Tag Archives: COVID-19

Pandemic creates unique experience for Blue Jays broadcaster Wagner

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Ben Wagner experienced a baseball season like no other in his broadcast career in 2020.

Wagner, a graduate of Fairfield Junior/Senior High School (1999) near Goshen, Ind., and Indiana State University (2003) and the radio voice of the Toronto Blue Jays, called games during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Blue Jays were on 64 broadcasts during the shortened season — two exhibition games, 60 regular-season contests and two playoff games — and Wagner worked all of them from a studio in downtown Toronto.

“We were really fortunate,” says Wagner. “Major League Baseball was taking tremendous care of us.”

With the help of five camera angles and information graphics provided by MLB, Wagner and his broadcast partners were able to present a game complete with the crack of the bat and pop of the glove.

“It’s the greatest recognition when people say we had no idea you weren’t in Buffalo or Philadelphia,” says Wagner. “That was my goal going into this — to make it seamless on the consumer end.

“To our credit, we were able to pull that off pretty easily from the start.”

Wagner’s employer — SportsNet 590 — made a blanket corporate policy that for the safety of all, they would only be allowed to cover home games if they were at Rogers Centre in Toronto.

The Canadian government did not allow the team to play there and they moved all home dates to Buffalo, N.Y. The 2018 season was Wagner’s first with the Blue Jays after 11 with the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons.

During the off-season, Ben and wife Megan live in Dunedin, Fla. — where the Blue Jays stage spring training — and were hunkered down there when the MLB season finally got started in late July.

Declared as essential, Ben was allowed to enter Canada to work following a 14-day quarantine (the Wagners had been in a modified quarantine since mid-March in Florida). 

But that essential status only went with him and Megan had to stay at home in the U.S.

“It was a long-distance relationship,” says Ben. “It was a big sacrifice for her. We used technology as much as we could.”

When things opened up in Dunedin, Ben and Megan drove their golf cart for pick-up meals and groceries.

After Ben’s departure, it was mostly deliveries for Megan and there was the loss of human contact and socialization.

“She became kind of a hermit,” says Ben. “Everything was getting delivered to the door step.

“The heavier lift was done by her. Megan did a great job.”

Wagner’s gameday routine was different. For one thing, he did not get to see the sights.

“I love travel,” says Wagner. “I like to experience new things when we go to a city.

“It gives me an excuse not to suck too much hotel air. It’s part of the enjoyment of this job.”

Earlier in the year, the Toronto metropolitan area was at a standstill even though millions reside there.

“It’s city living and so full of various cultures and life,” says Wagner. That city has an incredible vibe about it.

“Toronto was essentially closed down.”

In 2020, instead of exploring in the morning and going to the ballpark, he went to the studio in Toronto each day at 2 or 3 p.m.

Wagner got to ride with TV’s Buck Martinez and Joe Siddall.

“It was a true treat,” says Wagner. “I learned a ton about them and a ton about the game just listening to them talk.”

There were no one-on-one pregame interviews with coaches, players and managers. The Blue Jays set up Zoom interviews for the media.

“There was no opportunity to foster relationships and you forced to share nuggets with everybody else,” says Wagner. “There were growing pains, but we made the best of it.”

There was a shortened season. Wagner says it could have been longer had players and management not burned up so much time while not coming to an agreement.

“Baseball did itself a disservice,” says Wagner. “It had a chance to get itself started and have an exclusive window (to sports fans).”

Wagner notes that many were starting to feel pandemic fatigue by June and baseball could have filled the void for an entertainment-starved audience.

“The game missed an opportunity for about eight weeks,” says Wagner. “It was an opportunity to organically grow its game where people had nothing to do.

“Instead, baseball was not going head to head with basketball, hockey and then football. It was fighting for people’s attention.”

Since the Blue Jays season ended, Ben and Megan have been reunited in Florida and there’s not many daily baseball duties for him.

“It’s likely to ramp up with free agency,” says Wagner. “Right now it’s really low key.”

Ben Wagner (left) interviews Toronto Blue Jays player Justin Smoak in the dugout before a game, something Wagner did not get to do in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. (SportsNet 590 Photo)
During a normal baseball season, Ben Wagner would broadcast games from the home radio booth at Rogers Centre in Toronto. During the COVID-19 pandemic season of 2020, he did all broadcasts from a downtown studio. The Blue Jays played home games in Buffalo, N.Y. (SportsNet 590 Photo)
Ben Wagner holds one of the World Series trophies the Toronto Blue Jays won before he became a radio play-by-play voice for the team. (SportsNet 590 Photo)
Ben Wagner has been the radio voice of the Toronto Blue Jays since 2018. He is a graduate of Fairfield Junior/Senior High School near Goshen, Ind., and Indiana State University. He worked all 64 broadcasts in 2020 from a Toronto studio because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (SportsNet 590 Photo)

Keeran to manage Lafayette Aviators at new Loeb Stadium in ’21

BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Corn is not involved. But there’s a kind of a reverse “Field of Dreams” thing going on in Lafayette, Ind.

“If You Build It, He Will Come” — in this case — refers to Michael Keeran.

A new Loeb Stadium is being built for the Lafayette Aviators baseball team. After discussions with owner Bill Davidson, Iowa native Keeran has been named as field manager for 2021.

Keeran, a 2012 graduate of Clear Lake (Iowa) High School and the holder of two degrees from Waldorf University in Forest City, Iowa (a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education and Masters in Organizational Leadership with a Sport Management emphasis), welcomes the chance to bring his wife closer to family while also moving up in the baseball world.

“My wife is from Centralia, Ill.,” says Keeran. “I’ve coached near by hometown the past couple summers. (With the Aviators,) I get to coach in a very good league and I get two birds with one stone.”

Michael and Kaitlin Keeran are expecting their first child in December. Centralia is 220 miles from Lafayette and Kaitlin will be able to spend time there and also visit her husband.

“I always wanted to go to a bigger league. It’ll be a brand new stadium and a very good franchise. I thought it would be a good fit.”

The Prospect League is a 14-team college wooden bat summer circuit with teams in Indiana (Lafayette Aviators and Terre Haute Rex), Illinois (Alton River Dragons, Danville Dans, DuPage Pistol Shrimp, Normal CornBelters, Quincy Gems and Springfield Sliders), Ohio (Champion City Kings and Chillicothe Paints), Missouri (Cape Catfish and O’Fallon Hoots), Pennsylvania (Johnstown Mill Rats) and West Virginia (West Virginia Miners).

While 2021 Aviators assistant coaches have been consulted, the official word of their hiring is yet to come.

Keeran managed Pioneer Collegiate Baseball League champions in 2018 and 2019 — the Albert Lea (Minn.) Lakers followed by the Bancroft (Iowa) Bandits.

After one season as an assistant at Valley City (N.D.) State University (NAIA), Keeran became head coach at Bismarck (N.D.) State College (National Junior College Athletic Association Division II) for the 2020 season. The Mystics had played two games and were in Arizona to play 10 or 11 more when the COVID-19 pandemic caused the season to be halted.

“We were on a bus for 60 or 70 hours,” says Keeran. “It was awful.

“It’s tough to tell a bunch of young men that their season is over and it has nothing to do with wins or losses.”

While they could have taken an extra year of eligibility because of COVID-19, Keeran encouraged his second-year players from 2020 to take their associate degrees and go to a four-year school.

“It’s not ethically right to hold on to those sophomores,” says Keeran. “I didn’t see the point. You’ve got your degree, now move on.

“We have a very new group (in 2020-21) and we’re very talented.”

With players taking a hybrid class schedule (some in-person and some online), Bismarck State played  few games this fall against four-year schools.

“We treated it like a test for what it’s going to be like in the spring with temperature checks and protocols,” says Keeran.

As a outfielder and pitcher, Keeran played four seasons at Waldorf while also beginning his coaching career. 

Since high school baseball in Iowa is a summer sport, Keeran was able to play college ball and be on the Clear Lake coaching staff for four seasons (2013-16) and helped the Lions win three state titles (2013 in 3A, 2015 in 2A and 2016 in 2A).

“It was pretty cool to be coach at a young age and be mentored,” says Keeran. “Baseball should be played in the summer when it’s warm. That’s why I like coaching in the summer.

“It feels so authentic.”

Keeran says a typical high school gameday would involve batting practice and field preparation around 1 p.m. and the players would come back for a 5:30 p.m. junior varsity game, followed by the varsity.

“It gives kids a chance to work morning jobs in the summer and they don’t have to worry about the stress of class,” says Keeran. “It gives athletes a chance to do other sports. One of my best friends was a four-sport athlete (football in the fall, basketball in the winter, track in the spring and baseball in the summer).”

While the pandemic wiped out high school baseball last spring in Indiana, there was season in Iowa. Four 2020 state champions were crowned Aug. 1 in Des Moines. 

In 2021, the Iowa High School Athletic Association has set the first practice date for May 3 with first of 40 allowed contest dates May 24 and state tournament concluding July 31. Showcase leagues ran by Prep Baseball Report and Perfect Game are typically conducted in the spring.

The 2020 baseball season was the first for head coach Michael Keeran at Bismarck (N.D.) State College, a National Junior College Athletic Association Division II school. In the summer of 2021, he is to manage the Lafayette (Ind.) Aviators. (Bismarck State College Photo)
Michael Keeran, a graduate of Clear Lake High School and Waldorf University in Iowa and the head coach at Bismarck State College in North Dakota, has been named field manager for the Lafayette (Ind.) Aviators of the summer collegiate wood bat Prospect League in 2021. (Lafayette Aviators Photo)

Gaura stresses competitive environment for Evansville Purple Aces pitchers

BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

A.J. Gaura wants his to focus on what his University of Evansville baseball pitchers do best and let the rest take care of itself.

“It’s not about the hitter or the umpire,” says Gaura, heads into his third season in 2020-21. “It’s competing against ourselves.

“We’ve got to be competitive with two to three pitches and try not to over-think it.”

The Aces are beginning their fourth week of team practice after four weeks focused on individuals that missed much of their spring season (Evansville played just 16 games when play was halted in March) and summer to COVID-19. 

“We’re getting them into a competitive environment as much as possible,” says Gaura. “Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday we’re treating like a weekend series.”

That means starters are going four or five innings and relievers two our three. The goal is to have each arm get 18 to 20 innings by the end of fall ball.

After team practice, the plan is to go back to a week or two of individual training before Thanksgiving break.

As a COVID-19 measure, students will turn to online classes and testing and not come back to practice until the beginning of 2021. Baseball players will re-assemble in the middle of January — about a month before the start of the season.

“It’s going to be a big challenge this year,” says Gaura. “We’ll rely on guys to get in work on their own.”

Gaura (pronounced Gore-uh) is also UE’s recruiting coordinator. Because of the virus, there have not been many opportunities to see players perform in-person or have face-to-face meetings.

“It’s definitely a strange time,” says Gaura. “We work the phones to build relationships.”

That’s when coaches can get a sense of a potential recruit’s character.

Evansville’s campus is currently open to visitors who must go through a sign-in process. Academic tours are available.

Gaura is on an Aces coaching staff headed by Wes Carroll.

“Wes is an awesome guy to work for,” says Gaura, 28. “He brings energy every single day.

“He gives his assistants a lot of autonomy. He focuses on the culture of the program and allows us to coach the skill aspects of baseball. It’s a great work environment.”

From 2016-18, Gaura was at Mississippi State University, where he served as graduate assistant video coordinator, coordinator of player development and volunteer assistant/camp coordinator and headed up on-campus recruiting was responsible for the organization of all on-campus recruiting, the scholarship and recruiting database and video needs for both player development and advanced scouting. 

During Gaura’s stay in Starkville, Gary Henderson was an MSU assistant then head coach. Henderson began his college coaching career in the late 1980’s.

Gaura gleaned much from the veteran coach about the intricacies of running a pitching staff and program on a day-to-day basis.

“He took me under his wing and taught me the dynamics of working with the coaches and players,” says Gaura. “With his experience, there’s so much that can be learned from him.”

As a 6-foot-6 right-handed pitcher, Gaura spent two seasons at Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs and two at Austin Peay University in Clarksville, Tenn. 

Playing for head coach Marc Rardin, Gaura was 17-1 and helped IWCC to an National Junior College Athletic Association Division I national championship in 2012.

“It was so much more than baseball for Coach Rardin,” says Gaura. “He was teaching us life lessons. 

“I hope I can have half the impact on our guys as he had on me and my teammates.”

Gaura reflects on the JUCO experience.

“It’s not for everybody,” says Gaura. “Guys understand that it’s just a stepping stone piece. 

“You’re working to win while you’re there. But you’re also working because you want to find your next home.”

At Austin Peay, he went 4-2 as a starter then a reliever in 2013 and 2014. His head coach as a APSU player was Gary McClure. He then became a volunteer coach for Travis Janssen.

The program was coming off two regional finals appearances when Austin Peay went to the Governors.

“I wanted to carry on winning ways (experienced at Iowa Western),” says Gaura. “After being around the guys, I knew that was the place for me.”

Gaura cites Janssen for his organization skills.

“He did a really good job of laying out what are jobs were as assistant coaches,” says Gaura. “There was no gray area at all.”

Laura prides himself of being organized with his Evansville pitchers.

“Having my guys know what to expect every day they show up to the field breeds confidence,” says Gaura. “They know exactly what’s expected of them. 

“They’re not showing up to the ballpark wondering. That way they can be mentally prepared when they get to the yard.”

Gaura is a 2010 graduate of Bay Port High School in Suamico, Wis. — just north of Green Bay. Playing for head coach Mike Simoens, he helped the Pirates to a Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association Division 1 state champions state title in 2009 and was a Wisconsin Baseball Coaches Association all-star in 2010.

Given the frosty temperatures in northeast Wisconsin, Gaura learned how to get better on the diamond from April to August and what it means to train indoors. His first travel ball came in the summer before his senior year at Bay Port. Before that, he played American Legion Baseball.

“It was a very pure baseball experience,” says Gaura, who has five players from Wisconsin and two from Canada on the Evansville roster. “What I know we’re getting there is blue collar kids from good families. 

“Their best days are ahead of them. They find ways to eliminate the excuse of not being able to go outside for long toss. It’s about being creative. If you are really committed to getting better, there’s a million ways you can get your work in.”

While he does not have any camps scheduled and can see more and more virtual meetings in the future, Gaura was able to attend the American Baseball Coaches Association Barnstormers Clinics event Oct, 17 at Bosse Field in Evansville. Former Purples Aces head coach Jim Brownlee came out to share with the audience.

Gaura is engaged to Rachel Parrish and a wedding is planned for Dec. 5 in Orange Beach, Ala. The couple met when Gaura was coaching at Mississippi State.

A conversation with A.J. Gaura (Aces Insider Video)
A.J. Gaura enters his third season as a University of Evansville (Ind.) baseball assistant in 2020-21. He is the pitching coach and recruiting coordinator for the Purple Aces. (University of Evansville Photo)

West’s aim to make baseball better for Muncie Central Bearcats

BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Getting more and better baseball experiences for the players in his program is the aim of Muncie (Ind.) Central High School head coach Norm West.

The 63-year-old has been in charge of the Bearcats since the 2018 season after three seasons as an assistant and three as head coach at Muncie Southside (which was consolidated into Central). 

“It’s a challenge at Central,” says West. “Most of my kids don’t have the financial means to do the travel stuff.

“It’s pretty tough for us to compete. We play one heck of a schedule.”

Muncie Central, an IHSAA Class 4A school with around 1,300 students, is a member of the North Central Conference. The Bearcats are in the East Division with Anderson, Arsenal Tech of Indianapolis, Marion and Richmond. The West Division features Harrison of West Lafayette, Kokomo, Lafayette Jeff, Logansport and McCutcheon. Divisions foes play each other twice then comes a seeded NCC tournament.

There has not been a junior high baseball program feeding Muncie Central for several years and that’s kept numbers down.

West, who started into high school coaching as a Southside assistant to P.J. Fauqher in 2008, says he hopes to correct the low participation numbers while building up the Bearcats in other ways.

“I want to leave the program better than when I got it,” says West.

There have not been many high schoolers in Limited Contact sessions because of fall-sports participation.

“Kids have got to be doing something,” says West. “I love to keep them in every sport they’re interested in doing.”

West has welcomes seventh and eighth graders to high school workouts.

“I’m just glad we’re getting to play again,” says West.

A self-employed masonry contractor, West has been added brick to the back stop and dugouts at Gene Bottorff Field — the Bearcats’ home diamond named for the former MC head coach and Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer.

“I want to make it a drawing card,” says West of Bottorff Field. “I want my kids to have somewhere nice to play.”

The Bearcats have been thrilled when they’ve had the chance to play at Ball State University. Few players have enjoyed the opportunity to take to the diamonds of Grand Park in Westfield, Ind.

By sprucing up the Muncie Central facility, it will allow for travel teams to play their in the summer. 

A just-concluded fall league featured 84 players — including some middle schoolers — from 22 different Indiana schools with some coming from as far as Terre Haute, Columbus and Fort Wayne.

Playing mostly daylight to dark on Sundays, seven teams competed at Muncie Central. 

“Kids are starving to play,” says West, noting how all players lost the spring season and much — if not all — the summer to the COVID-19 pandemic. “This is a league designed to introduce kids to the high school game.”

It’s a also a revenue stream for the Bearcats program.

A 1974 graduate of Yorktown (Ind.) High School in Delaware County, West was a 5-foot-6, 155-pound left-handed pitcher for Tigers coach Joe Pena. 

West got many hitters out using a a pitch with screwball action, meaning it ran into left-handed batters and away from right-handers.

Though injury limited his college career one season season, he pitched 31 innings and made three starts for the University of Louisville. He went the distance in a 3-2 loss to Indiana and notched another complete game in a 4-1 win against Xavier. He also earned a start in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament against Southern Illinois.

West landed at U of L when former Yorktown catcher Randy Delph — three years older than West — went to play for the Cardinals and recommended the left-hander to head coach Jim Zerilla.

“Don’t tell me you can’t make it,” says West. “I did.”

And not by throwing hard or racking up large strikeout totals — a lesson for his current players.

“The No. 1 thing is to throw the ball over the plate,” says West. “I don’t care how hard how hard you throw it if you can’t control it.

“Try to miss the barrel of the bat and get weak ground balls and and pop-ups. They got by pitch count now. The best inning in baseball is five pitches with two groundouts and a pop-up.

“I try to get my guys to think about pitching instead of just throwing.”

West’s assistant coaches are Ken Zvokel (the Muncie American Legion Post 19 Chiefs manager) plus Dave Garrett and Ball State University student Garris Rehfus.

While there are no college players among recent Muncie Central graduates, West sees potential.

“There are a couple of younger kids who have a chance if they work their hind end’s off,” says West.

After the injury that ended his college mound days, West came back home to work and raise a family. Norm and Jan West — who have been married for 45 years have three boys who all played baseball at Yorktown — Kyle (Class of 1996), Cory (Class of 2000) and Clay (Class of 2007). There are also three grandsons and three granddaughters. All live close-by for grandparents to get quality time.

Norm West (in dark jersey behind head coach Jim Zerilla) pitched for the University of Louisville in 1975 after graduating from Yorktown (Ind.) High School in 1974. He has been the head baseball coach at Muncie (Ind.) Central High School since the 2018 season. (University of Louisville Photo)

Norm West, a 1974 Yorktown (Ind.) High School graduate, has been head baseball coach at Muncie (Ind.) Central High School since the 2018 season.

IU Kokomo’s Cheek emphasizes competition, classroom, community

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Ryan Cheek spent the summer collegiate baseball season of 2015 playing for the Kokomo Jackrabbits.

Coming off his first season as a pitcher at Indiana State University, Cheek played for manager Matt Howard.

The two maintained a relationship and Cheek came back to town as an assistant to head coach Howard at Indiana University Kokomo. The 2021 season will be his third with the Cougars.

“I love it,” says Cheek of working with the energetic Howard. “He will push you day in and day out to be a better leader on or off the field.

“What I enjoy most about him is he gives freedom (to his assistants) as if we were in-charge. I can make the pitching program my own. There is trust my abilities.”

Cheek, 26, is not only IUK’s pitching coach but he leads the program’s academic supervision and community service and helps with camps.

At pitching coach, he looks for aggressiveness and competitiveness. 

“What we strive to do is attack hitters,” says Cheek. “We recruit a lot of guys who are athletes that go out and compete. They piece it together inning by inning and put up zeros.”

Cheek wants his hurlers to trust their defense.

“We have plenty of gold glovers on the field so pound the zone,” says Cheek. “Execution is big for us.”

Knowing that not all pitchers are the same, Cheek looks to get each one to identify what makes them successful.

“Every guy is going to have different pitches and different sequences that they throw,” says Cheek, who knows some will around 90 mph with their fastball while others will have to pitch backwards, starting with a breaking ball and spotting their fastball.

“It’s about letting them know their success and know what they have to bring to the table,” says Cheek. “When they take pride int he role they have that’s where you start to see success.”

About half way through fall practice, IUK pitchers (a group that includes Ryan’s brother, Kacey Cheek) are currently in COVID-19 quarantine.

“It’s been a tough fall,” says Cheek. “It make guys see the picture of how they approach each day with an appreciation and a full passion for the game.”

That can be said of the whole squad, which includes returning college players who had their spring season cut short and incoming freshmen who had their senior high school seasons canceled.

Cheek and the other IUK coaches encourage them to respect the game but also have passion.

“Show up with a chip on their shoulder,” says Cheek. “Keep a goal in mind each day and don’t let a day pass.”

Because of the pandemic, the NAIA has granted an extra year of eligibility to those who want to use it.

Among those back to lead the Cougars are right-handed pitcher Renton Poole (at Bloomington High School South graduate who was selected in the 28th round of the 2018 Major League First-Year Player Draft by the Texas Rangers but opted to stay in college) and infielder Austin Weiler.

While being aware of contact tracing, IUK baseball coaches work to separate players on the field and in the weight room. With pitchers away, there are a number of machine scrimmages. 

“We’ll have developmental work and one-on-one work when pitchers come back,” says Cheek.

As an academic supervisor, Cheek makes sure players are keeping up their grades up. He stays in-touch with professors and sets study table hours.

“They’re coming to IUK to get an IU degree and play baseball,” says Cheek. “The goal is to get these guys to where they want to go in life.

“My goal is to make sure they’re reaching their goals in the classroom.”

IUK students are currently taking a hybrid of in-person and online classes. After Thanksgiving to the end of the semester that will be all online.

While COVID-19 regulations and protocols has limited what players can do at the moment, there was plenty of community service with local groups last fall. Cheek says that each team member did up to 25 hours in the fall while meeting Kokomo know they care.

Cougars associate head coach Drew Brantley heads up camps and is helped by Cheek and Howard.

Cheek took his current job after serving as varsity boys basketball and varsity baseball coach at his alma mater Oblong (Ill.) High School. In 2018 and 2019, he coached Britton’s Bullpen 16U travel team.

As a player, Cheek was in spring training with the independent professional Evansville (Ind.) Otters in 2017.

Cheek pitched two seasons at Indiana State University (2015 and 2016) and two at Vincennes (Ind.) University (2013 and 2014).

As a right-handed collegiate pitcher, Cheek went 10-5 in 32 mound appearances (16 starts) at VU and 2-0 in 11 games (all in relief) at ISU.

Cheek was the National Junior College Athletic Association Division II Region 12 MVP in 2014 and helped Vincennes make the NJCAA D-II World Series (placing seventh).

He earned Management and Marketing degree from Indiana State in 2016.

Mitch Hannahs was the head coach and Jordan Tiegs the pitching coach at ISU.

Cheek went to youth camps run by Hannahs when the latter was coaching at Lincoln Trail College in Robinson, Ill.

“He’s one of the greatest coaches I’ve ever played under,” says Cheek of Hannahs. “He understands the game and knows how to compete.

“He helped me grow as a player and a person.”

Tiegs, who is now a coach in the Rangers organization, had an impact on Cheek.

“He was really smart and knew how to develop guys,” says Cheek of Tiegs. “He really sparked my interest about what a routine meant and entailed — throwing everyday, arm health, your body moving correctly and competing at a high level.”

Cheek appreciates his time with Vincennes head coach Chris Barney.

“He knew the game,” says Cheek of Barney. “He was a little Old School, but I loved it.”

The term “JUCO bandit” is used in baseball circles these days. Cheek tells what it means to him.

“They are guys who are hard-nosed and a little blue collar,” says Cheek. “It was a really good fit for myself to go junior college route. I learned a lot about myself — who I am as a person and player.”

Without the time restrictions of the NCAA and NAIA, junior college players have the chance to spend plenty of time working on their craft.

“We had a fall and spring season and a lot of competition,” says Cheek. “You’d get out of class and then be at the field for six hours at a time.

“We learned what ‘no off days’ meant,” says Cheek. “You didn’t get many.”

Cheek grew up in Oblong, which is Crawford County about 20 miles from the Indiana line and Sullivan County, Indiana. 

The 2012 OHS graduate played golf for coach Jason Hartke, basketball for coach Brent Harper and baseball for coach Dave Miller.

Richard and Kelly Cheek have three children — Ryan, Kacey (20) and Lincoln Trail College freshman Katie (18). 

Ryan Cheek, a graduate of Oblong (Ill.) High School, Vincennes (Ind.) University and Indiana State University, is heading into his third season as a baseball assistant coach at Indiana University Kokomo in 2020-21. (IU Kokomo Photo)

Grubbs guides Goshen College pitchers during unprecedented time

BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

In a year that has been anything but conventional, Goshen (Ind.) College baseball pitching coach Justin Grubbs has been teaching his hurlers to embrace their routines.

The ninth-year GC assistant has certain things for pitchers to do six days a week while they each are encouraged to find what works best for them.

These are college athletes. It’s no cookie-cutter or one-size-fits-all system.

“A lot of these kids when they get here never really focused on pitching,” says Grubbs. “If they were at a school where they played multiple positions they might play shortstop, come in and pitch and the next day they’re back at shortstop.

“One of our outfielders — a freshmen — said he never thought of himself as a pitcher through he was the No. 1 at his school. Here, you’ve got to put a lot more emphasis on it if you want to get better at it.”

Having an abundance of quality arms has long been important when playing a 55-game NAIA schedule. But with the Crossroads League going to 36 conference games and Friday and Saturday doubleheaders, it has taken on even more significance for the Maple Leafs.

“You have a really good chance of getting on the field as a pitcher. We need pitching,” says Grubbs. “With this many innings, there’s going to be opportunities.”

Grubbs spells out his points of emphasis.

“What we’re big on the most is being able to attack hitters, have command and be able to throw secondary pitches for strikes,” says Grubbs. “We’re pretty successful with that compared to some other programs. 

“A lot of times, we’ll pitch backwards to teams. We’ll always work off our fastball. But you’ve got to be able to mix speeds and change locations.”

In 2019, the GC staff set a school record for strikeouts (345). In the past four seasons, the top four team earned run averages in Goshen’s DakStats-era history have been posted.

“We’d like to pitch to weak contact at times, too,” says Grubbs, recognizing that strikeouts tend to raise the pitch count. “We have a nice core of veterans back that are going to be able to help us (in 2021).”

Now in the sixth of seven fall practice weeks, the Maple Leafs are looking to get better even as the COVID-19 pandemic took away or shortened the 2020 spring and summer seasons.

Goshen was 7-11 overall and 2-1 in the Crossroads and on a two-game win streak when the season ended soon after a March 7 doubleheader sweep of visiting Taylor.

Newcomers and veterans are getting roughly the same amount of playing time in intrasquad games so the coaching staff can see what the players can do.

“We try to even up teams so they get a fair crack at it,” says Grubbs. “They have an opportunity.”

In a typical non-pandemic year, Goshen would be playing outside competition in the fall. Not so in 2020.

“We’re getting a lot of reps against each other,” says Grubbs. “Some nights we have to grind through it a little bit.”

The Maple Leaf World Series — Purple vs. Black — is slated for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of next week.

“I’m hoping our guys’ perspective changed. We have an opportunity to be out here (on J. Harold “Sarge” Yoder Baseball Field). Every day, we should be thankful for after last spring.

“We talked about the mental and emotional side and getting through those struggles.”

Grubbs is part of a staff led by head coach Alex Childers and featuring Doug Wellenreiter and Brad Stoltzfus.

Right now, Childers is with his wife Amber and family at Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis while Wellenreiter and Grubbs run the team.

“Alex is the type of coach that has given us so much responsibility and given us the reins to lead our components of the team,” says Grubbs. “He gives us that freedom to coach.”

During the season, Grubbs helps Childers with in-game decision-making and also handles much of GC’s recruiting.

The Leafs roster includes players from Indiana, Michigan, Illinois and Ohio. But it also features those from California, Georgia, Idaho, Maryland, Nevada and Texas plus Alberta in Canada, Puerto Rico and Venezuela.

Once the pandemic hit, there was a slow start to recruiting for the 2021 class. But with the help of the admissions office, virtual visits soon became the norm.

“These were guys we’d already done research on,” says Grubbs. “We’d seen videos and texted back and forth. We had an idea of who they are and talked with their coaches.”

Following the school’s protocol and precautions, there was one short recruiting trip to Michigan in the summer. In most years, Grubbs would log many miles in pursuit of players.

Grubbs grew up just outside Bourbon, Ind., and graduated from Triton Junior/Senior High School in 1998. The Trojans won the old Northern State Conference title in 1997 and were perennial NSC contenders.

Eric Stults, who went on to star at Crossroads League member Bethel College (now Bethel University) and pitch in the big leagues, lived just a couple of miles away. In Justin’s final high school game — left-hander Stults hurled Argos to a 3-2 victory over Triton.

Landon Grubbs — Justin’s brother — was the starting right fielder and clean-up hitter on Triton’s 2001 IHSAA Class 1A state championship team.

Both Grubbs brothers were coached by Jim Shively.

“He got the best out of his players,” says Grubbs of Shively. “He had a lot of enthusiasm. He taught guys how to hit. I never knew how to hit until I got (to high school). I was also more of a pitcher type who hit at the bottom of the order.”

Grubbs ended up in the No. 2 hole on a squad featuring Kyle Gould (who is now the head baseball coach at athletic director at Crossroads League member Taylor University).

On the mound, Grubbs was 15-4 and a two-time all-NSC selection. He also played football and was academic all-state in 1997.

Grubbs was relief on the baseball team at Indiana Wesleyan University. Mark DeMichael was then head coach of the Wildcats. He learned lessons of pitching and spirituality from IWU pitching coach Mike Burchette.

“He talked about the side work and what a pitching program really looks like,” says Grubbs of Burchette. “He had a really good Christian twist to everything and would really lead us spiritually.”

After a couple years, Grubbs decided to begin his coaching career while working toward a Indiana Wesleyan degree he earned in 2002 (he got a masters in Administration of Physical Education and Sport). 

He was the freshmen coach at Marion (Ind.) High School then a freshmen coach at Kokomo (Ind.) High School

Grubbs then became varsity assistant and pitching coach to head coach Steve Shugart at Madison-Grant Junior/Senior High School in Fairmount, Ind. The Argylls regularly won 20 games as season and were state-ranked in Class 2A. M-G won a Central Indiana Conference championship.

After that, Justin and wife Emily (who also went to Triton and Indiana Wesleyan), opted to move closer to home to start a family (their daughters are Eliana and Maycee). 

The couple, married since 2004, settled in Bremen, Ind., and Justin took a job as a math teacher and assistant baseball coach at Goshen (Ind.) High School. He was the varsity assistant for the Redskins (now RedHawks) for five years.

Grubbs continues to teach at Goshen and coach at Goshen College. When deciding whether to take the college job, Grubbs consulted with former GHS teacher and coach and GC coach DeVon Hoffman.

He also talked with GHS principal Barry Younghans, who makes it possible for him to teach and get to college games — sometimes the second half of a doubleheader.

“Alex is very flexible as a coach,” says Grubbs. “He’s even said there are times that I need you even more in practice than I do at the games because that’s where all of our work is put in and it’s just performance at the game.

“I’m thankful I’m around people that are really good people to work for at the high school and here at the college.”

Justin Grubbs is in his ninth year as baseball pitching coach at Goshen (Ind.) College. He is a graduate of Triton Junior/Senior High School in Bourbon, Ind., Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Ind., and Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. He teaches math at Goshen High School.

Four pillars propel Purdue Fort Wayne’s Lawvere

BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Hard work.

Humility.

Empathy.

Kindness.

These are the four pillars that form the foundation for Andrew Lawvere the baseball player and person.

The Purdue Fort Wayne senior utility man from Upland, Ind., explains the characteristics that he’s made a part of his daily habits.

“Hard work — I think we all know what that means,” says Lawvere, a 2017 graduate of Eastbrook High School in Marion, Ind., where he was catcher for North in the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association North/South All-Star Series. “You have to have a strong drive to obtain goals.

“As a society we need to have more humility. Mistakes are going to be happen in life. We need to be OK with that.

“We need to change our perspective on things and (recognize) if someone is hurting inside (and show empathy).

“We should just be kind to people. Nobody knows what’s going on in people’s life. With COVID-19, a lot of depression going around. I live by these everyday. My parents (Nick and Anne Lawvere) built these in me at a very young age.”

Nick Lawvere is a science teacher at Highland Middle School in Anderson, Ind. Anne Lawvere is Director of Special Education for Eastbrook Community Schools. Older sister Nicole Lawvere (23) was a standout at Eastbrook and a utility infielder at Indiana University, where she is now attending law school.

A three-time Academic Honor Roll and one-time Commissioner’s List of Academic Excellence (2018-19) selection by the Summit League, Andrew Lawvere (21) is on track to graduate in the spring with a major in Accounting and minor in and Management and Marketing

He plans to play summer collegiate ball for the Lafayette (Ind.) Aviators in 2021 and come back for a bonus season in 2022 while either pursuing another degree or applying for graduate school. After that comes law school. Grandmother Judith Golitko and uncle Matthew Golitko are personal injury lawyers with Golitko & Daly P.C. and Andrew did an internship with the firm in 2018.

“I like helping other people,” says Lawvere. “It goes back to my four pillars.”

Lawvere has appearance in 77 games in three seasons for the PFW Mastodons, including 11 (seven as a starter — six at first base and one as designated hitter) during the COVID-19-shortened 2020 campaign. 

The righty swinger hit .300 (9-of-30) with one home run, one double, eight runs batted in and four runs scored. He collected three hits with a homer and drove in three runs Feb. 29 at New Mexico State.

As a right-handed relief pitcher, he made four appearances and went 0-1 while striking out five while walking two in 4 1/3 innings. He fanned three in a 1 2/3-inning stint Feb. 23 at Miami (Ohio).

For his career, Lawvere is hitting .242 (48-of-198) with six homers (including a 2019 grand slam against Alabama State), nine doubles, 29 RBIs and 21 runs. 

After the 2020 season was called off and Lawvere find himself back at home, he decided to take his strength and conditioning up a few notches. He began training with former Purdue and Ball State pitcher Eric Van Matre at Muncie (Ind.) Crossfit at The Arsenal. He was introduced to Olympic-style weightlifting and lost 20 pounds.

“I really took advantage of quarantine,” says Lawvere. “I’m in the best shape of myself. I educated myself nutritionally.”

Injuries had moved Lawvere away from catching, but he can see himself going back behind the plate again.

“I had a talk with Coach (Doug) Schreiber,” says Lawvere. “This year I think I’ll get to strap up the shin guards.

“I’m pretty confident I’m going to get back to my roots. I’ll do whatever benefits the team.”

Schreiber took over the Mastodons program in July 2019 and had an impact on Lawvere.

“He’s the best coach I’ve ever had. He’s been around the game for a long time

I’ve really picked his brain lot. He’s an Old School, which I love. He’s a hard-working guy. We understand each other. We are very similar in a lot of ways.

“On a personal level, he makes random phone calls just to check up on me. We just talk about life. He gets it.”

PFW team meetings are filled with discussions tying life situations — like obstacles and adversity — to baseball.

While the Mastodons were on the way to Western Illinois in mid-March when they had to turn around and head back to Fort Wayne after just 15 games, Lawvere said the team was just getting started in 2020.

“We saw a lot of improvement,” says Lawvere. “Schreiber is going to get the culture of the team right.

“As a senior, I’m trying to put my best effort into the culture. I think we’ll have a lot of success (in 2021).”

When Lawvere came to to the Mastodons, Bobby Pierce was head coach. 

“One thing that really sticks out about Coach Pierce is that he understood that people are going to have different ways of thinking,” says Lawvere. “There’s no one right thing about a swing or mechanics.

“He tried to better us as individuals and focused on our strengths.”

Pierce was also receptive when players would reach out.

“I’m always trying to reach my optimal level,” says Lawvere. “I try to get as much information as possible and do what I believe is correct.”

He has been able share baseball knowledge and trade jokes with Mastodons hitting/catchers/outfielders coach Ken Jones.

“I love taking knowledge from (Coach Jones) and using it at different times,” says Lawvere. “We have that open relationship where we can talk.”

IPW has faced challenges since returning to campus this fall. After one practice, the team had to go into a 14-day coronavirus quarantine and returned to the field Sept. 21. All players are on the field but are in pods wearing masks and paying attention to social distancing.

“We’re playing it day-by-day with everything going on,” says Lawvere. “We can’t have another two-week shutdown. We’ve got to set a tone for the Horizon League.”

IPW has moved from the Summit League (with North Dakota State, Omaha, Oral Roberts, South Dakota State and Western Illinois) to the Horizon League (with Illinois-Chicago, Milwaukee, Northern Kentucky, Oakland, Wright State and Youngstown State).

“We’ve talked about intangibles and things we can control,” says Lawvere. “If you want this bad you have to do work on your own (more than 20 hours a week of official team activity).”

In a normal setting, the team would do individual work and then team practice in the fall followed by winter workouts, more individual work and holiday break leading up to the spring season.

Lawvere was born in Muncie and grew up in Upland. With many relatives on his father’s side living close, they refer to the area as “Lawvereville.”

After playing coach pitch baseball in Upland, Andrew played travel ball for the Gas City-based Indiana Rebels coached by Tim Young (his son Nolan Young plays at Illinois State), Greenfield-based Indiana Bandits coached by Dwayne Hutchinson (son Dalton Hutchinson played at Taylor University), the Indiana Prospects coached by Drew Kidd and supervised by Todd Nierman and Indiana Bulls coached by Troy Drosche.

Lawvere played four seasons at Eastbrook for former head coach Todd Farr.

“He was very caring,” says Lawvere of Farr. “He wanted me to get recruited. There were times early in my high school career where I was struggling. He believe in me.

“He saw that I worked hard and wanted to get better.”

Andrew Lawvere, a graduate of Eastbrook High School in Marion, Ind., is a senior baseball player at Purdue Fort Wayne. (Purdue Fort Wayne Photo)

Sheridan grad Crail driven on the diamond

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Determination has helped Sam Crail enjoy success on the baseball diamond.

The 2017 Sheridan (Ind.) High School graduate heads into his fourth collegiate season — his second at NCAA Division II Saint Leo (Fla.) University — in 2020-21 with a drive for even more.

“I’m a very hard-working individual,” says Crail, 22. “I’m very confident. My confidence allows me to go on the field and not to think about things that happened in the past.

“I move on to the next play.”

The lefty-swinging outfielder started in all 21 of Saint Leo’s games in the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season. The 5-foot-10, 195-pounder hit a team-best .320 (24-of-75) with four home runs, three triples, three doubles, six stolen bases, 19 runs batted in and 17 runs scored.

Crail played two seasons at Indiana University (2018 and 2019) for head coach Jeff Mercer

“I really loved Indiana as a school,” says Crail. “The depth chart at my position was too deep.

“I needed a change in order to give myself an opportunity to play at the next level.”

Crail played in 55 games at IU and hit .229 with one homer, one triples, two doubles, two stolen bases, 13 RBIs and 16 runs.

Rick O’Dette, who played and coached at Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind., is head coach at Saint Leo.

Crail likes that O’Dette allows him the freedom to do his own way while offering advice to help him improve his game.

“He really gives all the players the flexibility to do whatever they want in technique and approach,” says Crail. “It’s what I’ve been doing my whole life and adding guidance along the way.”

Along with playing baseball, Crail is on target to earn a degree in Sports Business next spring.

Griffith (Ind.) High School graduate Amir Wright was at Saint Joseph’s when the school closed and he transferred to Saint Leo. After landing in Florida, Crail became fast friends with Wright.

“We connected right off the bat being Indiana guys,” says Crail of Wright. “He’s very good teammate to play for. 

“He’s showed me the ropes.”

Matt Kennedy, who coached with O’Dette at Saint Joseph’s, was the hitting coach at Saint Leo before coming back to Indiana to join the Butler University staff.

Kennedy was the head coach of the Snapping Turtles in the College Summer League at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind., and Crail was on the team, hitting .297 (19-of-64) with two triples, four doubles, 12 RBIs and 13 runs.

Before the pandemic, Crail was supposed to play in the Valley League for the Covington (Va.) Lumberjacks.

When the Valley League canceled its season, Crail played in the circuit based about 15 minutes from home.

Crail went to IU to acclimate to the school and the program and did not play in the summer of 2017. He was with the Cody Piechocki-managed Kalamazoo (Mich.) Growlers of the Northwoods League in 2018 and the Eric Coleman-managed Danville (Ill.) Dans of the Prospect League in 2019. 

At Danville, Crail hit .368 (42-of-114) with seven homers, three triples, seven doubles, six stolen bases, 39 RBIs and 22 runs in 29 games.

Between the shutdown and the 2020 summer season, Crail joined friends — many former Indiana teammates — in working out and having live at-bat sessions at RoundTripper Sports Academy in Westfield.

Crail has trained at RoundTripper since 10 and he began playing travel ball for the Indiana Mustangs.

“I have a good relationship with (owner) Chris Estep and all the guys at RoundTripper,” says Crail.

Born in Carmel and raised in Sheridan, Crail played baseball in the local recreation system before beginning travel ball at 9U with the Indiana Prospects. He went on to represent the Indiana Mustangs (10U to 12U and 17U), Indiana Outlaws (13U) and Indiana Stix (14U to 16U). Head coaches were Shane Cox with the Prospects, Nathan Habegger and Ken Niles with the Mustangs, Dwayne Hutchinson with the Outlaws and Ray Hilbert with the Stix.

Crail played four seasons at Sheridan High — three for Matt Britt and one for Larry Lipker. 

“(Britt) was a really fun guy to be around everyday,” says Crail. “He was a players’ coach. He was one of our friends.

“(Lipker) was the same way. He was one of our buddies. He taught me a lot of life lessons. He gave me some insight as to what baseball would like like at the next level. They were both very knowledgeable about the game.”

Sam is the oldest of Westfield firefighter Ray Crail and house cleaner/health supplement salesperson Christie Crail’s three children. 

Katy Crail (18) is a Sheridan senior who plays basketball and softball. Her softball travel team is the Indiana Shockwaves. Jack Crail (14) is a Sheridan freshman. His travel baseball team is the Indiana Eagles.

Sam Crail, a Sheridan (Ind.) High School graduate, is a baseball outfielder at Saint Leo (Fla.) University. He played two seasons at Indiana Universuty before transferring to the Lions. (Saint Leo University Photo)

Rebound season cut short for USC lefty Gursky

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Brian Gursky’s bounce-back baseball season was getting rave reviews when the curtain came down much sooner than expected.

A left-handed pitcher at the University of Southern California, the Indiana native started against visiting Xavier University on Wednesday, March 11.

Gursky recalls the unusual atmosphere when he took the mound at Dedeaux Field.

“Only essential personnel were allowed in the stands,” says Gursky. “It was like a travel ball game. Only parents were there.”

Gursky tossed the first two innings, facing eight batters with three strikeouts and yielding one hit as the first of seven USC pitchers.

“The next day I wake up and my phone is blowing up,” says Gursky of what turned out to be a COVID-19 pandemic shutdown. 

Thinking the situation would blow over, he spent about a week at his uncle’s house in Orange County then came home to Granger, Ind.

“I had not been in Indiana in March in years,” says Gursky. “We were having a great start to the year then comes the sad news. We worked so hard in the fall.”

The Trojans were 10-5 when the 2020 slate was halted. Southpaw Gursky was 1-1 in four appearances (three starts) with a 0.00 earned run average. He fanned 12 and walked three in 12 innings. Opponents hit .105 against him. On March 3, he pitched the first six innings against UC Irvine and held the Anteaters hitless with seven strikeouts.

USC coaches talked about placing Gursky in the Cape Cod Baseball League in the summer. But that league canceled its season and with all the uncertainty, Gursky opted to take 15 weeks away from throwing and reported to USC this fall fully-refreshed. 

An online accounting class taken this summer will help Gursky on his path to graduating with a Business Administration degree next spring.

Gursky played three seasons for head coach John Gumpf at South Bend St. Joseph High School (2014-16).

“That was a fun time,” says Gursky of his days with the Indians. “I have a lot of great teammates.”

Some of Gursky’s pals were Danny Torres, Tony Carmola, J.R. Haley and Carlos Matovina.

In his senior year (2017), Gursky played for former major leaguer Chris Sabo at a IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.

Gursky enjoyed a solid inaugral campaign at USC in 2018, but struggled in 2019.

“I had a good freshmen year and a disaster of a sophomore year,” says Gursky. “I was in a bad place.”

Playing for then-Trojans head coach Dan Hubbs, Gursky made 22 appearances (two starts) as a freshman, going 3-1 with a 4.93 ERA and 30 strikeouts in 34 2/3 innings.

His second college appearance was at Cal State Long Beach’s Blair Field, where played for the Brewers in the 2015 underclass Area Code Games and was named to the upperclass game in 2016 but did not play because of a forearm injury.

As a sophomore, Gursky got into 12 games (five starts) and was 0-1 with a 9.82 ERA. He struck out 18 in 22 innings.

“I thank (Hubbs) so much for getting to come to the school of my choice,” says Gursky.

In the summer of 2019, the lefty played for the Newport (R.I.) Gulls of the New England Collegiate Baseball League, where Kevin Winterrowd was the manager and pitching coach.

“I was kind of inconsistent,” says Gursky. “I working on stuff at the same time I was competing and trying to win games.

“But that was a the beginning of the turnaround. It set up a good fall and spring.”

Back in Los Angeles, Gursky had a new head coach (Jason Gill) and pitching coach (Ted Silva) in the fall of 2019.

“(Gill) has continuous energy,” says Gursky. “We all love playing for him. We feed off that energy.

“(Silva) helped me out. He saw something in me. He’s straight forward like Sabo.”

Gursky appreciates the approach of Sabo, the former Cincinnati Reds third baseman and current University of Akron head coach.

“He never sugar coated anything,” says Gursky. “He was a great guy to talk with in general.”

Another ex-big leaguer — Steve Frey — was the IMG Academy pitching coach.

“He was great communicator,” says Gursky of Frey. “We connected very well. 

“We’re both lefties  so we felt the same way.”

Back in northern Indiana, Gursky has gotten pitching pointers from Curt Hasler, who pitched for the 1988 South Bend White Sox and is now the bullpen coach for the Chicago White Sox. Son Drew Hasler has pitched in the White Sox system.

“He’s great with the mental game,” says Gursky of Curt Hasler. “I like that he’s been around guys who’ve pitched at the highest level possible.”

A 6-foot-2, 200-pounder who played basketball through his freshmen year at St. Joseph describes his aggressive athletic mindset.

“I’m an attacker,” says Gursky. “Either I’m attacking the basket or attacking the strike zone.”

Delivering the baseball with a three quarter-plus arm slot, Gursky throws a four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, change-up and curveball.

His four-seamer has a high spin rate and occasionally touched 94 mph in the spring.

His two-seamer sinks and run and was usually 88 to 91 mph.

“My change-up is very slow,” says Gursky of a pitch clocked at 76 to 78 mph. “It’s been my main strikeout pitch the last two years. 

“I grip it petty deep and pretty hard. It’s not in my palm.”

His sweeping curve comes in 79 to 82 mph and breaks left to right — away from left-handed batters and into righties.

Born in Bloomington, Ind., Gursky moved to Granger at 5 and attended Saint Pius X Catholic School. His first baseball experience came at 10 or 11 at Harris Township Cal Ripken.

He played for Rob Coffel with the Michiana Scrappers at 12U and for Ray Torres (father of Danny) with the South Bend Rays at 13U.

After that, Gursky was with a number of travel teams around the country.  Locally, he did a couple stints with the South Bend Cubs and manager Mark Haley (father of J.R.). 

“He knows the bigger picture,” says Gursky of Mark Haley, who played at the University of Nebraska, coached at the University of Tennessee and was a manager in professional baseball for 12 years, including 10 with the South Bend Silver Hawks (2005-14) before becoming general manager of the 1st Source Bank Performance Center and executive director of the South Bend Cubs Foundation. “He’s big on development.”

Gursky’s grandfather, Will Perry, was a pitcher at the University of Michigan. A broken leg suffered in a car accident kept him from a starting role with the 1953 national champions. He was later sports information director and assistant athletic director for the Wolverines.

Uncle Steve Perry played baseball at Michigan and was selected in the first round of the 1979 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers. The 6-foot-5 right-hander advanced to Triple-A in 1983 and 1984.

“He taught things when I was younger,” says Gursky. “Now I get what he was saying.

“When you have a growth mentality, you take what other people are saying and apply it to yourself.”

Perry was one of three first-round draft picks for Michigan in 1979. Outfielder/first baseman Rick Leach and left-handed pitcher Steve Howe both went on to play in the majors. 

University of Notre Dame employees Matt and Susan Gursky have three children — Elena (24), Brian (22) and Natalie (18). Westland, Mich., native Matt Gursky is a mathematics professor. Ann Arbor, Mich., native Susan Gursky is a pre-medicine advisor. Elena Gursky played softball at St. Joe. Natalie Gursky is an equestrian.

Brian Gursky pitches for the University of Southern California.
Brian Gursky, an Indiana native who played high school baseball at South Bend (Ind.) St. Joseph High School and IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., has pitched for three seasons at the University of Southern California. (USC Photo)

Wade takes leadership, mental toughness from Kokomo to Purdue

BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Kyle Wade got the chance to be an athletic leader at a young age.

He was an eighth grader in Kokomo, Ind., and attending football workouts when Kokomo High School head coach Brett Colby let him know the expectations of the program and the community.

“This is your team next year” says Wade, recalling the words Colby said to the varsity Wildkats’ heir apparent at quarterback as a freshman in the fall of 2014. “On our first thud (in practice), I think I stuttered the words and dropped the ball.

“(Colby) told me, ‘you can’t show weakness to your teammates’ and ‘never act like you can’t.’ I took that to heart.”

Wade went on to be a four-year starter and earned the IHSAA Class 5A Phil N. Eskew Mental Attitude Award as Kokomo finished as state runners-up in 2017. He was also a four-year starter at shortstop in baseball for head coach Sean Wade and played three varsity basketball seasons — freshman and sophomore for Matt Moore and senior for Bob Wonnell.

“Coach Swan was positive, but he wasn’t afraid to get on us,” says Wade of his high school baseball experience. “(Swan) trusted us.

“We were an older team with a lot of guys who would go on to Power 5 (college) baseball (including Class of 2018’s Jack Perkins to Louisville and Bayden Root to Ohio State and Class of 2020’s Charez Butcher to Tennessee).”

Wade appreciates Moore for his organization skills and discipline. 

“His scouting reports were next level,” says Wade. “Coach Wonnell won a state tournament (Class 1A at Tindley in 2017). He asked me about playing again (as a senior). He wanted a leader. He helped keep me in shape (Wade was 235 pounds at the end of his senior football season and 216 at the close of the basketball season).”

A combination of physicality, basketball I.Q. gained from having a father as a former Kokomo head coach (2000-05), he played on the front line — even guarding 7-footers.

“Being in the (North Central Conference) as a undersized center is not for the weak-heated.

“I had to mature. I’ve led by by example, pushing guys to get better and motivated to play. I’ve had to have mental toughness. I’ve never been one of the most talented guys on my teams.”

But Wade showed enough talent that he had college offers in football and baseball. He chose the diamond and accepted then-head coach Mark Wasikowski’s invitation to play at Purdue University

“As a freshman coming into a Big Ten program, I had older guys who helped get me going and taught me about work ethic,” says Wade. “He have a lot of new guys (in 2020-21). As a junior, I’m in that position this year and doing it to the best of my ability.”

The COVID-19-shortened 2020 season was his second as a right-handed pitcher for the Boilermakers. 

The 6-foot-3, 230-pounder appeared in five games (all in relief) and went 1-0 with a 4.05 earned run average. In 6 2/3 innings, he struck out two and walked one.

As a freshman in 2019, Wade got into 15 games (two as a starter) and went 2-2 with a 5.18 ERA. In 40 innings, he struck out 27 and walked 11. 

Greg Goff took over as Purdue head coach and Chris Marx became pitching coach for 2020.

“I love Coach Goff,” says Wade. “I really enjoy playing for him. He’s so energetic and positive. 

“He’s a players’ coach. He will love you and get on you to make you better and then love you some more.”

Wade appreciates Marx for his knowledge and attention to detail.

“He wants everybody to succeed and is so organized in the bullpen.

“He has helped a lot of guys with mechanics and the mental game. He tells us to never be comfortable. There’s always something we can do better.”

The plan for 2020 called for Wade to pitch the whole spring then go to St. Louis in the summer for work on getting better at the P3 (Premier Pitching Performance) lab.

When the season was halted, many players stayed in town and continued to work out and stayed on their throwing programs. 

But there was a question.

“What’s next?,” says Wade. “Are we ever going to play baseball again?

“Once total lockdown happened, everybody went home.”

Wade went back to Kokomo then came the chance to compete and train less than an hour away in the 12-team College Summer League at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind.

The righty was assigned to the Matt Kennedy-coached Snapping Turtles.

“It was a no-brainer to play there,” says Wade. “It was legit.

There were hitters who would expose you if you didn’t throw good pitches. 

“I really enjoyed the competition.”

Wade was used as a starter on Monday or Tuesday and could then recover and ramp up to his next start either at home or — if time allowed — at Pro X Athlete Development on the Grand Park campus.

In 14 2/3 innings, he posted a 2.45 ERA with 10 strikeouts and two walks.

Throwing over-the-top, Wade used a four-seam fastball that was clocked up to 89 mph in the spring and summer. He also used a slider and a change-up.

“The slider is like a slurve,” says Wade. “I throw it hard 12-to-6 but I get left-to-right run.

“The change-up is an ‘open circle.’ Like Trevor Bauer, I start pronating it in my glove. It’s thrown like a fastball. It’s working really good for me.”

In the past few weeks, Wade has been working on a two-seam cutter.

The Business Management major also took an online course this summer. This fall, all but one of his courses are in-person though class size is kept small to eliminate contact tracing.

In the summer of 2018, Wade went to Purdue to begin a throwing and lifting program as well as his studies.

The summer after his freshman season was spent with the Bend (Ore.) Elks of the West Coast Baseball League.

Wade has also worked with Greg Vogt of PRP Baseball at Finch Creek Fieldhouse in Noblesville, Ind.

Born in Anderson, Ind., Wade was 1 when he moved with his family from Highland, Ind., where his father Mike was head boys basketball coach, to Kokomo. 

Kyle played at Southside Little League then went into travel ball with the Indiana Bulls for his 10U through 15U seasons. His last head coach with that organization was Jeremy Honaker

Wade joined the Trent Hanna-coached Cincinnati Spikes for his 16U and 17U summers.

Mike and Alison Wade have three children — Becca (25), Michaela (23) and Kyle (21). 

Former Kokomo athletic director Mike Wade is now Director of Human Resources and Operations for the Kokomo School Corporation. He played baseball and basketball at Hanover (Ind.) College).

Alison Wade is a first grade teacher at Sycamore International Elementary. She played field hockey at Hanover.

Both daughters are Indiana University graduates and nurses in Indianapolis — Becca at Riley Children’s Hospital and Michaela at IU Health University Hospital. 

Purdue right-hander Kyle Wade delivers a pitch at PRP Baseball in Noblesville, Ind. (PRP Baseball Video)
Kyle Wade (center) celebrates with his Purdue University baseball teammates. The right-handed pitcher has played two seasons with the Boilermakers (2019 and 2020). (Purdue University Photo)
Kyle Wade, a Kokomo (Ind.) High School graduate, is a member of the pitching staff for the Purdue University baseball team. (Purdue University Photo)
Purdue University pitcher Kyle Wade releases the baseball from an over-the-top arm angle. He is a junior in 2020-21. (Purdue University Photo)
In the spring and summer of 2020, Purdue University pitcher Kyle Wade used a four-seam fastball, slider and curveball and has recently been working on a two-seam cutter. (Purdue University Photo)
Kyle Wade is a Business Management major and member of the baseball team at Purdue University. He was a four-year starter at shortstop and quarterback and also played basketball at Kokomo (Ind.) High School. (Purdue University Photo)