Tag Archives: Center Grove Little League

Thixton going out with a bang at Indiana Wesleyan

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Tye Thixton figures he was born to play baseball.

He is named for his great grandfather on his mother Amy’s side — Leonus “Tye” Goheen, a standout pitcher in Kentucky in the 1920’s and 1930’s who once was matched up against a young Hall of Famer-to-be Dizzy Dean

Goheen led the Dawson Springs Daylight Ball Club to the state championship in 1932 and an appearance in the Little World Series in Battle Creek, Mich., in 1937.

When Tye Thixton was but a tyke his father — Jeff Thixton — introduced his oldest son to the game with wiffleball and followed him all the way through youth and travel ball and college until his passing at 50 on Jan. 10, 2020 with wife Amy and sons Tye and Trey surviving. 

“We bonded a lot of the time through baseball,” says Tye, who was granted an extra year of eligibility at Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Ind,, because of the COVID-19 pandemic that shortened the 2020 season and is shining in 2021 (Trey Thixton, 20, is a sophomore on the IWU men’s tennis team). “I want to leave it all on the field for dad.”

Tye has his father’s initials — JLT — on his wrist tape and writes them in the dirt each time he comes up to bat.

Thixton’s Indiana Wesleyan team, which also features “COVID seniors” Tanner Killian, Austin Swift and Jon Young, goes into a Crossroads League series today (April 16) and Saturday (April 17) against visiting Huntington at 32-11 overall and 21-3 in conference play. The team has its sights on being the program’s first 40-game winner.

Center fielder and lead-off man Thixton is hitting .349 (60-of-172) with 11 home runs, one triple, 11 doubles, 45 runs batted in, 48 runs scored and is 15-of-15 in stolen bases. He sports an 1.039 OPS (.423 on-base percentage plus .616 slugging average) with 20 multi-hit games.

For his IWU career, Thixton is hitting .360 (151-of-419) with 21 homers, three triples, 28 doubles, 96 RBIs, 106 runs and is 29-of-32 in stolen bases. His OPS is 1.020 (.428 on-base percentage plus .592 slugging average).

Thixton’s most-recent circuit clout came Monday, April 13 in Game 1 of a CL doubleheader against Taylor. The two-run shot in the fourth inning to left field cut through a steady cross wind and landed on the football stadium next to Wildcat Field.

“Off the bat I was thinking, ‘get on 2,’” says Thixton. “The fact that it got out gave us a lot of momentum and helped us get into their pen.

“My whole game has changed. I’m a little bit of a power threat this year. I think the COIVD year helped guys develop. We got to spend more time in the weight room and more time to work on the swing.

“Across the board players progressing and numbers on the pitching and hitting side a lot better.”

A center fielder and No. 1 hitter in the batting order since his days at Center Grove High School in Greenwood, Ind., Thixton relishes both roles.

“I like being able to run the outfield,” says Thixton. “It’s fun playing gap-to-gap.

“I’ve always loved being a lead-off hitter — just being able to set the tone of the game.”

Thixton, 23, is finishing up his Business Management degree. Commencement at IWU is slated for May 1.

“I’ll be done,” says Thixton of his college days which began with two years at Danville (Ill.) Area Community College, including a team MVP season in 2018. “Then I get on to the real world.”

Competing against NAIA No. 1-ranked Southeastern in Florida and No. 6 Faulkner in Alabama to begin the season in February, the Wildcats got off to an 0-7 start.

“We got walked off three times in seven games,” says Thixton. “But we knew we could compete with the highest level. We could’ve easily won three of four of those games.

“Nobody’s head was down. It was time to go on a win streak.”

And that’s just what IWU did. 

The Wildcats won their next 16 under the guidance of head coach Rich Benjamin.

“He loves all of his players,” says Thixton. “He’s done such a good job of bringing a team together and making guys want to play for each other and for him.

“We’ve got a good mix of all ages. Guys able to learn from each other. That’s really contributed to this year.”

Going through the uncertainty of the pandemic has also impacted the team’s outlook.

“We’ve played every game with the thought it could be our last,” says Thixton.

Born in Greenwood, Thixton started school at Clark Elementary in Whiteland and played at Whiteland Little League then moved to the Center Grove area as a third grader and he attended the former West Grove Elementary. 

He played in the Center Grove Little League then travel ball with a Center Grove team coached by Mike Chitwood that morphed into Indiana Elite Baseball and Pony Express Baseball, where his coaches were Kyle Beachy, Quentin Brown and Grant Bellak

“(Brown and Bellak) were a blast to be around,” says Thixton. “They helped me develop my game so much. 

Thixton graduated from Center Grove High School in 2016. Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Dave Gandolph was in his final season with the Trojans while Thixton played on the junior varsity as a freshman. 

Keith Hatfield was Thixton’s varsity coach for three CG seasons.

What is Thixton’s impressions of Hatfield?

“It’s his passion for the game,” says Thixton. “We had so much fun playing with Coach Hatfield (in 2016).

“We had a talented group of seniors. We lost to (eventual IHSAA Class 4A state champion) Roncalli in the (Plainfield) Semistate.”

Clayton Hicks, who is now head coach at Danville Area, was an assistant when he recruited Thixton for the Jaguars and got him to play for head coach Tim Bunton.

“He’s the best baseball mind I’ve ever been around,” says Thixton of Bunton. “He took my game to a completely different level mentally.

“It was about winning every pitch and winning the little things in baseball.

“There are so many metrics now. But the game still comes down to the mental side and what to do when the ball is in play

“What you can do at-bat to help your team team?”

In two seasons at Danville Area (2017 and 2018), Thixton hit .376 (139-of-369) in 101 games (98 starts).

In the summers after his freshman and sophomore years, Thixton played for the Hicks-managed Hannibal Hoots in 2017 and the St. Louis Kats in 2018.

Tye Thixton (Indiana Wesleyan University Photo)

Indiana Elite Baseball stresses development, exposure

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

With giving players opportunities to develop and compete at a high level a priority, Indiana Elite Baseball is preparing for the spring and summer travel season.

Started as part of the Center Grove Little League in Greenwood, Ind., Indiana Elite Baseball had one team in 2011 then four teams in 2013 and was up to 10 squads in 2014 and has stayed in that range ever since. IEB will field 10 squads ages 12U through 17U in 2021. Younger players are typically come from central Indiana, but talent comes around the state.

“We started to grow it slowly,” says Indiana Elite Baseball founder and president Mike Chitwood, a former all-city player and 1989 graduate of Emmerich Manual High School in Indianapolis. “We wanted to do something bigger than a community-based team.

“I have a big passion for doing what I do. I love educating players and families on the process. I tell them to play the game for as long as you can.”

IEB has been a not-for-profit organization since 2013. 

“I try to keep cost as low as possible for our families,” says Chitwood. “You have to do certain things to afford the families and players an opportunity to develop.”

Indiana Elite Baseball can be found taking the field at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind., Creekside Baseball Park in Parkville, Mo., LakePoint Sports campus in Emerson, Ga.

In 2016, the organization got its own indoor training facility on the southeast side of Indianapolis. It’s open year-round only to IEB teams, coaches and instructors.

“It’s been a great addition for the last five years,” says Chitwood. 

Indiana Elite Baseball offers a full winter training program led by director of baseball operations Brian Simmons.

Players train four hours a week November to March. 

“I’m a big advocate of multi-sport athletes,” says Chitwood. “But get to as many (baseball workouts) as you can.”

Younger teams tend to play in 12 events a year, beginning in early to mid-April. Older teams play seven or eight tournaments after Memorial Day.

Simmons is a graduate of Roncalli High School in Indianapolis who played at Xavier University and Ball State University and in independent pro ball. He was an assistant at Roncalli to Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer John Wirtz and aided Eric McGaha at Mooresville (Ind.) High School and was head coach at Roncalli and Indianapolis Arlington.

Deron Spink is the other IEB instructor. A California native, Spink coached future big leaguers Ryan Howard and David Freese in the St. Louis area and was head coach at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky., and director of baseball operations at Villanova University in Philadelphia before moving to Indiana. 

Spink was a volunteer assistant to Steve Farley at Butler University and is a former director of baseball operations and recruiting for Indiana Elite Baseball who now resides in Evansville while still coming to Indianapolis to give private lessons.

Chitwood, Simmons and vice president Jeff Amodeo make up IEB’s board. Amodeo coaches and does much of the behind-the-scenes work.

Through a relationship with Franklin College the past four years, Chitwood has gotten Grizzlies assistants to coach for Indiana Elite Baseball in the summer. Tim Miller has gone on to become head coach at Davis & Elkins College in Elkins, W.Va. Former Franklin and IEB coach Tyler Rubasky is Miller’s assistant.

Current Franklin assistants Jake Sprinkle, who played at Franklin Central and the University of Indianapolis, and Trevor Tunison, who played at Lewis University in Romeoville, Ill., also lend their talents to IEB. 

Chitwood used to have a rule that after 15U, there could be no coaches who had sons on the team. 

“As long as a dad is in it for the right reason and they’re not in it to take care of their son, I will let a dad continue as long as they want to continue for multiple reasons,” says Chitwood. “These days, it’s harder and harder to get a guy to spend his entire summer at the baseball field.”

Mike ceased coaching son Blake Chitwood, who played for Roncalli’s IHSAA Class 4A state champions in 2016 and then at the UIndy, and has regretted the decision.

“There’s a misconception that you had to play collegiately or at a higher level professionally to be a coach,” says Chitwood. “(16U Black head coach) Steve Sawa didn’t play past high school. But he’s a student of the game. He’s a great coach.”

John Curl, a Logansport (Ind.) High School graduate who played at Texas A&M and in the Toronto Blue Jays organization and is a Kokomo (Ind.) High School assistant, helps Sawa.

Paul Godsey (Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes, Ky.), Dan Sullivan (Indiana University Purdue University-Indianapolis) and Scott Gilliam (UIndy) and Brian Maryan (Rose-Hulman) are former college players who also have sons on their respective teams. Gilliam is assisted by former Eastern Illinois University pitcher and IEB father/coach Kyle Widegren

Thomas Taylor, Kyle Morford and Ryan Mueller are also current IEB head coaches.

After Blake moved on, Mike Chitwood coached the 17U team. He decided by focusing on one team he was doing the rest of the outfit a disservice so he stepped out of the coaching role.

“I like to see all my teams play,” says Chitwood. “It’s important to build the culture and the family atmosphere.”

The goal of IEB’s high school age players is getting to the next level.

Chitwood stresses education with baseball as a means of getting that education.

He asks each player to take baseball out of the equation.

“It has to be a great academic fit,” says Chitwood. “What are you going to be in the future?

“Even if you get to play pro ball, you still have to provide for your family after your playing career.”

Chitwood wants players to know if a school offers a major that interests them and if — realistically — they can play at that level.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the whole environment of the recruiting process. Many coaches have not been able to attend travel events in-person and on-campus visits have been restricted.

“More than ever, it’s important to perform in these showcases,” says Chitwood. “We want to continue to build our relationships with all these (college) coaches.”

Chitwood keeps college programs up-to-date on Indiana Elite Baseball players through social media and the sharing of data such as Rapsodo

To be proactive, Chitwood has hired an intern to take video of game action this season.

Resources like Prep Baseball Report, Perfect Game and FieldLevel are also tools for exposure.

The pandemic has had another big impact. Many players are coming back for an extra year of eligibility after the 2020 college season was shortened. 

The Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft was cut from 40 to five rounds last year, keeping many players on the amateur side of the equation.

“It’s a different environment now,” says Chitwood. “Opportunities are much less than they were two years ago.”

Mike Chitwood is the founder and president of Indiana Elite Baseball, a not-for-profit travel baseball organization based in Indianapolis. (Indiana Elite Baseball Photo)

Former pro slugger Zapp giving back to baseball as youth coach

RBILOGOSMALL copy

BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

A.J. Zapp is like so many baseball coaches. He is anxious to practice with his team.

Hopeful that time will come soon, Zapp gives an indication of how that session might go.

“We like to get into a lot of fundamentals early on — things like PFP (Pitchers Fielding Practice), bunt defense, baserunning and defensive outfield play,” says Zapp. “We run multiple stations during batting practice. We keep (players) busy and avoid a lot of standing around.

“We like to keep practices short and sweet. Get your work done and get out of there.”

Zapp likes practices to take 1:30 to 1:45.

“After that you lose their attention,” says Zapp. “It’s not the number of reps, it’s the quality of reps you want to be taking.

“It requires the right mindset. Kids must come to practice to work.”

A.J. and wife Nikki Zapp reside in Greenwood and have three children — Evan (15), Ellen (13) and Emilie (10).

Evan Zapp (Center Grove High School Class of 2023) plays on the Indiana Bulls 15U Grey travel baseball team with his father as an assistant to head coach Zach Foley.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has teams separated now, there is hope they might be able to play in the latter half of June. Zapp’s team is supposed to play three of four events at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind., with out-of-town tournaments in Bloomington, Ind., and the Atlanta and Kansas City areas.

A.J. has coached his son on the diamond since Evan was 6, including some time with the Indiana Astros and Indiana Bulls.

Like his father, Evan throws with his right arm and bats from the left side.

“I encouraged him to be left-handed hitter,” says A.J.

In 2019, A.J. Zapp was Bulls 14U Red head coach. For eight years — seven with the Astros and one with the Bulls — A.J. coached with Phil Milto (uncle of former Roncalli and Indiana University pitcher and current Chicago White Sox farmhand Pauly Milto). Doug Zapp, A.J.’s father, was bench/pitching coach for seven seasons.

A former baseball player at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind., Doug Zapp is a member of the Athletic Hall of Fame. Doug and Linda Zapp have an older son named David.

Eighth-grader-to-be Ellen Zapp and sixth-grader-to-be Emilie Zapp play for the Circle City Volleyball Club in Plainfield, Ind.

Zapp, who turned 42 in April, got his organized baseball start at Center Grove Little League (now know as Center Grove Youth Baseball) in Greenwood, Ind. In 1992 and 1993, he was on Center Grove Senior League squads that went to the Senior World Series in Kississimmee, Fla.

Up until high school, A.J. was coached by his father. The younger Zapp was a catcher when he was younger. At 12 or 13, he moved to first base.

With a stacked Center Grove High varsity team, A.J. got just 10 varsity at-bats as a sophomore then began turning heads with the Indiana Bulls in the summer of 1994. He also shined on the CG varsity in the spring of 1995 and with the Bulls that summer.

In the fall of 1995, Zapp signed a letter of intent to play for head coach Paul Mainieri at the University of Notre Dame. As his senior season approached, he was hearing from that he might be taken high in the draft.

“I had a tough decision to make,” says Zapp, who helped his pro ball status with a 1996 season that saw him hit .524 with 16 home runs and be named first-team All-American, first-team all-state and Indiana Mr. Baseball. Center Grove won the Franklin Sectional, Franklin Regional and Richmond Semistate before bowing to eventual state champion Jasper at the IHSAA State Finals.

Zapp did not make an early verbal college commitment.

“It’s a little bit different now,” says Zapp. “We have (high school) freshmen and sophomores committing now.

“It makes it tough on the college recruiters to have to evaluate players at 15 and 16. But it’s the times we live in.”

Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Dave Gandolph was Zapp’s head coach at Center Grove.

“Coach Gandolph ran a great practice,” says Zapp. “He was well-prepared for the games. All the players loved playing for him.

“He’s just a good guy and a great baseball guy.”

Andrew Joseph “A.J.” Zapp was selected in the first round (27th overall) of the 1996 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Atlanta Braves.

South Spencer High School right-handed pitcher Josh Garrett (No. 26 by the Boston Red Sox) was also a first-rounder in 1996. He pitched in affiliated baseball through 2001, reaching the Double-A level.

Both Zapp and Garrett signed pro contracts prior to the 1996 Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association North/South All-Star Series.

Zapp played 1,046 games in the minors (1996-2006) in the Braves (seven seasons), Seattle Mariners (two), Cincinnati Reds (one) and Los Angeles Dodgers (one) systems with 136 home runs and 542 runs batted in.

He socked 26 homers and drove in 92 at Double-A San Antonio as a Texas League postseason all-star in 2003 and belted 29 homers and plated 101 while hitting .291 at Triple-A Tacoma in 2004. On Aug. 20 of that year, he drove in nine runs and vaulted the Rainiers to victory with a walk-off grand slam.

Zapp is one of the few players to launch a homer over the tall wall in center field at Cheney Stadium – the “Blue Monster.”

Notable Zapp teammates included Mike Hessman (Minor League Baseball home run king with 433), Rafael Furcal, Mark DeRosa, Matt Kemp, Edwin Encarnacion and Marcus Giles.

Brian Snitker, who is now the manager in Atlanta, was Zapp’s manager at Low-A Macon in 1998, High-A Myrtle Beach in 2000 and Double-A Greenville in 2002.

Former Florida Marlins and Atlanta Braves manager and current Baltimore Orioles bench coach Fredi Gonzalez was Zapp’s manager at Triple-A Richmond in 2002. After that season, Zapp was granted free agency and signed with the Mariners.

Former major leaguers Paul Runge (Greenville in 2002), Dan Rohn (Tacoma in 2004), Rick Sweet (Louisville in 2005) and John Shoemaker (Jacksonville in 2006) also managed teams that included Zapp.

Some of Zapp’s hitting coaches were Franklin Stubbs, Glenn Hubbard, Tommy Gregg and Sixto Lezcano in the Braves organization, Adrian Garrett with the Reds and Mike Easler with the Dodgers.

Zapp played on pennant winners at Myrtle Beach (Carolina League in 2000) and San Antonio (Texas League in 2003). Jacksonville (Southern League in 2006) lost in the finals.

He also played winter ball in Australia (voted MVP), Puerto Rico and Venezuela.

As baseball goes about streamlining Minor League Baseball, the 2020 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft scheduled for June 10-11 will be just five rounds — down from the 40 of the past several years.

“Those days can change a kid’s life,” says Zapp. “Losing out on that many rounds, I’m not a fan of it.

“There will be a lot of free agent signs.”

An unlimited amount of undrafted players can be signed for $20,000 each.

Kris Benson was the No. 1 overall pick by the Pittsburgh Pirates out of Clemson University. Besides Zapp, first-round high school draftees were Texas pitcher John Patterson (No. 5 by the Montreal Expos), Pennsylvania pitcher Matt White (No. 7 by the San Francisco Giants), California third baseman Eric Chavez (No. 10 by the Oakland Athletics), Washington pitcher Adam Eaton (No. 11 by the Philadelphia Phillies), Florida pitcher Bobby Seay (No. 12 by the Chicago White Sox), California outfielder Robert Stratton (No. 13 by the New York Mets), New York outfielder Dermal Brown (No. 14 by the Kansas City Royals), Virginia shortstop Matt Halloran (No. 15 by the San Diego Padres), Louisiana shortstop Joe Lawrence (No. 16 by the Toronto Blue Jays), Louisiana pitcher Todd Noel (No. 17 by the Chicago Cubs), Georgia pitcher Jake Westbrook (No. 21 by the Colorado Rockies), Louisiana pitcher Gil Meche (No. 22 by the Seattle Mariners), Kansas third baseman Damian Rolls (No. 23 by the Los Angeles Dodgers), Florida pitcher Sam Marsonek (No. 24 by the Texas Rangers) and Pennsylvania outfielder John Oliver (No. 25 by the Cincinnati Reds).

Sandwich first-rounders in 1996 included North Carolina outfielder Paul Wilder (No. 29 by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays), California pitcher Nick Bierbrodt (No. 30 by the Arizona Diamondbacks), Florida pitcher Matt McClendon (No. 33 by the Reds), Canadian pitcher Chris Reitsma (No. 34 by the Red Sox) and New York pitcher Jason Marquis (No. 35 by the Braves).

Benson (70 wins in 10 seasons), Patterson (18 victories in six seasons), Chavez (260 home runs in 17 seasons), Eaton (71 wins in 11 seasons), Seay (11 wins in eight seasons), Brown (271 games in eight seasons), Lawrence (55 games in 2002), Westbrook (105 wins in 14 seasons), Meche (84 wins in 10 seasons), Rolls (266 games in five seasons), Marsonek (one appearance in 2004), Bierbrodt (six wins in five seasons), Reitsma (32 wins and 37 saves in seven seasons) and Marquis (124 in 17 seasons) all made it the bigs. Bierbrodt made a stop with the 1997 South Bend Silver Hawks along the way.

Stratton and McClendon made it as high as Triple-A, Halloran Double-A, Noel and Wilder Advanced-A and Oliver Low A.

In 2019, there were 13 high schoolers drafted in the first round — Texas shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. (No. 2 by the Royals), Florida outfielder Riley Greene (No. 5 by the Detroit Tigers), Georgia shortstop C.J. Abrams (No. 6 by the Padres), Texas corner infielder Brett Baty (No. 12 by the Mets), California third baseman Keoni Cavaco (No. 13 by the Minnesota Twins), Washington outfielder Corbin Carroll (No. 16 by the Diamondbacks), Illinois pitcher Quinn Priester (No. 18 by the Pirates), Georgia Premier Academy/Panamanian pitcher Daniel Espino (No. 24 by the Cleveland Indians), North Carolina pitcher Blake Walston (No. 26 by the Diamondbacks) and New Jersey shortstop Anthony Volpe (No. 30  by the New York Yankees).

North Carolina high school pitcher Brennan Malone (No. 33 by the Diamondbacks) was a compensation first-round selection.

Competitive balance first-round picks from high school were Texas pitcher J.J. Gross (No. 36 by the Rays) and Pennsylvania outfielder Sammy Siani (No. 37 by the Pirates).

Abrams played for the Fort Wayne TinCaps in 2019.

Indiana’s three 2019 first-rounders came from the college ranks — University of Kentucky pitcher Zack Thompson (No. 19 by the St. Louis Cardinals), Tulane University third baseman Kody Hoese (No. 25 by the Dodgers) and Ball State University pitcher Drey Jameson (No. 34 by the Diamondbacks). Thompson (Wapahani), Hoese (Griffith) and Jameson (Greenfield-Central) are prepped in the Hoosier State.

Generally speaking, there are more right-handed pitchers out there. That means lefty swingers will see pitches breaking into them. Of course, the opposite is true with righty hitters against lefty pitchers.

Zapp sees big leaguers try to combat this trend.

“The two-seamer and cutter very popular in Major League Baseball now,” says Zapp. There’s also been plenty of lefty vs. lefty and righty vs. righty. “Games lasting longer because of the match-ups late in the game. Relievers have wipe-out sliders. Every reliever seems to throw 95 mph-plus with their fastball.”

When Zapp was playing, the gas increased as he went up in levels.

“A lot of those big arms are starters early in their careers and they move to the bullpen,” says Zapp.

Looking at how the youth baseball scene has changed over the years, Zapp says in the impact of social media and entities like Perfect Game USA and Prep Baseball Report give players so much exposure.

“The training, too,” says Zapp. “Kids are training all year-round. There’s a lot of hard workers.

“The competition is getting better. It’s a very competitive sport.”

Zapp, who was head baseball coach at Franklin (Ind.) Community High School in 2007, is around sports during his day job, too. As a sale representative for BSN Sports — the largest Nike and Under Armour team dealer in the country — he talks all day with athletic directors and coaches and sells practice gear, football, uniforms, spirit wear and more.

AJZAPPCARD

A.J. Zapp graduated from Center Grove High School in Greenwood, Ind., and was selected in the first round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft in 1996. (Best Card Image)

AJZAPPFAMILYNikki and A.J. Zapp are surrounded by their three children (from left): Evan, Emilie and Ellen. A.J. was Indiana Mr. Baseball at Center Grove High School in 1996, played 11 professional seasons and is now a coach with the Indiana Bulls with Evan on the team.