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Evansville Razorbacks promote accountability, communication, commitment

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

The 18U Evansville (Ind.) Razorbacks have been a force in the travel baseball world with four Pastime Tournaments national championships and a National Amateur Baseball Federation World Series runner-up finish.

The 2017 team went 40-0.

Established in 2002 by Jeremy Johnson, the Razorbacks have had 336 players sign on with college baseball programs and numerous players have been in pro ball.

“This program sets guys up not only in baseball, but their whole life,” says Johnson. “It’s a fraternity. You’re going to be a Razorback the rest of your life.

“It’s bigger than anybody, including me.”

Johnson is a 1993 Mater Dei graduate. He grew up spending Saturday mornings helping his father groom youth diamonds around Evansville. C.J. Johnson is a 2017 inductee into the Greater Evansville Sports Hall of Fame as a baseball administrator.

At 14, Jeremy severely hurt his right arm and learned how throw serviceably with his left. In high school, he was a successful cross country and track runner.

Johnson networks with college coaches and does his best to educate players and parents on the recruiting process and deciding on the best fit for them.

“My job is to help you find out your ‘why,’’ says Johnson. “What is driving you? If you don’t know that, you can get lost. You need to have a really good grasp on that. If you don’t and everything starts to go south, you’ll start panicking.”

And it doesn’t have to be NCAA Division I or bust. Some are best-suited by going the D-II, D-III, NAIA or junior college route.

“I’m completely over the fact that Division I is the best case scenario (for every player),” says Johnson. “You should pick a school where, if you didn’t play baseball any more, you wouldn’t want to transfer.

“It’s very, very personal thing for each kid. Look at schools that fit you personally. Start putting together legitimate ideas on what you know you want instead of what you think you want.

“High school is very status-orientedYou’re not doing it for your teammates. There’s a 50-50 shot you’ll meet your wife there.

“It’s way more than baseball.”

Johnson says he has watched the transfer portal blow up in recent years in part because of so many early commits (freshmen and sophomore are making verbal commitments these days) and players and parents not doing their due diligence on what they want and what a program has to offer.

“They may be good enough to be a tweener with D-I,” says Johnson. “But they could play more at D-II or go to D-III and be an All-American.

“We don’t want them to have regrets or at least minimize them.”

While he has been involved in most of the 336 college signings, Johnson doesn’t take credit. It’s the players with the talent.

“I’m not the reason any of my kid plays in college,” says Johnson. “I’m just a guy who goes to bat for them. My job is to market them. I’m an avenue.

“The kids are the ones that deserve everything. I didn’t throw a ball, catch a ball or hit it. I’m not the reason for the season.”

A junior college advocate, Johnson says those players tend to play with a chip on their shoulder. Six starters on the Razorbacks’ 2018  team went on to JC ball. The 2017 club was made up mostly of D-I commits.

“It saves money and keeps their options open,” says Johnson. “It makes you grind a little bit. You find out if you really love baseball if you go junior college.”

Johnson says the Razorbacks are well-represented in the Great Rivers Athletic Conference (John A. Logan, Kaskaskia, Lake Land, Lincoln Trail, Olney Central, Rend Lake, Shawnee, Southeastern Illinois, Southwestern Illinois, Wabash Valley).

Johnson says parents don’t always receive personal feedback when they take their sons to showcases. They get the numbers, but not an idea of what that coaching staff thinks of the player and how they would fit in their program.

Players can go to showcase after showcase and the money spent can add up to the cost of a scholarship.

“Tell me what you’re interested in doing and let me market you,” says Johnson. He will do his best to have college coaches look at the player and let them know what they think.

“College recruiting always in flux,” says Johnson. “(Recruiters) don’t want to tell you yes or no. There’s a lot of maybes. That’s a frustrating thing. I tell parents to build an idea of where their kid really fits.”

In showcases or with private lessons, many times players are told over and over again how good they are.

“Some are honest about good things and bad things,” says Johnson. “There’s nothing wrong with constructive criticism. You need it.”

Johnson sees his role with the Razorbacks as driven by relationships.

“I get to know the kids,” says Johnson. “I spent a lot of time on the phone with them.”

While many players come from southern Indiana, southern Illinois and Kentucky, there is no real limit and have come from several states away.

“I’m not afraid to ask anybody,” says Johnson. “We have the ability to house a few kids.”

Many players spend two seasons with the Razorbacks, which Johnson says averages 17 to 20 college commits per year. In any given year, a third to half of the squad goes into the summer uncommitted.

Among the 2019 high school graduates from Indiana schools on the ’19 summer team were Evansville North shortststop/second baseman Alex Archuleta (University of Southern Indiana), Austin shortstop/right-handed pitcher/third baseman Drew Buhr (Saint Louis University), Castle left-handed pitcher Blake Ciuffetelli (USI), Castle first baseman Brodey Heaton (Belmont University), Evansville Memorial right-handed pitcher Isaac Housman (USI) and Tecumseh outfielder Steven Molinet (USI).

There’s also shortstop/second baseman Alex Adams (Purdue University), catcher Garret Gray (Butler University), right-handed pitcher Trey Nordmann (Howard College in Texas) and left-handed pitcher/outfielder/first baseman Mark Shallenberger (University of Evansville).

Former Ben Davis High School catcher Zyon Avery (Ohio University), Decatur Central right-hander Bradley Brehmer (Wright State University) and right-hander Garret Simpson (Eastern Kentucky University) are among the recent Razorbacks now playing college baseball.

Razorback alums left-hander Dean Kiekhefer (Oakland Athletics), right-hander Derek Self (Washington Nationals) and outfielder Cole Sturgeon (Boston Red Sox) played at Triple-A in 2019. All three played at the University of Louisville. Kiekhefer appeared in the majors with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2016 and with Oakland in 2018.

There’s also former Backs Easton McGee and Stewart Ijames.

Right-hander McGee played for Bowling Green in the Tampa Bay Rays system in 2019.

Outfielder Ijames, a former U of L player and in the Arizona Diamondbacks system, was with the independent Kansas City T-Bones in 2019.

Clint Barmes, a Vincennes Lincoln High School graduate who recently went into the Indiana State University and Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association halls of fame after a major league career, played for the Evansville Black Sox (1993-2001), which were picked up by the Razorbacks in 2002.

Johnson was an outfielder for the Jim Wittman-coached Black Sox in 1993-94. In a Black Sox alumni game, Johnson’s last pitch resulted in a Barmes home run.

“I hadn’t pitched in two years,” says Johnson. “Didn’t matter. Would happened on my best day.”

Former U of L catcher Jeff Arnold was signed by scout Kevin Christman and played in the San Francisco Giants organization.

Right-hander Morgan Coombs went to West Vigo High School and Ball State University then played independent ball.

Outfielder Sean Godfrey played at New Albany High School and Ball State before time in the Atlanta Braves system and indy ball.

First baseman Jon Hedges played at Indiana State.

Third baseman Kevin Hoef went to the University of Iowa and played indy ball.

Catcher Jeremy Lucas played at West Vigo and Indiana State before time in the Cleveland Indians system.

Black Sox right-hander Stephen Obenchain played at Evansville Memorial and the University of Evansville before stints in the Athletics system and independent ball.

First baseman Derek Peterson, who hails from New Jersey, went on to Temple University and played in Baltimore Orioles organization.

Black Sox right-hander Andy Rohleder played at Forest Park High School and the University of Evansville before tenures with the Florida Marlins organization and indy ball.

Right-hander P.J. Thomas, a Jeffersonville High School graduate who played at USI, was twice-drafted by the Red Sox and played indy ball.

Catcher Kolbrin Vitek (Ball State) played in the Red Sox organization.

Former Black Sox, Heritage Hills High School and University of Dayton catcher Mark Wahl was in the Orioles system.

While the Razorbacks run a full program with off-season training, Johnson says he is a realist and he knows that players have commitments to their hometown teams and work with their own hitting and pitching instructors. He doesn’t ask them to drive several hours to Evansville to hit them grounders.

“I’m not that full of myself,” says Johnson. “I have the utmost respect for high school programs.

“I love travel ball. But a large amount of travel ball is B.S. It’s such a money-driven situation. Travel ball — as a whole — is expensive for families with travel, hotels and all of that. We try to keep that cost down as low as we possibly can.”

When the 18U Razorbacks do travel, the team stays together in the same hotel.

Many of the players are getting close to going away to college. They get to experience curfews, team meetings and learn personal accountability. It’s an early look at their freshmen year and that first taste of freedom. They are responsible for their own laundry.

“The team runs the team,” says Johnson. “There’s a lot to be learned off the field until they go to college.”

Parents are encouraged treat the weekend like a getaway. All they have to do is attend the games and watch their sons play.

The organization expanded this off-season to 10 teams — 8U, 9U, 10U, 11U, two 12U squads, 13U, 14U, 16U and 18U. 8U to 14U is high school prep. 15U to 18U is college prep.

According to Johnson, whose 18U assistant coaches are Bob Davis, Ryan Dills and Buddy Hales, the emphasis is on teaching player accountability at an early age, communication with parents, speed and strength conditioning and commitment to helping the person, then the player.”

Top 18U events in 2020 include June 12-14 in Midland, Ohio, June 18-21 in Louisville, Ky., June 26-28 in Midland, Ohio, June 30-July 1 at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, July 5-9 at Perfect Game World Series (invitation only) in Hoover, Ala., and July 15-19 at the 18U Nationals in Indianapolis.

Jeremy and Christi Johnson married in 2013. There are three children — Seth (18), Ava (14) and Conner (13). Conner Johnson, now an eighth grader, was born in 2007, the same year the Razorbacks were NABF World Series runners-up.

“Spending summers with him with me is what ties it all together,” says Jeremy Johnson of time spent with Conner and Backs baseball.

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The Evansville (Ind.) Razorbacks have placed 336 players in college baseball since 2002. (Evansville Razorbacks)

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Jeremy Johnson (center) is the founder of the Evansville (Ind.) Razorbacks travel baseball organization. The Razorbacks’ first season was in 2002. (Evansville Razorbacks Photo)

 

Howard believes in keeping it simple for his Forest Park Rangers

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Baseball doesn’t have to be complicated.

Just ask Jarred Howard, who just completed his 18th year as head baseball coach at Forest Park High Senior/Junior High School in Ferdinand, Ind.

“In high school, you need to three things very well. It’s simple — throw strikes, make plays and put the ball in play.

“We do our very best to keep things as simple as we can. If we do the simple things, then we’re pretty successful.”

The Forest Park Rangers have found themselves ranked among the top IHSAA Class 2A schools in many of the seasons where they grasped and executed the simple concepts emphasized by Howard.

At a school of about 400, there are occasional downs mixed in with the ups. But Forest Park has won about two-thirds of games.

A member of the Pocket Athletic Conference (along with Gibson Southern, Heritage Hills, North Posey, Pike Central, South Spencer, Southridge, Tecumseh and Tell City), the Rangers and other PAC schools play each other once.

Forest Park competed in 2018 in the 2A Tell City Sectional (which also featured Evansville Mater Dei, North Posey, Perry Central, South Spencer plus host Tell City).

Schools in that field have made 11 state championship game appearances and won it all seven times — South Spencer 4, North Posey 2 and Mater Dei 1.

Forest Park has won four sectionals (1975, 1976, 1984 and 2002) and one regional (1976).

The 2018 squad went 10-11 and featured Trever Zink, who was team player of year, co-Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association district player of the year and participated in the IHSBCA North/South All-Star Series in South Bend.

Senior Daniel Lusk earned a defensive and mental attitude awards. Freshman Gage Hasenour took the lowest earned run average/pitching award. Sophomore Gavin Knust gathered the hitting award for the highest batting average and was named most improved.

Zink and Lusk were all-PAC and Knust gained honorable mention all-conference.

The Rangers gave Howard his 300th career coaching victory April 30, 2018 against Evansville Bosse.

With proximity and Howard’s ties to Kentucky, Forest Park played some of its games against schools from the Bluegrass State.

Howard says it often makes scheduling easier than in Indiana since a statewide assigner matches umpires with games in Kentucky.

Being a smaller school, Forest Park relies on many multi-sport athletes. Baseball players are asked to get in their work when they can and the coaching staff, which also includes former Howard players Kyle Greulich, Brent Wendholt and Jesse Hagedorn plus volunteers Darren Weisheit and Andy Rohleder are all willing to help.

Greulich played at Oakland City University, pitching coach Wendholt at Vincennes University and then at the University of Southern Indiana, Weisheit at Southeastern Illinois College in Harrisburg, Ill. and Rohleder at the University of Evansville and in the Florida/Miami Marlins organization and with independent Gary Southshore RailCats.

“Our player development has been very good,” says Howard. “The summer time is a big deal. We do as much as we can.”

Howard has sent nearly 20 players on to college baseball. The most recent ones are Zink to Olney (Ill.) Central College and Eli Knust, who played at Vincennes University and is now at Huntington University.

Forest Park fields varsity and junior varsity teams with about 24 to 26 players in the program.

Both squads generally practice together.

“I want them to be able to understand what I’m doing,” says Howard. “I want them to get used to how I handle situations.”

Ranger Field, located on the school campus, sports Bermuda grass.

“Our playing surface is phenomenal — very fast,” says Howard, who reports that the program is looking into updating the backstop and adding visitor seating to get a chance at hosting a sectional or regional.

Feeding the high school program are the Forest Park Youth Sports. In this summer’s Indiana Little League tournaments, FPYS advanced its 10- and 11-year-old teams to the state semifinals while the 12-year-olds bowed out in the district finals. The latter group took the state title when they were 10.

There are seventh and eighth grade baseball teams at Forest Park in the spring.

“We’re excited about the next four or five years coming,” says Howard.

The 2018 Rangers had two seniors. On many days, there were as many as seven freshmen and sophomores in the lineup.

A 1993 McLean County (Ky.) High School graduate, Howard played for Rockport American Legion Post 254 then coaches John Hayes and T-Ray Fletcher at Oakland City. Howard was an assistant to Fletcher for two years before going to Forest Park.

The holder of a business education degrees with two masters (business management and school administration), Howard’s day job is as director of the Patoka Valley Career and Technical Cooperative. He has an office in Jasper, Ind., but spends much of his time on the road overseeing the 17 programs based at 10 high schools.

Jarred and Natalie Howard have three children — sons Drew and Reid and daughter Bree. Drew is heading into the ninth grade, Reid the seventh and Bree the second.

Both boys play for Ironmen Baseball travel organization.

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Forest Park Senior/Junior High School head baseball coach Jarred Howard (left) accepts a plaque commemorating his 300th career victory from Forest Park athletic director Doug Louden.