By STEVE KRAH
As the son of coach and middle of three athletic brothers, Culley DeGroote soaked in plenty of knowledge on his way to becoming head baseball coach at West Vigo High School. He has led the West Terre Haute-based Vikings since the 2014 season after eight seasons serving under father Steve DeGroote.
The elder DeGroote was an assistant at Indiana State University to American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Bob Warn 1980-85 joined the coaching staff at West Vigo and led the program from 1993-2013. His teams went 441-118 with 11 Western Indiana Conference titles, 10 sectional champions, five regionals, one semistate and one state runner-up finish (2009). In 2017, he was inducted into the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame.
“Ninety-five percent of what I do I learned from (my father),” says Culley. “I learned how you treat players. Dad was a master motivator. He got them to buy into something bigger than themselves.”
While the rules were the same for all players, Steve DeGroote knew how to relate to each one as an individual, something he picked up from his athletic career and his days as an ISU recruiter.
“They say that coaching is not the X’s and O’s, it’s the Jimmys and Joes and dad got the most out of those Jimmys and Joes,” says Culley. “He was genius at reading talent. He was one of those who could see a kid come in as freshmen and see the finished product. He could see potential in a kid that very few people could see.”
Culley saw his dad attracted to the student and the athlete who was on a straight path.
“He had that ability to read people,” says Culley. “He could pick up on people’s habits and their priority in life. He navigated toward kids who had their priorities straight like him. Dad doesn’t drink, smoke or party. His faith is important to him. He was the (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) director at West Vigo. He lived a clean life and lived by example.
“I’ve tried to role model that with my players. I know you’re not going to be perfect, but you need to be striving for perfection.”
Steve DeGroote’s boys — Cory (West Vigo Class of 1991), Culley (1995) and Casey (1998) — were all three-sport athletes for the Vikings. Cory and Culley are both in the West Vigo Athletic Hall of Fame.
Cory DeGroote went to The Citadel to play basketball and baseball and then transferred to Indiana State, where he played baseball for three seasons. He coached multiple sports at North White High School and then served 12 seasons as head baseball coach at Mattawan (Mich.) High School. He is now president of Peak Performance, a travel sports organization based in Mattawan.
Casey DeGroote was drafted out of high school by the New York Yankees in the 11th round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft and pitched as a professional until 2004. He served as general manager of the Terre Haute Rex in the summer collegiate wood bat Prospect League and is now a train engineer.
Culley DeGroote earned the McMillan Award as the top male athlete in Vigo County and was an IHSBCA All-Star as a senior. He was a three-year starter in football, basketball and baseball and went on to be a three-year starter on both the hardwood and diamond at Franklin College.
His last baseball season was his junior year (he transferred to Indiana State to finish his degree). It was also the first as head coach for Lance Marshall, who still guides the Grizzlies.
“He cared about us as people,” says Culley. “He wanted to know your story and your background. I told myself that when I become a head coach, I hope my players in some way feel about me the way they felt about Coach Marshall.
“He was quiet and no-nonsense, but a super positive guy. You felt good about yourself after talking to Coach Marshall.”
Culley began his coaching career with a four-year stint on the staff of Scott Spada at Kalamazoo (Mich.) Central High School. Before Spada, Derek Jeter played baseball for the Maroon Giants and went on to be captain of the New York Yankees. Future Green Bay Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings did play for Spada.
Also the school’s head boys soccer coach, Culley heads in the 2018 baseball season with Zack Kent (varsity) and Kyle Stewart (junior varsity) as assistant coaches.
Steve DeGroote is still helping the Vikings baseball program as middle school director. The feeder program fielded two squads last spring — sixth and seventh graders combined and eighth graders. Playing 15 to 20 five-inning doubleheaders, the middle schoolers are heading into their third season in 2018.
“It’s an awesome thing,” says Culley. “It gives you a lot of flexibility and unity. It’s closed the gap between middle school and high school ball. We teach the same things. Getting coached in a lot of the little things that can win you a championship at a younger level.
“(Middle schoolers) get to play on the high school field and they love that.”
At a cost of more than $10,000, that field was upgraded in the fall of 2016 with more than 100 tons of infield dirt and artificial turf around the mound and home plate areas.
“That was the best idea I ever had,” says Culley. “We were getting in games (in 2017) we never got in before.”
Culley teaches physical education at the middle school and gets a chance to have a relationship with athletes as sixth graders.
West Terre Haute Little League, where Steve Shaffer is president, has three fields and four leagues (T-ball, minor and major).
“They are the lifeline of our program,” says Culley.
All of it has gone to help numbers at the high school. There were 15 freshmen baseball players at West Vigo in 2017 and 19 the year before that.
The varsity Vikings went 17-9 and lost to Edgewood in the semifinals of the IHSAA Class 3A Northview Sectional.
West Vigo is in the West Division of the Western Indiana Conference with Greencastle, North Putnam, Northview, South Putnam and Sullivan. Brown County, Cascade, Cloverdale, Edgewood, Indian Creek and Owen Valley comprise the WIC East Division.
With about 1,023 students, Northview is the biggest school in the 2A/3A league with Cloverdale (370) as the smallest. West Vigo (581) is in-between.
Conference games are played five straight Tuesdays with a crossover game on the sixth Tuesday.
Since 1998, the Vikings have sent eight players on to NCAA Division I baseball and had three players drafted out of high school (Casey DeGroote by the Yankees in 1998, infielder Lenny Leclercq by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 11th round in 2005 and Jeremy Lucas by the Cleveland Indians in the 12th round in 2009).
Right-hander Morgan Coombs, a 2006 graduate, played at Lincoln Trail College and Ball State University and went un-drafted before three seasons with the independent Gary SouthShore RailCats. He was the Australian Baseball League’s Pitcher of the Year in 2015 with the Adelaide Bite.
Middle infielder Tyler Wampler, a 2010 graduate, was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers out of Indiana State in the 17th round in 2014. He was head coach for the Terre Haute Rex in 2016-17.
Three of Culley’s players are currently at the D-I level — pitcher Davie Inman (West Vigo Class of 2015) at Coastal Carolina University, middle infielder Jordan Schafer (2016) at Indiana State and first baseman/pitcher Ty Lautenschlager (2017) at Northern Illinois University.
Culley DeGroote, a 1995 West Vigo High School graduate, is entering his fifth season as Vikings head baseball coach in 2018. Before that, he was an assistant to father Steve DeGroote, an Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer.