Tag Archives: Fairfield

Prep baseball coaches try to lift seniors’ spirits

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BY JIM PETERS

For http://www.IndianaRBI.com

“We’re all told at some point in time that we can no longer play the children’s game, we just don’t … don’t know when that’s gonna be. Some of us are told at 18, some of us are told at 40, but we’re all told.” — Moneyball

One of the famous quotes from the movie about Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane has hit home for many high school seniors whose playing days weren’t ended by the standard baseball career markers — graduation, injury, a roster cut or retirement — but by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I know how big it was for me,” South Bend Clay coach Joel Reinebold said of his last prep game. “I was playing for my dad (Jim Reinebold). I stood out in the outfield and cried that it was over.”

The moment is etched in time for Reinebold, who went on to play at Mississippi College. In retrospect, he hurts for the seniors who are not getting any such closure this spring.

“It’s a tough way to end your career,” he said. “I can’t imagine.”

Reinebold and other coaches across Indiana are doing a variety of things to try to ease the disappointment of the lost 2020 season for their final-year players.

One of Reinebold’s endeavors is having individual signs made for his seniors and placing them on the infield with their jerseys under the lights of the diamond, which is named after his father.

“Just give them a little salute, hey, we’re sorry you don’t get to play, but thank you for everything you’ve done for three years,” he said.

Clay expected to have nine seniors this spring, four of whom are first-year players. Catcher-outfielder Mark Williams and outfielder-pitcher Jackson Jones would have been in their fourth year on varsity and Hunter Aker in his third. Other veterans were Miguel Penaloza and Tyler Williams. Aker, a first baseman-shortstop-pitcher, will go on to play at Manchester University, while Bethel University is looking at Jones, an outfielder-pitcher.

“Some are going on to college, some are done and it’s time to figure out something else to do, and some may realize with time that they’re not ready to get out,” Reinebold said.

The team last met on the final day of February for a conditioning session. After an initial two-week shutdown, there was hope for a return March 15. When it was bumped back again, teams held on to the prospect of an abbreviated season until that glimmer was snuffed out with the state’s shutdown for the rest of the school year.

“We can’t even meet,” said Reinebold, who is doing all correspondence via text. “We can’t do anything as a group. We can’t make them work out. I was trying to think of the last time we were together. It seems like forever.”

***

Hope springs eternal in March, when everybody is 0-0 with aspirations for greatness. With a whopping 11 seniors, Jimtown had high expectations for the season, led by shortstop Dustin Whitman, a four-year starter, three-year catcher Sammy Schwartz and outfielder-pitcher Brandon Coble.

“Most coaches are saying that now, but we really had our eyes set on moving the program forward,” Jimmies coach Cory Stoner said. “They’ve worked hard. They practice on their own. We don’t have to tell them what to do. It’s a tribute to them for taking charge. It’s a really close group that gets along. They’ve spent a lot of time together growing up.”

The day after the season was officially cancelled, assistant coach Jim Fredwell approached Stoner with the suggestion of turning on the stadium lights, piggybacking on a idea that has been done across the country as a symbolic tip of the cap to seniors.

“We both have little kids, so it seemed like a fun thing,” Stoner said. “A couple people stopped by (Booster Field). My college coach (Seth Zartman) lives down the road and he came down. It was pretty cool to see.”

Given the opportunity, Stoner hopes to do something more extensive this summer, kicking around the idea of a mock senior night with a cookout or, should the social distancing restrictions be eased back by then, possibly an intra-squad scrimmage.

“We’ve got a great group of seniors and we want to honor them in the right way,” Stoner said. “It’s just hard right now to plan much of anything.”

Stoner recently organized a virtual team meeting during which he let each of the seniors talk and their words warmed his heart.

“Clay Campbell was talking about how devastating this is, but we have to look at the big picture, that there are people who are hurting far worse,” Stoner said. “We try to preach selfless leadership, putting others first, and he’s one who really gets it. It was cool to hear.”

***

Goshen‘s five-player senior class will always hold a special place for RedHawks coach J.J. DuBois, now even more so due to the circumstances.

“I coached them on JV before varsity,” DuBois said. “This was my first group that I’ve had since they were freshmen. It’s a great group of kids, the perfect program guys. Goshen baseball doesn’t have a great history of success. We haven’t won a sectional since 2008. This was our best shot to sneak up on people like Northridge and Penn. We didn’t have a ton of varsity experience, but we have good talent. It was the perfect team for this year.”

DuBois is going to great lengths to honor his seniors in light of them missing out on the chance to fulfill their on-field aspirations. Among them, pitcher-shortstop Skylar Reyes, last season’s MVP, will play at Manchester, and Tommy Cartagena Garcia, who came to the school from Puerto Rico as a sophomore, is also looking at a couple schools.

“Losing their season, they’re so disappointed they don’t get to wear the RedHawks jersey one more time,” he said. “You want to give them things to remember, not just the wins and losses, but something special, fun things like dinner with the guys.”

It started with 20-minute Zoom interviews with each player in which they answered a variety of questions, both related and not related to baseball. Preview clips were posted on the Goshen baseball Twitter account with the full segments available on YouTube.

“They got to tell some cool stories that got them laughing,” DuBois said. “It was a good time.”

Borrowing an idea from basketball coach Michael Wohlford, who had posters done for his players, DuBois is in the process of having replica jerseys put in frames for each seniors. His hope is to hold a ceremony where they can gather the seniors and their parents to recognize them.

“Who knows with the timing,” he said. “We certainly have the room (to spread out) on a baseball field.”

***

NorthWood coach A.J. Risedorph has five players in his senior class — third-year regulars Jaden Miller and Cooper Davis, Josh Stratford, Jack Wysong and Kyler Germann all of whom have been in the program since they were freshmen. Among them, only Miller (Danville Area Community College) is signed to play at the collegiate level, though Wysong is headed to DePauw University for tennis.

“We graduated a pretty good class, so I was more excited about the competition, the young guys who were going to step up,” Risedorph said. “That’s what sports is all about. They put in all the time and have been ready from day one. It’s very unfortunate. A lot of guys are struggling. We want to make sure they’re all right.”

With that in mind, Risedorph has a few projects in the works, starting off with social media posts. After doing some online searching, he’s looking into having personalized bats and replica jerseys done as senior gifts.

“My wife (Jenna) was talking about driving around to the homes and dropping them off,” he said.

The school’s baseball field doesn’t have lights, but Risedorph is thinking about getting the site game ready with bases, batter’s boxes and base lines, then painting the players’ numbers on the grass with the stencils used for football.

“Maybe we can do a drone shot,” he said. “We’d like to get them back out again. It kind of all depends on how long we’re shut down, as we get more information from the state.”

The missed season isn’t impactful on the seniors alone. Risedorph shared the story of junior Sergio Lira Ayala, who came to the school from Puerto Rico during his freshman year.

“He lives and breathes baseball, it’s all he cares about,” Risedorph said. “It’s his escape, with everything he’s dealt with. He just wants to be able to compete. I tell the juniors, you’re the seniors now. The standard of expectations is on their shoulders now.”

***

There’s no protocol, no manual, no reference for coaches on how to tell their seniors they don’t get to play their final season.

“There are guys who like to play and guys who love to play,” Fairfield coach Darin Kauffman said. “I have three of them it was really tough for. I felt awful for calling and leaving a message that we were done for the season. How do you do that? As coaches, it stinks, we want to play, too, but next year, we’ll be at it again. For the seniors, they don’t know if they’ll ever be on a field again and play.”

Of his seniors, just one, Felipe Arevalo, has a possibility of playing in college.

“He’d be really good for a JUCO for two years and go (to a four-year school) from there,” Kauffman said. “He called me right after (the season was cancelled). He was crying. He just loves the game. It was devastating to him. I felt bad. We were talking to colleges and they were planning on seeing him. Now they won’t be able to set up something.”

Kauffman has taken to doing social media posts with pictures of his seniors with write-ups that are going up one a day on the team page, as well as on the athletic department account, which is doing the same for the other spring sports.

“I’d like to have a thing, if we’re allowed to do it, on a nice day, in July even, where we could all meet at the field and recognize all the seniors for everything they’ve done, say some final words,” he said. “They worked hard in the winter. The guys were all for it.”

Fairfield didn’t bring back a great deal of experience after graduating 11 seniors last year, so it will now be in the same boat next season.

“I’m hoping the underclassmen can play at least a couple games,” Kauffman said. “If not, it’ll be almost two years. I don’t know what we’ll do. We won’t have a lot of seniors and it’ll be like really having two freshman classes. We have some young kids who wanted to travel.”

Kauffman has been staying busy with free online clinics and webinars.

“I sent out some things I want them to do, to try to keep their arms in shape,” he said. “Some kids have a back yard big enough to at least go out and do something, but everybody has a different dilemma. We’re all in the same boat on this.”

Follow Jim Peters on Twitter — @JP8185

BOOSTERFIELDLIGHTS

The lights on Booster Field were illuminated to honor Jimtown High School’s Class of 2020, which did not get to play at senior season because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Teams all over Indiana are finding ways to say thanks to the seniors. (Jimtown Baseball Photo)

 

Iowa Cubs hire Stephens as stadium operations manager

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Josh Stephens has gotten the call up to Triple-A baseball.

Stephens, a Goshen, Ind., native who graduated from Indiana University with a Sports Marketing and Management degree in May 2019, has accepted a stadium operations manager position with the Iowa Cubs, the top affiliate of the Chicago Cubs.

A 2015 graduate of Fairfield Junior/Senior High School in Benton, Ind., where he played baseball and basketball, Stephens returns to the team where he served two internships.

After graduation, Stephens went to work as stadium operations assistant with the Low Class-A South Bend Cubs. He worked for that franchise for a month before being offered the job in Des Moines, Iowa.

“It’s a good opportunity at such a young age,” says Stephens, 23. “I’m glad they reached out to me.

“I’ve always wanted to work in baseball. I enjoy minor league baseball. It’s more relaxed and a family atmosphere. There’s something about baseball that keeps fans coming.”

Baseball has always been important in the Stephens family. Bryan and Holly often planned their vacations with Josh and younger sister Jenna around baseball.

When Josh was 6, he and his father set a goal of attending games at all 30 Major League Baseball parks. When Josh was 17, that goal was achieved.

“Sometimes sister and mom would tag along if national parks were involved,” says Stephens.

A lifelong Cubs fan, he ranks Wrigley Field as his favorite MLB venue.

“As a Cubs fan, I’m pretty loyal to Wrigley,” says Stephens of park in Chicago’s north side. “It’s the nostalgia.”

His next two choices are Fenway Park in Boston and PNC Park in Pittsburgh.

Stephens has not been to too many minor league parks.

“I really like Four Winds (Field in South Bend),” says Stephens. “The (seating on the) roof tops are really cool.”

Principal Park is the home of the Iowa Cubs.

The way Iowa does it, stadium operations has a manager, three directors and about 25 interns during the season.

Stadium ops is responsible for all facility repairs and for executing off-season events like weddings and concerts.

During the season, game day is broken into three parts.

The morning shift cleans the seating bowl with blowers and hoses.

At game time, it’s about executing between-innings promotions and fan engagement.

“I like being outside and doing the grit work,” says Stephens, who has worked on the golf course grounds crew at Maplecrest Country Club in Goshen. “You get to learn people’s stories. You’re not always behind the desk.”

Stephens says it always helps Iowa when a major leaguer comes to Iowa on a rehabilitation assignment.

“We get more fans,” says Stephens.

After the game, stadium operations begins preparation for the next day and there’s trash removal and lock-up.

One popular post-game promotion is offering fans the opportunity to come on the field watch “Field of Dreams” on the video board.

After all this is Iowa. One one family vacation, the Stephens landed at the site where the 1989 movie was shot near Dyersville. It just so happened that star Kevin Costner was there for a reunion and a young Josh got to play catch with “Ray Kinsella.”

Stephens is due to return to Iowa the week of Feb. 17. Meanwhile, he and fiancee Lauren Lehr (a 2015 Goshen High School graduate and kindergarten teacher at Prairie View Elementary in Goshen) are finalizing plans for their June wedding at Tippecanoe Lake Country Club in Leesburg, Ind.

The Iowa Cubs are scheduled to open the home portion of the 2020 Pacific Coast League season April 14.

Before then, stadium operations will be performing tasks like turning on the plumbing, removing snow and putting up signage on the outfield wall.

LAURENLEHRJOSHSTEPHENSIOWA

Lauren Lehr (left) and Josh Stephens share a moment at Principal Park in Des Moines, Iowa. Stephens has been hired by the Iowa Cubs as a stadium operations manager. Lehr and Stephens, both of Goshen, Ind., are engaged. The wedding is scheduled for June 2020.

 

Guthrie eager to get going with Prairie Heights Panthers

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

T.J. Guthrie was just hired as the head baseball coach at Prairie Heights Community High School near LaGrange, Ind.

Guthrie and his coaching staff are young and eager to work with the Panthers.

“There’s not a staff out there more excited to get going,” says Guthrie, who at 26 is the oldest in a group that also includes Prairie Heights alums Tanner Perkins (who played at Indiana Tech in Fort Wayne), Mike Gustin (who played at Trine University in Angola, Ind.) and Zach Smith. “We’re young and connected to the community.

“We have to have the youngest aggregate age in the state.”

Guthrie’s hiring was approved by the school board too late for the fall Limited Contact Period. The next window for baseball activities opens in a little over a month.

“I’m counting down the days until Dec. 9, I know that,” says Guthrie. That’s when teams can have two-hour blocks twice-a-week for baseball activity. He plans to precede that with an hour of weight lifting and conditioning, putting  as baseball practice at 7:30 p.m. after winter sports practices.

“I want to give everybody an opportunity to get on board early,” says Guthrie.

Why conditioning before practice and not after?

“I want to see them perform when their legs are not fresh,” says Guthrie. This equates to being able to make plays late in games when they’re worn out.

Perkins pitched at Indiana Tech, where head coach Kip McWilliams ran practices with a fast tempo. Guthrie plans to adopt that style for his Panthers.

“I want to see how they (perform) in bottom of seventh when they’re worn out,” says Guthrie. “When you practice at a high pace, once you get in a game everything seems to slow down.”

Building Heights up from the bottom will be a priority.

“We’re going to make sure we focus on the little things a lot,” says Guthrie. “As part of part of our warm-up routine, infielders will be working on their hands and footwork every single day. Outfielders will be doing drop steps and sprinting to the baseball.

“We want to start from the ground up and make sure everything fundamental is correct. We want to make sure we play the game the right way.”

Guthrie also intends to use plenty of technology and metrics, using Blast Motion to measure launch angle and exit velocity.

“We’re top of the cage enthusiasts,” says Guthrie. “We’ll do a lot of weighted-bat training. We’ll work on our hit path and getting the barrel on a plane. It’s rotational hitting.

“We want to lead the conference and, ideally, the state in doubles and home runs.”

This is Guthrie’s second stint on the Panthers staff. He wound up a run after the 2017 working with Nick Pfafman, who left to join head coach Greg Perschke at Trine.

A 2011 Fremont (Ind.) High School graduate who played for Eagles head coach Justin Bock, Guthrie went to Trine to be a pitcher and first baseman. He blew out his elbow in the first couple of practices and opted to focus on his studies and earn an accounting degree which he now puts to use with marketing and sales for his parents’ business, Casey’s Cove Marina on Crooked Lake in Angola.

Guthrie got his coaching start in the Sandy Koufax League in Fremont and coached in travel ball with the Indiana Elite and Sturgis, Mich.-based Hitters Edge.

Prairie Heights plays on-campus at Kellett Field, a facility that has been recently edged and is going through infield work. There are now double-barrel bullpens on both sides of the field. A year ago, the field got new fencing. The playing surface and irrigation system went in five years ago. There are no lights.

“The field is going to play very nice,” says Guthrie. “We have maintenance staff ready to help us out.”

While he has a young squad and no current college baseball commitments, Guthrie has players with those aspirations.

“I’ll put a big emphasis on trying to get guys to the next level,” says Guthrie. “I’m working hard to develop relationships with a lot of these area junior colleges (including Glen Oaks Community College in Centreville, Mich., and Ivy Tech Northeast in Fort Wayne).”

Recent Prairie Heights graduate Jacob Heller also played baseball at Trine.

Four communities with their own youth leagues — Stroh, South Milford, Ashley-Hudson and Orland — feed into Prairie Heights and Guthrie intends to become a familiar face to those players and coaches.

“A number of players are in travel baseball,” says Guthrie. “I want wake sure I’m getting involved with the guys that are staying local and get them ready for high school.”

Prairie Heights (enrollment around 410) is a member of the Northeast Corner Conference (with Angola, Central Noble, Churubusco, Eastside, Fairfield, Fremont, Garrett, Hamilton, Lakeland, West Noble and Westview).

Each team plays each other once with the home team alternating from year to year. There’s also an in-season tournament. Teams are guaranteed two games. Most weekday games are played at 5:30 p.m.

The Panthers are part of an IHSAA Class 2A sectional grouping with Bremen, Central Noble, Fairfield, LaVille and Westivew. Prairie Heights has won two sectional titles — 1977 and 1984.

T.J. and Cheyene Guthrie were high school sweethearts. The couple, which resides in Angola, celebrated four years of marriage in September.

TJGUTHRIE

T.J. Guthrie is the new head baseball coach at Prairie Heights Community High School near LaGrange, Ind. He has recently been coaching travel ball for Hitters Edge.

TJGUTHRIEHITTERSEDGE

T.J. Guthrie (right) stands with a trophy he won in a coaches home run derby at a Gameday USA travel tournament with Hitters Edge. Celebrating with him are former player T.J. Vanderkuyl and assistant coach Jacob Summers. Guthrie is a 2011 Fremont (Ind.) High School graduate who recently became head baseball coach at Prairie Heights Community High School near LaGrange, Ind.

TJCHEYENEGUTHRIET.J. and Cheyene Guthrie take in a baseball game. T.J. Guthrie is now head baseball coach at Prairie Heights Community High School near LaGrange, Ind.

 

NECC Home Run Derby promotes baseball, cancer awareness

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

As a way of promoting baseball and helping the community, two senior ballplayers at Lakeland Junior/Senior High School in LaGrange, Ind., came up with an idea.

Jayce Riegling and Braden Yoder decided to organize a home run derby and invited other players from the Northeast Corner Conference to participate.

Sixteen hitters representing nine of the conference’s 12 schools — Angola (where Roger Roddy is head coach), Central Noble (Tyler Graybeal), Fairfield (Darin Kauffman), Fremont (Justin Bock), Garrett (Jason Richards), Lakeland (Michael Isaacs), Prairie Heights (T.J. Guthrie), West Noble (Doug Brown), and Westview (Jason Rahn) — are slated to slug it out, beginning at 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 3 on the Lakeland diamond.

There will be four rounds with batters seeing how many homers they can hit in three minutes.

All proceeds from the event, which has 48 corporate sponsors, will be going to Hello Gorgeous!, a non-profit organization that provides complimentary, professional makeovers and cosmetic education to all women battling all cancers. Organizers says that more than $5,000 has already been raised.

Tickets will be on sale the day of the event for $3. T-shirts will also be sold. To keep spectators fed, the MADD Chef Creationz food truck will be there, too.

Why an NECC Home Run Derby?

“Everyone loves home runs,” says Riegling. “I want to be an agent. I was talking to some (sports) agents. They told me to come up with baseball projects.”

After batting around a few ideas, they settled on bringing in players with the pitcher of their choice for a home run derby.

“It helps the community better,” says Riesling. “It gets us closer.”

Yoder, who is considering a career in engineering, sees his role in the project as the proof reader and aesthetic editor.

“I try to make everything look nice,” says Yoder. “I’m more behind the scenes. I keep things straight.

“This is going to be a fun event. I’m excited. It’s the first time I’ve ever done anything like this. So far it’s turned out perfectly.”

Yoder says permission forms need to be finalized, but they will welcome participation by younger kids to shag balls.

The event was originally scheduled for May 2020, but the IHSAA informed the organizers that players could not participate in-season so the date was changed.

If the weather does not cooperate Sunday, back-up dates are Nov. 9 and 10. Updates will be placed on the project’s Twitter page — @NECC_HRD.

Most of the participants came to a media day sponsored by Shipshewana Trading Place.

Here’s what the many of the hitters had to say:

Felipe Arevalo (Fairfield): “This is a very nice project … We all love baseball. This will be my first home run derby. It’s going to be fun … (Coach Kauffman) talks about hitting the ball hard.”

Brayden Bontrager (Lakeland): “I just love the game. Baseball is a fun sport to play. I always like to hit home runs … Home runs are the best part of the game. It rallies the team … (Coach Isaacs) is more of a contact guy, get guys on-base … The ball travels here in left field. There’s a cornfield out there.”

Nathan Burr (Central Noble): “I’ve never heard about anything else like this in high school. I thought it would be fun to be part of the first one … This is a great cause — cancer awareness. I’m real excited.”

Tyler Curtis (Prairie Heights): “I like hitting dingers. I like the competition … Last year I had one (homer) on varsity … Rotational hitting (which I learned at Hitters Edge in Sturgis, Mich.) is a big thing. A big shoutout to Mike Marks and Robert Riley … Stamina is a big thing we don’t focus on (in a home run contest). You have to control your breathing.”

Camden “Bodhi” Hall (Prairie Heights): “(Bodhi) comes from a movie called Point Break with Patrick Swayze. My dad just wanted to name me that. He still calls me Bodhi … Tyler Curtis and I wanted to represent our school and show them what we’ve got as sophomores … Tyler and I were in a home run derby together while with the Hitter’s Edge. He was first and I second one year … (Hitter’s Edge coach Mike Marks) is great. You go up there, you’ll learn something.”

Camden Harris (Garrett): “I had four (home runs) last spring (behind senior Kobe Lucarelli’s six) … This will be my third (home run contest). I was in seventh grade and we were in Kentucky for nationals (in travel ball) and I got second place. As a freshman or sophomore, I was down in Florida and got first place.”

Connor Kreis (Fremont): “I heard about a slogan like ‘Swinging for Cancer’ or something like that. I figured it was going for a good cause. It’s just cool to get out here and see these other athletes that I’ve played against since I was a freshman.”

Owen Miller (Fairfield): “I hit two home runs last year. One was a grand slam (at Lakeland) … You have to have a good pitcher (Owen’s father, Tim Miller, will pitch to him) and you need to be confident.”

Nick Mortrud (Westview): “I thought it would be fun to do something to bring the schools together … In a way, this helps the school kind of showcase what they’ve got … We’re bringing the community here, too … I was in a home run contest in travel ball at around 10 (in Columbus, Ohio) at ended up winning it … I’m going to be thinking don’t take too many wasted swings. After each swing kind of analyze what you’re doing. Focus on what you’re body’s doing as you take the swing.”

Hunter Saggars (West Noble): “(Jayce) and I go way back. We used to play ball together … I’ve never seen anything like this before so I figured it would be cool to be a part of the first one … I’m not going into this thing thinking I’m going to win it. We’ve got some big boys. I just want to be a part of it … (2019 West Noble graduate) Jorge Villanueva will be throwing to me.”

Takota Sharick (Westview): “My Grandma has cancer so this is really important to me … I’m not necessarily a power hitter, but if I focus on it I can be alright … We use Blast Motion and (Coach Rahn) tells us when we’ve had good launch angle and bat speed.”

Gage Smith (Garrett): “We’ve got three (derby competitors) looking pretty sharp, honestly … I would honestly consider myself a power hitter (with four homers for the Railroaders last spring) … A Garrett cop (Kylan LaMotte) will be throwing to us.”

Evan Snyder (Churubusco): “I was in a home run derby a long time ago in Cooperstown. I hit one … It’s a good thing they’re doing this for, the charity.”

Tristan Taylor (Garrett): “We’re all a tight-knit group (at Garrett). All three of us are chatting and having a competition amongst ourselves. It’ll be fun … It’s a really good opportunity to support this charity. It’s a really good organization … Everything about this is great.”

NECC HR DERBY

At Lakeland

Sunday, Nov. 3, 3:30 p.m.

Bracket 1

First Round

Nick Mortrud (Westview jr.) vs. Brayden Bontrager (Lakeland jr.)

Gage Smith (Garrett jr.) vs. Dylan Eggl (Central Noble jr.)

Camden Harris (Garrett sr.) vs. Camden “Bodhi” Hall (Prairie Heights so.)

Owen Miller (Fairfield so.) vs. Connor Kreis (Fremont sr.)

Bracket 2

First Round

Tyler Curtis (Prairie Heights so.) vs. Evan Snyder (Churubusco jr.)

Nathan Burr (Central Noble sr.) vs. Kolton Taylor (Lakeland sr.)

Tristan Taylor (Garrett sr.) vs. Felipe Arevalo (Fairfield sr.)

Hunter Saggars (West Noble sr.) vs. Takota Sharick (Westview jr.)

NECCHRDERBYBRACKETS

The NECC Home Run Derby brackets for 2019. (Steve Krah Photo)

NECCHRDERBYLOGO

The Northeast Corner Conference Home Run Derby with proceeds to benefit Hello Gorgeous! is slated for Sunday, Nov. 3 at Lakeland Junior/Senior High School in LaGrange, Ind. (Steve Krah Photo)

 

Graybeal getting Central Noble Cougars ready for baseball, life

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

As a high school educator, Tyler Graybeal sees his job as getting his students ready for what comes after school while enjoying their time in it.

That explains the points of emphasis for the head baseball coach at Central Noble Junior/Senior High School in Albion, Ind.

“It’s not wins and losses, it’s doing the right thing,” says Graybeal, who enters his second season of leading the Cougars in 2020 (he was an assistant to Jim Sickafoose in 2018). “We’re preparing them for the next step in life. We want them to have a good time and get better at baseball.”

Graybeal, who teaches Geometry during the school day, has been conducting limited contact sessions twice a week and is pleased with the turnout of high schoolers and middle schoolers.

“We had 17 the past two fall workouts,” says Graybeal, who is also an assistant football coach at Central Noble working with linebackers and wide receivers and serving as junior varsity defensive coordinator. “We have a scrimmage once a week. We’ve set up a mentoring system so the older players can learn to be role models.”

The high school’s feeder program is a league run through Albion Parks with fields at Hidden Diamonds Park and Valleyview Park.

Graybeal, who had 28 players in the entire high school program last spring, says a young 2019-20 squad includes junior Dylan Eggl and senior Nate Burr among its top players. Eggl is power hitter, shortstop and right-handed pitcher. Burr, a transfer from Westview High School, is 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds and is a righty pitcher and first baseman. Both are undecided about college.

A graduate of Crestview High School in Ashland, Ohio, Graybeal got his college degree from the University of Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio, where he briefly played baseball. An insurance job brought him to Fort Wayne and then he decided to go into education and coaching.

When he first came to Central Noble, Graybeal was a coach for all high school seasons — football, basketball and baseball. His wife, Elizabeth, insisted that he cut back on that load so basketball was dropped. The couple has a 5-year-old son named Draven and are expecting a second child in January.

At a small school like Central Noble (enrollment around 440), multi-sport athletes are the expectation.

“I encourage my kids to play another sport,” says Graybeal. “You’ve got to be a well-rounded athlete.

“That’s why I coach multiple sports so I see those kids as much as I can and work with them.”

Also working with the baseball players is a coaching staff that features JV head coach Shane Austrap and assistants Justin Stump, Max Smith and Jared Shishler.

Since taking over the Cougars on the diamond, Graybeal and others have worked to improve the home field. Sod has been cut, dugouts have been painted and there’s plenty more to do. An August fundraiser — a coed slow pitch softball tournament — will help with the upgrades.

Central Noble is a member of the Northeast Corner Conference (with Angola, Churubusco, Eastside, Fairfield, Fremont, Garrett, Hamilton, Lakeland, Prairie Heights, West Noble and Westview).

The first NECC Home Run Derby originally slated for May has been moved to 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 3 at Lakeland.

The Cougars are part of an IHSAA Class 2A sectional grouping with Bremen, Fairfield, LaVille, Prairie Heights and Westview. Central Noble has won three sectional titles — 2009, 2010 and 2012.

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The 2019 Central Noble High School baseball team. It was the first one with Tyler Graybeal as head coach.

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Tyler Graybeal is head baseball coach at Central Noble Junior/Senior High School in Albion, Ind. He also assists in football and teaches Geometry. He is a graduate of Crestview High School and the University of Mount Union — both in Ohio.

 

Bock, Fremont Eagles eager to add to their baseball success

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Fremont (Ind.) High School chased down an elusive sectional baseball championship in 2018.

Head coach Justin Bock saw the Eagles grab the program’s first sectional title since 2005, beating Fort Wayne Blackhawk Christian 5-4 in the final of the 2018 IHSAA Class 1A Fremont Sectional.

Fremont (15-16) went on to lose 3-2 to Northfield in the championship game of the Caston Regional.

“We worked really hard to get that sectional trophy,” says Fremont head coach Justin Bock, who heads into his 22nd season in the program and 11th in charge in 2019.

Four-year starter Rhett Evans has moved on to Glen Oaks Community College in Centreville, Mich.

Bock expects the 2019 Eagles to be young and talented. The coach anticipates he will have one senior, but four returning starters. A couple of freshmen could find their way into the lineup. There could be as many as 30 players in the program, including 12 ninth graders.

It’s anticipated that senior center fielder Ethan Marten will be back for his third season as a Fremont starter.

Junior left-hander Mick Laisure (0.99 earned run average in 36 1/3 innings in 2008) and right-hander/right fielder Connor Kreis are supposed to return in 2019 as is sophomore lead-off man and second baseman Kameron Colclasure. As a pitcher, he was 5-0 with a 0.88 ERA in more than 24 varsity innings in 2018. He hurled a shutout against Fairfield and earned a relief victory against DeKalb.

“He throws three pitches with great control,” says Bock of Colclasure, who was awarded varsity letters in three sports as a freshman (football, basketball and baseball). He is expected to move over to shortstop in 2019.

Fremont, located in Steuben County in northeast Indiana, is a member of the 12-team Northeast Corner Conference (with Angola, Central Noble, Churubusco, Eastside, Garrett, Hamilton, Lakeland, Prairie Heights, West Noble and Westview).

Each team plays the other once. There is also a blind-draw conference tournament in the middle of the season.

“It gives the kids a taste of what sectional is like,” says Bock. “It has a one-and-done tournament feel.”

The Eagles are in an IHSAA Class 1A sectional grouping with Bethany Christian, Elkhart Christian, Fort Wayne Blackhawk Christian, Hamilton and Lakewood Park Christian. Fremont is on the 1A/2A border and could go back up with the next realignment in 2019-20.

Bock has Fremont in the early-season Coldwater (Mich.) Invitational, an event that has the Eagles playing three games in one day.

“Our hitters get to see great pitching early in the year,” says Bock. “It gets us ready to see conference pitching.”

It also means Fremont could use as many as nine pitchers. This puts an emphasis on building pitching depth.

“It has become routine for us,” says Bock. “If we have you going through workouts, you will be on the mound.

“We can win by pitching to contact and playing good defense.”

The 2019 season will be the third of the IHSAA pitch count rule (1 to 35 pitches requires 0 days rest; 36 to 60 requires 1 day; 61 to 80 requires 2 days; 81 to 100 requires 3 days; and 101 to 120 requires 4 days). Before that, pitchers were allowed 10 innings every three days.

“(The pitch count rule) has emphasized what we really believe,” says Bock, who used 11 different arms in varsity competition in 2018 with Evans has the most innings going into sectional play at 28, keeping him fresh. “We’re not afraid to throw guys.

“We have to work more on mixing pitches and pitching to contact. We can’t afford to walk people.”

This kind of approach to pitching has helped Bock and his coaching staff find some hidden gems over the years.

Bock’s 2019 assistants are Ron Colclasure, Dave Smith, Jim Burkhart and Chad Baker at the varsity level and Ian Burkhart with the junior varsity. Baker splits his time between Fremont and Glen Oaks, where his son Braxton Baker (the step-brother of Rhett Evans) went after Fremont.

Being a 1A school with about 300 students, Fremont is full of multi-sport athletes. This meant that many were busy during the fall practice window.

Bock says practice will begin in earnest in early January when pitchers and catchers report for pre-season workouts.

The high school program is fed by Fremont Youth League and a number of travel baseball organizations, including Hitters Edge, Kalamazoo Maroons, Michiana Scrappers and Indiana Sting. In the past, there have been players go with Fort Wayne-based Summit City Sluggers.

“A lot of our kids go north because of how close we are to Michigan,” says Bock.

Fremont graduate and current Indiana Tech baseball standout Glen McClain played travel ball for the Kalamazoo Maroons.

A 1993 Fremont graduate after moving in from the Ann Arbor, Mich., area as a sophomore, Bock earned an English degree at Taylor University and master’s in education at Indiana Wesleyan University.

He spent 19 years at Fremont and is in his third year as an assistant professor and placement coordinator at Trine University in Angola, Ind.

Bock’s baseball coach at Fremont was Roger Probst, who led the Eagles on the diamond 1985-2007 and is now the school’s athletic director.

“He’s the most organized person I’ve ever been around,” says Bock of Probst. “He’s the best athletic director in the state and a clear communicator.”

Bock served as a Probst assistant for 11 seasons before taking over the baseball reins 2008.

A junior high football coach and varsity boys basketball assistant to Eagles head coach Craig Helfrich (as is Ron Colclasure), Bock says it makes sense for him to be a head coach in the spring.

“Baseball really suits my personality,” says Bock. “I enjoy the pace of the game and the time to reflect on how we want to respond to a situation.

“It’s much healthier for me to be a baseball coach.”

Justin and April Bock have two children — freshman Ethan and sixth grader Delaney. After 12 years at Angola Middle School, April Bock teaches sixth grade at Fremont Middle School, where Delaney Bock is a student. Ethan Bock is a tennis, basketball and baseball athlete at Fremont High School.

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Fremont (Ind.) High School baseball coaches celebrate with the 2018 IHSAA Class 1A Fremont Sectional trophy. They are (from left) Chad Baker, Jim Burkhart, Ian Burkhart, Ryan Allman, head coach Justin Bock, Ron Colclasure and Dave Smith.

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Fremont (Ind.) High School baseball seniors and head coach pose with the 2018 IHSAA Class 1A Fremont Sectional trophy. They are (from left) Zack Peele, Rhett Evans, head coach Justin Bock, Joe Molter, Seth McDowell and Evan Trusty.

 

Doty sees buying into the program key for Wawasee baseball

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

With clear communication as a priority and continuity on the coaching staff, Wawasee High School baseball is looking forward to the 2019 season.

Brent Doty, a 2002 Wawasee graduate, is entering his sixth season as head coach at his alma mater, which is located in Syracuse, Ind.

Primarily a catcher, Doty was a four-year player for head coach John Blunk at Wawasee. He played two seasons for Mitch Hannahs (now head coach at Indiana State University) at Lincoln Trail College in Robinson, Ill., and two seasons at Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne (now Purdue Fort Wayne) for Billy Gernon (now head coach at Western Michigan University).

“I was very fortunate to have those three great baseball coaches,” says Doty. “I was able to pick the nuances that they were really, really good at and try to influence the players in our program with those things.”

With Blunk, it was his knowledge of the game and his drive.

“His passion for it was huge,” says Doty. “Coach Hannahs was just so detailed in everything he did. He always wanted things done correctly. He would show you specifically how it needs to be done.”

Gernon was also very organized.

“We had a schedule we followed every day to a T,” says Doty of Gernon. “It was timed out — 15 minutes here, 30 there. It’s the detail they go into at the college level because they have to, they have such limited time each day and each season.

“I thought that would transition nicely with us to get as much accomplished in a day’s practice as we can.

Wawasee players know what to expect when they come out to practice.

“It’s never, ‘Hey, coach! What are we doing today?’,” says Doty. “They know the expectation and it makes practice run a lot smoother. Hopefully that’s going to turn into success as we continue to go down the road.”

An IHSAA rule change allows for a limited coach-athlete contact period. Coaches can work with an unlimited number of players for two two-hour practice slots per week during a window in the fall.

Doty and his staff, which includes associate head coach Vince Rhodes, Scott Beasley and volunteer Kent Doty (his father) at the varsity level and a to-be-named head coach and assistant Brett Carson with the junior varsity, have been leading outdoor practices for a few weeks.

“That’s nice for us,” says Doty. “We can get live swings, grounders and fly balls.”

Team concepts — like bunt coverages — can be drilled outside and give them a true look as opposed to doing it indoors.

“It’s been nice to implement some of those things,” says Doty. “But you don’t have your full team so you’re not gong to go so in-depth.”

With fall sports going on, there have been 10 to 12 at most sessions.

“A lot of our guys play multiple sports,” says Doty. “At a school of our size (around 950 students) they have to. We can’t just rely on single-sport athletes.

“We want you to get in as many sports as you can.”

The IHSAA-adopted pitch count rules (1 to 35 pitches requires 0 days rest; 36 to 60 requires 1 day; 61 to 80 requires 2 days; 81 to 100 requires 3 days; and 101 to 120 requires 4 days) has now been on the scene for two seasons.

What does Doty think of it?

“It’s definitely good for the kids,” says Doty. “Player safety is always going to be No. 1.

“The 120 max is good, too. I can’t see myself going farther than that.”

Doty says one change in 2019 is that the JV will be on the same regimen as the varsity.

“It’s good,” says Doty of the switch. “Why does a sophomore playing on varsity get to throw more than a sophomore throwing on JV?”

One way that Doty and company build pitching depth is by giving many players an opportunity to see what they can do on the mound, especially at the JV level.

“If you’ve got a healthy arm, you’re probably going to pitch at some point,” says Doty.

A year ago, Wawasee had more than three dozen players for varsity and JV squads. Being very senior-laden, the varsity carried 21 players.

The number depends largely on the number of potential pitchers and those who can play multiple positions.

It’s important for each player to know how they can contribute to the program.

“We talk with each player individually and say this is where we see this as your role for the year,” says Doty. “It doesn’t mean it’s going to stay there or written in stone. But this is what we expect of you or as a varsity or JV player or a swing guy (that could see playing time on both).

“If they start to develop into something we didn’t foresee at the start of the year, we transition them into that. We allow them to have ownership of their role because once they buy into their role, it’s only going to make us better as a program.”

Staff stability also translates to a consistent message.

Doty began his post-college career as a teacher and an assistant baseball coach at Jack Britt High School in Fayetteville, N.C. When he took over the program for the 2014 season, he was the third head coach in three years for that junior class.

“Building that continuity and having that same staff year after year is only going to help us be successful going forward,” says Doty.

The 2018 season saw Wawasee go 8-16 with some growing pains.

“We also saw some bright spots that we can build on,” says Doty, who identifies juniors Levi Brown and Carter Woody and sophomores Kameron Salazar and Parker Young as being among the top returning Warriors.

Recent Wawasee graduates on college baseball rosters are Jake Garcia (Goshen), Blaine Greer (Ivy Tech Northeast), Aaron Voirol (Grace).

Buildings and grounds personnel have talked about adding more bleachers down the foul lines past the dugouts at Warrior Field.

Wawasee softball added a windscreen last year. Doty says the same might be coming for baseball along with the addition of a batter’s eye. Right now, the backdrop is a water tower.

Getting lights has also been the part of discussions, which would aid in hosting tournaments.

Wawasee is a member of the Northern Lakes Conference (along with Concord, Elkhart Memorial, Goshen, Northridge, NorthWood, Plymouth and Warsaw).

The conference will again employ a double-round robin schedule with each team meeting each other home and away in two rotations.

“The coaches in the NLC talk often and we like it,” says Doty. “You don’t always see the same team at the end of the year as you do at the beginning. It allows for you to grow.

“We get to see teams progress as they get a little deeper into the season.”

Wawasee played in the IHSAA Class 3A Lakeland Sectional (along with Angola, Fairfield, Lakeland, NorthWood, Tippecanoe Valley and West Noble) in 2018.

After teaching at Wawasee Middle School, Doty has moved to the high school where he serves as both physical education/health teacher and assistant athletic director.

Brent and Ashley Doty have three children — Luke (5), Logan (3) and Emma (1).

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Brent Doty, a 2002 Wawasee High School graduate, is entering his sixth season as head baseball coach at the school in Syracuse, Ind., in 2019. (Steve Krah Photo)

 

Indiana native Wagner enjoying the big league life in first season behind mic for Blue Jays

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Ben Wagner is basking in the glow of his first full-time Major League Baseball escapades.

After a decade as play-by-play announcer for the Triple-A Buffalo (N.Y.) Bisons, Wagner got the call to the big leagues in March when the Toronto Blue Jays named the Indiana native as their radio voice. Jerry Howarth retired after holding the job for 36 years.

“I still roll out of bed everyday and double-check that this is my life,” says Wagner, who has already witnessed plenty of memorable on-field highlights and taken in MLB cities across the continent. He has had the pleasure of exploring Independence Hall in Philadelphia, eating crabs in Baltimore and signing the inside of the Green Monster in Boston. “I felt like a tourist when we were in Philly. You’ve got to take advantage of those things.”

The culture is different in the big leagues.

“These are higher-caliber athletes,” says Wagner. “But you conduct yourself professionally, so not much has changed there.

“But everything else has.”

In the International League, teams take buses from city to city — often in the wee hours — and try to get as many home games on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays as possible.

“It boils down to dollars and cents,” says Wagner. “At the minor league level, it’s a math problem.”

In the bigs, clubs take charter flights. The bus pulls right up to the jet and away they go!

“It was an oh-wow moment when I first stepped on that charger plane,” says Wagner, a graduate of Fairfield Junior/Senior High School, near Goshen, Ind., and Indiana State University. “There’s nothing like sport’s teams charter travel. Every little thing is taken care of by people behind the scenes. It’s really an incredible experience.”

MLB cities are bigger. The hotels are of the 5-star variety.

“We’re going to places that people make destinations,” says Wagner. “And this is my everyday life.”

During his 10 years in the bus leagues, Wagner welcomed the all-star break as a chance to heal and re-boot.

“By this time in the season, my body torn up, twisted and sore and I’m not playing everyday,” says Wagner, who is 95 games into the 162-game 2018 schedule. “My body feels so much better now because the travel has improved. We are experiencing the best travel out there.

‘The biggest change to my life is the ease of travel. They make it as convenient they can for players, coaches and support staff, including the broadcasters.

When the hotel is within walking distance of the ballpark, it gives Wagner a chance to soak in the flavor of the city.

“I don’t like to breathe too much hotel air so I get out and find a good coffee house,” says Wagner.

There, he can get a cup of joe and then do some exploring.”

He is living in the center of Toronto and can walk to Rogers Centre in 10 to 15 minutes so he has found his favorites spots along the route. Ben and wife Megan live in Lancaster, N.Y. — about a 25-minute drive to Coca-Cola Field in Buffalo.

Depending on whether the opponent that night has already appeared on the Jays schedule, early afternoon on the first day of a series is devoted to prep and research.

Home or away, Wagner get to the park between 2 or 3 p.m. (for a 7 p.m. game).

“I anxiously await lineups being posted,” says Wagner. “Then I plug in storylines on the scorecard.”

There are many media agencies cranking out individual and team trends and Wagner sorts through the mound of information to find precious nuggets.

“Sometimes it’s totally irrelevant,” says Wagner. “But it’s nice to have those resources.”

Wagner spends up to 45 minutes chatting with players and coaches in the clubhouse and then there’s the daily briefing with Toronto manager John Gibbons three hours before first pitch.

After that, Wagner often networks to get the latest news about the other team and baseball in general.

“As much as I try to keep my finger on the pulse of the Blue Jays, having a balanced broadcast is important,” says Wagner. “Consumers have changed. With all the online broadcasting and satellite services, I might not only being talking to Blue Jays fans or Canadians.

“I’m not doing my job if I’m leaving out the other half of the story.”

With an hour before game time, Wagner must be in the “air chair” to record introductions. Then, he grabs a cup of coffee or a bite to eat and is ready to share what he sees with the listeners on SportsNet 590 and the Blue Jays radio affiliates.

On the road, it’s a two-man booth with Wagner and Mike Wilner conversing and trading off the play-by-play innings.

Veteran broadcaster and Toronto resident Dan Shulman works 80 home games — 50 on TV and 30 selected radio dates. When that happens, Wagner and Schulman divide the play-by-play and Wilner also contributes to the broadcast. Jay Siddall is a radio analyst.

Wagner says the difference between the two- and three-man booth is the cadence. With the Bisons, his sidekick was Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer Duke McGuire.

“Duke was an incredible resource and he was fun to be with,” says Wagner. “Our broadcast was major league quality — home or on the road.”

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As a first-year full-time radio play-by-play announcer for the Toronto Blue Jays, Ben Wagner has gotten to enjoy crabs in Baltimore. (Photo Courtesy of Ben Wagner)

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On a recent trip to historic Fenway Park in Boston,  Toronto Blue Jays radio voice Ben Wagner got to sign the inside of the Green Monster. (Photo Courtesy of Ben Wagner)

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Ben Wagner, a graduate of Fairfield Junior/Senior High School near Goshen, Ind., and Indiana State University is in first full season as a radio play-by-play announcer for the Toronto Blue Jays. Here he is on the field at Rogers Centre doing some television work. (Photo Courtesy of Ben Wagner)

Success follows Eastside’s Willard from softball to baseball diamonds

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Aaron Willard enjoyed plenty of success in his time as head softball coach at Eastside High School in Butler, Ind.

In 23 seasons, he Blazers softballers won 13 sectional titles (three in the IHSAA single-class era and five each in Class 1A and 2A).

When Jason Pierce left the head baseball post at Eastside and Aaron’s oldest son, Cade Willard, was a junior, he decided to take over the program.

In his second season (2017), the Blazers won the 2A Westview Sectional. Eastside did it again in 2018, besting Westview in the title game and earning a berth in the 2A Whiting Regional.

The Blazers (18-8) face Boone Grove in the second semifinal around noon CST (Hammond Bishop Noll plays South Adams at 10 a.m. CST) at Oil City Stadium. The championship is slated for 6 p.m. CST.

“Last year, we were built around pitching,” says Willard, who sent right-handers Cade Willard (redshirt at Fort Wayne), Conner Dove (Trine University), Jackson White (Franklin College) and middle infielder/closer Zach Orn (Ivy Tech Northeast) on to college baseball. They were among nine seniors. “A lot of those guys had played a lot of baseball.”

This year, the Blazers are not as experienced on the mound but have gotten the job done.

The staff is led by senior Chris Ballentine and also features juniors McGuire Jacobs, Nick Shewman, Chase Franz and Joe White and freshman Wade Miller. All but lefty Miller, who plays center field, are right-handers.

White is the team’s No. 1 catcher and joins Ballentine and Franz among Eastside’s most-productive hitters. The squad’s only other senior is first baseman Riley Thompson.

“Our guys have done a great job on the mound,” says Willard. “We’ve been solid defensively for the most part. The top of our order has been pretty good and we’ve now got some guys hitting in the bottom part.”

Eastside is a member of the Northeast Corner Conference. The NECC was led in 2018 by Angola (9-2) and Lakeland (9-2), followed by Fairfield (8-3), Westview (7-4), Eastside (7-4), Garrett (6-5), Fremont (5-6), Churubusco (5-6), West Noble (4-7), Prairie Heights (3-8), Central Noble (3-8) and Hamilton (0-11).

Willard’s assistant coaches are Tony Emenhiser, Garth Fiedler, John Gravante and Bryce Yoder.

The Blazers play their home games on-campus. The field has a wooden outfield fence and a few years ago, a net backstop was installed for clearer viewing by spectators.

A 1984 Eastside graduate, Willard went on to play baseball for four seasons at Huntington College (now Huntington University). His freshmen year was also the first in charge for head coach Mike Frame.

After receiving a physical education degree in 1989, Willard returned to Eastside and began teaching. He became athletic director and assistant principal in 1999 — positions he has held ever since.

Aaron and Terri Willard have three children — Madison, Cade and Owen. Madison Willard graduated this spring from Ball State University and is to marry Dalton Shetler in June. Owen Willard is an eighth grader.

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Eastside celebrates its second straight IHSAA Class 2A Westview Sectional baseball championship in 2018. Assistant coach Tony Emenhiser, seniors Caleb Ballentine and Riley Thompson and head coach Aaron Willard pose with the trophy.

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Eastside High School head baseball coach Aaron Willard (25) gets the bucket treatment from his team after they won the 2018 IHSAA Class 2A Westview Sectional.

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The Eastside High School Blazers hoist the 2018 IHSAA Class 2A Westview Sectional baseball trophy as head coach Aaron Willard (right) takes in the moment.

Isaacs in charge of a baseball ‘brotherhood’ with Lakeland Lakers

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Banding together as baseball brothers, the Lakeland High School program has enjoyed a turnaround in two seasons with Michael Isaacs as head coach.

“We call ourselves a brotherhood,” says Isaacs. “We’ve got a group of young men to believe in themselves and believe in each other.

“Our group is pretty loose. We’re not wound tight. We’ve overcome a lot of obstacles the last couple years.”

The Lakers won a combined six games in 2015 and 2016. The first season under Isaacs (2017), Lakeland posted 10 victories.

Heading into three straight Northeast Corner Conference games — Tuesday vs. Hamilton, Wednesday at Churubusco and Thursday at Garrett — the 2018 LaGrange County-based Lakers were 16-5 and with two NECC setbacks tied in the loss column tied atop the standings with Angola.

The rest of the conference includes Central Noble, Eastside, Fairfield, Fremont, Prairie Heights, West Noble and Westview. Each team plays the other once and there is a midseason blind-draw tournament. Westview topped the Lakers 5-2 in the championship game this spring.

Lakeland is in the seven-team IHSAA Class 3A Lakeland Sectional along with Angola, Fairfield, NorthWood, Tippecanoe Valley, Wawasee and West Noble.

The Lakers play their home games on-campus. The field has received upgrades in recent seasons of new lights and re-worked dugouts.

There are 21 players in the Lakeland program, with some rotating between varsity and junior varsity as needed.

Two Lakers seniors have made college commitments — right-handed pitcher/first baseman Drew Grossman (Indiana Tech) and first baseman/designated hitter Tristan Witham (Cincinnati Christian). Juniors with college baseball aspirations are shortstop/right-handed pitcher Hunter Frost and catcher Kole Miller.

All three of Michael Isaacs’ sons are involved with the program. Oldest boy Britain, who was a Lakers catcher, is now an assistant coach. Then there’s senior Nolan and freshman Colton. The latter has rotated in enough to earn his letter in his first year of high school.

Isaacs’ other assistants are Todd Miller, Kevin Witham and Aaron Pieri.

A 1987 East Noble graduate, Michael Isaacs played high school baseball for coach Steve Nelson.

After going to Taylor University in Upland, Ind., to play football, he transferred to the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, with the idea of playing baseball. But that was the year the Saints temporarily dropped the sport.

Isaacs coached in the Noble/LaGrange Little League out of high school then took about a decade off and got back in when his sons came along.

Besides the Little League, which serves players ages 6 through junior high, some Lakeland players are involved with travel ball organizations such as Hitters Edge and the Indiana Chargers.

The 2018 season marks the second season for pitch count rules in IHSAA-sanctioned games (1 to 35 pitches requires 0 days rest; 36 to 60 requires 1 day; 61 to 80 requires 2 days; 81 to 100 requires 3 days; and 101 to 120 requires 4 days).

“At first, I was very hesitant about it,” says Isaacs. “But then it was not that big a deal. We have mindset for the week of who we’re going to pitch how much we’re going to pitch them. It’s worked out pretty good.

“(The rule) makes you develop four or five pitchers which is good for everybody.”

With teams counting pitches, Isaacs has seen a change in the game. Instead of a pitcher using extra pitches trying to get strikeouts, he’s seen some of them aim for efficiency.

“There’s more of an emphasis on putting the ball in play and letting the defense do the work,” says Isaacs. “It’s something we’re trying to beat into (our pitchers’) heads.”

If Isaacs could change anything about Indiana high school baseball, he would tweak the class structure.

“Personally, I think the private schools should be separate,” says Isaacs, who coaches at a public school. “Now you’re tied to a class because of your size. I’d have public school divisions and the private schools could maybe a big division and small division.”

Isaacs is not an educator. He works in the recreational vehicle industry.  He is a mill room manager for Jayco’s Starcraft division in Topeka, Ind.

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Michael Isaacs (right) bumps fists with oldest son Britain Isaacs during a 2017 Lakeland High School baseball game. Michael Isaacs is in his second season as Lakers head coach in 2018. Britain is one of his assistants.