IHSBCA All-Star catcher Jones of Carroll Chargers a product of his baseball upbringing

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Hayden Jones has already been in Starkville, Miss., for a couple weeks, getting acclimated to classes and baseball at Mississippi State University.

The lefty-swinging catcher and 2018 Fort Wayne Carroll High School graduate will take a break this weekend when he participates in the 44th annual Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association North/South All-Star Series at Four Winds Field in downtown South Bend.

Hayden, a 6-foot, 200-pounder, will be on the North squad and representing not only the Carroll Chargers but one of the state’s famous baseball families.

One of the founding members of the IHSBCA was Hayden’s grandfather, Bill Jones. A former head coach at DeKalb High School in Waterloo, Ind., and Canterbury School in Fort Wayne, Ind., the elder Jones served for decades as the association’s secretary-treasurer and then acted as executive director.

Bill Jones coached DeKalb to an IHSAA state championship in 1980 and was added to the IHSBCA Hall of Fame in 1982. His teams won 751 games. Jones died in 2015.

One of Bill and Mildred Jones’ sons — Ken Jones — was a catcher at DeKalb, where he graduated in 1990. He redshirted his freshman year at Western Michigan University, where he played four seasons and was an all-conference performer and academic All-American. He was selected in the 33rd round of the 1995 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the San Diego Padres and played that summer in the minors. Ken was an assistant coach at Ball State University and Western Michigan and is now the senior lead instructor at the World Baseball Academy in Fort Wayne.

Ken and Jennifer Jones’ only child is Hayden.

Did his grandpa and father have an impact on his baseball career?

“Big time,” says Hayden. “Dad and Grandpa pushed me to the best of my ability. They taught me about being a leader on the field and hustling all the time. Even if it’s a grounder to second base, you 100 percent down he first base line. They expected that out of me or my cousins.”

Cousin Chris Menzie played at Huntington University. Cousin Tyler Jones is heading into his junior year at the University of Dayton.

Hayden learned something else he considers valuable.

“When a coach stops yelling at you is the time he gives up on you,” says Hayden. “Players nowadays are coddled. They don’t want people to push them like back in the old days.

“When a coach yells at me it’s getting me better.”

During his early arrival at college, he has already been getting pushed.

“They’re on your tail constantly,” says Hayden. “That gets you better in the long run.”

Hayden verbally committed to Mississippi State two summers ago and stuck with that decision through several head coaching changes. When he picked the Bulldogs from among 17 NCAA Division I programs that showed serious interest, John Cohen was the head coach. Since then, the Diamond Dawgs have been led by Andy Cannizaro, Gary Henderson and now former Indiana University coach Chris Lemonis.

Hayden’s father had told him that there is always the potential for coaching changes in college baseball.

“I committed to a good program and a good school,” says Hayden, who is one of 10 Mississippi State recruits to enroll in summer school and plans to major in turf management. “I wasn’t going to de-commit. They made a commitment to me with a scholarship.”

While he played in the Prep Baseball Report Future Games, Hayden did not appear in too many showcase events. With all his dad’s relationships in college baseball, Hayden and Ken picked three apiece and the young catcher went to their camps and had follow-up visits. Most of those made scholarship offers.

“That’s the way we feel it should be done,” says Hayden.

He was about 6 when his father gave Hayden an old set of catching gear, but he spent quite a bit of time as a pitcher and third baseman before getting more reps behind the plate at 12. Ken coached Hayden with the Flippin’ Frogs travel team from age 9 to 17.

“He was always around older guys and seeing a faster pace of play,” says Ken. “He has been getting a little bit of extra instruction along the way.”

Last summer, the Flippin’ Frogs played in the Indiana Summer Collegiate League.

Hayden has taken advantage of his dad’s baseball know-how.

“He’s really pushed me, but it was fun for me,” says Hayden. “I got to see and learn from my dad.”

Hayden, who grew up around Huntertown, Ind., and turned 18 in April, says it’s the family joke that he’s out to prove he’s a better catcher than his father was.

With a “pop” time of 1.72 seconds and a throw clocked at 89 mph, Hayden’s arm turns heads.

“I can keep runners close on the bases,” says Hayden, who’s also adept at receiving pitches, blocking balls in the dirt and handling pitchers.

Hayden considers him as gap hitter who can hit to both the opposite field and pull-side. Ken says his son chose to hit lefty because he watched most of Western Michigan’s lineup hit from that side as a small boy.

“He decided that’s how you’re supposed to do it,” says Ken.

“I can get the ball in play where it needs to be in certain situations,” says Hayden, who hit .545 with 10 home runs and 30 runs batted in as a Class 4A first-team all-stater for a Carroll team coached by Dave Ginder.

“He’s an awesome man,” says Hayden of Ginder. “He pushes you just like my grandpa would. He will make you a better person and a better ballplayer.”

Even after the season and graduation, Hayden and Ginder stay connected through FaceTime. A math teacher, Ginder has been able to help Jones with his Mississippi State homework. “He’s there to support you know matter what.”

Ginder coached Carroll to back-to-back state IHSAA Class 4A titles in 2010 and 2011.

That’s when Hayden was playing with the Frogs while at least two years younger than most of his teammates.

“That team was about development and learning,” says Hayden. “We were not trophy chasers.”

The core of the squad that went all the way through with Hayden ended up in college baseball — Nick Chao (Wabash College), Alec Craig (Danville Area Community College), Parker Noll (Wabash College), Skyler Noll (Indiana Tech) and Thomas Parker (Anderson University).

“The Frogs were like brothers,” says Hayden. “Thomas Parker always helped me like an older brother. If I’d get lazy in the (batting) cage, he’d always make sure I was working as hard as I could.”

Hayden sees advantages and disadvantages to being an only child.

“I’m the focus of our family,” says Hayden. “Mom and dad have always been there to support me on and off the field. Mom went from office job to working from home so she could drive me to practice.

“The disadvantage is I can’t blame anybody else if I get in trouble.”

IHSBCA NORTH/SOUTH ALL-STAR SERIES

(At South Bend)

Friday, July 20

Junior Showcase (Four Winds Field), 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

North practice (Four Winds Field), 1:15 to 3 p.m.

South practice (Four Winds Field), 3 to 4:45 p.m.

Banquet (Great Room at Century Center), 7 p.m. Keynote speaker is Greg Kloosterman (former Elkhart Central High School and Bethel College standout who pitched in the Milwaukee Brewers organization and now runs the Game Changers travel organization in Canonsburg, Pa.). Tickets are $25 for adults and $15 for 10-and-under.

Saturday, July 21

(Four Winds Field)

Pregame with South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg and posthumous tributes to IHSBCA founders and Hall of Famers Jim Reinebold and Ken Schreiber, 11:35 a.m.

First pitch for doubleheader, noon. Admission is $5. Commemorative T-shirts will sell for $10 and $15 apiece depending on size.

Sunday, July 22

First pitch for single wood-bat game, noon. Admission is $5. Commemorative T-shirts will sell for $10 and $15 apiece depending on size.

Note: This year marks the fourth time the series has come to South Bend. It was staged at Clay Park in 1976, Coveleski Stadium (now known at Four Winds Field) in 1989 and Notre Dame in 2008 … The North leads the all-time series 65-61, dating back to 1975.

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Hayden Jones, a 2018 Fort Wayne Carroll High School graduate, is an Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association first-team all-stater and North/South Series All-Star. The catcher is going to Mississippi State University.

 

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New Saint Francis Cougars head baseball coach Butcher committed to making history

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Dustin Butcher wants baseball success for his alma mater.

The new head baseball coach at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, Ind., is committed to making the Cougars into a perennial championship contender — something already achieved by the school’s football and basketball programs.

“To do something special, you have to commit to it,” says Butcher, who takes over the program after the retirement of Greg Roberts. “We’re going to make history here at some point.

“I’m excited. I have a lot of pride in this university.”

Saint Francis is a member of the NAIA-affiliated Crossroads League (along with Bethel College, Goshen College, Grace College, Huntington University, Indiana Wesleyan University, Marian University, Mt. Vernon Nazarene University, Spring Arbor University and Taylor University). The Cougars are seeking their first regular-season or tournament title in baseball.

USF head football coach Kevin Donley is the winningest coach in NAIA history. Men’s basketball Chad LaCross has won over 70 percent of his games with two national runner-up teams. Coach Jason Ridge now leads a women’s basketball program that won a national title in 2014.

Butcher graduated from Heritage High School in Monroeville, Ind., and played baseball and soccer at Saint Francis, completing his undergraduate degree in 2001. He went on to earn a masters in sports and exercise psychology from Ball State University.

During his internship with USF’s soccer teams — men and women — Butcher got a chance to built the mental skill set of athletes.

Butcher played baseball for coach Dean Lehrman at Heritage. His USF coaches were Steve Kovacs and Doug Coate in baseball and Ken Nuber then Mitch Ellisen in soccer.

“I’m thankful,” says Butcher. “Coach Lehrman kind of saved me from myself. He was very honest. I wasn’t on the best path. I wasn’t living up to expectations.”

Butcher says he contributed to Cougars soccer for his willingness to be a grinder.

“I was good in high school, but at the collegiate level I wasn’t good enough,” says Butcher. “But I think I made everybody around me better because I would never stop.

“It made me realize that you need guys like that. I pushed guys in practice. They knew you couldn’t take a day off.”

Butcher’s first assistant college baseball coaching stop came at Marian in Indianapolis on the staff of Kurt Guldner and assistants Kip McWilliams and Toby Rogers.

Jessica Butcher, Dustin’s wife, is a family doctor with Lutheran Health Physicians. She did her residency in Fort Wayne and Dustin coached a season at Saint Francis and then went with head coach McWilliams at Indiana Tech. Butcher returned to Saint Francis to join Roberts in the fall of 2008 and remained until the present.

“I’m appreciative of Coach Guldner giving me my first job,” says Butcher. “Coach Mac is really the one that got me going to the (annual American Baseball Coaches Association national convention). If you love baseball and you’ve never been to an ABCA convention, you need to go. It’s mind-blowing.

“It’s such a cool culture of coaches. It’s a group of guys constantly trying to learn and share information. I love it.”

Butcher is grateful for Roberts, who allowed him to find his own way of implementing his philosophy.

“He allowed us to coach,” says Butcher, who also served alongside Miguel Tucker (who is now on McWilliams’ staff at Indiana Tech). “He gave us full autonomy. He allowed us to fail and succeed on his watch. He was just so good at teaching. He always had an angle that would make you think.

“I owe him a lot.”

As head coach, Butcher will emphasize the grinder mentality

“I want to challenge them to where they hit a wall physically and they have to figure out how to get to the other side,” says Butcher. “You’ve got to find something within yourself.”

To narrow the gap on the competition, Butcher expects his athletes to move some iron.

“I’m a big believer in the weight room — it allows you to compete at a higher level quicker.

“To win at the NAIA level, you see a lot of teams across the country in the World Series or Top 25 with transfers (Division I or junior college). We don’t have the luxury of being able to pluck any JC kid or get every Division I bounce-back. We don’t have the financial capability. To be able to compete, we’ve got to push in the weight room.

“To make history, we need to do more — we need to develop more, we need to take more swings outside of practice time. That’s something I’m going to ask our coaches to do.”

Former Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne player Kristian Gayday has been hired as a USF baseball assistant and a search is one for a second assistant. Gayday, who played for Mastodons and head coach Bobby Pierce, will lead Cougars hitters and help with infielders and outfielders.

Butcher is especially fond of the methods favored by strength and conditioning specialist Eric Cressey. Because they seem to be more in-line with baseball, the coach says his Cougars will front squat and deadlift.

Recruiting at Saint Francis focuses on a 50-mile radius around the school. Anyone from inside that ring can commute. By school policy, those outside that radius must live on campus and that adds to the cost.

The 2019 online roster includes 15 players from Allen or surrounding Indiana counties.

Using resources like FieldLevel and getting athletes to on-campus to experience the atmosphere of home football games, Butcher is wrapping up the 2018-19 recruiting class while also looking for 2019-20 commits.

Travel organizations that have been good to Saint Francis are the Fort Wayne Diamondbacks, Summit City Sluggers and Indiana Chargers.

“Those are three top programs,” says Butcher. “You want to make sure you see them in the summer because they always have kids to recruit.”

He expects his roster to hover between 30 and 40 players, which will take practices and a few scrimmages in the fall and a 55-game schedule in the spring. Some winter workouts will take place at The Diamond Baseball and Softball Academy. All home games will be played on the turf at the ASH Centre in Fort Wayne.

Dustin, the oldest of six children, is the son of Becki Beauchot and Steve Butcher. Dustin’s sisters are Abbi, Emily and Daisy with Sam and Jack (a senior-to-be at Heritage).

Living in Leo, Ind., Dustin and Jessica Butcher have two children — Nolan (9) and Ella (7). Ella was in Miguel Tucker’s wedding. Jessica has been the baby doctor for former USF players.

“That’s why you do it,” says Butcher of the bonds formed through baseball. “It’s a family. That’s hard to get through to coaches.

“I hope they understand it.”

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Alum and long-time assistant coach Dustin Butcher is now the head baseball coach at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, Ind. (Steve Krah Photo)

 

World Baseball Academy teaching values, leadership in Fort Wayne and beyond

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Character values are being taught at a facility on the west side of Fort Wayne, Ind., and baseball is the platform.

Weaving Knowledge, Integrity, Perseverance, Respect, Initiative and Discipline through the four T’s of Tournaments, Team support, Training and Trips, the World Baseball Academy, located at the Academy of Sports & Health (ASH) Centre, 1701 Freeman Street, is working to “develop leaders who positively impact our world.”

A 501 (c) 3 nonprofit organization which is completely self-sustained through fundraisers and grants, the WBA projects that it will serve 5,000 youths through its programs in 2017-18.

“We’re very passionate about helping young people becoming difference makers,” says WBA Chief Executive Officer Caleb Kimmel. “Leadership development is interwoven in everything we do at the World Baseball Academy.

“My personal passion has always been youth development. We help young people recognize their potential and how to meet the needs around themselves. How do we positively serve others? Baseball just happens to be our platform. I’ve found no better outlet than sports.”

This connection helps WBA staffers and volunteers get to know the students and encourage and mentor them.

“We get them to realize that life isn’t all about us,” says Kimmel, a Homestead High School graduate who played baseball at Valparaiso University. “We get to share some life stories with kids.”

The WBA offers training through camps, clinics and personal instruction on a paid and scholarship basis.

“We want to be good at teaching (baseball skills) so we have the credibility to influence,” says Kimmel. “But we don’t grade ourselves at the World Baseball Academy on how many kids are getting college scholarships or playing pro baseball. Those things are happening and that’s great. But we grade ourselves more on how we help other people. We have those ah-ha moments when we serve and give back.

“They take those things that they learn in the game and transfer them into how to be a better dad, a better employee, a better citizen.”

About a fifth of the 5,000 served are in the On Deck initiative for at-risk students, where the WBA partners with agencies like the Boys & Girls Clubs of Fort Wayne to mentor young people and teach them values they can carry throughout their lives.

“It’s been humbling to see the growth and the community support,” says Kimmel. “If this was just about baseball, this project would not be successful. Community, foundation and business leaders are really seeing our heart. We want youth to be difference makers and better people.

The complex has three outdoor fields with artificial turf (and soon lights) and plenty of room for indoor training. Two fields are high school/college and the other youth/high school. There are adjustable baselines and mobile mounds that can be changed based on the level.

This year, Hoosier Classic Summer Baseball Tournaments held at the ASH Centre with some spillover to area college and high school fields will draw 220 teams (up from 150 in 2017).

At this time of the year, the idea is for local usage during the week and tournaments on the weekends.

The fields are also used in the spring by college and high school programs.

Caleb Kimmel says $3.55 million has been raised for Phase I of a $3.8 million project, which includes the new fields and earthwork for Phase II (which includes adaptive fields and partnerships with the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation and AWS Foundation). Seventeen acres were gutted last April.

Last year, On Deck students gained fulfillment by working with adaptive students.

“Ultimately we’re giving kids the opportunity to serve others,” says Kimmel. “They realize that it’s fun to give back and to serve.”

While the WBA has no teams of its own, many organizations use the facility.

“We are the Switzerland of Baseball in Fort Wayne,” says WBA Marketing Director Kristen Kimmel.

Established on the property in 2005, the WBA began taking its message of servant leadership through baseball to international destinations in 2006. With WBA students leading the way, the organization has served in Bulgaria, Cambodia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Kenya, Lithuania and Mexico. Players from Bulgaria have even visited Fort Wayne.

Besides the Kimmels, the WBA staff includes Director of Operations Andy McManama, Tournament Director Zach Huttie, Senior Lead Baseball Instructor Ken Jones, Director of Development Linda Buskirk, Scholarship Instructor Tim Petersen, Scholarship Director Melinda Petersen and Outdoor Campus Maintenance man Bud Wolf plus several interns. These are students who get a chance to experience sports management and working on their leadership skills.

The ASH Centre is also home to Optimum Performance Sports, a training facility affiliated with Lutheran Hospital among others.

The Fort Wayne Mad Ants professional basketball team trains and practices at OPS.

State-of-the-art training is offered at Apex Golf Lab.

WBA manages the facility with its outdoor campus and building of about 40,000 square feet.

Caleb Kimmel, who played at Times Corners (now Don Ayres) Little League began helping his father, Brad, run baseball tournaments as a fundraiser for the 1993 Aboit Braves travel team.

Caleb graduated from Homestead in 1999. As a marketing major at Valpo U., his internship was building a small business, running tournaments under the name Between The Lines LLC.

Kimmel’s college coach was Paul Twenge.

“Coach Twenge really had a positive impact on my life,” says Kimmel. “After I dislocated my shoulder my freshman year, I came up to him with tears in my eyes saying I’m ready to quit and I can’t go through this again (after having some injury issues and having to rehab in high school).

“(Twenge) said, ‘I can’t let you quit.’ He had that good balance. He was a Division I coach and they’re on the hook for wins, but he also knew where kids were in life. I appreciated that balance from him.

“I had a mediocre college career, but I enjoyed the experience and struggling through those challenges helped get me to where I am today.”

Keith Potter was the Homestead coach when Kimmel was with the Spartans and later helped him with his tournaments.

“If it wasn’t for Keith I don’t know if these tournaments would have ever survived,” says Kimmel. “He was just so supportive of what we were doing. He’s been a big part of us moving this vision forward.

“I’m very grateful for the coaches I’ve had in my career.”

Around 2008, Between The Lines was dissolved and turned over all programming right to the nonprofit WBA.

“We don’t want to get so focused on dollars and cents that we lose focus on being a community asset for Fort Wayne,” says Kimmel. Just this week, the WBA hosted STEAM (science technology engineering and applied mathematics) camps to spark interest in career paths for On Deck students. “God designed you for a purpose and we can help kids understand that and help them discover those passions.

“The heart of who were are is creating servant leadership opportunities. We see the power in that. Kids see this is what matters in life.”

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The World Baseball Academy is located at 1701 Freeman Street in Fort Wayne, Ind. (WBA Photo)

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The Fort Wayne-based World Baseball Academy takes trips to other countries. (WBA Photo)WORLDBASEBALLACADEMY6

The World Baseball Academy at the ASH Centre sports new turf fields for high school/college and high school/youth are more fields are on the way. (WBA Photo)

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The World Baseball Academy fields at the ASH Centre are home to tournaments as well as local college and high school games. (WBA Photo)

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One of the four T’s at the World Baseball Academy is training. (WBA Photo)

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Mentoring kids and creating future leaders is the vision of  the World Baseball Academy in Fort Wayne, Ind. (WBA Photo)

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The World Baseball Academy brings smiles to the face of Fort Wayne, Ind., kids. (WBA Photo)

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Young people learn how to be mentors and leaders at the Fort Wayne-based World Baseball Academy. (WBA Photo)

Plymouth’s Nixon credits Hall of Fame grandfather, teachers, coaches, parents for pushing him to IHSBCA all-star status

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Bill Nixon is a member of the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

The diamond where Plymouth High School plays baseball is called Bill Nixon Field.

But the former Pilgrims head coach who won 714 games at PHS from 1970-99 did not talk much about the sport with Benji Nixon when his grandson was a young boy.

“He told me to take care of my classes and grades,” says Benji Nixon. “He knew I had passion to be the best I could in baseball. He wanted to make sure everything else in my life was important to me.”

The young Nixon was a consistent honor-roll student through his elementary school years.

When Benji reached high school, grandpa began dishing out more baseball advice.

“We’d talk about my swing or how to get rid of the ball better (as a middle infielder),” says Benji. “It was a bunch of tips that helped me grow to be a successful player.”

Benji started at shortstop in every one of his team’s games and was good enough on the diamond to be receive honorable mention on the IHSBCA Class 4A all-state team.

He was also chosen for the North squad in the 2018 IHSBCA All-State Series, which is this weekend at Four Winds Field in South Bend (practices and banquet Friday, July 20, noon doubleheader Saturday, July 21, and noon wood-bat game Sunday, July 22).

“It’s a great way to cap everything off at Plymouth and my high school career,” says Benji, who plans to study business at Indiana University and is undecided about trying to walk on for the Hoosiers. “When I talked with my grandfather about it on the phone, it one of my better moments in 18 years on earth.”

Bill Nixon is planning to travel up from Florida to take part in the festivities.

Taking that early academic advice into high school, Benji graduated with a grade-point average around 3.5 and took six Advanced Placement classes his last two years.

“I had relationships with all my teachers,” says Benji. A couple that he maintains contact with are Curtis Nordmann, John Johnson and Scott Michel.

A three-sport athlete, Benji is grateful for his three head coaches — John Barron in football, Ryan Bales in basketball and Ryan Wolfe in baseball — for different reasons.

“Coach Barron wants us to be more than just a football player,” says Benji, a receiver, running back and defensive back on the gridiron. “He wants us to be be active students and (attend other extracurricular events).

“What I’m going to miss most (about football) is my teammates. We’ve created bonds we’ll have the rest of our lives I would hope.”

The 5-foot-10 Nixon played guard for the Pilgrims and credits his coach with helping him control his emotions.

“I was a hot head my freshman year,” says Benji. “Coach Bales did a nice job my last two years of highs school making sure I could stay calm during tough situations.

“I learned how to keep my cool.”

Wolfe encouraged his baseball players to be good students and good citizens, getting involved with the community.

“He’s all about giving back,” says Benji of Wolfe. “Life is about more than just sports.

“It’s about being there for other people.”

The team did volunteer work multiple times this past year.

Rusty and Maggie Nixon have five sons — Jake Kelly, Elijah Nixon, Nate Nixon, Benji Nixon and Zephan Nixon. All played baseball at Plymouth. Zephan is heading into his junior year at PHS.

Rusty Nixon works for WTCA-AM 1050 radio and the Plymouth Pilots News newspaper.

Maggie Nixon  is the managing editor at The Post & Mail in Columbia City.

Benji describes his relationship with his parents.

“(My father) knew I was a lot like him,” says Benji. “He knew when I was frustrated. He let me handle my own problems, which helped me a lot as a person.

“My mom was my support system. She was always there for me. She encouraged me after bad games and kept me going.”

IHSBCA NORTH/SOUTH ALL-STAR SERIES

(At South Bend)

Friday, July 20

Junior Showcase (Four Winds Field), 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

North practice (Four Winds Field), 1:15 to 3 p.m.

South practice (Four Winds Field), 3 to 4:45 p.m.

Banquet (Great Room at Century Center), 7 p.m. Keynote speaker is Greg Kloosterman (former Elkhart Central High School and Bethel College standout who pitched in the Milwaukee Brewers organization and now runs the Game Changers travel organization in Canonsburg, Pa.). Tickets are $25 for adults and $15 for 10-and-under.

Saturday, July 21

(Four Winds Field)

Pregame with South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg and posthumous tributes to IHSBCA founders and Hall of Famers Jim Reinebold and Ken Schreiber, 11:35 a.m.

First pitch for doubleheader, noon. Admission is $5. Commemorative T-shirts will sell for $10 and $15 apiece depending on size.

Sunday, July 22

First pitch for single wood-bat game, noon. Admission is $5. Commemorative T-shirts will sell for $10 and $15 apiece depending on size.

Note: This year marks the fourth time the series has come to South Bend. It was staged at Clay Park in 1976, Coveleski Stadium (now known at Four Winds Field) in 1989 and Notre Dame in 2008 … The North leads the all-time series 65-61, dating back to 1975.

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Benji Nixon takes time during the Plymouth (Ind.) High School prom to stop by Bill Nixon Field for some baseball fun. Nixon was chosen to participate in the 2018 Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association North/South All-Star Series July 20-22 in South Bend. BENJINIXON1

Benji Nixon, a 2018 Plymouth (Ind.) High School graduate, was chosen to participate in the 2018 Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association North/South All-Star Series July 20-22 in South Bend. Grandfather Bill Nixon is an IHSBCA Hall of Famer.

 

Indiana native Wagner enjoying the big league life in first season behind mic for Blue Jays

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Ben Wagner is basking in the glow of his first full-time Major League Baseball escapades.

After a decade as play-by-play announcer for the Triple-A Buffalo (N.Y.) Bisons, Wagner got the call to the big leagues in March when the Toronto Blue Jays named the Indiana native as their radio voice. Jerry Howarth retired after holding the job for 36 years.

“I still roll out of bed everyday and double-check that this is my life,” says Wagner, who has already witnessed plenty of memorable on-field highlights and taken in MLB cities across the continent. He has had the pleasure of exploring Independence Hall in Philadelphia, eating crabs in Baltimore and signing the inside of the Green Monster in Boston. “I felt like a tourist when we were in Philly. You’ve got to take advantage of those things.”

The culture is different in the big leagues.

“These are higher-caliber athletes,” says Wagner. “But you conduct yourself professionally, so not much has changed there.

“But everything else has.”

In the International League, teams take buses from city to city — often in the wee hours — and try to get as many home games on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays as possible.

“It boils down to dollars and cents,” says Wagner. “At the minor league level, it’s a math problem.”

In the bigs, clubs take charter flights. The bus pulls right up to the jet and away they go!

“It was an oh-wow moment when I first stepped on that charger plane,” says Wagner, a graduate of Fairfield Junior/Senior High School, near Goshen, Ind., and Indiana State University. “There’s nothing like sport’s teams charter travel. Every little thing is taken care of by people behind the scenes. It’s really an incredible experience.”

MLB cities are bigger. The hotels are of the 5-star variety.

“We’re going to places that people make destinations,” says Wagner. “And this is my everyday life.”

During his 10 years in the bus leagues, Wagner welcomed the all-star break as a chance to heal and re-boot.

“By this time in the season, my body torn up, twisted and sore and I’m not playing everyday,” says Wagner, who is 95 games into the 162-game 2018 schedule. “My body feels so much better now because the travel has improved. We are experiencing the best travel out there.

‘The biggest change to my life is the ease of travel. They make it as convenient they can for players, coaches and support staff, including the broadcasters.

When the hotel is within walking distance of the ballpark, it gives Wagner a chance to soak in the flavor of the city.

“I don’t like to breathe too much hotel air so I get out and find a good coffee house,” says Wagner.

There, he can get a cup of joe and then do some exploring.”

He is living in the center of Toronto and can walk to Rogers Centre in 10 to 15 minutes so he has found his favorites spots along the route. Ben and wife Megan live in Lancaster, N.Y. — about a 25-minute drive to Coca-Cola Field in Buffalo.

Depending on whether the opponent that night has already appeared on the Jays schedule, early afternoon on the first day of a series is devoted to prep and research.

Home or away, Wagner get to the park between 2 or 3 p.m. (for a 7 p.m. game).

“I anxiously await lineups being posted,” says Wagner. “Then I plug in storylines on the scorecard.”

There are many media agencies cranking out individual and team trends and Wagner sorts through the mound of information to find precious nuggets.

“Sometimes it’s totally irrelevant,” says Wagner. “But it’s nice to have those resources.”

Wagner spends up to 45 minutes chatting with players and coaches in the clubhouse and then there’s the daily briefing with Toronto manager John Gibbons three hours before first pitch.

After that, Wagner often networks to get the latest news about the other team and baseball in general.

“As much as I try to keep my finger on the pulse of the Blue Jays, having a balanced broadcast is important,” says Wagner. “Consumers have changed. With all the online broadcasting and satellite services, I might not only being talking to Blue Jays fans or Canadians.

“I’m not doing my job if I’m leaving out the other half of the story.”

With an hour before game time, Wagner must be in the “air chair” to record introductions. Then, he grabs a cup of coffee or a bite to eat and is ready to share what he sees with the listeners on SportsNet 590 and the Blue Jays radio affiliates.

On the road, it’s a two-man booth with Wagner and Mike Wilner conversing and trading off the play-by-play innings.

Veteran broadcaster and Toronto resident Dan Shulman works 80 home games — 50 on TV and 30 selected radio dates. When that happens, Wagner and Schulman divide the play-by-play and Wilner also contributes to the broadcast. Jay Siddall is a radio analyst.

Wagner says the difference between the two- and three-man booth is the cadence. With the Bisons, his sidekick was Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer Duke McGuire.

“Duke was an incredible resource and he was fun to be with,” says Wagner. “Our broadcast was major league quality — home or on the road.”

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As a first-year full-time radio play-by-play announcer for the Toronto Blue Jays, Ben Wagner has gotten to enjoy crabs in Baltimore. (Photo Courtesy of Ben Wagner)

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On a recent trip to historic Fenway Park in Boston,  Toronto Blue Jays radio voice Ben Wagner got to sign the inside of the Green Monster. (Photo Courtesy of Ben Wagner)

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Ben Wagner, a graduate of Fairfield Junior/Senior High School near Goshen, Ind., and Indiana State University is in first full season as a radio play-by-play announcer for the Toronto Blue Jays. Here he is on the field at Rogers Centre doing some television work. (Photo Courtesy of Ben Wagner)

Ready emphasizes academics, development as UIndy head baseball coach

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Al Ready has been part of University of Indianapolis baseball for a long time.

Ready played for the Greyhounds in 2000 and 2001 and after two-year playing stint in professional baseball with the London (Ont.) Werewolves and Evansville (Ind.) Otters and and two years as head coach at Sauk Valley Community College, he joined the coaching staff of veteran UIndy coach Gary Vaught.

When Vaught retired at the end of the 2018 season (he was 808-533-2 in 24 seasons at UIndy and 975-666-2 in 29 campaigns overall), Ready was elevated from associate head coach to Greyhounds head coach.

“If Coach Vaught had wanted to continue to coach, I would have stood by him every step of the way,” says Ready, who turns 41 on Aug. 5. “He’s just a phenomenal person. He treated me like his own son over the years. He’s done a lot for me and my family. I’m going to miss him.”

Ready launches into his new duties with a coaching staff featuring pitching coach Landon Hutchison plus Trevor Forde, Scott Lawley and graduate assistants Storm Joop and Adam Vasil. All but Hutchison are former UIndy players.

The Greyhounds were 31-23 overall and 10-14 in the Great Lakes Valley Conference in 2018.

Looking far and wide, Ready and his staff are currently recruiting a few players to fill out the 2018-19 signing class while also working on 2019-20.

“I look for very strong academic student-athletes,” says Ready. “You can really stretch your dollars our if you are recruiting student-athletes who are able to receive both academic and athletic aid.”

At UIndy, academics is No. 1.

“I hope all of our players make it to the big leagues and make a million dollars,” says Ready. “But their overall quality of life is going to be determined by their degree and not by their baseball career.

“You’re coming in here to get a degree from the University of Indianapolis. You’re not coming here because we are giving you an opportunity to play baseball.

“If we don’t have the degree you’re looking for, I’ll tell them not to come here.”

UIndy offers the full amount of athletic scholarships allowed for NCAA Division II baseball — nine (Division I is 11.7). UIndy is one of four D-II programs in Indiana. University of Southern Indiana, Purdue University Northwest and Oakland City University are the others.

Ready says the Greyhounds typically dress about 35 at home and 28 on the road.

“The full-ride in baseball is kind of non-existent if you’re just talking in terms of just athletic dollars,” says Ready, who notes that players that can meet the stacking criteria of the NCAA coming out of high school can accumulate quite a bit of academic, athletic and aid money.

Pitchers are a priority on UIndy’s wish list.

“You’re only as good as the guy you roll out there on the mound,” says Ready. “We like arms. We’re only as good as the guy we’re going to be pitching that particular day.”

Offensive players are improved through training.

“We do a really, really good job of developing our offense,” says Ready. “Development, especially at the Division II level, is vital to your survival.

“You don’t necessarily get the kind of kids it takes to win a national championship at the Division II level right out of high school.”

The Greyhounds roster is typically a mix.

“How do we get them?,” says Ready. “Either right out of high school, bounce-backs from Division I schools or transfers from junior colleges.”

NCAA Division II allows a 45-day window in the fall for team practices. The limit is 15 hours per week.

“Our practices in the fall are really systematic,” says Ready. “We teach them our bunt coverages, first-and-third plays, pick-off plays, double cuts and things like that.

Outside of that 45-day window, D-II teams get two hours a week of skill development with individual and small-group workouts.

“That’s the stage were guys will really start to get better,” says Ready, whose athletes play games at Greyhound Park and train in the 95,000-square foot Athletics & Recreation Center (The ARC was the NFC practice site for the 2012 Super Bowl) as well as have access to the turf of Key Stadium (football).

With the help of Will Carroll, UIndy is part of a study by Motus Baseball to track the biomechanics of baseball players.

“I really like the Motus technology,” says Ready. “It provides certain metrics that you just can’t see when you’re just watching a kid pitch. You can keep track of the number of pitches a kid throws. But it’s almost impossible to keep track of the number of throws that the kid makes over a certain period of time whether that’s a day, a week or whatever.

“Motus has allowed us to get a good grasp on how much throwing each player is actually doing. The first six weeks of throwing kind of establishes the baseline for each player. It’s really nice to have.”

The sensors can track workload and the amount of stress on the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL).

“Of course, Tommy John surgery is considered an epidemic in baseball,” says Ready. “Those are important numbers to know when you’re trying to figure out how to train each kid.”

Ready notes that training over the years has really shifted toward customization.

“When I got started in the early 2000’s, it was more of a ‘cookie-cutter’ type of approach,” says Ready. “We were teaching each player the same thing. But what’s right for this player may not necessarily be right for the guy beside him.”

Last season, the technology helped diagnose an issue with a UIndy starting pitcher.

While not decreasing in velocity after a few innings, Motus data indicated that the player was dropping his arm slot and losing some control. The pitcher was switched to a relief role and he excelled.

Knowing the numbers can determine training methods.

“A weighted ball will work to increase velocity but it also increases the risk of getting hurt,” says Ready. “Wouldn’t you like to know which of your guys have more stress on their UCL when they throw? Those are the guys who probably shouldn’t be working with weighted balls — at least as much as some of the other guys.”

On the offensive side of things, Ready likes to use Motus sensors when a hitter is going really well.

“You want to know what the swing length, attack angle, hand speed, and rotational speed is,” says Ready. “When the player’s scuffling a little bit, you can put the sensor back on him and see if there’s any difference.”

Ready, a London, Ont., native, attended Sir Frederick Banting Secondary School and learned much about the diamond at the National Baseball Institute of Canada in Vancouver, B.C. After a few years there, he played two seasons at Sauk Valley in Dixon, Ill., then transferred to UIndy.

The switch-hitting catcher batted .352 with 18 home runs and 74 runs batted in as he earned Second-Team All-American honors and UIndy (43-23) placed third in the 2000 NCAA Division II World Series.

In 2001, Ready was a Verizon First-Team Academic All-American while helping the Greyhounds to a school-record 51 wins and fourth straight NCAA D-II regional berth. He still holds the school records for most walks in a career (109) and a season (55 in 2000).

Ready graduated from UIndy in 2001 with a 3.44 cumulative grade-point average in Computer Information Systems. He posted a 3.74 GPA while earning his Masters of Business Administration from the school in 2008.

Al and Sarah Ready were married in 2003 and have four children — sons Jacob (10) and Camden (8) and twin daughters Alaina and Evelyn (who turn 3 in December). Sarah Ready is a former Sauk Valley multi-sport athlete who got her undergraduate degree in psychology and masters in counseling at Indianapolis in 2001 and 2003. She is now a guidance counselor at Franklin Township Middle School-East.

“To make it all work, you have to have great wife who supports what you do,” says Ready. “To be a college coach, you have to have people in your corner backing you up and helping you out. There’s no question about it.”

Al and younger sister Jennifer are the parents of Ken and Gayle Ready of Ontario.

One of the Ready’s managers at Evansville was Greg Jelks, who played in the majors with the Philadelphia Phillies and also played and coached in Australia. Two Aussies — Daniel Lee and Greg Johnston — have worn the Greyhounds uniform since Ready has been on the UIndy campus.

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Al Ready is now head baseball coach at the University of Indianapolis. The former Greyhounds player had spent several seasons as associate head coach to Gary Vaught, who retired at the end of the 2018 season. (UIndy Photo)

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Gary Vaught (left) was head baseball coach at the University of Indianapolis for 24 seasons and won 808 games. His replacement is Al Ready (right). The former Greyhounds player was an assistant and then associate head coach for several seasons. (UIndy Photo)

 

McCormick teaching baseball, life skills to Speedway Sparkplugs ‘family’

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Speedway (Ind.) High School head baseball coach Marcus McCormick wants his players to pick up the skills to be successful on the diamond.

But that’s not all.

Passing along life skills is very important to the coach and educator.

“It’s our goal to help the young men who come through our program reach whatever goal they’ve set,” says McCormick, who completed his 10th season of leading the Sparkplugs program in 2018. “We try to identify each goal and they try to work to get there.

“We also try to set things in motion so our kids will be great fathers and great husbands.

“The easy stuff is the baseball stuff. That’s pretty easy to teach.”

To be a part of Speedway baseball is to be part of a group that looks after its own.

“We’re one big family,” says McCormick, who had 27 players in the program in 2018 and went 12-12 at the varsity level. The team lost to Cascade in the first round of the IHSAA Class 2A Speedway Sectional.

The Sparkplugs have won eight sectional crowns, including three with McCormick at the helm (2012, 2013 and 2015). Speedway was 2A state runner-up in 2001 with Bruce Hutchings as head coach.

Besides Speedway, the Indiana Crossroads Conference featured Beech Grove, Indianapolis Cardinal Ritter, Indianapolis Lutheran, Indianapolis Scecina, Monrovia, Park Tudor and Triton Central in 2017-18. Each ICC team played one another once on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. In the future, Cascade will replace Park Tudor.

Though none from the Class of ’18 made any commitments, recent Sparkplugs to go on to college baseball include Jacob Bryant (Franklin College), Bryce Pennington (Parkland College), Matt Turk (Marian University) and Jonathan Willoughby (Anderson University).

Besides McCormick, Speedway baseball is guided by assistants J.D. Clampitt (who played at Danville Area Community College in Illinois), Matt Burke (who played at Glen Oaks Community College in Michigan), Eric Mattingly (formerly the head coach at Brownsburg High School), David McCready and Ryan Neat (who played Butler University).

“That is arguably the best coaching staff in the state of Indiana,” says McCormick. “They all work their (posteriors) off from August to June.”

McCormick is a 1990 graduate of North Montgomery High School, where he played basketball for coach Bob Reese.

“He taught me how to prepare for games,” says McCormick of Reese. “He said, ‘if you’re not good enough, you need to be the gym.’ He talked about the little things and the extra stuff.

“But the person I learned the most from was my dad, Tom McCormick. He was the motivator. He’d say, ‘if you don’t like your playing time, then play better.’”

Marcus McCormick played basketball at Marian College (now Marian University) for coach John Grimes.

“He reinforced the work ethic part of it,” says McCormick.

Tom and Gina McCormick, who celebrated their 50th year of marriage in the spring, had three children — Marcus, Erick and Kara. Erick played football and basketball and Kara basketball, including at Marian.

“They were both better athletes than me,” says Marcus McCormick of his siblings. Erick McCormick died in 2005.

While he devoted much time to the hardwood, Marcus always had an affinity for the diamond.

“Baseball was always been my favorite sport growing up,” says McCormick.

He has coached travel baseball for two decades in the summer — first for the Indy Outlaws and now with the Indiana Pony Express.

After one season as a Speedway High assistant, he was encouraged by wife Kelley to apply for the head coaching post.

“Without her, I wouldn’t get to do what I do,” says Marcus of Kelley. “Her support is incredible.”

The McCormicks have two boys. Michael McCormick (24) pitched at Eastern Illinois University and is now in the Chicago White Sox system. Nicholas McCormick (22) was on the EIU baseball team with his brother before transferring to play at Arizona Christian University.

Marcus McCormick has enjoyed picking up coaching advice from other coaches. After attending his first Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association State Clinic in January 2009, he approached Decatur Central coach Phil Webster after he spoke as a state championship coach from 2008.

“We went to breakfast one day and picked his brain for a couple of hours,” says McCormick of the man who was elected to the IHSBCA Hall of Fame in 2015. “Most coaches are willing to share, it’s just that nobody ever asks them.”

McCormick has developed opinions about pitching and the pitch count rule adopted by the IHSAA in 2017 (1 to 35 pitches requires 0 days rest; 36 to 60 requires 1 day; 61 to 80 requires 2 days; 81 to 100 requires 3 days; and 101 to 120 requires 4 days).

“I get the rule, but it’s disappointing we have to have something in place,” says McCormick. “You’d like to think all the coaches in the state have the kids’ best interest at heart.”

McCormick sees arm care as more of an overall development thing?

“Limiting the number of pitchers you throw is not a precursor for keeping you healthy,” says McCormick. “Why does Kid A get hurt and not Kid B? You have to be doing things to truly recover so the next time you go out you’re putting yourself in a good situation.

“I hope the state incorporates programs like Driveline to keep kids healthy and make them better.”

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Speedway (Ind.) High School baseball is a “family” under Sparkplugs head coach Marcus McCormick.