By STEVE KRAH
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.
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)