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Bridges wants Hanover Central Wildcats to be smart, aggressive on bases

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Power may not show up at the field every day.

But there’s no reason aggressiveness on the base paths can’t be a part of each game.

That’s the way third-year Hanover Central High School head baseball coach Ryan Bridges sees it as he looks forward to the 2019 season.

“We did a very good job last year of taking the extra base,” says Bridges, who played four seasons at Griffith (Ind.) High School and five at Purdue University. “We’d see the ball in the dirt and were gone. It’s something I expect out of each one of my kids — to be a good, aggressive base runners.

“We always try to put pressure on the defense and make them make a play. High school kids are prone to make mistakes — even the best of them. A little bit of pressure can go a long way.

“You’re not always going to have those boppers. You can teach these kids to run bases and keep going. I can keep playing that style.”

Bridges and his Wildcats are part of the Greater South Shore Conference (with Calumet, Griffith, Hammond Bishop Noll, Lake Station Edison, River Forest, Wheeler and Whiting as baseball-playing members).

To get his team ready for the postseason, Bridges has beefed up the non-conference schedule. It includes contests against IHSAA members Crown Point, Hammond Morton, Highland, Hobart, Kankakee Valley, Lowell, Munster, Portage and Valparaiso and Illiana Christian, an Illinois High School Association school in Dyer, Ind.

A year ago, Bridges took his team to McCutcheon (now led by former Purdue head coach Doug Schreiber).

A game in the annual High School Baseball Challenge hosted by the Gary SouthShore RailCats at U.S. Steel Yard in Gary is scheduled against Lowell on Friday, April 12.

Hanover Central (enrollment around 715) is part of an IHSAA Class 3A sectional grouping with Andrean, Kankakee Valley, Knox, Twin Lakes and Wheeler. The Wildcats have won one sectional crown — 2011. That team went on to be 2A state runners-up.

Bridges played for head coach Brian Jennings at Griffith and graduated in 2007.

A corner infielder and designated hitter for Purdue, Bridges appeared in 126 games (85 as a starter) and hit .288 with six home runs and 61 runs batted in. A back injury in his freshmen season led to a medical redshirt.

“I enjoyed every second of all five years of it,” says Bridges of his Purdue days.

He credits Schreiber for his attention to detail whether it was a bunt play, study tables or the amount of commitment it took to achieve excellence.

“He likes things done a certain way,” says Bridges. “If kids understand the level of commitment needed at the next level, it will help them for the four years of high school.”

Recent HC graduates with college programs include Troy Cullen and Jose Sanchez at Indiana University South Bend, Michael Biegel at Calumet College of St. Joseph and Eric Lakomek at Wabash College. Among players Bridges coached at Griffith there’s Kody Hoese at Tulane University and Amir Wright at Saint Leo University.

Current Wildcats shortstop Nolan Tucker has signed with Valparaiso University. Sophomore center fielder Jared Comia has received D-I offers.

Purdue was Big Ten Conference champions in Bridges’ final season (2012). Two of his Boliermaker teammates — catcher Kevin Plawecki and pitcher Nick Wittgren — are now with the Cleveland Indians.

Bridges graduated from Purdue and has a special education endorsement and masters degree from Indiana Wesleyan University. He taught in the Griffith system and was an assistant on Jennings’ baseball staff for four seasons before going to Hanover Central, where he teaches physical education at the middle school in addition to going baseball.

While he may not have been that way when he was playing for him, Bridges says he saw Jennings come to the see the value of giving his players a physical and mental break when it’s needed.

“We get the whole week off before tryouts,” says Bridges of his Wildcats program. “Once it starts, there’s no break.

“That’s pretty important.”

During this IHSAA limited contact period where coaches can lead their teams in baseball activities for two hours two times a week, Bridges has players coming in at 5:30 a.m.

“We have quite a few basketball kids,” says Bridges. “Coach (Bryon) Clouse is nice enough to let my pitchers throw.”

“I the way they have it set up now,” says Bridges. “Coaches are aren’t running these kids four days a week in January and February.

“But I wish they would let pitchers throw a little more. Arm care is important and some of these kids have nowhere to throw — not only pitchers, but position players.”

Hanover Central pitchers began bullpens this week. Bridges will slowly progress their pitch counts moving up to the first official day of practice (March 11) and beyond.

“I’ll use more arms earlier in the (season) before I can get arms in shape,” says Bridges, who does not recall any of his hurlers reaching the limit of the pitch count rule adopted in 2017 (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). I’m very precautionary when it comes to that. Some of these kids have futures (as college pitchers).”

Bridges’ coaching staff features Nic Sampognaro, Cole Mathys, Anthony Gomez and Mike Halls. Sampognaro is a 2011 Hanover Central graduate who played at Saint Joseph’s College. Volunteer Mathys is also an HC graduate. Gomez played at Munster and moved on to Vincennes University and Ball State University. Halls is in charge of the Wildcats’ junior varsity.

Noting that the community is growing and that there are a number of baseball players in the eighth grade, Bridges says there is the possibility of having a C-team in the future.

Hanover Central is located in Cedar Lake, Ind. Cedar Lake also sends some students to Crown Point. Some St. John students wind up at Hanover Central.

Hanover Central Middle School fields a team for Grades 6-8 in the fall.

In the summer, there is Cedar Lake Youth Baseball and Saint John Youth Baseball. Both offer teams for Cal Ripken/Babe Ruth players. There are also a number of area travel ball organizations.

Bridges has known John Mallee for two decades. He went to him for hitting lessons as a kid. He is now a hitting advisor for Mallee and this summer will coach the Northwest Indiana Shockers 16U team. Indoor workouts are held at All Aspects Baseball and Softball Academy in South Chicago Heights, Ill., and The Sparta Dome in Crown Point, Ind. Mallee is the hitting coach for the Philadelphia Phillies.

Catcher Jesse Wilkening, a 2015 Hanover Central graduate, made his professional debut in the Phillies system in 2018.

Hanover Central plays it home games on-campus. Since Bridges has been with the Wildcats, they have added a batting cage behind the home dugout and got a portable “Big Bubba” portable batting cage and pitching machine.

“We always looking to improve the field,” says Bridges. “But I want to help the kids first with their skills.”

Ryan and Nicole Bridges have a daughter. Harper turns 2 in March.

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The Hanover Central Wildcats (Hanover Central Graphic)

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Head coach Ryan Bridges and his Hanover Central Wildcats baseball team.

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The baseball team from Hanover Central High School in Cedar Lake, Ind., gathers at U.S. Steel Yard in Gary. The Wildcats, coached by Ryan Bridges, are to play at the home of the Gary SouthShore RailCats again April 12, 2019.

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The Bridges family (from left): Ryan, Nicole and Harper. Ryan Bridges is head baseball coach at Hanover Central High School in Cedar Lake, Ind. He teaches physical education at Hanover Central Middle School.

 

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Becich welcoming new bunch of Wheeler Bearcats to varsity baseball

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

A new bunch of Bearcats will get a chance to make an impact on Wheeler High School baseball in 2019.

The 2018 squad had several seniors who had been playing for the school located in Union Township near Valparaiso, Ind., since they were freshmen.

Jake Armentrout moved on to Xavier University in Cincinnati. Clayton Sanders signed at the University of Saint Francis in Joliet, Ill.

Catcher Mason Diaz, a Northern Kentucky University commit who hit .388 last spring, is back for his senior year. Rex Stills, who hit .302 in 60 plate appearances as a freshman, is back for his sophomore season.

There will be opportunities for others to make their mark on varsity baseball for the first time.

How will the Bearcats go about doing that?

“We’re looking to do all the small things right and, hopefully, everything else falls in line with it,” says Kyle Becich, who is entering his ninth year with the program and fifth as head coach. “We’re rebuilding a foundation.”

Becich, who spent four seasons as a Wheeler assistant on the staff of Josh Long, counts Tommy O’Shea, Phil Sanchez, Christian Rosta and Payton Ball as assistant coaches.

The Bearcats generally have 24 players in the program for varsity and junior varsity squads. Some players swing back and forth based on the needs that day.

Wheeler (enrollment of about 540) is in the Greater South Shore Conference (with Calumet, Griffith, Hammond Bishop Noll, Hanover Central, Lake Station Edison, River Forest and Whiting as baseball-playing members).

Past non-conference foes have included Crown Point, Hammond Clark, Hammond Gavit, Hebron, Hobart, Lowell, Merrillville and North Newton. The Bearcats have met Hebron in the annual High School Baseball Challenge hosted by the Gary SouthShore RailCats at U.S. Steel Yard in Gary.

Wheeler is in an IHSAA Class 3A sectional grouping with Andrean, Hanover Central, Kankakee Valley, Knox and Twin Lakes. The Bearcats last won a sectional title in 2008.

“It’s a tough sectional,” says Becich of a field which is full of traditionally-strong teams and produced the 2018 3A state champion (Andrean).

Wheeler plays its home games on its campus at Richard Wendt Field. Wendt, a former Wheeler coach, died in 2012.

Recent upgrades to the facility include re-building the pitcher’s mound,  installing a new home plate and pitcher’s rubber, leveling the playing surface, realigning the bases, adding new wind screens in the outfield and reworking the speaker system.

Every October, the Bearcats have a field day where players, coaches and parents put the field to rest for the winter.

During the current off-season period, the Bearcats are getting stronger in the weight room.

The Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association, IHSAA and Indiana Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association have been working together on a proposal to add an arm care program to the baseball calendar.

“I support that, especially for kids that have nowhere to throw right now,” says Becich, noting that some of his players can work out with their travel teams at indoor facilities but not all have that kind of access. “You only have one arm your entire life and so many bullets to throw. It’s best to protect it when you can.”

Wheeler baseball has also been building a relationship with Union Township Little League. Last season, players who hope to one day don the Green, White and Orange were invited to work out on the field and were treated to pizza.

Becich, 32, is a 2005 Munster High School graduate. He played baseball and football for the Mustangs then one football season at North Central College in Naperville, Ill. He finished his education degree at Indiana University in Bloomington. His first job out of college was as a social studies teacher and coach at Wheeler.

Becich credits former assistant principal Jack Schimanski for playing a major role in his development.

“He was a huge mentor for me,” says Becich of Schimanski. “I was picking his brain all the time, learning some of the minor details.”

Schimanski had been a head coach at Joliet (Ill.) Catholic High School and learned much from Gordie Gillespie, who won 1,893 games in his 58-year college coaching career.

Kyle and Kelsey Becich have two children — son Liam (4) and daughter Reese (3).

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Mason Diaz, a Northern Kentucky University commit, catches  for Wheeler High School during the 2018 baseball season. Wheeler is in Union Township near Valparaiso.

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Rex Stills crosses the plate for Wheeler High School during the 2018 baseball season. He is back for 2019. Wheeler is in Union Township near Valparaiso.

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Mason Diaz, Sam Beier, Jake Armentrout, Nate Gosbin, Adam Wagoner and Hunter Catherman line up for the Wheeler Bearcats at U.S. Steel Yard in Gary, Ind. Diaz returns for Wheeler in 2019. Wheeler is in Union Township near Valparaiso.

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The Wheeler baseball team gathers during the annual High School Challenge at U.S. Steel Yard in Gary, Ind. Wheeler is in Union Township near Valparaiso.

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Kyle Becich coaches third base for the Wheeler High School baseball team. The 2019 season will be his ninth in the program and fifth as head coach of the Bearcats.

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Head coach Kyle Becich (left) and assistant Tommy O’Shea watch their Wheeler High School Bearcats baseball team.

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Kyle Becich, head baseball coach and social studies teacher at Wheeler High School near Valparaiso, Ind., and wife Kelsey have two children — son Liam and daughter Reese.

 

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.

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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)

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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)

Howard believes in keeping it simple for his Forest Park Rangers

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Baseball doesn’t have to be complicated.

Just ask Jarred Howard, who just completed his 18th year as head baseball coach at Forest Park High Senior/Junior High School in Ferdinand, Ind.

“In high school, you need to three things very well. It’s simple — throw strikes, make plays and put the ball in play.

“We do our very best to keep things as simple as we can. If we do the simple things, then we’re pretty successful.”

The Forest Park Rangers have found themselves ranked among the top IHSAA Class 2A schools in many of the seasons where they grasped and executed the simple concepts emphasized by Howard.

At a school of about 400, there are occasional downs mixed in with the ups. But Forest Park has won about two-thirds of games.

A member of the Pocket Athletic Conference (along with Gibson Southern, Heritage Hills, North Posey, Pike Central, South Spencer, Southridge, Tecumseh and Tell City), the Rangers and other PAC schools play each other once.

Forest Park competed in 2018 in the 2A Tell City Sectional (which also featured Evansville Mater Dei, North Posey, Perry Central, South Spencer plus host Tell City).

Schools in that field have made 11 state championship game appearances and won it all seven times — South Spencer 4, North Posey 2 and Mater Dei 1.

Forest Park has won four sectionals (1975, 1976, 1984 and 2002) and one regional (1976).

The 2018 squad went 10-11 and featured Trever Zink, who was team player of year, co-Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association district player of the year and participated in the IHSBCA North/South All-Star Series in South Bend.

Senior Daniel Lusk earned a defensive and mental attitude awards. Freshman Gage Hasenour took the lowest earned run average/pitching award. Sophomore Gavin Knust gathered the hitting award for the highest batting average and was named most improved.

Zink and Lusk were all-PAC and Knust gained honorable mention all-conference.

The Rangers gave Howard his 300th career coaching victory April 30, 2018 against Evansville Bosse.

With proximity and Howard’s ties to Kentucky, Forest Park played some of its games against schools from the Bluegrass State.

Howard says it often makes scheduling easier than in Indiana since a statewide assigner matches umpires with games in Kentucky.

Being a smaller school, Forest Park relies on many multi-sport athletes. Baseball players are asked to get in their work when they can and the coaching staff, which also includes former Howard players Kyle Greulich, Brent Wendholt and Jesse Hagedorn plus volunteers Darren Weisheit and Andy Rohleder are all willing to help.

Greulich played at Oakland City University, pitching coach Wendholt at Vincennes University and then at the University of Southern Indiana, Weisheit at Southeastern Illinois College in Harrisburg, Ill. and Rohleder at the University of Evansville and in the Florida/Miami Marlins organization and with independent Gary Southshore RailCats.

“Our player development has been very good,” says Howard. “The summer time is a big deal. We do as much as we can.”

Howard has sent nearly 20 players on to college baseball. The most recent ones are Zink to Olney (Ill.) Central College and Eli Knust, who played at Vincennes University and is now at Huntington University.

Forest Park fields varsity and junior varsity teams with about 24 to 26 players in the program.

Both squads generally practice together.

“I want them to be able to understand what I’m doing,” says Howard. “I want them to get used to how I handle situations.”

Ranger Field, located on the school campus, sports Bermuda grass.

“Our playing surface is phenomenal — very fast,” says Howard, who reports that the program is looking into updating the backstop and adding visitor seating to get a chance at hosting a sectional or regional.

Feeding the high school program are the Forest Park Youth Sports. In this summer’s Indiana Little League tournaments, FPYS advanced its 10- and 11-year-old teams to the state semifinals while the 12-year-olds bowed out in the district finals. The latter group took the state title when they were 10.

There are seventh and eighth grade baseball teams at Forest Park in the spring.

“We’re excited about the next four or five years coming,” says Howard.

The 2018 Rangers had two seniors. On many days, there were as many as seven freshmen and sophomores in the lineup.

A 1993 McLean County (Ky.) High School graduate, Howard played for Rockport American Legion Post 254 then coaches John Hayes and T-Ray Fletcher at Oakland City. Howard was an assistant to Fletcher for two years before going to Forest Park.

The holder of a business education degrees with two masters (business management and school administration), Howard’s day job is as director of the Patoka Valley Career and Technical Cooperative. He has an office in Jasper, Ind., but spends much of his time on the road overseeing the 17 programs based at 10 high schools.

Jarred and Natalie Howard have three children — sons Drew and Reid and daughter Bree. Drew is heading into the ninth grade, Reid the seventh and Bree the second.

Both boys play for Ironmen Baseball travel organization.

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Forest Park Senior/Junior High School head baseball coach Jarred Howard (left) accepts a plaque commemorating his 300th career victory from Forest Park athletic director Doug Louden.

Educated at Anderson U., LaPorte grad Eaton is experiencing independent pro ball

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Jake Eaton thoroughly enjoyed his time on and off the baseball field at Anderson (Ind.) University.

Since his last game with the Ravens, the pitcher has been experiencing life as an independent professional player. The 6-foot-6, 230-pounder left-handed pitcher is currently on the disabled list for the Washington (Pa.) Wild Things of the Frontier League.

“Faith has been a vital part of my baseball journey — in large part thanks to my development at Anderson University — and I feel fortunate that I am today in pro ball,” says Eaton, who completed his undergraduate accounting degree in 2015 and Masters of Business Administration with a focus on global business in 2016.

Eaton, a 2011 LaPorte High School graduate, pitched for Anderson in the spring of 2012 and 2013 and underwent Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery in the fall of 2013, missing the 2014 spring season.

“It was from wear and tear,” says Eaton. “The ligament wasn’t torn. I had just put so much stress on it over the years, it wasn’t protecting the nerve anymore.

“I talked with a surgeon at Methodist Sports Medicine in Indianapolis. I wanted to continue playing baseball.”

Eaton was given the option of skipping the surgery and going through physical therapy with a chance of success at about 45 percent or getting the procedure with an expected 90 percent success rate.

“It was kind of a no-brainer for me,” says Eaton, who came back to pitch for the Ravens in 2015 and 2016.

David Pressley was the head coach at AU for Eaton’s first four years at the school.

After Anderson won the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference championship and qualified for NCAA Division III regional play in 2015, Pressley went back to his home state of Alabama to coach at powerhouse Madison Academy High School.

“I really grew as a person and player at Anderson,” says Eaton. “I learned to be role model for kids. (Presley) taught me how to be a better man and helped me develop my faith.”

Dustin Glant served as Ravens head coach in 2016 before becoming pitching coach at Ball State University.

“(Glant) helped me increase my velocity 6 mph in the (2015-16) off-season,” says Eaton. “I wouldn’t have stood a shot at pro ball if he wasn’t there for my last season at Anderson.”

In three college seasons, the southpaw appeared in 34 games (30 as a starter) with a 16-5 record, 3.21 earned run average, 161 strikeouts and 84 walks in 193 2/3 innings.

Spending much of his time for seven years studying, playing or working out around Anderson, Eaton also was employed part-time doing accounts payable and receivable for Reflectix, a stock reflective insulation manufacturer.

Eaton’s pro path has included stops with the Gary (Ind.) SouthShore RailCats of the American Association and Tucson (Ariz.) Saguaros in the Pecos League in 2016 and the AA’s Salina (Kan.) Stockade (which played all its games on the road) and Washington in 2017. He signed with the Wild Things in July, made 12 appearances (all in relief) with 1-0 record, one save, 2.21 ERA, 23 K’s and seven free passes in 20 innings and was re-signed in October for the 2018 season.

An ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) sprain near the same area where he had Tommy John surgery has kept Eaton out of action so far this season. He got a Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP) injection and is back in LaPorte, where is working out and going through exercises to improve his wrist grip and forearm strength.

“I’m working on my core, cardio or legs — or a mix of them,” says Eaton of his regular gym sessions. Just this past week, he began doing light biceps and shoulder work.

It’s all about building strength back up around his left elbow.

Eaton says he expects to begin throwing again around July 2 and report back to the Wild Things a week after that, though the “diehard Indianapolis Colts fan” did plan to be in Washington to see former NFL Pro Bowl punter Pat McAfee play for the Things at It’s All About the Warrior Field at ConSol Energy Park.

Eaton has been following the team’s game on video streaming.

Four pitches are in Eaton’s arsenal — four-seam fastball (he does work on a two-seamer during bullpen sessions), curveball, slider and “circle” change-up from the three-quarter overhand arm slot. He was consistently clocked at 86 to 89 mph on his heater while touching 90 a few times last season.

“As a left-hander, I can get away with a lot more than a righty would,” says Eaton.

But he has learned that there is a drastic difference between facing D-III and professional hitters.

“You have to use a lot more off-speed going into pro ball,” says Eaton. “Sometimes, you can blow it by them in D-III ball. (Pro) hitters a lot better at adjusting.

“They are good at picking up on your mechanics. That’s like smelling blood in the water for the hitter. They see it’s going to be a off-speed pitch and sit back on it.”

At LaPorte High School, Eaton was part of the Scott Upp-coached Slicers varsity for his junior and senior seasons. In 2010, he was 1-0, 1.05 and 20 strikeouts and six walks in 13 1/3 innings for a 27-4 team.

Eaton was 4-3, 4.16, 34 strikeouts and 14 walks in 38 2/3 innings for a 20-10-1 club in his senior season of 2011.

Upp is credited for teaching Eaton about always having an aggressive approach to the game.

“You can’t go in with a soft approach,” says Eaton. “You have to attack everyone.”

One thing Eaton appreciates about the Wild Things is that they are not as likely to swiftly cut someone after a few sub-par performances or for the promise of a better player.

“They stick by you and trust you and give you a sense of security,” says Eaton. “As long as you do everything to your full potential.

“That’s why we usually have such a good clubhouse. Guys can get close and don’t have to worry about leaving the next day.”

Eaton doesn’t mind the distance from home with the way he is treated.

“It’s well worth it playing for a classy organization like Washington,” says Eaton, who grew up in LaPorte and played in the local Cal Ripken and Babe Ruth baseball leagues, beginning at age 11.

His summer travel baseball experience included the Indiana Breakers in 2010 and Plymouth American Legion Post 27 in 2011.

Summers during his college days, were spent working a job and working out.

Eaton counts work ethic as his best quality as an athlete.

“I’ve always got a focus and a plan going into my workout or my day,” says Eaton. “I know what I need to do to get better.”

Jake is the son of Steve Eaton and Terri Wainscott and has a older half sister named Nikki.

His father is a retired from more than 40 years as a bricklayer.

“I mixed a lot of mortar for him over the years,” says Jake of projects around the house.

His mother is a registered nurse.

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Jake Eaton, a LaPorte High School graduate who holds undergraduate and masters degrees from Anderson (Ind.) University, is in independent pro baseball with the Washington (Pa.) Wild Things. (Washington Wild Things Photo)

Former Indiana Mr. Baseball, MLB first-rounder O’Conner lands with independent St. Paul Saints

RBILOGOSMALL copy

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Justin O’Conner was a highly-touted professional baseball prospect when he wore the uniform of Cowan Junior/Senior High School.

As a sophmore at the Muncie, Ind., school, he helped the Camden Pankhurst-coached Blackhawks earn an IHSAA Class 2A state runners-up finish in 2008.

In 2009, O’Conner put up head-turning numbers as a shortstop and pitcher: .521 average, 19 home runs, 61 runs batted in, 7-0 record, 0.30 earned run average, 101 strikeouts in 46 2/3 innings.

That summer, he won the Home Run Derby at the Perfect Game National Showcase at the Metrodome in Minneapolis and was invited to the Perfect Game Aflac All-American High School Baseball Classic at PETCO Park in San Diego.

In 2010, he was Indiana’s Mr. Baseball and selected in the first round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Tampa Bay Rays right out of Cowan.

As a pro, O’Conner became a catcher. He played 48 games with the Gulf Coast Rays in 2010.

In 2011, he played at rookie-level Princeton threw out 16 of 45 base stealers.

He helped Hudson Valley win the New York-Penn League championship in 2012.

O’Conner played at Low Class-A Bowling Green of the Midwest League in 2013.

That winter, he played for the Brisbane Bandits of the Australian Baseball League.

“It was awesome,” says O’Conner of his time Down Under. “It was a chance to go to another country, live there for three months and get to see their culture and also get to play baseball.”

In 2014, O’Conner played at Charlotte and was an MiLB.com Organizational All-Star and Florida State League All-Star, FSL Post-Season and Baseball America High Class-A All-Star.

He played in the Arizona Fall League and was placed on Tampa Bay’s 40-man roster in November.

O’Conner spent the entire 2015 season at Double-A Montgomery and led the Southern League in total chances (91) and threw out 29 of 60 base stealers.

“For me, it’s big part of the game,” says O’Conner. “Being able to control the running game can keep runners off of bases in scoring position and keep them from scoring runs. If the pitcher can give me a good time to the plate, mix his looks in.

“It’s really more on the pitcher and the infielder making a good tag along with me making a good throw. It’s just not me, it’s everybody involved.”

In 2016, he began the season in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League because of a back injury. He was promoted to Double-A in August.

It was discovered he had a herniated disk and he had two back surgeries in October and November and and was removed from the 40-man roster in December.

“I’m all good now,” says O’Conner of his procedures. “The back pain really wasn’t the issue, it was the sciatica down my leg. I needed to get it fixed.”

O’Conner started 2017 at Double-A and was promoted to Triple-A Durham in August. The Bulls won the Triple-A National Championship.

After the season, he was granted his free agency and signed a minor league contract with the San Francisco Giants in November 2017. The Giants released him in April 2018 and he inked a deal with the St. Paul Saints of the independent American Association, a circuit which also features the Gary SouthShore RailCats.

The Saints got off to a 5-1 start and O’Conner is coming off a 3-for-3 game with two RBI and two runs scored Wednesday, May 23 at home against the Chicago Dogs.

He belted home runs May 18 at Gary and May 23 in St. Paul.

O’Conner quickly learned the difference between high school and professional baseball while with the Rays and Giants organizations and it holds true with St. Paul.

“It’s a grind,” says O’Conner, 26. “You’re playing baseball, but it’s also a job. You’ve got to come out and try to win everyday.

“You learn that right away. You’re playing every single day. It takes a toll on your body and it’s something you’ve got to get used to.”

O’Conner played for a number of travel baseball organizations growing up then spent two years while in high school with coaches Dan Held and Quinn Moore and the Indiana Bulls.

Justin is the son of Muncie’s Randy and Kim O’Conner and has an older brother and a younger sister.

Jacob O’Conner is in law school in Cincinnati. Kirsten O’Conner, a former Ball State University softball player, is a nutritionist in Illinois.

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Justin O’Conner, who was Indiana’s Mr. Baseball at Cowan Junior/Senior High School and a first-round draft selection of the Tampa Bay Rays in 2010, is now with the independent St. Paul Saints. Released by the San Francisco Giants organization, the catcher signed with the team shortly before the beginning of the 2018 season. (St. Paul Saints Photo)

Former Northview, Indiana State standout Shoemaker displays desire to win with St. Paul Saints

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Brady Shoemaker has a competitive fire. The Brazil, Ind., resident wants to come out on top on the baseball diamond.

The 31-year-old is currently feeding those flames in his second season as a first baseman with the St. Paul (Minn.) Saints of the independent American Association.

After being released by the Chicago White Sox organization in 2016, Shoemaker signed with St. Paul in February 2017.

The right-handed stick finished second in the AA in slugging percentage (.603) and on-base percentage (.435), tied for second in extra-base hits (44), tied for third in home runs (21), tied for fifth in walks (55) and eighth in average (.318).

Shoemaker opted to re-sign with the Saints for 2018.

“To me, independent baseball is more about baseball,” says Shoemaker. “It’s not so much about getting guys ready for the game. They want to win in this league. (St. Paul manager) George (Tsamis) is big about putting nine guys not the field who want to win.

“In (affiliated) minor league baseball, you have prospects and guys have to play. It’s not like that here. You’ve got to show up everyday wanting to win. And if you’re not one of those guys, you find yourself sitting on the bench.”

Shoemaker graduated from Northview High School in Brazil in 2005, played two seasons at Olney (Ill.) Central College (2006 and 2007) and two at Indiana State University (2008 and 2009).

He smacked 23 home runs and had 80 in pro ball leading into 2018.

Not that he goes to the plate thinking about hitting the ball over the fence.

“I’ve never, ever went up there trying to hit a home run,” says Shoemaker. “I just try to stay inside the baseball and drive it. If you hit it hard somewhere, good things will happen.”

Shoemaker’s earliest baseball days came in Clay Youth League. From ages 12 to 14, he played for the Wabash Valley Titans travel team

“That’s where I really started to learn a lot about baseball,” says Shoemaker. “We played really good competition. That helped boost me going into high school.”

At Northview High, Gary Witham was his head coach. Witham went 581-274-1 at Brazil and then the consolidated Northview.

“Coach Witham did a lot with us in the off-season,” says Shoemaker. “He was good in organizing off-season practices. He put together a place where some us could go hit.”

After graduation, Shoemaker played two summers for Terre Haute American Legion Post 346 and longtime manager John Hayes.

In 2006, Post 346 was American Legion World Series runners-up. Future major league catcher Josh Phegley was also on that squad.

Dennis Conley was Shoemaker’s head coach at Olney Central, where the player was a two-time National Junior College Athletic Association All-American.

“He was tough on us and made us work hard,” says Shoemaker of Conley. “You learned a lot about the game of baseball if you just listened to him.

“He was very instrumental with helping me further my baseball career.”

What Shoemaker remembers most from his time at Indiana State was how head coach Lindsay Meggs and his staff helped him make the transition to big-time baseball and the brotherhood of the players.

“Going from junior college to Division I baseball is a jump,” says Shoemaker, who was used mostly as a left fielder with the Sycamores. “During my time at Indiana State, we had a really close group of guys. We wanted to win together as a team.”

Shoemaker selected in the 19th round of the 2009 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the White Sox.

He hit safely in the first 28 games of his pro career in 2009.

“I was a 19th-round guy and a senior sign,” says Shoemaker. “I’ve always had to prove myself and wanted to prove myself. So I wanted to get off to a good start.”

At Bristol, Shoemaker led the Appalachian League in doubles (21), on-base percentage (.426), extra-base hits (30) and ranked second in slugging percentage (.585), third in average (.351) and total bases (120) and fourth in home runs per at-bat with 1 out of every 22.78. He was chosen as a Postseason All-Star in the Appy League in 2009.

In 2010, he spent the entire season at Single-A Kannapolis.

Shoemaker was an MiLB.com Organizational All-Star in 2011 while finishing second in the South Atlantic League in average (.319) and fifth in on-base percentage (.399) and was promoted to High-A Winston-Salem in July.

In 2012, he went 2-for-4 in the Carolina League-Cailfornia League All-Star Game and was Carolina League Postseason All-Star and Orgainzational All-Star.

The right-handed thrower missed all of 2013 after surgery for a torn labrum in his right shoulder and biceps and was claimed by the Miami Marlins in the Rule 5 Draft in December

“It was more of over-usage tear,” says Shoemaker. “It wasn’t something that drastically happened.”

He spent the entire 2014 season with Double-A Jacksonville and was with Triple-A New Orleans all of 2015.

Shoemaker got into major league spring training games with the Marlins in 2014, 2015 and 2016.

After playing a combined 55 games at Double-A and Triple-A in 2016, the Marlins traded Shoemaker back to the White Sox July. He spent few games at Double-A Birmingham and was released by that organization in August 2016.

Some after that, his independent baseball experience began.

Supporting him along the way are the people at home in Clay County.

“I’m real close to my family,” says Brady, the son of Brian and Lorie Shoemaker, brother of Natalie (Shoemaker) Lizanich, husband to Chelsea Shoemaker and father to 9-month-old son Drew Shoemaker. “I always have been.

“My grandparents have been a big part of my baseball career.”

Ed Pearce, his grandfather on his mother’s side, passed away April 20 as Brady was getting ready for the season. Grandmother Janet Pearce survives.

Both grandparents on his father’s side — Don and Nina Shoemaker — are gone. Grandmother Nina did in 2014.

Saint Paul (5-1) opened the season at the Gary SouthShore RailCats. The Saints, which are in the AA’s North Division, are scheduled to come back to Gary July 20-22 and visit the Chicago Dogs in Rosemont, Ill., June 15-17 and Aug. 23-25.

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Brady Shoemaker, a 2005 Northview High School graduate who played at Olney Central College, Indiana State University and in the Chicago White Sox and Miami Marlins organizations, is in his second season with the independent St. Paul Saints in 2018. (Saint Paul Saints Photo)