Ex-MLB pitcher David Phelps helps launch Aquinas Academy baseball team

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Saturday, April 13, 2024 | 11:01 AM


Aquinas Academy baseball coach David Phelps knows all about pressure.

Phelps pitched in the major leagues for 10 years, striking out sluggers such as Aaron Judge, Shohei Ohtani, Andrew McCutchen and Hall of Famer David Ortiz along the way.

But this spring has brought a whole new level of tension.

“I’m far more nervous now,” he said, “than I ever was.”

Phelps is a first-year coach with the burgeoning Aquinas Academy baseball program, which is operating this season as a club team with plans to join the WPIAL next year. It is a far different role for the 37-year-old right-hander, who went 34-40 with seven saves and a 3.80 ERA from 2012-22 with seven MLB teams before retiring in January 2023.

“I love having coach Phelps there,” said senior first baseman Josh Schlemmer, who hadn’t played organized baseball for two years before joining the team this spring. “He knows his stuff.”

The Crusaders still hadn’t played any games as of the second week in April — thanks to lousy weather and even a solar eclipse — but their eight-game all-road schedule features a pair against Winchester Thurston, another first-year club team, as well as the JV teams from Avonworth, South Park and Keystone Oaks. Aquinas, which has a 12-man roster, was scheduled to visit South Park JV on April 11 in its opener.

“It’s going to be really cool for them,” Phelps said. “Their first game, in their Aquinas uniform and representing their school with their friends.”

Phelps, a St. Louis native, and his wife, Maria, an Aquinas Academy graduate, met at Notre Dame and have lived in Pine Township for more than a decade, raising four children aged 12 through 4, who all attend the tiny Hampton Catholic school.

The impetus for the baseball program started in the spring of 2021, when Phelps, who was in Pittsburgh rehabbing a season-ending injury, and Diocesan athletic director Gary Roney, who also has children at Aquinas, started kicking around the idea at a grade-school soccer tournament. They agreed Aquinas should have a baseball team. They spoke with Aquinas Head of School Leslie Mitros and athletic director Tom Kayda about their proposal.

“We put a plan together,” Phelps said. “We kind of pitched what baseball at Aquinas could potentially look like.”

To help matters, Phelps, who “was always interested in coaching,” pledged to lead the team, should it get off the ground.

Uncertain about the level of interest in the school, Phelps and a group of Aquinas dads held three camps, for students in grades 1-12, in February 2023. Phelps said 87 kids showed up.

“That was the spark that lit the fire,” he said. “OK, the interest is here. Let’s get this ball rolling.”

After getting approval from the administration, they faced the challenges of building a program from the ground up. Phelps and his staff had to do everything from getting equipment and locating a place to practice — Aquinas doesn’t have an on-campus baseball field — to designing the uniform for a brand-new team.

“It was very intimidating,” Phelps said. “I always tell people I’m far busier now than I ever was when I played.”

The Crusaders practice three days a week, either inside at North Park Athletic Complex or at Vincentian baseball fields.

The roster is a hodge-podge of experience. Senior outfielder Jackson Vollmer hadn’t played since sixth grade, and senior outfielder Michael Jernigan, mainly a soccer player, had never played. They are joined by some promising baseball-focused youngsters, including sophomore infielder Luke Crawford and a pair of freshmen, middle infielder/pitcher Jack Stanton and catcher Ian Patterson.

With a lot of eighth-grade interest in the program, Phelps said he expects the roster to consist of “16 or 17” players next season. He said that should be enough to get placed in a WPIAL section and play a varsity schedule.

“We have the numbers,” he said. “That’s not even remotely an issue.”

Schlemmer said baseball was his primary sport from T-ball until he quit two years ago, mainly because Aquinas didn’t sponsor a team.

“It’s been a long time in the making,” he said. “My freshman year, my dad was on a Zoom call with all of the coaches, trying to get it ready. He was telling me about it. I was like, ‘That would be sick.’ I didn’t think they would get it done before I graduated. But here we are.”

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