WOODHAVEN, Mich. – Most baseball players who find themselves staring down Ryan Szczepaniak from home plate usually don’t walk away very happy.

Everyone except Jesse Giraud.

Szczepaniak is the ace for the Woodhaven High School baseball team and Giraud is his catcher. Giraud has watched the senior right-hander strike out 61 of 89 batters faced this season, meaning 68.5 percent of the batters Szczepaniak faces end up shaking their heads while walking back to the dugout.

“It’s just like mesmerizing,” Giraud said. “He’s going in there and he’s putting his work in. It’s really noticeable and it feeds off onto the other kids. He’s just a great teammate to have.”

Szczepaniak (pronounced: Shuh-pain-yack) is considered one of the top senior prospects in the state of Michigan this year and he is signed to play baseball at Michigan State. So far this season, he is 4-0 on the mound in five appearances with a 0.28 ERA. He has struck out at least 15 batters in a game on three separate occasions this season, including a season-high 17 strikeouts in a 2-0 no-hitter win over Taylor.

Szczepaniak earned one of his victories by coming in the seventh inning to strikeout the side against Detroit Catholic Central to help lift Woodhaven to a 13-10 win. He also pitched four innings of relief in Woodhaven’s 4-3 loss to Allen Park, striking out 11 of the 14 batters he faced while giving up no earned runs.

“He’s definitely on a pace that we haven’t seen here in a while,” said Woodhaven coach Corey Farner.

Two years ago, Woodhaven had the 2019 Mr. Baseball winner in left-handed ace Colin Czajkowski. He struck out 123 batters in 66 innings that season before moving on to enroll at Michigan and eventually transfer to Wabash Valley, a national powerhouse in the junior college landscape.

Szczepaniak’s 61 strikeouts so far this season are almost exactly half of Czajkowski’s 2019 total and it has taken him only 25 innings to get there. In fact, Szczepaniak has exactly matched his sophomore year strikeout total, although it took him 54.1 innings to reach that number back in 2019.

“He’s on a pace right now where he’s going to strikeout a lot more than that if he continues the way that he’s going,” Farner said. “Like I’ve said, he goes in there with a purpose every single pitch. He’s not wasting anything. He’s challenging hitters. When you do that, you can rack up some pretty high strikeout totals.”

Szczepaniak was Woodhaven’s No. 2 starter under Czajkowski two years ago and he has done his best to carry along the Mr. Baseball mentality.

“The goal is kind of just go on the mound and get outs and do the job for the team,” Szczepaniak said. “It’s special to be able to go out there and strike people out, but like I’ve said, I’m just trying to go out there and get outs.”

Whether or not Szczepaniak can keep the Mr. Baseball award at Woodhaven, he is not too worried about that. Instead, he’s just glad to be playing with his teammates and performing well once again after the 2020 season was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re all just happy to be playing baseball and all of the guys were eager to get back,” Szczepaniak said. “We have a few guys on our team that didn’t play summer baseball, so a lot people actually missed out on a full year, so that was huge. It’s just great to have the team back and everyone wearing that gray and purple.”

RISING UP

Szczepaniak has shown flashes of greatness and next-level potential since joining the Woodhaven varsity roster as a freshman. However, his rise to becoming an elite prospect has been rather sudden and impressive.

With top-end, in-game velocity at 94 miles per hour, Szczepaniak has improved leaps and bounds in the last five months or so. Last around the same time, Szczepaniak said his fastball was at 85-88 mph. Able to play some summer ball last year, he increased the speed to 87-89 mph.

The increase in speed did not just happen on its own. Instead, Szczepaniak spent as much time with weights as he could during the extra free time he was give during the pandemic.

“Just getting in the weight room a lot during the quarantine and stuff, being able to still some different things,” Szczepaniak said. “I do some of the Driveline program – the weighted baseballs – I love doing that kind of stuff. Just kind of working on my nutrition and make sure I’m eating properly and just maintaining a daily throwing schedule.”

Despite the very high expectations Szczepaniak carried into this season, Farner did not quite expect his ace to reach the level of velocity he has.

“Did I think he was going to top 94 as a senior? No,” Farner said. “I kind of thought … when he hit that number the first time, I was like, ‘Wow.’ Did I think he was going to be a low 90s guy? Yeah, when he started to grow and fill out a little a bit because it’s a maturation process … He’s always been a really good ball player, really smart in how to pick his pitches.”

Aside from his fastball, Szczepaniak brings a well-round arsenal of pitches to the mound. He has a four-seem fastball, two-seam fastball, curveball, slider, changeup and an occasional splitter.

Szczepaniak is especially happy with the development of his slider.

“It was kind of just the pitch I would throw, and it was really loopy,” Szczepaniak said. “During quarantine was when I really tried to develop that pitch and throw it as hard as I can. I’m starting to see velocity jump up and the bite in it is jumping too.”

As a freshman, he was more needed for a defensive role in the field. As a sophomore, he pitched behind an ace and had a great defense and offense supporting him. This year, Szczepaniak’s role has completely changed to being someone who is expected to overpower batters.

Thanks to a more aggressive approach to the mound, Szczepaniak is living up to his new role

“For me, it’s just been throwing with intent,” Szczepaniak said. “I think over the last couple of years with all my pitches, I would throw them, but I wouldn’t throw them hard. That was causing me to miss in some spots and have some mechanical flaws. Using the Driveline equipment has really taught me to throw the ball with intent. When I do that, that’s when I get the most movement on all my pitches and I’m usually more consistent that way.”

Woodhaven senior pitcher Ryan Szczepaniak

Woodhaven ace and future Michigan State pitcher Ryan Szczepaniak poses for a photo with teammate Jesse Giraud.Jared Purcell | japurcell@mlive.com

BASEBALL BLUE BLOOD

When Szczepaniak was a freshman in 2018, Woodhaven made its first Division 1 state championship appearance in program history. Although the Warriors fell short in the title game against Grosse Pointe South, Szczepaniak still cherished the season for many reasons, especially because he played alongside his older brother, Drew Szczepaniak, who was Woodhaven’s ace that season.

With a grandfather who is a Hall of Fame baseball coach and an uncle who was drafted by the Mariners out of Riverview High School, Szczepaniak was born to play baseball.

“Growing up, baseball was the thing,” Szczepaniak said. “Like I said, watching my brothers play baseball, they kind of taught me a bunch of different things. When I got to high school, it was just baseball, baseball, baseball.”

Luckily for Szczepaniak, his time at Woodhaven has coincided with the program’s best years. Along with the runner-up finish in 2018, it also marked the first time Woodhaven ever won a district title. In 2019, Woodhaven won another district title but fell short in the region finals to eventual champion Portage Northern. This season, Woodhaven is currently 14-4 and ranked No. 3 in Division 1.

According to Farner, he could not be happier with the way Szczepaniak is leading the Warriors this spring.

“His everyday work ethic is what leads our pitching staff to put their work in,” Farner said. “It makes everyone strive for a little bit of excellence on their own part so that when they get into a game, they’re going to be ready both physically and mentally. Anytime you can run a guy out there that has the stuff Ryan has, it’s a blessing and it’s really fun to watch. You don’t really get to see it too often at the high school level on a daily basis and we get to see it at least once a week when he goes in there and pitches. It’s really been a blessing for us. It helps our defense out, it helps our offense out and it really helps our pitchers to see that.”

Since he opened his high school career with a trip to the state championship, Szczepaniak is hoping to bookend his career with another one in hopes of completing the job. To make it extra special, the state championships are held at Michigan State’s McLane Baseball Stadium, which is where Szczepaniak will be playing next year.

“When I went there my freshman year, it was definitely really cool just to be around that atmosphere and see all the facilities and stuff,” Szczepaniak said. “Now, to think that I’m actually going there, it’s kind of crazy and kind of surreal to think that I could potentially be there toward the end of the season.”

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