Nolan Tucker enjoyed a breakout collegiate baseball season at the plate in 2022. The lefty-swinging Valparaiso (Ind.) University second baseman hit a team-best .365 (46-of-126) with one home run, one triple, 14 doubles 17 runs batted in and 21 runs scored for the NCAA Division I Beacons. Tucker pinch hit for head coach Brian Schmack’s club in a March 15 game at Notre Dame became an everyday starter March 18 at Murray State. He was at the top of the batting order the last few games of the season. He went 4-of-5 in the first game of a March 25 doubleheader vs. St. Bonaventure, 4-of-5 April 30 at Southern Illinois April 30, 4-of-4 May 20 at Evansville and was named to the Missouri Valley Conference first team. He was the first Valpo player since 2018 and second since the school joined the MVC to do that. “This was years in the making,” says Tucker, 21. “I finally had a chance to showcase it.” Prior to this spring, Tucker had only played in 20 college games. He made 16 appearances in 2020 before that season was shortened because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He was also the president of his dormitory — Brandt Hall. After playing four games in 2021, he suffered a season-ending injury. He did earn Valparaiso University Presidential Academic Honors and the MVC Commissioner’s Academic Excellence Award and was on the MVC Honor Roll. While he rehabilitated, Tucker took a deep dive into what he could do to boost his batting. “I wanted to figure this hitting thing out and take it to next level,” says Tucker. “I was looking at videos and comparing myself to big leaguers.” Tucker saw hitting coach Trey Hannam on social media, liked his profile and reached out to him and was soon making the 180-mile trek from Cedar Lake, Ind., to work with him in Milan, Ill. Current Valpo assistants Kory Winter and Mitchell Boe and former assistant Casey Fletcher also played a part in Tucker’s transformation. A 2019 graduate of Hanover Central High School in Cedar Lake, where he played for Wildcats head coach Ryan Bridges, Tucker was ranked among Indiana’s best shortstops and was four-year letterwinner and three-time all-conference selection. With strong shortstops on the squad (including Benton Central High School graduate Alex Thurston), Tucker made the switch to second base at Valpo to get on the field and has come to love the position. Tucker began wrestling early in elementary school. In high school, his head coaches were Mike Drosias as a freshman and Joshua Rowinski. There were to conference titles and a sectional championship. He was in the 132-pound class as a sophomore in 2016-17 when he went 35-5 and qualified for the semistate then decided to focus on baseball and getting bigger and stronger and did not wrestle as a junior or senior. “It’s a tough sport,” says Tucker of wrestling. “It’s physically and mentally demanding. “The lessons I’ve learned from that sport I’ll carry with me forever.” Tucker was born in Munster, Ind., and grew up in Cedar Lake. He played town ball and then went into travel baseball. He played for the St. John All-Stars, Playmakers, Chiefs, Top Tier, National Pitching Association and then the Dave Sutkowski-coached Morris Chiefs for his 17U summer. “He’s made huge impact on me,” says Tucker of Sutkowski. “He’s taught me a lot about the game, but more about life like being punctual, responsible and a leader. “He was always there to reassure you and make you confident. “It’s about the man you become.” Tucker is scheduled to join the Prospect League’s Lafayette (Ind.) Aviators — managed by Chris Willsey — next Tuesday, May 7. He did not play in 2021 while rehabbing. He was with the Josh Galvan-coached Tropics of gthe College Summer League at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind., in 2020. He also got to play for the Jorge Hernandez-managed Independence in the College Summer Baseball Invitational in Bryan/College Station, Texas, where he met fellow Region native and CSBI Unity manager LaTroy Hawkins. Nolan had never met the 21-year major leaguer and Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer but got connected through cousin and former Kouts (Ind.) Middle/High School and Morris Chiefs coach Jim Tucker. In 2019, Nolan Tucker played for the Great Lakes Summer Collegiate League’s St. Clair Green Giants in Windsor, Ont. Tucker is a Business Management major. He is one year away from getting his undergraduate degree and has three more years of playing eligibility. “I’ll definitely go two more,” says Tucker. “I’m on the bubble about the third year.” Nolan is the oldest of Keith and Julie Tucker’s two children. Keith Tucker works for Team Industrial Services and Julie for Liveops. Daughter Kylin (18) is a 2022 Hanover Central graduate bound for Ball State University.
Playing with and against players from bigger schools, Damen Castillo enjoys showing what he can do on a baseball diamond. Castillo, a 6-foot-3, 240-pound righty-swinging/throwing first baseman, plays during the spring at NCAA Division III Benedictine University in Lisle, Ill. This summer, the Highland (Ind.) High School graduate is with the Prospect League’s Illinois Valley Pistol Shrimp in the team’s first season in Peru, Ill. “It’s the competition level,” says Castillo, 21. “The pace of play is faster than what I come from. “It’s fun being around guys from different schools like that.” Of the 31 players listed on the team’s online roster, 18 are from Illinois with eight from California and one each from Arizona, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio and Wisconsin. Castillo is one of six players from NCAA D-III schools (the others are pitchers Jake Dahl of Rockford University, Chandler Kerr of Concordia University Chicago and Justin Rios and Jason Shanner of North Central College and infielder Garry Maynard of Concordia University Chicago). There are 20 from NCAA D-I, two from NCAA D-II and three from National Junior College Athletic Association institutions. Teams on Illinois Valley’s schedule, which consists of squads from the Wabash River, Great River, Prairie Land divisions, boasts no less than 105 D-I players. The Pistol Shrimp are owned and managed by John Jakiemiec, who co-owns a player development academy in Naperville, Ill., Evolution Athletics. “He’s been great,” says Castillo of Jakiemiec. “When we play, it’s real serious. “You get your work in and still try to win at the same time. “It’s been a fun summer.” Jakiemiec, who played baseball at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., uses his Ivy League education to throw out random facts during bus trips. “We don’t always know what he’s talking about,” says Castillo. “But we laugh.” Through 25 games with the Pistol Shrimp, Castillo was hitting .280 (23-of-82) with five home runs, four doubles, 14 runs batted in and 10 runs scored. “One of my best qualities as a hitter is the ability to drive the ball to the right side of the field,” says Castillo. “I get pitched away and I get a lot of off-speed. Over the years I’ve gotten good at hitting the outside pitch.” Adam Smith is the head coach at Benedictine. “He’s been real supportive,” says Castillo of Smith. “He come to me with things he think I can change.” Castillo appreciates how Smith keeps practices loose and competitive. “Our team tends to do better when things are like that,” says Castillo, who helped the Eagles go 29-13 overall and 15-5 in the Northern Athletic Collegiate Conference in 2021. “We do competition things in practice. It’s better than taking mass ground balls or BP. “It makes it fun.” In 42 games (all as a starter), Castillo hit .347 (61-of-176) with nine homers, one triple, 18 doubles, 51 RBIs, 35 runs and a 1.009 OPS (.395 on-base percentage plus .614 slugging average). The 2021 season was his third at Benedictine. In the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season, he started all seven games and hit .217 (5-of-23) with one extra-base hit (a double), four RBIs, three runs and a .557 OPS (.296/.261). As a freshman in 2019, Castillo played a little bit of third base before becoming a full-time first baseman. In 28 games (24 as a starter), he hit .323 (32-of-99) with four homers, six doubles, 21 RBIs, 16 runs and a .885 OPS (.380/.505). With two years of eligibility left, Castillo is a year away from earning a degree in Management of Organizational Behavior through the Goodwin College of Business. Castillo and his Eagles teammates are to report back to campus in late August and will get right to work for about eight weeks of workouts before “captain’s practice” where NCAA D-III rules limit contact by the coaching staff. Born and raised in Highland to Damen and Jodee Castillo with little sister Angelica (a volleyball and softball athlete entering her senior year at Highland High in 2021-22), “D” played travel ball around his hometown until 12 and then went with the Dave Griffiin-coached Indiana Playmakers, Morris (coached by Jim Tucker), Chiefs (coached by Dave Sutkowski) and Midwest Irish (coached by Shane Brogan). When the Midwest Collegiate League shut down and Castillo was not able to play for the Southland Vikings in 2020, he assisted Brogan with the Irish. “He has been the closest coach to me,” says Castillo of Brogan. The two talk every other day. This year, Castillo helps Brogan out in practice when his schedule allows. John Bogner was Castillo’s coach at Highland and had the third baseman on the varsity since early in his freshmen year with the Trojans. “He was a great high school coach and I learned a lot from him,” says Castillo, who stays in touch with Bogner and dropped by practice during the end of 2021 season to hit with the Highland team.
With the lifting of some COVID-19 restrictions, players at Morris Baseball in northwest Indiana can finally practice again and founder/president Bobby Morris couldn’t be happier.
“It’s as much fun as I’ve had on a baseball field in ages,” says Morris of a workout earlier this week. “The big reason is quarantine and the chaos going on around us.
“I feel a sense of gratitude. Our players feel a sense of gratitude — more so than in January or February.”
Morris says he hopes his organization with around 200 clients, including Chiefs travel teams, will help bring a sense of community and unity as the 2020 season moves forward.
“if we can spread a little positivity and a little gratitude, I’m all for it,” says Morris, who started his training business in 2011 and merged five years ago with the Hammond Chiefs, which mark their 30th season this year.
The first clients Morris had were 9-year-olds.
“Those kids are just now graduating and going on to play college baseball,” says Morris.
“It’s mutually a good fit together,” says Morris. “Dave has been pleasure to work with. We got some Chiefs coaches when we merged. They’ve been great mentors with our kids.”
The Morris Baseball mission statement: To recruit excellent talent and provide them with disciplined, well-organized, focused practices with superior instruction and place them in highly competitive opportunities to achieve principle-based success.
“If we produce great players, everything will take care of itself,” says Morris. “We make sure we have great practice facilities and plenty of practice time.
“We try to produce well-rounded baseball players. I think we’re doing a pretty good job of it.”
Until recently, Morris Baseball and the Chiefs were housed at Franciscan Physician Network Schererville Family Health Center (formerly Omni Health & Fitness).
The organization just moved to a training facility at 1075 Breuckman Drive in Crown Point. Morris says the name for the new place will be revealed soon.
The new centrally-located home includes plenty of workout space plus classrooms, player’s lounge, kitchen and coach’s offices.
“For our kids it will be great,” says Morris. “We have internet at player desks. They can hang out there all day if they want.
“We prefer that they study and take batting practice.”
“It’s an extremely gifted group,” says Morris of the 2021 team. “(Pettit and Sutkowski) are two phenomenal sports minds.”
Assistants for Morris with the 2022 Chiefs are Morris Baseball general manager Mike Small plus Tim Horneman.
Bobby’s youngest son, Gavin (10), plays for the 9U Chiefs. Bobby also helps coach the 8U team.
Nick Amatulli has more than 40 years of coaching experience and helps with both of Trevor Howard’s squads.
Some other Chiefs coaches are John Adams, Tom Blair, Brad Fedak, Brian Fernandez, Trent Howard, Dale Meyer, Kevin Peller, Brad Rohde, Kenny Siegal and Eric Spain.
“We don’t differentiate ‘A’ team and ‘B’ team,” says Morris. “It’s more geared toward the name of the coach. We don’t want the potential for the stigma there. It also incentivizes our coaches to play the game hard and represent themselves well.
“We want Chiefs teams to play hard and be smart players. Any given day, anyone can beat anyone.”
Three Chiefs alums are currently playing pro baseball — third baseman Mike Brosseau (Tampa Bay Rays) and left-handed pitcher Sean Manaea (Oakland Athletics) in the majors and second baseman Nick Podkul (Toronto Blue Jays) in the minors.
“Bob is an extremely decent man,” says Morris of Shinkan. “He has such a genuine, caring nature.”
Shinkan can also be strict and he expects his players to be disciplined.
“I had a great experience there with Bob,” says Morris.
After high school, lefty-swinging infielder Morris spent three seasons at the University of Iowa playing for long-time Hawkeyes head coach Duane Banks.
“Duane was just a smart baseball guy,” says Morris. “At Iowa, they really believed in self starters. They threw you out there and expected you to compete for a position.
“That culture helped me a lot in professional baseball.”
Morris was selected as a third baseman in the ninth round of the 1993 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Chicago Cubs and played nine minor league seasons (1993-2001), logging 636 games and hitting .290 with 36 home runs and 326 RBIs. He reached Double-A in the Cubs, Cleveland Indians, Texas Rangers and Cincinnati Reds systems. By hitting .354 with seven homers and 64 RBIs, he was chosen as MVP of the 1994 Peoria (Ill.) Chiefs of the Low Class-A Midwest League. That team was managed by Steve Roadcap.
While Trembley never played pro baseball, he managed (Orioles) and coached (Houston Astros) in the big leagues.
“Dave had a great habit for excellence,” says Morris, who won a High Class-A Florida State League championship with Trembley on the 1995 Daytona Cubs. “He expected a lot out of himself and a lot out of us and how we carried ourselves.”
Morris, who turns 48 in November, grew watching Piersall and Harry Caray call Chicago White Sox games on TV. When he learned Morris was from Chicagoland, Piersall became close to Morris as a minor league hitting/outfield coach.
“Jimmy took on a second grandfather role for me,” says Morris.
It was in the Cubs organization that Morris encountered Alomar.
“He’s as smart a baseball person as I’ve ever met,” says Morris. “He’s an absolute genius.”
Tanner was Morris’ first full-season hitting instructor and the inventor of Tanner Tees — a product used by Bobby and brother Hal Morris (a left-handed first baseman/outfielder who played 14 seasons in the big leagues).
“Joe was a was a renaissance man for baseball,” says Bobby Morris. “I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of great influences.”
His earliest diamond influences came from brother Hal.
Hal is seven years older than Bobby.
“We were constantly competing with one another,” says Bobby. “I was challenged a lot. We were always very close. As I matured and got into high school, Hal brought back stuff from his (college and pro) coaches and we worked on it.
“That helped in fine-tuning my ability to hit at an early age.”
As youngsters, the brothers spent hours taking batting practice with father Bill pitching and mother Margaret chasing baseballs.
Bill Morris was a four-year baseball letterman Davidson (N.C.) College, went to medical school, did his residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, entered the U.S. Army and was at Fort Rucker in Alabama when daughter Beth (who went on to be a state swim champion at Munster High) and son Hal (who shined in baseball for the Mustangs) were born.
The family later came to northwest Indiana, where Bill was a pediatrician working at the Hammond Clinic, St. Margaret’s Hospital in Hammond and Community Hospital in Munster. He died at 82 in 2017.
“He taught us how to compete and how to be gentlemen,” says Bobby Morris of his father. “He was a class southern gentleman.
“My mom is still with us. She has probably shagged as many baseballs in her life as any big league pitcher.”
Bobby and Gloria Morris have three children. Besides Gavin, there’s recent Arizona State University graduate Gina (22) and Indiana University Purdue University-Indianapolis student John (19). Gloria Morris is a Hobart (Ind.) High School graduate.
“We’re Region rats,” says Bobby Morris. “I love northwest Indiana.”