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Benjamin finds his baseball fit at Indiana Wesleyan

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Rich Benjamin is not the same person who took up residence in Marion, Ind., as head baseball coach at Indiana Wesleyan University prior to the 2016 season.

“I didn’t realize — in a positive way — how much it would change me in two years,” says Benjamin. “I enjoy being around like-minded coaches who care more about the other coach in the room than their own sport.

“It’s been a great place to be a mentor, to be mentored and grow and develop in the profession.”

Benjamin came to IWU following eighth seasons at Judson University in Elgin, Ill., where his teams amassed 304 wins with three Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference regular-season titles, four CCAC tournament championships. The Eagles also earned five NAIA regional appearances and two National Christian College Athletic Association World Series berths. Near the end of his stay, Benjamin added athletic director to his Judson responsibilities.

He began his coaching career as a student assistant at Martin Methodist College in Pulaski, Tenn. (He played his last two college seasons there following two at Milligan College in eastern Tennessee).

From Martin Methodist, Benjamin became an assistant Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Ill., before landing at Judson. He has extensive experience in coaching summer teams and working at camps and clinics.

Faced with multiple opportunities, Benjamin weighed his options and asked himself some questions before leaving Judson.

“What is the best fit for how I’m wired? What is the best fit for my family?,” says Benjamin, who is married to Casey and has a 5-year-old son in Ty. “Professionally, you do not want your job to cost your family more than what they’re benefitting from it.

“That’s always a delicate balance in the coaching profession.”

He recalls his initial meeting with Indiana Wesleyan athletic director and former Wildcats head baseball coach Mark DeMichael.

“I was blown away with the uniqueness of the environment,” says Benjamin of the NAIA member school. “It is a faith-based institution. It is not Christian in name only. The athletic department is founded on the Philippians 2 vision which — in short — means to be selfless. That was really attractive.”

Benjamin calls DeMichael one of the most-impressive leaders he’s ever been around.

“He really understands people, excellence and humility,” says Benjamin. “All the (IWU) coaches end up in his office at some point to use him as a sounding board for some of the cultural challenges that we are going through with our teams.

“He never tells you what to do. He lets you talk out loud. He asks really healthy open-ended questions and helps you find the answer you feel is the best solution for your program.”

During the interview process, Benjamin also learned from DeMichael about an institution with high academic and competitive standards. Every sport on campus had a combined grade-point average above 3.0 and the department winning percentage was in the top 15 in the nation.

“Here is an athletic department winning championships and killing it academically and they’re focused on people-first,” says Benjamin. “This is paradigm-shifting in college athletics. I was really attracted and wanted to be a part of it.

“Indiana Wesleyan is not one of those places where you can sell out in a couple areas to win games. You have to consider the social, academic and athletic sides of the person.

“We say, ‘if you build the person, the player will follow.’ You bring in a person and put them in a high-motored environment and you see them over their first 24 months. It’s a fun process to watch unfold because you have to do that part well.”

It’s all a matter of the right fit.

“Wherever you’re at, you have to recruit to your culture and the identity of your school, your resources,” says Benjamin. “We’re not fully-funded program (at IWU). Having to stretch dollars is the most-challenging aspect of the job.

“It’s also why we go after high financial-need students because they’ll get some government assistance or we go after high-academic students because they’re going to get a lot of academic aid.”

While attending the 2018 American Baseball Coaches Association Convention Jan. 4-7 in Indianapolis, Benjamin took the time to write in his journal about how he had performed with the knowledge he had gained since his first ABCA convention in 2004.

“It was humbling,” says Benjamin, noting some years were very good and some were not.

With the help of assistant coaches Kris Holtzieter (pitching coach and recruiting coordinator) and Drew Brantley (former Anderson University head coach, base-running/infield coach and assistant recruiting coordinator), Benjamin is looking for his players to grow from the start of the school year until the finish.

NAIA rules allow teams to be full-go for 24 weeks with a dead period between fall workouts (IWU was outdoors for about two months) and preseason training that allows coaches to be present for conditioning, strength training and team development without being able to coach baseball activities.

“That’s really healthy,” says Benjamin of the dead period. “There has to be a moment in which the player has space to go and figure out for himself the concepts you’ve been unpacking

“I’ve never had a great player that didn’t have a high motor to go take a lot of swings on their own and to find answers to the questions that have been exposed.”

To Benjamin, a coach is defined by someone who can help someone learn about themselves and the coach-player relationship works best when the athlete owns the process.

Mental training is also a part of what the Wildcats do.

“We realize your person can get in the way of your player and part of your person is your mental game and it’s your character,” says Benjamin. “We’ve all been around people who play above their skill because of their character and we’ve been around people who play who their skill because of their character.”

There are team values and goals and each player is asked to list three to five character areas they want to focus on.

“We’re able to use their list to interact with them about how they’re handling the performance level,” says Benjamin. “One of areas might be competitiveness or being fearless.

“If they get in the (batter’s) box and they have an unhealthy amount of fear or they’re not competitive or passive, they’re already beat,” says Benjamin. “If we can put guys in these scenarios each day and then talk about their person — those character values they want to grow in — you’re doing mental training right there.”

Benjamin’s 2016 Wildcats went 37-25-1 overall and 14-14 in the Crossroads League and followed that up with 27-30 and 12-15 in 2017.

Senior center fielder Brandon Shaffer (Albuquerque, N.M.) hit .348 with home runs and 39 runs batted in and 17 stolen bases made the 2017 all-Crossroads team. Freshman catcher/first baseman Brady West (Rockford, Ill.) hit .350 with 10 homers and was named CL Newcomer of the Year.

Honorable mention selections on the all-league squad were sophomore catcher Andrew Breytenbach (Palatine, Ill.) who hit .326 with 10 homers and 61 RBIs, sophomore right-handed reliever Kyle Hall (Chatham, Ill.), who went 3-1 with a 3.86 earned run average, and freshman right-handed starting pitcher Jon Young (Batavia, Ill.), who went 7-3 with a 3.74 ERA.

In addition, sophomore Caleb Eder (Jennings County High School graduate) hit .346 with eight homers and 40 runs driven in.

Indiana Wesleyan set four school records in 2017. The pitching staff racked up 379 strikeouts. On the offensive side, the Wildcats belted 68 home runs with 317 RBIs and a .478 slugging percentage.

The 2018 squad opens the season Feb. 9 against Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Benjamin considers Indiana and the adjoining states of Ohio and Michigan plus the Chicagoland area of Illinois to be fertile recruiting territory.

In comparing the two NAIA conferences where he has been a head coach — the Chicagoland Collegiate and Crossroads — Benjamin sees many similarities.

“Both conferences have a lot of coaches that coach for the right reason,” says Benjamin. “They are very professional in the way they interact with other teams, umpires, players and so forth. In a profession where you’re trying to build the person, it’s nice to be around other people who share the same vision.”

Besides Indiana Wesleyan, the Crossroads League features Bethel, Goshen, Grace, Huntington, Marian, Mt. Vernon Nazarene, Saint Francis, Spring Arbor and Taylor. All 10 schools are private.

Baseball-playing schools in the CCAC are Calumet of St. Joseph, Indiana University South Bend, Judson, Olivet Nazarene, Robert Morris, Roosevelt, St. Ambrose, St. Francis, Saint Xavier, Trinity Christian and Trinity International.

With IWU adding football (the first game is slated for Sept. 1, 2018 against Taylor), the whole athletic department has benefitted, including baseball. A $1.2 weight room has been added.

With the establishment of the football complex came a re-establishing of the dimensions and a brand new wall for the baseball field. A five-year plan includes other upgrades such as playing surface, backstop and fencing.

“Indiana Wesleyan has a vision for everything,” says Benjamin. “They are proactive. They think ahead.”

Looking back, Rich (who has a twin brother Bobby) grew up in Rhode Island and moved to Tennessee as he and his brother were turning 9.

Rich started playing baseball year-round.

“It was my escape. It was fun,” says Benjamin. “I had more passion for it than anybody else in my family.”

When he was 12 and 13, he attended the Doyle Baseball School in Orlando, Fla., and recalls his parents taking extra jobs to pay for his week-long immersion in the game.

“The Doyles (Denny, Brian and Blake) are very professional faith-based people,” says Benjamin. “They were the first people to share Christ with me. It became a very defining moment in my life. I didn’t realize it at the time. But looking back on it, it was certainly a game-changer.”

Bobby Benjamin is restaurant owner in Louisville, Ky. The twins have a stepsister named Kayla. Mother Janet is married to Gary Piper. Father Ben is married to Vicki.

With Casey’s parents, Ty can be spoiled by three sets of grandparents.

“As a 5-year-old boy in Indiana, he wants to be a farmer,” says Rich of Ty. “He’s a John Deere guy right now. That’s where his focus is. But he’ll pick up a bat. He’ll pick up a football. He enjoys jumping on this indoor trampoline.

“He certainly enjoys being around our team.”

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Rich Benjamin enters his third season as head baseball coach at Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Ind., in 2018. (IWU Photo)

 

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Hoosiers at Lexington Regional; Indiana’s 34 other college teams wrap up 2017 season

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Indiana University found out Monday, May 29 that they will be a part of the NCAA Division I baseball tournament in 2017.

The Hoosiers (33-22-2) have been assigned to the Lexington Regional as the No. 2 seed (along with host and top-seeded Kentucky, No. 3 North Carolina State and No. 4 Ohio University).

The 64-team D-I tournament includes 16 four-team regionals.

For 34 other collegiate baseball programs in Indiana (eight in NCAA Division I, four in NCAA Division II, nine in NCAA Division III, 13 in NAIA and two in NJCAA) have already concluded their seasons.

Due to the closing of the school in Rensselaer, Saint Joseph’s College (NCAA Division II) played its 122nd and final season this spring.

Indiana University Kokomo (NAIA) is gearing up for its first season in 2018.

Here is a wrap-up for 2017 squads:

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2017

NCAA Division I

Ball State Cardinals (30-28, 14-10 Mid-American Conference): Rich Maloney, in his 12th overall season in two stints in Muncie, saw Sean Kennedy (first team), Matt Eppers (second team) and Caleb Stayton (second team) make all-MAC. SEE Indiana RBI story.

Butler Bulldogs (31-20, 7-10 Big East Conference): In his first season in Indianapolis, coach Dave Schrage had three all-conference performers in Tyler Houston (first team), Jordan Lucio (second team) and Jeff Schank (second team). SEE Indiana RBI story.

Evansville Purple Aces (18-39, 8-12 Missouri Valley Conference): Ninth-year coach Wes Carroll had Connor Strain (first team), Trey Hair (second team) and Travis Tokarek (second team) make the all- MVC tournament team.

Fort Wayne Mastodons (9-43, 4-26 Summit League): Jackson Boyd was a second-team all-league player for ninth-year coach Bobby Pierce.

Indiana Hoosiers (33-22-2, 14-9-1 Big Ten): Matt Lloyd (second team), Logan Sowers (second team), Craig Dedelow (third team) and Paul Milto (third team) were all-conference honorees during third season at the helm in Bloomington for head coach Chris Lemonis.

Indiana State Sycamores (29-26, 12-9 Missouri Valley Conference): Tony Rosselli (first team), Austin Conway (second team), Dane Giesler (second team) and Will Kincanon (second team) were all-MVC selections in head coach Mitch Hannahs’ fourth season in charge in Terre Haute.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish (26-32, 10-20 Atlantic Coast Conference): Seventh-year head coach Mik Aoki had an all-ACC player in Matt Vierling (third team).

Purdue Boilermakers (29-27, 12-12 Big Ten): Gareth Stroh made all-Big Ten in head coach Mark Wasikowski’s first season in West Lafayette. SEE Indiana RBI story.

Valparaiso Crusaders (24-29, 13-15 Horizon League): Before leaving for the Missouri Valley in 2018, James Stea (second team) and Jake Hanson (second team) made the all-Horizon squad for fourth-year head coach Brian Schmack. SEE Indiana RBI story.

NCAA Division II

Indianapolis Greyhounds (27-23, 11-17 Great Lakes Valley Conference): Kyle Orloff (first team), Dylan Stutsman (first team) and Storm Joop (second team) all earned all-conference recognition for 23rd-year head coach Gary Vaught. SEE Indiana RBI story.

Oakland City Oaks (18-29): Head coach T-Ray Fletcher’s team saw its season end with four losses at the National Christian College Athletic Association World Series in Mason, Ohio.

Saint Joseph’s Pumas (35-22, 14-14 Great Lakes Valley Conference): The end of the line came in the Midwest Regional in Midland, Mich. In Rick O’Dette’s 17th season as head coach, he was named GLVC Coach of the Year. All-conference players were Josh Handzik (first team), Riley Benner (second team) and Tasker Strobel (second team). SEE Indiana RBI story.

Southern Indiana Screaming Eagles (32-21, 22-6 Great Lakes Valley Conference): Tracy Archuleta, in his 11th season as head coach in Evansville, also saw his squad qualify for the Midwest Regional in Midland. All-conference performers were Lucas Barnett (first team and GLVC Pitcher of the Year), Jacob Fleming (first team), Drake McNamara (first team), Kyle Griffin (first team), Justin Watts (second team), Sam Griggs (second team) and Logan Brown (second team). SEE Indiana RBI story.

NCAA Division III

Anderson Ravens (14-23, 8-16 Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference): With Drew Brantley and Mark Calder as co-interim head coaches, Brandon Sanders (second team), Augdan Wilson (honorable mention) and Austin Cain (honorable mention) all received all-conference honors.

DePauw Tigers (33-13, 12-5 North Coast Athletic Conference): First-year head coach Blake Allen saw his squad go 2-2 at the Mideast Regional in Washington, Pa., and put Jack Thompson (first team), Mike Hammel (first team), Ryan Grippo (second team), Tate Stewart (second team), Reid Pittard (second team), Collin Einerston (second team) and Andrew Quinn (honorable mention) on the all-conference squad. SEE Indiana RBI story.

Earlham Quakers (30-14, 21-6 Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference): It was an historic season in Richmond for seventh-year head coach Steve Sakosits. While the program achieved its first-ever 30-win season, it also won regular-season and conference tournament titles and concluded the year at the Mideast Regional in Washington, Pa. All-Conference players were Nate Lynch (first team and HCAC MVP), Howie Smith (first team and HCAC Most Outstanding Pitcher), Eric Elkus (first team), Matt Barger (first team), Cody Krumlauf (first team), Brennan Laird (first team) and Kyle Gorman (honorable mention). SEE Indiana RBI story.

Franklin Grizzlies (21-17, 13-12 Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference): All HCAC players for 20th-year head coach Lance Marshall were Jordan Clark (first team), Sam Claycamp (first team), Frank Podkul (second team), Jackson Freed (second team), Nick Wright (second team) and Jacob McMain (honorable mention). SEE Indiana RBI story.

Hanover Panthers (18-20, 9-17 Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference): Jack Shine (honorable mention) and Tyler Fitch (honorable mention) were recognized as all-conference players in Shayne Stock’s fifth season as head coach.

Manchester Spartans (22-21, 18-9 Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference): Joe Gallatin (HCAC Freshman of the Year and first team), Chad Schultz (first team), Tyler LaFollette (second team), Eric Knepper (second team), Brandon Eck (second team), Christian Smith (second team) and Cory Ferguson (honorable mention) were HCAC for head coach Rick Espeset during his 19th season lead the way in North Manchester. SEE Indiana RBI story.

Rose-Hulman Fightin’ Engineers (18-24, 16-11 Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference): In his 28th season as head coach at the Terre Haute school, Jeff Jenkins saw Zach Trusk (first team), David Burnside (first team), Conner Shipley (first team) and Drew Schnitz (honorable mention) make all-HCAC. SEE Indiana RBI story.

Trine Thunder (19-18, 13-15 Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association): All-MIAA recognition came to Jacob Heller (first team) and Drew Palmer (second team) during head coach Greg Perschke’s 16th season running the show in Angola. SEE Indiana RBI story.

Wabash Little Giants (22-16, 7-10 North Shore Athletic Conference): Former player Jake Martin came back to Crawfordsville for his first season as head coach and put Michael Hermann (first team) and Andrew Roginski (second team) on the all-conference team. SEE Indiana RBI story.

NAIA

Bethel Pilots (22-22, 10-17 Crossroads League): In Seth Zartman’s 14th season leading the program in Mishawaka, his team had all-conference selections in Brandon Diss (gold glove), Austin Branock (honorable mention), Heath Brooksher (honorable mention) and Jared Laurent (honorable mention).

Calumet College of Saint Joseph Crimson Tide (7-44-1, 2-25 Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference):  Fifth-year head coach Brian Nowakowski fielded a 2017 team with players from 10 different states as well as the Bahamas and Puerto Rico.

Goshen Maple Leafs (26-30-1, 11-16 Crossroads League): Fifth-year head coach Alex Childers watched Clinton Stroble II (first team), Quinlan Armstrong (gold glove), Blake Collins (gold glove), Brad Stoltzfus (gold glove), Preston Carr (honorable mention) and Michael Walter (honorable mention) all receive a Crossroads salute. SEE Indiana RBI story.

Grace Lancers (15-31-1, 7-20 Crossroads League): At the end of the season, the Winona Lake school took the interim tag off interim head coach Cam Screeton for 2018. This spring, he led all-conference picks Austin Baker (honorable mention), Gavin Bussard (honorable mention) and Xavier Harris (honorable mention).

Huntington Foresters (35-13, 22-5 Crossroads League): Crossroads Coach of the Year Mike Frame’s 33rd season as HU head coach brought a regular-season and conference tournament title and a NAIA Opening Round appearance plus the 800th win of his career. All-league players were Shea Beauchamp (first team), Dalton Combs (first team), D.J. Moore (first team), Adam Roser (first team), Mason Shinabery (first team), Tanner Wyse (first team), Michael Crowley (gold glove and honorable mention), Dylan Henricks (gold glove and honorable mention) and Andy Roser (gold glove and honorable mention). SEE Indiana RBI story.

Indiana Tech Warriors (44-14, 25-6 Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference): After finishing third in the tough WHAC, there was seventh NAIA Opening Round trip for 10th-year head coach Kip McWilliams and his Fort Wayne-based squad. All-WHAC players were Matt Bandor (first team), Cody Kellar (first team), Glen McClain (first team and gold glove), Charlie Sipe (first team), Keith Tatum (first team), Tighe Koehring (second team), Peyton Newsom (second team), David Barksdale (Champions of Character) and Dante Biagini (gold glove). SEE Indiana RBI story.

Indiana Wesleyan Wildcats (27-30, 12-15 Crossroads League): Head coach Rich Benjamin, in his second season of calling the shots in Marion, had all-conference selections in Brady West (CL Newcomer of the Year and first team), Brandon Shaffer (first team), Andrew Breytenbach (honorable mention), Kyle Hall (honorable mention) and Jon Young (honorable mention).

Indiana University Kokomo Cougars (Coming in 2018): Matt Howard is the head coach in the City of Firsts. Former big leaguer and Kokomo native Joe Thatcher is IUK’s associate head coach. SEE Indiana RBI story.

Indiana University South Bend Titans (24-26, 13-14 Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference): Chris Mangus was CCAC Player of the Year. All-conference mention also went to Spencer McCool (second team) and Tanner Wesp (second team). Mike Huling was head coach. SEE Indiana RBI story.

Indiana University Southeast Grenadiers (48-15, 25-7 River States Conference): Ranked No. 21 in the country, ninth-year head coach Ben Reel’s squad fell in the championship of the NAIA Opening Round in Kingsport, Tenn. All-RSC selections were Tanner Leenknecht (first team), Logan Barnes (first team), Richard Rodriguez (first team), Ryne Underwood (second team), Gage Rogers (second team), Hector Marmol (Champions of Character and second team), Julian Flannery (second team) and Cody Maloon (second team). SEE Indiana RBI story.

Marian Knights (30-23, 19-8 Crossroads League): Featuring Crossroads Pitcher of the Year Matt Burleton, fourth-year head coach Todd Bacon’s club went to the NAIA Opening Round in Taladega, Ala. Besides Burleton, all-conference choices at the Indianapolis school were Cody Earl (first team), Jordan Jackson (first team), Leo Lopez (honorable mention), John O’Malley (honorable mention) and Brenden Smith (honorable mention). SEE Indiana RBI story.

Purdue Northwest Pride (30-18, 20-7 Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference): Purdue Calumet and Purdue North Central merged to form PNW, which played its home games at Dowling Park in Hammond. Dave Griffin served as head coach. SEE Indiana RBI story.

Saint Francis Cougars (13-41-1, 6-21 Crossroads League): In his 13th season as head coach at the Fort Wayne school, Greg Roberts directed all-conference players Noah Freimuth (honorable mention), Tanner Gaff (honorable mention) and Kansas Varner (honorable mention).

Taylor Trojans (35-21, 20-7 Crossroads League): Crossroads Player of the Year Jared Adkins helped 13th-year head coach Kyle Gould get his 400th career victory and more. Besides Adkins, all-conference players were TU were Austin Mettica (first team), Matt Patton (first team), Nathan Taggart (first team), Tanner Watson (first team), Sam Wiese (first team), Andrew Kennedy (honorable mention) and Wyatt Whitman (honorable mention).

Junior College

Ancilla Chargers (5-28, 1-21 Michigan Community College Athletic Association): Head coach Joe Yonto’s two-year program in Donaldson featured a 2017 roster with all but one player from Indiana hometowns.

Vincennes Trailblazers (14-32): Ninth-year coach Chris Barney’s team was made up mostly of Indiana players. VU is also a two-year school.

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