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Individual development key as Mercer builds Indiana Hoosiers baseball

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Jeff Mercer was once in their shoes.

That’s why he takes the approach he does as a head coach in college baseball.

Mercer, who was hired last summer to run the program at Indiana University, wants to give his players their best chance to showcase what they can do.

With that in mind, Mercer and his staff (Dan Held, Justin Parker, Casey Dykes, Scott Rolen and Denton Sagerman) design their fall practice schedule with individual work first before intrasquad and exhibition games.

“Development has always been the core foundational piece of our coaching philosophy,” says Mercer, who came to the Hoosiers after successful two-season run as head coach at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. “You really need to take the time to coach the players. We want to make sure we put guys in position to maximize their strengths.

“You only get to find those strengths through building the relationships and focusing on the individual development of the players.”

Rolen, director of player development, brings his expertise from 17 Major League Baseball seasons and helped the staff lay out the whole 12-week fall plan. Former St. Louis Cardinals catcher and manager Mike Matheny was consulted on coaching and catching. New York Yankees infield coordinator Miguel Cairo was asked for his guidance.

Talking with players, coaches get to see what the goals and the prism through which they view life and baseball.

“It helps a ton to know where they’re coming from when you’re trying to coach them,” says Mercer.

This is not a new concept with Mercer, who played NCAA Division I baseball at the University of Dayton and Wright State before beginning his coaching career.

“We’ve always done individuals first,” says Mercer, 33. “A lot of programs will do the team portion first. That’s their prerogative. I understand that.

“For us, if I look at it from a young man’s perspective. I want to come in and settle in. I want to get in the weight room, get my body right. I want to learn what your expectations of me are as a player.”

The athletes want to know what is expected of them from mechanical, workload and style/brand of baseball standpoints.

“All of those take a lot of time for a player to understand,” says Mercer. “The player will do whatever the expectation is. They always rise to the occasion.

“So if you take five or six weeks and you give them time and structure and coach them like crazy.”

“If I’m a young man, I want to be at my best when I’m competing and showcasing myself in the fall and earning an opportunity to play in the spring.”

By putting the individual work first in the fall, players can figure out where their classes is and make the necessary physical and mechanical adjustments.

Mercer says fear of failure is taken away through this approach.

“Fear of failure is what holds back the most successful people,” says Mercer. “If I remove the fear of failure, I can just go grow and compete.

“All the lessons we’ve been taught can be applied much more readily into the game.

“At the end of the day, these players have one career. It’s our job to help them maximize their opportunity to play this game.”

Mercer says that’s what he wants for his son if he grows up to play college baseball. Jeff and Stephanie Mercer welcome Grady into the world in June.

What brand of baseball will the Hoosiers play in 2019?

“This team is more offensive and can just flat drive the baseball as opposed to a small-ball style,” says Mercer. “Let’s not take a guy who may hit 15 home runs and try to convince him to bunt for 30 hits.

Let’s let him get into good counts. I want to run the bases, but let’s make sure when we have a guy at the plate who can drive the ball, we don’t take the bat out of his hands. We play in a more offensive ballpark (Bart Kaufman Field’s dimensions are 330 feet down the left field line, 400 to center and 340 to right).”

Based on the fall roster, some of the Hoosiers’ top returning hitters  are juniors Matt Gorski (.356 average, 8 home runs, 40 runs batted in for 2018) and Scotty Bradley (.326/7/19) and seniors Ryan Fineman (.309/7/37), Matt Lloyd (.275/9/41) and Logan Kaletha (.261/8/31).

Outfielder Gorski (Hamilton Southeastern High School graduate) catcher Fineman (California) and outfielder Kaletha (Michigan City) swing from the right side while infielder/catcher Bradley (New Jersey) and utility player Lloyd (Alberta, Canada) are lefties.

There’s also might in the relief core and not just in the late innings.

“We’ve got more bullpen arms,” says Mercer. “We need to make sure we really use our bullpen to accentuate our starters.

“We have mid-relief guys who are good so let’s make sure we utilize that strength.”

With Mercer being new at IU, he came in with no preconceived ideas about players.

“I don’t know how successful or unsuccessful we were,” says Mercer. “I purposely did not look at any of the stats or video from last year.

“I came in with a blank slate for everybody.”

Mercer has never appointed captains, but lets leadership reveal itself.

“Those personalities step forward on their own and you try to empower them,” says Mercer.

When he transferred from the Dayton to Wright State as a player, the coaching staff did not tell him he could not be a leader because he was the new kid on the block.

“I was very empowered to lead early in my time at Wright State and I felt comfortable in that role,” says Mercer. “A big part of my success was me getting to be myself.

“I hope the guys here feel the freedom to be whoever they want to be now and moving forward.”

Mental skills was important at Wright State where Mercer brought in Diamyn Hall as the first full-time coach in D-I baseball devoted to that side of the game. At IU, mental skills are talked about on a regular basis and Mercer leads most of the discussions.

Mercer, a Franklin Community High School graduate, grew up around the Indiana program. His father, Jeff Mercer Sr., was an assistant for the Hoosiers in 1988 and 1989 and helped found the Indiana Bulls travel baseball organization.

Once the surreal idea of leading a team he cared so much about growing up wore off, Mercer began to focus on the day-to-day task.

“You have an ultimate responsibility to the young men and their families and the coaches that entrusted Indiana University to provide them a great experience,” says Mercer. “It’s an awesome responsibility, but it’s one we don’t ever take lightly.

“You can’t get caught being a fan. You’ve got go to work.”

JEFFMERCERIU

Jeff Mercer is the head baseball coach at Indiana University. The 2019 season will be his first with the Hoosiers. (Indiana University Photo)

 

BLOOMINGTON, IN - 2018.08.23 - Headshot

New Indiana University head baseball coach Jeff Mercer has been spending the time to develop individuals this fall.  (Indiana University Photo)

 

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Lemonis hustles to keep Hoosiers competitive, playing baseball the right way

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

As the early NCAA Division I National Letter of Intent signing period approaches — it’s Nov. 8-15 — Chris Lemonis is doing the thing that has made him one of the nation’s top college baseball recruiters.

“Hustle,” says Lemonis, who is going into his fourth season as head baseball of Indiana University baseball in 2018. “You’ve got to be willing to hustle. You have to have an eye for it. You also have to have a plan. What pieces are you trying to put together? (A player might be the) right fit for one school and not for the other.”

Lemonis, who is 101-72-2 with two NCAA regional appearance (2015, 2017) while leading the Hoosiers, likes to find as much in-state talent as he can and still remain competitive. “The state of Indiana has great high school players. It is a big base for us. We will reach out at times and fiend pieces.”

The Hoosiers — regularly top 25-ranked program — find most players within a five-hour drive from the Bloomington campus.

“But we don’t rule out anybody,” says Lemonis, who has been spending his share of time on the road, visiting recruits and working camps. “We like to be a physical team and an athletic team.”

Lemonis asks that athletes and their parents research to see what fits their needs.

As drawing cards for the Hoosiers, there is an IU degree plus the ever-growing profile of Big Ten Conference baseball. The 2017 season saw five B1G schools make the 64-team NCAA D-I tournament — conference tournament champion and automatic bid winner Iowa plus at-large invitees Indiana, Maryland, Michigan and Nebraska.

Conference baseball continues to get recognition and revenue through the Big Ten Network.

“We try to keep our kids in this part of the country — Midwest staying at Midwest schools,” says Lemonis. “When I first came to Midwest, all the good players went south. There is now a commitment to baseball in our league.”

As evidence, all of the 13 baseball-playing B1G schools have stadiums that were either built new or renovated in the last few years, many with artificial turf.

Indiana moved to Bart Kaufman Field in 2013. Hoosiers benefactor Bart Kaufman went into the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2017.

Illinois plays at Illinois Field, Iowa at Duane Banks Field, Maryland at Bob “Turtle” Smith Stadium, Michigan at Ray Fisher Stadium, Michigan State at McClane Baseball Stadium at Kobs Field, Minnesota at Siebert Field, Nebraska at Hawks Field at Haymarket Park, Northwestern at Rocky and Berenice Miller Park, Ohio State at Nick Swisher Field at Bill Davis Stadium, Penn State at Medlar Park at Lubrano Field, Purdue at Alexander Field and Rutgers at Bainton Field. Wisconsin does not have NCAA D-I baseball.

Allowing for the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft (IU’s Craig Dedelow was selected int he ninth round in 2017 by the Chicago White Sox and the Hoosiers count former players Micah Johnson, Josh Phegley, Kyle Schwarber, Aaron Slegers and Sam Travis as current big leaguers), Lemonis plans his recruiting on a three-year cycle.

The Big Ten does have a rule that players sign a four-year scholarship and not a series of one-year deals, which is common in other conferences.

Lemonis came to Indiana after serving 20 seasons as an assistant coach — 12 at The Citadel (1995-2006) and eight at the University of Louisville (2006-14).

At Louisville, he worked closely with head coach Dan McDonnell and made three trips to the College World Series (2007, 2013, 2014). They were college roommates, teammates and athletic Hall of Famers at The Citadel — the military college in Charleston, S.C.

“He’s a great leader of men and a great coach,” says Lemonis of McDonnell, who spoke at the 2017 IHSBCA State Coaches Clinic in Indianapolis. “He is very big on the motivation side — not only with the players but the staff. He’s always trying to push the program forward and put it in a better place. He’s one of the best in the business — if not the best.”

Phone calls between Lemonis and McDonnell are exchanged a couple of times a week.

“We bounce ideas off each other,” says Lemonis.

As a left-handed-swinging infielder at The Citadel, Lemonis had two head coaches — American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Chal Port and Fred Jordan — before playing minor league baseball (1995-2004) with Triple-A stops in the Detroit Tigers, Arizona Diamondbacks, Florida Marlins and Baltimore Orioles organizations.

“(Port) was a tough old school coach,” says Lemonis. “He was big on fundamentals and playing the game the right way. He put together kids who became a close-knit group.”

Lemonis served 12 seasons on Jordan’s coaching staff.

“I got most of my development from him,” says Lemonis. “He was big into physicality and the speed of the game. We didn’t start (weight) lifting until Coach Jordan got there.”

When Lemonis was playing, most coaches thought baseball players should stay away from weights in order to remain flexible.

Now, strength and conditioning is a major part of the game. With fall baseball concluded, IU players are spending four days a week in the weight room, becoming bigger, stronger and faster.

Since many Hoosiers play spring, summer and fall, they are now giving their arms a rest. Throwing programs will resume in December and hitting will amp up. After Christmas break, the team will be in “spring training” mode as it prepares to open the 2018 schedule with four in South Carolina — Feb. 16 (Oklahoma), Feb. 17 (Kansas State) and Feb. 18 (South Alabama) in Myrtle Beach and Feb. 19 (Coastal Carolina) in Conway.

The home opener is slated for March 7 (Cincinnati).

Lemonis graduated from Socastee High School in Myrtle Beach, S.C. A move-in, he played his junior year for Jody Rush and senior season for Rick Hardwick, who had come from The Citadel.

As a product of his playing and coaching stops, Lemonis believes in “playing the right way.”

That is reflected in IU being among the top fielding percentage teams in the B1G and the way the Hoosiers train, show up early, hustle and demonstrate positive body language.

“It’s doing a hard 90 down the baseline,” says Lemonis. “It’s respecting the game.”

The IU coaching staff also features Kyle Bunn (associate head coach/pitching), Kyle Cheesebrough (assistant/recruiting coordinator), Zach Lucas (assistant) and Roger Rodeheaver (director of operations).

Cheesebrough and Lucas both played at Louisville and they help Lemonis with the Hoosiers’ offensive game.

CHRISLEMONIS

Chris Lemonis enters his fourth season as head baseball coach at Indiana University in 2018. It will be his 24th as a coach at the NCAA Division I level. (Indiana University Photo)