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Kokomo’s Thatcher on next diamond adventure

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Joe Thatcher didn’t see himself pitching in Major League Baseball.

But he did it.

He didn’t see himself coaching college baseball in his hometown.

But he’s doing it.

Thatcher grew up playing the game in Kokomo. There was UCT Little League and stints with Kokomo American Legion Post 6, Russiaville Cubs and Indiana Bulls in the summer and Kokomo High School in the spring.

Many games were played at Kokomo’s historic Highland Park, which was once home to Kokomo Giants, Kokomo Dodgers and Kokomo Highlanders.

“The short porch in right is what I remember most,” Thatcher said. “It was a cool place to play. There were a lot of stands and so it felt big at the time.”

After graduating from KHS in 2000, Thatcher became a legacy at Indiana State University. His father — Phil — played for the Bob Warn-coached Sycamores and so did Joe.

The Warns were family friends and the Thatchers spent many alumni weekends in Terre Haute. It was an easy decision for Joe to go to ISU and be a teammate of Barry Warn, son of Bob the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association and American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer.

“(Coach Warn) was great,” Thatcher said. “He really cared about his players. You felt you were part of a family.”

A 6-foot-2 left-hander, Joe started as a freshman then served as ISU’s closer as a sophomore and junior. When the Sycamores got off to a tough start in his senior year and there was not much call for someone to get the last few outs, he went back into the starting rotation.

When the 2004 MLB Draft came at the end of final college campaign, Thatcher’s named wasn’t called. Instead, the southpaw played part of two seasons in the independent Frontier League.

Thatcher joined the Milwaukee Brewers organization in 2005 and made his MLB debut came with the San Diego Padres in 2007.

By this point, he knew he was exclusively a reliever.

“In organized pro ball, hard-throwing guys are usually projected as closers,” Thatcher said. “I knew I was going to be a left-handed match-up guy (lefty on lefty). That’s what I tried to focus on.”

Sometimes called a LOOGY (Left-handed One-Out Guy charged with getting out the opponent’s big left-handed batters lat in games), Thatcher was also called upon to pitch full innings, worked with his low three-quarter delivery against left-hander and right-handers.

“I always had confidence in myself that I could get anybody out,” Thatcher said. “I ended up having pretty good numbers against righties in my career.

He also kept himself in shape and shared his off-season regiment along with Dr. Jamey Gordon of St. Vincent Sports Performance and USA Baseball at the recent IHSBCA State Clinic.

“I was around some of the best conditioning staffs in the world (in pro baseball),” Thatcher said. “I saw all the innovative stuff.”

Thatcher was with the Padres organization until being traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2013. He pitched for the D-backs and Los Angeles Angels in 2014 and the Houston Astros in 2015. His 2016 was spent with Triple-A clubs in the Los Angeles Dodgers, Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs organizations, but was not on the postseason roster during the World Series run. He decided to retire at the end of the season at age 35.

“I’m most proud of how long I was able to play,” Thatcher said. “It takes a lot to stay there and build up that trust with the coaches and front office people. To go from being un-drafted to someone who spent nine years in the big leagues, I’m pretty proud of that.”

Thatcher had studied insurance and risk management in college and planned to follow his father into that business (Phil works for Regions Bank Insurance) and even got his license and spent some off-seasons as an agent.

“I wasn’t planning on having a big league career,” Thatcher said.

Now, he is staying in baseball as associate head coach for a brand new program at Indiana University Kokomo (the IUK Cougars are scheduled to debut in 2017-18). He has been on the recruiting for about a month.

“We have a lot to offer — an IU degree, good coaching staff (including head coach Matt Howard and assistant coach Zach Hall) and (Kokomo Municipal Stadium) is a huge draw,” Thatcher said. “It gives us a leg up on the competition.

“(The school) wanted to make sure they did it right before they started the program so it wasn’t just thrown together. They do everything top level, first class. The only thing small school about what we’re doing is the actual school size (around 4,100 enrolled students, according to the IUK website).”

IU Kokomo has centrally-located campus and is up to nine sports in its athletic department. The Cougars are an NAIA program and member of the River States Conference.

Thatcher will share his experiences with his student-athletes.

“I played with a lot of good veterans and learned how to be a pro,” Thatcher said. “That meant being disciplined enough to take care of your business without being told to do it.”

And he almost didn’t do it at all.

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Kokomo’s Joe Thatcher as a pitcher with the San Diego Padres.

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Development is Job 1 for Indiana Chargers

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

By exposing players to the latest training methods, the Indiana Chargers are getting them ready for the next level.

Doing indoor work at the Eastlake Chargers Baseball/Softball Academy inside Eastlake Athletic Club in Goshen, young athletes learn what it’s like at the collegiate level.

Founded by Joel Mishler, George Hofsommer and Ben Bailey in 2008 and now led by general manager Mishler, director of operations Justin Barber and strength and conditioning coach Evan Jurjevic, the Indiana Chargers has sent more than 135 players on to college baseball, several at the NCAA Division I level.

“It’s all about development,” Mishler said. “That’s why we exist.”

A former head coach at Glen Oaks Community College and Westview High School and a longtime professional scout, Mishler wants to give his players a clear picture of what it takes to the play college game through tools as well as physical and mental development.

The acronym C.H.A.R.G.E.R.S. stands for Commitment, Heart, Attitude, Respect, Grateful, Energy, Relentless, Servant Leaders and those core values are expressed at practices.

With the experience of the staff, players are also helped through the college recruiting process, finding the best fit for them based on their needs and talents.

“There’s never any guarantees (of high school playing time or a college scholarship),” Mishler said. “It’s something you have to earn. But we will give them the information of what it takes.

“It’s a culture of getting better and working hard.”

During the off-season (November to March), high school players have been attending optional three-a-day workouts (three hours on Sunday afternoons and up to 2 1/2 hours on Tuesdays and Fridays).

Jurjevic, who excelled on the diamond at LaPorte High School and Carson-Newman University, takes the Chargers through the warm-ups and exercises that get them ready to play the game.

The use of bands and weighted Drive Line plyo balls is prevalent for building up muscles and recovery.

One way to build arm strength is through a program the Chargers adopted two years ago — a pulldown drill which has players take a running start a throw into a net with a radar gun clocking the velocity.

“We call it the ‘run-and-gun,’” Barber said. “It’s like a crow-hop on steroids. You won’t see anything like that during a game, but it allows more momentum and bigger effort level.”

After getting warmed up, players will do the “run-and-gun” once a week to see if they can top their personal best.

On Sunday, Jan. 29, the facility high school record of 99.2 was set by Plymouth High School junior and Valparaiso University verbal commit Jeremy Drudge. The previous mark was held by Marian High School senior/University of Dayton-bound Riley Tirotta. Three dozen have joined the 90/95/100-plus club since November 2014.

There were several BP stations, including one where Jurjevic bounced the ball to the plate. The idea was the stay back with the hands and be ready for a curve or off-speed pitch.

Mishler and his staff are continually consulting with high level college and professional baseball people to stay at the forefront of technology. Mishler has attended 23 of the past 25 American Baseball Coaches Association national conventions (it will be in Indianapolis in 2018) and goes annually to the Pitch-a-Palooza in Nashville.

“We’ve always been of the mindset that we have to get better as coaches,” Mishler said. “These kids are getting a lot of information that they are going to get at the college level.”

Barber was a star left-handed pitcher at Inter-City Baptist High School and Spring Arbor University — both in Michigan. He notes that the Chargers will field nine teams 11U through 18U in 2017 (tryouts were in August 2016). The younger teams will play from late April to early July with high schoolers taking the field in June and July with the possibility of fall ball in September and early October.

While the Chargers do take part in travel events, including those organized by Bullpen Tournaments and Pastime Tournaments — many at Grand Park in Westfield — it’s not always about the games.

“We’re more focused on the developmental side,” Barber said. “We started a league with like-minded travel organizations and play three-game series (on a weekend with a single game one day and a doubleheader on the other) with pregame infield and batting practice. You don’t get that in most travel tournaments.

“It’s just games, games, games.”

Coaches 13U and above have college playing or many years of coaching experience.

“All of them are getting the same information and most recent and best available,” Mishler said.

It’s all about develop and getting better.

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(from left): Justin Barber, Joel Mishler and Evan Jurjevic of the Indiana Chargers.

Renowned ‘Defiance Way’ helps arms add velocity

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

“I think there’s a 90 mph arm in every school in the country. I’m not sure there’s not one in every class.” — Tom Held, head baseball coach, Defiance (Ohio) High School

In the northwest corner of Ohio, they are developing hard throwers and a Buckeye (Held) and a native Hoosier (Kevin “Scoop” Miller) are playing a big part.

Sometimes known as the “Defiance Way,” a system of throwing progressions and long toss has added 17 members to the 90 mph club since 1999.

Among DHS products are big leaguers Jon Niese (now with the Mets) and Chad Billingsley (most recently with the Phillies). A four-county area (Defiance, Fulton, Henry, Williams) of small schools typically has eight to 12 pro pitchers active each year.

“We throw a lot — more than most people throw,” Held, who has spoken at the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association State Clinic and many other seminars and camps in his Ohio High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame career. “We don’t baby the arms. We throw three days a week all winter.”

That off-season program has players throw into a net with tennis balls, softballs and baseballs. They go two sets with each and throw as hard as they can for 72 pitches.

“It seems to have a big impact,” Miller, who is entering his ninth season as pitching coach at Defiance College after a successful baseball and basketball coaching career at Archbold (Ohio) High School (leading the Blue Streaks to the Division 2 state baseball crown in 2005), said. “If guys will invest the time and effort and use the proper mechanics, the sky’s the limit.

“It motivates the kids when they see their (velocity) numbers go up. We also teach them a great 12-6 curve ball, too. That’s the safest pitch you can throw if you do it correctly and it reduces injuries.”

Athleticism has a lot to do with throwing hard, but proper technique and putting in the work is also key.

Much of the program does not involve getting on a mound.

“You must learn how to throw before you learn how to pitch,” Held said. “Throwing is a science and pitching is an art.

Held, whose teams have won 670 games and three Ohio High School Athletic Association Division 2 state titles (2013, 2015 and 2016) in 29 seasons, said a player must spend 4-6 weeks throwing everyday to get their arm into great shape.

“That does not mean you can pitch everyday,” Held said. “Kids don’t throw enough and they pitch too much.”

Held and Miller teach private lessons and run camps in the fall, Christmas break and on Sundays in January and February.

“We don’t label it as a pitching camp, but a throwing camp,” Miller said.

The desire is to get players at the younger ages before they get a chance to develop bad habits.

Held said that throwing — when done properly — does not hurt the arm.

A pitcher from 1983-86 in the Detroit Tigers system, Tom Held learned much of his baseball wisdom from father Mel “Country” Held, a veteran of 13 pro seasons with a “cup of coffee” for the 1956 Baltimore Orioles.

“All they did back then was throw,” Tom Held said.

The younger Held said his Bulldogs — pitchers and position players — will do long toss after a throwing progression every single day once the team gets outdoors.

Miller, a 1980 Jimtown High School and 1984 Goshen College graduate, stresses that conditioning is big for anyone wishing to be good at pitching or throwing.

“We want them in the best shape possible,” Miller said. “We do proper warm-up (of at least 20 minutes) with dynamic and static stretching. We make sure all core muscles are warmed up before we ever pick up baseball.”

Then were are towel drills and throwing progressions, isolating upper and lower body. There are specific drills to isolate every movement.

Long toss is emphasized for Defiance College pitchers, who work their way up throwing the length of a football field (300 feet). These Yellow Jackets will long toss the day before and after they pitch.

And their arms are stronger for it.

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Tom Held (Defiance High School)

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Scoop Miller (Defiance College)

Hannon looks to develop winning team, good citizens at Knox

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Kevin Hannon has a simple rule for his Knox High School baseball players.

Don’t do anything that would embarrass mom or grandma.

That’s the standard he went by as a student-athlete and then head coach and athletic director at Morgan Township and its the one he insists on as he heads into his eighth season as head coach of the Knox Redskins.

“You want to always think you’re parents are watching,” Hannon, a veteran of 17 head coaching seasons, said. “You don’t want to disgrace them. That really rings true for me.”

It’s about always doing the right thing.

So as Hannon looks to win games — Knox placed second in the first season of the Hoosier North Athletic Conference in 2016.

“I’m still a big believer in pitching and defense,” Hannon said.

But he is looking to accomplish more than that.

Hannon, who is second vice president in the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association in 2016-17, has built his program on the foundation of discipline and hard work.

“We want to develop good people while getting life lessons across,” Hannon said. “I credit Matt Bush for discipline. He was my basketball coach at Morgan Township. He made sure we were trying to be good people when we were at school and in the community.”

While he misses the rivalries from the old Northern State Conference (Bremen, Jimtown, John Glenn and New Prairie went to the Northern Indiana Conference with Knox, Culver, LaVille and Triton going to the Hoosier North), Hannon is excited about Redskins’ opportunities in the new loop, which includes five Class 1A schools and four from 2A, including Knox.

“These are teams we compete a little better with,” Hannon said. “We have more natural rivals like North Judson, Winamac, Culver.”

A challenge Knox still faces is the time change. Knox and North Judson are the only conference members on Central Time. Knox gets out of school at 3:05 p.m., making it tough when road games are scheduled for 4:30.

Hannon, a Purdue University graduate, teaches at Knox Elementary, which dismisses at 2:30 and does his best to get the Redskins on the road in a timely manner.

Another wrinkle that is unique to Knox is a school calendar with two weeks for spring break — the last week of March and first week of April. Once the IHSAA allows full workouts, the Redskins go for two weeks, Hannon gives them the first full spring break week off and then they practice for a week before the first near the middle of April.

“Most schools have already played six games,” Hannon said. “We play five games a week. That’s just the way it is.”

Hannon got active in IHSBCA leadership after seeing what the older ones were doing when he was a young coach. He enjoys the camaraderie in the coaching fraternity and sharing of ideas.

“This has been an awesome experience,” Hannon said of being an association officer and getting a chance to help run the annual State Clinic in January in Indianapolis and the North/South All-Star Series and Junior Showcase in July (this year it’s July 14-16 at Ball State University in Muncie and in 2018 comes to South Bend). “Indiana is loaded with baseball talent. It’s unbelievable.”

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Scott mentoring at Martinsville

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

A year away from baseball coaching made Jeff Scott take a look at his world.

The former middle infielder at Decatur Central and Purdue University was seeing a younger generation that was in need of positive role models and guidance.

“I started complaining to my wife about how different kids are — some aren’t respectful; some don’t work hard,” Scott said. “She finally said, ‘instead of complaining about it, why don’t you try to do something about it?”

Jeff knew Lindy (mother to boys Jake and Rayder and girls Gracie and A.J.) was right so he went back in the dugout at Martinsville High School (2017 will be his second season leading the Artesians).

“I decided I need to get back into coaching so I can impact these kids, maybe make a difference in their life so they can become productive citizens, good husbands and fathers,” Scott said. “That’s our goal as a (coaching) staff. That’s separate from baseball and yet it’s not.”

Teaching the game is important for Scott and assistants, but so is giving advice to young people.

While never a classroom teacher — he runs Adrenaline Fundraising — Scott always taught lessons during stints as a Mooresville assistant and Brebeuf Jesuit Prep head coach.

But this time around, his methods are different.

Scott played for Phil Webster at Decatur Central — a good enough athlete to be inducted into the school’s athletic hall of fame — and earned four letters at Purdue for coach Dave Alexander.

Both Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famers were hard-nosed and Scott recalls a fair amount of yelling around the diamond.

“I grew up in an era of rough-and-tough,” Scott said. “That’s just the way it was. I played for two coaches who were real hard on us. It didn’t hurt me. I had to change my coaching style as a lot of coaches have.

“But I don’t think you can do that with kids today. As coaches, you’ve really got to evolve a little bit and find different ways to motivate and mentor kids.”

Scott and his assistants pride themselves on being approachable.

“You want to build a relationship with your players so they trust you and you trust them,” Scott said. “My guys don’t feel uncomfortable coming to talk to me. That’s very important.”

It’s also powerful when coaches show their players that even they are preaching all these values to the youngsters, they are not infallible.

“We all have some story that can relate to some kind of life lesson,” Scott said. “I think it’s important to share that. I don’t want my guys to think I was perfect. I made my mistakes; I learned from things; and I like to share those stories with our guys so they know they are not the only ones who’ve dealt with it. We turned out just fine. We learned from it and moved on.”

Another lesson that Scott teaches is about dealing with disappointment and difficulty.

“Baseball is one of the few games that can prepare you for what life’s all about just because of the adversity that the game throws your way,” Scott said. “There’s not many things we can do where 1 out of 3 is really good. That’s hard for young kids to understand. They don’t like to fail.

“It’s a game of failure. The success rate is so small and people can’t deal with it.”

Martinsville won just seven games in 2016, but the four seniors never mailed it in.

Believing what Scott had told them, they did not want to let down their teammates and kept playing hard all season.

A unique challenge for baseball and other spring sports is dealing with spring break, prom and the looming end of the school year. Some athletes develop senioritis or even junioritis, sophomoreitis or freshmanitis.

“It’s a about creating a culture,” Scott said. “It’s a tricky thing for spring sports, especially when things aren’t going well.”

Yet, Scott’s players maintained their focus.

Scott also looks for his players to keep up their grades.

“We have a GPA goal — where do we stack up with the rest of the sports at Martinsville?,” Scott said. “Our goal is to climb the ladder. We were at the bottom when I took over last year. Now we’re near the middle of the pack.”

There’s been another change for Scott.

“I never used to think about the mental game,” Scott said. “We talk about it quite a bit in our program.

Scott asks his Artesians to have a “next-pitch mentality.”

“That one’s gone,” Scott said. “You’re not getting it back. Let’s move on. If it wasn’t good, learn from it, but let’s move forward.  We try to get kids to buy into that. If you can do that, you can have a lot of success in the game and have a lot of fun.

“That’s another thing. If you can’t have fun playing baseball, something’s wrong.”

Laughter is encouraged at the ballpark.

“We always had to be serious on the baseball diamond,” Scott said. “Why?”

Scott also tells his players there will be a time when they can play no more.

“I tell them, ‘don’t take your spikes off for the last time and regret it,’” Scott said. “I remember my last football game. I remember my last basketball game. I remember my last baseball game. It hurt. I cried like a baby — especially in football and basketball — because I knew I was never going to get to play competitively with my friends ever again.”

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Oak Hill’s Edwards giving back to game

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Shane Edwards is looking to pay if forward.

When he was a young high school baseball coach on the Indiana scene, veterans were willing to share their wisdom with him.

Now that he is seasoned — he is in his 15th season as head coach at Oak Hill in 2017 after serving on Chuck Brimbury’s Peru staff from 1999-2002 — Edwards is more than willing to pass along what he has learned as a member of the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association (he is currently past president).

“Everybody says Christmas is the greatest time of the year,” Edwards said during the annual IHSBCA State Clinic in Indianapolis. “But for baseball coaches, in my opinion, this is. Because you get to be around these guys.”

There were more than 400 coaches there sharing their love of the game.

“That’s the neatest thing about our association,” Edwards said of the giving nature of coaches in the sport. “There’s no fear in baseball. I’m successful and here’s what we do. Feel free to try it. There’s no secrets. Guys are always willing to help each other out. That’s great.

“I’m successful at Oak Hill not because of me, it’s because Terry Gobert of Jasper shared something with me or Don Sherman when he was still at Huntington. You name it. I talked to Coach (Ken) Schreiber at LaPorte as a young coach. I talked to Coach (Bill) Jones (at DeKalb). Nobody was afraid to share anything. That’s why I’m here. Hopefully, I can do the same for the next group of young guys.”

Edwards is a 1995 Norwell High School graduate. After playing for the Knights, he went on to the Mastodons of Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne.

In Brimbury, he met a disciple of Sherman. Both men encouraged Edwards to become involved in the IHSBCA and continue the legacy set by founders like Jones, the group’s long-time executive director who passed away Nov. 2, 2015.

“Bill is one of the reasons I’m at Oak Hill,” Edwards said. “He called and said I had an interview at Oak Hill. I didn’t even know I applied. Bill called them and said this is who you need to interview. I owe a lot to Bill. I owe a lot to our association. I feel I need to be a part of it.”

Current executive director Brian Abbott has taken Edwards under his wing and he has helped move the organization forward.

“I want the start of this association to be proud of where we are now,” Edwards said. “I’m excited to see young faces in programs that I know are going to teach them things the right way. I’m excited to see guys who are here and want to learn about the game and aren’t set in their ways.”

Edwards, a former teacher who is now in central administration, proudly wears the “old school” label.

That means concepts like discipline and accountability are important to him.

“We want to win baseball games along the way, but we don’t want to do that at the sacrifice of doing things the right way,” Edwards said. “That’s my goal every year, making sure the kids know how to play the game the right way but also be quality young men.”

Accountability used to be an automatic. Not anymore.

“When we were growing up, you respected your elders and you were accountable and that’s how it had to be,” Edwards said. “Now, it has to be taught.”

Edwards would like nothing better than to have 50 players show up at an alumni game because they were part of a program that they enjoyed — one that continues to do things the right way.

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Details the difference for Purdue’s Wasikowski

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Mark Wasikowski sweats the details.

His baseball experience tells him that those things build a championship culture.

The new head baseball coach at Purdue University has been getting his Boilermakers to focus on routines that he expects will translate to success.

Wasikowski shared his ideas in presentation at the recent Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association State Clinic and said “we’ve got to do a good job of earning the trust of the people in that room … High school coaches are absolutely critical.”

Practice organization has been key during Wasikowski’s career as a player (the Seal Beach, Calif., native helped win a College World Series title for coach Andy Lopez at Pepperdine University in 1992) and college coaching stops as an assistant at Southeast Missouri State, Florida, Arizona (helping Lopez earn a national championship in 2012) and Oregon.

Why have routines?

“They let everybody in the organization know about the mission and how the mission will be accomplished,” Wasikowski said. “The purpose of all these checklists is to cover the routine items. As a player, thorough repetition allows them to become more confident. That’s huge for me.”

With routines, players are able to slow the game down.

Making detailed checklists of how the team will practice batting, pitching and defense is important to developing a championship culture.

“These are the building blocks of the program — the critical things we need to do on a daily basis,” Wasikowski said. “The idea is to teach the routine so well that your kids will not only understand why the routine is done, but how it’s done and for what purpose it will be used.”

Wasikowski and his coaching staff of Steve Holm, Wally Crancer, Miles Miller and John Madia has a daily, weekly and monthly calendar to keep his team on-task.

With this calendar posted in the locker room, players will know the practice plan and routines that will allow them to get their work done even if coaches are not around.

“We’re going to put down on a piece of paper everything we want to accomplish,” Wasikowski said. “We know that throwing, fielding and hitting evaluations are probably going to be on Day 1.”

The idea is to hit all the checklist items multiple times during the preseason.

“If you’ve got five checks by each item at the end of the fall, you’ve probably done a pretty good job,” Wasikowski said. “If you’ve only got one check, you’re probably slipping a little bit.”

At Oregon, head coach George Horton’s practice plan took up five pages. If a period was out of place on the practice plan devised by his assistants, he knew it and handed it back.

“Bottom line is the details are critical,” Wasikowski said. “Our calendars us how much time we’re going to spend on things each day.

“Once the kids see the routines equals the details equals the wins, now those things actually start mattering to those kids.”

Wasikowski does not take any detail for granted. That might mean taking out a stop watch and timing a player as he takes a jersey top off the locker room floor and places it on a hanger.

He teaches the value of defense and of not shaking off pitches because the defense is aligned in a certain way behind the pitcher.

At Wasikowski’s first team meeting at Purdue, he talked about details with his players — things like going to class, living your life right and so on.

Last fall, he also learned how competitive Purdue graduates are in the working world.

“I don’t see why we can’t do that on the baseball field,” Wasikowski said. “We’ve got a good school, why not have a good baseball team? I didn’t move my family across the country (from Oregon) to lose … We’ve got to move forward. There’s a plan.”

It’s a detailed plan.

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