Pontiac — It’s obvious to see that Pontiac Notre Dame Prep has taken full advantage of its new baseball field to get off to an impressive 20-3 start, earning a No. 5 spot in Division 2 in the latest Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association rankings.
Notre Dame Prep first-year head coach Jason Gendreau noted that the school received an anonymous $1 million donation for a new baseball facility that includes an all turf field.
And, Notre Dame Prep is playing excellent defense with the field playing a big role with clean, consistent hops, a far cry from a year ago.
Notre Dame Prep made multiple great plays during a 5-2 victory over Detroit Western earlier this month, including a diving catch by third baseman Jack Crowe to take an RBI double away from Tennessee-bound William English, and another great running catch by left fielder Josh Fischer off an English drive later in the game.
Notre Dame Prep senior catcher Ryan Knutson feels blessed to have the new turf so he can block pitches more consistently.
“This is awesome and I’m just so grateful that I can play on it for a year,” said Knutson who is hitting .448 with 30 hits and 20 RBIs. “As a catcher, the area is flat and that’s something that on most fields you don’t get since it’s dirt. It’s great because you can have better blocks on the balls, won’t get that bad bounce that you’re used to getting.”
Junior pitcher River Shea was 5-0 with a 2.06 ERA and 50 strikeouts through the weekend after going 3-5 a year ago when Notre Dame Prep struggled to an 8-22 record.
Junior Jack Krausmann was 4-1 with a 1.75 ERA and a 0.925 WHIP and senior closer Jacob Genord 7-1 with two saves and a 2.10 ERA through the weekend.
Notre Dame Prep’s pitching staff has a combined 2.09 ERA with 11 pitchers getting work. Junior outfielder Wade Bonnici is hitting .357 with 30 hits and 18 RBIs and Gendreau calls second baseman Brian Blakeslee, “one of the top-3 second baseman I’ve coached in 20 years.”
Shea has confidence in his defense, including Blakeslee.
“I rely on my fastball, throw mid-80s and I have a lot more command of the zone right now, basically throwing where I want to throw, not giving up walks, making them put the ball in play and it’s really been working out since my defense has helped me out a lot,” Shea said.
Shea has helped himself at the plate as well, hitting .330, including 2-for-3 in the win over Western with a key RBI double during the pivotal three-run fifth.
“I feel so fortunate to be playing on this new field and I think we’ve played better because of that,” said Shea who also plays third base. “Last year, our field was rough and this is a great surface, just a great environment in general.”
Fischer said the new field has put Notre Dame Prep ahead of its competition.
“It’s incredible and we’re so very blessed to have this field,” Fischer said. “As we’ve seen this year the new field has helped with our longevity and I think that’s helped with the season we’re having, especially since other teams couldn’t play or practice due to the weather.”
Said Crowe: “We went down to Florida as a team for spring training during the spring break and the college fields down there isn’t as good as our field. At the beginning of the season we were playing three or four games before people got on the field once and that can’t be underestimated.
“Before this, we used to call our old field Hops Field. Someone said the difference between center field and home was 48 inches, offset by four feet from center to home just because it was on the earth and not turf.
“When I walked on this field for the first time, just being on a flat surface, that in itself was kind of a weird wakeup. A lot of people have been able to be a lot more solid on the field. Will Baldwin, our shortstop, has been excellent this year and our catcher Ryan Knutson has been a wall so the field is definitely contributing to our success.”
And, with Notre Dame Prep no longer in the Catholic League, Knutson feels it’s important how Gendreau is treating each week as a separate series.
“Without being in a league it’s a little difficult sometimes to have that push to play every single game, but he plays every week as a series and I think that has the guys ready to play baseball and want to win that series every week,” Knutson said.