First of all, what I’m going to suggest to you here may not be applicable to your personal situations, in terms of how your state tournaments are set up. In Michigan, every team in the state has an opportunity to play in the state playoffs – in a “normal” season anyway! Teams are divided into four divisions strictly by enrollment and then districts are drawn up solely by geography. You don’t have to qualify in any way and there is no seeding that takes place at any point. It is also a single-elimination tournament throughout the playoffs. Michigan teams are allowed to schedule 38 regular season games, not including the state tournament.
Among other aspects of our program at Grosse Pointe South, two philosophical points emerge: Give as many kids as possible the opportunity to play and play the toughest competition you can find.
At South, we traditionally have from a low of 22 players and – more often than not – a high of 27 players on the varsity squad. As a result, I have been asked many times, “How do you keep that many kids happy?” I may not always do that, but the role of each player is spelled out in the player/coaching staff individual conferences at the beginning of the year. Players then have the opportunity to decline or accept that role, but with the understanding that roles can – and often do – change. Few players decline the opportunity to play and at least be a part of the team.
At the preseason parent meeting, we tell parents that every player at the beginning of the year will get chances to start and show if they belong in the top nine. We usually have between 10-14 games/scrimmages before the conference season starts for us to find out who is the best nine. We allow the players to show us who belongs, through their performance in game situations. As a result of this approach, we have had a few problems with players or parents regarding playing time issues. Do we lose some early games because of this? Certainly, but again, it also prevents future problems by allowing the players to “determine” the lineup.
This is not to suggest that we take an intramural approach to interscholastic athletics. The best players always play in our 15 league contests on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, and of course, in-state playoff games. However, in non-league games, Saturday tournaments, etc., all players will get opportunities to start and all pitchers who do not throw in the league will get an opportunity to pitch. Does this approach result in losses? The answer is certainly yes. Do our state rankings suffer? Again, the answer is yes. However, we don’t care what the rankings are before or during the season. The only ranking that matters is where we end up in June!
Year in and year out, we want our schedule to be as tough as we can make it. We play in the highest division of a 32-team league and the schools are in some instances twice our size. We have not won a league title in ten years. We have approximately 1,400 students and we play in the top division in the playoffs as well, regularly going up against schools with over 3,000 students. We are also a public school and have no open enrollment or any ability to recruit. All of our players must reside from within our school boundaries.
The following chart reveals our overall records the last six times we advanced to the Final Four. Our program has been there eight times total, winning state titles in 2001 and 2018, and achieving a runner-up finish in 2014. We have won 18 out of our last 20 district titles and have advanced to the Elite 8 a total of ten times.
2001 – State Champions (27-12)
2003 – Final Four (27-13)
2005 – Final Four (28-11)
2014 – Runner-Up (27-18)
2015 – Final Four (32-12)
2018 – State Champions (33-12)
As you can see, in each and every one of our best seasons, we lost double-digit games as a result of our aforementioned approach of playing all of our players and navigating a very challenging schedule. But in my opinion, this had absolutely no effect on our postseason success. We never saw anyone in the playoffs that was better than what we saw during the year. As a result, our kids were never "deer in the headlights" surprised by anyone. They've "been there, done that." Personally, I have three takeaways from this approach that I have learned. These takeaways form the foundation of our team culture and, like many other coaches I’m sure, have been fortified from attending countless ABCA clinics in my 40-plus year coaching career, in an attempt to emulate those coaches who were successful:
1. If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best!
2. If you want to join them, you have to beat them!
3. If you are afraid to lose, you will never win!
Our motto at Grosse Pointe South is: “Tradition Never Graduates”, which was stolen from a sign in the indoor workout facility at one of our favorite opponents, Cincinnati Moeller who – I might add – handed me several of my 460 losses in 36 years. In the beginning, we didn’t belong on the same field as Moeller, but I wanted our kids to see what elite programs and talented players looked like. Only then, after experiencing some brutal losses against great programs such as Moeller, could we attempt to emulate the success I wanted for Grosse Pointe South.
Keep in mind that our task as high school coaches are to teach life skills through baseball. As much as everyone likes to win at our level, it shouldn’t solely be about winning championships or for coaches to accumulate the best record possible. It’s about the young people in our charge year after year and giving them the tools to be successful adults. At South, we have always felt that we wanted our program to positively influence as many players as possible, even if that meant losing a few ballgames and suffering a lower ranking.
Some of the most satisfying comments I’ve received from former players have come from those “marginal players” that were kept over the years, not because of their talent, but because they were just great young men. They deserved to put on the uniform, they made their teammates better, and they also disproved the saying that “nice guys finish last.” My disdain for cutting players has not diminished in over 40 years of doing it, but our success at Grosse Pointe South has not suffered. Instead, we have prospered from carrying large squads and including those “marginal” players in our program.
Lastly, this COVID-19 lockdown has shown us – and more importantly our players – don't ever take this great game for granted. It has also certainly shown us the importance of getting our priorities in order. I wish you all great success in 2021! Let’s all come back with a greater appreciation for the game and also a renewed sense of purpose.
Dan Griesbaum has been the head coach at Grosse Pointe SouthHigh School in Michigan since 1984 and earned his 800th career victory in 2018. He played in college at Central Michigan, where he was named the team's MVP in 1975, his senior season. He began his coaching career at CMU as a graduate assistant.
The Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame inductee is also a longtime ABCA member and has presented at multiple conventions. He is a current member of the ABCA Editorial Committee.