By STEVE KRAH
“We always have our practices at fast pace,” says McWilliams, who spoke Dec. 15 at the free Huntington North Hot Stove clinics as a guest of new Vikings head coach Mark Flueckiger. “It’s uptempo.
“It’s controlled chaos. It’s a mess. But we love it and our guys get so much out of it.”
The goal for Tech is to play a nine-inning game in two hours.
“We don’t throw the ball around the horn,” says McWilliams. “We strike a guy out and the ball is right back to the pitcher.
“We want to really play that fast pace. Why? Because the game of baseball is not supposed to be played that fast.
“If that is an advantage to us over our opponents, so be it. That’s great.”
Tech, which is located in Fort Wayne and went to the NAIA World Series in 2019, has a varsity and developmental teams. That’s 65 players.
McWilliams has them all working out as a group.
“I’m a firm believer in having everybody practice together,” says McWilliams. “I know that sounds like a nightmare for some high school coaches. You can get so much out of your practices.
“Younger players learn your systems for their four years.”
While he sees the benefit of individual work, McWilliams loves to do team drills and he shared some of those with the Hot Stove.
The tone is set at the beginning. While the old Green Bay Packers ran on “Lombardi Time” and being on time was late, the Warriors run on “Indiana Tech Time.”
“If practice is at 3, we’re stretching at 2:45,” says McWilliams. During that time, a “quote of the day” is shared. There is discussion of the program’s core values or standards.
Seniors will present a word of the day, telling their teammates what it means to them and maybe the Webster’s Dictionary definition and how the team and coaches can use that word to jell together.
“It’s so important that the guys get a great stretch,” says McWilliams. “It’s also important for the coaching staff to be out there when the team is stretching.”
Tech gets all 65 players in a big circle and center field and McWilliams addresses each one of them daily.
“I don’t want a day to go by that I don’t say anything to or greet one of my guys,” says McWilliams. “I think that’s so important.”
There’s a no-walking rule for the Warriors.
“That includes me,” says McWilliams. “If we expect our guys to hustle all the time on the field, then I need to hustle all the time on the field.
“If I see them walking, I hold them accountable. If they see my coaching staff or me walking, they hold me accountable. We’re all at the same level there.”
After stretching comes the throwing routine. The Warriors go through championship level catch with each position having a specific focus like infielders working on quick hands etc.
Then comes the four corners drill.
“I know it’s something they’ve been doing from Little League on up,” says McWilliams. “That is a great drill. Keep doing it.”
“He flat out told me, ‘Kip, this is the reason why we’re always top five in the country defensively,’” says McWilliams of Riggleman’s devotion to four corners. “It’s not just the throwing and catching of the four corners, it’s the communication. That’s key.
“In baseball, there are so many plays that are made when we’re actually fielding a ground ball or catching a fly ball when we take our eyes off the target.”
McWilliams uses an example from his family life. Kip and Melissa welcomed a baby into their lives five years ago.
When Ava was a baby, Melissa would talk softly to her through the baby monitor to calm her at night.
“Ava’s in the dark but she hears a very comfortable voice,” says McWilliams. “What happens if you’ve got a shortstop who fields that ball in the hole and he doesn’t know exactly where the first base bag is? He knows it’s over it that direction.
“But he’s hearing a comforting voice. ‘Hit me in the chest! Hit me in the chest!’ Or even a third baseman saying, ‘Hit Rich in the chest! Hit Rich in the chest!’”
McWilliams says communication can help when a ball is bobbled.
“Everyone on the field is yelling you’ve got time ‘You’ve got time!,” says McWilliams. “Because everybody panics. They grab it and just throw it and now it becomes another error.”
Then Tech practices its pre-game routine aka I/O (“In and Out”).
“Our ‘In and Out’ is pretty unique,” says McWilliams, noting that teams are allowed 10 minutes for I/O during the NAIA postseason. “We like to get it in about nine minutes. We’ve got two guys deep at every position. We’ll hammer it out to the point that just about every play in baseball is done during our pre-game. It’s a workout for the coaches.”
Every fungo is struck from home plate. Coaches don’t go out in the grass. They try to hit line drives and fly balls to the outfielders, but if it’s a ground ball infielders are supposed to lay out for it.
“That sets a tone and it sends a statement to your opponents before the game,” says McWilliams.
A few times a season, McWilliams finds himself asking the same question of new players: Could you have gotten that ball if you dove for it?
“Before they can give me an answer, I say we’ll never know because you didn’t dive,” says McWilliams.
Tech allows finishes a team drill with a game-winner.
“That helps guys get fired up a little bit,” says McWilliams. “If they don’t execute it — guess what? — we’ve got to keep doing it.”
I/O typically ends with a pop-up to the catcher and all players come in an make that catch together.
At the end of practice, the very last play will be a championship game-winner and that is followed with a hand shake line for players and coaches.
Drills are called by specific names so it’s easier to set up.
“The Difference” is a bunting drill. About seven years ago, it was added to the practice rotation because the Warriors lacked in its ability to bunt or field a bunt.
It covers bunting, base running and defense.
Bunters are asked to execute a bunt for a hit, a drag bunt or a push bunt on the first live pitch. If the first pitch is not a strike, the second pitch becomes a suicide squeeze.
Foul balls are played like a passed ball or wild pitch. Runners are super-aggressive on the base paths.
“We really put that pressure on that defense,” says McWilliams.
Tech doesn’t have regular batting practice on the field. They call it “Thundering Buffalo.”
Because 65 players on the field running through BP resembles as heard of thundering buffalo.
Hitters are split into small groups to work on specific things while getting a max of 60 balls in a crate per round and a max of five swings per at-bat.
“We want to focus on hitting the ball hard,” says McWilliams. “If they don’t hit the ball hard they’re out of the cage. It could be your first swing.
“As a coach, you’ve got to enjoy kicking them out of the cage. What do most young people struggle with today in baseball? It’s game day. When adversity hits, they struggle with it. As a coaching staff, it’s our responsibility to give them as many adverse situations as possible in practice to prepare them for that game.”
At Tech, practices are supposed to be lot tougher than games.
Base running during “Thundering Buffalo” involves working on various things like the hit-and-run, steal jump etc. That includes “don’t be silly” or get caught breaking from second at the wrong time on a ground ball and being thrown out.
“We’re very big with our communication with our base runners at third and second,” says McWilliams. “Too may times I see base runners at second run the runner off at third. The runner at second has no idea when the runner at third is going.”
The runners will work on leads and when they’re going like on-contact with the infield in.
If runners reach first, the defense turns two.
With coaches throwing live BP, pitchers take a knee behind the “L” screen with a ball in their glove. When a ball hits the screen, the pitchers turn two.
Infielders will work on looking the runner back and throwing the ball to first.
Outfielders will not play at a regular depth — either very shallow working on pop-up communication with the infielders and balls hit over their head or very deep to get more reps on balls off the wall or diving for balls in front of them.
“There’s nothing that’s ever really routine in the game of baseball,” says McWilliams. “Outfielders are gassed during Thundering Buffalo.”
Another reason for the fast pace is that when players are exhausted, the first thing that goes away is the mental side.
Practicing consistently at a fast pace allows for coachable moments when there is a mental or physical breakdown.
One important drill is relays and tandems where outfielders go to a specific location (foul line or gap) and throw the ball off the fence to start a relay sequence. All Tech outfielders do this and there are several reps.
“We’re one of the better teams in the country when it comes to tandems and relays,” says McWilliams. “We get so many assists every year from our outfield because we practice those tandems and relays non-stop.”
One way to get the infielders more involved in communication is for the catchers to put up a number — 2, 3, or 4 — and have the infielders yell out the call.
In the first and third defense and offense drill, players gain more confidence by going over the plays on a regular bases.
There are three offensive players — a batter and runners at first and third. The defense is set with every position covered. There is live pitching off the mound. Pitchers hold runners on first and are encouraged to try to pick them off.
At the end of practice, players “sweep the sheds.”
“One of the greatest things I got out of baseball as a player was my responsibility to the team for the field,” says McWilliams. “We’re teaching our guys a lot if we can teach them that responsibly at a younger age.”
The Huntington North Hot Stove series is scheduled to continue at 2-5:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 22 and resume with sessions Jan. 12 and Jan. 19.
Kip McWilliams is the head baseball coach at Indiana Tech in Fort Wayne, Ind. (Indiana Tech Photo)