By STEVE KRAH
Indiana University Southeast’s baseball team will play in the NAIA Opening Round for the second straight season and the fourth time since 2010.
The 21st-ranked Grenadiers are in Kingsport, Tenn., for a five-team double-elimination event Monday through Thursday, May 15-18.
The winner out of No. 1 seed Keiser (Fla.) (39-18), No. 2 Tennessee Wesleyan (39-18), No. 3 Indiana University Southeast (45-13), No. 4 Talladega (Ala.) (36-22) and No. 5 Marian (Ind.) (29-21) advances to the 10-team NAIA World Series May 26-June 2 in Lewiston, Idaho.
The Grenadiers are slated to play Tennessee Wesleyan in Game 2 Monday afternoon. Kingsport is where IUS used to go for their conference tournament. Upon arriving Saturday night, they learned that former Grenadier Shane Weedman had pitched a no-hitter for the Evansville Otters of the independent professional Frontier League.
Other Indiana schools in the Opening Round are Huntington and Indiana Tech.
After losing seven starters from 2016, IU Southeast reloaded in 2017.
“It’s definitely been a year to remember,” says IUS head coach Ben Reel. “This team has been very competitive. When they show up everyday, they work.”
With Opening Round appearances in 2010 and 2011 as Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference conference champions and at-large berths in the KIAC and new River States Conference the past two springs, the Grenadiers have established a respected program.
It’s been a progression that’s taken time to achieve.
When Reel took over as head coach for the 2009 season at age 24 (he followed Joe Decker, who decided to go back to Silver Creek High School), the coaching staff was paid with stipends.
“We were like starving artists,” says Reel. “And nobody knew where we were.”
For the record, the school is in New Albany, just across the Ohio River from downtown Louisville.
“We had to crawl before we could walk and walk before we could jog,” says Reel, now 33 and still one of the younger head coaches in college baseball. “We’re starting to run a little bit. We’re starting to get some momentum and it’s taken a decade.”
Reel, who played at South Dearborn High School in Aurora and Cleveland (Tenn.) State Community College before transferring to IU Southeast, led his first team to a 32-24 mark and saw the Grenadiers turn the corner in 2010.
That’s the year IUS went 39-20 (setting a school record for wins), NAIA second team All-American Kyle Lenn smacked 24 home runs and the program produced its first Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft selection — Cameron Conner to the Kansas City Royals in the 20th round.
“Once that happened, everything started rolling,” says Reel. “That’s what put us on the map in our region.”
With IU Southeast, the University of Louisville (NCAA Division I), Bellarmine University (D-II) and Spalding University (D-III) all within 10 miles of each other, teams are competing for talent.
“You have to be very competitive,” says Reel, who looks at a roster with 15 players with Indiana hometowns and five from Kentucky. “But once prove you can mentor and develop players, you’ll start getting some better athletes.”
That’s not easy when you only have one scholarship to offer (11 below the NAIA limit).
“That puts us in bottom 10 percent out of the 198 (NAIA) teams in the country,” says Reel. “We take a lot of kids who are raw and help them find a niche.
“We get a lot of guys here who want to be coached. Myself and my staff do a lot of player development. We coach the heck out of them.”
Andrew Stanley, a high school teammate of Reel’s, has been with him since the beginning. The young coaching staff also features Jarret Young (second season), Brian Coffman (first season) and student assistants Justin Franz (fourth season) and Logan Coughlin (first season).
“We roll up our sleeves and get in (the batting cage) with them,” says Reel, who considers his communication skills (he’s talk to just about anyone for hours) and practicality as strengths. “That’s how I was raised. I’m not going to tell you what to do. I’m going to show you what to do. That’s what we believe as a staff.
“We go the extra mile. Our biggest selling point is these kids will be coached.”
Reel grew up on a farm near Prairie Creek in Vigo County, spent his middle school years in West Virginia then came back to Indiana and landed at South Dearborn.
With the Knights, he was a catcher for head coach Jay Malott.
“He was a fierce competitor,” says Reel of the former Indiana Purdue-Indianapolis coach. “He was a perfectionist. Nothing was ever good enough. We were never done practicing. We were just relentless. I learned that sense of dedication in high school.”
At Cleveland State, Reel played for Mike Policastro.
“Coach Poli taught me a sense of professional,” says Reel. “He was very calm and very businesslike. He was organized and concise. He would be very honest and open with you about what you needed to do to get to the next level and be a man.”
Reel saw coaching in his future and behind the plate — where he did not make a an error as a sophomore (matching the feat of his senior high school season) — helped prepare him for the profession.
“As a catcher, you’ve got to get to know all these pitchers,” says Reel. “You get to know a bunch of strangers at the collegiate level.”
Relationships have always been important to Reel. One of his best friends — who he met through coaching — is Tennessee Wesleyan assistant Brad Neffendorf (they were in each other’s weddings).
“This game has some of the best people that Planet Earth has to offer,” says Reel. “They just truly love the sport and the people in it.
“That’s the most memorable part of doing this, it’s the people that you meet.”
Reel notes three major things IUS has going for its in community support, education and location.
“We fundraise $50,000 a year,” says Reel. “I takes $70,000 year to run a college baseball program. Our budget is $33,000. You have to have synergy to do that.
“We’re offering an IU degree. We have a tutor on the bus. It’s a big time education.”
Being so close to Louisville is very helpful. There’s so much to do there and there is easy access to an international airport.
At 33, Ben Reel is in his ninth season as head baseball coach at Indiana University Southeast. He has the Grenadiers in the NAIA Opening Round for the fourth time in 2017. (IU Southeast Photo)
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