New Haven baseball top dog Bischoff paying it forward

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Dave Bischoff first barked out baseball commands for the Bulldogs of New Haven High School as an assistant coach in the early 1980’s.

Since the 1985 season, Bischoff has been the top diamond dog.

Taking lessons learned from some of Indiana’s top high school baseball minds, Bischoff has been successful enough at this East Allen County institution that he has been directing those commands at a facility renamed in 2009 as Bischoff Field.

“It should probably be named for my wife for putting up with us all these years,” says Dave, referring to Kristen, whom he married in the fall of 1984, himself and the two sons who played for him — Matt and Kyle (both who went on to play at Purdue University for Doug Schreiber). Matt is now his father’s pitching coach. “Matt says he’s my consultant. With that title, he can offer free advice at all times. He chose the job description.”

The current New Haven coaching staff also features former Bulldog players Mike Snyder and Brandon Pease and former Fort Wayne Concordia High School head coach Beach Harmon. The New Haven pitching record book is full of entries with Brandon Pease and Matt Bischoff.

It was also Matt who sent out a survey a few years ago to 100 of his father’s former New Haven players. The response was tremendous and some of them even focused on baseball.

The 2017 season will be Dave Bischoff’s 33rd season at New Haven. In the previous 32, the Bulldogs have won 586 games, 10 sectionals and three regionals while making three IHSAA Final Four appearances and taking four titles in a traditionally baseball-rich conference, which has morphed from the Northeastern Indiana Athletic Conference to the Northeast Eight Conference.

Bischoff Field, which will be sectional host site in ’17, has been upgraded over the years with a covered grandstand behind home plate, wooden walls in the power alleys and a wind screen in center field.

The veteran coach, inducted by his peers in 2014 to the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame, is proud that he has sent more than 50 players on to college and two — son Matt as well as Dave Doster (who played two seasons in the majors with the Philadelphia Phillies) — went on to professional ball. Around two dozen have gone on to coach at the high school level with a few coaching in college.

Dave Bischoff gets even more satisfaction knowing that the life lessons he was passing along as a leader and mentor — be on time, bring your best, show up — were absorbed by young men who went on to be successful husbands, fathers and business owners. There’s even been an FBI agent or two.

Baseball began for Bischoff in Adams County. Back in the 1960’s, Little League baseball meant a city league in Decatur and a country league in Monmouth. Young Dave played in the latter.

He also played in a plenty of non-organized games while making his way up through Pony League (teams were based in Decatur, Burns, Geneva and Monroe) with hopes of playing or Bellmont High School on the corner of Adams and 13th at Worthman Field.

“It’s probably over-stated, but we played a lot and were coached little,” says Bischoff of his formative baseball days. “We played a lot of pick-up games. We learned by trial and error. To get better, you had to make adjustments.”

By the time Bischoff reached high school, there were 30 freshmen — or about 20 percent of the boys in the class — trying out for baseball.

Dave was cut that first year.

Determined, he played baseball in Convoy, Ohio and fast pitch softball in a local church league.

“Playing fast pitch softball against men, you learn a lot that way,” says Dave. Bischoff’s reputation for bunting and slashing teams at New Haven stem from all the fast-pitch softball he pitched in high school and college.

As a sophomore, Bischoff made the baseball team at Bellmont, where he graduated in 1975.

After that, he got a chance to play college baseball at Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne, then an NCAA Division III program. He chose the school because it was close, the price was right, it afforded him a chance to play.

A history buff, Bischoff gravitated toward becoming a social studies teacher (he’s taught history and English since the fall of 1982) and he’d decided coaching was also for him.

While still in college, Bischoff began coaching Little Leaguers and was given a chance to coach Bellmont’s summer program by new Braves head coach John Cate.

“In a sense, he gave me my first shot,” says Bischoff of Cate. “John impressed upon me the organizational skills to put together a program. He did things first class. It was evident kids bought into what he was doing.

“I understood real quick those are the things you have to do if you’re going to be successful.”

Cate took Bischoff to his first IHSBCA State Clinic in 1980 and that’s where he first met Purdue University coach Dave Alexander, who is also an IHSBCA Hall of Famer. The clinic would become an annual ritual and Bischoff would get to travel to and from Indianapolis with Hall of Famers like Bill Jones (DeKalb), Don Sherman (Huntington North) and Chris Stavreti (Fort Wayne Northrop).

“It was like a got three clinics,” says Bischoff of his northeast Indiana-based travel companions. “They were great coaches and mentors. They would share anything with you.”

For two years after college, Bischoff served as a substitute teacher in East Allen County Schools and a baseball assistant to New Haven head coach and IHSBCA charter member Don Hummel before taking a full-time teaching position and baseball assistant job for two more years at Norwell Hugh School.

When Bischoff was established at New Haven and Jones stopped hosting his own coaches clinic at DeKalb, he encouraged the young coach to start one of his own. Jones hooked him up with Hall of Famers Ken Schreiber (LaPorte) and Jim Reinebold (South Bend Clay) as clinicians.

“I got to know those guys right away,” says Bischoff. “I feel fortunate that from a very early age I was being mentored by the founding fathers of the association. Those guys are professionals, organizers and icons. There are real good guys when it came to helping out a young coach.”

Bischoff was an IHSBCA district representative for 10 years and was the organization’s president in 2005-06.

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The Bischoffs (from left): Dave, Kristen, Matt, Casey (Kyle’s wife) and Kyle. (Family Photo Supplied)

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Former big leaguer Stults explains importance of mental game to campers

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

To pitch at high levels — college or pro — the space between the ears becomes even more important than the arm.

That’s one of the big lessons Eric Stults absorbed in his 14 seasons of professional baseball (2002-2015).

“It’s the mental part of the game,” Stults said after leading a pitching camp for youngsters Saturday, Feb. 25 at Eastlake Chargers Baseball/Softball Academy inside Eastlake Athletic Club in Goshen. “A lot of guys can physically throw a baseball and throw it hard and well. But what separates the guys who excel or do so at the next level is their ability to mentally make adjustments and stay focused.

“It’s somebody I probably didn’t learn until college. More than physically, I needed to be mentally sharp. (After learning that,) I was practicing that as much as I was throwing the baseball.

“The earlier some of these players can get that, it’s only going to help them along the way.”

Stults played at Argos High School and Bethel College before being  drafted in 2002. The left-hander’s pro baseball odyssey took him through experiences with five different Major League Baseball clubs (Los Angeles Dodgers, Colorado Rockies, Chicago White Sox, San Diego Padres and Atlanta Braves) as well as several minor league teams and in Japan (Hiroshima Toyo Carp).

While working toward the big leagues (he made his debut in 2006), Stults was introduced to the importance of the mental side.

“I got in a rut and was searching for something,” Stults said. “Someone said, ‘have you ever thought of the mental side of the game?’ I said, ’Not really. I just go out there and throw the baseball and hope for the best.’”

Stults started his Indiana Chargers camp remarks by focusing on enjoyment of the game.

“This is a game,” Stults said to 45 pitchers of varying ages and their parents. “We want to have fun.”

Then comes learning how to pitch — not just throw.

Even the hardest throwers can’t rely on velocity alone.

Stults, who resides in Middlebury, enjoyed longevity in the game not from gas but his ability to focus on the game within the game — pitcher vs. hitter. He was able to change speeds and the eye levels of hitters by moving the ball around.

After a Tommy John surgery early in his career — before he really knew the importance of arm care — he stayed relatively healthy.

While campers went from station to station for Crossover Symmetry Band work for rotator cuff and scapular strengthening, throwing and recovery drills with the help of ECBSA’s Joel Mishler, Justin Barber and George Hofsommer, Stults also took time to tell them about concepts like routine.

Stults, who worked with many coaches and sports psychologists throughout his diamond days, said his routine changed throughout his career, but having one helped with the mental side of the game.

One pre-pitch routine that he had was taking a deep breath and letting it go along with all of the tension.

“It can be that simple,” Stults said. “I also had a key word — FOCUS. It let me focus on the catcher’s glove and take the distractions out of my head. That allows you to get back into a good mind frame.”

Learning the mental side also helped Stults to keep from dwelling on the negative things and focus on his next pitch or next outing.

“The mindset is you’ve got to forget about it,” Stults said. “It’s easier said than done. But that comes through practice and mental part of the game. Let’s move forward.”

In discussing mechanics, Stults noted that not everyone delivers the ball in the same way or has the same arm slot.

“As an individual, you have to figure out what works for you,” Stults said. “When I talk about different grips and throwing different pitches, it’s trial and error.

“You have to be willing to try new things and be coachable.”

Stults encouraged players to learn how to “self-coach” and diagnose their own problems and find solutions.

He emphasized always having a purpose even when playing catch (throw to a target) and developing tempo and rhythm while using nice loose grip on the baseball.

As Stults, 37, looks back on his lengthy career, it’s the relationships that stand out.

“What was gratifying was the people I met,” Stults said. “You can sit there and talk about victories and this and that. But it’s the people I met along the way. It’s that clubhouse camaraderie I was able to have in baseball.”

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Former big leaguer Eric Stults demonstrates a grip during a camp at Eastlake Chargers Baseball/Softball Academy inside Eastlake Athletic Club in Goshen. (Photo By John Sadowey)

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Eric Stults throws at a camp at Eastlake Chargers Baseball/Softball Academy in Goshen. He was helped by ECBSA’s Justin Barber (from left on right side of photo), George Hofsommer and Joel Mishler. (Photo By John Sadowey)

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A pitching camp by former big leaguer and Middlebury resident Eric Stults brought out several youngsters to Eastlake Chargers Baseball/Softball Academy in Goshen. (Photo By John Sadowey)

Positivity, energy, versatility explored at Cubbies Coaches Club

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Don’t focus on what they’re doing wrong.

Figure out a way to do it the right way.

That was one of the messages at the monthly Cubbies Coaches Club hosted by the South Bend Cubs Performance Center.

When the shortstop boots a grounder or a catcher throws a ball a mile over the second baseman’s head, it’s easy to see that was a mistake.

“Everybody understands what you’re doing wrong,” Performance Center director Mark Haley said. “The hard part is getting it right.”

The key question for the player is: What should I have done?

Getting to players at the youth and high school levels to understand that is important.

Having that message delivered in a civil manner is also very helpful.

Veteran coach Jeff Buysse, father of Performance Center hitting and catching instructor and South Bend Washington High School head coach Doug Buysse, tells a story about former Washington coach Ric Tomaszewski to prove the point.

“T-6” was appearing at a coaches clinic in Illinois that had the coaches attempting to hit balls off the tee.

“They’re knocking the tees over,” Jeff Buysse said of a session led by the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer. “All of a sudden I hear that voice that I’ve heard so much: ‘STOP! Did you guys not listen to a word I said?’ His veins are popping out. He’s pacing and saying things like ‘Did you guys not listen?’ Then he stopped and asked, ‘Did that feel good? Is that going to make you better at hitting the ball off the tee?’”

So instead of yelling at the 10-year-old that is having trouble doing the same thing or some other baseball activity, calmly point out the correct way of doing it and don’t leave them cowering in fear.

If the kid can play loose, he’s more likely to play with a spring in his step.

It’s energy that coaches want to see from players.

Haley and Doug Buysse were catchers as players and see that energy is especially critical behind the dish, where you can’t take a pitch off or it becomes costly to the whole team.

“The guy that has the high energy and takes change are the guys who will get a chance (at the pro level),” Haley said. “Everybody watches them and they create energy.”

Hyper guys can good catchers.

“It’s amazing how that just plays into the cards for him,” Haley said. “He’s got everything covered. He never gets bored.”

Buysse, who was a receiver at Washington and Saint Joseph’s College, wants a spark plug for a catcher.

“The kid that’s the loudest, that’s the one I want behind the plate,” Doug Buysse said.

At Washington, Buysse expects his players to be selfless, selling out for their teammates, and to bring energy.

“That’s what you are supposed to bring everyday and we have an energy target,” Doug Buysse said. “Most days we lose.”

Haley, who spent 23 seasons as a coach or manager on the player development side of professional baseball including 10 as manager of the South Bend Silver Hawks (2015-14), now coaches travel teams in the I-94 League. He wants to win, but the emphasis is placed elsewhere.

“It’s about teammates, relationships, responsibility,” Haley said.

The goal for Haley and company is lifting the level of baseball in the area and will lend a hand to any player or coach trying to do things the right way. Attending CCC sessions or having days with leagues or teams are a few ways to make this happen.

“We’ll help as much as we can,” Haley said.

Making relationships at the next level is helpful and Doug Buysse takes his Washington players to a Notre Dame game every year. The players and parents get to see the difference between high school and NCAA Division I talent.

One question was posed by a Little League coach about playing multiple positions.

The consensus: Don’t lock yourself in so early when they are still learning the game. Even well-established players will change positions. Haley pointed out that Buster Posey transitioned from shortstop to catcher.

Doug Buysse remembers that when he coached JV baseball and asked each player their position. Pitcher and shortstop was the response each time.

“They can’t all be that,” Doug Buysse said. “Pick something else.”

Even though that team didn’t win too many games, players bought into the always-hustling mentality and sprinted out to the foul line after each game and awaited Buysse’s post-game remarks.

The next Cubbies Coaches Club meeting is slated for Tuesday, March 21. RSVP at least a week in advance to Doug Buysee at michianacoachesclub@gmail.com.

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Doug Buysse

‘Hoosier Hammer’ Klein was Indiana baseball’s man of steel

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Baseball players today throw iron around as a part of strength training.

An Indiana native who wound up enshrined in Cooperstown and Jasper moved mounds of metal for a living, but that made him strong and it helped him slug his way to the big leagues.

Back in the late 1920’s, Chuck Klein built powerful wrists by moving sturdy steel plates while working at an iron works in his hometown of Indianapolis.

He caught and tossed 180-pound hot steel plates with tongs and tossed them into rolling mills.

His Popeye-like forearms allowed the “Hoosier Hammer” aka “The Powerhouse” to take a terrific cut with a 42-ounce bat — the legal limit at the time — and club 300 home runs to go with a .320 lifetime batting average, 1,201 runs batted in and 398 doubles. The lefty slugger led the National League in circuit clouts four times (43 in 1929, 31 in 1931, 38 in 1932, 28 in 1933).

While with the Philadelphia Phillies early in his career, Klein told the Associated Press that confidence in his forearm power kept him from getting into trouble with his foot work because he did not feel the need to lunge or “get too much body” into his swing.

Chuck pitched in grammar school as a young boy and then became a three-sport star at Southport High School (baseball, basketball and track).

Klein was primarily a right-handed pitcher for the Cardinals on the diamond and had to learn the ropes as an outfielder as a pro.

According to an NEA Service story, Klein got his start in professional baseball when a prohibition agent arranged for him to play for the Evansville Hubs, a St. Louis Cardinals farm team in the Class-B Three-I League.

Klein’s brief time in the minors was two weeks with Evansville and 10 weeks with the Fort Wayne Chiefs of the Central League. After breaking his ankle in the winter of 1927-28, he was sold to Fort Wayne for $200.

When baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis discovered that the Cardinals owned CL teams in both Dayton, Ohio, and Fort Wayne, St. Louis was forced to sell off the Fort Wayne team. Landis now has an elementary school in Logansport named for him.

The Phillies outbid the New York Yankees for Klein’s services and he entered the National League.

He was called up to the Phillies at the end of the 1928 season after signing a $7,500 contract.  In his first 64 games with Philadelphia, he hit .360 with 11 homers and 34 RBI.

Klein had three stints with the Phillies and also played with the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates before retiring in 1944.

For all his heroics on the diamond, Klein suffered after he left the game. According to the Indianapolis Times, he had a nerve disease that impaired his reflexes and memory and crippled his right leg.

Klein died at 53. He was found dead in a flooded bathroom in his Indianapolis home in 1958 and he is buried in hometown.

Chuck Klein Sports Complex is located on Indy’s west side.

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Indiana’s Chuck Klein, a Baseball Hall of Famer who played from 1928-44, wielded a 42-ounce bat.

Coach, educator King winds way to success at New Castle

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Sometimes career paths don’t follow a straight line.

There can be curves in the road.

Brad King knows this.

He didn’t set out to be a high school baseball coach and counselor at his alma mater, but that’s where he wound up and he’s glad it did.

Baseball has long been important to King. He was a third baseman, right field and pitcher for New Castle High School in Henry County. At one time, he held the Trojans’ single-season and career record for saves and five and seven.

After excelling on the diamond for junior varsity coach Ed Gilliland and varsity coach Harold Huffman, King planned to attend college with the aim of teaching elementary schoolers.

He found out he wasn’t ready.

“I wasn’t prepared for it,” says King decades later. “I was not mature enough or organized enough.”

King went to work in a print shop. After half way through that 13-year stint, he was called back to the diamond.

Gary Brown, who had been New Castle’s first Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association All-Star, was now the head coach and he invited King to be the JV coach in 1995.

“It was a great opportunity,” says King. “We had three coaches total in the program and I had no assistants. I really enjoyed it.”

In fact, he enjoyed it so much that four years into coaching he decided to go back to college. But this time he would prepare to teach geography and psychology to high school students. He took classes at the Indiana University-East satellite campus in New Castle and at the main location in Richmond.

Along the way, he decided to go for his masters degree and become a counselor.

It took him seven years to get his degree. All the while he was still working, coaching and being encouraged by wife Kellie.

“Not any of my successes would be possible with that continued support,” says King, who has two boys with Kellie (New Castle graduates Conner and Spencer). Conner set school marks for average (.429) and career hits (141) before graduating in 2012, playing one season at Indiana Wesleyan University and getting a degree at Purdue University. Because of a knee injury, Spencer switched to golf. He got his high school diploma in 2016.

The Kings celebrate 26 years of marriage March 9.

There have been plenty of baseball successes to celebrate, too.

After the 1999 season, Brown left as head coach and Corey Van Skyock took over as NC head coach for three seasons. King became head coach in 2003, meaning that 2017 is his 15th as head coach and 23rd in the program. He has three 20-win seasons in 14 seasons. That had happened just once in the previous 82 campaigns at New Castle.

King, the school’s 20th head coach since 1907, is now the all-time baseball coaching victory leader for the Trojans at 219-171-1 with North Central Conference titles in 2005 and 2013 (New Castle left the NCC for the Hoosier Heritage Conference after the 2012-13 school year). Trailing King on the victory list is Huffman (who passed away in 2009) at 195-179-3 (1978-93) and Rex Brooks at 169-150 (1958-76).

King, an IHSBCA district representative, has coached five all-staters and four IHSBCA All-Stars (King coached in the 2014 IHSBCA North-South All-Star Series), including 2013 Indiana Mr. Baseball Trey Ball (a left-handed pitcher and first-round selection by the Boston Red Sox). Ben Smith (Class of 2003) was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles and is now out of baseball.

The student-athlete is also emphasized for the Trojans. The American Baseball Coaches Association recognized three programs from Indiana for academics in 2015-16 — Andrean, Lafayette Central Catholic and New Castle (3.44 team grade-point average).

The program has also grown. There were 27 players in King’s last season as JV coach. When he took over the varsity reins, he asked for a third squad (then known as C-team) and he now carries 40 to 45 players per year and has seven assistant coaches — Wayne Graham, Tony Gregory, Clint Garrard and Matt York (pitching coach) on the varsity with Rob Chesher, Josh Barber, Kelly Rector and Frank McMahon at the lower levels.

King draws a line between counseling and coaching. The are both about motivating students to achieve. It might mean giving an incentive to raise a grade or getting a more batting practice time.

On the field, the Trojans operate by the mantras of “you control what you can control” and “maximize your potential.”

“Not every ballplayer is going to be Division I or drafted and you can’t control calls by the umpire,” says King. “And be the best you can be everyday.”

For New Castle in 2017, it’s about getting back to basics and fundamentals. The Trojans “Trust the Process.”

Just like their coach trusted the winding path he was on.

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Brad King enters his 15th season as head baseball coach and 23rd in the program at New Castle High School in 2017. The 1989 NCHS graduate is the school’s all-time wins leader.

Kelly building relationships in baseball broadcasting

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Benjamin Kelly knows that it’s not easy to get into professional baseball.

Entering his fourth season as the radio play-by-play voice of the Northwest Arkansas Royals (Double-A Texas League), graduate of Lakeland High School (2009) and Goshen College (2013) is enjoying the ride.

“I really do enjoy the grind of it,” says Kelly, who works for a club that plays its 140 games in 152 days with several off days consumed with travel. “I get to watch a baseball game every night.”

Kelly gets to hear stories from managers, coaches and players and relate that to his listeners. He gets to build relationships is he tries to climb the ladder of affiliated baseball just like the men who pitch, hit and catch for pay.

“We’re on the same path to the big leagues, we’re just in different lanes,” says Kelly. “I’m striving everyday to reach out and meet somebody else — somebody who might give you a chance.

“You have to keep those relationships throughout the course of your career.”

Kelly, who played four seasons at Goshen, relates to the game in ways that not all play-by-play broadcaster can.

“I know what it’s like to field a ground ball, make a throw from behind the plate, stand in against a 90 mph fastball,” says Kelly. “I can bring the small nuances the Average Joe can’t. That sets me apart.”

Kelly spends most of his off-season in Arkansas, but he was at his alma mater recently for a preseason banquet. He offered words of advice to the current crop of Maple Leafs.

“Don’t take the four years for granted,” says Kelly in repeating some of his remarks. “Don’t take a pitch off. Don’t take an at-bat off. You’ll regret the one’s you do.”

Kelly also offered to be a contact for anyone wishing to get their foot in the door in pro baseball.

“I’ll do anything I can to help them out,” says Kelly.

After doing plenty of play-by-play in other sports for the award-winning WGCS 91.1 The Globe (run by professor and veteran broadcaster Jason Samuel) and for Paul Condry at the Regional Radio Sports Network, Kelly began getting his chops as a baseball play-by-play man with the independent Schaumburg Boomers in the suburbs of Chicago. There, he built his resume and his relationships and wound up in Springdale, Ark., with the Naturals, an affiliate of the Kansas City Royals.

“We’re three hours from Kansas City — straight shot up interstate,” says Kelly. “With all the success the Royals have had since I go here in 2014, it’s grown to be more of a Royals area.”

Kelly grew up a St. Louis Cardinals fan, but you won’t notice his Redbird leanings in the way he does his job.

“Whatever organization takes me on, I’ll root for that affiliate,” says Kelly, who does call 32 games a year between the Naturals and the Springfield (Mo.) Cardinals. “I think I’m going to keep that mindset no matter where I go. You rooting interest lies with your employer. That’s the only way to do it.”

The Texas League is a bus league. The miles start to pile up for the Naturals when they cross over from the North Division with teams in Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma to the four Texas-based clubs in the South Division. Northwest Arkansas visits that side a few times in each half of the split season, making a ride that can last 12 hours to Corpus Christi and Midland on one swing and Frisco and Midland on the other.

While the clock is ticking down to Opening Night (April 6), Kelly has been busy working on his team’s 150-page media guide (culling through box scores to come up with all-time lists etc.) and also working broadcasts of University of Arkansas events for Razorback Sports Network — either TV or online.

“I had never really done TV play-by-play until this (winter),” says Kelly. “It’s opened my eyes. In radio, the play-by-play man is like the star of the show and he must create a picture. In TV, he’s the driver for the color commentator. The play-by-play guy is secondary.”

To catch Kelly with during the Naturals season, visit http://www.nwanaturals.com and click the “Listen Live” tab or find the broadcast on the MiLB.com First Pitch app.

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Gernon building successful baseball culture at Western Michigan

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Billy Gernon is reaping the rewards of his labor as a college baseball coach while also giving back to a game he embraced as boy.

Gernon saw his sixth Western Michigan University squad go 22-34 and win the school’s first-ever Mid-American Conference tournament championship in 2016 while the Broncos earned their first NCAA tournament berth since 1989.

“We’ve got a lot of exciting things going on,” says Gernon. “I’m trying to capture that momentum and bottle it.”

Left-handed pitcher Keegan Akin was chosen as WMU’s first MAC tournament MVP and was then selected by the Baltimore Orioles in the second round of the 2016 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, getting an invitation to big league spring training in 2017.

Akin was the Broncos’ highest draft pick since Harry Shaughnessy in 1970. Shortstop Connor Smith was named 2016 MAC Freshman of the Year.

As if to prove that old adage about the importance of pitching and defense, Western was among the nation’s leaders in fielding percentage at .978 — the all-time best mark at a school that started playing baseball in 1911.

“The strengths for me as a coach speaks to where I come from,” says Gernon. “Competition for big bats is heavy. Competition for defense is not as high.”

Gernon’s first season in Kalamazoo was 2011 after two at Michigan State University and nine as head coach at Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne.

Gernon grew up near the baseball fields near Mt. Tabor Road in New Albany, Ind.

“The game became surrogate father,” says Gernon. “The game’s been taking care of me for a long time.

“I came from a broken home at a very early age. I had an unexplainable love for the game. I was gifted at pitching. Being good at it probably made me like it more.”

Now 50, Gernon still fondly looks back to his 13-year-old summer at playing Babe Ruth League baseball in New Albany, Ind., for a trio of enthusiastic coaches — Louis Jensen Jr., Buzz Benson and John Shine.

“They were young guys and they were a lot of fun,” says Gernon. “I remember looking forward to going to practice.”

Jensen is now director of high school eduction for New Albany Floyd County Consolidated School Corp.

After graduating from New Albany High School in 1985, Gernon took his pitching talents to Indiana University Southeast in New Albany. He was the MVP for the IUS and that gave him a chance to play for IU Bloomington as a senior in 1990. Head coach Bob Morgan asked him to join the Hoosiers and he was excited about his opportunity.

Then tragedy struck.

“My brother died it the day I got there,” says Gernon. A car wreck took David Gernon’s life in 1989. “I was a very vulnerable person.”

Morgan’s passion pushed Gernon to succeed on the diamond.

“At Big Ten level, you need to win,” says Gernon. “You need to perform.”

With Morgan’s insistence on hard work, no excuses and accountability, Gernon flourished and became IU’s closer.

“He catapulted me to another level,” says Gernon.

Somewhere along the line, his focus went away from becoming a radio announcer and a chance to coach came along.

“I just decided to go for it,” says Gernon.

There were bumps along the way. At IPFW, Gernon took over a program that made a transition from NCAA Division II to NCAA Division I during his tenure. For seven of his nine seasons in Fort Wayne, the Mastodons were not in a conference and had just five in-state scholarships with no paid assistant coaches. The teams averaged 11 home games and 40 road games per season.

Yet, Gernon still scheduled the best competition he could find even if his record (157-275-3 in those nine campaigns) suffered for it.

“The biggest teacher for me, personally, has been failure,” says Gernon.

Time, maturity and sincerity plus having a son of his own (Jacob David is 16 and a sophomore at Portage Central High School) have also taught him to be a better coach.

“I always try to keep my brother’s spirit alive in me,” says Gernon. “It’s important to me that my players know I love them. I need to do a better job of not only making sure I was saying it, but doing it.”

His Broncos have responded to that passion.

“Players want to perform for me,” says Gernon, who is 136-193 at WMU. “When they don’t, they’re so bothered. They don’t need anything from me but to address the wound.

“Failure is an event, not a person. The game is riddled with failure and great players learn how to deal with it.”

More than ever, Gernon is concerned with building the culture.

“Cultures are more important than anything,” says Gernon. “Great cultures win over talent. It’s my job as a leader to have guys know what the culture is and become great messengers of the team’s philosophy and culture.”

Gernon expects players to spread the word in the locker room: This is how we do things and this is what’s expected.

“Great culture is why Western won the first MAC tournament in school history and went to the NCAA tournament,” says Gernon. “We have great leaders.”

And through it all, he’s giving back.

“I want to thank every player whoever sweated or sacrificed in a uniform in any place I was ever privileged to coach,” says Gernon. “The game’s been taking care of me for a long time. I’m trying to do everything I can to serve it in the form of gratitude. I talk to current players more about their legacy, how they want to be remembered and the mark they want to leave on other players.

“I want to thank every player whoever sweated or sacrificed in a uniform in any place I was ever privileged to coach.”

It’s just that important.

billgernonwmu

Western Michigan University head baseball coach Billy Gernon played at New Albany High School, Indiana University Southeast and IU Bloomington and coached at Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne before heading north. (Western Michigan University Photo)