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Illinois junior colleges tap into Indiana baseball talent

By STEVE KRAH
http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Illinois junior college baseball has long been a destination for Indiana players.
Many have used the two-year institutions to springboard into a four-year school or the professional ranks.
Our neighbors to the west sport 41 National Junior College Athletic Association programs in Division I, II and III (Regions 4 or 24).
There is a difference between divisions.
NJCAA Divisions I and II can offer up to 24 athletic scholarships. Division III schools do not. Most (but not all) junior colleges have other scholarship and financial aid options.
Illinois’ NJCAA D-I teams include Frontier Community College (Fairfield), John A. Logan College (Carterville), Kakaskia College (Centralia), Kishwaukee College (Malta), Lake Land College (Mattoon), Lincoln Trail College (Robinson), Olive-Harvey College (Chicago), Olney Central College (Olney), Rend Lake College (Ina), Shawnee CC (Ullin), South Suburban College (South Holland), Southeastern Illinois College (Harrisburg), Southwestern Illinois College (Swansea), Triton College (River Grove) and Wabash Valley College (Mount Carmel).
Wabash Valley went 59-9 and qualified for the 2022 NJCAA D-I World Series in Grand Junction, Colo.
“We’ve been very fortunate,” says Wabash Valley coach Aaron Biddle, who is in his eighth season with the Warriors and first as head coach in 2023. “We’ve had some very good Indiana kids over the years. We’re just right across the border form Princeton, Ind. Getting into Evansville and going up to Indianapolis are great recruiting sources for us.
“Our conference is real competitive.”
John A. Logan, Kakaskia, Lake Land, Lincoln Trail, Olney Central, Rend Lake, Shawnee, Southeastern Illinois, Southwestern Illinois and Wabash Valley is in the Great Rivers Athletic Conference.
WVC plays mostly D-I schools with a few D-II’s sprinkled in.
“The more D-I opponents you have on your schedule the better it is for your (RPI) rankings,” says Biddle.
What does “JUCO Bandit” means to Biddle, who started his college playing career at former NJCAA D-III St. Catharine in Kentucky and finished at NCAA D-II Kentucky Wesleyan.
“Maybe he’s not be getting the offers he wants at (NCAA) D-I or a big school and he’s going to bet on himself and he’s going to go the JUCO route, grind for two years and get better everyday and definitely get that offer he’s not getting right now,” says Biddle. “We get to spend a lot of time with our guys. We get to be with them almost every single day. There’s not a lot of restrictions on how much practice time we have.
“The big things is that in the fall, we get to play 14 dates. We get to play every weekend. Guys are getting all those extra innings and they’re getting to compete. That’s a big thing for us.
“In baseball you’ve got to play to get better.”
Biddle says the funnest aspect of his job is seeing players land at their dream school.
South Suburban posted a 42-19 record in 2022.
Kevin Bowers has been head coach at Lincoln Trail since the 2010 season. That was the sophomore season of Justin Hancock (who went on to pitch in the big leagues and is now an Indiana State University assistant).
Bowers was on the LTC staff since 2001 and was an assistant to then-Statesmen head coach Mitch Hannahs (who is now head coach at Indiana State).
Bowers coached at ISU for the 2000 season. Lincoln Trail is about 10 miles from the Indiana line and 40 miles from ISU.
“The talent level is just off the chart,” says Bowers. “I’m certainly not knocking the state of Illinois. We’ve had a great deal of success with kids out of Indiana.”
Bowers has a take on “JUCO Bandit.”
“We develop an ‘ask no quarter, take no quarter’ mentality,” says Bowers. “We don’t want for a lot. We don’t need a lot. But we try to get a lot done.
“’Bandit has that negative connotation to it. When you go to junior college your mindset is that you’re foregoing the 100,000-seat football stadium. There’s not a lot of nightlife. Campus activities are geared around the athletics. You develop a worker’s mentality.
“There’s not a lot of thrills, but the talent at this level is crazy good.”
Bowers said there was a time when junior college baseball was battling the perception that their players had got booted from another school or could not make grades.
“Our guys are getting it done in the classroom and they’re getting it done on the field,” says Bowers, whose program earned a 2021-22 American Baseball Coaches Association Team Excellence Award for posting a grade-point average of 3.0 or above. “It’s a situation where academically you’re not going to lose ground.”
Illinois’ NJCAA D-II squads are Black Hawk-Moline College (Moline), Carl Sandburg College (Galesburg), Danville Area CC (Danville), Elgin CC (Elgin), Heartland CC (Normal), Highland College (Freeport), Illinois Central College (East Peoria), Illinois Valley CC (Oglesby), John Wood CC (Quincy), Kankakee CC (Kankakee), College of Lake County (Grayslake), Lewis & Clark CC (Godfrey), Lincoln Land CC (Springfield), McHenry County College (Crystal Lake), Moraine Valley CC (Palos Heights), Morton College (Cicero), Parkland College (Champaign), Prairie State College (Chicago Heights), Sauk Valley CC (Dixon) and Spoon River College (Canton).
Heartland (49-10) played in the 2022 NJCAA D-II World Series in Enid, Okla.
The Mid-West Athletic Conference features Heartland, Danville Area, Illinois Central, John Wood, Lewis & Clark, Lincoln Land, Parkland and Spoon River plus Vincennes (Ind.) University.
Also in 2022, Kankakee went 43-17, McHenry 40-18, Black Hawk-Moline 35-20, Lake County 32-20 and Morton 32-20.
Illinois’ NJCAA D-III features College of DuPage (Glen Ellyn), Harper College (Palatine), Joliet Junior College (Joliet), Oakton CC (Skokie), Rock Valley College (Rockport) and Waubonsee CC (Sugar Grove).
The Arrowhead Conference is made up of Black Hawk-Moline, Carl Sandburg, Highland, Illinois Valley, Kishwaukee and Sauk Valley.
Oakton (34-28-1) competed in the 2022 NJCAA D-III World Series in Greenville, Tenn.
Illinois Skyway Collegiate Conference includes Lake County, Elgin, McHenry County, Moraine Valley, Morton, Oakton, Prairie State and Waubonsee.
Since 1993, Triton is a two-time D-I World Series runner-up (1993 and 1994).
D-II World Series titles were earned by Kishwaukee (1999), Lincoln Land (2000), Parkland (2002 and 2009) and Kankakee (2017). Parkland was also a runner-up in 2018.
Joliet earned D-III World Series championships in 1994, 2008 and 2012 and placed second in 1995 and 2015. Oakton reigned in D-III in 2018 and Waubonsee was runner-up in 1996.

Barney’s spent decade leading Vincennes U. baseball

RBILOGOSMALL copy

BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Student-athletes are constantly coming and going. That’s the nature of junior college sports.

Chris Barney is in his 10th season as head baseball coach at one such two-year institution — Vincennes (Ind.) University.

“I enjoy the challenge,” says Barney. “I enjoy the aspect of recruiting. You’re always looking for the next best thing.”

A poor team can get better quickly with a solid recruiting class.

‘I’m often asked, what are you looking for in college baseball? Bats play. If you can swing the pole, you’re going to play at the junior college level.”

VU’s stated mission is “to provide associate degree and certificate programs in a wide variety of academic and occupational majors leading to entry to a four-year university or to the workforce.”

Vincennes serves more than 17,000 at its various locations with about a third of that number at the main campus.

“It’s not the typical junior college,” says Barney. “It has a mid-major collegiate feel.”

The goal of the baseball program is to place student-athletes with a place to play at a four-year college. As of last week, 96 Vincennes players had moved on during the decade that Barney’s been in charge, including 32 to NCAA Division I, many to NCAA D-II and NAIA and a few to NCAA D-III.

Barney sees players choose the junior college route for many reasons. Among them are cost, grade issues, level of play, the chance to play right away or be drafted by Major League Baseball and not have to wait to turn 21 or play three seasons like is required at four-year schools.

The Trailblazers’ core beliefs revolve around faith, family, school and baseball.

“It’s like a three-ring circus of academics, athletics and the social scene,” says Barney of Vincennes campus life. “You have to have self-discipline and time management skills. You prioritize where you want to spend your time and what you want to get accomplished out of college.

“You can obtain your full potential as a player. That’s what junior college offers guys.”

Junior college players are allowed to practice more often that those at other levels.

All the time with the team allows individuals to built work ethic, character and emotional stability and, hopefully, have a positive experience.

“It’s an opportunity to get better,” says Barney. “There’s always obstacles and challenges for guys, where it’s an injury, a class, a teammate or playing time. But they learn the fundamental game of baseball.”

School rules say Vincennes freshmen must stay in campus housing. Sophomores have the choice to live on-campus or off-campus. Barney says there’s about a 50-50 split for his current sophomore class.

Barney, who is assisted by Hank Lopez and Matt Goebel, started out with 37 players in the fall and took 31 into the spring.

Almost all of those have hometowns in Indiana.

Until a couple of years ago, Indiana was Barney’s recruiting base. Such scholarship money is based on in-state tuition.

With the favorable rates and so many Illinois junior college baseball programs as opposed to Indiana (which now has three — Vincennes, Ancilla College and Ivy Tech Northeast), plenty of Indiana players choose to play junior college baseball in Illinois.

But Illinois has been opened up so that VU can offer students there a cost similar to what they would get in-state.

“I hope to drive up the price of poker in Illinois for some of those guys,” says Barney of landing Illinois players for the VU program.

Rules allow junior colleges to play 20 games against outside competition in the fall. Vincennes also plays about 10 intrasquad games. There are 56 regular-season games in the spring.

That’s a lot of innings to cover so Barney typically carries 16 to 18 pitches, some of whom also play other positions.

“I love those guys,” says Barney. “If they can be successful at both, it’s well worth or time and energy to put the effort into that.”

The Trailblazers are in National Junior College Athletic Association Division II Region 24. The region is made up of nine Mid-West Athletic Conference members — Vincennes plus Danville (Ill.) Area Community College, Heartland Community College (Normal, Ill.), Illinois Central College (East Peoria, Ill.), John Wood Community College (Quincy, Ill.), Lewis & Clark Community College (Godfrey, Ill.), Lincoln Land Community College (Springfield, Ill.), Parkland College (Champaign, Ill.) and Spoon River College (Canton, Ill.).

Vincennes went into play April 3 at 15-12 overall and 4-4 in the conference.

There is a 32-game conference schedule. The top eight teams go to the MWAC tournament. The winner advances to the NJCAA D-II World Series (May 25-June 1 in Enid, Okla.).

“There’s a lot of positives in moving over to that region,” says Barney. “Before, we were independent in Region 12, which is Indiana, Ohio and Michigan. Trying to find games in late March, April and part of May was a bear.”

Vincennes went to the World Series in 2010 and 2014 under the old qualifying format. Teams were required to make it through a sub-regional to get to an eight-team double-elimination tournament that sent the champion to championship series.

The Trailblazers play home games at Jeremy Blemker Field.

Huntingburg, Ind., native Blemker coached for 38 years, including 26 at Vincennes (1980-2006) and amassed a NJCAA-record 1,037 victories. He sent more than 180 players on to play at universities around the country and 27 signed professional contracts.

Blemker, who died in 2012, was an inductee of the NJCAA and Greater Evansville Baseball halls of fame.

The original Blemker Field was on the VU campus. It was razed to make room for Updike Hall Scienc Earth and Mathematics Learning Center and the Trailblazers moved to a new baseball complex on Old Terre Haute Road five years ago.

Barney says the university has continued to provide the team with the means to maintain the facility.

Before landing at VU, Orlando, Fla., native Barney has made several baseball coaching stops. He was assistant coach and recruiting director for 13 years at the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville.

Barney, a graduate of Tennessee Wesleyan University in Athens, Tenn., has also served as head coach of the Quincy Gems and Springfield Rifles in the Central Illinois Collegiate League (summer) and was an assistant at Tennessee Wesleyan, Tusculum University (Greeneville, Tenn.) and St. John’s River State College (Palatka, Fla.) as well as serving on the summer staffs for the Frontier League’s Midwest Sliders (Ypsilanti, Mich.) and New England Collegiate Baseball League’s Vermont Mountaineers (Montpelier, Vt.).

Barney counts Mike Policastro, Tom Griffin, Mike Goedde and Mike Robins among his baseball mentors.

Barney played for Policastro (now head coach at Cleveland State Community College in Tennessee) at Tenessee Weselyan and was a teammate and coached alongside Griffin (now head coach at Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City, Tenn.) at that same school. Goedde (now head coach at Evansville Central High School) was USI head coach when Barney was on the staff. Robins led the squad at St. John’s River.

“You take a little bit from everybody,” says Barney. “You put your own personality on the program, too.

“It’s fun. The kids keep you young and always bring something new to the table.”

VINCENNESUBLAZERS

CHRISBARNEY

Chris Barney is in his 10th season as head baseball coach at Vincennes (Ind.) University in 2019. (Steve Krah Photo)

 

Hershberger’s Ivy Tech Titans fight way to 25-18 in inaugural season

RBILOGOSMALL copy

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Nobody said it would be easy — particularly Lance Hershberger — but Ivy Tech Community College Northeast completed its inaugural season in 2018 at 25-18.

For various reasons, the Fort Wayne-based Titans wound up the season with a roster of 14 — Alec Agler (Fort Wayne Northrop), Nick Bradley (Fort Wayne Concordia Lutheran), Trey Bruce (East Noble), Drew Buffenbarger (Churubusco), Andrew Carpenter (Lakewood Park Christian), Drew Dobbels (Bellmont), Turner Gentry (Lexington, Ky.), Zack Haefer (East Noble), Deven Hill (Richmond, Mich.), Brandon Jencks (Churubusco), Zach Orn (Eastside), Noah Parish (Fort Wayne Concordia), Tyler Rickert (Leo) and Alex Vela (Indianapolis Cardinal Ritter) — and 12 able bodies.

There were no backups for position players. Rickert caught 18 straight games.

Head coach Hershberger, whose passion was captured by IndianaRBI.com last summer, calls them “The Dirty Dozen.”

“We fought tooth and nail and I give them all kinds of credit.,” says Hershberger. “They never made an excuse for it. I’d like to think that reflected the demands of their coaches. We didn’t cut them any slack.

“We were trying to get them to withstand all the things it was going to take to be successful with that few people.”

Ivy Tech, a two-year school, took the field as independents without conference affiliation.

Because of less-than-ideal meteorlogical conditions, Ivy Tech cobbled together a schedule that only slightly resembled the original 54-game sale.

“It wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on part way through the season because of the weather,” says Hershberger. “It got to the point that we’d play whoever. We had to go find people to play.”

The Titans wound up sending his squad against Kellogg (Battle Creek, Mich.) and Sinclair (Dayton, Ohio) — ranked Nos. 2 and 17, respectively, in the latest National Junior College Athletic Association Division II polls — a combined 10 times. “As the season went along, it got even tougher (to find games) because they found out we weren’t an easy win.”

Asked many times why they would choose to pick up games against the two toughest teams in Region 12, Hershberger had a ready answer.

“It was kind of house money because we can’t participate in the regional the first year,” says Hershberger. “But you can look across the diamond and see where you need to get to.

“When I was at Indiana Tech (1991-2002), we played as many (NCAA) D-I’s as would play us. That’s how you get better.”

It was a fun weekend for Hershberger. All but two of the players from the 1998 NAIA World Series runners-up came from all over the country to Fort Wayne for the Indiana Tech Athletics Hall of Fame induction of the squad. The coach had the honor of introducing each of the Warriors.

“It was a great time,” says Hershberger.

He was back at Indiana Tech a few days later when Ivy Tech had a makeup game against Edison State (Piqua, Ohio) and Shoaff Park was occupied by Fort Wayne Bishop Dwenger High School.

After the contest, Hershberger was admiring the championship banners his Indiana Tech teams had earned.

Then one of his Ivy Tech players came to the outfield to join him.

“He says, ‘Coach. Hey, I just want to tell you thanks for everything. I’d probably be dead if I wasn’t here playing for you.’ … He meant it. I could see it in his eyes. We started hugging and I started balling.

“I haven’t hugged and been told ‘I love you’ and said ‘I love you’ with so many grown men since the last couple of days.”

Full of emotion, Hershberger was so wound up after the final game that he and faithful dog Ryno just drove around town.

Hershberger had been coaching in high school and travel baseball with the Summit City Sluggers  the last few years, but had not coached college players since leaving Indiana Tech.

In his postgame remarks, Hershberger told his Titans, “I want to thank you for allowing me to get back into college baseball. That’s how I’m going to remember this group.

“I told (assistants Dru Sebastian and Benny Clark) that they’re young coaches and may coach another 30 years,” says Hershberger. But they may never get so much out of a team. We finished with 12 players.”

Connor Wilkins is also an assistant coach. Part-time help comes from Jim Cahill and Tony Georgi, mostly in the area of community outreach in the Urban Initiative Program that Hershberger and company run through Community Impact Zone/Strike Zone Training.

Hershberger had let those that were there at the beginning of the year know that the standards were set high.

Players reported three days at week at 6 a.m. for workouts at Optimum Performance Sports. There was practice every day after school and three nights of study table each week.

It was too much of a commitment for some and they didn’t stay.

“They said, wait a second. This isn’t LSU, it’s Ivy Tech,” says Hershberger. “But you’ve got to start the expectations.”

A history buff, Hershberger borrowed a page from Sam Houston and the line in the sand during the fight for Texas independence in the 1830’s.

Wielding a sword from the school mascot, Hershberger came to practice and drew his own line.

“Step across if you’re buying into this. If you’re not, get out of here,” says Hershberger of what he told his players that day. “We’re going to move forward with this.”

Hershberger knows that he can be polarizing and is unapologetically old school. He frequently quotes former University of Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler: “Those who stay will be champions.”

“Difficult. Hard. Demanding. Being in good physical shape. No excuses,” says Hershberger. “Those aren’t bad words in our program.

“That’s not for everybody. I don’t think it’s antiquated either.

“I tell recruits that there isn’t a whole lot of gray area. It’s black-and-white. You either buy in or you don’t.

“The worst thing you can say about a coach is, ‘Oh, he’s OK.’ There are too many kids sleepwalking though life. You need to be passionate about what you’re doing. If they say ‘he’s a horse’s patoot’ at least he’s passionate about it.”

Hershberger tells recruits and our players that the goal is to get to Enid, Okla., and win a national championship .

“That’s not hot air,” says Hershberger. “That’s what we want to do and that’s extremely difficult.

“The standard that they’re held to is the perfect game. You seek perfection and settle for greatness. The less mistakes you make, the better chance you have of winning a national championship.

“There’s going to be demands put upon you. You’re going to be challenged. That’s where we’re coming from.”

Hershberger doesn’t expect his teams to win every game, but he insists they play the game the right way.

“The selling point to me about junior college baseball is that you get to teach the game,” says Hershberger.

Looking to 2018-19, Ivy Tech has signed 17 new recruits to put with the 14 who intend to come back for their second and final season.

Ivy Tech could be independent again or find a home in the Ohio Community College Athletic Conference.

Fundraising efforts are needed to bring an on-campus stadium that would be shared with Dwenger. Hershberger says the Titans could go back to Shoaff Park or find a home at the Ash Centre.

Whatever happens with Ivy Tech with Hershberger in charge, one thing is certain:  It won’t be easy.

IVYTECHPLAYERS

Ivy Tech Community College Northeast in Fort Wayne finished its inaugural baseball season in 2018 with 14 on the roster and wound up 25-18. (Ivy Tech Photo)

IVYTECHCOACHES

Ivy Tech baseball coaches from left: Head coach Lance Hershberger and assistants Benny Clark, Dru Sebastian and Connor Wilkins. The Fort Wayne-based Titans just concluded their first season with a 25-18 record. (Steve Krah Photo)