-2. 

The Warriors will now try and win their first title since 2008.

“I’ve got 10 seniors, and seven have played for four straight years,” Brother Rice head coach Bob Riker said. “They kind of know what’s expected and when they were freshman, they came here and lost in the final four. I’m not going to say they were using that as fuel or anything like that, but they’ve really matured over the last four years.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS (Top) Northville celebrates during its Semifinal win over Bay City Western on Thursday. (Middle) Owen Turner sends a pitch over the leftfield fence in Brother Rice’s victory.