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The first-year head coach is the high school campus minister. Some of the players didn't know each other until spring tryouts. It's safe to say Bishop Dwenger's baseball team has traveled a nontraditional path to semistate.
Coach Jason Garrett and his players see no reason to stop believing now.
“The craziest thing is only a few of the kids play in the summer,” senior pitcher Luke Palmer said. “Most of us haven't played with each other until this year. Coming together like this has been cool to see. I've never been a part of such a team.”
They're a team in every aspect of the word, no question. Dwenger (19-11) won only the second regional title in school history last week when it took the Class 3A Bellmont Regional. Now it's on to face No.1 Andrean (29-4) at 1 p.m. Saturday in the semistate at Plymouth.
The odds will be stacked against the Saints. They'll be underdogs. But that isn't likely to faze them. Dwenger went from seven wins a year ago to Summit Athletic Conference champs this year and have already knocked off favored Leo and traditionally strong Norwell in the postseason.
“A big thing Coach Garrett is great at is he keeps us focused, not so much worrying about who we're playing, but making sure we're confident in each other,” Palmer said. “He makes sure we're confident in each other and trusting the guy next to us to get the job done.”
Dwenger's roster has senior starters Palmer, Skyler Noll and Alex Schenkel and a mixture of juniors and sophomores. But it's clear from watching them play that they have formed a cohesive unit.
Garrett, 44, knows a few things about managing a team. He and his wife, Sharon, have 13 children. The oldest is 19 and the youngest is 3 months old.
“The saint is at home,” Garrett said of his wife. “She allows me to do all these things.”
Garrett's unique perspective has clicked with his players. He spent a lot of time early in the season guiding the players in their everyday approach.
He said one of the first tasks was to establish identity and purpose.
“We developed a team pledge to be a team of fidelity and commitment,” Garrett said. “We would all approach the game the same way, with passion, with effort, with tenacity and we'd be faithful to one another. I often say you can't win while you're losing and so we talk a lot about what they're doing off the field, how they're doing in their relationships with their parents, their siblings. It's about who they are before what they can do.
“On a personal level, they bought into that, and when you do that, then you have that team spirit where we're all doing the same things.”
Garrett said the evidence of the team spirit has manifested itself in the way the players interact beyond the dugout. While many of them didn't know each other well before the season, now they're getting together off the field, making ice-cream runs. “They try to get me to buy every time,” Garrett said.
On the field, Dwenger has developed into a persistent team, aggressive at the plate and on the base paths, always trying to force the action.
It's a style that has worked well. And, of course, the Saints have some talented players, including Palmer, Noll, Schenkel, Justin Wagoner, Cameron Kahlenbeck and Dalton O'Boyle. To name just a few doesn't do justice to the full team effort, however.
“We're from all over,” Schenkel said. “Everyone is from different middle schools, stuff like that. You get out here for the beginning of baseball season and you see kids you've never really seen before. You have to learn their names and see who they are. It's a little harder getting to know kids at first, but that makes it more fun.”
While Garrett built the team's unity and purpose from Day One, he keeps finding new avenues for motivation.
Being a campus minister as well as a coach in a parochial school, he has pulled the last couple of weeks' non-baseball discussion from the Bible's book of Nehemiah. He applied the lessons on leadership and building a wall and temple from Nehemiah's story.
“It's all about putting down another layer of bricks,” Garrett said. “We've set the foundation. We've laid the concrete. Bishop Dwenger is on the map. Now we're seeing how many layers of brick we can set. Once we clinched the SAC, we said, 'Now it's Season 2.' So far, we're 8-0 and looking at it as two more rows of bricks to set.”