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Bock, Fremont Eagles eager to add to their baseball success

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Fremont (Ind.) High School chased down an elusive sectional baseball championship in 2018.

Head coach Justin Bock saw the Eagles grab the program’s first sectional title since 2005, beating Fort Wayne Blackhawk Christian 5-4 in the final of the 2018 IHSAA Class 1A Fremont Sectional.

Fremont (15-16) went on to lose 3-2 to Northfield in the championship game of the Caston Regional.

“We worked really hard to get that sectional trophy,” says Fremont head coach Justin Bock, who heads into his 22nd season in the program and 11th in charge in 2019.

Four-year starter Rhett Evans has moved on to Glen Oaks Community College in Centreville, Mich.

Bock expects the 2019 Eagles to be young and talented. The coach anticipates he will have one senior, but four returning starters. A couple of freshmen could find their way into the lineup. There could be as many as 30 players in the program, including 12 ninth graders.

It’s anticipated that senior center fielder Ethan Marten will be back for his third season as a Fremont starter.

Junior left-hander Mick Laisure (0.99 earned run average in 36 1/3 innings in 2008) and right-hander/right fielder Connor Kreis are supposed to return in 2019 as is sophomore lead-off man and second baseman Kameron Colclasure. As a pitcher, he was 5-0 with a 0.88 ERA in more than 24 varsity innings in 2018. He hurled a shutout against Fairfield and earned a relief victory against DeKalb.

“He throws three pitches with great control,” says Bock of Colclasure, who was awarded varsity letters in three sports as a freshman (football, basketball and baseball). He is expected to move over to shortstop in 2019.

Fremont, located in Steuben County in northeast Indiana, is a member of the 12-team Northeast Corner Conference (with Angola, Central Noble, Churubusco, Eastside, Garrett, Hamilton, Lakeland, Prairie Heights, West Noble and Westview).

Each team plays the other once. There is also a blind-draw conference tournament in the middle of the season.

“It gives the kids a taste of what sectional is like,” says Bock. “It has a one-and-done tournament feel.”

The Eagles are in an IHSAA Class 1A sectional grouping with Bethany Christian, Elkhart Christian, Fort Wayne Blackhawk Christian, Hamilton and Lakewood Park Christian. Fremont is on the 1A/2A border and could go back up with the next realignment in 2019-20.

Bock has Fremont in the early-season Coldwater (Mich.) Invitational, an event that has the Eagles playing three games in one day.

“Our hitters get to see great pitching early in the year,” says Bock. “It gets us ready to see conference pitching.”

It also means Fremont could use as many as nine pitchers. This puts an emphasis on building pitching depth.

“It has become routine for us,” says Bock. “If we have you going through workouts, you will be on the mound.

“We can win by pitching to contact and playing good defense.”

The 2019 season will be the third of the IHSAA pitch count rule (1 to 35 pitches requires 0 days rest; 36 to 60 requires 1 day; 61 to 80 requires 2 days; 81 to 100 requires 3 days; and 101 to 120 requires 4 days). Before that, pitchers were allowed 10 innings every three days.

“(The pitch count rule) has emphasized what we really believe,” says Bock, who used 11 different arms in varsity competition in 2018 with Evans has the most innings going into sectional play at 28, keeping him fresh. “We’re not afraid to throw guys.

“We have to work more on mixing pitches and pitching to contact. We can’t afford to walk people.”

This kind of approach to pitching has helped Bock and his coaching staff find some hidden gems over the years.

Bock’s 2019 assistants are Ron Colclasure, Dave Smith, Jim Burkhart and Chad Baker at the varsity level and Ian Burkhart with the junior varsity. Baker splits his time between Fremont and Glen Oaks, where his son Braxton Baker (the step-brother of Rhett Evans) went after Fremont.

Being a 1A school with about 300 students, Fremont is full of multi-sport athletes. This meant that many were busy during the fall practice window.

Bock says practice will begin in earnest in early January when pitchers and catchers report for pre-season workouts.

The high school program is fed by Fremont Youth League and a number of travel baseball organizations, including Hitters Edge, Kalamazoo Maroons, Michiana Scrappers and Indiana Sting. In the past, there have been players go with Fort Wayne-based Summit City Sluggers.

“A lot of our kids go north because of how close we are to Michigan,” says Bock.

Fremont graduate and current Indiana Tech baseball standout Glen McClain played travel ball for the Kalamazoo Maroons.

A 1993 Fremont graduate after moving in from the Ann Arbor, Mich., area as a sophomore, Bock earned an English degree at Taylor University and master’s in education at Indiana Wesleyan University.

He spent 19 years at Fremont and is in his third year as an assistant professor and placement coordinator at Trine University in Angola, Ind.

Bock’s baseball coach at Fremont was Roger Probst, who led the Eagles on the diamond 1985-2007 and is now the school’s athletic director.

“He’s the most organized person I’ve ever been around,” says Bock of Probst. “He’s the best athletic director in the state and a clear communicator.”

Bock served as a Probst assistant for 11 seasons before taking over the baseball reins 2008.

A junior high football coach and varsity boys basketball assistant to Eagles head coach Craig Helfrich (as is Ron Colclasure), Bock says it makes sense for him to be a head coach in the spring.

“Baseball really suits my personality,” says Bock. “I enjoy the pace of the game and the time to reflect on how we want to respond to a situation.

“It’s much healthier for me to be a baseball coach.”

Justin and April Bock have two children — freshman Ethan and sixth grader Delaney. After 12 years at Angola Middle School, April Bock teaches sixth grade at Fremont Middle School, where Delaney Bock is a student. Ethan Bock is a tennis, basketball and baseball athlete at Fremont High School.

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Fremont (Ind.) High School baseball coaches celebrate with the 2018 IHSAA Class 1A Fremont Sectional trophy. They are (from left) Chad Baker, Jim Burkhart, Ian Burkhart, Ryan Allman, head coach Justin Bock, Ron Colclasure and Dave Smith.

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Fremont (Ind.) High School baseball seniors and head coach pose with the 2018 IHSAA Class 1A Fremont Sectional trophy. They are (from left) Zack Peele, Rhett Evans, head coach Justin Bock, Joe Molter, Seth McDowell and Evan Trusty.

 

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Bell makes discipline, competitiveness cornerstones for Columbia City baseball

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

What Columbia City (Ind.) High School baseball needed was a dose of discipline and a culture of competitiveness.

That’s way Rob Bell saw it so he decided to apply to be the Eagles head coach going into the 2018 season.

The previous two Columbia City teams had won three games. In Bell’s first campaign in charge last spring, the Eagles went 6-21.

“We got better,” says Bell, who had coached basketball, football and softball at the high school level before taking on baseball. “The best thing we did last year is we competed. We were in the majority of our games.”

Just two players from that team graduated and up to nine seniors and 10 players who started in 2018 are expected back in 2019.

“How these guys pull together as a team, that’s going to determine how well we do this year,” says Bell. “We’re trying to drive some of that individuality out of it.”

Bell was an assistant to Indiana Basketball Hall of Famer Wayne Kreiger for Columbia City’s girls basketball program and served on the Eagles boys basketball staff of Chris Benedict and coached middle school basketball and football at Columbia City.

There have also been stints as girls basketball head coach at Whitko and girls basketball freshman coach at Angola as well as football and softball assistant jobs at Garrett, the school Bell graduated from in 1991.

Bell, 45, has been at Columbia City for 18 years — first as a science teacher and now as dean of students. He was convinced that he was the man to help Eagles baseball.

An Eagle Scout while he was in high school, Bell brought in the Boy Scout Law (A scout is: Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean and Reverent) as a code of conduct in his first head coaching job with Whitko girls basketballers.

With Columbia City baseball, he’s added Disciplined to the list.

“What this program needed I believe is discipline with someone who knew how to build a program and a culture and who could define the expectations of all the members of the program,” says Bell. “If you discipline yourself and nobody else has to.”

He also wants his athletes to know that each of them represents a piece of a much bigger puzzle.

“We’re trying to build that culture of selflessness and get our guys to understand that,” says Bell. “We’ve got them to volunteer in the community.”

This culture includes his own family. Rob and Lori Bell, who have been married for 20 years, have two baseball-playing sons at Columbia City — senior Dalton and freshman Brady.

Bell counts five men as the biggest influences on his coaching career. Besides Kreiger and Benedict, there’s his football coach at Garrett (Greg Moe), the head girls basketball coach when he was student-teaching at Angola (Doug Curtis) and the head softball coach when he was assisting at Garrett (father-in-law Alan Hunter).

“I’d like to think I’m a combination of all of them mixed in with what I do well to make it my own,” says Bell. “I wanted to be a lot like (Moe). He had a huge impact on my life.

“There was his intensity, work ethic and willingness to prepare. He loved us and because he loved us, he would not let us settle for anything less than our best. He drove us to get that out of us.

“I’m extremely intense. I’d like to think I’m as organized and prepared as he was.”

Bell played baseball his first two years at Garrett then switched to track. He went to Butler University to study pharmacy and play football. Along the way, he gave up the grid and switched to education. He finished college at Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne.

So far, Columbia City’s 2019 coaching staff includes Bell, Skylar Campbell, Jared Ambrose with the varsity and Justin Dailey with the junior varsity. Campbell is an agriculture teacher/Future Farmers of America advisor and Ambrose a business teacher at the school. Dailey is still attending Indiana Tech. Bell says he expects to add one more to his staff.

Last spring, there were 31 players for varsity and JV teams. This fall, 31 freshmen have indicated their interest in playing baseball in the spring, causing Bell to look into the possibility of fielding a C-team or freshmen squad in 2019.

“I’d love to be able to carry 45 guys,” says Bell. “The biggest hamstringing thing is pitching depth.

“We may be able to keep kids as pitcher-onlys — at least for this year.”

The pitching depth issue really comes to the front when the schedule gets stacked up. Between having one field on-campus and the weather, last spring saw one stretch where Columbia City’s JV played six-days-a-week for two straight weeks.

Looking to the future, Columbia City is planning to build a new high school and move into it in 2020-21. With that will come new athletic facilities.

Long before that happens, Bell wants to field a squad to fans can get behind.

“We’d like to have a really quality product in terms of guys in the program,” says Bell. “People will come to watch good guys OK baseball.

“It’s not enjoyable to watch a bunch of jerks.”

Columbia City plays in the Northeast Eight Conference (along with Bellmont, DeKalb, East Noble, Huntington North, Leo, New Haven and Norwell). Conference games tend to be played twice a week and each team plays the others once.

The Eagles are in an IHSAA Class 3A sectional grouping with Fort Wayne Bishop Dwenger, Fort Wayne Bishop Luers, Fort Wayne Concordia Lutheran, Garrett, Leo and New Haven. Columbia City has won nine sectional titles all-time — the last in 2007.

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Rob Bell is the dean of students and head baseball coach at Columbia City (Ind.) High School.

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Head coach Rob Bell (right) talks with Cameron Harris during the 2018 Columbia City (Ind.) High School baseball season. Harris is expected back for his senior year and Bell’s second in charge in 2019.

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Rob Bell (center) enjoys time with sons Dalton (left) and Brady (right). Bell is heading into his second season as head baseball coach at Columbia City (Ind.) High School in 2019. The Bell boys are both ballplayers, Dalton a senior and Brady a freshman.

 

Doty sees buying into the program key for Wawasee baseball

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

With clear communication as a priority and continuity on the coaching staff, Wawasee High School baseball is looking forward to the 2019 season.

Brent Doty, a 2002 Wawasee graduate, is entering his sixth season as head coach at his alma mater, which is located in Syracuse, Ind.

Primarily a catcher, Doty was a four-year player for head coach John Blunk at Wawasee. He played two seasons for Mitch Hannahs (now head coach at Indiana State University) at Lincoln Trail College in Robinson, Ill., and two seasons at Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne (now Purdue Fort Wayne) for Billy Gernon (now head coach at Western Michigan University).

“I was very fortunate to have those three great baseball coaches,” says Doty. “I was able to pick the nuances that they were really, really good at and try to influence the players in our program with those things.”

With Blunk, it was his knowledge of the game and his drive.

“His passion for it was huge,” says Doty. “Coach Hannahs was just so detailed in everything he did. He always wanted things done correctly. He would show you specifically how it needs to be done.”

Gernon was also very organized.

“We had a schedule we followed every day to a T,” says Doty of Gernon. “It was timed out — 15 minutes here, 30 there. It’s the detail they go into at the college level because they have to, they have such limited time each day and each season.

“I thought that would transition nicely with us to get as much accomplished in a day’s practice as we can.

Wawasee players know what to expect when they come out to practice.

“It’s never, ‘Hey, coach! What are we doing today?’,” says Doty. “They know the expectation and it makes practice run a lot smoother. Hopefully that’s going to turn into success as we continue to go down the road.”

An IHSAA rule change allows for a limited coach-athlete contact period. Coaches can work with an unlimited number of players for two two-hour practice slots per week during a window in the fall.

Doty and his staff, which includes associate head coach Vince Rhodes, Scott Beasley and volunteer Kent Doty (his father) at the varsity level and a to-be-named head coach and assistant Brett Carson with the junior varsity, have been leading outdoor practices for a few weeks.

“That’s nice for us,” says Doty. “We can get live swings, grounders and fly balls.”

Team concepts — like bunt coverages — can be drilled outside and give them a true look as opposed to doing it indoors.

“It’s been nice to implement some of those things,” says Doty. “But you don’t have your full team so you’re not gong to go so in-depth.”

With fall sports going on, there have been 10 to 12 at most sessions.

“A lot of our guys play multiple sports,” says Doty. “At a school of our size (around 950 students) they have to. We can’t just rely on single-sport athletes.

“We want you to get in as many sports as you can.”

The IHSAA-adopted pitch count rules (1 to 35 pitches requires 0 days rest; 36 to 60 requires 1 day; 61 to 80 requires 2 days; 81 to 100 requires 3 days; and 101 to 120 requires 4 days) has now been on the scene for two seasons.

What does Doty think of it?

“It’s definitely good for the kids,” says Doty. “Player safety is always going to be No. 1.

“The 120 max is good, too. I can’t see myself going farther than that.”

Doty says one change in 2019 is that the JV will be on the same regimen as the varsity.

“It’s good,” says Doty of the switch. “Why does a sophomore playing on varsity get to throw more than a sophomore throwing on JV?”

One way that Doty and company build pitching depth is by giving many players an opportunity to see what they can do on the mound, especially at the JV level.

“If you’ve got a healthy arm, you’re probably going to pitch at some point,” says Doty.

A year ago, Wawasee had more than three dozen players for varsity and JV squads. Being very senior-laden, the varsity carried 21 players.

The number depends largely on the number of potential pitchers and those who can play multiple positions.

It’s important for each player to know how they can contribute to the program.

“We talk with each player individually and say this is where we see this as your role for the year,” says Doty. “It doesn’t mean it’s going to stay there or written in stone. But this is what we expect of you or as a varsity or JV player or a swing guy (that could see playing time on both).

“If they start to develop into something we didn’t foresee at the start of the year, we transition them into that. We allow them to have ownership of their role because once they buy into their role, it’s only going to make us better as a program.”

Staff stability also translates to a consistent message.

Doty began his post-college career as a teacher and an assistant baseball coach at Jack Britt High School in Fayetteville, N.C. When he took over the program for the 2014 season, he was the third head coach in three years for that junior class.

“Building that continuity and having that same staff year after year is only going to help us be successful going forward,” says Doty.

The 2018 season saw Wawasee go 8-16 with some growing pains.

“We also saw some bright spots that we can build on,” says Doty, who identifies juniors Levi Brown and Carter Woody and sophomores Kameron Salazar and Parker Young as being among the top returning Warriors.

Recent Wawasee graduates on college baseball rosters are Jake Garcia (Goshen), Blaine Greer (Ivy Tech Northeast), Aaron Voirol (Grace).

Buildings and grounds personnel have talked about adding more bleachers down the foul lines past the dugouts at Warrior Field.

Wawasee softball added a windscreen last year. Doty says the same might be coming for baseball along with the addition of a batter’s eye. Right now, the backdrop is a water tower.

Getting lights has also been the part of discussions, which would aid in hosting tournaments.

Wawasee is a member of the Northern Lakes Conference (along with Concord, Elkhart Memorial, Goshen, Northridge, NorthWood, Plymouth and Warsaw).

The conference will again employ a double-round robin schedule with each team meeting each other home and away in two rotations.

“The coaches in the NLC talk often and we like it,” says Doty. “You don’t always see the same team at the end of the year as you do at the beginning. It allows for you to grow.

“We get to see teams progress as they get a little deeper into the season.”

Wawasee played in the IHSAA Class 3A Lakeland Sectional (along with Angola, Fairfield, Lakeland, NorthWood, Tippecanoe Valley and West Noble) in 2018.

After teaching at Wawasee Middle School, Doty has moved to the high school where he serves as both physical education/health teacher and assistant athletic director.

Brent and Ashley Doty have three children — Luke (5), Logan (3) and Emma (1).

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Brent Doty, a 2002 Wawasee High School graduate, is entering his sixth season as head baseball coach at the school in Syracuse, Ind., in 2019. (Steve Krah Photo)

 

Success follows Eastside’s Willard from softball to baseball diamonds

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Aaron Willard enjoyed plenty of success in his time as head softball coach at Eastside High School in Butler, Ind.

In 23 seasons, he Blazers softballers won 13 sectional titles (three in the IHSAA single-class era and five each in Class 1A and 2A).

When Jason Pierce left the head baseball post at Eastside and Aaron’s oldest son, Cade Willard, was a junior, he decided to take over the program.

In his second season (2017), the Blazers won the 2A Westview Sectional. Eastside did it again in 2018, besting Westview in the title game and earning a berth in the 2A Whiting Regional.

The Blazers (18-8) face Boone Grove in the second semifinal around noon CST (Hammond Bishop Noll plays South Adams at 10 a.m. CST) at Oil City Stadium. The championship is slated for 6 p.m. CST.

“Last year, we were built around pitching,” says Willard, who sent right-handers Cade Willard (redshirt at Fort Wayne), Conner Dove (Trine University), Jackson White (Franklin College) and middle infielder/closer Zach Orn (Ivy Tech Northeast) on to college baseball. They were among nine seniors. “A lot of those guys had played a lot of baseball.”

This year, the Blazers are not as experienced on the mound but have gotten the job done.

The staff is led by senior Chris Ballentine and also features juniors McGuire Jacobs, Nick Shewman, Chase Franz and Joe White and freshman Wade Miller. All but lefty Miller, who plays center field, are right-handers.

White is the team’s No. 1 catcher and joins Ballentine and Franz among Eastside’s most-productive hitters. The squad’s only other senior is first baseman Riley Thompson.

“Our guys have done a great job on the mound,” says Willard. “We’ve been solid defensively for the most part. The top of our order has been pretty good and we’ve now got some guys hitting in the bottom part.”

Eastside is a member of the Northeast Corner Conference. The NECC was led in 2018 by Angola (9-2) and Lakeland (9-2), followed by Fairfield (8-3), Westview (7-4), Eastside (7-4), Garrett (6-5), Fremont (5-6), Churubusco (5-6), West Noble (4-7), Prairie Heights (3-8), Central Noble (3-8) and Hamilton (0-11).

Willard’s assistant coaches are Tony Emenhiser, Garth Fiedler, John Gravante and Bryce Yoder.

The Blazers play their home games on-campus. The field has a wooden outfield fence and a few years ago, a net backstop was installed for clearer viewing by spectators.

A 1984 Eastside graduate, Willard went on to play baseball for four seasons at Huntington College (now Huntington University). His freshmen year was also the first in charge for head coach Mike Frame.

After receiving a physical education degree in 1989, Willard returned to Eastside and began teaching. He became athletic director and assistant principal in 1999 — positions he has held ever since.

Aaron and Terri Willard have three children — Madison, Cade and Owen. Madison Willard graduated this spring from Ball State University and is to marry Dalton Shetler in June. Owen Willard is an eighth grader.

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Eastside celebrates its second straight IHSAA Class 2A Westview Sectional baseball championship in 2018. Assistant coach Tony Emenhiser, seniors Caleb Ballentine and Riley Thompson and head coach Aaron Willard pose with the trophy.

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Eastside High School head baseball coach Aaron Willard (25) gets the bucket treatment from his team after they won the 2018 IHSAA Class 2A Westview Sectional.

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The Eastside High School Blazers hoist the 2018 IHSAA Class 2A Westview Sectional baseball trophy as head coach Aaron Willard (right) takes in the moment.

Isaacs in charge of a baseball ‘brotherhood’ with Lakeland Lakers

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Banding together as baseball brothers, the Lakeland High School program has enjoyed a turnaround in two seasons with Michael Isaacs as head coach.

“We call ourselves a brotherhood,” says Isaacs. “We’ve got a group of young men to believe in themselves and believe in each other.

“Our group is pretty loose. We’re not wound tight. We’ve overcome a lot of obstacles the last couple years.”

The Lakers won a combined six games in 2015 and 2016. The first season under Isaacs (2017), Lakeland posted 10 victories.

Heading into three straight Northeast Corner Conference games — Tuesday vs. Hamilton, Wednesday at Churubusco and Thursday at Garrett — the 2018 LaGrange County-based Lakers were 16-5 and with two NECC setbacks tied in the loss column tied atop the standings with Angola.

The rest of the conference includes Central Noble, Eastside, Fairfield, Fremont, Prairie Heights, West Noble and Westview. Each team plays the other once and there is a midseason blind-draw tournament. Westview topped the Lakers 5-2 in the championship game this spring.

Lakeland is in the seven-team IHSAA Class 3A Lakeland Sectional along with Angola, Fairfield, NorthWood, Tippecanoe Valley, Wawasee and West Noble.

The Lakers play their home games on-campus. The field has received upgrades in recent seasons of new lights and re-worked dugouts.

There are 21 players in the Lakeland program, with some rotating between varsity and junior varsity as needed.

Two Lakers seniors have made college commitments — right-handed pitcher/first baseman Drew Grossman (Indiana Tech) and first baseman/designated hitter Tristan Witham (Cincinnati Christian). Juniors with college baseball aspirations are shortstop/right-handed pitcher Hunter Frost and catcher Kole Miller.

All three of Michael Isaacs’ sons are involved with the program. Oldest boy Britain, who was a Lakers catcher, is now an assistant coach. Then there’s senior Nolan and freshman Colton. The latter has rotated in enough to earn his letter in his first year of high school.

Isaacs’ other assistants are Todd Miller, Kevin Witham and Aaron Pieri.

A 1987 East Noble graduate, Michael Isaacs played high school baseball for coach Steve Nelson.

After going to Taylor University in Upland, Ind., to play football, he transferred to the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, with the idea of playing baseball. But that was the year the Saints temporarily dropped the sport.

Isaacs coached in the Noble/LaGrange Little League out of high school then took about a decade off and got back in when his sons came along.

Besides the Little League, which serves players ages 6 through junior high, some Lakeland players are involved with travel ball organizations such as Hitters Edge and the Indiana Chargers.

The 2018 season marks the second season for pitch count rules in IHSAA-sanctioned games (1 to 35 pitches requires 0 days rest; 36 to 60 requires 1 day; 61 to 80 requires 2 days; 81 to 100 requires 3 days; and 101 to 120 requires 4 days).

“At first, I was very hesitant about it,” says Isaacs. “But then it was not that big a deal. We have mindset for the week of who we’re going to pitch how much we’re going to pitch them. It’s worked out pretty good.

“(The rule) makes you develop four or five pitchers which is good for everybody.”

With teams counting pitches, Isaacs has seen a change in the game. Instead of a pitcher using extra pitches trying to get strikeouts, he’s seen some of them aim for efficiency.

“There’s more of an emphasis on putting the ball in play and letting the defense do the work,” says Isaacs. “It’s something we’re trying to beat into (our pitchers’) heads.”

If Isaacs could change anything about Indiana high school baseball, he would tweak the class structure.

“Personally, I think the private schools should be separate,” says Isaacs, who coaches at a public school. “Now you’re tied to a class because of your size. I’d have public school divisions and the private schools could maybe a big division and small division.”

Isaacs is not an educator. He works in the recreational vehicle industry.  He is a mill room manager for Jayco’s Starcraft division in Topeka, Ind.

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Michael Isaacs (right) bumps fists with oldest son Britain Isaacs during a 2017 Lakeland High School baseball game. Michael Isaacs is in his second season as Lakers head coach in 2018. Britain is one of his assistants.

 

 

Risedorph has NorthWood Panthers playing baseball with accountability, confidence, toughness

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

If it seems like NorthWood High School baseball players are jacked up all the time, there’s a reason for that.

First-year Panthers head coach A.J. Risedorph asked his players at the Elkhart County school and that’s the way they want to attack the 2018 season.

Several players, including seniors Payton Bear and Brant Mast (a Spring Arbor University signee) and juniors Matt Dutkowski and Alec Holcomb, return from a 2017 squad went 26-2 overall and 14-0 in the Northern Lakes Conference and won IHSAA Class 3A NorthWood Sectional and Bellmont Regional titles with Jay Sheets at the helm.

“We want to be high energy the entire game,” says Risedorph, a former NorthWood assistant baseball coach who returns as the leader of the program after a season away from the diamond. “We celebrate everything — regardless of outcome.”

A batter might see six pitches then fly out to center field.

But it’s a “quality at-bat.”

“We put a positive spin on something they would normally look at as failure,” says Risedorph. “Positive reinforcement is huge.”

In the Panthers’ first two games of the campaign (a 13-0 win against Westview and 9-8 triumph against Mishawaka), Risedorph has noticed Dutkowski coming up to his teammates and lending encouragement and that’s the kind of culture the NorthWood social studies teacher and student council sponsor is trying to build.

Risedorph wants his club to react well to adversity, something the Panthers did when down 8-7 in the seventh inning against Mishawaka.

“We don’t win that game is our guys panic,” says Risedorph. “I’m real happy with the group that we have. They are level-headed. They have ice in their veins.”

A graduate of East Noble High School (2006) and Indiana University Purdue University-Fort Wayne (2011), former right-handed pitcher, shortstop and third baseman Risedorph has drawn some of his coaching philosophies and methods from his high school and college coaches and one current mentor.

“I’ve been blessed to be around a lot of leaders,” says Risedorph.

Kevin Irons was his head baseball coach at East Noble as the Knights competed in the old Northeast Hoosier Conference (along with Bellmont, Columbia City, DeKalb, Huntington North, Leo, New Haven and Norwell).

Billy Gernon and then Bobby Pierce led the way at IPFW. Mastodons pitching coach Grant Birely also played a big role.

Irons brought Risedorph up to the varsity midway through his freshmen season and taught him plenty about the game.

Risedorph recalls the intensity of a Gernon-led practice.

“He really set a standard for that,” says Risedorph. “He made sure guys were going to buy into the program.”

Pierce took over the Mastodons after Gernon left to become head coach at Western Michigan University. Risedorph constantly picked the brains of Pierce and Birely while playing and also while serving as a first base coach during rehabilitation. Injury took away Risedorph’s 2007 and 2010 seasons.

“(Pierce) runs a very pro-style program,” says Risedorph. “He wants you to be you. He wanted players to represent themselves the right way. He didn’t want you to be something you weren’t and he was very big on the mental side.

“(Pierce and Birely) were able to get the best out of us.”

There were no radical changes in batting stances or arm slots. Players were allowed to work within their own approach.

Risedorph lets his players be themselves within a framework.

“They need structure,” says Risedorph. “They do better when they have it.”

Since 2012-13, Risedorph has been a varsity assistant NorthWood head boys basketball coach Aaron Wolfe and the Panthers have gone 123-25 with four sectional crowns during that span.

“He showed me that you can have meaningful professional relationships with student-athletes,” says Risedorph of Wolfe.

Attending his first Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association State Clinic in January, Risedorph picked up some pointers about practice structure from Notre Dame head coach Mik Aoki and outfield play from Indiana University Kokomo head coach Matt Howard.

Risedorph, who counts Matt Cox and Kevin Roberts as varsity assistants and Greg Estepp and Aaron Arnold as junior varsity coaches guiding a group of 32 players, has his practices broken down into individualized instruction, group skills and team skills.

While “Embrace the Pace” means one thing to the Nappanee Chamber of Commerce, it’s another kind of progression for the Panthers.

“There’s no down time,” says Risedorph. “There has to be a pace to our practice.

“We try to put ourselves in stressful situations. It’s so hard to simulate that stuff in practice. It comes from our pace.

“Yet we want to be calm when we do it. You cannot perform when you’re not loose.”

Risedorph says Birely used to say, “Know your numbers” — as in the stress scale.

“Sometimes you need to step back, breathe and slow your heart rate,” says Risedorph. “(The mentality is) Next Pitch. You don’t let the momentum get the best of you — good or bad.”

NorthWood players are also expected to embrace the concepts of being accountable, confident and tough.

Accountability means doing the right thing, at the right time, all the time.

Confidence entails the beliefs and behaviors that result from a passion to make oneself better.

Toughness is part of being ready, relentless and responsive.

The 2017 sectional title marked the 11th in NorthWood history and sixth since 2011. The regional championship was the program’s first since 1983.

In 2018, the Panthers are in a 3A sectional group with Angola, Fairfield, Lakeland, Tippecanoe Valley, Wawasee and West Noble.

Besides NorthWood, the NLC features Concord, Elkhart Memorial, Goshen, Northridge, Plymouth, Warsaw and Wawasee.

Many NorthWood players are part of travel baseball organizations, including the Michiana Scrappers and Indiana Chargers.

Estepp coaches the NorthWood 14U team in the summer.

“We are not short of quality coaches in this area,” says Risedorph. “It’s nice they care about the kids’ future.

“We’re very fortunate so many of these kids are putting in work.”

Risedorph says he is looking to get more involved with Nappanee Youth Baseball League and Wakarusa Baseball/Softball League.

Before landing at NorthWood, a part of Wa-Nee Community Schools and where former Bremen baseball coach Norm Sellers is athletic director, Risedorph taught for one year at East Noble Middle School and was a baseball assistant to Irons. Risedorph did his student teaching at Fort Wayne Snider High School.

A.J. and Jenna Risedorph have two daughters — Quinlynn (4) and Reagan (1). A.J. is the son of Randy and Iolet Risedorph and has three brothers — Ryan, Eric and Brayden.

NorthWood graduate Blake Cleveland is now playing baseball at Central Michigan University.

AJRISEDORPH

A.J. Risedorph is in his first season as NorthWood High School head baseball coach. The East Noble High School and Indiana University Purdue University-Fort Wayne graduate is back with the program after a year away. (Steve Krah Photo)

 

Prater now in charge of Tippecanoe Valley Vikings baseball

RBILOGOSMALL copy

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Greg Prater wants baseball success for his alma mater and is working toward that goal as he approaches his first season as head coach at Tippecanoe Valley High School in Kosciusko County.

Prater, a 1992 Valley graduate, spent the past three seasons as an assistant to Justin Branock (now an assistant coach at Huntington University).

As a Vikings athlete, Prater played baseball for Duane Burkhart (who is now TV athletic director) and Doug Heinold. His football coaches were Scott Bibler and Jeff Shriver.

“We had a very successful career in baseball,” says Prater, who was part of the program’s second sectional championship in 1990. “(Burkhart) wasn’t easy. He was a tough coach. He worked us hard in practice.

“I loved playing for him.”

Prater has fond memories of Bibler, who was killed along with Charlie Smith, Scott Smith and Tony Elliott in a plane accident in 2015.

“It still affects us daily around here,” says Prater. Tippecanoe Valley School Trustees voted last September to rename the school’s gridiron to Smith-Bibler Memorial Field — Home of Death Valley Football. The Bibler family helped make a new football press box a reality.

While Prater was playing at Valley, Bibler took a group to a run-and-shoot camp at Georgetown, Ky., and there was much team bonding.

“He was a Godly man, which was great,” says Prater of Bibler. “He was a great role model for all of us. I’ve tried to carry on myself like he did and be a friend when (athletes) need somebody.”

Valley’s 2018 assistant coaches include alums Clayton Adamson (pitching coach), Mike Bowers and Jarred Littlejohn (junior varsity). After a call-out, Prater expects the Vikings to field two teams this spring — varsity and JV.

A young varsity squad with four seniors and plenty of sophomores is expected to take the field this spring.

“We’ve got some good ballplayers,” says Prater. “They’ve played a lot of summer ball and played for some good coaches. That helps.”

Among the TV seniors is Trine University commit Drew Hartman.

Recent Valley players to head for college diamonds include Tanner Andrews (Purdue University), Gavin Bussard (Grace College), Alec Craig (Danville Area Community College), Eric Hammer (Northern Illinois University) and Luke Helton (Manchester University).

The Vikings are members of the Three Rivers Conference (along with Maconaquah, Manchester, North Miami, Northfield, Peru, Rochester, Southwood, Wabash and Whitko.).

Valley last won sectional crowns in 2009, 2010 and 2012. The Vikings are in a 2018 3A grouping with Angola, Fairfield, Lakeland, NorthWood, Wawasee and West Noble.

Prater, who runs a milk hauling service that allows him the freedom to coach baseball, has been involved with upgrades to the Valley baseball field. The infield has been raised, dugouts have been changed and new wind screens have been added.

“We make it sharp looking,” says Prater. “We’re getting there.”

Prater intends to get even more involved in community baseball, working with players who come up through Town & Country youth league programs in Akron and Mentone. He wants to re-establish middle school baseball, which will likely start as a club sport in the summer.

“We’re trying to catch them up,” says Prater. “They’ve just never had the opportunity (to play at the level some travel baseball teams do).”

Prater says there is talk of bringing American Legion baseball back in Rochester or Plymouth, which will also help his high school program.

This summer, Prater will help Brian Blondell, Scott Rost and Bruce Baer coach a Michiana Scrappers 15U team.

Greg and wife Amy (a daycare provider) have three children — Katie is a freshman softball player and nursing major at Bethel College, Kinzie is a junior at Valley and Layne is a freshman baseball player at Valley.

KINZIEGREGLAYNEAMYKATIEPRAGERThe Prater family (from left): Kinzie, Greg, Layne, Amy and Katie. Greg Prater is the head baseball coach at Tippecanoe Valley High School.