Baseball in the blood

Notre Dame baseball coach's love of the game goes back to his time spent growing up in Oak Park

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By JACOB BOYER

On his way to becoming the head baseball coach at the University of Notre Dame, Dave Schrage touched down in a lot of places, but his story begins in Oak Park. It was while he was a grade school student attending St. Edmunds that Schrage fell in love with baseball.

As a child Schrage was able to make a baseball diamond in any open space. Whether it was painting a strike zone on a wall adjacent to parking lots at schools like Beye, Mann and St. Edmund, or pitching a ball across the street once traffic died, he just wanted to play.

"My brother Greg and John [Planek] and I, we all loved sports, and we would play every day," remembers Schrage. "We made up all kinds of games."

Growing up when he did, Schrage had no choice but to make up games with his friends because there wasn't organized baseball until a kid reached the third grade. Yet, once he joined little league, and progressed through the Mustang, Bronco, and PONY levels at Ridgeland Common, Schrage found Oak Park to be a perfect place for someone who loved baseball.

"There was great youth baseball [in Oak Park], great volunteers, and great people really dedicated to keeping you enthusiastic," recalled Schrage. "Baseball became something I wanted to keep doing. I was pretty fortunate to have a lot of great coaches."

Even during the breaks in his packed baseball schedule, Schrage chose not to stray too far from the game. Ben Krawchuk, a childhood friend of Schrage's and a 25-year Oak Park resident, remembered the two of them playing a baseball card game called Strat-O-Matic for hours.

Krawchuk feels that he was the better player (a claim he admitted his friend would contend), but acknowledged that Schrage approached the game with a keen baseball eye. "Even then he was always thinking about pinch hitting and relief pitchers."

On weekends Schrage would regularly head over to OPRF High School to watch the semi-pro Oak Park Cardinals play. He was able to pick up quite a few tricks from hanging out with the players.

"Corky Bienemann was the backup catcher for the Cardinals. He was the one who taught me how to throw a curveball."

However, Schrage said that it was during his four years at Fenwick High School that he truly developed both his talents and his baseball philosophies.

"The baseball coaching staff at Fenwick-the head coach then was Jim Krema-took a special interest in me," Schrage recalled.

For four years Schrage played in the outfield alongside his pal Planek, now the athletic director at Loyola University. Schrage manned centerfield, with Planek in left. Planek, who still lives in Oak Park in the same house he grew up in, and Schrage lived a block a way from each, so every day they walked together to school, practice, and games.

Whether it was on their way to school or during a pitching change, the two always discussed baseball.

"He would see something during the game and we would talk about it, or I would see something," said Planek of his life-long friend. "We always talked strategy; he is very, very astute." The baseball bond is something the two former Friar outfielders continue to share. "We still go on recruiting trips together," added Planek.

Schrage remembered playing on some good teams while at Fenwick, but not being able to advance far in the playoffs. During his senior season, the Friars were knocked out of the state tournament in the first round. However, Schrage does not let the early exit diminish the importance of the lessons he learned at Fenwick.

"One of the things I learned at Fenwick was discipline. Fenwick instilled in me a terrific work ethic," he said. "It was such a competitive school where you had to work really hard. If you were on the field it felt like a privilege. I am indebted to Fenwick for teaching me that hard work pays off."

Coming out of college Schrage, who also played basketball in high school, had Division I offers for baseball and ended up choosing to attend Creighton. At Creighton, Schrage played for and against the very best. The assistant coach his senior year was Jim Hendry, currently the general manager of the Cubs.

Schrage played against Kirby Puckett, who attended Bradley University, and Joe Carter, who attended Creighton's rival, Wichita State. One collegiate game, in which Schrage played against Carter, sticks out in his memory.

Prior to an end of the season series against Wichita State, Schrage said he got a bit too cocky and told an Omaha newspaper that, "If water covers two thirds of the earth, I cover the other third." The following day, Carter hit a homerun as far as any other Schrage had ever seen. At the end of the inning, the humbled center fielder came off the field to quite a bit of jeering.

"Wichita always had boisterous fans and when I was running off the field they were all yelling at me 'Schrage, did that one land in the Atlantic?'"

Schrage said he never considered being a coach until Hendry brought up the idea at the end of his final season at Creighton. Though, Schrage admitted, "I heard that as him saying I wasn't going to get drafted."

Schrage still talks with Hendry, and joked that he was disappointed that he is yet to be invited to sing the seventh inning stretch at Wrigley Field where he first attended a professional game with his grandfather.

Upon graduating from Creighton, Schrage went to St. Thomas where he got a master's degree and began his coaching career as a graduate assistant. Since then he's coached at Creighton, Waldorf Junior College, University of Northern Iowa, Northern Illinois University, and Evansville University. In 2006, Schrage was tapped to be the skipper at Notre Dame. On a personal level, it was a rough first year for Schrage at the University. His wife, Jody, died of cancer.

Schrage said he was able to manage the year with an incredible amount of support from the Notre Dame community, a place he said coaching at is "a dream come true."

Krawchuk and Planek both believe that Notre Dame couldn't have made a better choice to guide its program.

"He has a love for the game and done all the right things. He is a great recruiter and taken programs to great places once he has a year or two," Krawchuk opined.

Planek added, "He entered coaching baseball because he is an excellent teacher. But, as good of a coach as he is, Dave is a better guy."

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