By STEVE KRAH
Manchester University has enjoyed plenty of on-field success in the two decades since Rick Espeset arrived at the campus in North Manchester, Ind.
Espeset, who came from Minnesota, spent two seasons as an assistant then launched into a head coaching tenure that has yielded an 18-year record of 532-324-2.
In the last 17 years, the Spartans have a combined 10 conference and postseason conference championships.
Manchester, a member of the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference, has made two trips to the NCAA Division III World Series (2004, 2013) and come very close another time (2012).
What’s the secret sauce?
It’s not really a secret for Espeset, who also serves as Manchester’s athletic director.
“We get great cabinet-level leadership here,” says Espeset. “They are very supportive of athletics.”
It used to be the case at Manchester and many school’s on the Spartans’ schedule that baseball was sort of an afterthought with a football assistant being named baseball coach or the baseball coach coerced into also coaching football.
“Now everybody is just coaching baseball,” says Espeset. Most programs have an assistant or two that is considered full-time.
“You need good assistants who will put that investment into building a program,” says Espeset, whose current coaching staff includes Bryce Worrell, Josh Brock Caleb McAfee and Jordan Nieman. “One person can’t do it. I’ve had a bunch of good ones.”
Many of those men have left Manchester and taken head coaching jobs at other schools.
Another reason for Manchester baseball success as Espeset sees it is balance.
Espeset and his staff recruit motivated student-athletes who understand that athletics, academics and social life are all important to campus life. Baseball should not be the only reason a student wants to come to Manchester (enrollment around 1,300).
“We make it a high priority of not taking too much of (our players’ time) time,” says Espeset. “We don’t even try to organize (workouts) in the off-season. Our culture has produced motivated guys (who will do things to get better on their own).
“To me, it’s the perfect balance,” says Espeset. “Time away is one of the most underrated things.”
Time away from having a coach and his expectations gives players a chance to refresh mentally and physically.
“When you decide it’s important for you to do it, you’ll get something out of it,” says Espeset. “We don’t wear them out. They choose to do it.”
By NCAA D-III rules, teams have just 19 weeks (generally four in the fall and 15 in the spring) to get in practices and games. There are no athletic scholarships at D-III. All scholarships are for academics.
With the same man leading the program for so many years, continuity of leadership and direction have also set the Spartans up for a tradition of high expectations.
“They get passed down,” says Espeset, who just finished an eight-year run of having an alum as an assistant. “They feel pressure to continue success from other alums. They work extremely hard not to disappoint the guys they played with.”
Espeset wants to dispel a myth that D-III or NAIA that these college divisions are recreational where “anybody can play.”
“We’ve got guys who work as hard as anybody at any level,” says Espeset. “It’s really hard to get into our lineup. Once people grasp that, they gain an appreciation of what small school baseball is like.”
Winning is always sweet and that’s true at D-III, D-II, D-I, NAIA or JUCO.
“A dogile’s a dogpile,” says Espeset. “It’s the same no matter what level you’re at.”
When Espeset first came to Manchester, his recruiting base was pretty wide. With the Spartans having such a strong baseball reputation, the focus the past dozen or so years has been players within a 100-mile radius of campus.
“There’s plenty of talent in the northeast corner of Indiana to build a program,” says Espeset. “Outside the area, they have to show an interest in us.”
There certainly is interest. Espeset founds his email account working overtime with player who would like to don the black and gold.
And they just might.
If they are the right fit.
Hunter Lane swings the bat for Manchester University during the 2016 baseball season. (Manchester U. photo)
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