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Indiana Land Sharks travel organization enjoys great growth

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Can’t you see them circling … the bases?

The Indiana Land Sharks are coming to a diamond near you.

The travel organization based in northern Indiana and southern Indiana is fielding 26 teams — 22 baseball and four softball — with 290 players in 2017.

Ages are 8U to 17U for baseball and 10U to 16U for softball. The only baseball division that does not have more than one team in 17U. There is one team each for the four softball age groups. Teams are distinguished by the colors blue, gray and black.

The first Land Sharks team was run by Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer and South Bend resident Jim Reinebold in 2003 at the invitation of Clint Emberton (father of Chad Emberton), Dr. Karl Schultz (father of Kyle Schultz) and Russ Stines (father of Brenden Stines).

The Land Sharks were a top-10 finisher in a big tournament at Wide World of Sports in Florida.

A later team featured future major leaguer Ryan Strausborger.

The program was re-birthed with one one in 2009 and expanded to five in 2012.

In 2015, a new indoor training facility was added in Niles, Mich., and the Land Sharks began fielding girls softball teams.

A second indoor facility (Niles Sports Warehouse) is managed by the Land Sharks.

“We just grew so quickly,” says Jim Robinson, Land Sharks athletic director and an owner along with Marc Waite, John Baxter and Joel Reinebold. “We’re offering a product people want.”

Based on training space, teams were actually turned away.

All coaches are volunteers and many are associated with high schools.

“We are advocates of the high school game,” says Robinson.

8U players typically play three to six tournaments per season. These families are exploring travel baseball to see if it’s for them.

“We encourage (players on) 8U teams to play rec ball and experience travel ball,” says Robinson. “9U also plays at limited travel schedule.”

By the time they reach 10U, they are usually playing a full travel schedule. From that age until high school, they might play up to 50 games from early April until Aug. 1 (when high school sports practices start).

Needing more pitching, high school teams may carry 14 or 15 players on a roster. The younger ones usually go with 11.

High school players cease off-season training with the Land Sharks once their school teams fill their rosters and they don’t begin their travel season until they are released from their school teams, making for a shorter season of four or five tournaments.

Tryouts are usually held the second weekend of August.

While there is natural attrition as families move or players gravitate to another sport or activity, Robinson says retention is pretty high from season to season, meaning many teams may be only looking to fill a few spots.

“People follow good organization and good coaching,” says Robinson. “The chemistry of the parents is also very important. (Travel ball) is your summer family. Kids travel and room together (on road trips). So many families have multiple kids playing. They depend on people they trust.”

Some teams stay together year after year. Take the current 17U baseball team. This team — coached by Tom Washburn, John Kehoe and Dennis Ryans — has been together since 10U.

This familiarity has been a key to development.

“We’re different from a lot of the teams we play,” says Washburn, who coaches older son Andrew (lead-off hitter on the 2017 IHSAA Class 3A state champion South Bend St. Joseph Indians) on the 17U team and also younger son Joseph on a 10U team. “Each year we can teach these guys a little bit more. Many travel teams don’t have time to practice and it becomes knowledge vs. talent.”

New Prairie High School graduate Washburn played for Tony Robichaux at McNeese State. South Bend Washington graduate Kehoe was in the Toronto Blue Jays system. South Bend LaSalle product Ryans the New York Yankees organization.

Washburn calls the 10U team a hybrid with travel and Chet Waggoner Little League games on its schedule.

In either scenario, it’s all about learning how to play.

“At 10, I’m more concerned with their development than winning a bunch of trophies,” says Washburn. “We learn to run pick-offs at second, the hit-and-run and proper bunt. We learn about running a first and third defense and cut-offs. It’s amazing to me. These 10 year-old kids pick it up quick.”

Washburn, a longtime Jim Reinebold Fall Baseball Camp instructor who took his sons to former Land Shark Strausborger for tips at the South Bend Cubs Performance Center during the winter, says the reason so many people gravitate to travel ball and away from Little League and the like is because it offers more traditional rules at younger ages.

“It’s just different baseball,” says Washburn. “The younger boys learn to lead off, hold runners on as pitchers and catchers learn to give signs.”

Washburn also sees the appeal of summer travel ball tournaments with a concentrated group of talented player to college coaches who are busy coaching their own players during the spring.

Each Land Sharks team typically makes at least one big trip. Robinson had a team in Omaha, Neb., tournament last weekend, where they got to take in College World Series games.

Land Sharks teams play in Baseball Player’s Association, Gameday USA, Bomb Squad, Bullpen, Pastime, United States Specialty Sports Association and National Softball Association events.

Some popular game sites include Grand Park, Newton Park, City-County Athletic Complex in Warsaw, some Michigan City parks and Belleville Softball Complex in South Bend.

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The Indiana Land Sharks travel baseball and softball organization traces its origins back to the 2003 Michiana Land Sharks. In 2017, the outfit has 26 teams — 22 baseball and four softball. (Steve Krah Photo)

 

No steady home field, no problem for Freije, Indianapolis Cathedral

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Some might see the IHSAA Class 4A baseball state championship showdown against Penn (27-6) as a home game for Indianapolis Cathedral (28-0).

After all, it’s only 12 or so miles from the Cathedral campus on 56th Street to the downtown stadium and the Irish did beat Heritage Christian for the city championship at “The Vic” this spring.

On the other hand, Cathedral is the designated road team against the Kingsmen in a game slated for 5 p.m. Saturday, June 17, and that may make sense to some since the Fighting Irish did not have one “home” field during the 2017 season.

Irish varsity games had been played for years at Hair Field near Fort Benjamin Harrison, but when the lease to that facility was not renewed the Irish went looking for places to play.

“We had a month or two not knowing what we were going to do,” says Cathedral head baseball coach Ed Freije.

The independent Irish wound up with home contests at Marian University on the northwest side of Indianapolis and Grand Park in Westfield.

Meanwhile, the school purchased the former Little League International Central Region headquarters at 44th and Mitthoeffer and used that for practices and all junior varsity and freshmen games while construction began on a high school diamond and other athletic fields at what is now called Brunette Park.

But a nomadic season with a new coaching staff did not stop Cathedral from winning each and every time it took the diamond — wherever it was.

The 2017 Irish will be vying to be the fourth unbeaten team during the IHSAA state tournament era (1967-2017), joining Evansville Memorial (30-0 in single class in 1978), Brownsburg (35-0 in 4A in 2005) and Norwell (35-0 in 3A in 2007).

Cathedral’s record was spotless going into the 2013 4A championship game before falling 1-0 to left-hander Tanner Tully and Elkhart Central. The ’13 Irish wound up 28-1.

Freije, a 1999 Cathedral graduate and three-sport athlete for the Irish, returned to the baseball coaching staff after a hiatus when he spent five seasons as the school’s head girls basketball coach (winning 70 games from 2012-13 to 2016-17).

The ’17 Irish returned nine seniors from 2016 and plenty of capable arms.

“Depth of pitching has really helped us this year,” says Freije. “(Pitching coach) Brad Pearson did a a phenomenal job with that staff. We knew that pitching and defense would keep us in games and give us a chance day in and day out.

“(Pitchers have) been around the strike zone and let their defense work. That strong defense behind them gives them a ton of confidence. We like our chances if we’re not giving up more than two or three runs.”

Opponents have scored more than three runs in only three games out of 28 with 15 times have tallied one or no runs.

Senior left-hander Nick Eaton has emerged as Cathedral’s ace. He took the ball in the sectional final, regional semifinal and semistate game and is expected to start against Penn.

Senior right-hander Tommy Kafka, Cathedral’s starting second baseman, has been used effectively in relief.

The Irish also have starting right fielder and senior right-hander Jack Myers, senior right-hander Jack Phillips and starting first baseman and junior left-hander Jake Andriole at the ready for mound duty.

Freije said he did not see the new IHSAA pitch count 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) dictating how Cathedral handled its pitchers this season, though it did come into a play with a few opponents.

Besides Pearson (cousin of Cardinal Ritter head coach Dave Scott), Jeremy Sinsabaugh (varsity), Austin Green (JV), Will Hunker (JV) and Keith Yost (freshmen) are also part of the 2017 Cathedral coaching staff.

The Irish are making a seventh State Finals appearance (Cathedral won state championships in 2001 and 2007 and finished as state runner-up in 2006, 2010, 2011 and 2013) after beating Mt. Vernon (Fortville), Lawrence Central and Lawrence North to win the Warren Central Sectional, Greenfield-Central and Roncalli in the Decatur Central Regional and Columbus North in the Plainfield Semistate.

Ed Freije is not the first Indianapolis area coach with that name. His father — also named Ed — is a former baseball and basketball coach at Broad Ripple and basketball coach at New Palestine.

The younger Freije learned about coaching from his father and from Ken Kaufman, Rich Andriole, Tony Vittorio and Linda Bamrick among others.

Freije played baseball at Cathedral for Kaufman and then Andriole (then served as an assistant on his staff for a decade, 2004-13). As a head coach, Andriole won more than 500 games and the two state titles.

Vittorio was Freije’s baseball coach at the University of Dayton, where Freije graduated in 2003.

A Southport High School graduate, Vittorio played at Hanover College and later coached at then NCAA Division II Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne before taking over the D-I Dayton Flyers.

Before taking over as Lady Irish head coach, Freije was an assistant to Linda Bamrick. She won 186 games with a state championship (2000-01) in 12 seasons at Cathedral.

The Irish, which have also gathered 21 sectional, 13 regional and six semistate crowns, has sent many players on to college and professional baseball. Catcher Jake Fox made his Major League Baseball debut in 2007 and right-handed pitcher Tommy Hunter followed in 2008. Left-hander Dillon Peters was drafted in 2014 and right-hander Ashe Russell in 2015.

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Indianapolis Cathedral baseball coaches for 2017 (left to right): Keith Yost, Austin Green, Jeremy Sinsabaugh, head coach Ed Freije, Brad Pearson and Will Hunker. (Cathedral Photo)

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Enthusiasm follows Schrage to Butler

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Dave Schrage does not smile 24 hours day.

It only seems that way.

An upbeat demeanor has followed him through life and a lengthy baseball coaching career.

“I don’t think you can accomplish anything if you are not excited and enthusiastic about it,” says Schrage, who turns 56 this month. “I love going to my job everyday.”

Schrage is in his 29th overall season and first at Butler University in Indianapolis. He has been a head coach in more than 1,500 games and recently won his 750th.

“I feel really fortunate to still be coaching,” says Schrage. “It’s been a fun journey.”

A head coach since 1988, Schrage served at Waldorf (Iowa), Northern Iowa, Northern Illinois, Evansville, Notre Dame and South Dakota State before landing in Indy.

“Butler is a great fit for me,” says Schrage. Daughters Katy (a Butler graduate) and Bri (a Ball State graduate) both live and work in Indianapolis. “For five years, I was 14 hours away (in Brookings, S.D.).”

Schrage played for Jim Hendry at Creighton University and got his start in coaching when Hendry sent him to St. Thomas University in Florida to be a graduate assistant on the staff of Paul Mainieri.

After that, Schrage was an assistant at Creighton and also was a player/coach for the Queensland Rams Club Team in Australia.

Hendry, the former Chicago Cubs general manager and current special assistant to New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, has a son (John) playing baseball at the University of Indianapolis and has been able to catch up with Schrage when he’s in town.

Schrage followed Mainieri as Notre Dame head coach. The friends see each other every year at the American Baseball Coaches Association national convention (the event is coming to Indy Jan. 4-7, 2018). Mainieri is now head coach at Louisiana State University.

With the Bulldogs, Schrage embraces The Butler Way — a set of principles established many years ago by famed coach Tony Hinkle.

Barry Collier has been credited for resurrecting the concepts of humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness when he was the school’s head basketball coach and has continued to promote The Butler Way for all sports as athletic director.

“These are the same ideals I have,” says Schrage. “We are developing our players as human beings. They are learning to deal with adversity and overcoming it and becoming a positive influence — on and off the court (or field).”

While Schrage, who is assisted by Ben Norton, Andy Pascoe and Brian Meyer, inherited the current Butler roster (which features 11 players from Indiana hometowns), he was well aware of the diamond talent produced in the Hoosier State.

When he steered Evansville to 43 wins, Missouri Valley Conference regular season and tournament titles and advancement to the NCAA Charlottesville Regional finals in 2006, the Purple Aces had several state-trained players.

“That spoke well of the quality of high school baseball (in Indiana),” says Schrage. “The coaches do a tremendous job in running their programs.”

Schrage says the exposure that Indiana players receive at places like Grand Park in Westfield and through the evaluation efforts of Prep Baseball Report are growing the game here.

When he was still coaching in Iowa, Schrage worked at one of the first Perfect Game showcases and now that company is touting itself as the world’s largest baseball scouting service.

“In this media world with Facebooking and all this information out there, it’s very helpful (to college coaches),” says Schrage. “When I first got into coaching, I had to beat the bushes and find players in the small towns. Now, there’s no more secrets. It’s opened up tremendous opportunities for the student-athletes. It’s nothing but advantageous to coaches, kids and their families.”

Butler plays in the Big East Conference with Creighton, Georgetown, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Villanova and Xavier. The conference tournament is scheduled for May 25-28 at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb., the same stadium as the College World Series. The Big East tournament winner will receive an automatic bid into the NCAA Division I tournament.

Butler University baseball versus St. Louis University March 19, 2017.
Butler University baseball versus St. Louis University March 19, 2017.

Dave Schrage (left in blue sweatshirt) follows a play in his first season as head baseball coach at Butler University in Indianapolis. This is his 29th overall season as a head coach. (Brent Smith Photo)

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A head coach since 1988, Dave Schrage (middle) served at Waldorf (Iowa), Northern Iowa, Northern Illinois, Evansville, Notre Dame and South Dakota State before landing at Butler. (Brent Sm)

Getting the most out of players is ultimate goal of Carmel’s Buczkowski

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Matt Buczkowski was in elementary school when he learned how to make out a baseball lineup.

Though he might not have known it at the time, the seeds were being planted for young Matt to follow his father into teaching and coaching.

Len Buczkowski coached 29 seasons at South Bend Adams High School and was inducted into the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1991 (Matt’s junior year at Adams) and passed away in 2013.

As a teenager, Matt had all kinds of ideas about what he would do with his life. Coaching was not necessarily on that list.

But after playing at Butler University and a brief professional career (he played one season in the Philadelphia Phillies organization where he was briefly a roommate of two-sport standout Ricky Williams and one season with the independent Frontier League’s Richmond Roosters), Matt heard the coaching profession calling his name.

His first job was at Butler. He was a Bulldogs assistant for one season on the staff of Steve Farley.

Then there was a three-year stint as an assistant to Jim Schmitz at Eastern Illinois University.

Matt and wife Jennifer then moved to Colorado and he started coaching high school players. There was a two-year hitch as an assistant at Mesa Ridge and nine seasons as head coach at Fountain Fort Carson.

Buczkowski returned to central Indiana and served four seasons as head coach at Lawrence Central. Last summer, he was hired to be head coach at Carmel.

“All the places I’ve been I just continued to get better at the coaching craft,” says Buczkowski, 43. “It’s just who I am. It’s ingrained in my blood and my make-up. It’s how I go about my day as a teacher, husband and a father.”

As his experience has grown, his coaching style has evolved.

“When I first started out, I was a pretty strict disciplinarian,” says Buczkowski. “I took over a program that was 2-17 the year before. I had to change to culture of losing. I had to find out who wanted to play baseball and who just wanted to wear the uniform.”

When Matt took his new position, the Buczkowskis already lived in Carmel (Jennifer is a second grade teacher at Towne Meadow Elementary; brother Steve Buczkowski also resides in the district).

Matt knew about the community’s recreation and travel teams in the Carmel Dads Club as well as the work ethic and zest for success already in place. With the Greyhounds, he inherits a team from Dan Roman that has 15 seniors and is used to winning.

“These guys work hard,” says Buczkowski. “They give me a good effort on a daily basis. For the most part, they are mentally and physically tough. When you get that mix together it usually breeds success.

“Ultimately, my goal is to get the most out of my players.”

Buczkowski has learned that motivating young athletes is not “one size fits all” with all the different personalities on the squad.

“It’s about getting to know these guys and knowing which buttons to push,” says Buczkowski. “The longer I coach, I find it’s not just what you say but how they perceive how you’re saying it.”

The 2017 season will open with Carmel ranked No. 1 in Class 4A. Buczkowski, his staff of varsity assistants John Zangrilli (former head coach at Brebeuf and Zionsville) and Brent Berglund, junior varsity coaches Eric Lentz (former head coach at Westfield and Carmel) and Greg Stiller and freshmen coaches Aaron Hahn and Sean Duty are anxious to compete in the strong Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference (other members are Ben DavIs, Center Grove, Lawrence Central, Lawrence North, North Central (Indianapolis), Pike and Warren Central) and a loaded Westfield Sectional (which also includes Fishers, Hamilton Southeastern, Indianapolis North Central and Westfield).

“We’re going hunting and we have some pretty good artillery,” says Buczowski of his talented Hounds. “We’re not hunting with slingshots.

“There’s definitely high expectations at Carmel.”

The program has won 13 sectionals (the last in 2016), five regionals and made two State Finals appearances, finishing as runner-up in 1997.

Something that’s different for Matt or brother Mike (who coached baseball briefly at Caston High School) from when their father or other South Bend coaching legends Jim Reinebold and Ric Tomaszewski were leading programs is all the organized year-round training. Most players have travel coaches and take private hitting or pitching lessons from instructors in addition to being taught by their high school coaches.

“We’re more a part of the process,” says Buczkowski. “Our job is important, but it’s not just one voice they’re hearing anymore.”

Buczkowski sees elite travel organizations like the Indiana Bulls providing exposure and training opportunities that high school coaches just can’t mimic.

“We want our guys playing (in the summer),” says Buczkowski. “That’s the most important thing for their development.

“Indiana baseball is in a really good place. There are really good players. It has a lot to do with the travel piece. Grand Park (in Westfield) has had a tremendous part in that.”

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Matt Buczkowski enters his first season as Carmel High School head baseball coach in 2017.

Development is Job 1 for Indiana Chargers

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

By exposing players to the latest training methods, the Indiana Chargers are getting them ready for the next level.

Doing indoor work at the Eastlake Chargers Baseball/Softball Academy inside Eastlake Athletic Club in Goshen, young athletes learn what it’s like at the collegiate level.

Founded by Joel Mishler, George Hofsommer and Ben Bailey in 2008 and now led by general manager Mishler, director of operations Justin Barber and strength and conditioning coach Evan Jurjevic, the Indiana Chargers has sent more than 135 players on to college baseball, several at the NCAA Division I level.

“It’s all about development,” Mishler said. “That’s why we exist.”

A former head coach at Glen Oaks Community College and Westview High School and a longtime professional scout, Mishler wants to give his players a clear picture of what it takes to the play college game through tools as well as physical and mental development.

The acronym C.H.A.R.G.E.R.S. stands for Commitment, Heart, Attitude, Respect, Grateful, Energy, Relentless, Servant Leaders and those core values are expressed at practices.

With the experience of the staff, players are also helped through the college recruiting process, finding the best fit for them based on their needs and talents.

“There’s never any guarantees (of high school playing time or a college scholarship),” Mishler said. “It’s something you have to earn. But we will give them the information of what it takes.

“It’s a culture of getting better and working hard.”

During the off-season (November to March), high school players have been attending optional three-a-day workouts (three hours on Sunday afternoons and up to 2 1/2 hours on Tuesdays and Fridays).

Jurjevic, who excelled on the diamond at LaPorte High School and Carson-Newman University, takes the Chargers through the warm-ups and exercises that get them ready to play the game.

The use of bands and weighted Drive Line plyo balls is prevalent for building up muscles and recovery.

One way to build arm strength is through a program the Chargers adopted two years ago — a pulldown drill which has players take a running start a throw into a net with a radar gun clocking the velocity.

“We call it the ‘run-and-gun,’” Barber said. “It’s like a crow-hop on steroids. You won’t see anything like that during a game, but it allows more momentum and bigger effort level.”

After getting warmed up, players will do the “run-and-gun” once a week to see if they can top their personal best.

On Sunday, Jan. 29, the facility high school record of 99.2 was set by Plymouth High School junior and Valparaiso University verbal commit Jeremy Drudge. The previous mark was held by Marian High School senior/University of Dayton-bound Riley Tirotta. Three dozen have joined the 90/95/100-plus club since November 2014.

There were several BP stations, including one where Jurjevic bounced the ball to the plate. The idea was the stay back with the hands and be ready for a curve or off-speed pitch.

Mishler and his staff are continually consulting with high level college and professional baseball people to stay at the forefront of technology. Mishler has attended 23 of the past 25 American Baseball Coaches Association national conventions (it will be in Indianapolis in 2018) and goes annually to the Pitch-a-Palooza in Nashville.

“We’ve always been of the mindset that we have to get better as coaches,” Mishler said. “These kids are getting a lot of information that they are going to get at the college level.”

Barber was a star left-handed pitcher at Inter-City Baptist High School and Spring Arbor University — both in Michigan. He notes that the Chargers will field nine teams 11U through 18U in 2017 (tryouts were in August 2016). The younger teams will play from late April to early July with high schoolers taking the field in June and July with the possibility of fall ball in September and early October.

While the Chargers do take part in travel events, including those organized by Bullpen Tournaments and Pastime Tournaments — many at Grand Park in Westfield — it’s not always about the games.

“We’re more focused on the developmental side,” Barber said. “We started a league with like-minded travel organizations and play three-game series (on a weekend with a single game one day and a doubleheader on the other) with pregame infield and batting practice. You don’t get that in most travel tournaments.

“It’s just games, games, games.”

Coaches 13U and above have college playing or many years of coaching experience.

“All of them are getting the same information and most recent and best available,” Mishler said.

It’s all about develop and getting better.

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(from left): Justin Barber, Joel Mishler and Evan Jurjevic of the Indiana Chargers.