Shane Prance is emphasizing the “Three C’s” as new head baseball coach at alma mater Portage (Ind.) High School. They are: Character, Community and Competition. Prance (Class of 2008) says his No. 1 focus is work ethic. “We want to control the controllables,” says Prance. “We’ll look at attitude, effort, body language, things like that. “From there the baseball skills and talent will take over.” An IHSAA Limited Contact Period goes from Aug. 29-Oct. 15 and Prance looks forward to having players take part two days a week for two hours. His agenda has attendees concentrating on arm health and long toss, proper catch routine and learning fundamental drills at each position. After those things comes intrasquad games so he can evaluate players. “We want to get a good baseline to see where they’re at,” says Prance. The off-season will be dedicated to strength and conditioning. Portage (enrollment around 2,400) is a member of the Duneland Athletic Conference (with Chesterton, Crown Point, Lake Central, LaPorte, Merrillville, Michigan City and Valparaiso). The Indians were part of an IHSAA Class 4A sectional grouping in 2022 with Chesterton, Crown Point, Hobart, Lowell and Valparaiso. Portage has won eight sectional titles — the last in 2013. Prance is a Health and Physical Education teacher at PHS. In four seasons at Portage (the last three on varsity), Prance played for head coach Tim Pirowski. “He came in when I was a freshman,” says Prance. “I saw how he was building a foundation. There were classroom learning sessions and we were taught baseball. It made you think more in-depth. It’s the basics that sometimes get brushed over.” Born in the south side of Chicago, Prance moved to Portage early in his elementary school days. He played at Portage Little League through high school. As a high schooler, he was with the traveling Indiana Breakers. Prance was a position player and pitcher until blowing out his knee while swinging the bat as a Portage senior. John Weber was Prance’s head coach at Purdue North Central in Westville, Ind. “He had a huge influence on me,” says Prance of Weber. “He’s one of the reasons I wanted to coach.” One of Weber’s strengths was managing the people. “He wanted them to be good high-character people,” says Prance. As a four-year PNC pitcher, right-hander Prance set single-season program records for wins (7), complete games (8), innings (84) and strikeouts (95) — all during his senior campaign of 2012. That summer Prance joined the independent Frontier League’s Schaumburg Boomers. He went 1-1 in eight appearances (four as a starter) for the Jamie Bennett-managed club and was released in August. He went back to PNC to finish his degree and joined Weber’s coaching staff. “I always knew I wanted to coach,” says Prance. “I became pitching coach at PNC. The rest is history.” When Weber took an administrative position, Prance became head coach in the fall of 2013 and spent three years in that position. When Purdue North Central and Purdue Calumet merged into Purdue Northwest, Dave Griffin was named head coach and Prance associate head coach. He was later assistant athletic director at Saint Xavier University in Chicago and helped the baseball team. Prance got his coaching feet wet with the Eric Blakeley-led Diamond Kings Fall Baseball League. Blakeley is also the founder of the Crossroads Baseball Series and High School Fall Baseball League. There has also been one-on-one training and travel ball coaching with the Region Playmakers for Prance. As a former college coach, Prance brings that knowledge and long list of contacts to his Portage athletes. “I want to give guys a chance to go play in college,” says Prance. “We want to find the right fit for them to play at the next level. “If baseball gets them in the door to a university event if they don’t play all four years, they’re likely to stay and finish the degree.” Recent Portage graduates to move on to college diamonds include Class of 2020’s infielder Scottie Hansen (South Suburban College in South Holland, Ill.) and left-handed pitcher Xavier Rivas (who went to the University of Indianapolis to the University of Mississippi), Class of 2021’s infielder Danny Puplava (Kankakee Community College) and Class of 2022’s right-hander/corner infielder Joshua Ortiz (Purdue Northwest). Prance and girlfriend Christina have a 2-year-old son named Levi. A daughter is due in October.
Northeast Indiana is moving toward a large sports facility and baseball will be part of the mix. Auburn Sports Group is bringing Auburn Sports Park — a $42 million 170-acre multi-sport complex plus 90 more acres for retail (restaurants, gas stations, hotels) — to land adjacent once owned by RM Auctions/RM Sotheby’s on the east side of I-69 .1 of a mile off Exit 11A. Auburn Sports Park will be located about 30 miles south of the Indiana-Michigan line on I-69; about 20 miles to the heart of Fort Wayne, Ind.; about 60 miles west of Napoleon, Ohio; about 50 miles northeast of Warsaw, Ind.; about 120 miles southwest of Lansing, Mich.; about 100 miles southeast of Kalamazoo, Mich.; about 130 miles northeast of Grand Park in Westfield, Ind Auburn Sports Group’s leadership team features co-owner Joe Fisher, president/co-order Rod Sinn, vice president/director of basketball Grant Sinn and director of operations/director of outdoor fields Cole Walker. Brett Ratcliffe, assistant baseball coach at Trine University in Angola, Ind., and former head coach at Garrett (Ind.) High School, is the director of baseball/softball. Auburn Sports Park is to have eight turf fields suitable for high school/college baseball and softball. “A multi-sport complete in northeast Indiana is something that’s needed,” says Ratcliffe of the place which has already had commitments to bring events to serve athletes from Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and beyond. “This is another venue they can go to.” Existing buildings will be used and there will be construction and renovation to bring indoor basketball and volleyball courts and a multi-purpose field for football, soccer and lacrosse. One building will house seven batting cages. In addition, a 2-mile walking trail around the campus is planned as well as a splash pad. “We want to make sure it’s a great experience for kids and a good memory for people who come here,” says Ratcliffe, who expects some of the facility to be ready for events by late summer. Auburn Sports Park will be home to Prospect Select and Crossroads Baseball Series and the site of national championships. Eric Blakeley, who played baseball at Indiana University and in the Seattle Mariners organization, is Crossroads Baseball Series CEO. Jeremy Plexico, former pitching coach and recruiting coordinator at Ball State University, is Prospect Select president. Travis Keesling, who played and coached at Pendleton Heights High School, is Crossroads Baseball Series executive vice president. Ratcliffe says entities like the DeKalb County Visitors Bureau have been supportive and other partnerships have been discussed with the World Baseball Academy, Indiana Collegiate Summer Baseball League and Empowered Sports Club —all based in Fort Wayne — plus the YMCA of DeKalb County in Auburn and Team Pineapple Volleyball Club/Ball Sports Academy of Angola. With its location, Ratcliffe says Auburn Sports Park will be a great place for teams from NCAA D-I, D-II and D-III to NAIA and National Junior College Athletic Association schools to recruit.
Connecting baseball players who wish to play at the next level with coaches seeking talent is something that the Crossroads Baseball Series has been doing for more than a decade.
Started in 2008 by former Indiana University and professional infielder Eric Blakeley as an outgrowth of his Diamond Kings training business in northwest Indiana, CBS has grown to include showcases, tournaments and fall leagues in numerous states.
Blakeley ran Diamond Kings — former Griffith (Ind.) High School and Tulane University standout and current Los Angeles Dodgers minor leaguer Kody Hoese was one of his early pupils — for about a decade.
Crossroads Baseball Series began as a way for “Region” area players to have exposure events without traveling to Indianapolis or Chicago.
The first CBS event held at Gary’s U.S. Steel Yard include future big league pitcher Sean Manaea. Blakeley notes that 85 of the 87 players involved went on to play college baseball.
At Crossroads Baseball Series showcases, players work out in front of college coaches and play in prospect games against top recommended players.
There are 17 tournaments on the 2021 calendar with events in Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio. Many of these are for 14U to 18U players.
“We’re on the verge of growing our tournament space,” says Blakeley, CEO/President of Baseball Operations for Crossroads Baseball Series. “There’s a high demand for quality tournaments that don’t cost $2,000. We try to stay around $1,000 price point.”
Blakeley says college coaches can get on an RSVP list and attend events and receive information from them.
Rosters are collected and each player fills out an information form. Coaches have full access to this for free.
CBS provides social media coverage for recruiters and players’ families to share.
“We pride ourselves on educating the families,” says Blakeley. “We can get your names out there.
“The players have to do their research and count the schools that match (their choices).”
What Crossroads Baseball Series does, according to Blakeley, makes it easier for players to communicate with college coaches and do their research.
Blakeley emphasizes that college coaches will know if a player has done his homework on his program.
It is even more important now that the competition for roster spots has become even more fierce with many players staying in college baseball longer thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and the smaller MLB Draft.
“It’s become a lot more competitive to get into these schools — academically and athletically,” says Blakeley.
The words of former Indiana University and current Arizona State University head coach Tracy Smith ring true with Blakeley.
“If you want to play college baseball, there’s a place for you,” says Blakeley. “You just need to do your research and go to camps.”
Travis Keesling, former head coach at Pendleton Heights High School, is Vice President of Baseball Operations for CBS after starting out as a coach selecting players for a showcase.
“Travis has a very good baseball background,” says Blakeley. “He knows the game very well.”
Keesling deals with finding on-field personnel, RSVPing college coaches and the overall vision of the company. He and Blakeley talk on a daily basis.
Nelson Gord, a former minor league opponent to Blakeley who resides in Illinois and is Director of Baseball for NCSA (Next College Student Athlete), is also Director of Recruiting Education for Crossroads Baseball Series.
“He’ll come to events and speak to parents about the recruiting process,” says Blakeley of Gord.
NCSA had purchased a platform called Coach Packet and CBS now has its own app that incorporates video, social media and results to the same player profile. College coaches are given access to this information.
“I was fortunate to have good coaches for high school and summer ball,” says Blakeley. “I got hit by pitch and broke my arm and did not play junior year of high school.”
The righty-swinging infielder wound up at Indiana through a relationship his coach had with Hoosiers head coach Bob Morgan.
“He taught you some things about life,” says Blakeley. “There’s nothing easy about getting through a practice with Bob Morgan.
“He taught you accountability and taking care of yourself.”
As much as the process has changed over the year, one things has remained constant.
“It was word-of-mouth then and it’s still that way today,” says Blakeley. Coaches want to hear from coaches who they consider trustworthy and whose opinion they respect. “What has changed is technology. There is accessibility and instant updates now.”
Another change is the age of those being seriously pursued by recruiters.
“Recruiting has gotten a lot earlier,” says Blakeley. “When we started Crossroads in 2008, every single of the players had not made their college choice yet and were juniors going into their senior year. Ten years later, eighth graders were (verbally) committing going into their freshmen year.”
Ratcliffe had helped Thunder head coach Greg Perschke during the 2012 and 2013 seasons and assisted in school-record 25-win seasons then went back to the high school ranks before coming back on board in Angola, Ind., for 2020.
Trine, an NCAA Division III school with a 40-game regular-season limit, averaged 17 wins per year from 2014-19 with high-water marks of 19 in 2017 and 2018.
That was not considered good enough.
So the Thunder went to work in the fall.
“We have our limits when we can and can’t be with them,” says Ratcliffe referring to NCAA D-III contact rules. “But there are expectations from Coach Perschke. His passion for the kids is electric. It just gets everybody.
“There’s an off-season weight program. Kids work around their academics to get a workout in.”
The message is clear: If you want the team to get better, this is what has to happen. Here’s how you do it. Do you want to be a part of that?
At a school full of engineering students and others with rigorous majors, the find a way to get the job done.
“We give them a lot of instruction during our weeks,” says Ratcliffe. “They take this and work hard in the off-season.”
Brought in to help with catchers, infielders and hitters and be a bench coach during games, Ratcliffe says there’s a difference between high school and college that has do with more than age.
“Kids at the college level want to be there instead of doing something in high school,” says Ratcliffe. “Development is extremely different. In high school, you’re developing their skills. In college, you’re fine-tuning their skills.”
Through conversations and short videos, Perschke (Trine head coach since 2002 and the Thunder’s pitching coach) and assistants Ratcliffe and Nick Pfafman provided instruction for a month and then the team’s veterans led a few more weeks of workouts heading into the winter.
“We developed a mindset of how to react and respond to things,” says Ratcliffe. “It’s one of the things I was brought in for.”
When the team came back from Christmas break it had less than a month before its first games.
Trine went 1-2 Feb. 22-23 in Kentucky then 8-0 March 1-6 in Florida.
Then — suddenly — the season was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Thunder gathered for an impromptu team photo after a practice and said their goodbyes.
This summer, Ratcliffe is head coach for the 17U DeKalb County Thunder travel team. His assistant is Cody Krumlauf, a graduate of DeKalb High School and Earlham College who has been a player and coach for the Quakers.
The program was started a few years ago when the players were at the 15U level. The Thunder now also fields 15U and 13U teams.
To be eligible to play for the Thunder, players must play in community baseball organizations in Auburn, Butler, Garrett or St. Joe.
While with the Spartans, Ratcliffe got to work with future big league catcher Rob Bowen.
“I remember he was a starter working on being a switch hitter,” says Ratcliffe. “If he hit 50 balls off the tee right-handed, he had to hit 50 left-handed. Balance had to be there if h was serious about being a switch hitter.”
Ratcliffe recalls that Bowen hit homers from both sides of the plate early in his minor league days and went on to play in the majors with the Minnesota Twins, San Diego Padres, Chicago Cubs and Oakland Athletics.
Caleb Kimmel, who went on to play at Valparaiso University and is now CEO of the World Baseball Academy, was also at Homestead when Ratcliffe was on staff.
“(Moustakas) had the same kind of energy as a 17-year-old that he did (with the Kansas City Royals) in the World Series.
“That guy has not changed one bit. He’s such a team player.”
Freeman became of Ratcliffe’s favorites.
“His character in the dugout was unbelievable,” says Ratcliffe of the future Atlanta Braves first baseman. “He was very coachable. Freddie wanted to get better.
“I’ve told my players this is what you need to be like. It’s not all about baseball. Character is very crucial.”
Trout and Bauer are superstars now. But they didn’t make the national team back then. They didn’t sulk. They put in the work to get better.
The Uptons also failed, but learned from those around them and rebounded. Justin’s path to The Show included 113 games with the 2006 Mark Haley-managed South Bend (Ind.) Silver Hawks during his 18-year-old season.
While they were nearly two decades apart, Ratcliffe (Class of 1990) and Parker (2007) were both graduates of Norwell High School in Ossian, Ind.
Ratcliffe had coached against right-handed pitcher Parker in high school and saw him help Norwell to an IHSAA 3A state championship in 2007.
When it came time for Parker to take the mound that summer Joplin, Ratcliffe offered a little advice: “Go be yourself.”
Parker went on to work out with the Top 40 players in Atlanta and was selected in the first round (No.9 overall) of the 2007 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft and pitched in the bigs for the Arizona Diamondbacks and Oakland Athletics. David Price and Moustakas went 1-2 in the ’07 draft.
Ratcliffe’s head coach at Norwell was Stan Reed.
“He had compassion for the players,” says Ratcliffe. “He really cared about us. It showed whether we won or lost.”
A catcher, Ratcliffe went to Purdue University and was redshirted his first season and played sparingly for Boilermakers coach Dave Alexander in his second, though he did get to catch Sherard Clinkscales, a right-handed pitcher who was selected in the first round of the 1992 MLB Draft, later scouted for Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Kansas City and coached at Notre Dame before going into athletic administration.
When Alexander left Purdue to become a scout and pitching coach Steve Green was promoted to head coach, he had a chat with Ratcliffe. It was apparent he was not going to get to play much for the Boilers.
What did Ratcliffe learn from Norwell grad Kinzer during the 1993 and 1994 seasons?
“It takes a lot of hard work to get to that level,” says Ratcliffe. “If you want to get there you’ve got to put some time in.
“Talent doesn’t get you to the next level. It takes things like working hard and having good character.”
By the time Tom Muth took over at IPFW in 1995, Ratcliffe knew he wanted to be a coach so he took the opportunity to play multiple positions and learn their nuances. Since the Dons were in need of a second baseman, Ratcliffe moved there and still took time to catch bullpens.
Ratcliffe played independent professional ball as a middle infielder for the Frontier League’s Richmond (Ind.) Roosters in their inaugural season of 1995. Larry Nowlin was the manger and Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer John Cate part owner.
One of his teammates was future major league switch-hitting first baseman/designated hitter Morgan Burkhart. When he came to Fort Wayne as a member of the San Diego Padres coaching staff, Ratcliffe made sure he found a good fishing hole.
After finishing his degree at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, Ratcliffe became a teacher.
Besides coaching baseball, he instructs special education classes at Garrett Middle School. His wife of 19 years — Stacy — is a kindergarten teacher at J.E. Ober Elementary in Garrett. The couple have two sons — GHS senior-to-be Blake (17) and GMS eighth grader-to-be Easton (13).
“It’s about developing and being pushed beyond his experience,” says Turnock. “We want to stretch them, challenge them.
“I don’t care what year you graduate If you can play and have the mental maturity.”
That may mean a freshman standing in against a gas-throwing senior. But if they can handle it, their age and grade is not factored in.
Turnock, a graduate of Marian (1982) and Indiana University (1986), knows that being mentally strong is important in a game not always filled with moments of success.
“Baseball resembles life,” says Turnock. “There’s a lot of failure in the game. What do you do to respond after something negative happens — something that might not be within your control?
“The most important muscle is between the ears. It’s your mental make-up.”
Learning to cope in these situations while in high school will help in the future.
“Not everything works according to plan,” says Turnock. “You’ve got to able to bounce back.
“Control what you can control and compete.”
Even in games that may have resulted in losses, the positives are added up.
“Did you scrap back and win the last few innings?,” says Turnock. “There are things you can build on in your next game or practice.”
Turnock joined a Marian coaching staff led by Tim Prister after spending time in the showcase/travel baseball world. Turnock was a coach with the Michiana Scrappers and continues to be affiliated with the Crossroads Baseball Series.
Youngest son Josh (Joe and Amy Turnock also have 24-year-old Joe) was a catcher for the Scrappers and a battery mate of Evan Miller.
Now 22, Josh Turnock was a freshman on Marian’s IHSAA Class 3A state runner-up team in 2011.
The young Turnock and Miller went on to play for the North in the 2014 Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association North/South All/Star Series.
“We have to share athletes,” says Turnock. “We know that not all players will make it to open gyms (or fields) when they are in-season (with another sport). But I want a kid who had to stand on the foul line and had to knock down two free throws with no time on the clock.
“Kids know who should be taking those shots or who should be at the plate in a key situation. Most kids’ self-awareness is a lot higher than people give them credit for.”
Turnock believes everyone should take part in a team sport — something that prepares them for the work world. There is teamwork and the discovery that sometimes not everyone pulls their weight.
“(Schreiber) is a phenomenal addition,” says Turnock of the former Glen Oaks Community College head coach and youngest son of the late Ken Schreiber. A 13-time Hall of Famer who won 1,010 games and seven state titles at LaPorte, Ken died Sept. 8 at age 83.
Dainty, Dean of Student Formation at Marian, is the head junior varsity coach.
Turnock tends to carry a large number of JV players in order to give them opportunities and a chance to get better so they can help at the varsity level.
“You never know how kids are going to develop,” says Turnock.
Walter Lehmann, a Marian graduate who was on Turnock’s staff, has become head coach at Concord High School.
Turnock says he is looking to add to his staff.
“We look at the coaches the same as the players,” says Turnock. “I don’t have an ego. The goal is to be successful as a team. It doesn’t matter who gets the credit for it.”
“I’ve got a lot of respect for both of those guys,” says Turnock of St. Joe coach John Gumpf and Penn coach Greg Dikos, an IHSBCA Hall of Famer. “It’s a strong conference from top to bottom. On any given day, anyone can beat anyone.”
The NIC has 13 teams (Marian, Penn, St. Joseph, Bremen, Elkhart Central, Jimtown, John Glenn, Mishawaka, New Prairie, South Bend Adams, South Bend Clay, South Bend Riley and South Bend Washington) and is broken into divisions.
Marian plays home-and-home games with NIC teams St. Joseph, Mishawaka and Elkhart Central and a round robin with traditionally-strong programs Fort Wayne Carroll and Northridge.
“We want to have to grind through the season,” says Turnock. “When we get into the sectional, it’s not something we haven’t seen before.”
Joe Turnock. a 1982 graduate of Marian High School in Mishawaka, is in his sixth season as Knights head baseball coach in 2017-18. (Steve Krah Photo)