Madison baseball’s long rise to the top

(Photo by Shamus Ian Fatzinger/Fairfax Times)

Just beyond a basketball hoop in the Madison High gym, tucked behind the door festooned with baseball photos and newspaper clippings, an artist puts the finishing touches on his latest masterpiece. His right hand works furiously across the canvas before him, his back hunched below a clock fast approaching 3 p.m.

Finally, Mark “Pudge” Gjormand drops his pen and emerges with his finished handiwork: a wrinkled piece of paper full of chicken scratch. He immediately likens it to a Picasso painting.

“Or maybe a Rembrandt,” he says. “Or Michelangelo.”

Gjormand’s work may not be as alluring as a Picasso classic, but it’s nearly as meticulous. The 8×11 sheet reflects a mind churning on equal parts control and detail: “3:25: Inf. Ground ball drill/Get dirty.” … “3:40: Stations: Live pick throw down/Forehand.” … “3:50: Multipurpose 1, 2, 3.”

Only two phrases on the computer paper are typed. At the top is the whole enterprise: “James Madison High School Baseball.” At the bottom is what drives it: “Prepare to perform.”

Like an architect clutching a blueprint, Gjormand holds the practice plan up to the light to get a final look. It’s the guide to his team’s improvement and, in his eyes, the reason his baseball program has been Northern Virginia’s most consistent over the last dozen years.

“I want my kids to feel like they’ve done four hours of work in a two-­hour practice,” Gjormand says. “If we just came out and did [batting practice] and did the same thing every day, we would lose them. You’ve got to keep them sharp mentally.”

Now in his 19th year at the helm, Gjormand knows exactly where today’s practice plan will go. He’ll place it right on top of yesterday’s, in one of three drawers storing every practice plan he’s ever devised, including ones for his kids’ little league teams.

Before he does that, though, Gjormand folds the plan up as he rushes out the door. He needs to be on the field at 3:05 p.m.

Building something better

The accolades speak for themselves: nine Liberty District championships since his first season with Madison in 1997, eight of them in the past 12 years. Then there are the two Northern Region championships, along with the undefeated run to the state title in 2002. Since 2001 Gjormand has led the Warhawks to a 253­-70 record, a 78.3 winning percentage that stands above all local competitors. Lake Braddock is next at 75.3 percent, followed by South County at 70.7. Madison’s seven 20­-win seasons are also more than any other school during the span.

Entering Friday night’s game against Washington­-Lee, the Warhawks stand at 11­-2 on the year, their winning streak against current conference opponents sitting at 20 straight.

The picture wasn’t so rosy when he took over in 1996. Madison’s proud baseball tradition had fallen on hard times, posting back­-to-­back records of 2­18 and 1­19. Don Roth’s retirement in ’96 led Madison administrators to look long and hard for someone who could revitalize the program. Gjormand remembers the bewildered looks he got when he declared to the 10­-person interview panel his intention to build the Warhawks into a nationally ranked program. Just how did the cocky 28-­year­-old plan on doing that at Madison, a school with small numbers and few resources compared to other local powers?

“I said, ‘Well, hire me and I’ll show you,’” Gjormand recalled. “‘I’m not coming here to leave. This is my dream job.’”

The kid wasn’t bluffing. Gjormand went after athletes that normally gravitated to football. He made the weight room a priority. He bought T­-shirts with “Changes in attitudes” on the front and Jimmy Buffet logos on the back. He pooled enough money together to paint “Home of the Warhawks” on the water tower looming over the school.

“When I got here the first thing I recognized was that these kids were no different than the kids I was coaching at Marshall,” said Gjormand, who previously served as an assistant under longtime Marshall coach Dean Sissler for eight years. “Those kids just thought they were good. These kids needed to get their confidence back, their mojo back.”

Gjormand put together a patchwork staff of coaches with backgrounds that didn’t always scream baseball. Among them was Bob Ceska, who was looking for something new after retiring as chief director of the Department of the Treasury. Gjormand convinced him to help out with the school’s JV program. Ceska, now 75, still helps run the JV team — which is undefeated since 2011, by the way — and has no intentions of leaving anytime soon.

“Initially the people that were in the program were not people that came up through the program,” said Ceska, the only coach who’s been on staff with Gjormand for all 19 years. “Now when you look at the coaches, these are all people who came up through the program itself.”

Rising from within

Madison’s growing consistency starts with the tight­-knit culture fostered by its nine­-man coaching staff. Gjormand connects with every player that comes through his program, and he doesn’t let go of those connections after they graduate. Six of his former players are on his staff, while two other coaches have been working alongside him for at least 13 years.

One of those former pupils is J.J. Hollenbeck, perhaps the most legendary player to ever come through the school. The former Virginia State Player of the Year guided Madison on the mound during its 29-­0 season in 2002, then went on to start four seasons at Virginia Military Institute. When Gjormand asked him to hop back on board as an assistant in 2007, Hollenbeck called it a no­-brainer.

“What keeps Madison going are the relationships that [Gjormand] builds with the players along their journey through their senior year. That stays strong,” Hollenbeck said. “He has a saying: everyone’s different, but everyone’s the same. His relationship with everyone is unique. He gets to you on a personal level, and that’s what makes the difference.”

Andrew Baird can relate. The 29­-year­-old assistant coach stretches his relationship with Gjormand back to his Little League days, when the affable Madison skipper would ask him if he planned to play for him someday.

“To all these kids in Little League, it’s all about the red and black ‘M’ they want to wear,” said Baird, who scored the winning run as a junior outfielder in that ’02 state championship game. “Pudge knows the kids that are coming to Madison when they are eight, nine years old. It’s not just a four­-year span that he knows these kids. It’s a 12­-year span. He loves every kid that comes through here like he loves his own kids, and I think that is what makes him really special.”

Kids go to great lengths to get a piece of Madison baseball, and so do their parents. Some people buy houses in Vienna just so their kids can get a shot on the team. Others get in Gjormand’s ear about why their son deserved a spot on the roster this year. Seventy­-five kids tried out for the team this winter, so feelings are always bound to get hurt.

Then there are kids like Billy Welch, a senior left­-hander helping the Warhawks put together a staff ERA of 1.32 so far this season. Welch’s father, Chuck, gave Gjormand his first high school baseball coaching gig when he hired him as an assistant at Langley in 1987. As a Fairfax County employee, Chuck’s kids could attend any public school they wanted.

Then the head coach at Westfield, Chuck tried to influence Billy to choose the Bulldogs, but he ultimately left the decision up to his son.

“He grew up with these guys,” said Welch, whose family resides close to Madison. “It was his choice to stay here. I think they have this vision when they are eight or nine years old that they are going to play Madison varsity baseball. I think it’s a pretty cool thing.”

Respect all around

Madison’s recent dominance is impressive, but the Warhawks haven’t been invincible deep into the postseason. Their last region championship appearance came in 2003. Since then, Lake Braddock has captured four region titles, along with a state championship in 2012.

Still, respect for Gjormand’s powerhouse hasn’t waned. Opponents get up for games against Madison like they do with no other matchup.

“When you’re good year in and year out like Madison, teams can either make excuses and dislike the program or try to work as hard as Madison does to match them on the field,” said Stone Bridge coach Sam Plank, whose rivalry with Gjormand on the diamond has led to friendship off it. “If I could get my kids as excited before every game as they get before they play Madison, we’d be undefeated.”

The Vienna community holds Warhawk baseball in particularly high regard. Fans from all over town stream into the bleachers to help sell out every home game, and Gjormand has no trouble raising upwards of $40,000 for the program every year. Tangible traces of that money are everywhere, from the new $30,000 scoreboard in left field to the astro turf hitting cages right behind it.

At the nearby Vienna Inn, you can find Madison paraphernalia scattered on the walls here and there. A look into owner Marty Volk’s office reveals a framed Madison jersey signed by every player of the 2002 squad, its No. 29 signifying the perfect record still unmatched by any baseball team in state history. Volk’s response to requests for other baseball jerseys is always the same.

“I’ll entertain the idea,” he said, “but until you go undefeated it’s not going up.”

Back to the field

At 2:40 p.m. a lone figure comes running down the right field line, lugging bats and bags alongside the empty field toward the empty dugout. Other players trickle gradually behind him, all of them wearing neatly tucked black T­-shirts that read “Win the Day!!” on the back.

The big man in the red sweat shirt arrives on the scene at 3:05 to find his players and coaches already in the middle of sprinting drills to first base. It’s business as usual for the well­-oiled machine that practically runs itself.

Nine minutes later Gjormand’s players circle around him for a 10­-minute talk he’s done so many times before, one that never gets old.

“I always say when I lose my passion for building great young men and building winners, then it’s time to get out,” he would say later. “I still feel like I’m 35 years old. I feel like I’ve only been doing this for five years.”

Gjormand pulls a mangled piece of paper out of his back pocket. It’s the rough sketch of a Picasso about to be brought to life.

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