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Delta, Ball State alum Nichols nearing baseball broadcast milestone with Dayton Dragons

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

An Indiana native is about to reach a baseball broadcasting milestone with an Ohio-based team in Michigan.

Tom Nichols, a Muncie native, will work his 4,000th minor league game (radio and television combined) on Wednesday, Aug. 8, if the Dayton (Ohio) Dragons of the Low Class-A Midwest League are not rained out between now and then.

All Dragons games (140 during the regular season) are broadcast on WONE 980 AM and http://www.daytondragons.com.

In his 31st season as a baseball play-by-play announcer and his 11th in Dayton, Nichols is in some rare company.

Jim Weber (Toledo Mud Hens) and Howard Kellman (Indianapolis Indians) have been at the mike for more than 40 years and have done upwards of 6,000 games apiece.

Larry Ward (Chattanooga Lookouts) has been on the call for more than 35 years.

By his calculations, Nichols trails Curt Bloom (Birmingham Barons) by a few games. He counts Bloom as his longest friendship in the business. Though Bloom is a year older than Nichols, they share the same birthday — Feb. 9. They first crossed paths in the Carolina League and then for years in the Southern League.

“I’m sure I’m in the top 10, but not sure if I’m in the top five,” says Nichols of the longest current radio voices in the minors.

Nichols, 54, was born in Muncie, Ind. At age 7, he became a fan of Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine.”

Al Michaels was the Reds play-by-play from 1971-73 and young Tom only missed games when he was playing himself.

Marty Brenneman took over Michaels’ role in 1974 and is still the No. 1 man in the Reds booth. For years, he was paired with former Cincy pitcher Joe Nuxhall.

“You used to be able to your ride bike through neighborhood and listen to the game because someone would have Marty and Joe on there porch,” says Nichols. “In those days, only 10 or 15 games were televised.”

Another way to keep up with the Reds — and baseball — in the ‘70s was by subscribing to The Sporting News. The publication came in the mail each Friday and Nichols devoured the box scores and stories after getting home on the school bus.

He played baseball at Delta High School in Muncie, where he graduated in 1982.

While at Ball State University, where he got his diploma in telecommunications in 1986, Nichols called high school football, basketball and baseball for WWHC in Hartford City and one season of Ball State baseball for WERK in Muncie.

He was the news director WLBC in Muncie for almost three years after college when he got his professional baseball broadcasting break.

Getting up the nerve to call Kellman for some advice, he was presented with the opportunity to be a No. 2 voice when musician duties took away.

Nichols did that during the 1988 and 1989 seasons.

“I’m eternally grateful to Howard Kellman for giving me that opportunity,” says Nichols, who has taken the opportunity to pay it forward mentoring young broadcasters as they serve as his second during Dayton home radio broadcasts, take the whole game when Nichols is on the TV side and work extensively in media relations.

“I do that because somebody did it for me,” says Nichols. “We’ve had one every year. Many have gone on to be No. 1’s.”

Owen Serey was in Dayton in 2008 and went on to be the voice of the Midwest League’s South Bend Silver Hawks.

Jason Kempf was with Nichols and the Dragons in 2017 and 2018 and is now the No. 1 for the MWL’s Quad Cities River Bandits in Davenport, Iowa.

Others who assisted Nichols in Dayton and moved on to lead play-by-play roles include Mike Couzens (Fort Wayne and now with ESPN), Brendan Gulick (Delmarva and now in Cleveland area radio), Keith Raad (Staten Island) and Alex Vispoli (Winston-Salem, Frisco and then the Ivy League).

Bill Spaulding has carved his niche in the broadcasting world by calling Olympic sports for NBC.

While Nichols is with the Dayton all-year and does many things including speaking engagements and has come to thoroughly enjoy audience Q&A’s, the Dragons No. 2 position is seasonal — March-to-September.

Nichols’ first No. 1 gig was with the Kinston (N.C.) Indians of the Carolina League, where he worked for the 1990 season. Jim Thome (just inducted into the Ball Hall of Fame) led the future big leaguers on the Cleveland Indians-affiliated team. A couple others of note were Curtis Leskanic and Robert Person.

He came the Midwest League to lead airings of Peoria (Ill.) Chiefs games in 1991-92. There, he got frequently have former Harry Caray sideman Jimmy Piersall as his analyst.

“He had a tremendous knowledge of the game and was very colorful person,” says Nichols of Piersall. A Chicago Cubs farm team at the time, Nichols followed the exploits of future MLB players Brant Brown, Mike Harkey and Amaury Telemaco.

Moving over to the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Wizards (Minnesota Twins), Nichols surveyed action from since-razed Memorial Stadium — aka “The Castle” — and saw future big leaguers LaTroy Hawkins (who went into the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in January), Torii Hunter, Corey Koskie, Matt Lawton and A.J. Pierzysnki come through town from 1993-96.

Nichols’ career path took him south to present diamond descriptions to fans of the Mobile (Ala.) BayBears (San Diego Padres) from 1997-2004. Matt Clement, Doug Dascenzo, Brian Lawrence and Jake Peavy were among those on their way to the majors. Lawrence is now the pitching coach for the Midwest League’s South Bend Cubs.

During much of the time Nichols was in Mobile, he was also an executive director for a franchise management company — Victory Sports Group.

From 2005-07, Nichols was director of broadcasting of the Gary SouthShore RailCats of the independent Northern League. Jermaine Allensworth, an Anderson, Ind., product who had played in the bigs, was with Gary in 2006-07.

Nichols took his current position — Director of Media Relations & Broadcasting at Dayton Dragons Professional Baseball — prior to the 2008 campaign. Dayton’s affiliation with the Reds was one of the things that attracted him about the job.

Over the years, he has got to have former Reds sit in with him. That list features Todd Benzinger, Tommy Helms, Lee May, Ron OesterJim O’Toole and many more.

Hall of Famer Joe Morgan was on the TV broadcast with Nichols this season.

“That was a thrill for me,” says Nichols, who was also pleased when he got to regularly interact with one of his boyhood idols — Ken Griffey Sr., when the former Red was Dayton’s hitting coach in 2010.

Indiana’s own Tucker Barnhart (who was with Brenneman and others for the 2018 Reds Caravan stop in Muncie) plus Zach Cozart, Didi Gregorius, Billy Hamilton and many others have been Dragons and later big leaguers during Nichols’ tenure.

When a Cincinnati player makes a rehabilitation appearance with Dayton and the Reds don’t play at the same time, flagship WLW often picks up the Dragons broadcast.

In his one game on the Reds Radio Network, Nichols worked the 2017 Reds Futures Game with color man Jeff Brantley and former Cincy broadcaster Jim Kelch.

“Put this one in the win column” is the phrase Nichols uses to cap every Dayton victory.

He says he may have subconsciously picked up descriptive phrases from all those years of listening to Reds broadcasts and recordings of them on his parent’s living room stereo.

But other than the win-capper, Nichols makes it a point not to have signal calls.

He had the belief reinforced by Ernie Harwell when they spent the day and worked side-by-side with the Hall of Fame broadcaster for the 1994 Midwest League All-Star Game in Fort Wayne.

“He told me, ‘People tune in for the game, not for you,” says Nichols of Harwell. “When you put yourself ahead of the game, you’re cheating your listeners.”

Nichols does not cheat on his homework either.

“Preparation is key,” says Nichols. “I believe in that strongly.

“That’s the most important thing. The more experience you get, the better you get at preparing.”

Nichols gathers plenty of facts and has them at the ready to use during the game. He knows that he has a three-hour broadcast to fill. On the road, that’s solo. He familiarizes himself with players and coaches and any pertinent storylines around the Dragons or the opponent.

He has at his ready a sheet full of the “last time” nuggets. Who was the last Dayton player to go 4-for-4 or hit three home runs in a game? His list tells him.

For the past two decades, Nichols has been using a ledger-sized scorebook that he devised with the help of veteran Adams, Blackford and Wells County radio man Bill Morris. It gives him room to right in facts about each player, including key statistics. For opponents, he will list things like their college and draft round.

“This way you’re not looking through a media guide,” says Nichols. “Without wasted time, you can quickly mention how many homers has if he just hit another one.

“It is time-consuming. But if you’re willing to put in the time, there will be rewards.”

The most rewarding thing to Nichols is spending time with family.

His parents — Tom Sr. and Fran Nichols — are retired and live in a country house outside Muncie during the summer months and in Marco Island, Fla., other parts of the year. He was a firefighter in Muncie and she an accountant.

Tom Jr. is the oldest of three. There’s also brother David Nichols and sister Kelli (Nichols) Dulaney.

David Nichols is a former Delta basketball player who was one year ahead of Matt Painter (now the Purdue head men’s basketball coach) and played hoops at Huntington University. He works in claims resolution in Indianapolis.

“David is the better athlete,” says Tom Jr., who was inducted into the Delaware County Athletic Hall of Fame in the coaches, contributors, media, officials category in 2009. “I was very average.”

Uncle Tom is close with David’s two children — Kaylee Nichols (a volleyball player at DePauw University in Greencastle) and Matthew Nichols (a former Delta basketball player).

Kelli is employed by Delaware County 911.

TOMNICHOLS2

With his trusty ledger-sized scorebook in front of him, Tom Nichols broadcasts a Dayton (Ohio) Dragons baseball game. He is in his 31st season as a play-by-play man — 11th with Dayton — and is nearing his 4,000th game broadcast, most of those on radio and about 200 for Dayton on television. (Dayton Dragons Photo)

TOMNICHOLS1

Tom Nichols, a graduate of Delta High School and Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., does a stand-up during a Dayton Dragons telecast. Nichols has been doing minor league baseball play-by-play since 1988 and has been a No. 1 voice since 1990. He started in Dayton 2008. (Dayton Dragons)

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Huttie impacting Fort Wayne baseball community in multiple ways

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

From a young age, Zach Huttie knew baseball was about more than just balls and strikes, safe and out.

It could be used to help teach important concepts.

When he was wrapping up his college studies, he felt the call of the diamond.

“I realized I didn’t ever want to leave baseball. I wanted baseball to be part of my life — some way, some how,” says Huttie. “What better way to teach life lessons than through the game of baseball?

“You do fail a ton of times, but it’s how you overcome that failure.”

Huttie is getting the chance to have an impact on the Fort Wayne area community in multiple capacities — all tied to the game he loves.

He came to the Summit City to be an assistant baseball at Indiana Institute of Technology — aka Indiana Tech — and has since added roles at Hoosier Classic Baseball Tournaments director/instructor for the World Baseball Academy and commissioner of the Indiana Summer Collegiate Baseball League.

“I like being able to change lives,” says Huttie, who is changed with Indiana Tech’s defense. “I like being able to see the kids overcome the adversity.”

Huttie also witnesses a growth in maturity.

“They come in as young men and see them become better men as they leave,” says Huttie. “One thing we preach at Indiana Tech is high character.”

Glen McClain, a redshirt junior first baseman and catcher for the Warriors in 2018, stands as an example of that growth.

“I’ve seen Glen blossom not only on the field but off and become a leader and help to mentor the young guys coming in as freshmen,” says Huttie. “It’s a team-first culture. It’s not just a ‘you’ thing, it’s a ‘we’ thing. It’s something we’ve installed.”

During the recruiting process, the Tech staff — led by head coach Kip McWilliams — does research on the player’s personality by talking with people like coaches, umpires and guidance counselors.

“We want to get a feel on who are those men of high school character who will help impact our program at Indiana Tech,” says Huttie.

Growing up in Raleigh, N.C., the son of Joe and Lonnie Huttie, Zach identified Denison University in Granville, Ohio, as the college for him as a sophomore at Athens Drive High School.

Before and after getting his diploma at ADHS in 2006, Huttie gained much from mentors like hitting instructor Brian Ward (who played for the Fort Wayne Wizards in 2000 and was later on the North Carolina State University coaching staff) and the Baseball Factory’s Kelly Kulina then played four years for the Big Red.

He earned a bachelor’s degrees in Environmental Studies and Communication from Denison and then a master’s degree in Sports and Recreation Sciences with a concentration in Coaching Education from Ohio University. He was a graduate assistant coach for the Bobcats.

It was a recommendation from OU head coach Rob Smith that helped Huttie land at Indiana Tech.

Smith, who played at Vincennes University and Indiana University Southeast, graduated at Indiana University and was an assistant coach at Purdue University, knew McWilliams was looking for an infield coach and sent Huttie his way. He was offered and accepted the job right after the interview.

“You never know who you know and that’s how I got the position up here,” says Huttie.

At the WBA, headquartered in the ASH Centre, Huttie gets to teach the game and also help young people.

“The World Baseball Academy uses baseball as a platform to develop young leaders,” says Huttie. “We work with at-risk youths in the community.”

The ASH Centre has three diamonds with artificial turf infields and natural grass outfields used by players 9U through college and there is plans for more. Huttie organizes and runs the tournaments played there and other area venues.

He works with a WBA leadership group that includes CEO/instructor Caleb Kimmel, director of baseball operations/instructor Andy McManama, senior lead instructor Ken Jones, scholarshipo baseball instructor Tim Petersen, scholarship director Linda Petersen, director of development Linda Buskirk and marketing director Kristen Kimmel, outdoor campus maintenance man Bud Wolf and Dominican Republic trip coordinator Jamie Frazier.

“We’re blessed as a non-profit to do a lot of good for the community,” says Huttie.

The ISCBL was organized a few years ago by McWilliams, Mark DeLaGarza and others to give area collegians a place to play and develop in the summer.

The 2018 season opens Saturday, June 2 and there are three league teams — Fort Wayne Panthers, Northeast Kekiongas and Summit City Sluggers.

The Panthers, with University of Saint Francis assistant Miguel Tucker, will be based on at Cougar Field on the USF campus. The Kekiongas, with head coach Indiana Tech assistant Pat Collins-Bride, will call Indiana Tech’s Warrior Field home. The Sluggers, with Jay County High School assistant Todd Farr as head coach, will be a rover.

In addition to Saturday and Sunday doubleheaders and weekday games with league and area men’s teams, Huttie says the ISCBL will conduct mid-week practices as a large group.

“It’s a developmental league,” says Huttie. Rosters tend to be filled with younger players — freshmen and sophomores.

Through all his baseball involvement in Fort Wayne, Huttie remains very close to his folks.

“My mom and dad our my world,” says Huttie. “They’re my bread and butter.

“I’m an only child. I talk to my parents every single night.”

ZACHHUTTIE

Zach Huttie is involved in the Fort Wayne baseball community in multiple ways. He is an assistant coach at Indiana Tech, Hoosier Classic Baseball Tournaments director/instructor at the World Baseball Academy and commissioner of the Indiana Summer Collegiate Baseball League. (Steve Krah Photo)

 

Indiana Baseball Hall of Famer Hawkins knows the importance of being nice

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Only nine men in the history of Major League Baseball made more pitching appearances that LaTroy Hawkins.

From 1995-2015, the lanky right-hander took the mound 1,042 times for 11 different MLB organizations — Minnesota Twins, Chicago Cubs, San Francisco Giants, Baltimore Orioles, Colorado Rockies (twice), New York Yankees, Houston Astros, Milwaukee Brewers, Los Angeles Angels, New York Mets and Toronto Blue Jays.

Originally signed by Daniel Durst, the 1991 Gary West Side High School graduate made a minor league stop with the Fort Wayne Wizards in 1993 and went on to won 75 games and save 127 in the big leagues.

Along the way, “The Hawk” met thousands of folks.

Hawkins always tried to treat them with kindness — the way he was taught growing up in Gary, Ind., by mother Debra Morrow and grandparents Lesley Cannon and Eddie and Celestine Williams.

“I always wanted to do the right thing,” says Hawkins, who will be inducted into the Indiana High Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in January. “Part of that is having a positive impact on others.

“I learned at a young age that trouble easy to get into and hard to get out of. I didn’t want to be a thorn in my (mother or grandparents’) side. I wanted to put a smile on people’s face.”

LaTroy’s mother still resides in Gary as do Mr. and Mrs. Williams. Grandmother Lesley died more than a decade ago, but her words and actions still ring true with LaTroy.

“She taught me about caring about people,” says Hawkins. “It didn’t matter what color they were.

“She had this uncanny way of opening up her home to everybody. You could always get three hot meals from her. She had a real sweet presence about her.

“She told me to always be willing to help people. You never know when you might need help. You always nice to people. Show them that you care. That always stuck with me.”

Lesley asked her grandson to always be that way.

“I try to be nice 99 percent of the time,” says Hawkins. “It’s hard to be nice 100 percent of the time. You come across more good people than (bad people).”

Maybe he didn’t always know your name.

“Hey, Big Fella!”

But Hawkins had — and still continues to have — time for everyone in his sphere that has revolved around a little white sphere. That might be folks on the grounds crew, security staff or on the loading dock.

“I made it my business to get to know everybody around me that made my day a little smoother once I left my front door and went to work,” says Hawkins.

When he learned about his Hall of Fame selection, he saw it as recognition for hard work and good character.

“It’s also the things you’ve done to grow the game of baseball in Indiana and around the world,” says Hawkins. “That’s having a positive impact I think.”

Now retired from his 21-year playing career, Hawkins is back with the Twins as a Special Assistant to Baseball Operations. His responsibilities include: contributing to the development of the organizational pitching philosophy used in the selection and development of all players. He will occasionally serve as an analyst for Twins games on Fox Sports North.

In working with the organization’s minor league pitchers, he gets them to set realistic goals and to help with both the mental and mechanical sides of their trade.

He talks about throwing high fastballs, pitching inside or down and away and when to use the curve ball.

But he also stresses the importance of data — something he paid little attention to as a player.

“It won’t work for everybody, but they’ll be some careers saved because of it,” says Hawkins. “It was a thing (when I played), but I didn’t want to know it.”

“When I started to 1995, analytics had a very small imprint.”

People relied on the human element and scouting.

“All we had to go on back then was the eye test,” says Hawkins. “Either you could do it or you couldn’t. Now there’s a reason for that and a program that can help you do it.”

Hawkins, who turns 45 on Dec. 21, helps hurlers change their grip to get a higher spin rate on their deliveries. After hanging out with Twins video personnel last March and seeing TrackMan data from spring training games and and also the numbers from his last three seasons (2013-15), he saw how spin rate either helped or harmed his own performance.

“That’s when I really got interested,” says Hawkins. “I saw what made me the pitcher I was. I didn’t care how hard I threw. Coming up in the Twins organization it was about command. That’s why I lasted so long. When I started throwing harder, I had still had command.”

It was also helpful that Hawkins possessed loose wrists, long fingers and strong hands.

“You’ve got to have two out of three to be able to do some of those things with the baseball,” says Hawkins.

Before going to spring training in 2018, Hawkins plans to travel to Indianapolis for the Jan. 28 Indiana Hall of Fame banquet at the Sheraton at the Keystone at the Crossing. The rest of the induction class includes coaches Rich Andriole (Indianapolis Cathedral/Guerin Catholic) and Pat Murphy (Valparaiso High School/retired), contributor Colin Lister (Fort Wayne/deceased) and Veteran’s Committee selection Howard Kellman (Indianapolis Indians broadcaster).

LaTroy and Anita Hawkins (who is a Gary Roosevelt High School graduate) celebrated their 17th year of marriage Nov. 25. The couple have a 16-year-old daughter — Troi — and reside in the Dallas area.

Westin Hotels & Resorts, Justin Tuck, LaTroy Hawkins And Rocco DiSpirito Launch "Make Monday Better" Campaign With Surprise Giveaway At A.C.E. High School In Canarsie, Brooklyn

LaTroy Hawkins began his 21-year Major League Baseball career with the Minnesota Twins and now works in the team’s front office. The 1991 Gary West Side High School graduate is part of the 2018 Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. (Yahoo Photo)

 

Homestead graduate Jernigan enjoying experience as second-year pro

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Andre Jernigan grew up in Fort Wayne watching young baseball players chase their professional dreams in the Midwest League.

Jernigan, 23, is now doing the same as an infielder with the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

A Homestead High School graduate in 2012 and Louisville Slugger All-American at Xavier University in 2016, Jernigan was selected by the Minnesota Twins in the 14th round of the ’16 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft after being named Big East Conference Player of the Year.

At spring training this year, Jernigan enjoyed picking the brains of former Minnesota Twins who were Fort Wayne Wizards coming through the minors — LaTroy Hawkins (with Fort Wayne in 1993) and Torii Hunter (1994).

“It’s incredible to play on the same fields and in the same league as them,” says Jernigan, who played 36 games for Elizabethton (Rookie-level Appalachian League) after the draft and four contests for the E-Twins in ’17 before being assigned to Cedar Rapids June 29.

“We’re lucky to come out here and just play,” says Jernigan. “I just like to take it day by day and enjoy the experience. It’s that fun and excitement you had when you were a kid that made you want to become a professional baseball player.

“It’s very easy once you get out there to lose sight of that. You start to think of it as a job. My main goal is to come out and learn something new and get better each and everyday.”

Playing so many games, pro baseball can become a mental and physical grind. But Jernigan chooses not to see it that way.

“You don’t think I have to play today, I get to play today,” says Jernigan. “It’s really just a blessing to be out here.”

Jernigan grew up playing shortstop and accept for being moved to third base by then-Homestead head coach Steve Sotir during his sophomore year, he was an everyday shortstop until he became a pro. The Twins have used him at second base, third base, shortstop and even one game at catcher.

“A ground ball’s a ground ball though the ball gets too you faster at third base,” says Jernigan. “The Twins talk about (playing multiple positions). I’ve always been told the more versatile you are, teams can get you more playing time.”

Jernigan is thankful for a foundation laid by Sotir, who now works at The Base in El Paso, Texas, and current Homestead head coach Nick Byall.

“They run a great program,” says Jernigan of Sotir and Byall. “I look back on the drills and some of the things we did. I can’t thank them enough with helping me with my development.”

Scott Googins, who became head coach at the University of Cincinnati after the ’17 season, was head coach at Xavier during Jernigan’s days as a Musketeer.

“Coach Googins made sure that we put together a tough schedule and faced the Vanderbilts and the Arizona States and some high-power arms,” says Jernigan. “Playing those teams in those series definitely helped in the sense that I’ve seen the velocity and the breaking balls.

“I seen some of that electric stuff. The biggest thing (in the minors), everyone you face now is a Friday night guy.”

The key is to hit the pitcher’s mistakes.

“I want to find a pitch and drive it,” says Jernigan. “You must be ready for the fastball at all times. You can adjust to the off-speed after that.”

Andre was born to Frankie and Stacey Jernigan in Muncie and the family landed in Fort Wayne around the time Andre was starting school.

Frankie Jernigan graduated from Muncie Central High School and earned a baseball letter at the University of Nebraska (1989). He passed along his knowledge and love of the game to sons Andre and Austin (who played baseball at Homestead and is now a senior student at Ball State University).

“I can’t thank him enough for all those days when he threw us BP and hit us ground balls,” says Andre of his father.

Andre played travel in younger days with the Mavericks and then with the Fort Wayne Cubs (now the Fort Wayne Diamondbacks).

In one of those small world phenomenons, The Diamond Baseball and Softball Academy owner/senior baseball instructor and director of player development Manny Lopez was a minor league teammate of Ramon Borrego when both played in the Twins organization. Borrego is now manager of the Gulf Coast League Twins.

Jernigan graduated from Xavier with a degree in finance.

“I’ve always been good with numbers,” says Jernigan. “It’s one of those things that I find interesting.”

Another interesting family connection is former NBA standout Bonzi Wells. He is connected in Andre’s mother’s side.

Wells shined on the hardwood at Muncie Central and Ball State and then played with the Portland Trail Blazers, Memphis Grizzlies, Sacramento Kings, Houston Rockets and New Orleans Hornets before stints in China and Puerto Rico.

At 40, Wells now plays in the new BIG3 pro 3-on-3 league.

Jernigan says Wells recently talked with youngsters at Muncie Central.

“He has that inner drive that keeps you going,” says Jernigan.

ANDREJERNIGAN

Andre Jernigan, a graduate of Homestead High School and Xavier University, is in the Minnesota Twins organization with the Cedar Rapids Kernels. (Steve Krah Photo)