By STEVE KRAH
Some say that baseball is just a game.
Ryan Kruszka has a different take.
“I owe everything in my life to a little white ball,” says Kruszka, the head baseball coach and athletic director at South Central (Union Mills) High School in LaPorte County. “If (Butler University) coach (Steve) Farley didn’t come see me play (for Joliet Central High School) against Lockport, Ill., my life would have turned out completely different.”
That chance to play college baseball led to Kruszka meeting his future wife (Ryan and Lexy reside in Valparaiso with daughters Rowan, 7, and Lilah, 4) and has allowed him to coach and give back to the sport that means so much to him.
“If I can give one, two or three kids in my lifetime the opportunity that I had … Developing the relationships with coaches and players,” says Kruszka, who enters his sixth season as Satellites head coach in 2018. “That’s what it’s all about. I want to give them experiences they’ll remember the rest of their lives.”
South Central hoisted IHSAA Class 1A sectional championship trophies in 2014, 2016 and 2017.
The Elwood, Ill., native impressed Farley as a right-handed pitcher and was signed to play NCAA Division I baseball in Indianapolis.
Kruszka toed a rubber for the Bulldogs for four seasons. He was a captain and learned plenty from his head coach.
Farley taught the mental side of the game.
“Baseball is such a mental game,” says Kruszka, 31. “Especially as a pitcher, you have to be 100 percent dedicated to what you’re doing.”
Farley insisted his players do the little things right and sweat the details.
“Control what you control and let the other things fall in place,” says Kruszka. “Control your effort and your attitude.”
Kruszka pitched one season of independent professional baseball with the 2009 Traverse City Beach Bums of the Frontier League.
His coaching career began when Speedway High School head coach Marcus McCormick asked him to run the junior varsity squad.
From McCormick, Kruszka learned how to run a program and how to motivate players.
“He got those kids to play,” says Kruszka, who has Speedway on SC schedule. “He had a handle on everything.”
Kruszka then became pitching coach on Eric Mattingly’s staff at Brownsburg High School.
“He knew how to connect with the kids,” says Kruszka of Mattingly. “He was a great talker and motivator. He was able to create a fun practice and I’ve been able to bring that (to South Central). If we can’t get a practice done in two hours, I’m doing something wrong.”
Jarad Miller, Kruszka’s varsity assistant coach, also has a D-I college background (Valpo U.). Miller saved 17 games as a second- and third-team All-American in 2009.
Both Kruszka and Miller teach the players that playing baseball is not “cookie cutter.”
“We give as many examples as possible why teams we were on were successful or why they were not successful,” says Kruszka. “We want them to develop their own philosophy that shows them success. There’s no clear-cut way.
“If you can find a way that works for you, take it and use it. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel.”
Duke Eaton and Brian Glisic are SC’s JV coaches.
Kruszka and company face the challenges of small-school baseball (enrollment at South Central is around 300).
“The group of guys you’ve got is the group of guys you got,” says Kruszka. “You’ve got to get the most out of them. It’s not like Penn where it’s next guy up. It’s the hand you’ve been dealt.
“You do what you can with your talent level and the positions they can play.”
The Satellites have two Class of 2019 D-I commits in outfielder Carson Husmann (Illinois State University) and corner infielder Kyle Schmack (Valparaiso University, where father Brian Schmack is head coach).
Kruszka says he may need to use Husmann in the infield and Schmack behind the plate next spring.
Then there’s the question of who will take the mound.
The 2017 season brought with it new IHSAA pitch count rules (1 to 35 pitches requires 0 days rest; 36 to 60 requires 1 day; 61 to 80 requires 2 days; 81 to 100 requires 3 days; and 101 to 120 requires 4 days).
“It’s a positive and something that needed to happen,” says Kruszka. “I think it’s a good thing to have a concrete system. At 1A level, it’s tough. You have to train everybody to be ready to pitch. You may need an inning or two to bridge that gap. We don’t have the numbers of those bigger programs. We have to strategize.”
Kruszka would like to see the JV limits brought up to meet the varsity standards.
“We’ve got so many kids floating between varsity and JV anyway,” says Kruszka. “We need to do some tweaks. But it’s the right thing moving forward. I think they’ll get it right.”
South Central plays on-campus on a field with sunken dugouts. Through a generous community donation, the infield has been laser-graded and re-sodded.
The Satellites are part of the Porter County Conference (along with Boone Grove, Hebron, LaCrosse, Morgan Township, Washington Township and Westville). It’s a strong small-school conference, often well-represented in the Class 1A and Class 2A statewide rankings.
Every PCC school plays one another during the season, followed by a blind-draw tournament.
Adding athletic director to his job responsibilities keeps Kruszka hopping, especially in the spring with its weather-related postponements. He is grateful for all the help from assistants and former AD’s still in the school system.
As AD, Kruszka definitely has a say in his non-conference schedule and slates games against bigger schools.
“We’ll play anyone,” says Kruszka. “We’ll take our lumps, but we will win some, too. Seeing bigger arms — that plus-velocity with the breaking ball to go with it — helps us in the tournament at the end of the year.”
South Central (Union Mills) Hills School head baseball coach Ryan Kruszka (left) celebrates a sectional title with wife Lexy and daughters Lilah (4) and Rowan (7).
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