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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)

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)

Fireballer Klein anxious to begin professional career

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Will Klein is pumping gas and saving a little gas.

Klein, a right-handed pitcher who was selected in the fifth round of the 2020 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Kansas City Royals out of Eastern Illinois University, has regularly hit 99 mph on radar guns.

Last summer while competing in the Northwoods League All-Star Game, the 2017 graduate of Bloomington (Ind.) High School North hit triple digits. 

In his last appearance of the summer, he pumped in a pitch at 100 mph.

Klein was the EIU Panthers’ Friday starter in 2020 and went 1-2  in four appearances with a 3.33 earned run average, 33 strikeouts and 13 walks in 24 1/3 innings before the season was halted because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While university facilities were off limits, Klein and two of his three roommates stayed in Charleston, Ill., and got ready for the MLB Draft, which was shaved from 40 to five rounds this year. 

Klein played catch in parking lots and open fields, threw PlyoCare Balls against park fences and used kettle bells, benches and dumb bells in the living room.

Kansas City took Klein with the 135th overall pick.

“I talked to every team,” says Klein, 20. “I could tell some were more interested than others.

“The Royals were definitely the team that communicated with me the most.”

With the Minor League Baseball season called off, Klein has been training with PRP Baseball’s Greg Vogt at Finch Creek Fieldhouse in Noblesville, Ind., up to six days a week. 

The pitcher, who has added muscle and now packs 230 pounds on his 6-foot-5 frame, saves time and fuel by staying with an aunt and uncle in Fishers.

“The Royals sent a weight lifting, throwing and running schedule,” says Klein. “I blend that with what Greg’s doing.”

Klein first worked out at PRP Baseball last summer and also went there in the winter.

Klein’s natural arm slot has been close to over the top.

From there, he launches a four-seam fastball, “spike” curveball (it moves from 12-to-6 on the clock face), “gyro” slider (it has more downward and less lateral movement than some sliders) and a “circle” change-up.

In three seasons at EIU, Klein’s walks-per-nine innings went from 9.6 in 2018 to 9.9 in 2019 to 4.8 in 2020.

Why the control improvement?

“A lot of repetition and smoothing out the action,” says Klein. “I’ve been able to get a feel for what I was doing and a more efficient movement pattern with my upper and lower halves.

“Throwing more innings helped, too. I didn’t throw a whole lot in high school.”

Playing for head coach Richard Hurt, Klein was primarily a catcher until his senior year. In the second practice of his final prep season, he broke the thumb on his pitching hand and went to the outfield.

The previous summer while playing with the Indiana Bulls, Klein had gotten the attention of Eastern Illinois at Prep Baseball Report showcase held at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind.

Klein would be an NCAA Division I pitcher. He played at EIU for head coach Jason Anderson and had two pitching coaches — Julio Godinez in 2018 and 2019 and Tim Brown in 2020.

“(Anderson) was very helpful coming from pro ball,” says Klein of the former University of Illinois right-hander who pitched in the big leagues with the New York Yankees and New York Mets. “He knew what it took mentally and physically and took me from a thrower to a pitcher.”

Former catcher Godinez brought energy and also helped Klein learn about pitch sequences.

Brown was given full reign of the Panthers staff by Anderson this spring.

Klein struggled his freshmen year, starting three of 14 games and going 1-1 with a 6.62 ERA. He was used in various bullpen roles as a sophomore and went 1-1 with a 5.11 ERA. 

He was the closer and Pitcher of the Year with the Lakeshore Chinooks in the summer of 2019 when he hit 100 on the gun and was told he would be a starter when he got back to EIU in the fall.

For his college career, Klein was 2-2 and struck out 62 in 42 1/3 innings.

Born in Maryville, Tenn., Will moved to Bloomington at 3. Both his parents — Bill and Brittany — are Indiana University graduates.

Will played youth baseball at Winslow and with the Unionville Arrows and then with local all-star teams before high school. During those summers, he was with the Mooresville Mafia, which changed its name the next season to Powerhouse Baseball. 

At 17U, Troy Drosche was his head coach with the Indiana Bulls. At 18U, he played for the Mike Hitt-coached Indiana Blue Jays. 

The summer between his freshman and sophomore years at EIU, Klein was with the Prospect League’s Danville (Ill.) Dans.

Will is one semester from earning his degree in Biological Sciences.

“I grew up loving science,” says Will, who has had both parents teach the subject. Bill Klein has taught at Jackson Creek Middle School with Brittany Klein is a Fairview Elementary. Both schools are in Bloomington.

Will is the oldest of their three children. The 6-4 Sam Klein (18) is a freshman baseball player at Ball State University. Molly (13) is an eighth grader who plays volleyball, basketball and softball.

Will Klein pitched at Eastern Illinois University. (D1 Baseball Video)
Will Klein, a 2017 graduate of Bloomington (Ind.) High School South, pitched three baseball seasons at Eastern Illinois University and was selected in the fifth round of the 2020 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Kansas City Royals. (Eastern Illinois University Photo)

Terre Haute’s Wampler learning patience with Rex

rbilogosmall

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Tyler Wampler has learned plenty in his two seasons as the head coach of the summer collegiate wood bat baseball Prospect League’s Terre Haute Rex.

At the top of the list is patience.

“I’m pretty young so I’m just out of playing,” says Wampler, 25. “I realize I can’t go out there (on the field). I can’t control anything. I need to patient with the players and understand that mistakes are going to happen and just be the same guy everyday.”

Wampler, who played for Rick Heller and Mitch Hannahs at Indiana State University 2011-14 and in the Los Angeles Dodgers system 2014-15 then spent the spring of 2016 as a volunteer assistant coach at ISU, was given full authority by general manager Bruce Rosselli put together the entire 2017 Rex roster.

Prospect League rules limit rosters to 28 players. Last year, Wampler used around 40 players in 2016 and expects to do the same this summer.

“There’s a lot of turnover,” says Wampler. “It’s not like you’re just releasing guys. It’s usually for injuries or innings limits (on pitchers).”

As is the case all around the baseball world, pitching is a priority in Terre Haute.

“I’m a firm believer that pitching and defense wins champions,” says Wampler. “We want to start off getting the best arms we can and get as many as we can. You will have to shut guys down midway through the season because their arms are getting tired or they reach a certain amount of innings. You have to be real careful with them.”

Scott Lawson is pitching coach for the Rex. Lawson is a 1997 Terre Haute North Vigo High School who played at John A. Logan Community College, the University of Georgia and in independent professional baseball before coaching at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and at Terre Haute North.

Wampler is coaching in his hometown again this summer and giving baseball lessons at The Hitting Zone in the off-season. He is a 2010 graduate of West Vigo High School, where he played for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Steve DeGroote.

Wampler helped the Vikings to an IHSAA Class 3A state runner-up finish as a junior in 2009. He started at shortstop and went 2-of-3 in the title game.

Playing for DeGroote, Heller and Hannahs, Wampler experienced three different coaching styles.

“They all worked so I can use all three and mold it into my own way,” says Wampler.

The Prospect League is a 10-team circuit in 2017 with Terre Haute, Danville (Ill.), Lafayette (Ind.), Quincy (Ill.), Springfield (Ill.) in the West Division and Butler (Pa.), Champion City (Springfield, Ohio), Chillicothe (Ohio), Kokomo (Ind.) and West Virginia (Beckley, W.Va.) in the East.

Going into play Aug. 1 and with six regular-season contests remaining, Terre Haute was 29-25 and three games behind West-leading Lafayette. The two-tier playoffs are scheduled to begin Aug. 6.

“This league is headed in the right direction and has a lot of good things going,” says Wampler. “It’s a way for these guys to play 60 games (in the summer after 50 or more games in the spring). It’s close to a minor league schedule. They’re getting great experience. They have to come out and perform every night. They’re expected to play well because they have guys behind them that can take their spot.”

Wampler played three summers in collegiate wood bat leagues — two in the Northwoods League (Brainerd Lakes Area Lunkers in Minnestoa and the Eau Claire Express in Wisconsin) and one for the Rex (named for the Clabber Girl brand of coffee).

While some players come from across the country and stay with host families, Wampler notes the uniqueness of the Terre Haute franchise, which plays on ISU’s Bob Warn Field.

“We try to get a lot of local guys,” says Wampler. “We think Terre Haute and the Wabash Valley is a hotbed for baseball.

“We do have guys come from all over, including Florida and the Dominican Republic (outfielder Jalbert Melo was a recent PL Player of the Week). They stay with host families. Our host families are great. We turn people away each year, there are so many families that want to host. That’s a good problem to have.

“I remember when I was a player. Host families are like family to you and they care about what you’re doing. They stay in-touch years later.”

TERREHAUTEREX

Lafayette’s McNeil has Aviators in thick of pennant chase

rbilogosmall

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

With players coming and going and roles constantly changing during the 2017 summer collegiate wood bat baseball season, Brent McNeil has kept the Lafayette Aviators in the Prospect League playoff hunt.

McNeil, a 2007 Lafayette Jefferson High School graduate and the only head coach the Aviators have had in their two seasons of existence, took his squad into play July 29 and with eight regular-season contests remaining, West-leading Lafayette was 30-22 and two games ahead of Terre Haute.

The Prospect League, which debuted in 2009, includes two divisions in 2017 — Lafayette, Terre Haute, Danville (Ill.), Quincy (Ill.) and Springfield (Ill.) in the West with Butler (Pa.), Champion City (Springfield, Ohio), Chillicothe (Ohio), Kokomo (Ind.), West Virginia (Beckley, W.Va.) in the East.

The 60-game season, wood bats and strong competition gives players a taste for professional baseball. Some thrive and others see that the grind is too much for them.

Prospect League rules limit rosters to 28 (the current Aviators roster features players with hometowns in 13 states and Puerto Rico). Mostly because of injuries, there has been plenty of movement for the Aviators throughout the summer.

“You really have to watch out for warning signs of injuries, take care of them and make sure (pitchers) are not throwing too many pitches in one inning,” says McNeil, who played Eastern Illinois University and recently recently hired as the pitching coach at Quincy (Ill.) University after past two spring seasons on the coaching staff at the University of North Florida and director of baseball operations at Indiana State University prior to that.

There is no disabled list in the PL. Players are either on the roster or they are released. It’s up to the teams to find replacements.

“I can’t count how many times the roster has changed since I started putting it together in the fall,” says McNeil, who enlisted the help of second-year assistant Ryan Dineen in building the Aviators. “Having college contacts is huge. Some players have reached out, but I’ve mostly relied on his own contacts. There are coaches I’ve known over the years and trust.”

The old saying in baseball is you can never have too much pitching and that really rings true in summer collegiate baseball, where injuries and innings limits keep mound staffs continually morphing.

“(Working with) pitchers is tough,” says McNeil. “The top 1, 2 and 3 (starters on college teams) are either shut down for the summer or go to Cape Cod or the Northwoods (leagues). I believe we began the summer with about nine starters (and now have seven).

“We’re still trying to establish roles at this point in the season. At any moment, you could lose that guy. You have to find more guys and figure out where they fit in.”

Caleb Sleeman fit the bill July 23 when the Michigan State University right-hander threw the franchise’s first no-hitter in a 12-0 win against Kokomo.

With so many talented players and so much playing time, McNeil makes it a point to do something constructive with his bench players on a daily basis — maybe extra time in the batting cage.

College baseball players try to put on muscle in the weight room during the summer.

“It’s real hard when you’re playing six days a week,” says McNeil.

Loeb Stadium next to the Columbian Park Zoo is the Aviators’ home field. McNeil played his high school baseball there and was with the Lafayette Lightning in the Colt World Series after coming up through the Pony Baseball Leagues at Lafayette’s Armstrong Park. He was a Prospect League player for the former Slippery Rock (Pa.) franchise.

Dineen, who serves as hitting, infield and third base coach for Lafayette, played at Andrean High School for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Dave Pishkur then at Eastern Illinois University for Jim Schmitz. He played two seasons as an infielder in the Houston Astros system and has served on the coaching staff at McKendree University.

Parker Osborne replaced Dan Peterson as an Aviators assistant during the season.

Osborne, a former Southern Illinois University outfielder, has been an assistant at Western Illinois University.

Peterson pitched at Indiana State and went to Iowa to pursue a junior college coaching opportunity.

The Aviators are operated through MKE Sports & Entertainment, the same group that runs the rival Kokomo Jackrabbits.

LAFAYETTEAVIATORS