Catholic High makes case for first national championship with torrid finish to record-breaking season

by: William Weathers // Contributor

Before there was ever a pitch thrown, a ball put in play or an out recorded, there was a vision for this year’s Catholic High baseball team.

The Bears were the previous winners of five state championships, the last one coming in 2022, but never had their dreams extended outside of the state of Louisiana.

Head coach Brad Bass, in his 13th season, implored his Bears to think big … really big.

“I said it at our First Pitch Banquet,” he said. “The goal was to win a national championship and in order to do that, you’ve got to go out and play the best. Regardless, I knew that playing a schedule that tough, the worst-case scenario was that we would be absolutely battle tested to play for a state championship in Louisiana.”

Bass couldn’t help thinking back to his preseason declaration last Saturday after top-seeded Catholic capped a school-record 38-2 season with a 5-0 victory over second-seeded John Curtis at McMurry Park in Sulphur.

LSU signee William Schmidt, a projected first-round Major League draft choice, punctuated the program’s sixth state title with a 1-hit, 9-strikeout masterpiece that very well may have cemented the Bears first national championship.

Catholic, winners of its last 20 games, was the nation’s No. 1 ranked team by MaxPreps and Perfect Game going into the state tournament where they steamrolled No. 12 Acadiana (10-0) and knocked off John Curtis.

MaxPreps said it would cast its final vote this year’s national champion the California state tournament where No. 2 Corona High is competing this week for the Southern Section Division I championship and considered Catholic’s closest threat to a national crown.

“One of the constant messages we used this year was that success doesn’t earn you the right to do less, it earns you the right to do more,” Bass said. “The idea was that no matter what happens we’re focused on the constant incline of getting better every day.

“Whenever we won and even in the games we lost, it was whether you got better that day,” Bass said. “The way they attacked the weight room the day before we left for the semifinal game was a testament to their belief that success earns you the right to do more. The weight room, with (strength and conditioning coach) Matt Bruce, is the cornerstone of our program.”

Discussions of joining the likes of Barbe out of Lake Charles as a national-caliber program began over dinner in 2020 at TJ Ribs restaurant between Bass, pitching coach Tyler Naquin and former CHS standout Michael Demouy.

Bass, who guided CHS to state titles in 2013 and 2022, agreed that based on the trajectory of the program, coupled with an influx of talent in the next two classes, it was appropriate to take the Bears on the road and compete with some of the nation’s top programs.

CHS started attending the prestigious Perfect Game national event in 2022 and went 3-1 where it made its way into some of the national polls last season. The Bears, though, were dealt a blow with an 8-2 loss to Archbishop Rummel in the Division I state semifinals, ending the season 36-3 and ranked as high as No. 10 by Baseball America in its final Top 25 poll in ’23.

“We knew at the time our 2023 class was supremely talented and had played lots of big games,” Bass said. “Those guys did a great job of getting us to that striking point. What we didn’t know at the time was that we would have William Schmidt. We didn’t realize the 2024 class would be as talented as they were and were the 2025s. Credit to the 2023 team to get us far enough up the rankings to make a move and attack that No. 1 spot.”

This year’s team returned to the Perfect Game event and won its division, including a stretch of three wins over nationally ranked teams. They picked up two more wins over teams ranked in the Top 25 nationally in South Walton (Fla.) School Showdown and were 6-0 this season against nationally ranked teams.

While the Bears’ 13-game win streak to begin the season ended, they reached unparalleled heights in school history with a No. 1 national ranking by two national outlets and were No. 4 in another.

“We knew we would have to play other nationally ranked teams,” Bass said. “If nothing else, when you’re process driven the outcomes are checkpoints for where you’re at. We were seeing if this was even going to be doable. These kids just put their heads down and took on the world.”

This year’s CHS team reaped the benefits of playing for a veteran coaching staff led by Bass, assistants Michael Billings, Jake Clouatre and Naquin. That was coupled with a 12-member senior class and the motivation of last year’s semifinal loss providing this group with greater clarity.

The 6-foot-5 Schmidt’s added to CHS’ national profile, ranking among the nation’s top pitchers that will be soon be faced with the decision of accepting a Major League contract or attending LSU.

Schmidt certainly looked the part of a next-level pitcher in his first state title game with a shutout of John Curtis. He wound up 9-0 with a 0.44 ERA, 102 strikeouts and 17 walks in 63.2 innings.

He was just part of a lights-out staff that also featured senior Ryder Loup (9-0, 1.55 ERA, 39 Ks, 54.1 IPs), a Loyola-New Orleans signee, who threw a two-hit shutout in the state semifinal game against Acadiana.

Junior Jake Tompkins (5-0, 0.28 ERA, 31 Ks) and Trip Dobson (4-0, 1.02) were also part of the staff that had a microscopic 1.172 ERA and limited the opposition to a .169 batting average.

“Our pitching’s a perfect storm of really good players and a real deal pitching coach,” said Bass, who lost LSU right-handed pitching signee Grant Breaux to an injury before the season.

CHS’ offense wasn’t much fun for opposing pitchers to solve. The Bears, who batted .349, averaged 8.7 runs per game, were capable of hurting teams in a variety of ways with their bats, situational hitting and base running acumen which resulted in 132 stolen bases.

“We pride ourselves on being an opportunistic offense,” Bass said. “We would love to hit doubles and homers. Some days when the sword doesn’t show up you can die by the sword. We wanted to show that there are other ways to score.”

LSU junior shortstop commitment Jack Ruckert finished with a team-high .450 average and 14 doubles. He also drove in 40 runs with 22 steals.

UL-Lafayette senior center field commitment Brooks Wright batted .422 with eight doubles, four triples, 29 RBIs and 15 stolen bases, while junior left fielder Noah Lewis, a UL-Lafayette commitment, surged near the end of the season to bat .421 with seven doubles, 14 RBIs and 11 stolen bases.

Junior catcher Andrew Clapinski, a .396 hitter, was one of the team’s power sources with 14 doubles and team highs in RBIs with 45 and homers with six. Junior right fielder Davis Emonet added a .377 average, five doubles, 18 RBIs and 22 stolen bases, Dobson, a Houston signee, hit .343 with 12 doubles, four homers, 26 RBIs and 11 stolen bases and junior second baseman Edward Henriquez batted .306 with six doubles, 23 RBIs and 24 hit by pitches.

“These were guys who were chasing all-district, all-state and next-level opportunities,” Bass said. “These guys selflessly would do what they’re asked, but also showed situational awareness.”

Bass said in a season defined by success it was a 4-3 loss to Winter Park on March 16 that galvanized the team.

Two games later, CHS suffered a 4-1 setback at Mandeville, and promptly never lost again.

The final 20-game win streak to conclude the season was ignited by an 11-0 victory in a second game with Mandeville where Schmidt struck out nine and allowed one hit.

“It was a long week; we were on the road for six games,” Bass said of the week that included the Winter Park game. “After that game is really when these guys unified. They became unbreakable.”

CHS, which defeated Division I select state champion West Monroe at the beginning of the season, also defeated eventual Division II select state champion Teurlings Catholic, 11-1.

The Bears followed an opening-round bye in the playoffs with their best baseball of the season that reached a crescendo in the state tournaments with a pair of shutout wins.

Andrew Hodges’ three-run homer highlighted an eight-run third inning in support of Loup in the team’s run-rule semifinal victory, and Schmidt was in complete control in the final which featured two hits and two runs from Lewis, and an RBI-double from Ruckert.

“This solidifies this team as one the most unique teams in Louisiana High School baseball history,” said Bass, whose team outscored its opposition 51-3 in the postseason. “Our school hasn’t won a national championship in any sport.

“A lot of times coaches get the credit for what they give players, but what these players gave us this year we could never pay back to them,” Bass said. “That’s an incredible experience and taking us on an incredible ride and I’m forever grateful to these dudes.”