By STEVE KRAH
Tony Uggen achieved much diamond success away from the place he grew up.
As head coach at Northfield High School from 1994-2013, Uggen’s Norsemen enjoyed many victories. IHSAA state championships came in 2001 and 2012 with a state runner-up in 2013.
But Uggen’s heart belongs to Hartford City, so he came back Blackford High School as athletic director and head baseball coach, beginning with the 2013-14 school year.
“Although I loved it at Northfield (and also served 10 years as AD there), I felt it was time to focus on the greater challenge of rebuilding my alma mater that hadn’t had a winning season since ‘04,” says Uggen, a 1983 Blackford graduate. “I guess you could say I personally wanted to know if I really was a good coach or just a by-product of being in the right place at the right time.”
On the heels of 4-23 in 2015 and 8-21 in 2016, Uggen’s 2017 Bruins went 17-13 overall and 3-4 in the Central Indiana Conference. It was Blackford’s first winning varsity baseball season since 2004.
The special campaign also included the school’s first sectional title in any sport since 2010 when the Red, Black & White reigned at 2A Blackford Sectional.
“I am proud of where we have come over the past three years,” says Uggen. “And it was great to see the community come out at sectional in full force as it was a great experience for the kids and community.”
The spring of 1991 is the only year since 1980 that Uggen has not coached a baseball team at some level. He helped coach a Babe Ruth League squad at 16. A few years later, he started a six-year run of guiding his own Babe Ruth team.
Uggen took his first teaching job at Northfield in 1991-92 and was hired as junior varsity coach and heir apparent to long-time Norsemen head coach Craig Winegardner.
As a player, Uggen was part of minor league (third grade), Little League (Grades 4-6) and Babe Ruth (7-9) programs before playing for coach Gary Cheesman at Blackford.
“I liked his passion for the game and the fact that he had high expectations for us,” says Uggen of Cheesman. “Looking back I appreciated that he ran a disciplined program as well.”
Uggen played three seasons (1985-87) at Taylor University, where Larry Winterholter was head coach. A pitcher during his freshmen and junior seasons, Uggen sat out his sophomore year because a rotator cuff injury that plagued his college career.
Out of eligibility because of tranferrng from Purdue University at mid-semester and then going to Ball State University, Uggen did not play as a senior. Winterholter did allow him to pick his brain as a student assistant coach.
“Coach Winterholter was less intense as a coach than Coach Cheesman, but he still was a disciplinarian,” says Uggen. “I appreciated playing for each as they gave me different perspectives as to how to reach athletes. It allowed me to learn that different players respond differently to how they are coached. So some kids like the more ‘in your face approach’ while others are more receptive to being pulled aside and talked to.
“Over the years I try to adapt to how I feel the kids best respond which can be a challenge. A couple years I never felt like I was on the same page, but I have always liked a challenge so that makes coaching interesting.”
What qualities does Uggen wish to instill in his players?
“First and foremost, I want our kids to reflect a ‘class act’ program,” says Uggen. “And that starts with discipline. Without a doubt, the best teams I have coached were the ones who were disciplined and focused on wanting to learn and get better. Not all of them had winning records, but I felt many of those teams still exceeded my expectations and that’s a testament to their efforts.
“I also want to instill a strong work ethic and a commitment to excellence. In short, I want them to learn to compete at a high level.
Hopefully, my hope would be that all who play for me look back and say ‘Coach Uggen made me a better baseball player and person’ and have pride in their accomplishments as individuals and as teams when all is said and done.”
The 2017 season marked the first for the new IHSAA pitch 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) and Uggen has has his take on it.
“I will admit I was leary at first,” says Uggen. “But in the end, the pitch count rule was a big reason we won the sectional. Taylor, who we beat in the sectional final, had to throw their ace all 10 innings in the opening win so he was done for the tournament.
“And in the sectional championship, we tied it when down to our last strike and they unfortunately ran out of pitching and had to turn to a young many who had only thrown about eight innings all year. So yes, the pitch count worked in our favor in the tournament.”
Uggen tried to worked up to five pitchers into a game early in the season then whittled back to three or less per game as pitch counts went up and the pitchers who could consistently throw strikes were identified.
“I think that helped us develop more kids capable of handling the grind of as the season wore on,” says Uggen. “And, thankfully, most of those kids are back (for 2018).”
His assistant coaches will be Bob Banter, Travis Huffman and Devon Kirkwood at the varsity level with Travis Huffman has JV head coach and Lucas Miller as JV assistant.
Uggen says he would be in favor of changing the IHSAA ‘open gym’ rule.
“I think it ties coaches’ hands only being able to work with two kids directly at a time,” says Uggen. “That frustrates me, especially knowing that there are schools probably not following the rule.
“Yes, I understand that not having it may open up some coaches to coaching year-round. We do it because it is the right thing to do and because I can’t say we are going to be a ‘class act’ and then break the rules.
“And, frankly, there are a lot of kids today that get pulled in the wrong direction for whatever reason. If I could work with more kids than those kids are less likely to get lured into doing something they shouldn’t.”
Tony and and wife Lisa have been married eight years and have five children ages 12 to 23 — Stephanie Uggen, Christian Fleener, Brandon Fleener, Brendan Uggen and Elly Uggen.
Tony Uggen, a 1983 Blackford High School graduate, has been athletic director and head baseball coach at his alma mater since 2013-14 after a long stint in both jobs at Northfield High School. (Blackford Photo)