Tag Archives: Concordia University Chicago

Conner teaching lessons about baseball, life at Concordia University Chicago

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

Kolin Conner is doing his best to get Concordia University Chicago back to the lofty heights the Cougars baseball program had become accustomed.
From 2008-19, CUC posted an average record of 35-11 including 40-15 in 2018 and 42-10 in 2019. Conner was the Cougars head assistant (2016-19) — years in which the school won four Northern Athletic Collegiate Conference regular-season titles and made NCAA Division III World Series appearances in 2017 and 2018. During the span, CUC was ranked No. 1 in the nation and Conner was named 2018 American Baseball Coaches Association Assistant Coach of the Year.
A graduate of Indianapolis North Central High School (2009) and Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind. (2013), Conner took over as head coach at the private school in River Forest, Ill., in the summer of 2019. The Cougars went 5-5 during the COVID-19 pandemic-shortened 2020 season and 11-25 in 2021.
NCAA D-III rules allow for 19 total weeks of organized baseball activity — four in the fall and 15 in the spring. Concordia practiced four times a week during the fall.
“We did a lot of teaching. developing and evaluating where our guys are on the depth chart,” says Conner. “After last year, there was a little bit of re-establishing priorities for us.
“The work we put in now leads to success in the spring. It’s about holding everybody accountable. The overall success is much bigger than one individual.”
Conner says the most-important time comes when players are away from coaches in between fall and spring and must motivate themselves and stay on top of their academics.
“Here’s a 17-year-old freshman,” says Conner. “How’s he going to be when no one’s watching? That’s when good leaders and good people are made.”
Conner and his coaching staff of head assistant/pitching coach Matt Smith, assistant Abe Paz Agudello, assistant Connor Nelson and graduate assistant Kevin Garcia are getting players to create lifelong habits that will transfer into their lives beyond college.
“They get into the world world and (employers and co-workers) can trust these guys,” says Conner, who is currently busy recruiting, doing office work and getting ready for the return of players to practice after the Christmas break.
CUC baseball earned an ABCA all-academic team certificate, sported seven players with a 4.0 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale last spring while posting a 3.2 team GPA — the best among the school’s nine male sports. The Cougars typically have 10 to 12 academic all-conference selections.
The roster — currently at 36 — has 22 from the Chicagoland area plus Indiana’s Ben Collins (Chesterton), Elijah Hickman (Rensselaer Central), Brody Mariotti (Yorktown) and Westin Stutzman (Fairfield), six from Arizona (CUC recruits there each fall), two from California and one each from Colorado and Utah.
“We get a lot of good and smart kids that don’t have schools to go to,” says Conner. “(Chicago recruits) are used to cold weather and facilities and proud of the city they’re from.”
Conners says most players get some sort of aid — packages largely being dependent on grades and test scores — that takes away around half of the annual $42,000 tuition.
“It’s important that we’re getting the good character kid who wants to work and wants to win,” says Conner. “Those type of kids are usually pretty good academically.
“It’s no coincidence that are best players are usually are best students.”
A typical recruiting class is 10 players and Conner says he likes to have five or six signees around Christmas.
Conner played for Phil McIntyre at North Central, making varsity as a sophomore and representing the Panthers either as a catcher or outfielder and making long-time friendships.
He credits assistant/teacher Andy Noble for helping him in the classroom.
“He helped me find my way and who I was as a kid,” says Conner of Noble.
Conner was a catcher and first baseman in college. He played two seasons at National Community College Athletic Association member Lincoln Trail College in Robinson, Ill., for Statesmen head coaches Mitch Hannahs (2010) and Kevin Bowers (2011).
Hannahs, who is now head coach at Indiana State University. was “very, very good at getting you conditioned mentally and getting the most out of people as players.”
Current LTC head coach Bowers brought Conner into the program.
“He really, really cares about the kids,” says Conner of Bowers. “He’s got a strong relationship with everybody he recruits.”
At Saint Joseph’s, Conner earned an Educational Studies degree with a Communications minor and played two seasons (2012 and 2013) for Pumas head coach Rick O’Dette.
“He’s the greatest guy ever,” says Conner of O’Dette, who became head coach at Saint Leo University in Florida when SJC closed its doors after the 2017 season. “He’s the reason I have a job in college baseball.
“He’s an unbelievable guy, a great mentor and cares about people.”
Conner played two summers of independent professional baseball after college with the 2013 Mike Braymen-managed Joliet (Ill.) Slammers and 2014 Andy McCauley-managed Evansville (Ind.) Otters — both in the Frontier League.
Kolin met future wife Lyndsey at Lincoln Trail. The Conners now have two children — son Leo (3) and daughter Layla (4 months).

Kolin Conner (Concordia University Chicago Photo)

Benedictine’s Castillo enjoying summer opportunity in Illinois Valley

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

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.

Damen Castillo (Illinois Valley Pistol Shrimp Photo)
Damen Castillo (Benedictine University Photo)
Damen Castillo (Illinois Valley Pistol Shrimp Photo)

Bellak looking for more than just ballplayers as Hanover College head coach

RBILOGOSMALL copy

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Grant Bellak jumped into his job as head baseball coach at Hanover (Ind.) College with both feet.

Hired to his first head-coaching position on June 1, a few days later the former Franklin (Ind.) College assistant was already recruiting at an event in Cincinnati and spent the next few weeks looking for student-athletes.

Bellak says he expects to have 32 players in the fall and have recruiting classes of 10 to 12 players the next few seasons.

“I felt comfortable with the recruiting area,” says Bellak, who was the recruiting coordinator at Franklin. “Recruiting is the lifeblood of any college program.

“I want athletes who are big and strong. Power bats and power arms play. Power bats can change the game with one swing. Power arms give you more room for error. You don’t have to be perfect.”

Bella, 32, prides himself in finding value where others miss it.

“I plan on bringing that to Hanover and developing that over four years,” says Bellak. “We want mid-major Division I’s calling asking us to play.”

With the Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Louisville and Evansville areas as a base, Bellak already has contacts he developed at Franklin that he can use at Hanover. Both are members of the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference — an NCAA Division III circuit.

As a D-III school, Hanover (enrollment 1,100) does not give athletic scholarships. The liberal arts institution places a premium on academics.

“The thing I’ve been preaching on the recruiting trail is that fit matters,” says Bellak. “This is not for you if you are not 100 percent Panthers. You have to fit the academic profile, campus profile and athletic profile.”

Almost all of the seniors in his last three recruiting classes at Franklin had job offers prior to graduation.

Bellak is looking for young men coming to Hanover who want to be more than ballplayers. They have aspirations of pursuing careers as CEOs, lawyers, politicians etc.

“Here at Hanover, our focus is wanting guys who want more,” says Bellak. “What is your ‘why’?’

“We want difference makers.”

The Shayne Stock-coached Hanover Panthers went 8-25 overall and 5-12 in the HCAC.

“You can win a lot here,” says Bellak. “The rest of athletic department, that’s what they’re doing.

“It’s one of those opportunities I felt I couldn’t pass up.”

Hanover got Bellak’s attention the first time he arrived on the southern Indiana campus as a Franklin assistant.

“It’s got that ‘wow factor,’” says Bellak. “It’s the way it is back in the woods overlooking the Ohio River and the architecture. There’s lots of green space.

“It’s absolutely gorgeous.”

Dick Naylor Field at K.T. Young Ballpark, with its natural grass surface and old trees surrounding the outfield, is also picturesque.

At Franklin, Bellak served on a staff with veteran head coach Lance Marshall.

He saw the behind-the-scenes things that it takes to be a head coach — being an administrator and mentor.

“It’s a different mindset,” says Bellak. “Hours are not just devoted to player development, but developing a program as a whole.

“It’s more than just hitting fungoes and throwing BP. You’re engaging the alumni base and fundraising. It’s all the extras, things the outside world doesn’t see.”

Before Franklin, Bellak was a volunteer assistant at Concordia University Chicago in River Forest, Ill., in 2010 and 2011.

A 2004 graduate of Aurora (Ill.) Christian High School, the Big Rock, Ill., native played two seasons at Waubonsee Community College in Sugar Grove, Ill., and two at Webster University in St. Louis, Mo.

Bellak was sixth in the National Junior College Athletic Association in stolen bases in 2006 at Waubonsee.

Webster, coached by Bill Kurich, came within six outs of going to the 2008 NCAA D-III World Series.

In 2009, Bellak worked as a student assistant to Kurich.

“Bill knows what it takes to win,” says Bellak of Kurich. “He has the unique ability to get the most out of you.”

Bellak coached three summers with the Prospect League’s Dubois County Bombers in Huntingburg, Ind., in 2009-11 — the last as field manager. One of his players was future major league pitcher Sean Manaea.

In 2009, Bellak graduated from Webster with a bachelor’s degree in secondary education. He earned a masters degree in leadership and management from Liberty University’s online program in 2013. The latter is a precursor to a Masters of Business Administration.

“(The leadership and management masters) helped me take a different perspective to coaching,” says Bellak. “The business world isn’t that different than a team.

“The way a CEO motivates someone in the office is not much different than how a coach motivates someone on the field.”

Grant and wife Natasha Bellak have a daughter — Bexley (2).

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Grant Bellak is now the head baseball coach at Hanover (Ind.) College after seven seasons as an assistant at Franklin (Ind.) College. (Hanover College Photo)