By STEVE KRAH
Affirmation from the top and leaders choosing not to listen to the naysayers can lead to memorable accomplishments.
Just ask John Huemmer.
Keeping upbeat thanks to their head coach and led by a senior class intent on “proving ‘em wrong,” the 2016 Mishawaka High School baseball team took the program’s first IHSAA sectional championship since Huemmer took over the program in 2005.
The Cavemen beat South Bend Clay 3-2 (nine innings), LaPorte 10-9 and Plymouth 5-1 to reign at the Class 4A South Bend Clay Sectional. It was Mishawaka’s first title since 1997.
“The most important thing is to stay positive,” says Huemmer, who enters his 13th season at the Northern Indiana Conference school in 2017. “It’s not good to beat down a kid. You want to raise them up. That makes a big difference. If you keep encouraging, you’re going to get the most out of a kid.
“That kid’s going to buy into what you’re saying and they’re going to give everything they’ve got — not just for the head coach but, more importantly, for their teammates. If the kid is giving effort, then you have nothing to complain about. Mistakes are going to happen.”
If a player is striving to the best of his abilities, Huemmer tries not to dwell on a mistake. He just works to correct it and moves on.
The Cavemen were able to turn a negative in 2015 to a positive in 2016.
When Mishawaka bowed 9-8 to Plymouth in the semifinals of the ’15 Plymouth Sectional after letting momentum get away, Huemmer assembled his seniors-to-be and challenged them.
“What do you want for next year?,” says Huemmer in repeating a question he addressed to ballplayers in the Class of ’16. “I think that really set the tone for what we wanted to accomplish.
“Our record wasn’t what we wanted, but the pursuit of success and trying to win every game was there. The kids wholeheartedly wanted to do well last season. We came together at the right time and won the sectional.”
With his seniors leading the way, Huemmer hopes 2016 will feed 2017.
“We’re going to try to build on the momentum from last season,” says Huemmer, whose coaching staff includes Jim Shively as varsity assistant, Mark Bell and Andy Namisnak at the junior varsity level and Matt Went and Neal Hickle guiding the freshmen. “I wanted the guys to get a taste of what it’s like to win sectional. I knew if they got that taste, they’re going to want more.
“After we lost in the regional to Penn (4-3 in the semifinals), I heard ‘I want to do this again.’ That makes me feel great that they want to do it. Every year, I put the challenge on the seniors to do better than the previous year.”
Huemmer expects his seniors to be leaders, playing on their sense of urgency and reminding them that it is their final prep season.
“They’re the older kids,” says Huemmer. “They’re the ones that set the example. It goes with the thought: How do you want to be remembered at Mishawaka High School?”
The idea is that when seniors take ownership of the team, they want it more than being dictated to by the coaching staff.
“(The seniors of 2016) were just bound and determined to succeed,” says Huemmer. “To them, winning sectional proved everybody wrong.”
Huemmer enjoyed a long playing career. A right-handed pitcher, he graduated from Marian High School in Mishawaka in 1991 and played at Indiana State University for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association and American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Bob Warn through 1996 then spent the summer of 1997 with the Lafayette Leopards of the independent Heartland League. He also pitched for 17 or 18 seasons in amateur leagues around South Bend with two summers in Grand Rapids, Mich.
At the same time, Huemmer had gone into the business world. He was lured into coaching by then-South Bend Adams High School head coach Joel Reinebold (now head coach at South Bend Clay).
The pitcher had been recruited as a high schooler by Reinebold when the latter was assistant to Brian Buckley at Hillsdale (Mich.) College.
Huemmer and Reinebold spent three seasons together at Adams then both moved over to be on the staff of IHSBCA Hall of Famer Greg Dikos at Penn. Huemmer coached Kingsmen pitchers for four seasons (2001-04; the first was a Class 4A state championship year for Penn).
When Gregg Minegar resigned at Mishawaka, Huemmer interviewed for the head coach position and was hired.
He welcomed the opportunity to make final decisions and implement the program he wanted to run.
“The biggest challenge is to get everybody to buy in to what I as a head coach want to instill as values, what I believe is correct for behavior,” says Huemmer. “It’s important for us as coaches to communicate those expectations. Then you have to act on it.”
Huemmer is careful to send a consistent message and not play favorites. If any player — starter or reserve — is not hustling, he needs to check that behavior.
“If a kid comes to me asking why I haven’t addressed that with someone who’s doing the same thing (as them), that ruins my credibility,” says Huemmer.
Part of Huemmer’s coaching philosophy was also shaped by his coach at Marian — Ray Lentych.
“One of the main points of emphasis for Coach Lentych was do the little things,” says Huemmer. “The little things add up to big things. It’s not just the one big thing that happens but everything that goes on throughout the game.”
Simply hustling and putting the ball in play can make the difference between winning and losing.
Following the National Federation of High School Associations’ edict, the IHSAA is putting a pitch count rule in place for 2017.
Huemmer welcomes it.
“Proper pitching mechanics are important in preventing arm injuries,” says Huemmer. “Also, having the pitch count rule is important to allow pitchers the proper amount of time to recover after pitching. Some programs will struggle with the new rule because they will not have pitching depth.”
Teams will be required to record pitch count totals on MaxPreps.com so the IHSAA will have a record.
Huemmer notes that communicating with a pitcher about how they’re feeling during an outing is key. It’s also important to note that pitchers might be able to go deeper into games later in the season and that factors like adrenaline in tournament situations can’t be discounted.
Mishawaka has been tracking pitches all along, using a tendency chart for opposing batters and a feedback chart for pitchers that shows ball-strike percentage on each ball-strike count (ie. 65 percent of strikes on 0-2 count).
John Huemmer enters his 13th season as head baseball coach at Mishawaka High School in 2017.
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