After two decades in the dugout, Canton Modified Baseball Coach Mark Mende was celebrated by current and former players, parents, and colleagues Sunday evening at Ike Noble fields.
Mende, who began his tenure with Canton’s program in 2006, finished his career with an undefeated season in 2022, going 12-0 with what he declared was the most impressive team he has coached, and not just on the diamond.
Mende said while the on-field accomplishments were a delight, it was the supportive and hard-working nature of his players that made his final season memorable.
“Going undefeated was amazing, but for me that was only one piece of it,” Mende told his players Sunday evening. “This was easily the best group of well-rounded young men that I have ever coached.”
Still, the modified baseball team’s achievements this season are noteworthy. While posting their perfect record, the Bears averaged 16 runs per game. The team allowed just 22 runs against over the entire campaign, averaging less than two runs against per game.
Canton Central School Athletic Director Bill Porter spoke to the crowd at Ike Noble Fields, characterizing Mende as someone who works hard for others. Porter said it has been a pleasure to work with Mende.
“He has been advocating for our program behind the scenes, year after year, 17 years of just being there for our guys,” Porter said. “If I didn’t have people like Coach Mende who takes the bull by the horns and does things himself, my job could be very, very difficult. People like him make it very easy.”
Mende focused many of his words Sunday night on others, highlighting the support he received. Mende credits his wife, Sue, with making it possible for him to coach while raising their two sons.
He also thanked his various supervisors at St. Lawrence University for allowing him the flexibility to coach, and named several parents of current and former players who have made a profound impact on the program throughout the years, including Shelly and Dan Roiger, Bob Ahlfeld, Shelly Pike, Wendy and Aaron Todd, David Zuhlsdorf, Jim Franklin, and Miranda Schryver.
In particular, Mende took time to recognize the contributions of assistant coaches. He spoke first of the late Michael Levato, who was by Mende’s side for 11 seasons. Mende said it took guidance from Levato for him to adjust to the baseball atmosphere of Canton after moving to the area from Buffalo, where baseball was of paramount athletic importance.
“I quickly realized that was not the case in the North Country. Baseball was not the No. 1 sport. And I had a hard time with that early on. When I had Mike start working with me, he helped me realize what was really important,” he said. “He really made me a better coach because I realized there was more to it than what happens on the field.”
In his final season, Mende enlisted the help of a former player, Francesco Palumbo, in guiding the team to its perfect record. Palumbo’s fresh perspective and expertise in training regimens was valuable to the team’s success, as was the example he set for the players.
“Francesco has been an amazing role model for these guys,” Mende said. “I guarantee you in the not-too-distant future, when we start thinking about the most successful alumni who have come out of Canton Central, his name is going to be at the top of that list. He is going places and we should all be very proud of him.”
While Canton’s baseball program has struggled in the past, Mende highlighted the recent and consistent success. Mende had just one winning season prior to 2017, but has secured a winning record in each season since. In those five straight winning seasons, Mende recorded 41 of his 74 career wins.
Finally, Mende thanked the roughly 200 players he has coached in his career. He said many of the most profound memories he has from his two decades coaching will be the long bus rides, dugout talks and joking around with the team. The appreciation he feels from the players for allowing him into their lives is what sticks with him most.
“One of my favorite things is running into former players around town, and them calling me coach even after all these years,” Mende said in closing. “I have been husband and father, but after that my favorite title is coach.”