Mt. Vernon High School in Fortville, Ind., carries the nickname Marauders. Head baseball coach Brad King has another monicker: Trailblazers. The 2021 squad has made history along its path to the one-game IHSAA Class 4A Jasper Semistate on Saturday, June 12 against Jasper (29-2). The winner of the 4 p.m. game moves on to the State Finals either Monday or Tuesday, June 21 or 22 at Victory Field in Indianapolis. At 26-6, Mt. Vernon has surpassed the previous school record for single-season victories by five. The 2021 Marauders won their first outright Hoosier Heritage Conference championship (Mt. Vernon shared the HCC title with New Palestine in 2009). Other HCC members are Delta, Greenfield-Central, New Castle, Pendleton Heights, Shelbyville and Yorktown. In winning sectional and regional crowns, the Marauders broke through at those stages for the first time since 2011 and 1971. “It’s a big deal playing in semistate,” says King, who was hired in the fall of 2019 after 23 seasons — the last 16 as head coach — at New Castle and is coaching his first Mt. Vernon season on the field after the COVID-19 pandemic took he 2020 campaign away. “There will be a lot of electricity at Jasper. But the kids won’t be overwhelmed. We just beat (Indianapolis) Cathedral (in the regional championship game). “We’re trying to go through the best to be the best.” Mt. Vernon opened the season by going 2-1 in the Noblesville Invitational, playing Noblesville, Columbus North and Franklin Community and went on to go 12-2 in the conference and play a solid non-conference schedule. “These kids have kept gaining confidence as the season has gone on,” says King, whose squad is 15-1 in its last 16 games. At the Pendleton Heights Sectional, the Marauders blanked Muncie Central 19-0 and Pendleton Heights 8-0 then downed Franklin Central 6-2 and Cathedral 6-3 to take the Plainfield Regional. This brought Mt. Vernon’s all-time totals to eight sectional titles and two regionals. The Marauders have never won a semistate or appeared in the State Finals. Led by seniors Hunter Dobbins (.560, 10 home runs, 39 runs batted in) and Joel Walton (.485, 5 HR, 38 RBI) and sophomore Eli Bridenthal (.366, 15 stolen bases), Mt. Vernon hits .321 as a team and averages 8.6 runs per game. Junior Landon Clark (.297, 44 runs, 17 stolen bases) sets the table table as the Marauders’ lead-off hitter. Senior A.J. Swingle (.276, 23 RBI) hits No. 2, puts the ball in play and moves runners. Senior Jake Stank (.308, 4 HR, 28 RBI) is the clean-up hitter. “We’re just really solid offensively, field the ball at 95 percent and have four or five really good (pitching arms),” says King. “We’re really blessed.” Senior left-hander Swingle (9-0, 1.60 earned run average, 80 strikeouts in 61 1/3 innings) and senior right-hander Eli Clodfelter (8-1, 3.29 ERA, 81 K’s, 51 IP) are Mt. Vernon’s leaders on mound. Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association North/South All-Star Series selection Dobbins is bound for Ball State University. Other seniors with college commitments are Walton (Trine University), Stank (Anderson University), Clodfelter (Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin, Tenn.), Carson Augustinovicz (Ohio Dominican University in Columbus, Ohio) and Nate Weaver (Concordia University in Seward, Neb.). Recent Mt. Vernon graduates with college baseball programs include Nolan Bowser (Saint Louis University), Griffin Garwood (Manchester University), Matt Lood (Indiana University South Bend), Shaun Shipley (committed to Florida Gulf Coast University after playing at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, Fla.) and Jake Stadler (Purdue University). King’s coaching staff features Tony Gregory, Wayne Graham, Jerry Grill, Scott Blanchard and Shane Douglas. Varsity assistants Gregory and Graham were with King throughout his head coach run at New Castle. Grill leads the junior varsity team with the help of Blanchard. Douglas is the C-team coach. Mt. Vernon were 25-1 at the JV level and 8-7 in C-team contests this spring. The last day of school was June 8 so the team has been keeping something a normal schedule during the postseason. King says Marauder practices have been brief. Mt. Vernon’s feeder system includes Mt. Vernon Optimist (T-ball through age 13), the Marauder Baseball Club (a travel program for Mt. Vernon players through 14U and Mt. Vernon Middle School (seventh and eighth grade teams). King, who is still Dean of the Freshmen Academy at New Castle, stepped down as baseball coach because of health issues in his family. “After those issues went away it opened up the possibility for me to get back into coaching,” says King. Since New Castle had hired a new head coach, King looked for nearby opportunities. Mt. Vernon intrigued him. Athletic director Brandon Ecker served in the same capacity during part of King’s coaching tenure at New Castle. King was approved for hire with the Marauders in August 2019 and had players attending their first workouts in September. Because of the shutdown he never got to lead a talented team in 2020. “We thought we were going to be very good,” says King. The prevailing feeling outside the Mt. Vernon camp was that the team would be “a little down” in 2021. “I didn’t feel that way at all,” says King. “That’s the way we approached our offseason workouts. “The guys were focused and had the same goals as the previous years (win conference, sectional, regional and maybe more). So far they’ve done what they wanted to accomplish.”
It’s been an historic baseball season in 2021 for the Brad King-coached Mt. Vernon (Fortville) Marauders. The team has set a school record for wins and won its first outright Hoosier Heritage Conference title and first sectional and regional crowns since 2011 and 1971.
Red Devils coach Don Poole, who went into the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1990, helped Owens see what could be.
“He opened my eyes to what was possible in baseball,” says Owens of Poole. “I didn’t have any clue I could play baseball beyond high school.”
Poole let the young left-handed pitcher know that the coach and some of Owens’ teachers could open some doors with their recommendations.
“I thank God for him,” says Owens of Don Poole Sr., who died in June at 82. “He helped me see I can have a job in baseball. That’s cool.”
Owens also appreciated Poole’s steady demeanor as a coach.
“(Coach Poole) never got too high and he never got too low,” says Owens, who was a classmate and teammate at Jeff of 2021 IHSBCA Hall of Fame inductee Chris McIntyre (the long-time head coach at New Albany High School).
Owens, who graduated from Jeffersonville in 1986, went on to play in college and briefly in the pros and has been a baseball coach since the spring of 1992.
The future head coach at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky., was on the Jeffersonville High staff of Jerry Rusk (1992) and Al Rabe (1993).
“It was awesome,” says Owens of his season in San Diego. “We played National League rules with no DH. That changes how you run the game quite a bit with double-switching. It’s about getting through a game and not crushing your bullpen.”
Owens learned that managing at the pro level was as much about managing personalities as game situations.
“It was a way to deal with people that I appreciated,” says Owens. “There’s a skill to it. You’re trying to get people to do things.
“That’s the approach I take at Bellarmine. We’re marrying both sides — amateur and pro.”
The 2021 season will mark Owens’ eighth as head coach at Bellarmine. It will be the Knights’ first in NCAA Division I after years at the NCAA D-II level.
Owens played his freshmen college season at Bellarmine for coach Kevin Kocks.
“He was on the cutting edge with a boatload of passion,” says Owens of Kocks. “He believed in doing things fast and intense.”
One of Owens’ teammates was sophomore lefty Scott Wiegandt, who went on to a stellar diamond career and then became Bellarmine’s director of athletics.
When the time was right, Owens accepted Wiegandt’s invitation to come “home” from a baseball odyssey that saw him hold coaching jobs in Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee, California, North Carolina and Virginia. He was a pitching coach in the Chicago White Sox system from 2007-13, spending four seasons with the Kannapolis (N.C.) Intimidators and three with the Bristol (Va.) White Sox. His managers included Chris Jones, Nick Capra, Ernie Young, Pete Rose Jr., and Bobby Magallanes.
“I didn’t leave professional baseball just be in college,” says Owens, who turns 52 on Dec. 31. “It had to be the right fit for me to leave what I was doing and this is right fit.”
Owens notes that each time he moved in baseball it was to better himself. Coming back to his home area also meant being closer to family. A bachelor for his first four decades, he got married in 2008. Larry and Kelley’s blended family now includes four children — McKenna (22), Dawson (19), Grayson (11) and Easton (9).
The northern-most team in a southern league, the Knights are now in the ASUN Conference (along with Florida Gulf Coast, Jacksonville, Kennesaw State, Liberty, Lipscomb, North Alabama, North Florida and Stetson.
“It’s exciting,” says Owens of the process. “There’s a transition period that happens. I want to have what my opponents have in terms of player development and facilities. We don’t have those things yet.
“There’s so much value in player development. To me, it is many, many things — not just the just the physical, mechanics, measuring things or getting in the weight room,” says Owens.
Bellarmine is hoping to break ground soon on a new baseball complex.
“I’m excited for our returning seniors that were allowed to come back and play a Division I schedule,” says Owens, who welcomes back six of seven players who had originally assumed the COVID-19-shortened 2020 campaign was their last. The coach says four of those returnees have a legitimate chance at pro baseball.
After his one season playing with Bellarmine, Owens transferred to Vincennes (Ind.) University and played for Trailblazers head coach Jerry Blemker (National Junior College Athletic Association Hall of Fame Class of 2007).
“He was a great man,” says Owens of Blemker. “He taught us how to grow up and be a man in a variety of ways.
“He was demanding, but fair. He wasn’t for everybody, but if you paid attention to the right things you were certainly going to learn a lot.”
Blemker held his student-athletes accountable. They were accountable to their teammates. They were expected to be a good person — on and off the field.
“Coach has some standards,” says Owens. “We’re on the team. We have to live up to them.”
At the time, junior college baseball was not restricted in number of games so Vincennes played around 45 games in the fall and 85 in the spring. The 1998 Blazers won more than 50.
“There was a doubleheader everyday,” says Owens.
On top of that, he had to take more than a full load in each semester and then six hours during the summer while playing in the Cape Cod League to be eligible for a four-year school.
“Joe gave us a chance to play,” says Owens. “He figured out how to build a roster and put guys in the right spots.”
Armstrong State went from NCAA D-I in 1987 to NCAA D-II in 1988 and went to the D-II World Series that first year and several times after that.
Clyde Oliver was then the Pirates pitching coach.
“Clyde taught us how to pitch,” says Owens. “You were not just heaving things. You’re trying to navigate the game. It’s how you use your stuff. The pitcher’s job is to get people out.
“There’s a really good time for a 3-2 breaking ball and there’s a really bad time for it. You have to pay attention to the game situation. It’s not as simple as lifting your leg and throwing it as hard as you can.”
The right-handed pitcher from Columbus, Ind., playing independent professional baseball has been dominant in his back of the bullpen role.
As the closer for the American Association’s Milwaukee Milkmen, Gray goes into play today (Aug. 26) with a 2-0 record, 10 saves and a 0.00 earned run average. In 24 innings, he has yet to allow a run and has struck out 41 (15.375 per nine innings) and walked 10.
“For the most part, I try to stay with myself and pitch to my strengths,” says Gray. “I’ve been able to catch some breaks.
“It’s been fun so far.”
A 6-foot-3, 200-pounder, Gray delivers a fastball, slider and change-up from a three-quarter overarm slot. The slider breaks in on left-handed batters and away from righties and the “Vulcan” change sinks.
But it’s his four-seam fastball that’s been his out pitch. It travels 90 to 93 mph and — he learned while working out in the off-season with Greg Vogt of PRP Baseball at Finch Creek Fieldhouse in Noblesville, Ind. — that it has an above-average spin rate.
The 2020 season marks Gray’s third in pro ball. He was signed as a non-drafted free agent by the Colorado Rockies in 2018 out of Florida Gulf Coast University and played rookie-level and Low Class-A ball in the Rockies system in 2018 and 2019.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the American Association is operating with six teams — Milwaukee, Chicago Dogs, Fargo-Moorhead Redhawks, Saint Paul Saints, Sioux Falls Canaries and Winnipeg Goldeyes — playing a 60-game schedule. When the season began, Milwaukee was one of three hubs. Later on, Chicago and Saint Paul opened back up and began hosting games. Winnipeg has been playing mostly road games.
Milwaukee is about a five-hour trip from Columbus meaning his family has been able to see him play in-person.
“They’re huge baseball fans,” says Peyton of father Billy Gray and older brother Jordan Gray. “They get to live their baseball dream through me. They’ve traveled and supported me through all these years.
From 12 to 17, Peyton played travel baseball for the Indiana Blazers. Billy was head coach of that team in the early years and Shelbyville’s Terry Kuhn filled that role in the later ones.
Bowling is a big deal in the Gray family. Billy owns Gray’s Pro Shop in Columbus Bowling Center. Jordan is the men’s bowling coach at Marian University in Indianapolis and his fiancee — Jerracah Heibel — is an associate head bowling coach at MU. Billy Gray is a Knights assistant.
Lisa Gray, wife of Billy and mother of Jordan and Peyton, works for Bartholemew County Youth Services Center.
Peyton Gray holds a Criminal Justice degree from Florida Gulf Coast and goes on ride-alongs with police officers during the baseball off-season. He says he sees himself going into some form of law enforcement in the future.
The Battle rages Aug. 1-Sept. 13 with games contested Wednesday through Sunday at Florence’s UC Health Stadium and Lexington’s Whitaker Bank Ballpark.
Claycamp, who commuted from Columbus to begin the season, has made arrangements for an Airbnb in Lexington. When the Legends play in Florence, he stays with family friends in the Lawrenceburg/Sunman, Ind., area.
Ellis, a Jeffersonville High School graduate, played at the University of Louisville and is now in the Arizona Diamondbacks system. The third baseman plays home games only for the Legends and Leyengas.
Thompson (Floyd Central) is a 6-6 right-hander who was at Louisville and in the Detroit Tigers organization. He was in indy ball at Sussex County in 2019.
Right-hander Talcott (McCutcheon) last pitched for Earlham College in 2019.
Outfielder Baker played at Ball State University and was in independent ball in the American Association in 2019 (Texas and Kansas City).
Righty Dougherty (Morgan Township) pitched for Grace College before taking the mound in the United Shores Professional Baseball League in Utica, Mich.
Floyd (Jimtown) was at Ball State University and the righty hurled for the Gary (Ind.) SouthShore RailCats in 2019.
While his primary position growing up and through college was shortstop, Claycamp has moved around the field.
“I’ve been a utility player my whole life,” says Claycamp.
At Columbus (Ind.) East High School, where he graduated in 2015, he was a shortstop as a freshman, shortstop and second baseman as a sophomore, third baseman as a junior and third baseman, shortstop and second baseman as a senior.
He played those same three spots in his one season at the University of Dayton (2016) and then was locked in at short in three campaigns at Franklin (2017-19). He helped the Grizzlies win back-to-back Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference titles in his final two campaigns.
Claycamp was invited to pre-Major League Baseball Draft workouts by the Cincinnati Reds and Philadelphia Phillies in, but was unable to attend with Franklin making the school’s deepest ever postseason run, reaching the regional final in Sequin, Texas.
After getting into eight games at NCAA Division I Dayton (two starts), Claycamp transferred to D-III Franklin and played in 128 contests for the Grizzlies. He hit .354 (174-of-491) with 20 home runs (tied for No. 9 in program history), 46 doubles (No. 5 all-time), 133 runs batted in (No. 6) and 143 runs scored (No. 4).
Right-handed pitcher Gray went on to Florida Gulf Coast University, the Colorado Rockies organization and is now in independent pro ball with the Milwaukee Milkmen.
Right-hander/outfielder Curry started at Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind. When SJC school closed, he went to Kentucky Wesleyan College.
Anderson, a 6-foot-8 righty, pitched at Northern Illinois University.
Left-hander Brian Wichman was at Murray State University then hurled for the University of Indianapolis.
Catcher Christian Wichman played briefly at Thomas More University in Crestview Hills, Ky., where he was also a football player.
Claycamp played in both Bartholomew County Little League (weekdays) and travel baseball (weekends) until he was in high school. Bartholomew County (now Youth Baseball of Bartholomew County) won a state title when he was 12 and lost in the Great Lakes Regional championship. The winner went on to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.
Early travel ball teams were the Columbus Crush, Indiana Blazers and BCLL All-Stars. In high school, Claycamp donned the jerseys of the Indiana Redbirds, Indiana Outlaws and Johnson County/Indiana Jaguars.
Besides baseball, Sam played football until middle school. He was on the school basketball team through eighth grade then played intramural and church hoops.
His falls were dedicated to deer hunting.
David and Tammy Claycamp have two sons — Sam and Kobbe (22). David Claycamp is machine shop manager at Innovative Casting Technologies in Franklin. Tammy Claycamp is a teacher at Faith Lutheran Preschool in Columbus. Kobbe Claycamp played baseball and football at Columbus East. He was on the IHSAA Class 5A state championship team in 2017 and state runner-up squad in 2016. He also played club rugby in high school.
“If you just show up on your high-intensity or game days, you’re not going to get much better,” says Vogt. “Guys are around other guys with high energy and motivation who do not skip drills, warm-ups and recovery.”
During the week, there are also high school players (many of whom are in travel ball tournaments Thursday through Sunday) working out, too. There is weight training, Core Velocity Belt work to emphasis the lower half and the use of PlyoCare Balls.
Each player follows an individualized workout plan based on their Driveline Baseball profile.
“Everyone does a pre-assessment,” says Vogt. “We measure strength, power and velocity and create a plan off that.”
Because of COVID-19 many of the players have not been able to get on an outside diamond in a sanctioned game for months.
Many were not able to do much in the way of throwing or lifting weights for two months.
College players saw their seasons halted in mid-March. High school players heading into college lost their campaigns altogether.
Minor League Baseball has not began its 2020 season nor has the Utica, Mich.- based USPBL .It’s uncertain when or if MiLB will get going. The USPBL has announced it will start with smaller rosters June 24 and expand when fans are allowed at games.
“It’s just a really fun time to come out here and really put all the work that me and all these guys put in throughout the week to a test,” says Polley. “It’s really cool to be able to see the guys come out here and thrive whenever they’ve made adjustments.
“It’s a time to relax and get after each other.”
Donning a T-shirt defining culture as “A wave that inspires a community to achieve greatness” (by Atlanta Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson), Polley relates to the atmosphere at PRP Baseball and Finch Creek.
“They bust your butt during the week and whenever it’s time to play, it’s time to play,” says Polley. “We don’t worry about the mechanics or the drills we’re working on throughout the week. Let’s see what you got and you make adjustments week to week.”
Polley’s focus was on having a good feel for all his pitches and moving the way they’re supposed to based on Rapsodo-aided design.
Though the timetable is unknown, Polley says being prepared to return to live baseball is the key.
“I view this as an opportunity to improve my craft,” says Polley. “I come off and throw and lift everyday to make myself better.
“Whenever it is time to show up, I’m going to be better than whenever I left.”
Polley came down with the coronavirus in March after coming back from spring training in Arizona and was unable to throw the baseball for two weeks.
For that period, he and his girlfriend stayed away from everyone else and meals were brought to the bedroom door by Polley’s parents.
With facilities shut down, he was able to train in a barn and at local parks.
“To just be a kid again was really cool,” says Polley. “As a kid, you’d go to the park with your friends and practice. You’d compete and try to get better.
“That’s all it has been this entire quarantine. You come back into a facility like (Finch Creek) ready to go.”
Vogt has noticed an attention to detail Polley.
“If the minor league season happens, he’s going to be ready to go,” says Vogt.
“This gives me a chance to compete and feel out my stuff,” says Milto. “I get a chance to improve and see what’s working and what’s not working.
“This time is kind of weird, not knowing when or if we’re going to go back. So I’m just here, seeing the competition and staying ready.”
Milto just began coming to PRP Baseball this past week after hearing about it through friends.
“I really love all that they offer,” says Milto.
While maintaining strength, Milto also makes sure he stays flexible.
“For longevity standards and being able to move well consistently for as long as possible, I think it’s important so I work on by flexibility,” says Milto. “Especially with my upper body. My lower body is naturally flexible.
“I’m working on by thoracic rotations and all that kind of stuff. It’s helped me feel good everyday.”
Milto just began adding a cutter to his pitch assortment.
“Using the cameras and the Rapsodo here is really helping me accelerate the development.
“I’m feeling it out (with the cutter). I’ve already thrown a slider. I’m trying to differentiate those two and make sure they look the same out of my hand but different coming to (the batter).”
Milto says he’s made a switch in his take on how electronic devices can help.
“At first, I didn’t buy much into the technology,” says Milto. “It was all just too much to look at. As of late, I’ve started to pay more attention to it. I’ve realized the benefits of it.
“My mentality has been to just go out there, trust my stuff and compete instead of I need to get my sinker to sink this much with this axis. But I’ve started to understand how important that stuff. You make everyone look the same until it isn’t.
“It’s immediate feedback when you’re training. You release it. You know how you felt. And you know exactly what it did.”
Gray, 25, is a right-hander who played at Columbus (Ind.) East High School, Western Michigan University, Gulf Coast Community College and Florida Gulf Coast University before being signed as a minor league free agent by the Colorado Rockies in 2019. He was released in February 2020 and reports to the Milkmen this weekend.
“I see that they get results here,” says Gray. “It’s always great to push yourself and compete with others that are good at sports.”
Gray, who has been working out with PRP Baseball since prior to the COVID-19 lockdown, counts down his pitching strengths.
“I compete. That’s a big one,” says Gray. “I throw strikes. I’m determined to get better and be the best version of myself.”
When the quarantine began, Gray had no access to a weight room.
“I did a lot of body weight stuff and keep my body there,” says Gray. “I was lifting random stuff. I was squatting with my fiancee on my back. I was finding a way to get it done.
“I knew at some point COVID was going to go away and baseball was going to be back and I needed to be ready.”
Strobel, 25, is a left-hander who played at Avon (Ind.) High School and for the final team at Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind. (2017) before pitching for the independent Frontier League’s Joliet (Ill.) Slammers that summer. He underwent Tommy John reconstructive surgery and missed the 2018 season. He appeared in 2019 with the AA’s Gary (Ind.) SouthShore RailCats. When not pitching, he’s helped coach pitchers at Avon and for the Indiana Bulls 17U White travel team.
Strobel coached at Grand Park early Friday and then scooted over to Finch Creek for PRP “Compete Day.”
“I try to mimic what we do here,” says Strobel of his pitching coach approach. “It’s mainly work hard and be safe.
“Summer ball is now acting like the high school season. It’s been about getting everyone up to speed. Some guys were not throwing over the spring. They just totally shut down. You have other guys who’ve been throwing.”
Strobel has been training with Vogt for about four years.
“I like the routine of everything,” says Strobel. “Everything’s mapped out. You know what you’re doing weeks in advance. That’s how my mind works.”
And then comes the end of the week and the chance to compete.
“Everything’s about Friday live,” says Strobel. “Everyone has a routine getting getting for Friday.”
Strobel has been told he’s on the “first call” when the USPBL expands rosters.
He was “on-ramping” in February when the pandemic came along and he switched to training at the barn before coming back to Finch Creek.
“I really didn’t have to shut down,” says Strobel. “It’s just been a long road from February and still throwing.
“I help out in any way that I can,” says Sullivan, who reached out to Vogt in the spring of 2019, interned last summer and then came on board full-time. “We mesh well together because we believe in a lot of the same sort of fundamentals when it comes to pitching and developing a pitcher.
“It helps to have an extra set of eyes and that’s where I come into play. I dealt with a lot of mechanical issues myself and my cousin help me out. That sparked me to want to do the same for other players.”
Sullivan is pursuing his Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).
“Once I have that, it opens up a lot more doors and opportunities for me in the baseball world,” says Sullivan. “Baseball has had a funny route to where it is today. When I grew up a lot of times you threw hard because you were blessed and had the talent.
“Now, it’s been proven that you can make improvements — whether it be in the weight room, overall health or mechanical adjustments in your throwing patterns — and can train velocity.
“A lot of people are trying to find a balance of developing the mechanical side of things while strengthening things in the weight room. They kind of go hand-in-hand. You can’t have one without the other.”
Sullivan says that if the body can’t support the force that’s being generated through it, it’s going to lead to a faster breakdown.
“That’s where the weight room comes into play,” says Sullivan. “Being able to transfer force is kind of the name of the game right now.”