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On the occasion of his 300th win, Elkhart Central’s Stutsman reflects on his career

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Steve Stutsman had a sweet moment Saturday, May 6.

Elkhart Central beat visiting Angola 5-0 in the second game of a high school baseball doubleheader, giving Stutsman the 300th victory of his coaching career.

Stutsman and his team enjoyed cake and cupcakes to mark the moment then the man reflected on the “program” that brought him this special day.

“I’ve had great players, great coaches and great parents,” says Stutsman. “It’s an honor to get to 300 victories and someone helped in every one of those along the way.”

That includes former assistants like Scott Rost (now head coach at Elkhart Memorial), Andrew Brabender (head coach at Northridge who picked up his 200th career win earlier this season), Jim Treadway (former head coach at Concord and the long-time Bristol American Legion Post 143 manager) plus solid baseball men like Dave Hicks, Jimmy Malcom, Mike Doherty and Pat Doherty and on and on.

“Being part of the program. That’s what it’s all about,” says Stutsman. “It’s not me. Kids come and go. Parents come and go. You’ve got to have one thing and that’s the program. That’s what I’ve tried to build here.”

After serving two years as assistant to Randy Miller as he was ending his second head coaching stint with the Blue Blazers, Stutsman took over in 1996.

“I thought I had a good 20 years in me,” says Stutsman, 64. “I got the job kind of late in life in my late 30’s, early 40’s.

“I’m in my 22nd year and I feel better than when I first started.”

Stutsman, a 1971 Concord High School graduate, leads a 2017 team full of veterans players.

“They’re just a great group of kids,” says Stutsman. “They are young men who really play well together. They listen to you. They try to correct the things we ask them to correct.”

Stutsman sees a collection of young athletes that genuinely like each other and play loose.

“I said to them a couple of weeks ago that I’d rather have a team that has great team chemistry than two or three superstars on the team,” says Stutsman. “I really believe that.”

In 2013, Stutsman was part of an IHSAA Class 4A state championship celebration with a squad that beat Indianapolis Cathedral 1-0.

Those Blazers featured Indiana Mr. Baseball Tanner Tully (the left-hander homered and fanned 13 batters to the title game and is now at Low Class-A in the Cleveland Indians organization) plus L.V. Phillips Mental Attitude Award winner Matt Eppers (now a senior center fielder at Ball State), Cory Malcom (a successful senior right-handed starting pitcher at Arkansas-Little Rock) and Riley Futterknecht (who is wrapping up a strong college career as a left-handed hurler at DePauw).

“That was a great group, too,” says Stutsman. “They liked each other and played well together.

“Championships are awesome and people ask me, ‘why didn’t you retire after you won (in 2013)?’ and I said, “Because I’m still having fun. I still enjoy what I’m doing. I still enjoy watching them go on after high school to college or into a profession and be successful citizens. That — for me — is what coaching is all about.”

Since 1996, Central has won four sectionals (2001, 2011, 2012, 2013) with the one regionals semistate and one state title in 2013.

Stutsman’s “associate head coach” is Steve Asbury, who is in his 14th season on the Blazers staff.

“It’s scary because he knows what I’m thinking and I know what he’s thinking,” says Stutsman. “He has his responsibilities and he does them really well. It’s like I don’t have to tell him what to do.”

Lonnie Weatherholt and Chad O’Brien been with Stutsman for a decade. Brandon Squibb joined the cohesive varsity staff a few seasons ago. The junior varsity is led by Bodie Bender and longtime assistant Paul Bates (son Devin Prater played for the ’13 state champions).

“It’s nice to have your friends for your assistant coaches,” says Stutsman. “We really work well together.

“I feel like I’m just the head of the whole program and I let my assistants go and do their own thing.”

Stutsman has accomplished much of what he has without the feeder program that many Indiana schools enjoy. There is no junior high baseball in Elkhart and the local Little League parks send players on to various high schools.

Travel baseball is firmly established in the area and Stutsman knows it and accepts it — with a caveat.

“As long as they’re playing baseball and as long as I can trust the travel ball coach to make sure their arms are taken care of, I have no problem,” says Stutsman. “I think it’s good they play under different coaching philosophies.

“But when they hit high school, they know from January until the end of May they are Central ballplayers. I take great pride in making sure that the boys know that.”

Going back to the split of Elkhart High School into Central and Memorial, beginning in 1972-73, there have only been three head baseball coaches at Central — Miller (twice), Mike Lutz and Stutsman.

“I’m really proud of that,” Stutsman said. “If I could, if there’s a merger (and one is planned in 2020-21), I want to hang on until the merger and be the last Central baseball coach.”

Talk about the split has been on the lips of many Elkhartans for the past 44 years. Stutsman is no different.

“Selfishly, I’d like to see what we could do with one school,” says Stutsman. “There have been numerous years that had Central and Memorial been combined we could have went down to State. I don’t know if we could have won it all, but we could have been down there quite often.

“But that’s not why I coach. I coach for the kids and seeing them improve and making them into young adults.”

Stutsman also takes took him up on his invitation in the ‘90s to resurrect the Bristol American Legion Post 143 baseball program that was dormant for a short time after being originally started by Lutz.

“(Treadway) has done a great job and he’s taken a lot of our Central boys with the Bristol Legion,” says Stutsman.

Post 143 played its home game at Rice Field (the former varsity and current Central JV field) before moving around to various facilities and returns to that diamond in 2017.

A former Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association president, Stutsman sees two highlights of his time in a leadership role.

“There’s better communication with coaches throughout the state (mostly via email and newsletters),” says Stutsman. “The pitch count (rule) that we’re doing now was needed. I know it’s a struggle with the smaller schools to find pitchers, but its good to limit the pitches.

“(The IHSBCA) does a great job. I only joined one union and that’s it.”

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Steve Stutsman celebrates his 300th career coaching victory with his 2017 Elkhart Central High School baseball team after the Blue Blazers beat visiting Angola 5-0 in the second game of a doubleheader Saturday, May 6. Stutsman’s first season as ECHS head coach was 1996. (Steve Krah Photo)

Discipline, structure part of Nielsen’s Concord program

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Regimented and respectful.

Those are concepts Eric Nielsen is establishing in his second season as Concord High School head baseball coach.

“I’m very structured,” says Nielsen, who followed the retiring Jim Treadway as leader of the Minutemen. “All our practices are planned out. We have times and we stick to those times. Guys hustle everywhere they go. We’re very disciplined and are going to play the game the right way. I teach them to respect the game. There’s no trash talking at all. I’m big on body language.”

It’s taken some time, but players are starting to come around to Nielsen’s way of doing things.

“You are starting to see people buying into that,” says Nielsen. “They know what’s expected. Seniors will get on guys if they are not doing things the right way. That’s less that I have to do because that expectation is there.”

Nielsen was an all-state catcher at Elkhart Memorial High School, graduating in 2004. He went to be a regular behind the plate at Purdue University. His first high school head coaching stops came at Mt. Vernon (Fortville) and Knightstown before he moved back to north central Indiana.

Along the way, he has learned how to read his young athletes.

“I’ve learned really well how to manage the players,” says Nielsen. “I think that’s why (Chicago Cubs manager) Joe Maddon is so good at what he does. He’s not managing baseball, he’s managing people. In the olden days with (LaPorte coach) Ken Schreiber, it was this is the way it is and if you don’t like it ‘see ya!’ It was hard-nosed and it was tough.”

And while Nielsen considers himself a traditional, hard-nosed guy, he knows he has to motivate in a different way and keep his players engaged.

“If you know the game of baseball and you can build relationships, you’re going to be very successful, pending you have the talent,” says Nielsen. “I’ve seen teams that have the talent but they never go anywhere because they are so done with the season by the time the state tournament comes around. They’re cashed out.”

A syndrome that baseball and other spring sports face is a loss of focus because it’s the end of the school year. For 12th graders, they call it “senioritis.” But other grades — and even coaches — can get it, too.

Nielsen insists on holding out a carrot for his players.

“You’ve got to have them chasing something,” says Nielsen. “If you don’t, they’re going let up.

“How do you intrinisically motivate the player to want to compete? I tell them to get caught up in the process, don’t get caught up in the results.

“If I can get the process important to them then the results will come. If the process is not important to them, they don’t want to compete and there’s no reason for them to put in everything they have, you’re going to get that apathy.”

Nielsen looks at his 2017 team and sees pitching depth. At least nine of 12 varsity players can take the mound.

“The hard part is finding out who is my No. 1 and No. 2, who’s my best reliever,” says Nielsen. “We’re still in the process of finding that out.”

Along with pitching coach Mike McGregor, Nielsen looks at pitchers not only in terms of physical talent but what’s happening between the ears.

“We’re trying to teach mental toughness on the mound,” says Nielsen. “If we can have guys that will compete, saying ‘I’m going to strike this guy out.’ Even if they don’t, they are going to distinguish themselves from the rest of the players.”

What about the new pitch count rule?

“I thought it was going to be a bigger issue than it has been,” says Nielsen. “I traditionally don’t have guys throw that much anyway. I don’t push the 120 spot. As long as they’re under 80, I know how many days they need off.

“I thought I’d be juggling a lot. It hasn’t been too bad.”

Nielsen said the pitch count rule will likely be more of an issue during the IHSAA tournament series than the regular season.

“People are going to watch that really close,” says Nielsen.

Concord spends plenty of time at its regimented practices on “small ball.” The Minutemen work on moving runners with the bunt.

“We don’t have anybody on the team we can rely on to hit the long ball yet,” says Nielsen.

Something that Nielsen established in his first season at Concord was an Armed Forces Day (Concord Baseball Armed Forces Day on Facebook). It was such a hit, the Minutemen will be pay tribute to those who have served Saturday, May 6 when South Bend Adams visits for a 10 a.m. game.

Father Scott Nielsen (Army during Vietnam era) and grandfather Bob Burns (Air Force during World War II) and assistant coach Jason Paulson (Marines) are all people close to Nielsen with military ties.

As a social studies teacher at CHS, he also gets a chance to tell students about the importance of the military.

“It’s good to show the kids what these guys are doing day in and day out for our country and show them appreciation for the sacrifices that they make and have made for our freedom,” says Nielsen, whose other assistants are Sean Sears and Nic Minder.

The Minutemen compete in the Northern Lakes Conference (along with Elkhart Memorial, Goshen, Northridge, NorthWood, Plymouth, Warsaw and Wawasee). The double round robin NLC race began this week.

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Eric Nielsen, a 2004 Elkhart Memorial High School graduate, is in his second season as head baseball coach at Concord High School. He was a catcher at Purdue University.

Elkhart’s Strausborger getting fresh start with Twins

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Spring brings with it a chance for a fresh start.

The sense of newness rings especially true for Elkhart native Ryan Strausborger as he heads into his eighth season of professional baseball.

Strausborger, a 2006 Elkhart Memorial High School graduate who hitting a program-record .500 as a senior first-team all-state shortstop honoree by the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association, recently signed with the Minnesota Twins organization. He will spend his first spring training in Florida’s Grapefruit League after knowing nothing but Arizona’s Cactus League.

“I’m excited about it,” Strausborger said. “It’s a big relief knowing I have a chance with a team. That’s all I can ask for.

“I’ll hopefully start in Triple-A (at Rochester, N.Y.).”

The right-handed-hitting outfielder who turns 29 March 4 plans to take the option of getting to Twins camp in Fort Myers early on Feb. 20. That’s well ahead of the March 7 official reporting date for position players (pitchers and catchers get there first).

“I’m anxious to get into the swing of things,” Strausborger said.

The versatile speedster was selected in the 16th round of the 2010 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Texas Rangers organization after a stellar collegiate career at Indiana State University (he was a three-time all-Missouri Valley Conference performer as a second baseman in 2008, utility player in 2009 and outfielder in 2010).

Strausborger worked his way up the Rangers ladder and made his MLB debut with Texas Aug. 5, 2015 and socked his lone big league home run Aug. 16 of that year.

He spent all of 2016 in the minor leagues and was traded to the Seattle Mariners organization near the end of 2016 and hit .153 with two homers, 11 RBI and six stolen bases in 40 games at Triple-A Tacoma.

Strausborger chooses to see the positives.

“I’m thankful to the Mariners for the opportunity,” Strausborger said. “I met a lot of awesome people and took away a lot of good things.

“I just didn’t show what I bring to the table. I have nobody to blame but myself.”

Having moved from the Rangers to the Mariners, he had already experienced one transition and now he’s getting ready for another after the Twins reached out to Bob Garber, Strausborger’s agent, and showed interest.

The Twins are bringing Strausborger in as an outfielder, but he plans to let the right people know about his utility abilities and hopes to get in some infield reps.

When Strausborger was with the Rangers, former minor league manager and big league coach Steve Buechele took note of his talents.

“He has that one tool that’s unique to the game and it’s valuable,” Buechele said. “It’s speed and he uses that to play good, solid defense and it helps him offensively. It’s a big part of his game.”

Casey Candaele, who was then minor league field coordinator, also praised Strausborger.

“He plays the game right,” Candaele said. “He’s a hard-nosed guy. He has tools that play.”

While he won’t know too many faces, a couple of Strausborger’s former teammates in the Rangers organization — catcher Chris Gimenez and relief pitcher Nick Tepesch and — are now with the Twins.

Since the end of the 2016 season, Strausborger has gotten to play rounds of golf with his dad, Mike, and to practice the acoustic guitar (picking up pointers on YouTube), while splitting his time between Indiana and Texas.

Off-season training has been devoted to strength and conditioning.

“You want to get as strong as you can and go into the season strong and injury free,” Strausborger said.

Winter months have also been consumed with plenty of batting practice. He even got a chance to share his hitting knowledge in a camp put on by the South Bend Cubs Performance Center. His career has had him traveling too much to give lessons on a regular basis, but he can see himself giving back to the game more in that way after he retires.

During his rise through the baseball ranks, he’s noticed the difference in levels comes down to three things — speed of the game, experience and talent.

“Everybody’s good at this level,” Strausborger said. “Everybody’s here for a reason.”

Right now, he’s enjoying the pro baseball experience.

“I’m happy and I’m blessed,” Strausborger said. “Looking back on it, there’s nothing I would change. I love what I get to do for a living and a job and you can’t ask for more than that.”

Once in awhile, Strausborger might find himself glancing back to his high school days or even to the summers on Elkhart’s Cleveland Little League diamonds.

“It helps you clear your head a little bit,” Strausborger said. “You remember that this game has to be fun.”

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Ryan Strausborger, seen running the bases for the Texas Rangers, is now in the Minnesota Twins organization. (Getty Images)