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Purdue Fort Wayne’s Birely helps pitchers navigate a world of knowledge

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Blending various talents into a cohesive unit, helping them navigate a world of knowledge and encouraging a flow of ideas.

This is what Grant Birely gets to do as pitching coach at NCAA Division I Purdue Fort Wayne (formerly Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne).

Birely, 36, has been on the job since the 2009 season. The Mastodons are scheduled to open the 2019 campaign Feb. 15-17 with four games at Alabama A&M.

The Purdue Fort Wayne roster features 14 active pitchers with two who will likely be medical redshirts.

“I make an individual plan with each of them to become the best they can,” says Birely. “As they get older and go through the program, they take a lot of ownership of their own development and I become a consultant for them. With the young guys, it’s about teaching them what it takes to pitch at this level.”

Birely says the cornerstone of Mastodons pitching is throwing and learning to spin pitches.

“In some form or fashion, there is throwing each day,” says Birely. “It might be 60 feet one day just to get loose. It might be 350 feet if they’re going to long toss that day. I don’t put a distance restriction on them. We tell them to listen to their arm and see how it feels each day.”

The point is, collegiate pitchers are asked to throw a lot.

“There’s no better way to learn to throw than to throw,” says Birely. “We’re working on their craft every single day.”

Playing baseball at the college level, especially Division I, is a major commitment between school work and hours spend getting ready for and playing games.

“We spend everyday with them and they spend so much time on it, they have to love baseball and showing up everyday and working on it,” says Birely. “One thing they’ll leave with is time management when they head into the real world.”

Purdue Fort Wayne pitchers do a hybrid training program that includes band work, stretching and some weighted-ball movements.

“We don’t dive straight into a full weight-ball program because these guys are competing the minute they get on-campus,” says Birely. “They never really have that down time to solely focus on velocity or anything like that. We’re always trying to work on command (of the strike zone) and commanding a second pitch.”

When the weather keeps the Mastodons off the frozen tundra, they do their throwing in a spacious fieldhouse large enough to make tosses of up to 250 or 260 feet.

“We’re very lucky to have that,” says Birely. “It’s just high enough so they can get a little bit of air under the baseball.”

The top two pitchers from 2018 in terms of innings pitched and victories are gone. Right-hander Brandon Phelps, a Fort Wayne Snider High School graduate, pitched 83 innings and won five games as a redshirt senior. Left-hander Damian Helm worked 73 1/3 innings with four victories in his senior season.

As the Mastodons head into the only four-game series of 2019, Birely says junior right-hander Chase Phelps (Brandon’s brother and also a Fort Wayne Snider graduate), junior right-hander Cameron Boyd (Fishers) and redshirt senior right-hander Shane Odzark will get the first opportunity to be starting pitchers.

The bullpen is being built with establishing strength in the late innings as a priority.

“We’ve got a lot of guys who are excited to try to go and finish games,” says Birely, who counts freshman left-hander Justin Miller (Homestead), sophomore right-hander Sean Ferguson (New Haven) and freshman right-hander Jarrett Miller in the closer mix.

Other right-handers include sophomore Trevor Armstrong (Fort Wayne Snider), sophomore Nathan Hefle, freshman Garrett Hill (University), junior Tyler Kissinger, junior Duane Miller, sophomore Brian Skelton (Westfield) and redshirt freshman Cade Willard (Eastside).

Another lefty is sophomore Spencer Strobel (Avon).

Birely says two freshmen right-hander — Grant Johnston (Hamilton Southeastern) and Drew Pyle (Hagerstown) — have had injuries that will likely make them redshirts.

The pitching coach has learned that he is dealing with players who have different ways of learning. They might be visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners.

“We have some guys who like to see themselves on video and they can make adjustments based off that,” says Birely. “Some guys I have to put in a position kind of in a kinesthetic way so they can feel it.

“It’s definitely a challenge to figure out each guy.”

And figuring it out is key.

“Anyone who is teaching might be the smartest person in the world but if they can’t get that information to the players, it doesn’t really work and it doesn’t help,” says Birely. “It’s been fun finding different ways to teach and different ways to convey information that I have to them.”

Birely notes that the current generation — Generation Z — gets a bad rap for asking so many questions.

“They have all this information at their finger tips,” says Birely. “Some of it is good and some of it is not good.

“I’d rather have them ask me a question or to try to figure something out than to just go and do it on their own.”

Group chats are a way that information is exchanged.

A pitcher will see a video in social media and ask, “what do you think of this, Coach?.”

Birely asks his hurlers to identify their favorite major league pitcher.

“That gives me some insight of who they’re going to watch,” says Birely. “My favorite pitcher to watch growing up was Greg Maddux. I was never the big velocity guy. Watching him throw a baseball looked like watching a wiffleball.”

He also followed the fortunes of another future Hall of Famer. Roy Halladay went to high school just a few years before Birely in nearby Denver suburb of Arvada.

Birley is a graduate of Chatfield Senior High School in Littleton, Colo. He played for current Purdue Fort Wayne head coach Bobby Pierce at Central Arizona College (the Vaqueros won the 2002 National Junior College Division I World Series) then finished his collegiate career at the University of New Orleans. That’s where he met his future wife, Bonnie. The two were living in the Big Easy when Hurricane Katrina hit and they moved closer to Grant’s family in Denver.

Retired as a player after one season of independent baseball with the Mesa Miners, Birley went into the business world when a friend asked him to help with freshmen tryouts at Regis Jesuit High School, figuring it would just be for a few hours on a Saturday.

“From the moment I walked out there, I was hooked,” says Birely, who spent two seasons at Regis Jesuit in Aurora, Colo. When Pierce became head coach at Metropolitan State University of Denver, he invited Birely to become Roadrunners pitching coach. When Pierce moved to Indiana to lead the IPFW Mastodons, he asked Birely to come with him.

“I wouldn’t have this opportunity without him,” says Birely of Pierce. “He’s been a mentor and a great person to learn from.

“The best thing about him is that he lets everybody in the organization from players to staff go do their job

he gives them the freedom and creativity to make the program better.”

Pierce promotes a spirit of working together for a common goal.

“He’s very positive,” says Birley. “He’s great to work for. He’s awesome to play for. He allows the players the freedom to exchange ideas.

“Let’s figure it out together.”

Grant and Bonnie Birely have figured out how to balance baseball and family life. The couple has two children — Fort Wayne Bishop Dwenger High School senior Tyler (who is active in theater and show choir) and sixth grader Kaylee.

“Like everyday says you’ve got to have a very understand wife,” says Grant. “She’s on this journey with me. Otherwise, I couldn’t do this.

“She keeps the fort going at home.”

Purdue Fort Wayne plays in the Summit League (with North Dakota State, Omaha, Oral Roberts, South Dakota State and Western Illinois). That makes for a good deal of travel. When the Mastodons go to the Dakotas, they often leave campus on Wednesday night and return at noon Monday.

“(Players) do a great job of doing their schoolwork on the road,” says Birely. “It’s not uncommon to walk through a hotel lobby and there’s 25 or 30 guys doing their homework.

It’s not uncommon for players to ask for the movies to be turned off on the bus to study for an upcoming test.

“We’ve had guys who understand what it means to be a true student-athlete,” says Birely. “It goes back to time management. They have to rely on themselves a lot to make sure they’re getting their work done.”

Coaches will proctor tests for professors, who email the exam and set the time limit and have the coaches sent it back. Other take online classes to allow flexibility and no requirement to be in a classroom.

Christine Kuznar is Senior Associate Athletic Director for Academics and meets with players each semester to them on-track toward getting their degree as quickly and efficiently as possible.

“She’s the rock star behind the whole thing,” says Birely.

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Purdue Fort Wayne was formerly known as Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne. In its new branding, the Mastodons have adopted black and gold as school colors with a hint of blue as homage to the IPFW brand. (Purdue Fort Wayne Image)

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Grant Birely, the baseball pitching coach at Purdue Fort Wayne, is a native of Colorado who played and coached for Mastodons head coach Bobby Pierce before following him to Indiana. (Purdue Fort Wayne Photo)

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Grant Birely has been baseball pitching coach at Purdue Fort Wayne (formerly Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne) since the 2009 season. (Purdue Fort Wayne Photo)

 

 

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Aggressive style has Estep, University Trailblazers baseball in 1A semistate

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Chris Estep, his coaching staff and players have built a culture of confidence for the University High School baseball.

“The kids have bought into what we’re trying to do as a program,” says Estep, the head coach that has his Trailblazers (27-6) meetings Tecumseh (20-9) in the IHSAA Class 1A Plainfield Semistate at 1 p.m. EST Saturday, June 9. “When we run out on to the field we can play with anybody.”

What is the root that confidence?

“It’s how we’ve structured practices,” says Estep. “We make practices run faster.”

In practices — and games — University pushes the limits on offensive and defense.

“We want to be very, very aggressive,” says Estep. “The last thing we want to see is a kid afraid to make a mistake. The more aggressive you are, the more chance you’ll have to make aggressive plays.

“You can not expect a kid to make a great play if they don’t practice making great plays.”

University, a private school of just under 300 students located in Carmel which played in its first IHSAA tournament in 2007, won the University Sectional and the Morristown Regional to find itself one win short of going to Victory Field in Indianapolis for the 1A state championship game.

Estep, who is supported by assistants Reid Andrews, Michael Thompson and Steve Nerney and athletic director John Walls, points to the regional to show how his players are prepared deal with misfortune on the diamond.

The Trailblazers were up 2-0 in the semifinals against Indianapolis Lutheran only to find themselves down 4-3 in the next inning. They came back with a 9-4 victory.

The championship game was tied 0-0 going into the seventh inning. Estep saw a pinch-hitter foul off pitches to get to a full count and University went on to score three runs in the top of the frame and then hold Hauser for a 3-0 win and the regional crown.

“If you can’t handle adversity, you can’t be a champion,” says Estep. “We put them into as many adverse situations as we can and ask them to go out and make a play.

“You never know when it’s going to be your time and you better be ready to answer the bell.”

The aim is to play as close to flawless as possible and make up for any mistakes that do happen.

“There’s really no such thing as a perfect game,” says Estep. “But if we try, we will give ourselves the opportunity to win.”

There are 18 players in the program in 2018.

University is a member of the Pioneer Conference (along with baseball-playing schools Anderson Preparatory Academy, Bethesda Christian in Brownsburg, Greenwood Christian, Indianapolis Shortridge, Liberty Christian in Anderson, Muncie Burris and Seton Catholic in Richmond). The Traliblazers went 7-0 this spring to win the conference title.

Top University pitchers include senior right-hander Cade Carlson (committed to Northwood University in Midland, Mich.), junior right-hander Brock Moore and senior right-hander Garrett Hill (Purdue Fort Wayne commit). When not pitching, the three rotate between first base and third base.

Hill, junior shortstop Dawson Estep (the coach’s son), Moore, freshman left fielder and senior center fielder Ryan Williams (committed to Morehouse College in Atlanta) are among the Trailblazers’ leading hitters.

Coach Estep calls No. 9 hitter Williams “a major catalyst” with “speed to burn.”

Estep watched junior catcher Kolton Stevens fight through hot conditions to shine in the regional.

“He caught best two games I’ve ever seen a kid catch,” says Estep. “I can’t tell you how balls he blocked.

“Nobody ever notices that position until there is a mistake.

“He was absolutely phenomenal.”

It’s phenomenal plays or games that earns players the right to wear the “U chain”.

Borrowed from the University of Miami football “turnover chain,” Andrews brought the motivating bling to University baseball in 2017.

“Miami’s ‘The U’ and we’re the ‘The U,’” says Estep. “It’s been (Andrews’) baby. He hangs the ‘U chain’ on the fence before games. He awards it to a kid and pictures are taken. Kids are excited for whoever gets the ‘U chain.’”

Also for the second year, the “U” took a southern trip at the beginning of the season. The Traliblazers played in Tennessee.

The squad got away and spent quality time together at the ballpark and the breakfast table.

“It’s really important for team camaraderie,” says Estep. “We went and played four games then released them to spring break. When they came back, we got back to work.”

Estep, 51, has been working as a baseball instructor for decades. His Roundtripper Sports Academy in Westfield is coming up in 25 years.

“It found me out more than I found it,” says Estep.

He grew up on the east side of Indianapolis and played wiffleball, basketball and football and, of course, baseball. Organized ball came at Christian Park, where he played for John Gannon.

“He was the greatest youth coach in the history of Little League,” says Estep of Gannon, who is expected to be at Saturday’s semistate. “He’s a legend. “He made sure we all stayed out of trouble. He was an unbelievable mentor to kids.”

A 1985 Carmel High School graduate (he played his first two prep seasons at Indianapolis Cathedral before his family moved), Estep was an outfielder at the University of Kentucky for two seasons and was selected in the 12th round of the 1988 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates. He played at the Double-A level in 1991 and 1992.

While he was still a professional player, he was approached by a parent about giving lessons to one of their sons. They were impressed enough to bring another son to him. Before you knew it, Estep had a long list of students and less and less time to work out himself.

“Even though I didn’t hit very well, I understood the processes for hitting and defense,” says Estep, who now sees to the needs of many baseball and softball players. “The girls are quicker learners and they’ll do whatever they tell them. The boys will fight you on it.”

Roundtripper alums include Jeremy Hazelbaker, Tommy Hunter, Lance Lynn, Dillon Peters, Kevin Plawecki, Micah Johnson, Drew Storen and Chris Ulrey.

Extra-busy giving lessons and running the Indiana Mustangs travel organization, Estep put up a fight when he was approached repeated by a former University administrator a decade ago.

“He would not leave me alone,” says Estep. “He said, ‘If you don’t do it, these kids can’t play.’ That got me. I called my wife and begged for forgiveness that I took on another job.

When we first started I couldn’t have weekend games because of the workload. The school made it work. Now we play every weekend. The program’s worth it. I’m willing to pay a little extra price — my family is, too, though my wife doesn’t like me very well.”

Besides Dawson, Chris and Sue Estep have an older son (Chandler, who plays football at Elon University in North Carolina) and a younger daughter (Jasmine, a talented athlete who is headed into the ninth grade).

For Estep to be close to his business, University began playing its home games at Roundtripper and still does.

His first team was overmatched. The first game was a 32-0 loss.

“They were the the kids that always got chosen last,” says Estep. “But that team set the standard. This is where we built from. This present team has an attitude that they’re going to fight you to the bitter end.

“I love them for that.”

Estep does not love the IHSAA decision to suspend Indianapolis Scecina junior right-hander Mac Ayres (who is also in the Mustangs organization) for the 2A Jasper Semistate. Ayres went over 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) in the Park Tudor Regional and the violation was self-reported by Scecina coach Dave Gandolph.

“It was a clerical/addition error,” says Estep. “(Scecina coaches) thought they were taking a kid out on 119 pitches for two games.

“There was no malice there. Now the kid is going to be penalized.”

If Estep had his way, pitch counts would be tracked in an official book in the press box and not with the home team. The scorekeeper would let the teams and umpires know how many pitches a player had going into the next game. When they got to 110, the coaches would be alerted.

“It should be a drop-dead (when the limit is reached),” says Estep. “You stop and make a pitching change.”

IHSAA SEMISTATES

Saturday, June 9

North

Kokomo

(Municipal Stadium)

Class 1A: Northfield (16-14) vs. Daleville (20-9), Noon CST/1 p.m. EST.

Class 3A: Andrean (29-6) vs. Jay County (20-6), following.

Plymouth

Class 2A: Boone Grove (19-5) vs. Lafayette Central Catholic (26-4), Noon CST/1 p.m. EST.

Class 4A: Chesterton (18-7) vs. Fishers (27-7), following.

South

Plainfield

Class 1A: University (27-6) vs. Tecumseh (20-9), Noon CST/1 p.m. EST.

Class 4A: Indianapolis Cathedral (21-8-1) vs. Castle (22-8), following.

Jasper

(Ruxer Field)

Class 2A: Indianapolis Scecina (13-15-1) vs. Southridge (24-6), Noon CST/1 p.m. EST.

Class 3A: Indian Creek (24-5) vs. Silver Creek (24-2), following.

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University High School head coach Chris Estep wears the “U chain” and assistant Reid Andrews holds the cake celebrating Estep’s 100th career win with the Trailblazers.

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University High School won the IHSAA Class 1A University Sectional and Morristown Regional and will play Saturday, June 9 in the Plainfield Sectional. Chris Estep is the head coach of the Trailblazers.

 

 

From San Juan Capistrano to Valpo, Ferketic enjoys baseball odyssey

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Trey Ferketic was with his third college baseball program — all in California — when he tore the labrum in his pitching shoulder.

Three screws were inserted in that right shoulder, the one that helped him make high-speed deliveries for JSerra Catholic High School in San Juan Capistrano, Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, Cal State Long Beach and the University California San Diego.

The very first intrasquad scrimmage in late September at UCSD, Ferketic tore the labrum.

There were doubts about his ability to bounce back.

“Coaches and teammates told me I’d never pitch again,” says Ferketic. “I wanted to prove it to myself and anyone else that I could.”

Ferketic pitched in four games and worked 3 2/3 innings for UCSD in 2016, but the pain was just too great and he was shut down.

Thinking he had played his last, Ferketic finished his communications degree at the NCAA Division II school in the La Jolla neighborhood of San Diego.

There was a sense of closure.

But rehabbing the injury, Ferketic got the idea he could still pitch and he wanted to do it at the Division I level — like he had in 2015 with the “Dirtbags” of Long Beach, where he made six appearances for 9 1/3 innings.

So he appealed to the NCAA to give him back a year of eligibility, claiming a medical hardship.

He was turned down the first time.

On the second try, he provided more information.

A lot more information.

Ferketic turned in more than 60 pages of paperwork.

“It was super extensive,” says Ferketic, who had to submit all his academic records from all his college stops, including summer classes taken elsewhere, and all his medical records. “It was a ton of work.”

This time, he was granted another year. He reached out to some of his connections. He had been recruited by Valparaiso University coming out of junior college ball at Saddleback and that’s where he decided his baseball odyssey would take him next.

“After I got my shoulder surgery, I wanted to play somewhere and I thought it be awesome to come out here and play in front of some new eyes and come to all these new states, new teams and places I’d never heard of,” says Ferketic. “That’s why I chose to come out here.”

Alerted to Ferketic’s availability by cousin and Next College Student Athlete representative Jim Sak, Valparaiso head coach Brian Schmack liked what he saw in bullpen session videos so he brought the Californian to northwest Indiana.

“He knows how to handle his business,” says Schmack of the graduate student. “He shows the younger guys how it’s supposed to be.

“We brought him out here to pitch. He gives us a chance every time.”

Ferketic, who is in the starting rotation for the Crusaders, is not the first graduate transfer for the Crusaders. In fact, he is not the only one on the 2018 squad. There’s catcher-infielder Zack Leone, of Pelham Manor, N.Y.

In 2013, Valpo brought in former Cal State Northridge right-hander Chris DeBoo as a grad transfer.

“He was a mature guy and he knew what it took to be successful,” says Schmack.

Valpo has been very successful in luring California players to play in Indiana.

“We’ve got enough connections out there where we’re getting referrals and maybe a couple of kids from the same high school,” says Schmack. It’s a word-of-mouth type of thing.

“Our thought is to go where the players are. We wanted to find guys who were driven to play baseball and we’ve found a niche out there.

“There’s some kids that say ‘I’m never leaving the state of California.’ There’s other that say ‘I want something new.’ Those guys are really accepting of what we have.”

Ferketic is one of 11 players with California hometowns on the roster. The others are redshirt junior infielder-outfielder Blake Billinger, sophomore outfielder Riley Dent, senior outfielder Giovanni Garbella, sophomore right-hander Michael Hardtke, sophomore right-hander Garrett Hill, senior infielder Chad Jacob, sophomore right-hander Jake Larson, junior left-hander Josh Leaverton, junior right-hander Montana Quigley and junior infielder Sam Shaikin.

There’s also two from Arizona — senior infielder-outfielder Jayden Eggiman and sophomore right-hander Easton Rhodehouse.

Ferketic has enjoyed the transition.

“It’s been awesome out here in the Midwest,” says Ferketic. “What sticks out to me is the seasons. In California, we don’t have seasons at all.

“Pitching in 35 degrees, snow and rain has been crazy. I have more respect now for this part of the country for people who have to grind through that. It’s been cool to experience that.”

Another thing is the different styles of baseball.

“On the West Coast, there’s a lot of ‘small ball’ and playing for one run. It’s pitching- and defense-dominated,” says Ferketic. “Out here, these guys swing for the fences. There’s home runs almost every game.”

Sometimes the wind blowing out favors Valpo and other times it works to the advantage of the opponent.

“You’d like to think it evens out over the course of the year — at least you want to believe that,” says Ferketic.

He expresses appreciation for what Valpo coaches — Schmack, full-time assistants Ben Wolgamot and Nic Mishler and volunteer Kory Winter — have done for him.

“They have a lot of trust in their players,” says Ferketic. “It’s a lot easier to play and it takes a lot of pressure off, knowing the coach believes in you and wants you to succeed.”

A focus on the mechanical side has been keeping him directional rather than rotational (with his shoulder flying open).

“I’m a sinker guy and I play off movement,” says Ferketic. “I need to be linear or it goes where I don’t want it to go. I need to have that downhill plane.

“It’s been an awesome experience.”

As a graduate student, Ferketic is working toward a masters degree in sports administration and will likely finish in December.

He chose that route to stay closer to athletics and can see himself running a training facility, scouting program or sporting goods operation.

But he’s still a player right now and he’s soaking that up.

“I would love to play more baseball,” says Ferketic. “I can’t imagine hanging them up. It’s going to be a sad day when I do.

“But I don’t know what my shoulder’s got left. I really don’t. It’s kind of on borrowed time.”

Valpo (18-32) is seeded No. 7 in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament in Dallas and plays No. 2 seed Dallas Baptist Wednesday, May 23. The event continues through Saturday, May 26. The winner earns an NCAA tournament berth.

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Valparaiso University’s Trey Ferketic delivers a pitcher in 2018. He is a graduate transfer from California in his only season with the Crusaders. (Valparaiso University Sports Media Relations Photo)

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Trey Ferketic pitched for JSerra Catholic High School, Saddleback College, Cal State Long Beach and the University California San Diego before landing with Valparaiso (Ind.) Universty in 2018. (Valparaiso University Sports Media Relations Photo)

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Trey Ferketic wanted to make his comeback from shoulder surgery at the NCAA Division I level and the California native decided to do it in the Midwest with Valparaiso University. (Valparaiso University Sports Media Relations Photo)