Catholic High Bears Claw to Top National Baseball Rankings After Dominant Season Start

by William Weathers // Contributor

When top-seeded Catholic High of Baton Rouge was upset in the 2023 Division I select state semifinals, the Bears not only missed out on a state championship, but fell out of the conversation for a national championship.

Catholic completed a memorable 36-3 season and ranked No. 4 nationally.

The Bears were equipped to make amends on both accounts this season, winning their first 13 games of the season, and building a resume’ that included three wins over nationally ranked teams.

The result has been a program milestone with Catholic High garnering the nation’s No. 1 rankings in both the Perfect Game USA Top 50 and SBLive Power 25 from Sports Illustrated which were released earlier this week. The Bears (18-2), who dropped a 4-1 decision on Wednesday at Mandeville, are also ranked No. 4 in the MaxPreps Top 50 national poll.

“We’re very excited, but at the same time we have to stick to it game by game and stay focused,” Catholic senior pitcher Ryder Loup said. “It’s very exciting to be ranked No. 1 in the nation.”

Catholic High baseball coach Brad Bass, in his 13th season, put together a challenging 2024 schedule he believed was reminiscent of the type of team he would field this season.

The Bears, who went 1-1 in last year’s Perfect Game Showdown in Hoover, Alabama, returned to the same event and won the Blue Bracket of the tournament with a 4-0 showing, including a 3-1 victory over nationally ranked Parkview of Lilburn, Ga. in the final.

“We knew we had a talented group of young men, and we always knew in order for us to reach our potential, it would take hard things,” Bass said. “That’s why we wanted to stretch out and play the hardest schedule that we could possibly play in state and venture out of state.”

Catholic hit the road for the second time in March for a trip to Destin, Florida to compete in the South Walton High School Showdown. The Bears registered a pair of wins over nationally ranked teams in Lewisburg of Olive Branch, Mississippi (4-0) – the No. 12 team – and Farragut of Knoxville, Tennessee (10-4) – the No. 3 team – before falling 4-3 in the final to Winter Park, Florida which scored the deciding run in the top of the seventh.

That was the Bears’ first defeat after a 17-0 start to the season before falling at Mandeville on Wednesday for their first in-state setback.

“With two traveling tournaments that’s a lot of time on the road,” Bass said. “Then you come home, and you still have obligations to play at other places in the state. The idea was to get battle tested. We did try to overwhelm them. We want to be ready for the end of April and May. The goal was to keep climbing the ladder, and still is to get a little bit better every single day, and then hopefully peak at the right time at the end.”

Catholic’s performance at the South Walton Showdown that included two wins over ranked teams was the catalyst in catapulting the Bears to No. 1 ahead of No. 2 Orange Lutheran (Calif.) in the SBLive Power 25. Perfect Game moved them up three spots to No. 1 and ahead of No. 2 Stoneman Douglas (Fla.).

Both Lewisburg (No. 8) and Farragut (No. 9) remain in the top 10 of the Perfect Game rankings followed by Parkview (No. 12).

“When we saw we were playing some of the top teams in Florida, we knew we had to get locked in and be ready,” Loup said. “We knew we had a good chance of winning those games. When we got on the bus to leave, we were prepared and ready to go.”

Catholic tested its mettle to begin the season with a pair of one-run victories over St. Paul’s (6-5) and then nationally ranked West Monroe, the 2023 Division I nonselect state runner-up to Barbe. The Bears swept a competitive three-game series over the Rebels by scores of 4-3, 11-8 and 6-2.

Bass said the level of competition in Louisiana is comparable to some of the talent they’ve played against in the earlier tournaments in Alabama and Florida.

“We have some good baseball in Louisiana,” he said. “There aren’t any breaks now that we’re back home.”

Five-time state champion Catholic has an established tradition of success with seven state runners-up finishes, 25 trips to the state tournament and 33 district championships. It’s the kind of pedigree that makes Bears likely to land such out-of-state invitations to Perfect Game events the past two years, or the South Walton Showdown this season.

Bass has produced such Major Leaguers as Ben Braymer of the Washington Nationals and Josh Smith of the Texas Rangers – former Catholic stars Aaron and Austin Nola are also current Major Leaguers – and this year’s roster is ripe with next-level players.

LSU pitching signees William Schmidt and Grant Breaux, who is out for the year after surgery, headline Catholic’s roster with Schmidt a projected first-round MLB draft selection.  Third baseman/pitcher Trip Dobson has signed with Houston, center fielder Brooks Wright has signed with UL and right fielder/pitcher Wyatt Chenevert has signed with Nicholls State. Loup is among the team’s three committed players, having selected Loyola-New Orleans, while shortstop Jack Ruckert and left fielder Noah Lewis are committed to LSU and UL, respectively.

“It’s cool when people recognize your school colors wherever you go,” Bass said. “That’s what good players do, they put people on the map, and we’ve had a history of really good players just in my time period. And the players we’ve had from year to year have kept this great tradition going. The reason our baseball program gets noticed is because of the quality of players, and you match it with the daily discipline our school offers, and you have a recipe for success.”

The aforementioned group of position players, along with junior catcher Andrew Clapinkski, provided Bass with plenty of optimism for the ’24 season, giving Catholic plenty of experience at the plate and in the field.

Wright and Ruckert are batting over .400 with Wright leading the team at .451 with four doubles, three triples, one homer, 13 RBIs and 10 stolen bases, followed by Ruckert at .400 with five doubles, two homers, 21 RBIs and a team-high 14 stolen bases.

Lewis is third with a .379 average, two doubles and five RBIs, followed by junior second baseman Edward Enriquez (.349, 3 2Bs, 10 RBIs), junior right fielder Davis Emonet (.341, 4 2Bs, 10 RBIs) and Clapinski (.323, 2 2Bs, 15 RBIs).

Schmidt (2-0, 0.62 ERA, 33 Ks in 22.2 innings) is the ace of a deep and talented staff that has a 1.66 earned run average. The Bears have six pitchers that have logged double-digit innings with Loup (3-0, 3.35 ERA, 14 Ks), Dobson (2-0, 1.38 ERA, 12 Ks) both having thrown 20-plus innings, and junior Jake Tompkins (4-0, 1.38, 20 Ks) just behind at 19.

“I knew the experience of our offense would be a strength, and I also knew our frontline pitching was going to be a strength with William leading that charge,” Bass said. “The question mark was going to be how do we respond out of our bullpen? We were so young and inexperienced behind those frontline guys, but Jake, Wyatt (Chenevert), Trip, (junior) Cohen LeBlanc (0-1, 2.62 ERA) and (sophomore) Kenneth Russell (0-0, 2.21) have been so integral for our early season success because they lend so much depth. These guys are tough and gritty and have done such an incredible job.”

The focus for Catholic hasn’t changed despite its lofty perch atop the national high school rankings.

The Bears are scheduled to finish a three-game series with Mandeville and also have non-district games with traditional powers Teurlings Catholic and St. Thomas More before moving into District 5-5A play which includes tests against Central and Zachary.

Then they move into the postseason where the state playoffs, which ended two steps shy of the team’s intended goal a year ago, remains the sole focus with the potential of a No. 1 national ranking and national championship.

“There’s a lot more to achieve,” Loup said. “We’ve still got some tough competition. We know we can win out from here and go compete for a state championship. We’ve got to keep playing at the top of our level as we’re playing one of the top teams in the country every game.

“No. 1 this year was to go win out every game and if you do that, you’ve got a good shot at winning both,” Loup said. “Of course, you want to win a national championship because that’s really big. It’s just as big as trying to win state.”