By STEVE KRAH
Going from a squad full of veterans and experiencing NCAA Division I baseball success in 2016, the Mastodons of Fort Wayne had much less college experience and suffered growing pains in 2017.
With a new focus, Fort Wayne is looking to get things turned around in 2018 under the guidance of 10th-year head coach Bobby Pierce.
“We wore it last year,” says Pierce, who saw the Mastodons go 9-43 after losing 14 impact players — senior shortstop Greg Kaiser, senior outfielder Brandon Soat and and drafted sophomore pitcher Evan Miller among them — from a 33-26 campaign in ’16 that included a second straight trip to the Summit League tournament finals. “(Junior college) guys made the (2016) team as good as it could be. Freshmen (in 2017) need to learned how to play here and do damage on the Division I level.
“But we like to think over the next three or four years, that was worth it. Strategically, it’s the right move to get where we want to get. We have to think more long-term. Up until this time, we were using a steady mix of high school and junior college guys and it was holding us back a little bit.”
Fort Wayne just wrapped annual fall workouts with the Blue-Black intrasquad series with teams captained by sophomore infielder Travis Upp and junior pitcher Damian Helm on one side and junior infielder Brandon Yoho and senior pitcher Brandon Phelps on the other.
“We got after it somewhere in the middle of September,” says Pierce. “We’ve been grinding it out until this (past) weekend.”
Pierce, assistants Grant Birely and Connor Lawhead and the Dons will continue work in preparation for the 2018 campaign.
As he goes forward, Pierce has the longest tenure as head coach in program history. Previous coach Billy Gernon (now at Western Michigan University) was also in charge for nine seasons.
Pierce, who turned 39 on Oct. 17, came to Fort Wayne with lessons learned as a player, assistant coach and head coach.
A Las Vegas native, Pierce played for Rodger Fairless at Green Valley High School in Henderson, Nev. Fairless coached 12 state championship teams at three Nevada schools. He helped develop Greg Maddux before going to Green Valley and turning that school into a diamond powerhouse. With the Gators, he produced a state champion in the program’s third season. Two Green Valley players — Chad Hermansen and Dave Krynzel — went on to the big leagues.
Pierce, a middle infielder, played at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, Central Arizona College and New Mexico State University.
Clint Myers was Pierce’s head coach at Central Arizona. National Fastpitch Coaches’ Association Hall of Famer Myers won more than 1,000 games as a baseball and softball coach with a number of national titles to his credit.
At New Mexico State, Pierce played for National College Baseball Hall of Famer Gary Ward and his son, Rocky Ward.
“I’m very fortunate to come from a very good pedigree of coaches,” says Pierce. “(Fairless) was super disciplinarian and fundamental coach and that was a great start for me. I got indoctrinated in it during my high school career. (Myers) taught me a team management perspective.”
Through structured live play drills in practice, Pierce is able to grow a player’s intelligence in playing the game — something he gained from Myers.
Pierce considers Gary Ward one of the best offensive-minded coaches of all-time and styles his Fort Wayne offense based in the Hall of Famer’s philosophy.
After he was done playing (he developed a labrum injury at New Mexico State), Pierce had planned to become an accountant in Albuquerque.
But fate intervened — hiring was curtailed after Sept. 11, 2001 and he was asked to go back to college for more schooling.
Pierce instead pursued coaching, first serving as an assistant at Central Arizona then the University of Arkansas-Little Rock (where he pulled his first tarp) before becoming head coach at Metropolitan State University of Denver for two seasons before becoming head coach at Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne for the 2009 season.
“The early years were hard. I was cutting my teeth,” says Pierce. “But you have to cut your teeth and learn your craft somehow.”
Pierce explains why he has stayed longer in the position than anyone else.
“It speaks to the people I work with and the community,” says Pierce. “The city of Fort Wayne is great. My family (Bobby and Lizette Pierce have two children — Bobby Jr., and Daycee) has grown roots and really love it here.
“I’ve been very fortunate to coach some student-athletes and been around great people. I love this job and I love baseball.”
Fort Wayne pulls many players from northern Indiana and the Indianapolis area, but is able to draw from outside of the state with the school’s policy of out-of-state students paying 150 percent of what in-staters pay.
“Before, we couldn’t afford out-of-state players,” says Pierce. “Their dollar goes further now. Indiana residents are still cheaper on our books. We target Indiana kids. We still like home cooking. We try to turn rocks up here.”
NCAA Division I allows 11.7 scholarships for baseball. Pierce says that of the 35 players on the roster, 27 of them can be on scholarship and those are broken up based on a number of factors, including performance and need.
“There is no such thing as a full-ride,” says Pierce.
Like most programs, most money goes to pitchers and then to the interior of the defense (catcher, shortstop, center field).
“We think we can do a good job of developing hitters,” says Pierce. “We spend the majority of our money in pitching.”
Balance must also be considered.
“Like pro baseball, if you overspend in one area, you are going to be light in another area,” says Pierce. “It becomes a numbers game.”
Pierce is proud to say that the Mastodons have performed well in the classroom with three straight years of 3.0 or higher (on a 4.0 scale) as a team grade-point average. All players are encouraged to graduate in four years and take 15 hours in both the fall and spring semesters.
To help them meet their scholarly goals, schedules are made to limit the amount of missed class time. There is an academic advisor, study halls and the resources of the Mastodon Academic Performance Center.
“I’ve proctored exams,” says Pierce. “Professors on our campus are willing to work with us. We’ve got it figured out.”
Being in the Summit League with Denver, North Dakota, North Dakota State, Omaha, Oral Roberts, South Dakota, South Dakota State and Western Illinois, there is plenty of travel.
But it’s not like the first few years of NCAA Division I status as an independent. That’s when Fort Wayne was on the road for all but a handful of its 56 regular-season games away from Mastodon Field. Having no conference ties meant a berth in the NCAA tournament was virtually impossible.
One former Don player is seeing the world while still playing the game. Caleb Fenimore, a senior catcher on the 2014 team, was recently named the top hitter in the North in the German Professional League. The Rushville Consolidated High School graduate has played in Germany in the summer and Australia in the winter.
Bobby Pierce is entering his 10th season at head coach of Fort Wayne Mastodons baseball in 2018. The NCAA Division I program is a member of the Summit League. (Fort Wayne Mastodons Photo)