Southgate product Mario Garza brings his love for the game to Grosse Ile
By Tom Tigani
Boys’ baseball at Grosse Ile High School, like sports at all Michigan high schools, isn’t being played and won’t be this school year.
But the 2020 season – if it would have started – would be the fifth under Coach Mario Garza, who started his tenure with a district championship in 2016, and would have been an interesting one for the Red Devils and their coach.
Garza has worked to re-energize baseball at GIHS, where it had become sort of a forgotten sport for years because of a glut of spring sports, too few athletes and a weak feeder system.
“It is interesting to come to a place like this,” he said. “My first year, I didn’t know a lot about kids around here. I didn’t know a lot of people or players. I just did what I’ve always been taught to do: believe in competition and fundamentals.
“It took me a little bit to realize I had a great group of kids and our baseball team had a great run in 2016.”
Garza played high school baseball at Southgate Anderson High School.
“I was very fortunate to play for a group of coaches that not only were great teachers of the game, but were also great competitors that taught us to be winners,” he said. “Scott Ferrante and Brad Gratz are still mentors that I rely on. I realize now, more than ever, how good those teams that I played on in 1993 and ’94 were.”
The Titans won a regional championship in ’93, and in ’94 they played in the state championship game, losing to Birmingham Brother Rice.
Garza went on to play college baseball at the University of Michigan, and again was exposed to some great coaches.
“Bill Freehan and Geoff Zahn were both fierce competitors,” he said. “From a pitching perspective, I was able gain invaluable knowledge from Coach Zahn.”
Garza, the oldest of four children in a baseball-obsessed family, was a pitcher at U of M from 1994 to 1998. He won one Big 10 championship, and studied engineering while playing as a walk-on who had to make the team every year. His sister, Christina, played softball at Michigan from 1998 to 2001, and his brother Bobby pitched there from 2001 to 2004. His brother Tom wrestled there in 2002.
Garza also spent two seasons learning from Ace Adams, a mentor who encouraged him to keep working and to never quit. He met Adams during the summer after his senior season at Southgate Anderson through Andy Green, his American Legion baseball coach in Allen Park.
“Along the way I played with some great players too, some of which remain mentors and resources to me today,” Garza said. “Having a network of former coaches and teammates to reach out to is so important.”
And he’s done a lot of reaching out during his 10 years of coaching youth baseball, including nine years of travel baseball coaching with the Michigan Wildcats. But it was one of Garza’s former managers who reached out to him to take the Grosse Ile job after Garza moved to the island in 2015.
Jim DeSana is manager of the Michigan Monarchs of the Great Lakes Collegiate Summer League. Garza and his brother Bobby played for him, and Garza considers DeSana a friend and a mentor.
“My wife and I went to watch his team play in the summer of 2015, and that’s when he approached me about applying for the opening,” Mario Garza said.
“It took a little while that first year, but the team made my life easy at the end of the program,” he said. “We ended up winning a district championship. We’ve had our ups and downs. We’re a small school, with baseball going up against tennis, golf, and soccer every spring.
“If we lose players to something else they want to do, we’re going to be in trouble. We don’t have 45 trying out every year. We’re going to have to deal with what we get every year.”
In order to get the pipeline going, Garza has drawn on his experience as a player at Southgate Anderson, where he recalled how his coaches were always out in the community trying to grow the game. He’s implemented a similar program on the island, where his youth camp for a local baseball league drew more than 75 kids last year.
“It continues to grow and build momentum,” he said. “We’re trying to create some excitement here.”
Garza realizes that the success he had his first year on the island isn’t an automatic thing.
“Last year was a challenge because we had a big underclass,” he said. “We started three freshmen and lost the district championship to Trenton. It was a tough heartbreaker of a game that went to the last out.”
Garza said he had a number of good players coming in this year, including two college-bound seniors, Nick Chittum, who will attend Eastern Michigan, and Matt Groat, who’s headed to Wayne State. Chittum continues to throw in the high 80 to mid-90 mph range and Groat keeps throwing 80 to 90.
“We also have three sophomores from last year who are just outstanding players,’ Garza said. “They’ve really stepped up to be leaders. And we have good pitching and really good defense.
The three sophs are infielder Mike Madrigal, who started at third base last year; Ty Garza (Mario’s son), who started at second last year; and catcher Ben Carter.
“Those three really got thrown in there last year. Ty was second or third on the team in hitting. They really got a good learning experience last year, and we’re looking for big things from them this year.”
Besides preventing practices, the statewide school shutdown also has created issues for colleges who want to get a live look at some of Garza’s players.
“Obviously the game pales in comparison to what’s going on, but (the shutdown) has created some draft issues,” he said. “For example, colleges are looking at Nate Brown.”
But because a lot of player vetting is done by video and by email correspondence, Garza said everybody has a plan.
“A lot of players worked with travel teams to get ready, now it’s all on hold,” he said, adding that the interrupted season is “a challenge for sure.”
“We just try to provide online information on training to our players about what they can do at home and at the gym, and just hope they’re’ staying on top of it.”
Playing for dad has advantages, challenges
This year once again finds Grosse Ile High School baseball Coach Mario Garza coaching his son, Ty, which creates a unique situation that requires adjustments on both their parts.
“There’s no doubt that growing up as the son of a coach provides advantages, but that also comes along with some real challenges for the player,” Mario Garza said. “We’ve always had a good understanding of when I’m coach and when I’m dad.
“We both work hard to make sure we allow the proper amount of time for both, especially the dad part.
“As a coach, I look to peers that I trust to help me evaluate him as a player and provide me with an unbiased view. So far, it’s worked well for us.”