The Catholic League's smallest school is making pretty big headlines

Austin Catholic High School students participate in commencement exercises at St. Clare of Montefalco Parish in Grosse Pointe Park in this 2015 file photo. Since the newest Catholic school in the Archdiocese of Detroit opened in 2011, Austin's enrollment and athletic programs have grown quickly. (Mike Stechschulte | Detroit Catholic)

It seems that most of the time the big schools in the Catholic League get the headlines. What about the smallest school? That would be Austin Catholic High School, with an enrollment of only 84 students.

Maybe, you’re thinking: Wait a minute. Didn’t Austin High School close years ago? Yes, the one located on Detroit’s far east side bordering the Grosse Pointes did. Guided by the teachings of the Augustinian order, the school had opened in 1952. Its home parish was St. Clare of Montefalco. Declining enrollment and the changing social structure in the city of Detroit forced its closing in 1978. Some 3,212 students had graduated from Austin.

If you’re a sports fan, your mind almost immediately associates Austin with the name of Dave DeBusschere, one of the all-time great athletes and gentlemen in the Catholic League, in the state of Michigan, and beyond to Major League Baseball and professional basketball.

He led Austin against Benton Harbor for the state basketball championship in 1958. He was a high school All-State, an All American at the University of Detroit, and an All Star in the NBA. He pitched two years for the Chicago White Sox while playing basketball with the Detroit Pistons.

The “new” Austin Catholic High School — still guided by the teachings of the Augustinian order — is maybe 45 minutes north of the “old” Austin on 23 Mile Road a bit west of Gratiot Avenue in Chesterfield Township.

Austin Catholic High School in Chesterfield Township is seen in this aerial photo. (Courtesy of Lea Anna Brunsman)

Up to nearly three years ago, the school, which opened with just seven students in the fall of 2011, was situated about four miles further north on 26 Mile Road in a former elementary building leased from the New Haven school district.

Austin made big headlines in the summer of 2016 with the purchase of its permanent home, the vacant Chesterfield Elementary School, from the L’Anse Creuse district, for $3.175 million.

That fall, staff and students moved into the spacious 54,000-square-foot building that has enough room to hold four times the current enrollment.

There’s plenty of room on the 14-acre campus for growth, too. Those plans were the subject of another big headline in March a year ago.

The school's board of directors announced a $6.5 million campaign for a new gym, an enlarged chapel, upgraded science labs, softball and soccer fields, and tennis courts.

What really captured the public’s attention was the naming of the gymnasium the Dave DeBusschere Center for Athletics. Along with a full competition-size court, it will feature multipurpose fitness rooms, a weight room and training area, locker rooms, offices for coaches and staff, and space for gatherings and special events.

Construction is projected to begin sometime this year.

This is all welcome news for Jim Baker, athletic director and assistant principal. Austin offers six boys varsity sports and seven varsity and one junior varsity for the girls.

The Crusaders don’t enjoy a home-field advantage. All home games are played away. For example, basketball at a middle school in New Haven, volleyball in Romeo, soccer at St. Francis of Assisi-St. Maximilian Kolbe Church in Ray Township, whose pastor, Fr. Christopher Talbot, is chairman of the board of directors.

“Some 80 percent of our athletic budget goes to rent facilities,” Baker says.

Austin Catholic High School offers six varsity sports programs for boys and seven for girls, plus one junior varsity girls team. (Detroit Catholic file photo)

Small enrollment means small rosters. “The kids love competing and participating,” Bakers says. Most athletes play two or three sports. “It’s beyond wins and losses. It’s an opportunity to play where in a larger school many of them probably wouldn’t.”

The Crusaders athletes are gradually making their own headlines.

The girls basketball team went 15-4 last year and was eliminated by just two points in the opening round of the state tournament. As of this writing, the girls are 5-3 overall but lead the CHSL Intersectional Division with a 3-0 record, which, if they maintain the pace, would qualify for a spot in the CHSL C-D Division playoffs next month.

Adrian and Manchester University in Indiana have shown interest in senior forward Amanda Warren, who has been playing basketball since early elementary school, but her preference will be volleyball in college.

Senior Benjamin Brown has committed his track and cross country talents to Brescia University, a Catholic university affiliated with the Ursuline Sisters in Owensboro, Ky.

Another senior, Christopher Shorkey, will be attending The Citadel in the fall.

His sister, sophomore Carmela Shorkey, was one of four Austin runners who qualified for the state cross country tournament last fall. She finished 17th among all sophomores in the race.

Both of them finished fifth in the CHSL Division 3-4 cross country championship for their respective boys and girls squads. The boys team placed third.

Baker, a 2000 alum of Warren De La Salle, is in his second year as athletic director, succeeding Mike Miller, to whom he gives all the credit for “laying the foundation” of Austin’s sports program. Miller is dealing with pancreatic cancer.

“The same day he had chemo,” Baker says, “he showed up at a game we were playing against Cardinal Mooney. He’s our lifeline.”

Contact Don Horkey at [email protected].