By STEVE KRAH
Baseball players are buying what Jon Vernon’s selling at Benton Central Junior-Senior High School in Oxford, Ind.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have some good athletes and good players,” says Vernon, who is heading into his fourth season as BC head coach in 2019. “They’ve bought into my system.”
The Bison have improved its record in each of Vernon’s first three seasons in charge, going 10-17 in 2016, 17-9 in 2017 and 19-6 in 2018.
Benton Central lost 9-2 to Western in the 2017 IHSAA Class 3A West Lafayette Sectional championship game.
BC bowed out of the state tournament series with a 3-2 loss to Maconaquah on a seventh-inning wild pitch in the first round of the 2018 3A Peru Sectional.
“We changed the culture a little bit,” says Vernon, whose current seniors have been varsity since freshmen year. That group includes three who have signed for college baseball —
Center fielder Payton Hall (University of Southern Indiana), right-handed pitcher/third baseman Alex Stout (Bethel College) and first baseman/left-hander Matt Taylor (Anderson University).
Right-hander Taylor Varnado, BC’s probable No. 1 starting pitcher in 2019 and a third baseman, is expected to sign soon. Junior shortstop Alex Thurston is verbally committed to Valparaiso University.
Vernon says he expects to have about 30 players for varsity and junior varsity teams in the spring. The JV went 11-6 in 2018.
Benton Central (enrollment of about 580) belongs to the Hoosier Athletic Conference (with Benton Central, Lafayette Central Catholic, Twin Lakes and Rensselaer Central in the West Division and Hamilton Heights, Lewis Cass, Northwestern, Tipton and Western in the East Division).
Teams play a home-and-home within their division then a crossover game with the corresponding regular-season placer in the other division.
BC is in an IHSAA Class 3A sectional grouping with Maconaquah, Northwestern, Peru, West Lafayette and Western. Benton Central has won 25 sectionals — the last in 2009.
The Bison roam on-campus at Darrell Snodgrass Field, a facility that recently received new fencing and upgraded dugouts and sound system. The worked on the diamond in the fall, doing things like edging.
A unique feature is the sounds of wind turbines. Benton County is home to wind farms.
With all that breeze, Vernon says it is best to be conservative field conditioner in the like in the autumn.
“You put too much stuff down in the fall, it won’t be there in the spring,” says Vernon.
Vernon’s 2019 assistants include Denny Musser and pitching coach Brad Goffinet with the varsity and Tyler Marsh with the junior varsity. Musser, the uncle of former Benton Central and professional left-hander Neal Musser, was a JV coach at BC on the staff of Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Gary DeHaven.
Neal Musser pitched 18 games for the 2007 and 2008 Kansas City Royals.
The southpaw was selected in the second round of the 1999 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the New York Mets.
Goffinet pitched at Indianapolis Marshall High School and Butler University in the 1970’s. Marsh is a former North Newton High School assistant.
Right-hander Jayson Best graduated from Benton Central in 1985 and played at Milligan College in Elizabethtown, Tenn., before signing with the Minnesota Twins in 1989. He reached the Double-A level in 1992 and 1993 and hurled for the independent Lafayette (Ind.) Leopards in 1996 and 1997. He was pitching at Goshen College 2000-04 (one season for Todd Bacon and four for Brent Hoober) and Maple Leafs head coach in 2005.
Benton Central baseball is largely fed by travel baseball organizations, including the Lafayette Lightning and Indiana Nitro. In the past, teams have played Pony League and Babe Ruth.
Vernon is a 1989 graduate of Logansport (Ind.) High School. He played for IHSBCA Hall of Famer Jim Turner Sr.
Turner’s Berries lost 6-2 to Evansville Memorial in the 1989 IHSAA state championship game. Vernon was his left fielder and lead-off hitter. It was the first of Logan’s three straight Final Four appearances. The Berries 7-3 in the state semifinals to eventual champion LaPorte in 1990 and beat Marion for the state title in 1991.
What was it like to play for Turner Sr.?
“It was a great experience,” says Vernon. “He knows more about baseball is his little pinky than I do in my whole body.”
Turner Sr., who was assisted for many years by Larry “Butch” Jones and Rich Wild, established a winning culture and a program.
“You didn’t want to let coach down,” says Vernon. “He trusted his players. A lot of people revere him.”
As a coach, Vernon learned from Turner Sr. that “you always have to play the best players” and it doesn’t matter what they’re family name is what grade they’re in.
“Sometimes that makes people happy and sometimes it doesn’t,” says Vernon. “If you want to win, that’s what you have to do. Sometimes you have to make those tough decisions.”
After a season of club baseball at the University of Kentucky, Vernon went on to get a bachelor’s degree from Huntington University and master’s degree from Ball State University. He was head baseball coach at Delphi (Ind.) High School from 1994-2000 and assisted Jim Turner Jr. at Logansport for one season in the mid-2000’s and ran Turner’s summer programs.
He picked up pointers on organization and running practice from Turner Jr. Vernon was also head volleyball coach for the Berries.
After a brief stint in Florida, he came back to Indiana. He teaches business and computer classes at Benton Central has been BC’s head volleyball coach for three seasons.
Jon and Diann Vernon have been married for 25 years. They have four children — Matthew, Luke, Kailey and Karlee. Matthew works in finance for Amazon and lives in South Carolina. Luke is a dental student at Indiana University Purdue University-Indianapolis. Kailey is in physician assistant school at Butler University. Karlee is 20 and works in Zionsville, Ind.
Alex Thurston (right) bats for Benton Central High School. He is a junior in 2019 and a verbal commit to Valparaiso (Ind.) University.
Matt Taylor (left) catches a ball at first base for Benton Central High School. He has moved on to the baseball team at Anderson University.
Benton Central players Payton Hall, Taylor Varnado, Alex Thurston, Matt Taylor and Alex Stout represent Hoosier North in the 2017 Colt Harry Bradway Classic in Lafayette, Ind.
The Vernon family in Key West, Fla., with spouses and children (from left): Matthew, Emily, Mary Katherine, Mason, Kailey, Karlee, Diann, Aubriel, Jon and Luke.
Another Benton Central High School baseball signs to play in college (from left): First row — Father David Stout, Benton Central Alex Stout and mother Stephanie Stout. Back row — Bethel College assistant Kiel Boynton, Bethel College head coach Seth Zartman and Benton Central head coach Jon Vernon. (Benton Central Photo)