By STEVE KRAH
Aaron Willard reached a milestone with his son on the mound and his former college roommate and teammate in the other dugout.
When the Eastside Blazers beat the Adam Central Jets 3-1 Saturday, May 29 in the semifinals of the IHSAA Class 2A Eastside Sectional it gave Willard his 100th varsity baseball coaching victory at his school (to go with 506 in softball including a Class 1A state title in 1998 and 69 in boys basketball).
Locked up in a pitchers’ duel with Adams Central senior right-hander Justin Bultemeier, Eastside junior right-hander Owen Willard struck out 13 while tossing a one-hitter (he gave up a solo home run on a change-up to lefty-swinging senior Brayden Light in the third inning) as the winning pitcher in helping the Blazers (22-6) to the Sectional 36 championship game at 11 a.m. Monday, May 31 against former Eastside head coach Jason Pierce’s Bluffton Tigers.
“I wish (Aaron) all the luck in the world,” says Dave Neuenschwander, who roomed and played baseball with the elder Willard at Huntington (Ind.) College (now Huntington University), and has been head baseball coach at Adams Central for 27 seasons (1991-98 and 2003-21).
Willard and Neuenschwander formed a bond as Foresters in the ‘80s which he endured to this day.
“He’s always been like a big brother to me,” says Willard of Neuenschwander. “He took me under the wing when I came in.”
Says Neunschwander, “Aaron’s a good coach and he’s a great friend. I wish he lived closer. I know he’d do anything for me and I’d do anything for him.
“I’m anxious for the day when we can both retire and spend some time together.”
Willard, a 1984 Eastside graduate, spent a semester at Franklin (Ind.) College and met sophomore third baseman Neuenschwander, a 1983 South Adams High School graduate, when he arrived on the Huntington campus as a pitcher.
Aaron’s first season was the first for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Mike Frame as head coach. Other future coaches on the squad included Matt Brumbaugh, Mark Flueckiger and Randy Moss.
When Willard and Neuenschwander’s teams squared off Saturday, it was for just the second time. In 2019, Adams Central and Eastside were not in the same sectional and both received a first-round bye so they met just before the tournament at the ASH Centre in Fort Wayne.
“When we play it’s about respect and a good competition,” says Neuenschwander.
What makes Willard a good coach?
“He understands the game,” says Neuenschwander. “He has the passion for the kids.
“He gets them to work hard and focus on what they need to do.”
It’s also helped that Aaron has helped develop strong pitchers like his sons Cade (a 2017 Eastside graduate who pitched for Purdue Fort Wayne 2019-21) and Owen.
Also an accomplished shortstop and hitter, Owen could be a two-way player at the next level. He has not yet made a college commitment.
“It’s a big summer for him,” says Aaron of Cade, who plays travel ball for 5 Star Midwest.
Willard coached softball for 23 years before coaching baseball at the high school varsity level.
“I had coached at the Pony League level,” says Willard. “There was a learning curve going from softball back to baseball. There are pick-off and longer distances between bases. It’s getting that timing in your head. I got kids thrown at the plate (as a third base coach). It took them longer to get there.”
Besides head baseball coach, Willard is an assistant principal and athletic director at Eastside.
“Aaron’ a great guy to the community,” says Neuenschwander. “He has great friends like Bruce Beard that really helps him out.
“That ’s a tribute to great leadership that he has that people want to help.”
As for the sectional title game against the boys from Bluffton?
Says Willard, “They look like they’re a very scrappy team.”