Tag Archives: Cade Willard

Willard follows father as Eastside Blazers head coach

By STEVE KRAH
http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Eastside Junior/Senior High School athletics has been a big part of Cade Willard’s world all of his 23 years.
His parents — Aaron and Kerri Willard — have both been employed by DeKalb Eastern Community School District.
Cade played baseball and basketball for the Butler, Ind.-based Eastside Blazers — Jason Pierce for the first two years (2014 and 2015) and his father for the last two (2016 and 2017) on the diamond and Ryan Abbott on the hardwood.
A right-handed pitcher, Willard played three seasons at Purdue Fort Wayne (2019-21). He redshirted in 2018. He appeared in 92 games (all in relief) for the Mastodons. His head coach the last two seasons was Doug Schreiber.
“Throughout my career I’ve been blessed with good coaches,” says Willard.
Graduating in 2021 as a Business Management major and Marketing minor, Willard went to work at Eastside teaching Business and Computer Science and joined his father’s baseball coaching staff.
After an IHSAA Class 2A state runner-up finish in 2021, Eastside won another sectional title in 2022. The Kelly Green & White went 26-7 in ’21 and 21-8 in ’22.
Eastside (enrollment around 380) is a member of the Northeast Corner Conference (with Angola, Central Noble, Churubusco, Fairfield, Fremont, Garrett, Hamilton, Lakeland, Prairie Heights, West Noble and Westview).
The Blazers are part of an IHSAA Class 2A sectional grouping in 2023 with Central Noble, Churubusco, Prairie Heights, Westview and Whitko. Eastside has won seven sectional titles.
Aaron Willard was a North coach and Owen Willard — little brother of former volleyball/softball athlete Madison (Willard) Shelter (Class of 2014) and Cade — was the MVP at the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association North/South All-Star Series.
At the end of the season, Aaron Willard kept his athletic director tag but passed the head coaching baton to Cade.
His decision to pursue business or education and coaching was made during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I grew up around Eastside my whole life,” says Cade. “It seemed right.
“It makes it more special being in your hometown.”
Aaron and elementary P.E. teacher Kerri now have more time to see right-hander Owen pitch at PFW.
Cade is also an assistant to Ed Bentley on the Blazers varsity boys basketball staff. Willard found time to lead IHSAA Limited Contact Period baseball activities (two days a week for two hours) in the fall and will do so again in the winter, beginning Dec. 5. He will roll right from basketball to baseball on some days.
“In the fall, we got better, got in a routine and got our hitting philosophies down,” says Willard, who had eight to 10 high schoolers at each session along with a handful of junior high players. “On paper, we had our starting infield out there.
“It’s important to get kids in before the holidays. We can see what numbers we have.”
Cade wants the ones who are able to attend to get used to his practice structure.
“The past few years we’ve been successful,” says Willard. “It’s about keeping the tradition alive.
““We’re always a scrappy team. I want to get our guys ready to compete. We have a few spots to fill. We were super senior-heavy last year.
“For some it will be the first time playing varsity baseball. Toward the end of the season we’ll be alright.”
Besides Owen Willard, Class of 2022’s Nick Snyder moved on to college baseball at Indiana University Southeast.
Willard has a mixture of seasoned and younger assistant coaches.
“I think it’s important to bring on experienced guys who know what to do in different situations,” says Willard.
Eastern graduate Tony Emenhiser — who coached with Pierce and Aaron Willard — is back. Alum Gary Kaiser was also on Pierce’s staff.
Conner Dove is junior varsity head coach and is assisted by Mike Gustin. Dove was an Eastside classmate of Willard. He was a teammate of Prairie Heights graduate Gustin at Trine University (Angola, Ind.).
Willard expects to have around two dozen players for varsity and JV squads. Among returnees is Class of 2024’s Loden Johnson and Ryder Reed and Class of 2025’s Jace Mayberry.
Pitchers will be asked to throw strikes and keep the ball low and away from he middle of the plate.
“Free bases hurt,” says Willard. “You can throw two pitches for strikes and get away with it and be effective with three.
“In our non-conference games we’ll see who can throw and who cannot throw. It’ll get us ready for rather get ready for conference in the later weeks.
There will be a lot of juggling (of positions) this year for sure. We want to put the best lineup out there for conference.”
Eastside plays home contests on-campus at Michael D. Fieldler Field. The diamond played host to a fall league and has had its dugouts upgraded with other projects in the works.
Bobcat Youth League locations at Butler and Riverdale-St. Joe develop players that end up at Eastside. Fifth and sixth graders travel to play area teams, including in Hicksville, Ohio. Butler is about four miles from the Indiana-Ohio line.
The non-conference high school season tends to include Ohio opponents like Archbold, Edgerton and Fairview.
A youth camp is planned at Eastside for the spring.
“It is important to get youth kids enjoying and playing baseball
doing it the right way,” says Willard. “Dad — being AD — says that’s an area you could blossom in with time over the long run.”

Cade Willard.
Cade Willard.
Aaron Willard (left) and Cade Willard.
Owen Willard (left) and Cade Willard.
Cade (left), Owen, Kerri and Aaron Willard.

Former college mates Willard, Neuenschwander meet as opposing coaches

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Aaron Willard reached a milestone with his son on the mound and his former college roommate and teammate in the other dugout.

When the Eastside Blazers beat the Adam Central Jets 3-1 Saturday, May 29 in the semifinals of the IHSAA Class 2A Eastside Sectional it gave Willard his 100th varsity baseball coaching victory at his school (to go with 506 in softball including a Class 1A state title in 1998 and 69 in boys basketball).

Locked up in a pitchers’ duel with Adams Central senior right-hander Justin Bultemeier, Eastside junior right-hander Owen Willard struck out 13 while tossing a one-hitter (he gave up a solo home run on a change-up to lefty-swinging senior Brayden Light in the third inning) as the winning pitcher in helping the Blazers (22-6) to the Sectional 36 championship game at 11 a.m. Monday, May 31 against former Eastside head coach Jason Pierce’s Bluffton Tigers.

“I wish (Aaron) all the luck in the world,” says Dave Neuenschwander, who roomed and played baseball with the elder Willard at Huntington (Ind.) College (now Huntington University), and has been head baseball coach at  Adams Central for 27 seasons (1991-98 and 2003-21).

Willard and Neuenschwander formed a bond as Foresters in the ‘80s which he endured to this day.

“He’s always been like a big brother to me,” says Willard of Neuenschwander. “He took me under the wing when I came in.”

Says Neunschwander, “Aaron’s a good coach and he’s a great friend. I wish he lived closer. I know he’d do anything for me and I’d do anything for him.

“I’m anxious for the day when we can both retire and spend some time together.”

Willard, a 1984 Eastside graduate, spent a semester at Franklin (Ind.) College and met sophomore third baseman Neuenschwander, a 1983 South Adams High School graduate, when he arrived on the Huntington campus as a pitcher. 

Aaron’s first season was the first for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Mike Frame as head coach. Other future coaches on the squad included Matt Brumbaugh, Mark Flueckiger and Randy Moss.

When Willard and Neuenschwander’s teams squared off Saturday, it was for just the second time. In 2019, Adams Central and Eastside were not in the same sectional and both received a first-round bye so they met just before the tournament at the ASH Centre in Fort Wayne.

“When we play it’s about respect and a good competition,” says Neuenschwander.

What makes Willard a good coach?

“He understands the game,” says Neuenschwander. “He has the passion for the kids. 

“He gets them to work hard and focus on what they need to do.”

It’s also helped that Aaron has helped develop strong pitchers like his sons Cade (a 2017 Eastside graduate who pitched for Purdue Fort Wayne 2019-21) and Owen.

Also an accomplished shortstop and hitter, Owen could be a two-way player at the next level. He has not yet made a college commitment.

“It’s a big summer for him,” says Aaron of Cade, who plays travel ball for 5 Star Midwest.

Willard coached softball for 23 years before coaching baseball at the high school varsity level.

“I had coached at the Pony League level,” says Willard. “There was a learning curve going from softball back to baseball. There are pick-off and longer distances between bases. It’s getting that timing in your head. I got kids thrown at the plate (as a third base coach). It took them longer to get there.”

Eastside’s 2021 season has included Northeast Corner Conference regular-season and tournament titles.

Besides head baseball coach, Willard is an assistant principal and athletic director at Eastside.

“Aaron’ a great guy to the community,” says Neuenschwander. “He has great friends like Bruce Beard that really helps him out.

“That ’s a tribute to great leadership that he has that people want to help.”

As for the sectional title game against the boys from Bluffton?

Says Willard, “They look like they’re a very scrappy team.”

A fan celebrates a coaching milestone for Eastside High School baseball coach Aaron Willard at the semifinals of the IHSAA Class 2A Eastside Sectional. (Twitter Photo)

Purdue Fort Wayne’s Birely helps pitchers navigate a world of knowledge

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Blending various talents into a cohesive unit, helping them navigate a world of knowledge and encouraging a flow of ideas.

This is what Grant Birely gets to do as pitching coach at NCAA Division I Purdue Fort Wayne (formerly Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne).

Birely, 36, has been on the job since the 2009 season. The Mastodons are scheduled to open the 2019 campaign Feb. 15-17 with four games at Alabama A&M.

The Purdue Fort Wayne roster features 14 active pitchers with two who will likely be medical redshirts.

“I make an individual plan with each of them to become the best they can,” says Birely. “As they get older and go through the program, they take a lot of ownership of their own development and I become a consultant for them. With the young guys, it’s about teaching them what it takes to pitch at this level.”

Birely says the cornerstone of Mastodons pitching is throwing and learning to spin pitches.

“In some form or fashion, there is throwing each day,” says Birely. “It might be 60 feet one day just to get loose. It might be 350 feet if they’re going to long toss that day. I don’t put a distance restriction on them. We tell them to listen to their arm and see how it feels each day.”

The point is, collegiate pitchers are asked to throw a lot.

“There’s no better way to learn to throw than to throw,” says Birely. “We’re working on their craft every single day.”

Playing baseball at the college level, especially Division I, is a major commitment between school work and hours spend getting ready for and playing games.

“We spend everyday with them and they spend so much time on it, they have to love baseball and showing up everyday and working on it,” says Birely. “One thing they’ll leave with is time management when they head into the real world.”

Purdue Fort Wayne pitchers do a hybrid training program that includes band work, stretching and some weighted-ball movements.

“We don’t dive straight into a full weight-ball program because these guys are competing the minute they get on-campus,” says Birely. “They never really have that down time to solely focus on velocity or anything like that. We’re always trying to work on command (of the strike zone) and commanding a second pitch.”

When the weather keeps the Mastodons off the frozen tundra, they do their throwing in a spacious fieldhouse large enough to make tosses of up to 250 or 260 feet.

“We’re very lucky to have that,” says Birely. “It’s just high enough so they can get a little bit of air under the baseball.”

The top two pitchers from 2018 in terms of innings pitched and victories are gone. Right-hander Brandon Phelps, a Fort Wayne Snider High School graduate, pitched 83 innings and won five games as a redshirt senior. Left-hander Damian Helm worked 73 1/3 innings with four victories in his senior season.

As the Mastodons head into the only four-game series of 2019, Birely says junior right-hander Chase Phelps (Brandon’s brother and also a Fort Wayne Snider graduate), junior right-hander Cameron Boyd (Fishers) and redshirt senior right-hander Shane Odzark will get the first opportunity to be starting pitchers.

The bullpen is being built with establishing strength in the late innings as a priority.

“We’ve got a lot of guys who are excited to try to go and finish games,” says Birely, who counts freshman left-hander Justin Miller (Homestead), sophomore right-hander Sean Ferguson (New Haven) and freshman right-hander Jarrett Miller in the closer mix.

Other right-handers include sophomore Trevor Armstrong (Fort Wayne Snider), sophomore Nathan Hefle, freshman Garrett Hill (University), junior Tyler Kissinger, junior Duane Miller, sophomore Brian Skelton (Westfield) and redshirt freshman Cade Willard (Eastside).

Another lefty is sophomore Spencer Strobel (Avon).

Birely says two freshmen right-hander — Grant Johnston (Hamilton Southeastern) and Drew Pyle (Hagerstown) — have had injuries that will likely make them redshirts.

The pitching coach has learned that he is dealing with players who have different ways of learning. They might be visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners.

“We have some guys who like to see themselves on video and they can make adjustments based off that,” says Birely. “Some guys I have to put in a position kind of in a kinesthetic way so they can feel it.

“It’s definitely a challenge to figure out each guy.”

And figuring it out is key.

“Anyone who is teaching might be the smartest person in the world but if they can’t get that information to the players, it doesn’t really work and it doesn’t help,” says Birely. “It’s been fun finding different ways to teach and different ways to convey information that I have to them.”

Birely notes that the current generation — Generation Z — gets a bad rap for asking so many questions.

“They have all this information at their finger tips,” says Birely. “Some of it is good and some of it is not good.

“I’d rather have them ask me a question or to try to figure something out than to just go and do it on their own.”

Group chats are a way that information is exchanged.

A pitcher will see a video in social media and ask, “what do you think of this, Coach?.”

Birely asks his hurlers to identify their favorite major league pitcher.

“That gives me some insight of who they’re going to watch,” says Birely. “My favorite pitcher to watch growing up was Greg Maddux. I was never the big velocity guy. Watching him throw a baseball looked like watching a wiffleball.”

He also followed the fortunes of another future Hall of Famer. Roy Halladay went to high school just a few years before Birely in nearby Denver suburb of Arvada.

Birley is a graduate of Chatfield Senior High School in Littleton, Colo. He played for current Purdue Fort Wayne head coach Bobby Pierce at Central Arizona College (the Vaqueros won the 2002 National Junior College Division I World Series) then finished his collegiate career at the University of New Orleans. That’s where he met his future wife, Bonnie. The two were living in the Big Easy when Hurricane Katrina hit and they moved closer to Grant’s family in Denver.

Retired as a player after one season of independent baseball with the Mesa Miners, Birley went into the business world when a friend asked him to help with freshmen tryouts at Regis Jesuit High School, figuring it would just be for a few hours on a Saturday.

“From the moment I walked out there, I was hooked,” says Birely, who spent two seasons at Regis Jesuit in Aurora, Colo. When Pierce became head coach at Metropolitan State University of Denver, he invited Birely to become Roadrunners pitching coach. When Pierce moved to Indiana to lead the IPFW Mastodons, he asked Birely to come with him.

“I wouldn’t have this opportunity without him,” says Birely of Pierce. “He’s been a mentor and a great person to learn from.

“The best thing about him is that he lets everybody in the organization from players to staff go do their job

he gives them the freedom and creativity to make the program better.”

Pierce promotes a spirit of working together for a common goal.

“He’s very positive,” says Birley. “He’s great to work for. He’s awesome to play for. He allows the players the freedom to exchange ideas.

“Let’s figure it out together.”

Grant and Bonnie Birely have figured out how to balance baseball and family life. The couple has two children — Fort Wayne Bishop Dwenger High School senior Tyler (who is active in theater and show choir) and sixth grader Kaylee.

“Like everyday says you’ve got to have a very understand wife,” says Grant. “She’s on this journey with me. Otherwise, I couldn’t do this.

“She keeps the fort going at home.”

Purdue Fort Wayne plays in the Summit League (with North Dakota State, Omaha, Oral Roberts, South Dakota State and Western Illinois). That makes for a good deal of travel. When the Mastodons go to the Dakotas, they often leave campus on Wednesday night and return at noon Monday.

“(Players) do a great job of doing their schoolwork on the road,” says Birely. “It’s not uncommon to walk through a hotel lobby and there’s 25 or 30 guys doing their homework.

It’s not uncommon for players to ask for the movies to be turned off on the bus to study for an upcoming test.

“We’ve had guys who understand what it means to be a true student-athlete,” says Birely. “It goes back to time management. They have to rely on themselves a lot to make sure they’re getting their work done.”

Coaches will proctor tests for professors, who email the exam and set the time limit and have the coaches sent it back. Other take online classes to allow flexibility and no requirement to be in a classroom.

Christine Kuznar is Senior Associate Athletic Director for Academics and meets with players each semester to them on-track toward getting their degree as quickly and efficiently as possible.

“She’s the rock star behind the whole thing,” says Birely.

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Purdue Fort Wayne was formerly known as Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne. In its new branding, the Mastodons have adopted black and gold as school colors with a hint of blue as homage to the IPFW brand. (Purdue Fort Wayne Image)

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Grant Birely, the baseball pitching coach at Purdue Fort Wayne, is a native of Colorado who played and coached for Mastodons head coach Bobby Pierce before following him to Indiana. (Purdue Fort Wayne Photo)

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Grant Birely has been baseball pitching coach at Purdue Fort Wayne (formerly Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne) since the 2009 season. (Purdue Fort Wayne Photo)

 

 

Success follows Eastside’s Willard from softball to baseball diamonds

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Aaron Willard enjoyed plenty of success in his time as head softball coach at Eastside High School in Butler, Ind.

In 23 seasons, he Blazers softballers won 13 sectional titles (three in the IHSAA single-class era and five each in Class 1A and 2A).

When Jason Pierce left the head baseball post at Eastside and Aaron’s oldest son, Cade Willard, was a junior, he decided to take over the program.

In his second season (2017), the Blazers won the 2A Westview Sectional. Eastside did it again in 2018, besting Westview in the title game and earning a berth in the 2A Whiting Regional.

The Blazers (18-8) face Boone Grove in the second semifinal around noon CST (Hammond Bishop Noll plays South Adams at 10 a.m. CST) at Oil City Stadium. The championship is slated for 6 p.m. CST.

“Last year, we were built around pitching,” says Willard, who sent right-handers Cade Willard (redshirt at Fort Wayne), Conner Dove (Trine University), Jackson White (Franklin College) and middle infielder/closer Zach Orn (Ivy Tech Northeast) on to college baseball. They were among nine seniors. “A lot of those guys had played a lot of baseball.”

This year, the Blazers are not as experienced on the mound but have gotten the job done.

The staff is led by senior Chris Ballentine and also features juniors McGuire Jacobs, Nick Shewman, Chase Franz and Joe White and freshman Wade Miller. All but lefty Miller, who plays center field, are right-handers.

White is the team’s No. 1 catcher and joins Ballentine and Franz among Eastside’s most-productive hitters. The squad’s only other senior is first baseman Riley Thompson.

“Our guys have done a great job on the mound,” says Willard. “We’ve been solid defensively for the most part. The top of our order has been pretty good and we’ve now got some guys hitting in the bottom part.”

Eastside is a member of the Northeast Corner Conference. The NECC was led in 2018 by Angola (9-2) and Lakeland (9-2), followed by Fairfield (8-3), Westview (7-4), Eastside (7-4), Garrett (6-5), Fremont (5-6), Churubusco (5-6), West Noble (4-7), Prairie Heights (3-8), Central Noble (3-8) and Hamilton (0-11).

Willard’s assistant coaches are Tony Emenhiser, Garth Fiedler, John Gravante and Bryce Yoder.

The Blazers play their home games on-campus. The field has a wooden outfield fence and a few years ago, a net backstop was installed for clearer viewing by spectators.

A 1984 Eastside graduate, Willard went on to play baseball for four seasons at Huntington College (now Huntington University). His freshmen year was also the first in charge for head coach Mike Frame.

After receiving a physical education degree in 1989, Willard returned to Eastside and began teaching. He became athletic director and assistant principal in 1999 — positions he has held ever since.

Aaron and Terri Willard have three children — Madison, Cade and Owen. Madison Willard graduated this spring from Ball State University and is to marry Dalton Shetler in June. Owen Willard is an eighth grader.

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Eastside celebrates its second straight IHSAA Class 2A Westview Sectional baseball championship in 2018. Assistant coach Tony Emenhiser, seniors Caleb Ballentine and Riley Thompson and head coach Aaron Willard pose with the trophy.

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Eastside High School head baseball coach Aaron Willard (25) gets the bucket treatment from his team after they won the 2018 IHSAA Class 2A Westview Sectional.

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The Eastside High School Blazers hoist the 2018 IHSAA Class 2A Westview Sectional baseball trophy as head coach Aaron Willard (right) takes in the moment.