Chris, Juan and Norman

St. John Paul II Catholic High School assistant varsity baseball coaches Chris Dudzik and Juan Ramirez and head coach Norman Dudzik. (West Valley View photo by Griffin Fabits)

Building a baseball program from the ground up is akin to building a house, according to St. John Paul II Catholic High School varsity baseball coach Norman Dudzik.

Here and now – just four games into the regular season as of March 10 – the Lions have begun building the foundation. And even better, they’re proud of their quick results.

“Pretty soon, I expect the basement to be done,” Dudzik quipped.

Avondale’s St. John Paul II Catholic High School opened in August 2018, and the Lions are just weeks into their inaugural baseball season.

The Lions are 1-2 after their first three games, but they’re not worried about wins and losses this season. Instead, they’ll measure their spring by the “steady improvement” they see each time they take the field, Dudzik said.

“(The goal is to) improve every single day in some aspect of it. We’re not worried about what the record is – we want to win, of course – but that’s not the No. 1 thing on the agenda. It’s developing this group we have right now, adding to it as we go along. The ceiling is way up there. We can do a whole lot.”

Though it’s just been several months since St. John Paul II Catholic introduced its baseball program, Dudzik has been pleased with the school’s reception.

Eighteen kids came out to the first practice, and the current roster stands at 13. Of those 13, 10 are freshmen and three are sophomores.

The school holds freshmen and sophomores – roughly 500 students – and will add a class every year until it has a full campus of freshmen through senior classes.

As is anticipated, there are slight growing pains in the forecast when a program is built from scratch.

For starters, the Lions are just now getting acclimated with their new ballpark, a gorgeous, big league-like field twinkling under the sun with its well-kempt grass and tan-colored clay dirt. After months of construction and maintenance, the team was finally able to practice on it last week.

“If this isn’t the best baseball facility in the West Valley,” Dudzik beamed with outstretched arms like an artist admiring his work, “it has to be close.”

The Lions are also playing their games against teams with rosters comprised of mostly upperclassmen. Because they’ll field just freshmen and sophomores this spring, Dudzik said it can be a “disadvantage” playing against older, more experienced squads, but they haven’t given it much thought.

There’s also an urgency to appeal to neighboring high school kids to come to St. John Paul II, versus enrolling in the powerhouse Catholic schools in the Phoenix area, like Brophy and Notre Dame.

But to every curveball thrown Dudzik and the Lions’ way, there is an answer.

Playing older varsity squads with greater experience? No worries. The Lions handed the Ajo Red Raiders an 18-10 defeat on February 20 to notch the program’s first win on its inaugural opening day.

A roster of only underclassmen? It’s hardly a concern.

“We have a real disparate range of baseball skill and baseball knowledge, but what I really love about them is they’re all extremely coachable,” he said.

And the pitch to incoming high school students contemplating attending a big school in Phoenix will be highlighted by St. John Paul II Catholic’s “top-notch, first-class college prep education with the sports programs to go with it,” Dudzik said.

The Lions are part of the Canyon Athletic Association, an organization for smaller, private schools in Arizona. They have already been approved to join the Arizona Interscholastic Association next season.

Where the Lions will be placed – whether it be in the 2A or 3A conference – is undetermined, because it depends on the enrollment size of the school.

Some coaches might view starting a program from square one as a challenge so drastic it may not be worth getting involved with it.

But Dudzik’s been through it already, and he’s gotten the bug to build once more.

In 2008, when Dudzik lived in Wyoming, the neighboring town from his had an American Legion youth baseball team found themselves in a bit of hot water.

The program had issues with several players, so it was removed from the state tournament and forced to forfeit its remaining games. The next spring, the coaching staff was voted out by uproarious parents, and the new board hired Dudzik to restart the program from scratch.

“We had no uniforms, no equipment. We had to go out and go fundraise to go out and beat the band, recruit some players. It was a challenge, so I’ve gone through it and I look forward to doing it.”

Building he is, and Dudzik has quickly grown giddy with the foundation he’s starting with.

Players are beginning to buy in, too.

“I think we’re going to win quite a few games,” said sophomore pitcher and first baseman Brennan Castro.

While the focus has shifted from the win column and instead to the development of his players, Dudzik, in his 28th season as a head coach, wants to make an impact on the Lions that reaches far beyond the diamond.

“I love working hands-on, one-on-one, communicating with them and just getting such a kick out of seeing them improve. Last week, (a player) straightened out a couple things with his swing. Before, he was hitting some little bloopers and we corrected some flaws in his swing and he started hitting line drive after line drive.

“To see his face light up and see how happy he was with himself, to me that’s what it’s about.”