Jason Pierce knows what kind of identity he wants for his Bluffton (Ind.) High School baseball team. “Our motto is to control what we can control,” says Pierce, who asks his Tigers not to dwell on mistakes and to rally together. “We’re very much a family here. This sport has a lot of ups and down. We want our players to have controlled aggression and do the little things the best they possibly can.” Pierce stresses life lessons, high academics and building maturity in young men. “We want to productive members of society,” says Pierce, who took over the program before the 2020 season taken away by the COVID-19 pandemic after seven seasons as head coach at Eastside Junior/Senior High School (Butler, Ind.) and two campaigns leading the Churubusco (Ind.) Junior/Senior High School program. “You learn that through team sports.” Bluffton went 14-16-1 in 2021 with five on-run losses and a pair of one-run victories with a team featuring just one senior starter. “We’re young on paper, but we’ve got a lot of experience on the field,” says Pierce in looking ahead to 2022. “We’ve got a lot of athletes. We’re in a really good spot with guys who can move around the field. “As long as we can keep our heads I think we’re going to be a pretty dangerous baseball team.” The 14 players on Bluffton’s MaxPreps.com roster (as of March 28) include six seniors — middle infielder/pitcher Brock Drayer, outfielder/catcher Lukas Hunt, outfielder/pitcher/first baseman Dylan King, outfielder/pitcher/shortstop Kyler Rolston, pitcher/first baseman Grant Thompson and pitcher/outfielder Kayden Vineyard plus four juniors in corner infielder/pitcher Curtis Ellis, catcher/outfielder Kayden King, pitcher/infielder/outfielder, outfielder/pitcher Austin Lewis, Andrew Onuegbu and outfielder/pitcher Drew Pressler and three sophomores in pitcher/first baseman/outfielder Braxton Betancourt, middle infielder/pitcher Eli Garrett and catcher/pitcher Brody Lewis. Left-hander Betancourt (5-5, 1.43 earned run average, 97 strikeouts in 63 2/3 innings) was the Tigers’ No. 1 pitcher in 2021 and Pierce expects him to have the same role in 2022. Bluffton is to open the season Tuesday, April 5 at New Haven. On a team with as many as 10 players can be effective pitchers, Pierce looks at right-hander Ellis as his probable No. 2. Kaleb Riley (Class of 2021) is now on the baseball team at Indiana University South Bend. Bluffton (enrollment around 470) is a member of the Allen County Athletic Conference (with Adams Central, Heritage, Jay County, South Adams, Southern Wells and Woodlan). The Tigers is scheduled play Adams Central and Southern Wells twice with the second game counting toward the ACAC standings. Bluffton is slated to meet Heritage, Jay County, South Adams and Woodlan one time each. In 2021, the Tigers were runner-up in a IHSAA Class 2A sectional grouping with Adams Central, Eastside (host and champion), Churubusco, South Adams and Woodlan. Bluffton has won five sectional crowns — the last in 2019. Bluffton plays home games on Everett Scott Field. The facility on the north side of the campus is named after the Indiana Hall of Famer who played in a then-record 1,307 consecutive games for the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees 1916-25. Providing early diamond opportunities is Bluffton Youth Baseball (T-ball to age 15). Most high school players are with travel organizations, including the Indiana Bandits, Midwest Aces and Summit City Sluggers. Pierce’s 2022 coaching staff features Tim Garrett, Marco Betancourt (pitching coach) and Doug Pressler with the varsity and Trae Jojola and Cody Harris with the junior varsity. A 1993 graduate of St. Marys (Ohio) High School, Pierce played one season at Sinclair College in Dayton, Ohio, and then transferred to Indiana Tech in Fort Wayne, Ind. He got hurt in the fall and did not get to play for Lance Hershberger’s Warriors. Pierce, who teaches seventh grade at Bluffton-Harrison Middle School, has two daughters — Leo sophomore Lillian (16) and Heritage grade schooler Harper (8).
Growing up playing sports in Zionsville, Ind., Michael Tucker knew what it was to be a teammate.
A center in basketball and catcher in baseball, Tulsa, Okla.-born Tucker played at Zionsville Community High School and graduated in 2008. Some of his closest friends to this day played on those squads.
“We had some great teams,” says Tucker, who played for head coaches Dave Ferrell and Shaun Busick in basketball and Darrell Osborne and Adam Metzler in baseball and counted Matt Miller as a mate on the court and the diamond. Miller went on to pitch at the University of Michigan and in the Milwaukee Brewers organization.
Tucker was a standout hitter while playing catcher and first base for the Ravens and the Hall of Famer they called “Bama” for his first two college seasons followed by two with David Pressley.
Brandon impressed Tucker with his memory.
“He can tell you the situation — who was on the mound and the count — (from most any game),” says Tucker. “He was really fun to learn from.”
Pressley was a first-time head coach at Anderson. Tucker credits him with lessons on and off the field.
“I learned how to be a man,” says Tucker. “(Pressley) is a huge man of faith.
“He taught a tremendous amount of life lessons.”
Tucker also gained knowledge from Brad Lantz, who was an AU senior receiver when he was a freshman and went on to be a high school head coach at Guerin Catholic and Lapel and is now coaching in the Indy Sharks travel organization.
“I learned so much about catching, counts and what to look for,” says Tucker. “I learned more from (Lantz) than anyone else.”
Ground was recently broken for Championship Park in Kokomo, Ind., and that complex will also be used by Bullpen and PBR.
The 2021 summer will mark Tucker’s seventh with Bullpen Tournaments.
Hired by BT president Blake Hibler, whom he knew from working Prep Baseball Report showcases, Tucker started at Bullpen in time to experience Grand Park’s first full summer.
“I did everything,” says Tucker. “I tried to be a sponge. Being in baseball your whole life is completely different from the tournament industry.
“There’s learning the business side and scheduling.”
While at the Incrediplex near Lawrence, Tucker had done scheduling on a smaller scale and had become comfortable with software.
Tucker appreciates that Hibler lets him seek out processes.
“If I can find a better mousetrap, he lets me run with it,” says Tucker.
Bullpen is a very large operation.
“We’re a different beast in a lot of ways,” says Tucker, who notes that on any given weekend the company may have as many as 45 fields under its control, including those on and off the Grand Park campus.
Tucker says the key is getting the word out to teams, families and recruiters.
“You have to be able to communicate,” says Tucker. “Half of scheduling is the communicating of the schedule.”
With Hibler having a large part in brainstorming and development, Bullpen first used the Tourney Machine app and now works with Playbook 365 while also helping develop PitchAware and ScoreHQ.
Bullpen hires scorekeepers for every high school tournament game (15U to 18U) at Grand Park. In 2020, there was also video on six fields.
“It’s huge to have accurate data,” says Tucker. “We can overlay video with stats.
“(A college) coach can recruit from his office.”
But even though Bullpen is dealing with many moving parts, there are only a half dozen full-time employees.
“Guys are tasked to learn a lot of different things,” says Tucker. “But we never feel like this is something I can’t do. Our mentality is we’re going bust our butts and how do we solve this problem?
“Our guys do a tremendous job of being flexible.”
An example of teamwork and flexibility is the creation of the College Summer League at Grand Park, which came about when so many other leagues were canceling the 2020 summer season during the COVID-19 pandemic.
With many players reaching out, Bullpen saw the need and went to work to put together what became a 12-team league with most games played at Grand Park with a few at Kokomo Municipal Stadium and Victory Field in downtown Indianapolis.
The league was constructed with safety, NCAA and recruiting regulations in mind. Players were placed, umpires were lined up and jerseys were distributed in a very short time frame.
“We had about seven days to do it,” says Tucker. “We’re excited for it to come back (in 2021).”
As a D-III alum, Tucker was especially pleased that the CSL allowed top-flight players like Joe Moran (who pitched for Anderson and has transferred to Taylor University) was able to compete against D-I talent.
While the pandemic slowed the start of the 2020 Bullpen season, Tucker estimates that there were upwards of 80 percent in games played as compared to a normal year.
The fall included more contests than ever.
“Teams couldn’t play in the spring and that baseball hunger was still there,” says Tucker. “They wanted to play a little longer.
“We had a great fall.”
Weather plays a part, but the first games each year at Grand Park with all its turf fields are collegiate in February.
“If we get a warm-weather day our phone blows up,” says Tucker.
Activity starts to ramp up in March with the first 8U to 14U contests the last weekend of that month.
Of course, the pandemic will have a say in what happens in 2021.
“With all the uncertainty it’s tough,” says Tucker. “It’s going to be an interesting spring.”
A perk of Tucker’s position and location is the relationships he gets to build with high school coaches.
It was a week before the start of the 2019 season and the Lakers suddenly had a need for a pitching coach.
GVSU graduate assistant Jon Newman played for Riggleman at Spring Arbor. Grand Valley head coach Jamie Detillion contacted the veteran skipper about his interest.
“He was looking for someone with some experience and provide a different perspective,” says Riggleman, who accepted the invitation and went about assessing the pitching staff while relishing the idea of creating a competitive culture and mentoring young coaches (Detillion, Newman and Cody Grice).
Riggleman made it clear he did not want to step back into the world of recruiting or administrative details, but he had plenty to offer.
“Teaching and watching guys get better still lights a fire,” says Riggleman. “It gives me a tremendous amount of satisfaction.”
Two years prior to Riggleman’s arrival at GVSU, the Lakers had been focused on velocity enhancement programs.
“The ability to command the strike zone was really, really in jeopardy,” says Riggleman. “We walked away from all those (velocity-building) things.”
Pitchers were asked to — do just that — pitch.
“How do you set people up and put them away?,” says Riggelman, who is back for the 2020 season. “How do you force contact on your terms?”
Riggleman has been refining mechanics and mechanical efficiency and getting his hurlers to attack hitters, putting them in defensive (ball-strike) counts.
GVSU pitchers are asked to command two-seam fastballs in order to create late movement while also developing an effective change-up.
“Guys are spending plenty of time working on breaking balls,” says Riggleman.
“There’s so much quality in players across the board at the Division II level,” says Riggleman. “There are no breaks here. Every single day is going to be a battle.
“How you go about preparing teams becomes the critical issue.”
At his previous stops, Riggleman prepared his players like they were going to compete at the highest level.
“We made practices competitive and demanding,” says Riggleman. “We forced failure on them and made them make adjustments because that it what’s going to happen in the game.
“We have to find a way to replicate. That’s what I’m trying to do at Grand Valley.”
It was early in his career that Riggleman figured out the kind of coach he wanted to be.
“Coaching is an opportunity to help kids develop in their personal, spiritual and emotional lives and athletically,” says Riggleman. “So many life lessons can be pulled out of this game. I’ve tried to take advantage of that.”
As a college coach, Riggleman knows that parents are turning over their sons to guide them in the right way and he does not take that responsibility lightly.
“I had an obligation to do that,” says Riggleman. “Kids are a lot more important than I am.”
When Riggleman was at Mount Vernon Nazarene and in his formative years developing his coaching philosophy, Bob Starcher was head coach at Malone College in Canton, Ohio.
“He took me under his wing,” says Riggleman of Starcher whom he met in the fall of 1979. “I saw guy who put incredibly competitive teams on the field and truly loved his guys. It was a model I gravitated toward.
“You don’t stay in coaches for 40-plus years and enjoy doing it, if you’re doing it exclusively to win games. I never lost sight of what I was doing and why I was doing it — developing young men.
“You’ve got to demand a great deal, but you’ve got to love them at the same time.”
Riggleman learned how to get players to exhibit quiet toughness and be very competitive yet humble. His successor at Mount Vernon, Keith Veale, went into the NAIA Hall of Fame Jan. 3 in Nashville and Sam and wife Kathy were there for the induction.
Riggleman played for ABCA Hall of Famer Burbridge, who won 1,003 games and retired as Spring Arbor head coach after the 2004 season, then coached alongside him before taking over the Cougars program.
“He had such an instrumental impact on me,” says Riggleman of Burbridge.
The two roomed together at the ABCA convention and shared many ideas about baseball and life.
In 2000, Burbridge was head coach for a team of all-stars that went to the Czech Republic and Riggleman was brought along as pitching coach. The following year, Riggleman was head coach on the tour.
Jones preceded Riggleman at SIU.
“His style was really different and unique,” says Riggleman of the former Salukis and University of Illinois boss. “He was and tremendous game coach. Very intuitive.”
Riggleman spent five seasons (1995-99) in Mishawaka, Ind., at Bethel College (now Bethel University).
“We had a great run there,” says Riggleman, who went 176-88 with two Crossroads League championships (1997 and 1998) and a league tournament title (1998) and led Bethel to three NCCAA national runner-up finishes. “A lot of fun and some really good teams there.”
He often got a chance to right son Jeremie’s name into the lineup at shortstop.
“My single greatest highlight of my coaching career was to coach Jeremie at that time,” says Riggleman, who is the grandfather of four. Jeremie Riggleman is now an assistant professor of art at Taylor University. Sam and Kathy’s daughter, Sarah, is married and lives in Granger, Ind.
Sam Riggleman enters his second season as baseball pitching coach at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich., in 2020. He was a head coach for 40 years, including five at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Ind., and won over 1,000 games. (Grand Valley State University Photo)