BY STEVE KRAH
Down on the Ohio River sits the town of Rockport, Ind.
They love their baseball there.
South Spencer High School and Rockport American Legion Post 254 have been making them proud for years.
The South Spencer Rebels have won four IHSAA state titles in five State Finals appearances and won sectional crowns in 2015, 2016 and 2017, pushing the program’s total to 23.
South Spencer holds outright or share several 2A State Finals team records, including most hit (16 vs. Heritage in 2007), most runs batted in (12 in 2007) and most at-bats (38 in 2007). Todd Marn drove in a record five runs in 2007.
Rockport Post 254 has piled up all kinds of hardware at the state level and the 2016 team played in the American Legion Baseball World Series in Shelby, N.C.
Brian Kuester, who is also a social studies teacher, is entering his 22nd season as head baseball coach at South Spencer. He and his assistants also guide Post 254’s 17U Junior Legion team in the summer.
Kuester is just the third South Spencer head coach in more than 50 years. He took over for Jim Haaff (who is still the manager of Rockport’s Senior Legion squad). Haaff followed Bill Evans.
All three men are enshrined in the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
“I take a lot of pride in following two guys like that,” says Kuester, who took the Rebels to Class 2A state championships in 2007, 2011, 2013 and 2015.
Among active coaches with state championships, Tim Bordenet (Lafayette Central Catholic) ranks first with seven, followed by Terry Gobert (Jasper) and Dave Pishkur (Andrean) with five each and Kuester and Greg Dikos (Penn) with four apiece.
South Spencer was in the State Finals in the IHSAA’s third state tournament in 1969. “You’re expected to have a good program. Some years are going to be better than others. Like at any small school (South Spencer has around 400 students), it’s going to be that way.
“We know we have a target on our backs almost every time we go out there to play, which is a great thing. It’s better being on that end than on the other end. We see a lot of people’s 1’s and 2’s. That only makes us better.
“The kids expect it, know it and kind of relish that.”
Seven starters from the 2017 South Spencer Sectional champions graduated and Kuester expects maybe three or four seniors in 2018. This just means other players will now get their chance to shine.
“We’re a very small school and we have a lot of blue-collar type kids,” says Kuester. “We don’t get the big Division I players very often. But we’ve had a share of nice talent.”
After leaving South Spencer, left-hander Blake Monar pitched three seasons at Indiana University and was selected in the 12th round of the 2011 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Washington Nationals. He played two seasons in the Nationals systems and then with the independent Evansville Otters.
Right-hander Josh Garrett was a first-round pick in 1996 by the Boston Red Sox and pitched six professional seasons.
Kevin Davis, also a right-hander, pitched four season at Middle Tennessee State University and was a 55th round selection of the California Angels in 1996, but no record could be found of him playing in the minors.
Recent IHSCA North/South All-Star Series players have been Nathan Hall (2011), Jared Lauer (2012), Nathan Kuester (2014), Jon Stallings (2015) and Sammy Rowan (2017).
Brice Stuteville (Frontier Community College in Illinois) is among recent graduates playing college baseball.
South Spencer baseball is built on concepts like hard work, dedication and being disciplined in behavior and performance.
Multi-sport participation is the rule rather than the exception.
“We like them to be involved in other sports and have that competitiveness in them and we want them putting priorities straight,” says Kuester. “Baseball is obviously not more important than other things in life. But when we’re on the field, it’s got to be the most important thing.
“We try to instill dedication.”
Brian Kuester, the son of former professional player, manager and scout Ivan Kuester and younger brother of former Clemson University player Steve Kuester, is a 1976 Evansville Central High School graduate. For the Bears, he played for Bud Steiler and Ted Niemeier.
Brian calls his father and brother his biggest influences in baseball.
“My brother told me that as a catcher, you’re the only one who can see everybody else on the field,” says Kuester. “You have to be the leader. You have to know every position and what they need to be doing in every situation. You have to be able to basically teach pitching as a catcher and be a psychologist, trying to get the most out of your pitcher.
“Being a catcher definitely has a major impact in being a head coach.”
Like his brother, Brian was a catcher and went on to play at Indiana State University-Evansville (now the University of Southern Indiana) from 1977-80. His coach was former minor league pitcher Larry Shown.
Kuester was a graduate assistant at Southeastern Louisiana University and served as coach for Boonville and Evansville Pate American Legion and Oakland City University teams and five seasons at Tecumseh High School. He was associate head coach at Southern Indiana and an assistant for one season of Haaff’s South Spencer staff.
The 2018 Rebels coaching staff features Shawn Kuester, Mike Ogilvie and Mitch Rust at the varsity level and Chris Bartlett leading the junior varsity.
South Spencer is a member of the Pocket Athletic Conference (along with Forest Park, Gibson Southern, Heritage Hills, North Posey, Pike Central, Southridge, Tecumseh and Tell City).
Games are not played in a set pattern.
“Some weeks we might have two or three conference games,” says Kuester. “Some weeks we have no conference games.
“Our schedule is very, very tough. But that’s the way we want it.”
Non-conference dates in Indiana include Boonville, Castle, Evansville Harrison, Evansville Memorial, Evansville North, Evansville Reitz, Floyd Central, Jasper, Martinsvillle, Perry Central, Washington plus the Jasper Invitational.
Kentucky include Apollo, Daviess County, Hancock County and Henderson County and Owensboro Catholic.
Brian and Debbie Kuester have four children — Jeremy, Shawn, Nathan and Katie. All the boys played at South Spencer for their father. In college, Jeremy Kuester played two seasons at the University of Evansville and two at Kentucky Wesleyan College and is now University of Southern Indiana pitching coach.
Shawn Kuester at Evansville and Nathan Kuester is a senior at Southern Indiana. Katie Kuester is a softball player at Olney (Ill.) Central College.
Ivan Kuester, Brian, Kuester, Jeremy Kuester, Bill Evans and Jim Haaff) are members of the Greater Evansville Baseball Hall of Fame — a group that inducted its first class in 2016.
In 2017, the IHSAA adopted a 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).
Kuester said it has had zero effect on his teams and he only had one pitcher — son Jeremy — ever go above 120 pitches in a game. The main reason is that his pitchers also play other positions.
“I’m not always going to save my best for conference,” says Kuester. “If he’s available, we’re going to do it. Last year, we only threw our No. 1 in a couple of conference games. That’s just how it fell.
“We want to win the conference, but that’s not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is the (state) tournament.
The Rebels are all in it together.
“We stay away from he ‘me, me, me’ that our society seems to be in right now,” says Kuester. “We try to concentrate on what’s best for the team.
“Our players have bought into the concept. They learned if they play together, it will make you better as a team.”
Brian Kuester is entering his 22nd season as head baseball coach at South Spencer High School in Rockport, Ind., in 2018. (Steve Krah Photo)