Bringing the “City with A Heart” together, Elkhart (Ind.) High School has melded two high school baseball programs into one.
The Elkhart Lions are scheduled to open their inaugural season since consolidating athletic departments on Wednesday, March 31 against Concord at Elkhart West (formerly known as Elkhart Memorial’s Charger Field), where all baseball contests and practices are slated to take place this spring.
“We’re a one-school community now,” says Elkhart head baseball coach Scott Rost. “Everyone’s Elkhart.
In 2021, Washington will not field a team. Clay will play a junior varsity schedule.
The Lions are part of an IHSAA Class 4A sectional grouping with Concord, Goshen, Northridge (the 2021 host), Penn and Warsaw. Elkhart Central won 12 sectional titles plus the 4A state crown in 2013. Elkhart Memorial was a six-time sectional champion.
With 36 players in the program, the Lions are planning to take on complete varsity and junior varsity schedules with some C-team games.
One set of Elkhart uniforms will feature blue pinstripes topped with a blue cap adorned by a gold “E.”
Former Memorial head coach Rost guides a staff featuring Brian Blondell, Bruce Baer, Jay Bashore, Steve Asbury, Matt Kloss and Cody Quier.
After the staff was assembled, a few players not in fall sports were able to get together after Labor Day.
When the fall season concluded and weight training and open gyms began Lions baseball really began to take shape.
“It went really smooth,” says Rost. “The seniors have done a really good job. They seem to all get along and work well together. They’ve set the tone for the younger guys in the process.”
Elkhart sports 10 seniors.
“We have some talented young men,” says Rost. “We’re really upbeat and high on that group.
“We have guys with varsity experience. But they have not played high school baseball for two years (because of the COVID-19 pandemic taking out the 2020 season) and our sophomores have not played high school baseball.”
Rost says Dominic Russo and Cameron Wiltfong are among those that could go on to collegiate diamonds if they make that choice.
While some have had to get used to the way Rost does things, the coach notes that the athletes have not gotten caught up in the Central vs. Memorial or East vs. West mentality.
Academically, students in Grades 9-12 attend Elkhart East or Elkhart West in 2020-21. For athletics and extracurricular activites, there is one entity: The Lions. In 2021-22, freshmen will be housed at East campus with Grades 10-12 at the West campus.
When you talked with him you knew he was going to ask questions.
“What have you been up to?”
“How’s your mother?”
“Can you tell me something new?”
When he got a chance, he explored historical places and books and soaked in as much new knowledge as he could.
As a coach, he wanted to break down and understand plays and positions so he could convey those to his athletes.
It’s that sense of interest that took Siler through his 84 years.
No doubt he had the sense of wonder as a boy growing up on a poultry farm near Ashland, Ohio, and playing sports on that same land. He was a catcher in baseball and wound up as a center and linebacker in football.
Too busy on the farm to go into Ashland to play ball, a plot was dedicated for that purpose. Sometimes it was used by the circus.
“It was two thirds football field, one third baseball field,” Siler once said. “The east end zone was just dirt.
“Dad let me use a panel truck,” said Siler. “I contacted people and got eight or nine other guys and we went around and played softball or baseball — probably more softball than baseball.
“If we had two bats, that was great. Most guys didn’t have baseball spikes.”
Siler carried big diamond dreams.
“I loved baseball so much,” said Siler. “I wanted to learn and nobody was teaching me.”
When it came time to play at Ashland High School, Siler (Class of 1953) did not play varsity. Future big league catcher John Roseboro (Class of 1951) was ahead of him.
“He threw a lot harder from his knees than I could shoot a gun behind the plate,” said Siler, who was on the junior varsity as a freshman and sophomore and at the start of his junior year.
Then came a call from the varsity. He got to the game on a Farmall F-20 tractor.
“It’s the only way I could get there,” said Siler. “I had no other vehicle.
“I threw on the gear. I didn’t have time to warm up They put me right in.”
The first or second runner got on base and went to steal.
“When I threw the ball, I felt like my whole arm went down to second base,” said Siler. “Something just ripped in there. I couldn’t get the ball back to the pitcher. They ended up pulling me out the game.
“That was the last school ballgame that I played. That was heartbreaking.”
Siler went on to coach baseball for decades, but he never threw batting practice. He caught BP until one of his knees locked up on him. The number of reps made with a fungo bat is nearly incalculable.
From north central Ohio, Siler took his curiosity to North Manchester, Ind., and Manchester College (now Manchester University), where he played football and got the knee injury to remember it by the rest of his days.
More importantly, it was at Manchester that he met Marjorie Thompson. The two wed in 1956 and wound up in her hometown of Elkhart, Ind.
Dick took a job teaching and coaching at Jimtown High School after graduating Manchester in 1957.
His first coaching assignment was with Jimmies football. He was a coach all the way until the end, including the last 23 years as an assistant at Bethel University in Mishawaka, Ind.
The Siler family, which grew to include three children (Scott, Laurie and Julie), lived for years in Elkhart. Scott Siler was the Indiana Umpire of the Year in 2018.
Dick became head baseball coach at Elkhart High in 1968 and led that program through 1972. A split of the school sent him into a 25-year run as head baseball coach at Elkhart Memorial High School, where he also was a football assistant for many years.
The 1992 Crimson Chargers were the first Elkhart County baseball team to play in the IHSAA State Finals.
After retiring as coach and social studies teacher at Memorial (he won more than 500 games at the high school level), Siler accepted an invitation from Bethel head coach Sam Riggleman to join the Pilots staff. Margie came along as a scorekeeper.
She fought a battle with cancer for two decades before dying in 2002. She got to live in a new house in Mishawaka for a short time. Bethel has presented a scholarship in her name and has a plaque in her honor at Patterson Field at Jenkins Stadium.
Dick Siler, who went on to be on the staffs of Mike Hutcheon and Seth Zartman, talked of his wife often. He passed away at his Mishawaka home around 1:45 a.m. Monday, July 20.
What did he gain most from coaching all those years?
“I enjoy the kids just for who they are — seeing them grow or seeing them change,” said Siler. “I get to see the light go on — he finally gets the idea about timing and using the barrel of the bat to hit.”
Whether it was baseball, football, track, wrestling or basketball (he coached those sports, too), it was about instruction.
“I wanted to teach,” said Siler. “I wanted to tell them this is the best way to do it.
“Kids are hungry to learn if you’ll just teach them.
“Too many people do too much yelling and not teaching. Kids want to get better and they love the game.”
Siler said he went into coaching baseball with a football mentality.
“A kid would say to me, ‘Coach, we’re trying not to fail,” said Siler. “That was a big learning and turning point for me. I need to teach them better than just yelling.
“For some, it’s just really hard (to fail). It destroys them. They failed Grandpa. They failed Dad. They failed the girlfriend. They failed the coach. It’s a heavy burden.”
Ever inquisitive, Siler asked these questions: How do we enjoy the sport more? and How do we get there?
“You don’t do it through negativity, I’ll tell you that,” said Siler. “My son (Scott) threw a bat once when he was really young and I made him run the hills. ‘But Daddy, I’m so young.’ I probably handled it a different way and I didn’t. That wasn’t right.
“You make mistakes. You’ve got to live with those, too.”
As a high school baseball coach, Siler was faced with having to cut down his roster.
“Only so many people can make the team,” said Siler. When he took over at Elkhart High, he could not use freshmen and still had about 125 trying out.
Siler and assistant Randy Miller had to do their evaluations inside a tiny downtown gym.
“We tried to be as fair as we could and didn’t have a whole lot of complaints,” said Siler. “Later, I did.”
Siler said figuring out the top and bottom of the roster is the easy part.
“Some of the kids who come up are coached by people who know baseball better than a lot of others,” said Siler. “The better athletes adjust faster and better than the lesser athletes.”
While Siler could teach technique and improve upon it, he knew that “some talent is just God-given.”
Siler said the difference in a successful high school player and an unsuccessful one came down to attitude.
“I’m not much on all-ness statements,” said Siler. “Sometimes the dog wags the tail and sometimes the tail wags the dog. In my perspective, the program is more important than the individual. Period.
“If you think you are going run the program or effect the program in a negative way, you’re not going to be around. The program is what it’s all about.”
Siler insisted on a pregame prayer.
“They’ll have to fire me,” said Siler. “I’m not changing. That was very important to me.
“I live and die on the idea of ‘family first.’”
Many family members came to visit or called in Dick’s final days.