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In the hunt

Bishop Ward High School’s five-time state championship team wants to make it six, and knows what it takes to get there

by Kara Hansen

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — “It’s supposed to be hard,” Tom Hanks told his baseball team in the movie “A League of Their Own.”

“If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. “The hard . . . is what makes it great.”
If five state championships make a team great, then Bishop Ward’s varsity ballplayers got there by way of “the hard.”

Day in and day out, rain or shine, you can count on Ward’s players to be out on the field taking batting practice, perfecting their throws, and cementing their defensive play.

“We do repetition constantly — hitting, throwing, catching — over and over until your play is perfect,” explained senior centerfielder Jake Janes. “Our practices are planned out and very structured. Coach is pretty strict and really pushes us.”

It seems to be working: The Kansas City, Kan., high school has lost only a handful of games since 2006.

“We win with those fundamentals — the things we do over and over every day in practice,” said Aaron Quisenberry, a senior pitcher.

But an emphasis on fundamentals only explains their way — not their will — to win.

For that, senior shortstop John Oropeza says you have to look at the team’s work ethic and the coaches’ high expectations.

“We respect each other and we’re really disciplined,” he explained.

And, needless to say, “Our coaches expect a lot from us,” he added.

A winning tradition

When a Bishop Ward student goes out for the baseball team, he can expect two things: to work hard and to win. Players will tell you that their lengthy daily workouts, off-season training, and seasonal conditioning can be no less than grueling.

They play a tough schedule — going up against larger 6A schools like Shawnee Mission East and rival Rockhurst. Yet the end result is what drives them through the daily grind of practice.

“We don’t always like [the practice grind] at the time, but we like the success it breeds. We focus on that,” said Jacob Mark, senior first baseman.

A large part of Ward’s baseball success can be credited to one man: head coach Dennis Hurla. When Hurla first came to Ward, he had no idea of the kind of program he would build. He just wanted to coach good kids in a Catholic school.

Twelve years later, Hurla finds himself in the midst of a high school baseball dynasty.

Certainly, the baseball team had enjoyed success before — just not like this. In addition to bringing home the state title in baseball every year since 2003, Bishop Ward set a new state record in March for the most straight wins by any varsity baseball team in any classification: 45.

That means that some of the players hadn’t experienced a single loss since joining the varsity ranks until the loss to Rockhurst that the broke their streak in April. Ward’s team is so good, in fact, that some won’t believe it is the product of homegrown talent and something as simple as hard work.

“There’s this myth out there that we’re so good because we recruit players,” said Janes, “and that’s just not true. Guys on the team are from all the area parish schools.

“We just work hard in practice, and that comes out in our games.”

Forty-five straight wins and a state record would be a source of pride for most teams, and it is for Ward.

But it’s not enough. They want something more — a sixth straight title.

“[Win number 45] was just another game for us,” said Janes. “What we’re really focused on is the end of our season and winning the state championship.”

Baseball is life

As a coach, Hurla has some high expectations of his players on the field — respect for each other, clean language, hustle, sportsmanship, and a strong work ethic.

Off the field, his expectations are even higher.

“Our coaches make sure we’re getting the job done at school, with everything from having our shirts tucked in to using good language. They expect us to be the best — to be role models,” said Janes.

Bishop Ward principal Dennis Dorr sees the student-athletes as exactly that.

“Coach Hurla does a great job. His players work extremely hard. He does all the right things, all the right ways,” said Dorr. “He is a stickler for details. He expects his kids to play up to their potential every second they’re on the field.

“Off the field, he does not give his players any exceptions because they are athletes — if anything, he expects more of them.”

Yet he is quick to point to the Ward community as a major catalyst in the program’s success.

“The students, parents, and their families at Bishop Ward are the reason for success,” said Hurla. “You do not win like we have without good personnel, and we have that.”

A team of faith

For Hurla, integrating faith into an athletic program has been important since his arrival. All the players and coaches gather for a weekly Mass each Tuesday before school, and they pray together after each game.

“I‘m Catholic and knew what went into attending and functioning at a Catholic school,” said Hurla.

“In my opinion, this mindset goes hand in hand with coaching. I tell our players their actions speak louder than words,” he added.

Effort, he counsels them, will determine more than the fate of their season. Their willingness to give 110 percent will matter long after they have graduated and left the halls of Ward behind.

As the ballclub moves into its final games of the season, Hurla knows that some of his players will go on to play baseball on the next level.

Many of them, however, will leave formal baseball behind in pursuit of other dreams — college, careers and families.

Hurla hopes their involvement in the baseball program at Bishop Ward will have prepared them no matter what their future holds.

“I hope they take with them that nothing is free — everything has a price,” he said, “but you can achieve a lot more than you realize.

“Faith, perseverance, determination, and a positive attitude can do wonders.”

About the author

Kara Hansen

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