By STEVE KRAH
It’s be said that people are the sum of their added experiences and influences.
Phil Kluesner picked up some things from his high school coach and others from his college coach and others along the way and it has brought him to where he is — heading into his 10th season as head baseball coach at his alma mater, Bloomington High School South.
Kluesner, a 1990 Bloomington South graduate, was an outfielder and left-handed pitcher in a Panthers program led by Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Grier Werner and later spent three seasons (1998-2000) on Werner’s coaching staff.
“I learned a lot from him,” says Kluesner of Werner. “He was very demanding but also very caring.”
From Werner, Kluesner saw a consistency of work ethic and the importance of building relationships.
He uses the latter not only as a coach but as an educator. He is currently a U.S. History teacher at BHSS.
Kluesner’s college baseball experience was a couple of seasons at the University of Southern Indiana, where Mike Goedde (now head coach at Evansville Central High School) was leading the Screaming Eagles.
Listing the qualities instilled by Goedde, Kluesner lists intensity, work ethic and competitive drive.
“We had a lot of talent on that team,” says Kluesner, who was with the baseball team for two years. He would earn a mass communications degree from USI and a secondary education degree from Indiana University-Bloomington.
Kluesner’s first coaching go-round came in Babe Ruth League baseball in Bloomington.
“I really liked it,” says Kluesner. “Rex Grossman was on my team. He was a phenomenal baseball player. He was just a better football player.”
Grossman would later be Indiana’s Mr. Football and quarterback at the University of Florida and in the National Football League.
After Kluesner’s stint as a South assistant, he served two seasons as a Shelbyville High School assistant to Mike Hobbs and Scott Hughes and then was head coach at Columbus North High School 2003-08 before coming back to wear the purple and white.
Kluesner coached a travel team made up mostly of South players known as the Bloomington Wizards and is considering bringing it back just to keep his players together.
“We’ve got some pretty good young talent coming through,” says Kluesner. “Travel teams are like mushrooms when you get too much rain. So many of them pop up. It’s almost overwhelming.
“The big thing I’ve noticed chemistry is difficult with them playing all over the place. They don’t know each other. It makes it difficult with our high school team. Chemistry is the thing teams are lacking. It’s become highly individualistic. It’s a team sport.”
With control of his own high school players, Kluesner will have a say in development.
“In the summer, it’s about showcasing yourself,” says Kluesner. “You get your hacks and sit down. I’m not going to discourage all kids from doing that. Some need (higher-profile travel baseball). But we could offer that with our Wizards and do it for less money. It’s not right or wrong, it’s just my opinion.”
There’s Joe Forney (Class of 2011) to Xavier (and is now director of baseball operations at Miami of Ohio), John Robertson (Class of 2011) to Miami of Ohio, Jake Kelzer (Class of 2012) to Indiana (and is now in the Philadelphia Phillies organization), Nolan Rogers (Class of 2013) to Vanderbilt, Gage Rogers (Class of 2014) to High Point in North Carolina (and is now at Indiana University Southeast) and Tyler Van Pelt (2017) to Indiana.
Alex Franklin (Class of 2018) made a verbal commit to Indiana as a sophomore and signed in early November.
Franklin has been a shortstop and a center fielder. With his BHSS head coach valuing versatility, he’s also in the pitching mix.
“The more pitchers the better,” says Kluesner. “I don’t have a lot of pitcher-onlys.”
While on the subject of pitching, what about the 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) adopted in 2017?
“I’m a pitching guy and I think it’s too lenient,” says Kluesner. “The pitch count should be a little more stringent. I’ve never pitched a guy 120 pitches in my life. We try to set our schedules week to week basis. My big arm will only throw once a week.”
It’s all about a lack of effectiveness.
“We need to teach kids to be efficient and not be so erratic,” says Kluesner, who has had hurlers throw complete games in 70 or fewer tosses. That’s the reason they pitch so many pitches.
“Kids are out of control. They’re over throwing. There’s so much emphasis on velocity nowadays. Kids can be effective if they’re competitive.”
Catchers are expected to rely on their own knowledge to help guide the pitcher.
“I’m big on teaching kids to call their own game behind the plate,” says Kluesner. “You know they get it when they cut you off and say, “I know, Coach. I know what to call.’
“Catchers are better ballplayers if they learn.”
Besides letting the players take ownership of the game, there’s a third dimension by being behind the dish that coaches don’t see clearly from the dugout. Catchers know if the pitch is in or out, up or down and can adjust the pitch selection accordingly.
Another teaching point for all players is not to argue with or complain to the umpire.
“It’s their job to adapt to the umpire,” says Kluesner. “They’re all different.”
Kluesner’s assistants for 2018 are Trevor McConnell (varsity), Eric Dodds (varsity), Mike Vaughn (junior varsity), A.J. Hartman (JV and freshmen) and Kevin Gross (freshmen).
South typically keeps 45 to 50 players for its three teams.
“We always seem to have some large freshmen classes,” says Kluesner. “The year we went to semistate (2015), we had 11 seniors. On average, we have six or seven.
“It’s hard to keep all those kids anymore,” says Kluesner. “The mentality has changed. It’s hard to teach them roles. Everyone wants to be the star.”
Kluesner says the ideal number of players for a single week-night game is around 14 or 15. That way he can get his bench players into the game as courtesy/pinch runners, defensive replacements, pinch-hitters or relief pitchers.
The varsity roster might swell near 20 for the weekend doubleheader as Kluesner and his assistants bring JV players to reward them for their performance.
The Panthers belong to Conference Indiana (along with Bloomington North, Columbus North, Franklin Central, Perry Meridian, Southport, Terre Haute North Vigo and Terre Haute South Vigo).
Panthers home games are played at Groh Memorial Field, which dates back to 1965.
“It’s the original field,” says Kluesner, referring to the split of Bloomington High School into South and North for the 1972-73 school year. “It’s hollowed ground to us.
“When you think you’re playing the same place as thousands of other players, it gives you goosebumps. I make sure the players know that and respect that.”
Kluesner is expecting a major overhaul of the facility soon and South could welcome lights for the 2018 season.
In a format change for 2018, all conference teams will play each other once to determine the champion. Before, there were divisions with an end-of-season tournament.
Phil Kluesner, a 1990 Bloomington High School South graduate, is entering his 10th season as Panthers head baseball coach in 2018.