The University of Southern Indiana in Evansville has decided to raise its profile and athletics plays a major part. The Screaming Eagles have moved from NCAA Division II to Division I and begin competing at that level in 2022-23. “We’re not a secret anymore,” says Tracy Archuleta, USI’s head baseball coach since the 2007 season. “Once we make that jump to Division I we want everyone to know about it. We want everyone to know how good our nursing program is and how great the Romain business school is and our engineering program along with the great tradition of successful athletics. “We’re trying to make a big impact across the nation and not just in the tri-state (Indiana-Illinois-Kentucky) area.” It means that the Pocket City now has two D-I schools — Southern Indiana and the University of Evansville. Archuleta has spent his whole college baseball career in D-II as a player and a coach. He led Southern Indiana to DII national championships in 2010 and 2014. But he knows that D-I is at the top of the scale. “The excitement comes from being able to hold our teams against the best in the country,” says Archuleta. Part of the transition means hiring the staff to help student-athletes while gradually increasing the number of scholarships. “We want to hire guys who are familiar with Division I baseball and have had success with it,” says Archuleta. His current staff includes Nick Gobert, Seth LaRue, volunteer Brice Stuteville and director of player development Deron Spink. Gobert and Stuteville played at USI. LaRue is a 2011 graduate of Evansville Mater Dei High School who coached at Texas A&M Corpus Christi 2020-22. Spink is a former head coach at Bellarmine University in Louisville. Southern Indiana is beginning a four-year probationary period. The Screaming Eagles will not be eligible for NCAA tournament play until 2026-27. NCAA D-I allows for 11.7 baseball scholarships while D-II is capped at 9. USI typically had six to seven. “Recruiting has a big impact in all sports,” says Archuleta. “You have to be able to sell the university and give the student-athlete an understanding of why USI is a great fit for them. “The difference now in recruiting is that you see everyone out there working instead of a select few. When you call a kid they have six schools already on them.” In looking at Southern Indiana’s current roster, Archuleta has a mix of junior college transfers and players right out of high school along with returnees. Archuleta says the roster will have to be trimmed from 50 to 40 by the spring season. “The biggest thing for our guys is that they have to be willing to meet the challenge,” says Archuleta. “Some guys will have to step it up a little bit.” USI plays host to Kent State in a charity exhibition at 2 p.m. Central Time Saturday, Oct. 22. “I’m excited about what’s ahead for us there,” says Archuleta. “We’ll see where we’re at.” Formerly a part of the D-II Great Lakes Valley Conference, Southern Indiana now belongs to the Ohio Valley Conference (with Eastern Illinois University, Lindenwood University, University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Morehead State University, Southeast Missouri State University, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Tennessee State University, Tennessee Technological University and University of Tennessee at Martin). “There’s tradition there,” says Archuleta of the OVC. “In baseball, the conference is up-and-coming. “With us, there’s the proximity of all the schools. It’s going to be neat for USI to build up rivals. Fans will be able to travel to road games.” All but Tennessee Tech (205), Morehead State (260) and Arkansas-Little Rock (409) are inside 200 miles from USI. SEMO competed in the Louisville Regional in 2022. D-II is allowed to play 50 games. In 2022, USI played 49 with 28 of those at home. D-I allows 56 games. Archuleta says he expects the 2023 Screaming Eagles schedule to be released in mid-November. “Two of our first four weekends are at home (against Oakland and Bellarmine),” says Archuleta. “We have some midweek games at home. “I think we only have two non-Division I opponents on our schedule.” USI Baseball Field became the permanent home of the Screaming Eagles in 1974. The on-campus facility is tree-lined and has lights and seating for about 1,200 with a concession stand, picnic area, press box and restrooms. There’s also a four-camera replay system — something many D-I school do not possess. Dimensions are 355 feet down the lines, 375 in the power alleys and 380 to dead center field. “Our facilities are unbelievable,” says Archuleta. “We have great people who work on it.” Archuleta can see upgrades coming in the next five-plus years. “We have a little bit of work to do, but we’re not far away,” says Archuleta.
Development as ballplayers and beyond the diamond. That’s the aim for the Indiana Expos and Indiana Angels travel organization and Samp’s Hack Shack baseball/softball training facilities in Brownsburg and Plainfield. Isaac Sampen, 29, is co-owner of the Expos and Angels travel baseball organizations with his father — former big league pitcher Bill Sampen (Montreal Expos, Kansas City Royals and California Angels) — and Samp’s Hack Shack director of operations. “We try to push the needle in the positive direction,” says Isaac. “We’ve had success and we’re going to keep doing it.” Doing things the right way as Sampen defines it includes getting players to approach the game with respect. “We’re doing everything we can to help players reach their maximum potential and be part of a family,” says Sampen. “They do not just share a logo. “We’re all in on our players. What matters most that our players develop and get better. That’s the end-all, be-all for us. If our guys are getting better we’ll win games.” It starts with teaching baseball skills. But players are also challenged to excel in life. That may be the classroom, weight room or community. “We want to help them be good people,” says Sampen. “When kids know you legitimately care about them you can get more out of them on the field.” The Indiana Expos played their first games in 2016 with 15U being the oldest age division. The Sampens saw a need to have an organization led by coaches who did not have sons in the program. After meeting people who wanted the option to coach their sons with training and guidance from knowledgeable baseball people, the Indiana Angels debuted in 2022-23. The 2022-23 Expos have 14 teams 13U to 17U. The Angels have 17 squads 8U to 15U. The age divisions tend to vary year by year. Between travel teams and the training facilities, there are more than 60 coaches/instructors. Sampen’s 13U Expos played around 50 games over a dozen weekends April through July in 2022 and is expected to do the same at the 14U level in 2023. As he sees it, the biggest difference between high school players and the younger ones is communication. “At 14, they’ve had less time on Earth,” says Sampen. “Maybe it’s more elementary. They don’t have the same experience (as older players). “But I don’t like cookie-cutting things. I teach and challenge on a per-player basis.” Sampen is not loud with his communication. “I’m not a screamer or yeller — none of our guys are,” says Sampen. “I don’t think it’s effective. Sometimes it causes chaos.”. While 14-year-olds tend to be less mature, some are more advanced and similar to those a few years older. Expos/Angels players are expected to earn their role on the team and equal playing time is not the rule. They are given the freedom to fail. “We don’t want them to be robotic,” says Sampen. “We don’t want guys to feel stress to play. “We let them fail and then teach. We want them to win.” Sampen says most players — especially on the Expos side — have college baseball aspirations at minimum. The organization’s first three graduating classes (2020-22) saw 73 move on to college ball. Over the years, players have developed on the field but they’ve also done things like sending notes to people having a tough time. “It’s about thinking outside themselves,” says Sampen. “You’re getting outside your bubble.” In paying it forward, athletes have helped with camps during and after their time playing for the organization. “(Younger) kids look up to those guys,” says Sampen, who is now attached to a 14U Expos team. “They think it’s cool for us, it’s good to witness that. “(Older players) are thankful for the opportunities they’ve had.” Sampen, who has also been involved with Avon Baseball Club, is a 2012 graduate of Brownsburg High School. He led Indiana in home runs and was a Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Class 4A All-State first-teamer as a senior outfielder. He committed to play at West Virginia University then decided for Parkland College in Champaign, Ill., where he was a National Junior College Athletic Association All-American and national leader in slugging percentage. Sampen transferred to Eastern Illinois University (Charleston, Ill.) as a two-way player. Injuries ended his playing career. He shares his college experiences youngers players and he keeps it real. “I let them know about mistakes that I made,” says Sampen. “I warn guys. College baseball seems like its always roses. It’s not. It’s hard. I want to prepare them for the grind it is.” Sampen notes that parents are no longer there to lend daily support. In a game of failure, players must learn to cope — often on their own. There is new-found freedom at college, but also the choice of getting in trouble or keeping their nose clean. Isaac’s wife — Stacy Sampen — is a personal trainer and nutritionist based in Brownsburg. The couple has no children of their own. “But there’s about 400 of them on our 31 teams,” says Sampen. Isaac’s top baseball mentors are Bill Sampen and IHSBCA Hall of Famer Pat O’Neil (his Brownsburg coach as a freshman and sophomore). “I’ve learned a ton from my dad,” says Isaac, the oldest of Bill and Amy Sampen’s three sons ahead of Sam and Caleb (a pitcher in the Tampa Bay Rays system). “I’m blessed to have grown up with a guy who played at the highest level. “(Coach O’Neil) has been around the game for a long time and been around so many good players.” The original Samp’s Hack Shack opened in November 2009 at 17 North Adams St., Brownsburg. The Plainfield facility is at 1915 Gladden Road. Baseball and softball training is offered year-round for individuals and teams (even those outside the Expos and Angels).
Blake Beemer was hired as head baseball coach at NCAA Division I Butler University in Indianapolis in June 2022. Beemer, a former first baseman at Ball State University (2010-13) and volunteer assistant at Penn State University (2014-15) and assistant coach/recruiting coordinator at both Eastern Illinois University (2016-18) and Ball State (2019-22), brings a style to his players he describes as energetic. “They’ll get energy from me,” says Beemer, 31. “They’ll get dirt honesty. And I think that’s going to help build relationships. “Guys are going to know where they stand. They’re going to know I care about them. They’re going to know who I am as a human being. Really building those relationships in that foundation will allow us to build toughness and accountability. We’ll build it with with energy will build relationships.” As an assistant coach and the recruiting coordinator at Ball State over the past four seasons, Beemer helped the Cardinals to a 123-65 record with a Mid-American Conference regular-season championship and an appearance in the MAC Tournament championship game in 2022. “I learned under one of the best in the business under (Ball State head coach) Rich Maloney,” says Beemer, who earned two degrees from BSU — a bachelor’s degree in 2012 and an Masters of Business Administration in 2014. “I’ve had a chance to see success at a high level through him. “I think I know the state pretty well. I know what it takes to win him in major baseball. And I’ve got the energy to make sure this thing gets going. “It’s a cool opportunity. I can tell you I’m very humbled to have this chance. And it’s a neat opportunity. This place can be a rock show. I mean, Butler has everything from the academic side to the location to facilities we can we can really win. Not to mention it’s a great conference (the Big East which also includes baseball-playing members Connecticut, Creighton, Georgetown, St. John’s, Seton Hall. Villanova and Xavier). It’s a it’s a really cool opportunity.” The Bulldogs went 20-35-1 overall and 4-16-1 in the Big East in 2022. It was the last season for the retiring Dave Schrage. What does it take to win at the mid-major level? “First off you’ve got to you got to do the recruiting right.” says Beemer. “I mean you win with players and you win with people. So in recruiting we’re after land guys that that are tough. I think in college baseball, you win with toughness. “I think it takes execution. And at Ball State what we did there was we tried to get really good on the mound. And I think here we’ve got to get really good on the mound (at Butler). If you have some horses that can carry you along ways and baseball. “And so I think you’ll see an increased emphasis to help us get better on the bump and to get tougher and to execute at a high level. Baseball is the same everywhere, right? Good pitching, defense and timely hitting. If you do those three things, you’ll be alright.” With building toughness in mind, Beemer has his Bulldogs waking up at 5 a.m. for workouts. They’re doing sprint work and some other training to which they have not been exposed. “I think that there is a energy level that you have to be able to get through whether it’s strength training, speed training, conditioning or for our practice,” says Beemer. “I mean we’re having long practices that the energy has been great, but you build toughness that way. “We’re going to have games that are three and a half hours. We have to have great intent, great focus and great energy in the ninth inning the same as we do when we start the game. That day-in and day-out consistency, that’s where you build toughness.” With a national reputation at Butler, thanks in large part to the recent success of the Bulldogs basketball program, Beemer sees a expanded recruiting footprint for the private school. That means getting some players from the New York City or Washington D.C. areas. “It’s a great degree,” says Beemer. “We just came out in U.S. News and World Report as the No. 1 Midwest regional university in the country. It’s an unbelievable education and I think that speaks volumes across the country.” Beemer’s staff includes assistant coach, pitching coach Ross Learnard, assistant coach Bladen Bales and volunteer coach Dan Wilcher. Learnard pitched at Parkland College and Purdue University (he was a two-time All-American) and coached at Illinois State University and Purdue. His duties with the Boilermakers focused on pitching analytics and team operations. “(Coach Learnard) is really, really detailed and connects with our guys at a high level,” says Beemer. “He’s a great pitching mind I keep telling everybody. I think he’ll be in the SEC. He’ll be an elite pitching coach at one of the high-end jobs within the next seven years. just think I think he’s a stud. “He develops arms as well. He knows how to take care of the guys. He sees things that are really advanced level.” Bales was with Beemer at Ball State in 2022. Before that he coached at Northeast Community College in Norfolk, Neb., and managed the Nebraska City American Legion junior team to a state runner-up finish in 2017. He has also coached the Lakeshore Chinooks of the summer collegiate Northwoods League. Bales played at McCook (Neb.) Community College and Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln. “He’s a tireless worker,” says Beemer of Bales. “He has a great eye for talent and recruiting. “I’ve known Dan (Wilcher) for years. We both grew up in Dayton, Ohio. And Dan helps lead our infield play, a lot of our throwing progressions and throwing programs and helps with field maintenance (at Bulldog Park). He’s our Swiss Army knife. He does it all for us.” The first two weeks of fall practice at Butler was for individuals. Team practice began on Labor Day and will go until mid-October with intrasquad games twice a week. After that, there will be a transition back to individuals. “Everybody’s new so it’s a clean slate for everybody is what I’ve been telling our guys,” says Beemer. We get to play outside opponents (Frontier Community College on noon Oct. 1 at home and Ball State Oct. 8 in Muncie). But every day is evaluation, whether it’s an intrasquad, in the weight room or just a BP session, our guys are always being evaluated the same way. “They’re evaluating me. They’re seeing what my coaching style is. They’re seeing how I instruct things. I think that in today’s world, just understand you’re always under a microscope. You’re always being evaluated. Our guys know that. And so every day we’re trying to have competition. We want to get better every day and and move this thing forward day by day.” Since his hire, Beemer has been getting his face in front of the community. Alums are coming back for the induction of the 1998 team (that won a then-school record 33 games) into the Butler Athletic Hall of Fame Sept. 24 and the Oct. 1 exhibition and Oct. 2 golf outing. The coach has been on the phone talking to alums and boosters and spoke on the air during an Indianapolis Indians broadcast. “We’ve got a great opportunity for this place to really take off,” says Beemer. “I’m proud of it really proud of being a Butler Bulldog and I’m very fortunate for it.”
Blake Malatestnic’s prep baseball ended with a flourish. The right-handed pitcher helped Indianapolis Cardinal Ritter to the 2017 IHSAA Class 2A state championship by hurling a complete game in a 10-4 win against Wapahani. Malatestnic went seven innings and threw 95 pitches while yielding nine hits and four runs (three earned), striking out four and walking one. He finished the season at 12-1 and was also named as the L.V. Phillips Mental Attitude Award recipient. But at 5-foot-9 and 150 pounds, he received just one college baseball offer. That came from Eastern Illinois University. “Eastern was my only school,” says Malatestnic, 23. “They saw something in a 5-foot-9, 150-pound kid. I was a small kid, but I had quick arm and I competed. (EIU head coach Jason Anderson) took a chance on me. “It’s something I’m forever thankful for.” More than five years later — including a pandemic and a major medical procedure — Malatestnic is preparing for one last go-round with the Panthers in 2023. Now up to a solid 175, Malatestic can look back on three competitive seasons so far. He pitched in 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2022. The 2021 season was lost when he needed Tommy John (Ulnar Collateral Ligament) surgery. In 55 games (35 in relief), the righty is 10-11 with four saves, 149 strikeouts and 72 walks in 169 innings. During the 2022 season, he appeared in 16 games (10 starts) and was 4-4 with 6.09 earned run average, 51 strikeouts and 21 walks in 54 2/3 innings. Malatestnic went to the summer collegiate wood-bat Northwoods League’s Kenosha (Wis.) Kingfish and pitched in 13 games and 20 1/3 innings before reaching his limit of combined frames for the spring and summer. “The surgeon and (Anderson) wanted me at about 75 (total innings),” says Malatestnic, who hurt himself doing velocity training just days before he was going to the Coastal Plains League to pitch for the Wilson High-Tobs in 2020 following a COVID-19-shortened EIU season in which he went 3-0 in four games (three in relief) with a 1.69 ERA, 23 strikeouts and six walks in 26 2/3 innings. A 32-week rehab program began in October 2020 and concluded in April 2021. “It was a roller coaster of feelings and situations,” says Malatestnic. “But I knew I could do it.” The pitcher was with the 2021 Northwoods League’s Lakeshore Chinooks (Mequon, Wis.). He made seven rehab starts capped at about 65 pitches each. He worked 24 innings with 29 strikeouts and seven walks. “Lakeshore was fantastic,” says Malatestnic. “They saw the long-term goal of why I was there in the first place. “(Chinooks manager Travis Akre) was a great communicator with the whole process.” Malatestnic pitched for the Prospect League‘s Danville (Ill.) Dans in the summers of 2018 and 2019 Over the years, Malatestnic’s relationship with Anderson has also grown. “He has a real open office,” says Malatestnic. “He behind me on Tommy John and did what he could with the school being shut down and all this COVID compliance stuff.” Throwing from a high three-quarter arm slot, Malatestnic uses a four-seam fastball (clocked as high as 94 mph when he was coming out of the bullpen at the end of the 2022 spring slate). He also uses a slider and change-up and — this summer — developed a two-seam sinker. “On the days when the slider’s sharp it has more of a cutter action,” says Malatestnic. “It moves more right to left without a ton of depth. I feel comfortable throwing it a lot. It plays off my fastball. “My change-up goes down and to the arm-side. There are so many good hitters in the Ohio Valley Conference to get fastballs by them.” Malatestnic credits Kenosha pitching coach Steve Andrade, who pitched in the majors and counts Indiana Tech among his coaching stops, for aiding him. “He had me using classical mechanics and posture and staying over the rubber,” says Malatestic. “Those helped me finish my pitches with the right grip and a quick arm.” Born in Indianapolis, Malatestnic grew up in Avon, Ind. He played T-ball through junior league at Ben Davis Little League. He was on a team that won district and went to the state tournament at 12. He played travel ball from 13U to 15U with the Indy Predators — coached by his father (Dave Malatestnic) and Terrance Davis. Going into his junior year of high school (16U), he was with the Indy Raiders. The next summer it was the Eric Osborn-coached Indiana Nitro. Malatestnic dressed for selected varsity games as a Ritter freshman and and even made his first start as a shortstop against Indianapolis Cathedral. He was a varsity player his last three seasons. He was three-time all-Indiana Crossroads Conference, two-time all-city, all-city Player of the Year (2017), Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association District L Player of the Year (2017), IHSBCA All-State and a North/South All-Star Series participant (2017) and a MaxPreps Small School All-American honoree (2017). He went a combined 15-5 on the mound his sophomore and junior seasons while helping Ritter to sectional titles. “Coach (Dave) Scott gave me tests and little benchmarks and I passed those,” says Malatestnic. “He really had an attention to detail which was a really good foundation for success. “He was a hard-nosed kind of guy. We were a pretty scrappy bunch.” While there were not many future college players on the team, the 2017 Raiders hustled. “We would run hard, put down bunts and were not afraid of being down two strikes,” says Malatestnic. “We were aggressively calm.” Malatestnic still stays in-contact with Scott and makes it a point to look him up when he’s home from school. “You see a lot of guys go back to Ritter after the fact,” says Malatestnic. “That says a lot about Coach Scott. He invested a lot into his players and gave them a lot of life advice or baseball advice.” Malatestnic earned a degree in Elementary Education last winter then entered graduate school for Curriculum and Instruction. He is taking one online class this summer and plans to finish up next spring. Though he started out college on a Biology path, Malatestnic explains why he opted to pursue an education degree. “I started thinking about all the teachers I had growing up,” says Malatestnic. “Then I had to decide on what level I wanted to teach.” His senior year at Ritter he was a cadet teacher at St. Christopher School in Speedway with his fourth grade teacher, Miss Elizabeth Anderson. “It was a crazy amount of fun,” says Malatestnic. “I really enjoyed it.” Malatestnic did his student teaching the spring of 2021 while he was also rehabbing from his Tommy John. He is grateful for the time put in my graduate assistant athletic trainer Maria Garcia (now Assistant Director of Sports Medicine at Eastern Kentucky University). The graduate of Twin Lakes High School in Monticello, Ind., and Purdue University often met him early in the morning before he began his student-teaching day. Blake is the son of Dave (Karen) and Noelle Malatestnic. Dave Malatestnic works in IT at Hopebridge Autism Center. Noelle Malatestnic is an interior designed for Flaherty & Collins Properties. Blake’s siblings are Brenna Malatestnic (25), Jarek Malatestnic (21), Maddie Griffith (21) and Mary Griffith (19). Former Marian University soccer player Brenna lives in Indy. Jarek is a former track athlete at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich.
Ivy Tech Community College Board of Trustees voted 8-1 April 7 to discontinue athletics at the Northeast campus in Fort Wayne, Ind., after 2022-23. Titans baseball (established in 2017-18 by Lance Hershberger) is moving forward with the 2022 season and is looking to the 2023 slate, which appears it will be the school’s last. Ivy Tech Northeast is 15-18 heading into a doubleheader Saturday, April 30 at Indiana Tech JV. After that comes a May 3 twin bill at Grand Rapids (Mich.) Community College followed by a National Junior College Athletic Association Region XII sub-regional May 5 in Sandusky, Ohio. The Titans must win two games in the four-team single-elimination event featuring the Nos. 2-4 seeds from the Ohio Community College Athletic Conference to advance to regional play. “I’m enjoying the public response and fight to keep the program,” says Ivy Tech head coach and dual-credit advisor Connor Wilkins, 29. “I’m doing my part. (The board is) pretty dead-set on not having athletics. It comes down to financials and Title IX (gender equity).” Wilkins describes the mood of the team. “There’s a little defiance there,” says Wilkins, a Fort Wayne native. “We’ll show you how good we are and lay everything on the line representing our college. It’s frustrating as a coach knowing what we’ve built as a program and serving the community. “In my opinion, northeast Indiana needs a junior college program.” The Fort Wayne campus is the only one in the statewide Ivy Tech system with sports. An Ivy Tech Northeast volleyball team folded when the coach left and players followed after the COVID-19 year. There are currently three junior college baseball programs in the state — Ivy Tech Northeast in Fort Wayne, Marian University’s Ancilla College in Donaldson and Vincennes (Ind.) University. Ivy Tech’s 2022 baseball team has 38 players with 22 on-target to graduate from the two-year school this spring. Some of that number have indicated that they will come back for a third year (granted because of the pandemic). Six players — right-handed pitcher Matt Peters (Fort Wayne Bishop Dwenger High School graduate) to NCAA Division I Miami University (Oxford, Ohio), twins outfielder Conner Beatty and catcher Alec Beatty (Augusta, Mich.) and catcher/outfielder Joel Deakins (Heritage) to provisional NAIA start-up Indiana University-Purdue University Columbus, infielder Brayden Dockery (Continental, Ohio) to the NCAA D-II University of Indianapolis and Coby Griffith (Papillion, Neb.) to NAIA Huntington University — have made commitments to their next school and others are expected to make that announcement soon. This summer, fireballer Peters is to play in the MLB Draft League. Other Ivy Tech players are bound for the Great Lakes, Jayhawk and Florida circuits plus the local Indiana Collegiate Summer Baseball League. Two players whose only college offers coming out of high school were from Ivy Tech Northeast are Grant Lashure (now a starting catcher at NCAA Division I Eastern Illinois University) and Zach Haefer (a right-handed pitcher at NCAA Division II Davenport University in Grand Rapids). There are also 13 recruits coming to the Titans in 2022-23. “We still have next year,” says Wilkins. “The recruits are still coming. It’s a testimony to our staff that they wanted to develop and leave after that. “We’re going to do right by them. It’s our job to get them on to four-year or two-year schools.” Besides Wilkins, the 2022 coaching staff features Scott Bickel (who is heading to IUPUC as part of Crimson Pride head coach Zach McClellan’s staff), recruiting coordinator Drew Buffenbarger (a member of the “Dirty Dozen” — Ivy Tech’s first team and an assistant admissions director at the school), pitching coach Javier DeJesus and hitting coach Mark Flueckiger. Without conference membership, the Titans schedule this spring has been on-the-fly and inclement weather has not helped. NJCAA Region XII has a rule that teams are not supposed to play when the “Real Feel” temperature dips to 35 degrees. Ivy Tech Northeast plays home games at Shoaff Park. The diamond is owned by the city, but is maintained by coaches and players. “We take care of it,” says Wilkins. “We mow it. We weed-and-feed. We do it as a team.” Fundraisers and donors have made it possible to do things like laser-grading the infield. “It was hard to get donations during the COVID year,” says Wilkins. And if the Titans are heading into their final days, the coach wants them to go out with their heads held high, representing their institution and community. Says Wilkins, “We’re going to finish it out and hopefully make them proud.”
With giving players opportunities to develop and compete at a high level a priority, Indiana Elite Baseball is preparing for the spring and summer travel season.
Started as part of the Center Grove Little League in Greenwood, Ind., Indiana Elite Baseball had one team in 2011 then four teams in 2013 and was up to 10 squads in 2014 and has stayed in that range ever since. IEB will field 10 squads ages 12U through 17U in 2021. Younger players are typically come from central Indiana, but talent comes around the state.
“We started to grow it slowly,” says Indiana Elite Baseball founder and president Mike Chitwood, a former all-city player and 1989 graduate of Emmerich Manual High School in Indianapolis. “We wanted to do something bigger than a community-based team.
“I have a big passion for doing what I do. I love educating players and families on the process. I tell them to play the game for as long as you can.”
IEB has been a not-for-profit organization since 2013.
“I try to keep cost as low as possible for our families,” says Chitwood. “You have to do certain things to afford the families and players an opportunity to develop.”
In 2016, the organization got its own indoor training facility on the southeast side of Indianapolis. It’s open year-round only to IEB teams, coaches and instructors.
“It’s been a great addition for the last five years,” says Chitwood.
Indiana Elite Baseball offers a full winter training program led by director of baseball operations Brian Simmons.
Players train four hours a week November to March.
“I’m a big advocate of multi-sport athletes,” says Chitwood. “But get to as many (baseball workouts) as you can.”
Younger teams tend to play in 12 events a year, beginning in early to mid-April. Older teams play seven or eight tournaments after Memorial Day.
Simmons is a graduate of Roncalli High School in Indianapolis who played at Xavier University and Ball State University and in independent pro ball. He was an assistant at Roncalli to Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer John Wirtz and aided Eric McGaha at Mooresville (Ind.) High School and was head coach at Roncalli and Indianapolis Arlington.
Deron Spink is the other IEB instructor. A California native, Spink coached future big leaguers Ryan Howard and David Freese in the St. Louis area and was head coach at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky., and director of baseball operations at Villanova University in Philadelphia before moving to Indiana.
Spink was a volunteer assistant to Steve Farley at Butler University and is a former director of baseball operations and recruiting for Indiana Elite Baseball who now resides in Evansville while still coming to Indianapolis to give private lessons.
Chitwood, Simmons and vice president Jeff Amodeo make up IEB’s board. Amodeo coaches and does much of the behind-the-scenes work.
Through a relationship with Franklin College the past four years, Chitwood has gotten Grizzlies assistants to coach for Indiana Elite Baseball in the summer. Tim Miller has gone on to become head coach at Davis & Elkins College in Elkins, W.Va. Former Franklin and IEB coach Tyler Rubasky is Miller’s assistant.
Current Franklin assistants Jake Sprinkle, who played at Franklin Central and the University of Indianapolis, and Trevor Tunison, who played at Lewis University in Romeoville, Ill., also lend their talents to IEB.
Chitwood used to have a rule that after 15U, there could be no coaches who had sons on the team.
“As long as a dad is in it for the right reason and they’re not in it to take care of their son, I will let a dad continue as long as they want to continue for multiple reasons,” says Chitwood. “These days, it’s harder and harder to get a guy to spend his entire summer at the baseball field.”
“There’s a misconception that you had to play collegiately or at a higher level professionally to be a coach,” says Chitwood. “(16U Black head coach) Steve Sawa didn’t play past high school. But he’s a student of the game. He’s a great coach.”
John Curl, a Logansport (Ind.) High School graduate who played at Texas A&M and in the Toronto Blue Jays organization and is a Kokomo (Ind.) High School assistant, helps Sawa.
Paul Godsey (Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes, Ky.), Dan Sullivan (Indiana University Purdue University-Indianapolis) and Scott Gilliam (UIndy) and Brian Maryan (Rose-Hulman) are former college players who also have sons on their respective teams. Gilliam is assisted by former Eastern Illinois University pitcher and IEB father/coach Kyle Widegren.
Montgomery places an emphasis on developing relationships with players.
It’s really something I’ve been trying to hang my hat on,” says Montgomery. “I know how important it is at my age that I build trust with the guys. I want the guys to know I truly care about their development and their individual plan.
“Understanding that individual person is so huge.”
Montgomery enjoys listening to Schrage’s stories and soaking up his diamond wisdom.
“It’s something different everyday,” says Montgomery. “Coach Schrage and Coach Kennedy have given me so much freedom. They’ve allowed me to grow as a young coach.”
Montgomery has some keys as a hitting coaching.
“It’s about making everything repeatable and letting them know what we expect from each guy to make our offense as complete as we can make it,” says Montgomery. “We keep it simple and get them to be confident in what they need to do.”
Kennedy and Montgomery have Butler hitters keeping journals that allow the coaches to follow the process and learning methods for each player.
“There’s not one way to skin a cat,” says Montgomery. “It’s understanding where they’re at.
“Being able to manage people is ultimately going to define how successful they are.”
Butler wrapped up two months of fall practice — which included individualized work and intrasquad scrimmages — in October.
“We had a tremendous fall,” says Montgomery. “We maximized the time with our guys.”
All students left campus after Thanksgiving and are not expected back until late January.
To keep the Bulldogs on track, there have been Zoom calls.
The 2021 season is due to begin Feb. 19. The Big East Conference will go to four-game weekend series. As of now, Butler will be allowed to keep the non-conference games now on the its schedule.
During the Christmas break, Montgomery has stayed in Indianapolis and conducted lessons for players middle school age and younger (the NCAA is not currently allowing camps or lessons with high schoolers).
“I’m getting as many hours in the (batting cage) as I can,” says Montgomery.
Born in Evansville, Ind., Montgomery grew up in Vincennes. He played on Cal Ripken League teams coached by father Ross Montgomery until age 12. When Bailey played travel ball for the Indiana Redbirds at 13U and 14U, Jay Wolfe was the head coach and Ross Montgomery helped.
Montgomery’s 15U, 16U and 17U summers were spent with the Indiana Nitro, coached by Eric Dill and Kris Dill.
“We were competitive on a daily basis,” says Montgomery of the Vincennes Lincoln Alices. “It got me ready for the competitive environment at Wabash Valley.
“Coach Hutchison (who is now head coach at Vincennes Lincoln) was and is a great mentor for me as well. We have daily conversations. We’re always throwing ideas off each other. He has a growth mindset.”
“Coach Fournier is one of the best recruiting guys I’ve ever seen,” says Montgomery. “He’s helped me with the evaluation piece, conversations with recruits and things to look for.
“I’ve learned the value of relationships (with contacts and recruits). I’m thankful for those conversations.”
Through his experiences, Montgomery counts himself as a big advocate for junior college baseball.
“It’s continuing to grow,” says Montgomery. “It’s an awesome environment if you’re a guy looking to grow and develop.”
Montgomery, a righty-swinging first baseman, played played two seasons at Western Illinois (2018 and 2019), appearing in 88 games (77 starts) and hitting .296 with two home runs, 43 runs batted in and a .991 fielding percentage with 317 putouts and just three errors.
Ryan Brownlee (now assistant executive director for the American Baseball Coaches Association) was the Leathernecks head coach.
“Coach Brownlee is just passionate about what he does,” says Montgomery. “Handling relationships is what he does really well. He gets his players to buy in.”
While he was still playing, Montgomery was able to serve something of a behind-the-scenes look at being a coach from Brownlee with access to scouting reports and some recruiting communciation.
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.”
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.
“(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.
“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.
“If you just show up on your high-intensity or game days, you’re not going to get much better,” says Vogt. “Guys are around other guys with high energy and motivation who do not skip drills, warm-ups and recovery.”
During the week, there are also high school players (many of whom are in travel ball tournaments Thursday through Sunday) working out, too. There is weight training, Core Velocity Belt work to emphasis the lower half and the use of PlyoCare Balls.
Each player follows an individualized workout plan based on their Driveline Baseball profile.
“Everyone does a pre-assessment,” says Vogt. “We measure strength, power and velocity and create a plan off that.”
Because of COVID-19 many of the players have not been able to get on an outside diamond in a sanctioned game for months.
Many were not able to do much in the way of throwing or lifting weights for two months.
College players saw their seasons halted in mid-March. High school players heading into college lost their campaigns altogether.
Minor League Baseball has not began its 2020 season nor has the Utica, Mich.- based USPBL .It’s uncertain when or if MiLB will get going. The USPBL has announced it will start with smaller rosters June 24 and expand when fans are allowed at games.
“It’s just a really fun time to come out here and really put all the work that me and all these guys put in throughout the week to a test,” says Polley. “It’s really cool to be able to see the guys come out here and thrive whenever they’ve made adjustments.
“It’s a time to relax and get after each other.”
Donning a T-shirt defining culture as “A wave that inspires a community to achieve greatness” (by Atlanta Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson), Polley relates to the atmosphere at PRP Baseball and Finch Creek.
“They bust your butt during the week and whenever it’s time to play, it’s time to play,” says Polley. “We don’t worry about the mechanics or the drills we’re working on throughout the week. Let’s see what you got and you make adjustments week to week.”
Polley’s focus was on having a good feel for all his pitches and moving the way they’re supposed to based on Rapsodo-aided design.
Though the timetable is unknown, Polley says being prepared to return to live baseball is the key.
“I view this as an opportunity to improve my craft,” says Polley. “I come off and throw and lift everyday to make myself better.
“Whenever it is time to show up, I’m going to be better than whenever I left.”
Polley came down with the coronavirus in March after coming back from spring training in Arizona and was unable to throw the baseball for two weeks.
For that period, he and his girlfriend stayed away from everyone else and meals were brought to the bedroom door by Polley’s parents.
With facilities shut down, he was able to train in a barn and at local parks.
“To just be a kid again was really cool,” says Polley. “As a kid, you’d go to the park with your friends and practice. You’d compete and try to get better.
“That’s all it has been this entire quarantine. You come back into a facility like (Finch Creek) ready to go.”
Vogt has noticed an attention to detail Polley.
“If the minor league season happens, he’s going to be ready to go,” says Vogt.
“This gives me a chance to compete and feel out my stuff,” says Milto. “I get a chance to improve and see what’s working and what’s not working.
“This time is kind of weird, not knowing when or if we’re going to go back. So I’m just here, seeing the competition and staying ready.”
Milto just began coming to PRP Baseball this past week after hearing about it through friends.
“I really love all that they offer,” says Milto.
While maintaining strength, Milto also makes sure he stays flexible.
“For longevity standards and being able to move well consistently for as long as possible, I think it’s important so I work on by flexibility,” says Milto. “Especially with my upper body. My lower body is naturally flexible.
“I’m working on by thoracic rotations and all that kind of stuff. It’s helped me feel good everyday.”
Milto just began adding a cutter to his pitch assortment.
“Using the cameras and the Rapsodo here is really helping me accelerate the development.
“I’m feeling it out (with the cutter). I’ve already thrown a slider. I’m trying to differentiate those two and make sure they look the same out of my hand but different coming to (the batter).”
Milto says he’s made a switch in his take on how electronic devices can help.
“At first, I didn’t buy much into the technology,” says Milto. “It was all just too much to look at. As of late, I’ve started to pay more attention to it. I’ve realized the benefits of it.
“My mentality has been to just go out there, trust my stuff and compete instead of I need to get my sinker to sink this much with this axis. But I’ve started to understand how important that stuff. You make everyone look the same until it isn’t.
“It’s immediate feedback when you’re training. You release it. You know how you felt. And you know exactly what it did.”
Gray, 25, is a right-hander who played at Columbus (Ind.) East High School, Western Michigan University, Gulf Coast Community College and Florida Gulf Coast University before being signed as a minor league free agent by the Colorado Rockies in 2019. He was released in February 2020 and reports to the Milkmen this weekend.
“I see that they get results here,” says Gray. “It’s always great to push yourself and compete with others that are good at sports.”
Gray, who has been working out with PRP Baseball since prior to the COVID-19 lockdown, counts down his pitching strengths.
“I compete. That’s a big one,” says Gray. “I throw strikes. I’m determined to get better and be the best version of myself.”
When the quarantine began, Gray had no access to a weight room.
“I did a lot of body weight stuff and keep my body there,” says Gray. “I was lifting random stuff. I was squatting with my fiancee on my back. I was finding a way to get it done.
“I knew at some point COVID was going to go away and baseball was going to be back and I needed to be ready.”
Strobel, 25, is a left-hander who played at Avon (Ind.) High School and for the final team at Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind. (2017) before pitching for the independent Frontier League’s Joliet (Ill.) Slammers that summer. He underwent Tommy John reconstructive surgery and missed the 2018 season. He appeared in 2019 with the AA’s Gary (Ind.) SouthShore RailCats. When not pitching, he’s helped coach pitchers at Avon and for the Indiana Bulls 17U White travel team.
Strobel coached at Grand Park early Friday and then scooted over to Finch Creek for PRP “Compete Day.”
“I try to mimic what we do here,” says Strobel of his pitching coach approach. “It’s mainly work hard and be safe.
“Summer ball is now acting like the high school season. It’s been about getting everyone up to speed. Some guys were not throwing over the spring. They just totally shut down. You have other guys who’ve been throwing.”
Strobel has been training with Vogt for about four years.
“I like the routine of everything,” says Strobel. “Everything’s mapped out. You know what you’re doing weeks in advance. That’s how my mind works.”
And then comes the end of the week and the chance to compete.
“Everything’s about Friday live,” says Strobel. “Everyone has a routine getting getting for Friday.”
Strobel has been told he’s on the “first call” when the USPBL expands rosters.
He was “on-ramping” in February when the pandemic came along and he switched to training at the barn before coming back to Finch Creek.
“I really didn’t have to shut down,” says Strobel. “It’s just been a long road from February and still throwing.
“I help out in any way that I can,” says Sullivan, who reached out to Vogt in the spring of 2019, interned last summer and then came on board full-time. “We mesh well together because we believe in a lot of the same sort of fundamentals when it comes to pitching and developing a pitcher.
“It helps to have an extra set of eyes and that’s where I come into play. I dealt with a lot of mechanical issues myself and my cousin help me out. That sparked me to want to do the same for other players.”
Sullivan is pursuing his Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).
“Once I have that, it opens up a lot more doors and opportunities for me in the baseball world,” says Sullivan. “Baseball has had a funny route to where it is today. When I grew up a lot of times you threw hard because you were blessed and had the talent.
“Now, it’s been proven that you can make improvements — whether it be in the weight room, overall health or mechanical adjustments in your throwing patterns — and can train velocity.
“A lot of people are trying to find a balance of developing the mechanical side of things while strengthening things in the weight room. They kind of go hand-in-hand. You can’t have one without the other.”
Sullivan says that if the body can’t support the force that’s being generated through it, it’s going to lead to a faster breakdown.
“That’s where the weight room comes into play,” says Sullivan. “Being able to transfer force is kind of the name of the game right now.”
T-Ray Fletcher, who was Oakland City head coach for 26 seasons, is still the school’s athletic director.
Since taking the job a few weeks ago, Lasher been concentrating on building up his roster.
“I’ve been doing a lot of recruiting though there are no games to watch,” says Lasher, referring to the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic which has live baseball shut down at the moment. “There’s been a lot of calls and text messages.”
Lasher, who is tapping into his network of contacts, says he would like to have 35 players in the fall and 40 to 45 in the future so the Mighty Oaks can add a junior varsity program.
That takes care of half the schedule. Lasher has the opportunity to fill in the rest of the games, choosing ones that are feasible and keeps players from missing too many classes.
It’s Lasher’s intent to schedule some contests in the fall.
Lasher’s assistants are Jacob Bedwell and Austen Bullington. Washington (Ind.) High School graduate Bedwell was on the OCU team last year. Castle grad Bullington played at Wabash Valley College and the University of Tennessee-Martin.
Lasher was hired by Southern Indianalast summer and spent much of his time assisting Screaming Eagles head coach Tracy Achuleta with hitters and position players.
“I also kept track of academic progress and a lot of little things that don’t happen on the baseball field,” says Lasher. “That’s a much bigger percentage of the job than people realize.
“At the college level, it’s a lot more than the bats and balls. It’s a full-time job for a reason.
“(Archuleta) is one of my favorite people. He’s alot of fun to be around and a really good baseball mind. I can’t say enough good things about him.”
He was an assistant to Dennis Conley at Olney Central from the 2014 season until the fall of 2018.
“It was a really good experience I wouldn’t trade for the world,” says Lasher, who helped the Blue Knights win 173 games in five seasons.
An outfielder, Lasher played two seasons at Olney (2010 and 2011) for Conley and two at Evansville (2012 and 2013) for Wes Carroll.
Going to Castle, Lasher had heard all about alums Wes and brother Jamey Carroll (who played in the big leagues).
“(Wes Carroll) was a real good player’s coach,” says Lasher. “We had some good teams.”
The Purple Aces won 56 games in Lasher’s two seasons at UE. He played with five players — left-handed pitcher Kyle Freeland (Colorado Rockies), lefty-swinging outfielder Kevin Kaczmarski (New York Mets), righty-batting Eric Stamets (Rockies), righty pitcher Kyle Lloyd (San Diego Padres) and lefty hurler Phillip Diehl (Rockies) — who eventually made it to the majors.
For five summers, Lasher was with the Bombers — 2014 as an assistant coach and 2015-18 as manager.
Lefty-hitting outfielder Johnson is now on the Cleveland Indians’ 40-man roster.
Brown is a catcher in the Atlanta Braves organization.
Lasher calls shortstop Gonzales, who was the 2019 NCAA Division I batting champion, the best player he’s ever coached and expects him to be taken about the top picks in the 2020 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.
The atmosphere created by Dubois County ownership and fans at League Stadium made Lasher’s time with the Bombers very enjoyable.
“It’s a great place to watch a game,” says Lasher. “It’s a shame they’re not getting to do it this summer (due to COVID-19 causing cancelation of the Ohio Valley League season).”
Lasher graduated in 2009 from Castle, where he played for Curt Welch.
“He was very intense,” says Lasher of Welch, who has also been an assistant wrestling coach for the Knights. “We were probably in better shape physically as any team in the country.”
There was plenty of running and ab workouts.
“It was worth it,” says Welch. “No doubt about it. It got guys ready for the college stuff. You have to be mentally tough and physically in shape in college or you just aren’t going to make it.”
Besides head baseball coach, Lasher is also in charge of maintaining Oakland City athletic fields and is gameday coordinator for any on-campus sporting events. The Mighty Oaks sponsor teams in basketball, cross country, golf, soccer and tennis for men and women and softball and volleyball for women.
Lasher and girlfriend, former Orleans (Ind.) High School, Olney Central and Brescia University basketball player Shelbi Samsil, recently moved to the north side of Indianapolis to be closer to Oakland City.
Andy Lasher is the new head baseball coach at Oakland City (Ind.) University. He is a graduate of Castle High School in Newburgh, Ind., and played at Olney (Ill.) Central College and the University of Evansville. He has coached at Olney, Eastern Illinois University, the University of Southern Indiana and with the summer collegiate Dubois County Bombers. (Oakland City University Photo)