Collin Bice grew up playing at Auburn (Ind.) Little League then DeKalb High School in Waterloo, Ind. This week, Bice was named head baseball coach at his alma mater after two years as a Barons assistant. His coaching in the spring at the high school makes Bice familiar with the returnees and his coaching of 14U all-stars in the summer has allowed him to get to know the incoming freshmen. The 25-year-old is well aware of the winning tradition at DeKalb, having played for Chris Rhodes for his first three prep seasons and Tim Murdock as a senior and from years of taking lessons from Ken Jones. Bice was a freshmen when he began coaching at the Little League and led many teams with friend Bruce Bell. “DeKalb baseball has always been an above-average baseball team,” says Bice, who was made school-board official Dec. 21. “We’re not looking to recreate the wheel. We’re asking what is it going to take to take us to the next level? “I like to consider myself a high-energy guy. I’m going to be flying around with (the players). I plan to increase the tempo and intensity of practice. I hate standing around. “Playing for Coach Rhodes really sparked my passion for the game. I had a great four seasons myself as a Baron. That’s what I want to recreate. I want to impact the lives of 15- to 18-year-olds and give them a great experience.” Bice, a former catcher, likes the way Rhodes and Murdock broke practices into individual groups and will continue to do that. “Each practice we’ll work on what we need to enhance based on the last game or week,” says Bice. “We want to get better each and every day.” A 2015 DeKalb graduate, Bice played one season for Bob Koopmann at Rockford (Ill.) University and three at Manchester University in North Manchester, Ind., for Rick Espeset. He credits the Spartans bench boss for imparting plenty of baseball knowledge. A coach of a team every summer except 2018 when he gave lessons as an intern at the Strike Zone in Omaha, Neb., during the summer of 2018, Bice graduated from Manchester in 2019 with a degree in Business Management with a minor in Coaching. While his DeKalb coaching staff is not completed, Bice plans to have former University of Saint Francis left-handed pitcher Kyle DeKoninck return and will likely have father and DeKalb paraprofessional Randy Bice helping him this spring. DeKalb (enrollment around 1,120) is a member of the Northeast Eight Conference (with Bellmont, Columbia City, East Noble, Huntington North, Leo, New Haven and Norwell). In recent season, NE8 game were played as home-and-home series at Tuesdays and Thursdays. In the 2021, the Barons were part of an IHSAA Class 4A sectional grouping with Carroll, East Noble, Fort Wayne Northrop and Fort Wayne Snider. DeKalb has won 19 sectional titles — the last in 2002. A state championship was earned by Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Bill Jones in 1980. DeKalb plays home games on-campus at Baron Field. The grass at the facility was replaced last year. Feeding high school program is Auburn Little League (T-ball to age 12) at Rieke Park and the Junior League (ages 13-15). “I’ve always coached that Junior League level,” says Bice. “That’s important to me.” The past two DeKalb graduating classes have produced college baseball players — Tyler Stahl (Indiana Tech) and Easton Rhodes (Trine University) graduated in 2020 and Aric Ehmke (Frontier Community College in Fairfield, Ill.), Steele Jackson (Pasco-Hernando State College in New Port Richey, Fla.) and Nolan Nack (Trine) earned diplomas in 2021. There have been no signings or commitments from current Barons, but Bice expects that to change. “Our senior class will probably have a few,” says Bice. “The junior class is pretty strong.” Collin’s mother is Dusti Bice, who played on DeKalb’s first softball team as a senior in 1986. His younger brother — Hayden Bice — is a Southern Illinois University Architecture major. Collin Bice is agent aspirant in the office of State Farm Insurance agent Morgan Hefty, located in Auburn. Bice roots for the Cleveland Guardians (formerly Indians).
Ratcliffe had helped Thunder head coach Greg Perschke during the 2012 and 2013 seasons and assisted in school-record 25-win seasons then went back to the high school ranks before coming back on board in Angola, Ind., for 2020.
Trine, an NCAA Division III school with a 40-game regular-season limit, averaged 17 wins per year from 2014-19 with high-water marks of 19 in 2017 and 2018.
That was not considered good enough.
So the Thunder went to work in the fall.
“We have our limits when we can and can’t be with them,” says Ratcliffe referring to NCAA D-III contact rules. “But there are expectations from Coach Perschke. His passion for the kids is electric. It just gets everybody.
“There’s an off-season weight program. Kids work around their academics to get a workout in.”
The message is clear: If you want the team to get better, this is what has to happen. Here’s how you do it. Do you want to be a part of that?
At a school full of engineering students and others with rigorous majors, the find a way to get the job done.
“We give them a lot of instruction during our weeks,” says Ratcliffe. “They take this and work hard in the off-season.”
Brought in to help with catchers, infielders and hitters and be a bench coach during games, Ratcliffe says there’s a difference between high school and college that has do with more than age.
“Kids at the college level want to be there instead of doing something in high school,” says Ratcliffe. “Development is extremely different. In high school, you’re developing their skills. In college, you’re fine-tuning their skills.”
Through conversations and short videos, Perschke (Trine head coach since 2002 and the Thunder’s pitching coach) and assistants Ratcliffe and Nick Pfafman provided instruction for a month and then the team’s veterans led a few more weeks of workouts heading into the winter.
“We developed a mindset of how to react and respond to things,” says Ratcliffe. “It’s one of the things I was brought in for.”
When the team came back from Christmas break it had less than a month before its first games.
Trine went 1-2 Feb. 22-23 in Kentucky then 8-0 March 1-6 in Florida.
Then — suddenly — the season was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Thunder gathered for an impromptu team photo after a practice and said their goodbyes.
This summer, Ratcliffe is head coach for the 17U DeKalb County Thunder travel team. His assistant is Cody Krumlauf, a graduate of DeKalb High School and Earlham College who has been a player and coach for the Quakers.
The program was started a few years ago when the players were at the 15U level. The Thunder now also fields 15U and 13U teams.
To be eligible to play for the Thunder, players must play in community baseball organizations in Auburn, Butler, Garrett or St. Joe.
While with the Spartans, Ratcliffe got to work with future big league catcher Rob Bowen.
“I remember he was a starter working on being a switch hitter,” says Ratcliffe. “If he hit 50 balls off the tee right-handed, he had to hit 50 left-handed. Balance had to be there if h was serious about being a switch hitter.”
Ratcliffe recalls that Bowen hit homers from both sides of the plate early in his minor league days and went on to play in the majors with the Minnesota Twins, San Diego Padres, Chicago Cubs and Oakland Athletics.
Caleb Kimmel, who went on to play at Valparaiso University and is now CEO of the World Baseball Academy, was also at Homestead when Ratcliffe was on staff.
“(Moustakas) had the same kind of energy as a 17-year-old that he did (with the Kansas City Royals) in the World Series.
“That guy has not changed one bit. He’s such a team player.”
Freeman became of Ratcliffe’s favorites.
“His character in the dugout was unbelievable,” says Ratcliffe of the future Atlanta Braves first baseman. “He was very coachable. Freddie wanted to get better.
“I’ve told my players this is what you need to be like. It’s not all about baseball. Character is very crucial.”
Trout and Bauer are superstars now. But they didn’t make the national team back then. They didn’t sulk. They put in the work to get better.
The Uptons also failed, but learned from those around them and rebounded. Justin’s path to The Show included 113 games with the 2006 Mark Haley-managed South Bend (Ind.) Silver Hawks during his 18-year-old season.
While they were nearly two decades apart, Ratcliffe (Class of 1990) and Parker (2007) were both graduates of Norwell High School in Ossian, Ind.
Ratcliffe had coached against right-handed pitcher Parker in high school and saw him help Norwell to an IHSAA 3A state championship in 2007.
When it came time for Parker to take the mound that summer Joplin, Ratcliffe offered a little advice: “Go be yourself.”
Parker went on to work out with the Top 40 players in Atlanta and was selected in the first round (No.9 overall) of the 2007 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft and pitched in the bigs for the Arizona Diamondbacks and Oakland Athletics. David Price and Moustakas went 1-2 in the ’07 draft.
Ratcliffe’s head coach at Norwell was Stan Reed.
“He had compassion for the players,” says Ratcliffe. “He really cared about us. It showed whether we won or lost.”
A catcher, Ratcliffe went to Purdue University and was redshirted his first season and played sparingly for Boilermakers coach Dave Alexander in his second, though he did get to catch Sherard Clinkscales, a right-handed pitcher who was selected in the first round of the 1992 MLB Draft, later scouted for Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Kansas City and coached at Notre Dame before going into athletic administration.
When Alexander left Purdue to become a scout and pitching coach Steve Green was promoted to head coach, he had a chat with Ratcliffe. It was apparent he was not going to get to play much for the Boilers.
What did Ratcliffe learn from Norwell grad Kinzer during the 1993 and 1994 seasons?
“It takes a lot of hard work to get to that level,” says Ratcliffe. “If you want to get there you’ve got to put some time in.
“Talent doesn’t get you to the next level. It takes things like working hard and having good character.”
By the time Tom Muth took over at IPFW in 1995, Ratcliffe knew he wanted to be a coach so he took the opportunity to play multiple positions and learn their nuances. Since the Dons were in need of a second baseman, Ratcliffe moved there and still took time to catch bullpens.
Ratcliffe played independent professional ball as a middle infielder for the Frontier League’s Richmond (Ind.) Roosters in their inaugural season of 1995. Larry Nowlin was the manger and Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer John Cate part owner.
One of his teammates was future major league switch-hitting first baseman/designated hitter Morgan Burkhart. When he came to Fort Wayne as a member of the San Diego Padres coaching staff, Ratcliffe made sure he found a good fishing hole.
After finishing his degree at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, Ratcliffe became a teacher.
Besides coaching baseball, he instructs special education classes at Garrett Middle School. His wife of 19 years — Stacy — is a kindergarten teacher at J.E. Ober Elementary in Garrett. The couple have two sons — GHS senior-to-be Blake (17) and GMS eighth grader-to-be Easton (13).
Miller has brought enthusiasm to the diamond for much of the organization’s long history.
The Rockets — started in 1959 by Dick Runkle and continued by Ray Miller (Randy’s father) — celebrated 60 years of diamond fun and memories in 2019. That makes it one of the longest-running continuous teams in amateur baseball.
“We go back to our 1960’s roots,” says Portland manager Randy Miller, who has seen the Rockets square off against squads from Albany, Geneva, Dunkirk, Elwood, New Castle, Upland, Yorktown and beyond. A rivalry with the Gas City-based Twin City Bankers is well-chronicled in Bill Lightle’s book “My Mother’s Dream.”
When the Rockets began, they were comprised of players from Portland and later fanned out from Jay County.
“We’re still townball,” says Miller”. We just come from a lot of towns.”
The ’19 Rockets (10-13) had four players who claim Portland as their hometown — Peyton Heniser, Chandler Jacks, Max Moser and captain Mitch Waters. They also came from Auburn, Bluffton, Carmel, Ellettsville, Frankton, Indianapolis, LaPorte, Marion, Pendleton, St. Joseph and Thorntown in Indiana and Coldwater, St. Mary’s and Vandalia in Ohio.
The oldest players were Waters (35), Chris Gaines (33), Zeth Tanner (29), Codey Harrison (28) and Craig Martin (28). The rest were under 25 with seven teenagers. Waters is the director of operations at the Jay County Community Center.
A graduate of Jay County High School and Manchester College, Waters played for the Kalamazoo (Mich.) Kings of the independent Frontier League.
“Our guys are some of the best athletes their high schools have ever had,” says Randy Miller. “They’re gamers.
“I’m just so proud of them.”
Miller, 65, began playing for the Rockets in 1972 and caught a doubleheader at 51. By the 1990’s, he was sharing manager duties with his father and has continued helped continue the tradition.
“I’ve got a motorcycle and a boat,” says Miller, a former teacher at Adams Central High School in Monroe, Ind. “I’m not on them very much in the summer.”
Runkle had the Rockets competing in the old Eastern Indiana Baseball League. Local talent included Steve Takats. His Ball State University teammate, Merv Rettenmund, played for Portland in 1966 and made his big league debut as a player with the Baltimore Orioles in 1968 and was an MLB hitting coach for many years.
The Rockets went 18-1 and won the EIBL in 1968.
With the team in financial trouble, Ray Miller took over in 1972. He doubled the schedule and included games with Fort Wayne teams.
With the support of wife Betty, Ray helped secure a playing facility in Portland that is now known as Runkle-Miller Field.
“Mom was always there with a sandwich and a cold beverage,” says Randy Miller of his mother, who served 16 years as city clerk.
In 1984, the Rockets merged with the Bank of Berne Lancers and went 34-20. The ’85 season was the best to date at 41-14 with Portland’s first-ever American Amateur Baseball Congress state title.
Miller became AABC state secretary in 1991 and the Rockets won AABC state crowns in 1991, 1994, 1996, 1997, 2001, 2004, and 2006 and in more than 30 years as manager Portland won more than 900 games.
With Randy Miller, siblings Brad Miller and Mickey Scott and many community members pitching in, the Rockets have survived. Mickey, who was city clerk for 12 years, used to run Runkle-Miller’s “Rocket Lunching Pad” concession stand and now Brad does it.
All three Miller offspring have taken turns watering the field. The baselines are seeded to help with all the excess rain.
For years, the Rockets were purely a family-funded operation.
Since the mid-1990s, the Rockets have swung wood bats. At first, Randy provided those. But that got too expensive and now the players provide their own clubs.
For $100, the team picks up the cost of caps, uniforms and handles insurance.
Randy Miller carries on a tradition by giving the “Rocket Report” on WPGW 100.9 FM on afternoons following games. Samantha Thomas, who once worked for the Fort Wayne TinCaps, is involved with keeping score and other team functions.
Randy Miller schedules games, recruits players, pays bills and generally keeps the Rockets going.
“That’s my legacy,” says Miller. “I carry the torch.”
The Rockets coaching tree spreads far and wide, especially along the U.S. 27 corridor.
“They want to give back to the game,” says Miller. “We are a baseball town. I really believe that.”
Portland won 35 or more games a season throughout the 2000’s and went to the NABF World Series in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2012. A few years ago, the Rockets posted a 35-12 mark.
In 2018, an $28,000 scoreboard was installed at Runkle-Miller Field.
A 60-foot “Wall of Dreams” mural on the side of Portland’s Ritz Theatre was painted by Pamela Bliss and dedicated July 28 and many alums and Rocket backers came to celebrate.
Wearing the gold and black, fans were in Fort Wayne to see the Rockets’ latest season come to a close.
But the fun is not over yet for 2019. The annual Rocket Rally golf outing is scheduled for Sept. 22 at Portland Golf Club. For more information, email Randy Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Randy Miller and Mitch Waters share in the spoils of victory for the Portland (Ind.) Rockets baseball team. (Portland Rockets Photo)
Dalton Tinsley hits for the Portland (Ind.) Rockets baseball team. (Portland Rockets Photo)
Former players and fans gathered July 28, 2019 for the dedication of a 60-foot “Wall of Dreams” mural and celebration of 60 years of Portland (Ind.) Rockets baseball. (Portland Rockets Photo)
Artist Pamela Bliss created the 60-foot “Wall of Dreams” mural on the side of the Ritz Theatre in Portland, Ind. On Aug. 28, 2019, there was a
Siblings Brad Miller (left), Randy Miller and Mickey Scott stand in front of a “Wall of Dreams” mural in Portland, Ind., celebrating 60 years of Portland (Ind.) Rockets baseball. The mural behind them depicts Randy and their father, Ray Miller, who were co-managers for years.
The story of the Portland (Ind.) Rockets baseball team and the “Wall of Dreams.” (Portland Rockets Photo)
Runkle-Miller Field received a $28,000 scoreboard in 2018. The field is home to the Portland (Ind.) Rockets baseball team, which has been around since 1959. (Portland Rockets Photo)
“I love the punch-out,” says the graduate of Wapahani High School in Selma, Ind., is fanning opposing hitters at a rate of 12.81 per nine innings for the 2019 season (102 K’s and 24 walks in 71 2/3 innings) and 12.09 for his collegiate career (240 whiffs and 82 freebies in 178 1/3 innings). “I’ve got pretty good breaking balls. I can expand the zone on them.”
Thompson, who employs a four-seam fastball that he can sometimes get up to 97 mph that he mixes with a cutter, change-up, curveball and slider, says he goes to the mound with two keys in his mind: Get a first-pitch strike and after that win the 1-1 battle.
“There’s such a big difference between 2-1 and 1-2,” says Thompson.
Currently the Saturday starter during weekend series for the Wildcats, the southpaw is 4-1 with a 1.88 earned run a 1.88 earned run average. Opponents are hitting .179 against him in 11 games (11 starts).
Since coming to UK, Thompson is 14-3 with one save, a 2.57 ERA and .188 opponent’s batting mark in 40 appearances (31 as a starter).
“It was just the right fit and has a very blue collar feel,” says Thompson. “My family (which includes father Bill, mother Jan and older brother Nick) can see games. They’re usually down here every weekend. And it’s in the (Southeastern Conference).
“The SEC has the best competition and best environment to improve.”
Thompson describes the atmosphere at conference road games as “incredible.”
He has gotten to stand on the bump on a circuit that includes Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Missouri, Mississippi, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M.
In the summer of 2018, Thompson played for the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team, making three appearances with one start. He was 1.0 with a 0.00 ERA, eight strikeout, five walks and three hits allowed in 8 2/3 innings. Opponents, including Chinese Taipei, Japan and Cuba, hit .107 against the left-hander.
“That was just an awesome experience,” says Thompson. “I was representing my country and playing with the some of the best players and for some of the best coaches.
“I got to see how other people do it.”
Louisiana State University head coach Paul Mainieri was the USA CNT head coach. The pitching coach was University of Virginia head coach Brian O’Connor.
“Coach O is great,” says Thompson of O’Connor. “We worked on things in bullpen that translated to the game really well like his philosophies and pitch calling.”
Mainieri is a former head coach at Notre Dame, where O’Connor was his pitching coach.
Baseball America made the 21-year-old Thompson the No. 1 SEC prospect in the 2019 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft (which is slated for June 3-5). D1 Baseball has him No. 2 on their list. He is also high in prospect rankings for MLBPipeline.com and Perfect Game.
“I try not to worry about it,” says Thompson of the MLB Draft. “It won’t matter if I don’t do my job on the mound.”
Thompson was born in Anderson, Ind., and grew up in Selma near Muncie. Playing for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Brian Dudley at Wapahani.
“Brian was awesome and a great mentor,” says Thompson of Dudley. “He’s a great leader in the community.
“He sets his players up for success in the class room and on the field.”
Thompson was a National Honor Society student that led him to study business management in college. On the diamond, he put up eye-popping numbers.
On the mound, he went 23-2 with a 0.98 ERA and 405 strikeouts for 183 2/3 innings (15.43 per seven innings). As a sophomore, he helped the Raiders to an IHSAA Class 2A state championship in 2014 while going 13-0 with a 0.64 ERA over 87 innings as a pitcher and also hit .500 with eight home runs and 36 runs batted in.
High school summers were spent traveling with the Indiana White Sox or Indiana Bulls.
Thompson was selected in the 11th round of the 2016 MLB Draft by the Tampa Bay Rays, but opted not to sign and went to Kentucky.
Zack Thompson, a graduate of Wapahani High School in Selma, Ind., is a junior left-handed pitcher at the University of Kentucky. (University of Kentucky Photo)
Zack Thompson is among the nation’s top pitching prospects for the 2019 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. The left-hander is a graduate of Wapahani High School in Selma, Ind., and has been racking up strikeouts in droves as a University of Kentucky junior. (University of Kentucky)