For years, I just assumed Martensdale St. Mary’s (IA) was a small Catholic school with stellar baseball, bolstered by a non-boundaried policy that allowed players to drive from miles away to join a successful program.
I was wrong.
In the midst of following a winning streak building off a 43-0 state championship run in 2010, I learned that it’s Martensdale-St. Marys, and that it isn’t a private school at all. It’s a consolidated school with rural boundaries that include the town of Martensdale (pop. 459*) and St. Marys (pop. 127.*). Perhaps had I bothered to note that their mascot was the “Blue Devils,” I likely could have concluded they weren’t a school of religious influence pretty quickly.
Martensdale-St. Marys has a long-standing baseball tradition, but one could reasonbly argue the program is hitting its apex in 2011. That’s a strong statement considering they won a state title in 2004 under the guidance of Hall of Fame and now retired coach Jim Donohue ( career record of 752-299), and six prior state tournament appearances prior to that. But I believe the current success has eclipsed anything previously.
As I write this, the former state record of 59 consecutive wins is a week removed. MStM, as they are commonly referred, now sits at 23-0 on the season and in the midst of an Iowa high school record 66 straight wins. You never like to put the collar on anyone, but it’s going to take bad luck or a really good team to stop the streak this season.
I made the 11 hour round trip eight days ago (June 16th) because I wanted to witness history. You’d think there might be some tension in the air when the local high school is embarking on such a milestone, but there was nothing but a calm confidence among the players. I arrived before the scheduled batting practice time to see several players engaged in a game of “fungo golf” in the outfield. There were no pregame jitters, just an attitude of focus coupled with relaxation.
I still haven’t figured out these towns – casually driving around Martensdale I came upon a brand new track and football complex complete with artificial turf/synthetic grass, despite the program only winning two football games in the past four seasons. I was told at the one gas station I found in town that there was an opportunity to buy the land, and the complex was funded by the passage of a one-percent sales tax. I didn’t bother with the math – clearly there’s more sales revenue in these small towns than I realized.
Ironically, as I stood there discussing this with one of the attendants, one of the MStM players came in looking for something for “motion sickness.” Perhaps there were some nerves afterall – he left with a package of Dramamine.Back to the ballpark. St. Marys is about five miles south of Martensdale, and the high school team plays their games in a well-manicured park that sits on Country Road R45. It’s the first thing of significance you see when you enter the town, and it’s bordered by a cornfield that immediately brings the movie Field of Dreams to mind (although the corn was in the early stages on this day, I wonder how many baseballs get lost later in the schedule as Iowa’s summer baseball season moves through July.)
Justin Dehmer is the current coach at MStM. A native Arizonan – “where baseball is king” he once told me in an email, the fourth year coach has been friendly and approachable since the first time I contacted him to get details on the approaching record. With pregame starting two hours before the first pitch, there are outfielders in the gym taking batting practice (which contains batting cages inside it’s brick exterior that also serves as part of the left field wall) while Coach Dehmer hits ground balls and works through various fielding and throwing drills with his infield group. Although 31 years of age, Coach Dehmer is a former college baseball player that looks like he could still have some high school eligibility remaining. It’s evident he can still play the game.
When the groups rotate, its fly balls to the outfielders in various positions, every drill with a purpose. You don’t win this many consecutive games just by showing up.
Curious as to who is supervising batting practice, I take a peak in the gym long enough to see their volunteer assistant working individually with a couple players. Steve Westphal isn’t on the payroll at Martensdale-St. Marys, and happens to be the father of the Blue Devils’ top pitcher, who tossed a shutout in last year’s state final. Both Westphal’s migrated to MStM after leading Lenox to a Class A state runnerup finish in 2009, despite playing much of the season with a nine-player roster. Incidentally, Coach Westphal just happens to be a Hall of Fame coach himself with over 600 victories in his career, retiring from tiny Lenox after that 2009 season. As friendly as he was successful, my brief chat with him left me anxious for a more in-depth conversation at some point in the future. This is a guy with years of baseball under his belt, and surely is sitting on a goldmine of baseball stories. You get the picture.
I have a theory that every small town with a storied baseball program has an elderly fan or two that can give you the entire history of team, from its top players to the town’s greatest disappointments. I didn’t run across that person this evening, but I have to believe he’s there, somewhere. Perhaps that person is the former coach. I didn’t run across him this evening either.
I’ve also learned over the years that the best coaches in these small towns also take a huge sense of pride in their ballparks. On this evening, head coach and volunteer assistant both spent part of their pregame readying the field – there was no maintenance staff standing by to pull out the nail drag. This is the ongoing reality of a high school baseball coach, especially in Iowa’s smallest class.
While the field preparation is completed, I walked back to the entry point to pay my admission (I had arrived early, and I know high school booster clubs can never have too much money). I was rewarded with a “thank you punkin,” and moments later a “there you go hon” as I bought a freshly-grilled chicken sandwich at the concession stand. I love my home state if for no other reason than appreciating the kindness I encounter whenever I make these journeys.
As I wait for the first pitch, I strike up a conversation with a parent that told me there were eight kids that “threw 80-plus.” For a school with an enrollment of 122, this is phenomenal, and goes a long way towards explaining why this streak has endured a schedule that includes six games a week in most cases. I didn’t validate this statistic with Coach Dehmer, but it’s believable when I look back at the schedule and results up to this point. On this evening, the junior pitcher has plenty of velocity to stifle the opponent’s hitters, and if not for an uncharacteristic error or two could have finished the night with a shutout.
I’d like to write more about the game, but the environment stole the show for me. A nice crowd for a small town, there were also several media outlets on-hand. MStM took a 6-3 lead into the bottom of the third inning, suggesting win #60 might not be an easy task. Another conversation with a player’s mother as I take pictures through the fence by the dugout, and the next thing I know the opponent’s left-fielder overruns a single, allowing the 18th run score. It’s the bottom of the fourth inning, and MStM leads by 15 runs. Game over.
There wasn’t a lot of overt celebration. It took 29 baseballs to formulate a “60” in the grass, and the team lined up for photos before parents and the media on hand. A few interviews were given, but the field had to be cleared for the junior varsity game scheduled to follow. The lack of pandemonium made it clear that this was just one marker on the way to something bigger.
Enrollment 122. Yet there are enough players to field a junior varsity squad. Baseball is alive and well at Martensdale-St. Marys High School.
When I started researching this streak, Homer (Mich) High School had a national record of 71 consecutive wins in 2004-2005. That record was recently surpassed by Portsmouth (NH) High School, who last Saturday registered their fourth consecutive state championship and winning an unprecedented 84th straight game in the process.
MStM graduates two seniors this year. Imagine the possibilities.
Take in a game. It’s worth the drive.
* 2009 figure from www.city-data.com