By STEVE KRAH
Not every hop is true.
Not every line drive off your bat finds grass before it finds an opponent’s glove.
Not letting those moments keep you down is key to long-term success.
Swan was a Kokomo assistant for four seasons before taking over leadership of the program for the 2015 season. That year, he had six freshmen in the starting lineup. The young Kats had the talent to compete, but were not always equipped for baseball’s inevitable rough patches.
“We prepare these young men to go out and do great things whether it’s in baseball or just life,” says Swan. “We use the game to teach those lessons. We talk about failure a lot. Failure is something you have to work through and how you can learn from it.
“We’ve made great strides in dealing with failure and adversity. We’re not perfect yet and I tell the kids we’re not going to be. Baseball is like that. You’re going to have games where things don’t go your way and you don’t play your best.”
Swan talks to his players about being mental toughness and playing a hard-nosed brand of baseball.
That approach got Kokomo off to a 14-0 start in 2017 even though it found itself down by 13 runs in one of those victories. The Kats fell behind 14-1 in the second game of a North Central Conference doubleheader against Lafayette Harrison only to win 21-18 with the decisive run coming at the end of the game.
“I was pleased we stuck with the process and kept fighting,” says Swan. “I want our guys to be very even-keeled. We talk about playing with emotion but not emotionally. We tell them to focus on playing the game the right way and not so much on who they’re playing against.”
When Kokomo took its first loss of the season — 12-1 to Zionsville — the Kats responded with a 2-1 NCC tournament quarterfinal win against Harrison in eight innings.
The ’17 Kats have 43 players on three squads — varsity and two junior varsity teams (Blue and Red).
Swan’s varsity coaching staff includes Tim Weir (pitching), Eric Dill (infield and hitting), Nick Shanks (outfield and statistics), Shawn Mayfield (hitting) and George Phares (quality control). There’s also Eli Grimes (JV Blue head coach), Andy Dicken (JV Blue assistant), Matt Turner (JV Red head coach) and Chris Beane (JV Red assistant).
Weir is the father of T.J. Weir, a Kokomo graduate and a pitcher in the San Diego Padres organization.
Phares, a member of the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association and Howard County Sports halls of fame who won an IHSAA Class 2A state championship at Taylor in 2000, serves as an extra set of eyes. He scouts the Kats and gives Swan an honest evaluation on areas that need improvement.
“Sometimes as a head coach, you have blinders and get focused on what you’re trying to accomplish and you miss some things,” says Swan of Phares. “He challenges me in some areas.
“The guys on my staff are great baseball men, but great men in general. I want quality individuals that are high-character people.”
“We are blessed,” says Swan. “It’s one of the best fields in the state.”
With its fast surface, playing not the carpet has been an adjustment. Even softly-struck balls sometimes get through the infield and outfielders are asked to play deeper in an attempt to keep balls out of the gaps.
At all games — but especially at Municipal — the Kats look to put pressure on the defense by putting the ball in play.
“We try to be aggressive and get pitches we can drive,” says Swan. “Early in counts we want them to be sitting on fastballs. After the count gets deeper or they fall behind in the count, their (strike) zone expands a little bit. They shorten up their swing and then it’s about putting balls in play.”
Swan looks at the new pitch count rule and says it has more of an effect at the JV level than the varsity.
“We build up (varsity) players so they can throw 80 to 100 pitches and we’re comfortable with that,” says Swan. With varsity depth, starters generally pitch just once a week. “But the rule makes us be forward-thinking with our younger guys. We have two junior varsity teams and they’re not efficient with their pitches.
“Bigger schools it won’t effect quite as much, but I really see it effect JV programs, especially at small schools. They just don’t have that depth. They don’t have the arms to eat up innings.”
Swan, a Muncie Central graduate, began his coaching career as an assistant at his alma mater while still in college.
His first head coaching job came at Lapel. The Bulldogs won just one game the year before he arrived and a few years later won a sectional.
“I learned a great deal from him,” says Swan. “He’s a great baseball guy.
“I tend to be more emotional and he’s very steady. He’s great with X’s and O’s and I watched how he drew up a practice plan.”
Swan was head coach at Tri-Central for three seasons before joining Tim Weeks’ staff at Kokomo, where Swan also now serves as assistant principal.
Sean Swan is in his third season as head baseball coach at Kokomo High School. He was an assistant for the Wildkats for four seasons before that. He is also an assistant principal at KHS.