By STEVE KRAH
A former all-Big Ten Conference and professional infielder was hired in the fall of 2019 as head coach of the baseball program at Hamilton Heights High School in Arcadia, Ind., and was getting the Huskies ready when the 2020 season was placed on hold and — eventually — canceled because of the pandemic.
Ryan VanOeveren, who was a standout at the University of Michigan and was selected by the Montreal Expos in the 26th round of the 1995 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, is now leading some Hamilton Heights players through twice-a-week IHSAA Limited Contact paces and is optimistic to really get rolling in 2021.
The Huskies have also been conditioning for the spring.
“It’s been pretty good,” says VanOeveren. “There’s been a good turnout. The kids have good attitudes and are hungry to get back on the field.
“We met Monday and the intensity level went up.”
VanOeveren, who was an assistant at Otsego (Mich.) High School after his playing career and more recently a coach in the Indiana Primetime Baseball travel organization, places an emphasis on fundamentals. Defense and pitching will be important to the Huskies.
“Making the routine plays on defense is absolutely critical to playing successful baseball,” says VanOeveren. “It’s about executing the fundamentals of the game.
“We’re building guys on the mound — Knowing when to push the envelope and when to back off. They’ve responded really well.”
Hamilton Heights (enrollment around 750) is a member of the Hoosier Athletic Conference (with Benton Central, Lafayette Central Catholic, Lewis Cass, Northwestern, Rensselaer Central, Tipton, Twin Lakes, West Lafayette and Western).
Recent Hamilton Heights graduates playing college baseball include Sam Fulton (Chattanooga, Tenn., State Community College), Alex Hewitt (Butler University in Indianapolis), Ike Peterson (Grace College in Winona Lake, Ind.) and Reese Wills (Marian University in Indianapolis. VanOeveren says some current players are weighting their options.
“Recruiting is challenging for everybody because of COVID,” says VanOeveren. “I was recruited to numerous schools all over the Midwest. My advice: Don’t select the school just based upon baseball.
“Baseball comes to an end at some point for all of us.”
A 1991 graduated of Grandville (Mich.) High School near Grand Rapids, VanOeveren was initially recruited by Michigan assistant Ted Mahan (who went on to be head coach at Michigan State University) and Wolverines head coach Bill Freehan got involved near the end of the process. VanOeveren committed in May of his senior year.
VanOeveren knew about Freehan’s catching with the Detroit Tigers, but was at school in Ann Arbor when he learned about his exploits in baseball and football at Michigan.
“Coach Freehan was a genuinely caring person,” says VanOeveren. “He’d give you the shirt off his back.”
In his first fall, shortstop VanOeveren got to take infield instruction from volunteer assistant Moby Benedict.
“Moby made me such a better infielder,” says VanOeveren.
“Ace was great to be around,” says VanOeveren. “He would not hesitate to get on you, but we were better for it.”
VanOeveren counted Merriman, who is expected to return to Michigan as pitching coach for 2021, as a friend back then and today.
“He’s a quality human being,” says VanOeveren of Merriman. “He shows that he cares about you if you work hard for him.
“The baseball stuff falls into place after that.”
VanOeveren went to Michigan as an undersized player and continued to work.
“I was fortunate to have coaches that were patient for me growing up,” says VanOeveren.
After a strong junior season in 1994, teammates voted outfielder Rodney Goble and infielder VanOeveren as co-captains for 1995.
“It lead by example,” says VanOeveren. “I was not that verbal.”
As an Expos minor leaguer, VanOeveren played 49 games for the 1995 Class-A Albany (Ga.) Polecats. Several future big leaguers were on the team — among them Vladimir Guerrero, Brad Fullmer and Javier Vazquez.
VanOeveren was invited to spring training in 1996. At the end of camp, he was not assigned to a team as an infielder but was given the option of transitioning to a pitcher.
“I had a little too much pride back then,” says VanOeveren. “I asked for my release.”
VanOeveren went back to finish his college degree and moved on.
He was at Otsego for two seasons then did not coach again until the late 2010’s. By this time he had moved to central Indiana.
“(Indiana Primetime) is good to the kids at Hamilton Heights, giving them the opportunity to play really competitive baseball,” says VanOeveren. “I love Finch Creek. We’re spoiled getting access to that place.
“We’re very fortunate to live in this area and have those opportunities.”
Besides VanOeveren, the 2021 Husky coaching staff features varsity assistants Brian Clancy and Brad Pitts, junior varsity head coach Adam Hughes and JV assistant Cole Meyer. Clancy, who played at Lewis University in Romeoville, Ill., was on the 2000 staff. Pitts, who had coached at Harrison High School in West Lafayette, is a newcomer to Hamilton Heights.
Husky Ballpark has received laser-leveling and upgrades to the irrigation system from Marschand’s Athletic Field Service and a new backstop is going up. VanOeveren says new dugouts and other improvements could come this summer.
Brad Pitts is an assistant bseball coach at Hamilton Heights High School in Arcadia, Ind.