By STEVE KRAH
The two maintained a relationship and Cheek came back to town as an assistant to head coach Howard at Indiana University Kokomo. The 2021 season will be his third with the Cougars.
“I love it,” says Cheek of working with the energetic Howard. “He will push you day in and day out to be a better leader on or off the field.
“What I enjoy most about him is he gives freedom (to his assistants) as if we were in-charge. I can make the pitching program my own. There is trust my abilities.”
Cheek, 26, is not only IUK’s pitching coach but he leads the program’s academic supervision and community service and helps with camps.
At pitching coach, he looks for aggressiveness and competitiveness.
“What we strive to do is attack hitters,” says Cheek. “We recruit a lot of guys who are athletes that go out and compete. They piece it together inning by inning and put up zeros.”
Cheek wants his hurlers to trust their defense.
“We have plenty of gold glovers on the field so pound the zone,” says Cheek. “Execution is big for us.”
Knowing that not all pitchers are the same, Cheek looks to get each one to identify what makes them successful.
“Every guy is going to have different pitches and different sequences that they throw,” says Cheek, who knows some will around 90 mph with their fastball while others will have to pitch backwards, starting with a breaking ball and spotting their fastball.
“It’s about letting them know their success and know what they have to bring to the table,” says Cheek. “When they take pride int he role they have that’s where you start to see success.”
About half way through fall practice, IUK pitchers (a group that includes Ryan’s brother, Kacey Cheek) are currently in COVID-19 quarantine.
“It’s been a tough fall,” says Cheek. “It make guys see the picture of how they approach each day with an appreciation and a full passion for the game.”
That can be said of the whole squad, which includes returning college players who had their spring season cut short and incoming freshmen who had their senior high school seasons canceled.
Cheek and the other IUK coaches encourage them to respect the game but also have passion.
“Show up with a chip on their shoulder,” says Cheek. “Keep a goal in mind each day and don’t let a day pass.”
Because of the pandemic, the NAIA has granted an extra year of eligibility to those who want to use it.
Among those back to lead the Cougars are right-handed pitcher Renton Poole (at Bloomington High School South graduate who was selected in the 28th round of the 2018 Major League First-Year Player Draft by the Texas Rangers but opted to stay in college) and infielder Austin Weiler.
While being aware of contact tracing, IUK baseball coaches work to separate players on the field and in the weight room. With pitchers away, there are a number of machine scrimmages.
“We’ll have developmental work and one-on-one work when pitchers come back,” says Cheek.
As an academic supervisor, Cheek makes sure players are keeping up their grades up. He stays in-touch with professors and sets study table hours.
“They’re coming to IUK to get an IU degree and play baseball,” says Cheek. “The goal is to get these guys to where they want to go in life.
“My goal is to make sure they’re reaching their goals in the classroom.”
IUK students are currently taking a hybrid of in-person and online classes. After Thanksgiving to the end of the semester that will be all online.
While COVID-19 regulations and protocols has limited what players can do at the moment, there was plenty of community service with local groups last fall. Cheek says that each team member did up to 25 hours in the fall while meeting Kokomo know they care.
Cheek took his current job after serving as varsity boys basketball and varsity baseball coach at his alma mater Oblong (Ill.) High School. In 2018 and 2019, he coached Britton’s Bullpen 16U travel team.
As a player, Cheek was in spring training with the independent professional Evansville (Ind.) Otters in 2017.
Cheek pitched two seasons at Indiana State University (2015 and 2016) and two at Vincennes (Ind.) University (2013 and 2014).
As a right-handed collegiate pitcher, Cheek went 10-5 in 32 mound appearances (16 starts) at VU and 2-0 in 11 games (all in relief) at ISU.
Cheek was the National Junior College Athletic Association Division II Region 12 MVP in 2014 and helped Vincennes make the NJCAA D-II World Series (placing seventh).
Mitch Hannahs was the head coach and Jordan Tiegs the pitching coach at ISU.
Cheek went to youth camps run by Hannahs when the latter was coaching at Lincoln Trail College in Robinson, Ill.
“He’s one of the greatest coaches I’ve ever played under,” says Cheek of Hannahs. “He understands the game and knows how to compete.
“He helped me grow as a player and a person.”
Tiegs, who is now a coach in the Rangers organization, had an impact on Cheek.
“He was really smart and knew how to develop guys,” says Cheek of Tiegs. “He really sparked my interest about what a routine meant and entailed — throwing everyday, arm health, your body moving correctly and competing at a high level.”
Cheek appreciates his time with Vincennes head coach Chris Barney.
“He knew the game,” says Cheek of Barney. “He was a little Old School, but I loved it.”
The term “JUCO bandit” is used in baseball circles these days. Cheek tells what it means to him.
“They are guys who are hard-nosed and a little blue collar,” says Cheek. “It was a really good fit for myself to go junior college route. I learned a lot about myself — who I am as a person and player.”
Without the time restrictions of the NCAA and NAIA, junior college players have the chance to spend plenty of time working on their craft.
“We had a fall and spring season and a lot of competition,” says Cheek. “You’d get out of class and then be at the field for six hours at a time.
“We learned what ‘no off days’ meant,” says Cheek. “You didn’t get many.”
Cheek grew up in Oblong, which is Crawford County about 20 miles from the Indiana line and Sullivan County, Indiana.
The 2012 OHS graduate played golf for coach Jason Hartke, basketball for coach Brent Harper and baseball for coach Dave Miller.
Richard and Kelly Cheek have three children — Ryan, Kacey (20) and Lincoln Trail College freshman Katie (18).