By STEVE KRAH
Steve Stutsman had a sweet moment Saturday, May 6.
Stutsman and his team enjoyed cake and cupcakes to mark the moment then the man reflected on the “program” that brought him this special day.
“I’ve had great players, great coaches and great parents,” says Stutsman. “It’s an honor to get to 300 victories and someone helped in every one of those along the way.”
That includes former assistants like Scott Rost (now head coach at Elkhart Memorial), Andrew Brabender (head coach at Northridge who picked up his 200th career win earlier this season), Jim Treadway (former head coach at Concord and the long-time Bristol American Legion Post 143 manager) plus solid baseball men like Dave Hicks, Jimmy Malcom, Mike Doherty and Pat Doherty and on and on.
“Being part of the program. That’s what it’s all about,” says Stutsman. “It’s not me. Kids come and go. Parents come and go. You’ve got to have one thing and that’s the program. That’s what I’ve tried to build here.”
After serving two years as assistant to Randy Miller as he was ending his second head coaching stint with the Blue Blazers, Stutsman took over in 1996.
“I thought I had a good 20 years in me,” says Stutsman, 64. “I got the job kind of late in life in my late 30’s, early 40’s.
“I’m in my 22nd year and I feel better than when I first started.”
Stutsman, a 1971 Concord High School graduate, leads a 2017 team full of veterans players.
“They’re just a great group of kids,” says Stutsman. “They are young men who really play well together. They listen to you. They try to correct the things we ask them to correct.”
Stutsman sees a collection of young athletes that genuinely like each other and play loose.
“I said to them a couple of weeks ago that I’d rather have a team that has great team chemistry than two or three superstars on the team,” says Stutsman. “I really believe that.”
In 2013, Stutsman was part of an IHSAA Class 4A state championship celebration with a squad that beat Indianapolis Cathedral 1-0.
Those Blazers featured Indiana Mr. Baseball Tanner Tully (the left-hander homered and fanned 13 batters to the title game and is now at Low Class-A in the Cleveland Indians organization) plus L.V. Phillips Mental Attitude Award winner Matt Eppers (now a senior center fielder at Ball State), Cory Malcom (a successful senior right-handed starting pitcher at Arkansas-Little Rock) and Riley Futterknecht (who is wrapping up a strong college career as a left-handed hurler at DePauw).
“That was a great group, too,” says Stutsman. “They liked each other and played well together.
“Championships are awesome and people ask me, ‘why didn’t you retire after you won (in 2013)?’ and I said, “Because I’m still having fun. I still enjoy what I’m doing. I still enjoy watching them go on after high school to college or into a profession and be successful citizens. That — for me — is what coaching is all about.”
Since 1996, Central has won four sectionals (2001, 2011, 2012, 2013) with the one regionals semistate and one state title in 2013.
Stutsman’s “associate head coach” is Steve Asbury, who is in his 14th season on the Blazers staff.
“It’s scary because he knows what I’m thinking and I know what he’s thinking,” says Stutsman. “He has his responsibilities and he does them really well. It’s like I don’t have to tell him what to do.”
Lonnie Weatherholt and Chad O’Brien been with Stutsman for a decade. Brandon Squibb joined the cohesive varsity staff a few seasons ago. The junior varsity is led by Bodie Bender and longtime assistant Paul Bates (son Devin Prater played for the ’13 state champions).
“It’s nice to have your friends for your assistant coaches,” says Stutsman. “We really work well together.
“I feel like I’m just the head of the whole program and I let my assistants go and do their own thing.”
Stutsman has accomplished much of what he has without the feeder program that many Indiana schools enjoy. There is no junior high baseball in Elkhart and the local Little League parks send players on to various high schools.
Travel baseball is firmly established in the area and Stutsman knows it and accepts it — with a caveat.
“As long as they’re playing baseball and as long as I can trust the travel ball coach to make sure their arms are taken care of, I have no problem,” says Stutsman. “I think it’s good they play under different coaching philosophies.
“But when they hit high school, they know from January until the end of May they are Central ballplayers. I take great pride in making sure that the boys know that.”
Going back to the split of Elkhart High School into Central and Memorial, beginning in 1972-73, there have only been three head baseball coaches at Central — Miller (twice), Mike Lutz and Stutsman.
“I’m really proud of that,” Stutsman said. “If I could, if there’s a merger (and one is planned in 2020-21), I want to hang on until the merger and be the last Central baseball coach.”
Talk about the split has been on the lips of many Elkhartans for the past 44 years. Stutsman is no different.
“Selfishly, I’d like to see what we could do with one school,” says Stutsman. “There have been numerous years that had Central and Memorial been combined we could have went down to State. I don’t know if we could have won it all, but we could have been down there quite often.
“But that’s not why I coach. I coach for the kids and seeing them improve and making them into young adults.”
Stutsman also takes took him up on his invitation in the ‘90s to resurrect the Bristol American Legion Post 143 baseball program that was dormant for a short time after being originally started by Lutz.
“(Treadway) has done a great job and he’s taken a lot of our Central boys with the Bristol Legion,” says Stutsman.
Post 143 played its home game at Rice Field (the former varsity and current Central JV field) before moving around to various facilities and returns to that diamond in 2017.
A former Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association president, Stutsman sees two highlights of his time in a leadership role.
“There’s better communication with coaches throughout the state (mostly via email and newsletters),” says Stutsman. “The pitch count (rule) that we’re doing now was needed. I know it’s a struggle with the smaller schools to find pitchers, but its good to limit the pitches.
“(The IHSBCA) does a great job. I only joined one union and that’s it.”
Steve Stutsman celebrates his 300th career coaching victory with his 2017 Elkhart Central High School baseball team after the Blue Blazers beat visiting Angola 5-0 in the second game of a doubleheader Saturday, May 6. Stutsman’s first season as ECHS head coach was 1996. (Steve Krah Photo)