PONTIAC – Ryan Knutson is shocked by how well he and his teammates at Pontiac Notre Dame Prep played at the start of this season.
And the hope is that it will carry over to next month’s MHSAA Tournament.
The Irish were 8-22 a year ago and started this spring 16-0. Notre Dame Prep is 21-4 with less than two weeks remaining in the regular season, and the optimism is high that the run won’t end in District play as it has for the past 21 seasons. The Irish have won one District title in the 24 years that the school has been open, in 1996.
Over the past seven seasons, Notre Dame Prep has won a combined six District games.
“The team morale is up, and we bonded as a team,” Knutson said. “I credit the new coaching staff. Going to Florida over spring break helped us bond. It was during that streak – we had some close games – that the team-bonding paid off.”
Jason Gendreau spent 10 seasons as head coach at Utica Eisenhower, with some success. The Eagles won District titles in 2009, 2011 and 2015. The 2015 season also included a 2-1 victory over Birmingham Brother Rice in a Division 1 Regional Semifinal.
Although he’s not looking back, Gendreau, who continues to teach in the Utica school system, said it was not an easy decision to make when he accepted the position at Notre Dame Prep last June.
“(Eisenhower) is loaded with depth,” he said. “Then there’s all the relationships you build over the years. You know what they say. When a coach leaves, 50 percent are pleased, 50 percent are unhappy.”
Pardon Gendreau if he chuckles now and then about the idea of being a coach at Notre Dame Prep. As a child his favorite team was Notre Dame, the one in South Bend. Nothing was better than watching the Irish playing football on a Saturday afternoon.
Add to this another tale of coincidence, or magic, if you will. One of his mentors is Bob Lantzy, the longtime football coach at Eisenhower who recently completed his second season as head football coach at Rochester Hills Stoney Creek. Lantzy was an all-state running back at Harper Woods Notre Dame in the early 1960s and, when Gendreau was hired at the other Notre Dame, Lantzy dusted off his green and gold jersey and hung it on a wall in his house.
For two seasons in the early 2000s Gendreau was an assistant football coach under Lantzy. Something clicked during that brief period and the two have remained good friends over the years.
“Bob and I talk just about every night,” Gendreau said. “He was my mentor (as a coach), but more importantly he’s been my mentor in life.
“You see, I played football at Belding and grew up answering to (then coach) Irv Sigler. There are no more polar opposites than Irv and Bob. Plus, you throw in the west side and how they approach football. The approach is very different. Irv was the ultimate motivator and got in your face. I tried to coach like that when I got to Ike. It didn’t work. Bob molded me.”
Gendreau was well aware he was taking over a program that had experienced limited success, when it was a member of the Detroit Catholic League and now as an independent. That didn’t matter to him. He knew the athletes he was about to coach were well-disciplined. Teach them the fundamentals, let them have some fun (the Florida trip was a first for this group) and maybe they could win a few more games.
“Lantzy told me opportunity is not time-related,” Gendreau said. “A big thing was, I was able to bring my entire staff over. As far as scheduling, having a lot of relationships with Oakland and Macomb County coaches I was able to schedule competitive schools that were bigger. We played Sterling Heights Stevenson. We played Troy and Troy Athens. We went to Birch Run to play in a tournament with just nine guys because of prom. We made it to the final and lost to Ann Arbor (Gabriel) Richard.
“Plan? I don’t know if we had one, but our goal was to finish .500. We felt comfortable with that. We didn’t want to get beat up. Usually it takes 2-3 years to build a winner. It happened a lot sooner. Part of it is our staff understands our role. We have athletes who are hungry. They’re loyal to one another.”
Notre Dame Prep lost just two seniors last spring to graduation but even so, Knutson said he was surprised by the tremendous start.
He pointed to two factors that keyed the impressive start, and they’re related. One is the defense.
“It’s a main focus,” he said. “Defense is one of the most consistent things of our team. When your defense works, you don’t need as many runs to win. Then on offense you will look to move runners along, trying to get that extra base.”
The second is fundamentals. Knutson said Gendreau and his staff emphasize the finer points of the game: when to bunt, what pitch to look for in certain counts and just an overall awareness of the game.
Even when the offense isn’t producing, defense is a part of the game the Irish can count on. In a weekend series at Lake Orion in late April, Knutson said the team crushed the ball in victories over the host team and Ann Arbor Skyline. The next weekend Notre Dame Prep struggled at the plate and resorted to playing small ball.
The pitching has been consistent as well. River Shea, Jack Kraussman and Jacob Genord have combined for a 17-2 record, and each has an ERA of 2.10 or lower.
There are no superstars on this team. Just two of the eight seniors will go on to play in college. Infielder Brian Blakeslee will attend John Carroll University in Cleveland and play soccer and baseball. Outfielder Tommy Cavanaugh will attend Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, to play baseball.
Knutson, who leads the team in hitting (.448), said he doesn’t plan on playing at the next level and, instead, will attend Michigan State with the intent on majoring in engineering.
“It was hard last year,” he said. “I am so thankful the (new) staff has come in and we’ve been able to make some noise.
“It was that way in football, too. We surprised people by reaching a District Final. It’s kind of similar in baseball. We’re the underdogs. It kind of fueled us.”
Gendreau said coaching at a large school like Eisenhower has its drawbacks. One is the fact a coach must make cuts. Another is it’s the coach’s responsibility to take care of the field. That takes time.
A bonus for Gendreau was the facilities at Notre Dame Prep. In what is nearly a mirror of what previously was added at Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett, the field at Notre Dame Prep is all turf. No dirt. Not even in the infield. Gendreau said even the bullpen area is turf.
When one considers the often brutal weather conditions in Michigan, having a turf field at your disposal removes a lot of headaches as far as field preparation, postponements and rescheduling.
“They finished that this past winter,” he said. “When I took the job, I was expecting a grass field.”
Tom Markowski is a columnist and directs website coverage for the State Champs! Sports Network. He previously covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Pontiac Notre Dame Prep players huddle on their new field this season. (Middle) Notre Dame Prep catcher Ryan Knutson looks to his dugout. (Below) The current Irish and 1972-73 alums stand together during the field dedication this spring. (Photos courtesy of the Pontiac Notre Dame Prep baseball program.)
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.