By Dennis Grall
For the Second Half
ESCANABA – It should not come as a surprise that the Class A school with the highest percentage of multi-sport athletes has an athletic director who lived that life.
Alex Tiseo, athletic director at Marquette High School, received 15 varsity letters while he was a student at the school, including as a three-sport participant for two years in the fall alone. Tiseo played soccer for four years while running cross country for three years and playing football for two. He also played basketball and ran track.
He is not taking any credit for the excess of multi-sport athletes at his alma mater. "It is the foundation of the thing, the culture of the coaches," Tiseo said of all the school's coaches supporting and encouraging all-around athletic participation.
"It is the benefit and mentality of getting away from (athletic) specialization," Tiseo said, noting an athlete may be "a leader in one sport and just a role player" in another.
He also pointed out athletes are not penalized when they have to miss practices or events because of their heavy extracurricular participation.
According to the most recent multi-sport participation survey conducted by the Michigan High School Athletic Association, Marquette had the highest percentage of multi-sport athletes among all Class A schools in 2018-19 with a whopping 85.9 percent. Grand Rapids Northview, at 83.1 percent, was the only other large school above 80 percent.
Four Class B schools and six Class C schools topped the 80-percent mark while 14 Class D schools surpassed 80 percent, including three topping 90 percent, led by Gaylord St. Mary (93.2).
Marquette, unlike many larger schools, does allow students to participate in more than one sport in the same season. Many small schools, simply because of the lower enrollment, also allow students to compete in more than one sport during the same season.
"It is near and dear to my heart," Tiseo said of seeing multi-sport participation. Students must pick a priority sport if practices or games would conflict on the same date. "For me, it was cross country," Tiseo said, noting his soccer and football coaches knew he was getting plenty of running in that primary sport. In football, he was a place-kicker, which made it easier if he had to miss a practice.
He would often kick with his dad, he said, agreeing that a primary position player may have found it harder to miss a practice or game.
He also pointed out that in fall sports, "one-third of the season comes before school starts" and fall sports ended in mid to late October, reducing the number of potential conflicts.
Tiseo said multi-sport athletes work closely with their coaches to arrange practice schedules: "If coaches have difficulty with the kids in putting the schedule together, there is a caveat there where I can help." To date he has not needed to assist.
Students and coaches alike "reinforce the importance of academics," Tiseo said. "Multi-sport athletes are definitely among our highest academic achievers."
Athletes realize, he said, the importance of staying academically eligible so they can compete in their athletic endeavors.
Tiseo also has noticed student-athletes in general maintain better attitudes, which permeates the hallways and classrooms and benefits the general student body.
Success in athletics can generally bolster improved spirit and attitude in school. He said there is a general attitude of wanting to participate in something "when you see your peers having fun." The long Upper Peninsula winters also help encourage students to participate in athletics to help the time speed along. "It also correlates with the success of the teams," he said.
Two other Upper Peninsula schools have also found outstanding multi-sport participation, with Class B Gladstone at 86.7 percent and Class D Watersmeet with 90.3 percent during 2018-19.
First-year Gladstone athletic director Dave Lindbeck said "I strongly promote for kids to go to the next level. When I hire a new coach, I ask them how they feel about (multi-sport participation)."
Like Tiseo, Lindbeck also encourages athletes to get involved in programs for lifting weights and nutritional growth. Tiseo said proper conditioning and nutrition "help lessen the risk of injury" and playing multiple sports allows students to use different sets of muscles in those various activities. "You don't see over-use injuries" he said.
Lindbeck said "a good strength and conditioning program involves everything, including in-season and off-season workouts and help them maintain strength. We're not asking kids to bulk up. There is a lot of strength and flexibility (training), working (various) muscle groups, strengthen(ing) ligaments."
Lindbeck said the Braves' coaches are encouraged to attend games in the wide selection of activities, which shows students they care.
He also said it is easy to see how students grow in athletics and socially as they raise their participation levels. "You see how they communicate, you see it in the hallways," he said.
He also noted it has a big impact on their classroom work. "Those who don't participate don't do as well," he said, noting B-C students tend to improve their grade-point averages as they increase their involvement. "Kids seldom have issues with their grades.
"It is so crucial to be involved with sports," Lindbeck added. "The ones who do it really value it. We use it as a carrot, a motivator. It also keeps the structure and holds each other accountable."
Watersmeet has only 44 students this school year – up from 36 last year – but the Nimrods definitely are a school and community-oriented program.
Pizza parties, camping trips and cook-outs are among projects to encourage students to participate in sports, and fund-raisers are used to buy warm-ups for players in grades 6-12. "We dress them up so they look special," said long-time administrator-coach George Peterson.
"We work hard to get them to enjoy all the sports."
The board of education uses the Nimrod Fund to help students "dress up and be a part of it," said Peterson, who indicated much of that financial opportunity comes from the memorable 2003-04 season when ESPN coined the "Nimrod Nation" program.
That spring the boys basketball team appeared on The Tonight Show, and the Sundance Channel did a series on the school/town in 2006.
Peterson said the school realized $500,000 in gross revenue as a result of that national exposure and still averages $10-13,000 a year in profits. "I still pinch myself. I still can't believe it happened," Peterson said of that exposure and financial benefit.
Watersmeet has girls volleyball and offers cross country country, basketball, track and golf for boys and girls. "They are proud to be out there," said Peterson. "They have to conduct themselves in a respectful manner.”
The MHSAA study revealed nearly 43 percent of state prep athletes participated in two or more sports in 2018-19. It also indicated "early and intense sport specialization has become one of the most serious issues related to health and safety at all levels of youth sports, with overuse injuries and burnout among athletes tied to chronic injuries and health-related problems later in life."
The survey found 45.1 percent of boys and 40.4 percent of girls participated in more than one sport.
Denny Grall retired in 2012 after 39 years at the Escanaba Daily Press and four at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, plus 15 months for WLST radio in Escanaba; he served as the Daily Press sports editor from 1970-80 and again from 1984-2012 and currently is in a second stint as the interim in that position. Grall was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and serves as its executive secretary. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Upper Peninsula.
PHOTOS: (Top) Marquette's Maria Millado (40) works to get a pass past a Traverse City West defender last season; Millado also runs track for the Redettes. (Middle) Gladstone's Luke Van Brocklin crosses the finish line to finish second in the 400 meters at last spring's Upper Peninsula Division 1 Track & Field Finals; he played football this fall. (Photos by Cara Kamps.)
Denny White brought quite a bit to the Marysville and St. Clair communities.
In 1961, as a junior in high school, White was part of the first team to bring a football state title to Marysville.
Fifty years later, as an assistant coach, he played a vital role in bringing St. Clair its first MHSAA Finals title in baseball.
During the years in between, and decade after, White brought his knowledge of and passion for those sports to hundreds of student athletes.
But most recently, he brought the two communities together.
This past Friday night, the rival schools played for the Denny White Trophy, an award created to honor the late coach and connect the two communities where he was most revered.
“I’m so happy with all the support that has been around the project,” said Brady Beedon, a family friend who helped to create the trophy and was in the booth calling Friday night’s game for Get Stuck On Sports. “It’s the least we could’ve done for a man who helped so many athletes. His legacy deserves to be preserved.”
In a fitting tribute to White, who died Jan. 22 of this year following a long battle with cancer, the two teams played a hard-fought game at East China Stadium, with White’s alma mater Marysville coming away with a 25-20 victory.
Both teams featured players who had been coached by White at some point in one or both of the sports, as his time on the bench lasted through the fall of 2022.
That season, he coached the JV B football team at Marysville. Most recently before that, he had been the varsity baseball coach at St. Clair from 2015-21.
“Not much can unify rivals, but Coach White’s influence goes beyond that rivalry,” Marysville football coach Derrick Meier said at a press conference unveiling the trophy. “He’s affected thousands of local athletes. … It is awesome that someone had such an influence across the board with all local athletes (in multiple) sports. I contacted him my first year coaching varsity, and he was not willing to leave where he was at. I called him three subsequent years; he graciously declined. The last year he did accept, we added a JV B team, his wisdom and knowledge went well beyond just coaching on the field. We’re all lucky for his influence.
“Heroes get remembered. Coach White will be remembered.”
White was a 1963 graduate of Marysville, who then attended Ferris State and Central Michigan. His coaching journey did not begin in the area where he grew up, however, as he coached baseball and football at Newaygo High School before coming to St. Clair.
He spent 35 years in the Saints athletic program, coaching baseball and multiple levels of football.
Much of his time was spent as the pitching coach for St. Clair for coaches Richie Mallewitz and Bill McElreath. That included the 2011 season, when his pitching staff included current major leaguer Jacob Cronenworth, who now plays second base for the San Diego Padres.
Also on that staff were Joel Seddon, who was drafted twice – once out of high school and again after college – and would go on to be the closer at South Carolina; and Jared Tobey, who pitched at Wayne State and was drafted by the Detroit Tigers, playing four years in their minor league system.
While White coached nearly 1,000 baseball games in his career, he was involved with more than just high school sports. He also coached a 13-year-old Little League team to a state title and the semifinals of the Great Lakes Regional in 2015.
No matter the level, White poured all he had into coaching, and that included his final season on the sidelines at Marysville, just months prior to his passing.
“Every single kid that he touched with that team, you could just tell, gravitated toward him immediately,” said Travis Disser, who coached with White that final year at Marysville. “His lessons and his light-hearted humor are just something that you can’t replace, or ever hope to. I was lucky enough to learn pitching from Coach White when I was a younger kid, as well. He was the exact same Denny White as he was all those years ago, as he was last year during his battle with cancer. Coach White was a warrior in every sense of the term. His lessons, both on the field and off the field from him, are something that I’ll never, ever forget.”
The idea to create the trophy honoring White came about not long after his death, as Beedon worked with Meier, former St. Clair athletic director Denny Borse and St. Clair assistant football coach T.J. Schindler to create and design the trophy.
The final product is a two-tiered trophy topped with a pair White’s hats – one from St. Clair, the other from Marysville – that have been bronzed. It includes the years in which he won his state titles at his respective schools, and a passage about his life. There is also room to list the yearly winners, as it is planned to represent the rivalry and shared respect for White in the two communities for years to come.
“Whether it was Little League kids over the last 20 years, or some of the football players and baseball players that he coached over the decades that he coached, all of them when they get together have great stories and fondness for all the memories that (White and his fellow coaches) helped them create,” said Sandy Rutledge, the current St. Clair athletic director and a longtime friend and colleague of White. “I think it’s awesome that now as we play for this trophy every year, it will give our coaches a chance to kind of explain who Coach was. The next generation, maybe they didn’t even know him, will know that he is a legend, and he’ll always be remembered.”
Paul 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) From left: St. Clair’s Larry Wawryzniak, Liam Nesbitt and Peyton Ellis, Denny White’s wife Karen White, and Marysville’s Bryce Smith, Carter Saccucci and Caz Carty stand with the first-year traveling trophy celebrating Denny White’s coaching career. (Middle) White was a mainstay in the area’s sports community for more than six decades. (Below) The trophy celebrates his contributions to both schools and will list the winners of their annual football game. (Trophy photos courtesy of Brady Beedon. Headshot courtesy of the White family.)