Tag Archives: Hammond

Lake Central alum Tomasic’s diamond path takes twists, turns

By STEVE KRAH
http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Circumstances have caused Conner Tomasic to build his baseball and academic careers in unique ways. 
The 2018 graduate of Lake Central High School in St. John, Ind., went to Purdue University in West Lafayette for two seasons (2019 and 2020), transferred to South Suburban College in South Holland, Ill., for one (2021) and then came back to the Big Ten with Michigan State University (2022).
The right-handed pitcher has another year of college eligibility, but his next move might be as an independent pro.
This fall, Tomasic is a commuter student at Purdue Northwest in Hammond, Ind., while staying prepared for his diamond future. His major is Construction Engineering and Management Technology.
Tomasic entered college as a Kinesiology major. Having had Tommy John surgery in high school he had worked with plenty of physical therapists. A Biology course at Purdue made him decide that was not the path for him. He followed some teammates and went with construction.
“I like to see things in front of me and work with my hands,” says Tomasic. “It felt like a teamwork class. I felt comfortable with it.
“You learned how to deal with people and work a job site.
An associate degree was earned at South Suburban, a two-year school. But Tomasic also faced a bit of a curve. He had to switch his major at Michigan State to Psychology to stay eligible.
A 6-foot-1, 185-pounder, Tomasic took the mound 17 times (nine as a starter) for head coach Jake Boss Jr.’s MSU Spartans. He went 4-4 with a 5.40 earned run average, 41 strikeouts and 26 walks in 65 innings.
Because of the work load, Tomasic did not play summer ball, focusing on strength training. In July, he began traveling from Schererville, Ind., to PRP Baseball in Noblesville, Ind., to work with Director of Player Development/Pitching Anthony Gomez. The two have known each other since Tomasic — who turned 23 in August — was an eighth or ninth grader and Gomez was coaching in northwest Indiana.
“We’ve always been close,” says Tomasic of Gomez. “It’s nice to work with someone who’s seen me grow up and develop.
“He knows my delivery almost as well as I do. He knows what I need at the end of the day.”
His PNW classes meet Monday through Thursday then Tomasic heads to central Indiana for workouts later that day or on Friday before returning to The Region.
Tomasic has three pitches — a four-seam fastball, slider and change-up.
His four-seamer was clocked at 92.9 mph this summer at 93 mph at South Suburban.
His slider — often thrown between 77 to 79 mph — has evolved.
“When I first started throwing it, it was a ‘gyro,’ says Tomasic of the pitch’s movement. “Now it’s getting mike more a ‘bullet’ slider. You can see the dot (as it rotates).
“My change-up, some people think it’s a splitter. It depends on what it’s doing that day. The majority of the time it’s going to sink and have arm-side run. But sometimes it dives straight down.”
Tomasic describes his delivery as “a little funky.”
The arm angle is about mid-three quarter overhand. But the delivery comes low.
“It’s something (opposing batters) don’t see that often,” says Tomasic. “My fastball plays up in the zone so it seems fast than it is.”
Tomasic sees determination and focus as two of his best athletic qualities.
“I’m a guy who know how to separate his sport from his daily life,” says Tomasic. “If I have a bad, I flush it. If I have a good day, I forget about it quick.
“You’ve got the day ahead of you in baseball.”
Born in Hammond and raised in Schererville, Conner is the oldest of Jerry and Dena Tomasic’s two children. Jennifer Tomasic (Lake Central Class of 2021) played basketball at Indiana University Northwest in Gary and Governors State University (University Park, Ill.).
Jerry Tomasic was born in Yugoslavia before that country split and moved to the U.S. around 2. He played baseball but not past junior high and went on to play basketball at Clarke University in Dubuque, Iowa.
Dena Tomasic works at Cheers Food & Drink in Munster, Ind.
Conner played for the Dyer team that finished runner-up to eventual Little League World Series qualifier New Castle in 2012.
When he was ready for a travel ball transition outside northwest Indiana at 15 to 16 he was unable to play for Top Tier because of his injured elbow.
Tomasic shined as a two-way player at Lake Central and got to swing the bat for head coaches Mark Wasikowski and Greg Goff at Purdue and Steve Ruzich at South Suburban.
As a three-year letterwinner and four-time scholar-athlete at LC, he played for head coaches Jeff Sandor and Mike Swartzentruber.
The Indians won sectional titles in baseball and basketball in 2018 and Tomasic played a part while earning LCHS Pride, Hustle and Desire in both sports. He also earned 2018 Perfect Game All-American and All-Region Team honors.
He was the Roger Maris MVP in leading Team Serbia to the title in the 2018 International Baseball Challenge Tournament in Whiting, Ind.
In two seasons at Purdue, he hit .250 (3-of-12) with a triple in three runs batted and made one putout and five assists in the field. He pitched in 19 games (all in relief) with an 0-1 record, 4.30 ERA, 18 strikeouts and 11 walks in 25 1/3 innings.
At South Suburban, the pitcher/middle infielder was an National Junior College Athletic Association all-region selection as he hit .392 with 60 hits, including eighth home runs, three triples and 12 doubles with 49 RBIs, 28 walks and 15 stolen bases. On the bump, he was 6-1 with a 4.64 ERA, 81 strikeouts and 22 walks in 64 innings.
Tomasic played for the Northwoods League’s Bismarck (N.D.) Larks and Midwest Collegiate League’s (now Northern League’s) Northwest Indiana Oilmen in the summers of 2019 and 2020.
Along the way the focus became pitching rather than two-way player.
“I think I’m athletic enough,” says Tomasic. “I can pull it off.”

Conner Tomasic. (Michigan State University)
Conner Tomasic. (Michigan State University)

Conner Tomasic. (Michigan State University)

Rookie teacher/coach Hunt tabbed to lead Whiting baseball

BY STEVE KRAH
http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Jacob Hunt was born and raised in Whiting, Ind.
The 24-year-old is now a first-year baseball coach and teacher at Whiting Junior/Senior High School.
“I wasn’t to give back to the community and keep the baseball tradition going,” says Hunt.
He was approved as head coach of the Oilers program the second week of the 2022-23 school year.
Hunt, a 2016 graduate of George Rogers Clark Junior/Senior High School in Whiting who teaches Physical Education and Health at WJSHS, has met a few players. Most are on the Oiler football team. He expects to see the rest in the winter.
Multi-sport athletes are the norm at Whiting (enrollment around 450), which is a member of the Greater South Shore Conference (with Calumet New Tech, Griffith, Hammond Bishop Noll, Hanover Central, Illiana Christian, Lake Station Edison, River Forest and Wheeler).
The Oilers were part of an IHSAA Class 2A sectional grouping in 2022 with Bowman Leadership Academy, Hammond Bishop Noll, Illiana Christian, Lake Station Edison and Wheeler. Whiting has won four sectional titles — the last in 2019.
Hunt wants to instill a “winning culture” for Whiting baseball.
“I want to get as many kids into college as a I can and make sure everyone is a hard worker,” says Hunt. “We want no laziness and for them to get good grades.”
Hunt says he plans to put an emphasis on conditioning with plenty of running, agility work and weightlifting.
Good friend Amir Wright, who played at Ball State University in the spring and with the Frederick (Md.) Keys of the MLB Draft League this summer, has offered to help Hunt with strength and conditioning training.
Playing in a big ballpark like Oil City Stadium, Hunt wants players to be able to turn balls into the gap into triples and for outfielders to track down those balls hit by the opposition.
Speed and cunning on the base paths can also help fuel the offense.
“If we can lead the state of Indiana in steals we’ll do it,” says Hunt. “As hitters, we want to stay inside the ball. The body is all connected together.”
And another thing.
“We want to have fun,” says Hunt. “Enjoy yourself while you’re out here.”
Hunt has asked best friend Zach Bucsko and father Jamie Hunt to be his assistant coaches. Bucsko is a 2016 Clark graduate who pitched at Glen Oaks Community College (Centerville, Mich.).
Jacob’s mother is Christine Mickles. He has two older brothers — 37-year-old twins Buddy and Jesse Hunt.
Lakeshore Cal Ripken Babe Ruth Baseball/Softball League in Hammond is where Hunt played his first ball.
He played four years at Clark, first seeing some time on varsity as a sophomore. Jason Ochall was the Pioneers head coach.
Ochall’s message: “Be yourself.”
“I remember how he cared for all of us,” says Hunt. “He trusted all of us older guys.”
Hunt also played travel baseball for the Northwest Indiana Pirates in 2016 and Chicago-based Satchel Paige in 2017.
He was on the Brian Nowakowski-coached baseball team at Calumet College of St. Joseph in Whiting through 2021. In the summer of 2019, he played for the Midwest Collegiate League’s Crestwood Panthers.
To explore his options, Hunt did a teaching internship through the University of Evansville in 2021-22.
“I wanted to get out of the area and get out of my comfort zone,” says Hunt. “I was willing to go anywhere to coach and teach in the state of Indiana.”
He wound up back home at Whiting.

Jacob Hunt (Calumet College of St. Joseph Photo)

Right-hander Patrick embraces baseball’s grind, competition

By STEVE KRAH
http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Chad Patrick is in his second professional baseball season in the Arizona Diamondbacks system.
He turned 24 on Aug. 14 and recently joined the Hillsboro (Ore.) Hops of the High-A Northwest League.
Patrick has been pitching more than half his life.
The right-hander was an 11-year-old at DeMotte (Ind.) Little League when he first took the mound.
For years, he got pitching lessons from Joe Plesac and continued to develop as he moved up through Little League, Crown Point (Ind.) Babe Ruth Baseball and into high school.
Born in Crown Point, Patrick moved from Hebron, Ind., to DeMotte for grades 1-7. With a chance to play ball with his cousins and to be another generation of his family to be educated there he came back to Hebron.
Chad Patrick and Tyler Patrick graduated there in 2017 and Travis Patrick got his diploma in 2018.
The Hebron Hawks were coached by John Steinhilber.
“I like John,” says Chad Patrick. “He’s always been good to me.”
Hebron amassed double digits in victories in each of the four seasons Patrick was on the varsity, including 21 his junior year of 2016 and 29 in his senior season of 2017 with a pair of IHSAA Class 2A sectional and regional titles.
Patrick was named all-conference, all-area and all-state.
With a chance a consistent playing time and development, the son of Dan Patrick and Jackie Edwards stayed close to home for college and went to NCAA Division II Purdue Northwest, which has campuses in Hammond and Westville.
As part of the the PNW Pride, Patrick played for head coach Dave Griffin and they became close.
“I think of him as my second dad,” says Patrick of Griffin. “He took care of me there. He was there any time I had a question.
“Right when I met him he told me I had the stuff to be a professional baseball player. He sold me on going to Purdue Northwest instead of D-I opportunities.
“He gave me that confidence.”
In four college seasons (2018-21), Patrick appeared in 32 games (27 starts) and went 12-12 with a 3.36 earned run average, 211 strikeouts and 64 walks over 166 innings.
Patrick has about a year to go to complete a Business Management degree. Griffin, who runs Dave Griffin’s Baseball School (a training facility with travel teams in Griffith, Ind.), has that kind of diploma.
“At some point I’d like to do that on the side,” says Patrick. “Not for the money but to give back to kids and whatnot.”
His pitching coach at PNW was Shane Prance.
“He’s become a really good friend of mine,” says Patrick of Prance (who is now head baseball coach at Portage High School). “He helped me out last off-season and will probably help me this off-season. It depends if I spend it in Arizona or Indiana.”
The righty spent the summer of 2018 with the Midwest Collegiate League’s Northwest Indiana Oilmen (Whiting, Ind.) and the summers of 2019 and 2020 with the Northwoods League’s Traverse City (Mich.) Pit Spitters.
Patrick was selected by the Diamondbacks in the fourth round of the 2021 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. He got into two games with the Low-A California League’s Visalia (Calif.) Rawhide and went 0-0 with 4.76 ERA, six strikeouts and one walk over 5 2/3 innings.
Spring training for 2022 in Scottsdale, Ariz., saw Patrick break his right wrist. He was a part of pitchers’ fielding practice on a half field when he fell on concrete.
He did a rehab stint with the Arizona Complex League’s Diamondbacks Black then moved on to Visalia and then Hillsboro. For the season, he had made eight appearances (five) and is 2-2 with a 2.08 ERA, 31 strikeouts and nine walks over 21 2/3 innings.
Patrick is part of a five-man rotation.
“I’ve got a routine now,” says Patrick, who does interval training and some light running or biking on the day after a start, long toss and a bullpen session on Day 2 and then does lifting and works on his pitches leading up to the next start and a chance to compete.
“That’s my greatest asset,” says Patrick of his competitiveness. “I’m going to have my best stuff. Nobody likes to lose at what they’re good at.
“What I’ve learned about myself (as a pro) is that it’s a grind and I have the will to work hard everyday. I show up everyday with a good attitude. It comes pretty easy to me.
“If you love what you do you’re not working.”
The 6-foot-1, 210-pounder uses three pitches form a three-quarter arm slot — slider, four-seam fastball and change-up.
His slider runs away from a right-handed hitter. His four-seamer gets up to 94 mph.
“My change-up, I just learned in it Visalia,” says Patrick. “It’s probably my best pitch right now. It just dives.”
Dan Patrick works for Area Sheet Metal in Hobart. Jackie Edwards is a Registered Nurse.
Chad has three older sisters (Katrice, Taylor and Shanan) and a younger brother (Cole). The girls were in various sports at Kankakee Valley. Cole participated in swimming and track and spent two years each at Kankakee Valley and Hebron.

Chad Patrick throws a bullpen for Purdue Northwest in 2020.
Chad Patrick (Purdue Northwest Photo)
Chad Patrick (Purdue Northwest Photo)
Chad Patrick (Arizona Diamondbacks Photo)

Chad Patrick (Visalia Rawhide Photo)

Chad Patrick (Hillsboro Hops Photo)

Chicago-born lefty Djuraskovic takes circuitous baseball route

BY STEVE KRAH
http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Cal Djuraskovic has had short daily commutes.
And one very long one.
Born in Chicago and raised on the city’s southeast side, Cal attended nearby Bishop Noll Institute in Hammond, Ind. — the alma mater of his mother.
Before he could drive, Cal got to school by boarding the South Shore Line at the Hegewisch station. The train trip took a little over 30 minutes each way.
A few years later, Djuraskovic (pronounced Jur-Oss-Coe-Vich) found himself studying and playing baseball at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Not wishing to sign a long-term lease during the uncertainty of COVID-19 pandemic, Cal drove back and forth to school everyday. That’s a roundtrip of about 330 miles or five hours of windshield time.
“I did not want to get stuck,” says Djuraskovic. “I gave pitching lessons after practice to make up the money for gas.”
And that’s when gas could be had for about $2 a gallon.
A left-handed pitcher, Djuraskovic took a circuitous route to Davenport and wound up close to home as a professional ballplayer.
After a stint with the independent American Association’s Gary (Ind.) SouthShore RailCats, he finished the 2021 season with the Windy City ThunderBolts and is back with that indy Frontier League club in the Chicago suburb of Crestwood, Ill., in 2022.
“My whole life I wanted to be a pro ball player,” says Djuraskovic, 26. “By college I knew I can make it happen.”
Cal played outfield and had a little mound time at Bishop Noll before to his senior season, but it was that spring of 2014 that he blossomed as a pitcher. He threw a perfect game, a no-hitter and was named first-team all-Greater South Shore Conference.
His head coach for his first three seasons with the BNI Warriors was Paul Wirtz.
“He didn’t mess around,” says Djuraskovic of Wirtz. “It was a good thing. If you want to get better you have to take this game seriously.
“If you want to be a Warrior, you’ve got to act like one.”
He played travel ball with the Michigan Jets and competed against teams like Michigan Jets like the Indiana Bulls and Top Tier.
The southpaw of Serbian descent’s first college experience was at NCAA Division II Tiffin (Ohio) University. Deciding that wasn’t the right fit for him, he transferred to D-I Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant. Going from the D-II to a D-I, he was required to sit out a season as a “grayshirt” for 2016 and retained all his eligibility.
It was at CMU while building strength in the weight room that he broke knee cartilage that led to micro-fracture surgery. Then his scholarship was cut.
Cal landed on his feet with the D-II DU Panthers.
“By the grace of God I had Davenport,” says Djuraskovic, who played four years for head coach Kevin Tidey (Eric Lawrence was the pitching coach at the end of his DU days) and earned his degree in Sport Management with a minor in Business.
Used primarily out of the bullpen, Cal went 6-4 with a 4.04 earned run average at Davenport. It was in 2021 that he enjoyed his best season. He made 25 mound appearances and produced a 2.62 ERA with eight saves. In 44 2/3 innings, he struck out 61 and walked 16 and was named first-team all-Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
He spent three summers in the Northwoods League — two stints in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., and one in Traverse City, Mich.
Along the way, Cal picked up a pitching mentor. It was during his time in the National Team Identification Series at USA Baseball headquarters in Cary, N.C., that he met Jim Hall.
Djuraskovic later went to his Hall’s house in Lockport, Ill., and he still occasionally gets pointers from him. Hall stays in-touch with Cal’s family.
“This man has definitely changed my life for the better,” says Djuraskovic of Hall, who is a member of the American Baseball Coaches Association and Illinois High School Baseball Coaches Association halls of fame.
Cal’s mother is Allison Saberniak. Her father is Albert Saberniak, who turned Cal into a South Side baseball rooter.
“I’m a diehard White Sox fan,” says Djuraskovic. “I get that from my grandfather. We went to a couple of playoff games in ’05 (the year the White Sox won the World Series). We watch Cubs games to see them lose.
“But don’t get me wrong. If the Cubs gave me a contract I’d sign it in a heartbeat.”
Cal pitched in three games with Gary (one as a starter) and five with Windy City (all in relief) in 2021, going a combined 0-2 with two saves, a 1.59 ERA, 11 strikeouts and eight walks in 11 1/3 innings.
As a middle to late reliever for the ’22 ThunderBolts, Djuraskovic has no decisions and a 1.80 ERA in five games. He has eight strikeouts and three walks in five innings.
At 6-foot-4 and 217 pounds — he has trimmed down from 240 — Djuraskovic uses a three-quarter arm slot to deliver a four-seam fastball, slider, splitter and two-seam fastball.
His four-seamer has been clocked at 97 mph and sits at 92 to 94 mph.
Cal’s slider breaks “a little late and sharp.”
In his second full season of throwing it consistently, Djuraskovic learned his splitter from teammates and began doing as former splitter-throwing White Sox pitcher Jose Contreras by using a softball to stretch out the distance between his index and middle fingers.
“It has a mind of its own,” says Djuraskovic of the pitch that serves as a change-up. “Sometimes it gets a little knuckeballish. Sometimes it dives. The best I can do is try to spot it up.”
Lefty Cal’s two-seamer runs in on left-handed hitters.
Windy City, which is managed by Brian Smith, plays at Ozinga Field.
Djuraskovic has also enjoyed some Frontier League trips. He especially liked visits to the Florence (Ky.) Y’alls and Evansville (Ind.) Otters.
“I like the (Florence) area and they have a really nice ballpark,” says Djuraskovic. (Evansville’s Bosse Field) is so historic. You can feel the presence of greatness.”

Cal Djuraskovic (Windy City ThunderBolts Photo)
Cal Djuraskovic (Davenport University Photo)
Cal Djuraskovic (Windy City ThunderBolts Photo)

Cal Djuraskovic (left) embraces with catcher Manny Garcia after Djuraskovic “shut the door” June 15 to close out the game for the victorious Windy City ThunderBolts. (Windy City ThunderBolts Photo)

Caston establishing system in first year of Hammond Central Wolves

By STEVE KRAH
http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Hammond (Ind.) Central High School’s first baseball season in 2022 will come under the leadership of head coach Michael Caston.
The 1998 Hammond High graduate has set a path for the Wolves.
“We have a philosophy we’re going to follow,” says Caston. “You have to learn and buy into the philosophy to be successful.”
Caston, who was head coach at Hammond Gavit following stints as a Calumet College of St. Joseph assistant and assistant then head coach at Chicago State University, breaks his philosophy into offense, defense, pitching and base running.
“Early in the count we’re looking to drive fastballs in the strike zone,” says Caston of his hitting theory. “I believe in ‘back spin’ baseball.’ The ball travels father and we hit it into the gaps.
“We want to get front foot down early to create base. As the front foot gets down, you load your hands and transfer your weight to explode on the ball. We keep the barrel of the bat up and take the shortest path to the ball. That creates your launch angle.”
Knowing that there is a pitch count rule (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) in high school, Caston expects an attack mentality.
“If you have a good fastball, throw fastballs early in the county,” says Caston. “We we’re not going to waste any pitches. Why throw curveballs when nobody has hit your fastball yet?
“We like to pound the zone with fastballs early.”
With a dozen juniors and seniors and a mix of right-handers and left-handers in a group of 26 players (varsity and junior varsity), Caston expects them to carry the load for the Wolves and that includes on the mound.
“Defensively, it’s very simple,” says Caston. “If you can catch it and throw it, you’re going to be very successful.”
He has been teaching his players backhand and glove-side techniques as well as situational defense.
He wants his defenders to know what to do with the ball when it’s put in-play and practice reflects that.
“In the game it becomes natural to them,” says Caston. “In our system everyone knows they have a job on every play.”
Caston wants his Wolves to play a “very exciting brand of baseball” and that includes aggressiveness on the base paths.
“I like to advance runners various ways,” says Caston. “We don’t move runners by bunting. I pride myself in having players reading balls in the dirt before they even hit the dirt. We like to utilize fake bunt-and-steal.
“We’re very aggressive on the base paths on hits to the outfield. We want to force the (opposing defense) to make a clean play.”
Caston has been pleased at his player’s eagerness to learn.
“It’s a total change for most of the kids I’m coaching,” says Caston. “They’re amazed at all the new things they’ve been learning. They’ve learned to change their old habits to the new philosophy.
“They’re catching on pretty quickly.”
Hammond Central assistant coaches are Albert Carpen and Erick Chavarria at the varsity level and Michael Korba with the JV. All three are graduates of Hammond Clark High School. Carpen played for Caston at Chicago State and Chavarria at MacMurray College. Carpen was among the top hitters in NCAA Division I in 2012 when he posted an average of .426 and on-base percentage of .522.
Hammond High was razed to make way for the new Hammond Central and Clark was also closed, leaving the School City of Hammond with two high schools — Central and Morton.
In 2022, Hammond Central will play baseball home games at Gavit. A new field is planned on the Central campus.
Hammond Central’s first college baseball commit is Anthony Huber to Prairie State College in Chicago Heights, Ill.
Most Hammond Gavit players landed at Morton. Among those getting collegiate looks is Ryan Peppers.
The feeder system includes Lakeshore Cal Ripken/Babe Ruth, Hammond Optimist Youth Sports and Hessville Little League plus various travel ball organizations.
Hammond Central (enrollment around 1,950) is a member of the Great Lakes Athletic Conference (with East Chicago Central, Gary West Side and Hammond Morton).
Each GLAC team meets twice.
The Wolves are part of an IHSAA Class 4A sectional grouping with East Chicago Central, Hammond Morton, Highland (2022 host), Lake Central, Merrillville and Munster.
Among opponents not in the GLAC or sectional are Bowman Academy, Calumet Christian, Calumet New Tech, Griffith, Hammond Academy of Science & Technology, Hammond Bishop Noll, River Forest and Whiting.
Caston, a middle infielder growing up, played three seasons for George Malis and his senior year for Greg O’Donnell at Hammond High. He was a pitcher at Valparaiso (Ind.) University for head coach Paul Twenge.
“I was a young kid on a veteran team,” says Caston of his freshmen season at Hammond. “Coach Malis said ‘go out there and do your thing and focus on hitting the ball up the middle.’ I took those words to hear and executed what he told me.”
In his first year of college, famed pitching coach Tom House came in for a week and Caston adopted some of House’s ideas about mechanics.
Caston teaches Integrated Chemistry and Physics in his first year at Morton. He taught at Gavit for four.
Michael has been married to Tina Caston for five years and has three stepsons — Nathan (20), William (13) and Lukas (12). William plays football and baseball, Lukas soccer and baseball.

Michael Caston.

Howard highlighting importance of fundamentals with Hobart Brickies

By STEVE KRAH
http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Trent Howard has been a high school assistant or travel baseball coach for about a decade.
He assisted at Wheeler High School in Valparaiso, Ind., in 2021 and was with Portage (Ind.) High School during the 2020 season that did not happen because of COVID-19.
Howard, 32, has also coached in the Morris Baseball organization with teams from 13U to 18U.
He will take those experiences and that of playing for the Hammond (Ind.) Seminoles, Hammond Chiefs (now 5 Star Great Lakes), Hammond Clark High School, Central Michigan University and in the Baltimore Orioles organization to use them as the new head coach at Hobart (Ind.) High School. He was hired in August to lead the Brickies.
“I was very fortunate to have coaches that had several different philosophies that handled players in different ways,” says Howard, a 2021 Hammond Sports Hall of Fame inductee who played for Dave Sutkowski with the Chiefs, Gary Ridgely and Pat Montalbano at Clark and head coach Steve Jaksa and pitching coach Jeff Opalewski at Central Michigan and later served with Jeff Enright at Wheeler and Bob Dixon at Portage. “I saw how they developed a culture and I’ll take take bits and pieces from each of them.”
The first IHSAA Limited Contact Period in the fall saw Howard stressing fundamentals with his Brickies.
“We went back to the basics,” says Howard. “We want to make sure we’re laying a solid foundation for these kids.”
With winter workouts that recently began, it’s more of the same along knocking off the rust for players who have not swung the bat in awhile.
“We want to develop a hitting philosophy and go to the plate with a game plan,” says Howard. “We want to understand what the pitcher is trying to do.”
A former left-handed pitcher himself, Howard allowed his pitchers to rest their arms during the fall and the dead period that followed.
“We wanted to take the time for our arms to fully recover (from spring and summer baseball),” says Howard. “Now it’s about building up arm strength.”
Howard says bullpens will not begin until January.
“Then the keys will be consistency and throwing strikes,” says Howard. “We want them hitting spots and moving the ball around.”
Hobart (enrollment around 1,290) is a member of the Northwest Crossroads Conference (with Andrean, Highland, Kankakee Valley, Lowell and Munster).
NCC teams play home-and-home series on Mondays and Tuesdays with a new opponent for five straight weeks.
“We’re fortunate to be in a tough conference,” says Howard. “We play a pretty tough non-conference, too.”
Among those foes are Boone Grove, Chesterton, Crown Point, Hammond Morton, Hanover Central, Illiana Christian, Lake Central, Merrillville, Michigan City, New Prairie, Portage, Valparaiso, Washington Township, Westville, Wheeler and Whiting.
In 2021, the Brickies were part of an IHSAA Class 4A sectional grouping with Andrean, Chesterton, Crown Point, Lowell, Portage and Valparaiso. Hobart has won six sectional titles — the last in 2014.
Howard’s coaching staff includes brother Trevor Howard (Clark Class of 2002), Scott Trcka (who was a pro scout for 27 years) and longtime Brickies assistant Bob Wineland with the varsity and Kyle Jenkins and Zak Pizer with the junior varsity.
Hobart plays its home game on-campus. The diamond’s mound was re-built and the infield was re-leveled in the fall.
Feeding and aiding the high school program are Hobart Little League, Hobart Baseball Club Storm, Hobart American Legion Post 502 Blaze and 5 Star Great Lakes Chiefs.
“Kids are everywhere,” says Howard. “We make sure they are with good coaches and in a situation where they’re comfortable.”
Jaden Deel (Hobart Class of 2021) is now on the baseball team at Huntington (Ind.) University. Ivan Balboa (Class of 2022) has signed to play at Ivy Tech Northeast in Fort Wayne. Howard says he sees college potential is other Brickies.
Howard is a School Resource Officer at Portage. Trent and wife of seven years Alexandria live in Portage with sons Eli (5) and Ezekiel (2).

Trent Howard
Trent Howard
Trent Howard

Thoughts of American Legion baseball keep Cruz going during COVID-19 battle

By STEVE KRAH
http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Antonio “Tony” Cruz Jr., came close to losing his life and the sport that occupies much of thoughts.
The COVID-19 virus struck the husband and father of three in the first half of 2020 and he spent 25 days of May in Memorial Hospital in South Bend, Ind. — nine in the Intensive Care Unit. His oxygen level dropped to 55 and twice was not expected to make it.
One night he was visited by a doctor and nurse. Cruz recalls the doctor’s words: “Well, we’re not going to sugar-coat it. We’re going to be honest with you. You might die tonight. We’ve got a yellow legal pad right here. If there’s anything you might want to write to anybody, now’s the time.”
There was also plenty of support of his family — wife Ilka, sons Carlos and Santana and daughter Neveah and Amiyah, father Antonio Sr. (who also in the hospital with COVID but released before his son) and mother Lucy.
“It wasn’t your time,” is what Lucy Cruz told her son of why he survived and recovered.
Baseball also played a big part.
“Legion was always on my mind,” says Cruz, the manager of the South Bend American Legion Post 151 senior baseball team. “It gave me a reason to keep fighting and get out of there.”
Drawing strength from messages sent by coaching friends including John Kehoe, Joel Reinebold, Tom Washburn and Dennis Ryans.
“You don’t forget that stuff,” says Cruz. “It means a lot to me.”
While the pandemic caused American Legion Baseball to cancel its state, regional and national tournaments in 2020, Indiana teams were allowed to play games if they could provide their own insurance.
Cruz got out of the hospital and with air bottle in tow came to the place he considers his home away from home — the baseball field.
Jim Reinebold Field — named for the late Indiana High School Baaeball Coaches Association Hall of Famer —  is where the South Bend Clay High School Colonials play and Cruz serves as an assistant coach and home to Post 151, though COVID caused cancellation of the high school season and had the Legion team playing home games at South Bend’s Boland Park in 2020.
For his baseball foundation, Cruz looks back to his days at Maurice Matthys Little League, where his coach from 12 to 16 was Terry Cline.
“He is who I pattern my coaching style after,” says Cruz of Cline. “He was about caring and giving back.”
As a player at South Bend LaSalle High School, where he graduate in 1997, Cruz played for Lions head coach Scott Sill.
Cruz was a coach on Kehoe’s staff at South Bend Washington High School and also led the baseball program at Dickinson Middle School — going 23-1 in two seasons — then joined Joel Reinebold at Clay.
“Joel is so supportive,” says Cruz. “I’ve been blessed to be around him for so many years.”
Carlos Cruz (now 23) and Santana Cruz (21) both played for the Colonials, graduating in 2016 and 2018, respectively. Carlos attended Indiana State University for three years. Santana also played at Ancilla College in Donaldson, Ind.
Neveah Cruz (who turned 19 July 12) has been around Clay baseball from seventh grade until the present and has been a student manager, director of operations and coach. This summer, 2020 Clay grad and Sport and Recreation major at Trine University in Angola, Ind., is Post 51 Juniors (17U) team manager and assistant coach to her father with the Post 51 Seniors (19U).
“It’s a good bonding experience with my dad,” says Neveah. “I’ve met a lot of good people through baseball — role models.”
Being around teams has given Neveah something more.
“I have a lot of older brothers now,” says Neveah.
Youngest daughter Amiyah is 11.
This is the sixth year Tony Cruz has coached American Legion ball. When Lenny Kuespert was no longer able to manage South Bend Post 50, Cruz started Post 357. He was 357 manager for two summers and after guidance from former Bristol Post manager Jim Treadway and Legion baseball organizer Joe Kusiak and consulting with post commander Mike Vargo has led Post 151 since the 2018 season.
“Legion ball is good for families who can’t afford to play travel ball, which can be salty,” says Cruz.
Post 151 baseball is supported through $650 registration fees and fundraisers to cover things like insurance, uniforms, hat, socks, field rental, umpires and, in the advent of rain, field conditioner.
If there’s any money left over, Cruz use it to buy Legion shirts etc. for his players.
“I always give back to the kids,” says Cruz. “It’s not about me.”
Custom COVID masks were purchased as well a Post 151 visors for players’ mothers.
Believing that Legion baseball is also a tribute to veterans and patriotism, Cruz outfits his squads in red, white and blue uniforms.
American Legion teams are allowed to roster 18 players for the postseason. There is a total enrollment limit of 6,000 in the top three grades for the high schools that provide players.
Besides Santana Cruz at Ancilla, athletes who have played for Cruz and gone on to college baseball include Hunter Aker at Manchester University in North Manchester, Ind., Robbie Berger, J.P. Kehoe, Mason Ryans and Andrew Washburn at Lincoln Trail College in Robinson, Ill., Tyler Bortone at Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Tyler Cuma at Ivy Tech Northeast in Fort Wayne, Gabe Galvan at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, Nathaniel Garcia at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, Chris Gault, Cooper Lee, A.J. Klimek, Andy Migas and Lee Timmons at Trine, Colin Greve at Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., Dylan Hensley at Indiana Tech in Fort Wayne, Roman Kuntz and Bryce Lesher at Lake Michigan College in Benton Harbor, Mich., Michael Payne at Wabash Valley College in Mount Carmel, Ill., Hunter Robinson at Purdue University Northwest in Hammond, Ind., Cole Steveken at Ancilla, Chantz Stover at Glen Oaks Community College in Centreville, Mich., Tony Valle at Bethel University in Mishawaka, Ind., Cameron Waters at Kalamazoo (Mich.) Community College and Gabe Yonto at BCA College Post Grad in Knoxville, Tenn.
Both 151 teams played about a dozen regular-season weekday games in 2021.
Thursday, July 15 at 5 p.m. and following and Friday, July 16 at 5 (if necessary), South Bend Post 151 hosts Bristol Post 143 in best-of-3 Regional 3 at Jim Reinebold Field for a berth in the eight-team State Finals Friday through Tuesday, July 23-27 at Highland Park in Kokomo.
Other feeder regionals are slated at Highland Post 180 Regional 1-2 (with Valparaiso Post 94, East Chicago Post 369/Lake Station Post 100 Region Legion Expos and South Haven Post 502), Regional 4 at Kokomo Post 6 (with Lafayette Post 11 and Muncie Post 19), Regional 5 at Terre Haute Post 346 (with Crawfordsville Post 72 and Sullivan Post 139), Regional 6 at Jasper Post 147 (with Washington Post 121) and Regional 7 at Rockport Post 254 (with Newburgh Post 44 and Boonville Post 200). As State Finals host, Kokomo will represent Regional 4 with the other highest finisher also advancing. The top two at Highland and the winner at the other sites will move on.
Vera Cruz Tree Service has tended to customers in the South Bend, Ind., area for four decades. Recently, Tony Jr. took over the running of the family business from his father.
Not long after the Legion season ends comes the Jim Reinebold Fall Baseball Camp (the instructional league is heading into its 27th year).
Between seasons and conditioning, Cruz is involved with baseball about 10 months a year.
The diamond — and what it represents — is his passion.

Neveah and Tony Cruz Jr. (Steve Krah Photo)
Tony Cruz Jr. and daughter Neveah.
Neveah and Tony Cruz Jr.
A regional title was won by South Bend American Legion Post 151 in 2018.
Tony Cruz Jr. battles COVID-19 in 2020. He was hospitalized 25 days in May, including nine in Intensive Care.
Tony Cruz Jr. had to go on high-flow oxygen during his battle with COVID-19 in 2020.
Out of the hospital after his COVID-19 battle, Tony Cruz came “home” to Jim Reinebold Field, home of South Bend Clay High School and South Bend American Legion Post 151 baseball.
Jim Treadway (left) and Tony Cruz Jr. bond over American Legion, high school baseball.

As first official practice approaches, Hensley heading up HAST Hawks

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

There’s a place where a baseball can be pitched and struck in Indiana and land in Illinois.

That place is Hermits Park in the 4200 block of Dearborn Avenue on the north side of Hammond, Ind.

In the spring of 2021, the big diamond — where a home run to left field or deep center can clear the state line which cuts through the outfield — will be home to the Hammond Academy of Science and Technology (HAST) baseball program. The school’s softball team will also play at Hermits.

Dennis Hensley, who has been affiliated with the Hammond Hermits Cal Ripken/Babe Ruth League for 19 years and was with Robertsdale Youth Baseball before that, was just named HAST Hawks head coach.

“We started a partnership last year then COVID hit and everything stopped,” says Hensley. “We were one of the last (youth baseball/softball) associations to fold. We were down to only our high school level team that traveled.”

In the fall, Hermits Outlaws played in a fall league at the Ho Chunk Sports Complex in Lynwood, Ill., which is 12 miles southwest of Hermits Park.

Hensley, who is assisted by Travis McKimmey and Ryan Massey, held his last HAST baseball call-out meeting March 11 and has had 10 coming to conditioning sessions. There is hope that more will joint the team. The first IHSAA practice is Monday, March 15. 

“We have a real fresh batch,” says Hensley, noting there a a few players who’ve played high school baseball with others who have been away for years or are fairly new to the sport.

“We’ll start with new or younger guys,” says Hensley. “But we gladly accept that challenge.

“There might be more of a level playing field since everybody did not play last year.”

While the focus this spring will be on a varsity team, Hensley says he hopes to bring baseball to middle schoolers — at HAST and the surrounding area — through the partnership with Hermits.

Hammond Academy of Science and Technology (enrollment around 300) is an independent and not affiliated with the conference.

The Hawks are part of an IHSAA Class 1A sectional grouping with 21st Century Charter-Gary, Covenant Christian (DeMotte), Kouts, Marquette Catholic, Morgan Township, Washington Township and Westville

The IHSAA announced this week that Washington Township will be sectional host.

HAST’s first appearance in the state tournament series was in 2017. The Hawks have not won a sectional championship.

While changes continue to be made to the schedule, Hensley says he expects his club to have around 20 regular-season games.

HAST, which was established in 2010, is a charter school focused on both science and technology with a heavy emphasis on a small teacher-to-student ratio. It is both a high school and middle school with grades ranging from 6-12.

Not affiliated with HAST, School City of Hammond currently has four high schools — Hammond, Clark, Gavit and Morton — and will cut down to two. 

The district is scheduled in 2021-22 to have Hammond and Clark combine into the new Hammond Central with current Gavit students being divided between Hammond Central and Morton.

“It’s always sad to see a part of someone’s history go,” says Hensley, a 1988 Clark graduate. “But we’re looking for change and something new.”

Dennis and Gail Hensley have been married for 26 years. The couple has two adult children — Taylor (25) and Dennis (20). 

Gail Hensley works for the City of Hammond.

Taylor Hensley, who played volleyball and basketball at Whiting (Ind.) High School, graduated from Calumet College of St. Joseph and is with the Merrillville Police Department. 

Dennis Hensley, a five-year cancer survivor, played baseball at Whiting and now works at Wolf Lake Terminals. 

An aerial view of Hermits Park in Hammond, Ind., with the big diamond split by the Indiana-Illinois State Line in the foreground.
Dennis Hensley is the head baseball coach at Hammond (Ind.) Academy of Science and Technology. The Hawks first played in the IHSAA state tournament series in 2017.

Purdue Fort Wayne right-hander Madura experiences growth

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

It was not the way he would have scripted it, but Mike Madura saw positive gains when the COVID-19 pandemic halted the 2020 baseball season at Purdue Fort Wayne and sent him home to Munster, Ind.

Unable to get to a gym, right-handed pitcher Madura worked at home and added strength and weight to his 6-foot-6 frame. He now tips the scales at about 205.

While coronavirus did not make an internship with the Northwest Indiana Oilmen practical for the “Passport to Success” points required by Purdue Fort Wayne for his Business Economics and Public Policy major, Madura was able to pitch for the Midwest Collegiate League team for the second straight summer. 

On Sunday, Aug. 16, he threw eight shutout innings of two-hit baseball with eight strikeouts and two walks as the Oilmen beat the DuPage County Hounds in Game 2 of the MCL championship series. It was a must-win situation since DuPage had taken Game 1.

“It was awesome that atmosphere at Oil City Stadium (in Whiting),” says Madura of his 99-pitch outing. “I trusted my preparation.

“I had playoff experience. I pitched in Game of the semifinals (in 2019) and that definitely helped.”

Madura pushed his two-year mark with the Oilmen to 10-0. He was a starter and part-time reliever in 2019 and was strictly used as a starter in 2020 with Chris Cunningham as manager and Matt Pobereyko as pitching coach. 

Playing summer ball so close to home allowed Madura to continue working on his physical gains while also taking two summer courses. He is on pace to graduate from PFW in the spring. He plans to go to Fort Wayne this weekend and classes — some in-person and some online — are to begin Monday, Aug. 24.

The spring of 2020 marked Madura’s first with the NCAA Division I Mastodons. He made four mound appearances (all in relief) and went 0-0 with a 4.60 earned run average, 10 strikeouts and five walks and 15 2/3 innings.

It was the first season at Purdue Fort Wayne for head coach Doug Schreiber and pitching coach Brent McNeil.

“It’s awesome,” says Madura of playing for Schreiber, whose resume includes 18 years as head coach at Purdue in West Lafayette. “He’s got a lot of experience in Division I baseball.”

McNeil leads a pitcher development program that allows hurlers to work based on what their body is telling them.

“Listening to your arm, he really preaches that,” says Madura of McNeil. “Something I like about our program is recovery and sprint work.”

The Dons use Jaeger Sports J-bands, Driveline PlyoCare Balls and also sprint up to 60 yards to help with recovery and conditioning.

“It helps keep your legs in shape,” says Madura. “It helps with recovery by getting the whole body going.

“We don’t run long distance at all. We’re trying to be more explosive.”

This summer, Madura regularly threw his fastball (he has a four-seamer and two-seamer) at 87 to 89 mph and touched 90 a few times. Using a high three-quarter arm slot, he also employs a “circle” change-up and tosses a slider. 

“It has more of a slurve action on it,” says Madura. “It’s a two-plane break. 

“It depends on what I’m trying to do in that at-bat — get it over for a strike or, if I’m trying to put a guy away, I’ll throw it harder.”

Born with two webbed fingers on his left hand, Madura had surgery at about 2. His parents — Mike and Sherrie — bought him baseball gloves for a righty or a lefty and he ended up using the former though he does many everyday tasks with his left hand.

Madura was born and raised in Munster. He played his earliest organized baseball at the Hammond YMCA. From 7 to 9, he played both at Munster Little League and for the traveling Schererville-based Pro Style Rockers. Then came a few summers with the Sports Works Stars. That team was coached by his father — also known as Mike. 

The student-athlete who turns 22 in October is the sixth in a line possessing that name. When he was younger, it was easier to keep him and his father straight by referring to Big Mike and Little Mike. But the younger Madura — sometimes known as Michael — was 6-3 entering high school, 6-5 leaving it and grew an inch since going into college.

Is being tall an advantage?

Madura sees it as one.

“I have a lot more leverage on my pitches,” says Madura. “There’s a downward angle.

“It makes it that much harder on a hitter.”

Michael Madura was with the Northwest Indiana Hurricanes (father Mike as an assistant coach) at 12U and 13U.

Madura closed out his high school summers with the Hammond/Indiana Chiefs, playing for head coach Todd Iwema at 14U and 15U and organization founder Dave Sutkowski at 16U and 17U.

Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer/geometry teacher Bob Shinkan coached Madura with the Munster High School Mustangs and also had him as class aide.

“Coach Shinkan’s an awesome guy,” says Madura, who admired his ability to have fun while also getting his point across when it was time to get serious.

Madura played for the Chicago Suburban Baseball League’s Hammond Lakers (with Anthony Spangler as general manager) in the summers at Hammond’s Riverside Park before and after his freshman year at Central Michigan University. 

He redshirted there at CMU in 2018, transferred to South Suburban College in South Holland, Ill., and pitched in 2019 while completing his associate degree in Business Administration at the junior college. On the mound, he logged 42 innings in nine appearances (eight starts) and went 0-5 with a 4.29 ERA, 18 strikeouts and eight walks for the Steve Ruzich-coached Bulldogs.

Michael Madura is one of IT project manager Mike and nurse Sherrie Madura’s four athletic children. Tiffany (27) played volleyball at Olivet Nazarene University. Trisha (25) was a at Davenport University. Michael also played basketball until his sophomore year in high school. Kylie (14) is a volleyball and softball player at Munster High.

Mike Madura, a 2017 Munster (Ind.) High School graduate, is a 6-foot-6, 205-pound right-handed pitcher at Purdue Fort Wayne. He is 10-0 over the past two summers with the Midwest Collegiate League’s Northwest Indiana Oilmen. (Purdue Fort Wayne Photo)

Confidence grows for Butler left-hander Graziano

BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Joe Graziano has learned lessons in confidence during his baseball career.

The left-handed pitcher built up a sense of determination that took him to weekend starter in his third season at Butler University in Indianapolis.

Years before, a surge of assurance had helped Graziano make the transition from the freshmen team to varsity as sophomore at Lake Central High School in St. John, Ind.

Graziano credits Butler head coach Dave Schrage for giving him the courage to advance as a Bulldog.

“He wants to get the best out of you,” says Graziano of Schrage. “He definitely helped me settle in by instilling that confidence in me. 

“I feel like I was ready to throw pretty well.”

As a Butler freshman in 2018, Graziano made 13 mound appearances (four starts) and went 3-0 with a 4.70 earned run average, 17 strikeouts and seven walks in 23 innings.

Primarily a mid-week starter in 2019, the lefty appeared in 15 games (seven starts) and went 4-4 with a 4.09 ERA, 36 strikeouts and 17 walks in 44 innings.

The Bulldogs were 8-7 and coming off a March 11 victory against Saint Joseph’s (Pa.) in Port Charlotte, Fla., when the team found out the 2020 season had been halted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We were sitting at the pool,” says Graziano. “We thought we were coming back in two weeks.

“We were optimistic.”

It soon turned out that the rest of the campaign was canceled and student-athletes were sent home.

Graziano went back to northwest Indiana having gotten into four games (all as a starter) and went 1-1 with a 4.67 ERA, 15 strikeouts and 10 walks in 17 1/3 innings. His first start was on a Saturday and the rest came on Sunday.

“I worked all fall to get there,” says Graziano of his role. “I finally got it. I really liked pitching on the weekend.

“Everyone’s locked in and there’s a little bit of pressure.”

When the 2020 shutdown happened, Graziano had already secured an internship and was looking to find a baseball team for the summer.

A double major in Finance and Risk Management, Graziano is doing his internship with Chicago-based Aon and pitching on weekends with the Midwest Collegiate League’s Northwest Indiana Oilmen.

Butler business school requires two internships,” says Graziano. “That’s 240 hours. You also take a class, write a paper and do interviews.

“It’s kind of a lot.”

For his first internship, Joe is on the clock online at his house in Schererville, Ind., from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays. He is upstairs while his mother, Roxanna, does her sales job with U.S. Steel, is in the basement. 

When Joe is done with his internship duties, he does his band and weighted ball work and heads across the street to Autumn Creek Park to play catch with younger brother Joshua. 

At 21, Joe is two years older than his brother. Joshua is enrolled at Indiana University Purdue University-Indianapolis. Their father, Joseph, is a manager at the BP Whiting Refinery, which is very near where Joe is in his second stint with the Oilmen.

The summer right after he graduated from Lake Central in 2017, Joe appeared in seven Northwest Indiana games (five starts) and went 3-1 with a 1.16 ERA, 39 strikeouts and six walks in 31 innings.

“It was the first time I faced college hitters,” says Graziano. “I was playing with kids out of The Region. We were  finally on a friendly surface and can be teammates.

Manager Adam Enright, a Munster (Ind.) High School and University of Southern Indiana graduate, also worked closely with Oilmen pitchers.

In 2020, he is being used strictly as a reliever.

“I didn’t want to rush back into it,” says Graziano. “I’m pitching 2-3 innings at a time. I want to build my stamina and pitch count back up.”

The 6-foot-2, 185-pound southpaw took off about a week off when the 2020 spring season shut down then began training, lifting weights and throwing while reaching out to the Oilmen.

“I want to keep my spot when I get back to Butler,” says Graziano.

The Oilmen are managed by Chris Cunningham. Graziano spends most of his time with pitching coach Matt Pobereyko.

“I’ve been trying to take in as much information as possible,” says Graziano. “He’s been teaching me this forkball/splitter. I have pretty big hands.

“I like how (Pobereyko) thinks on the mound. You’re better than the hitter. Never lose confidence. I definitely like Po’s mentality.”

In the summer of 2019, Graziano pitched for the Coastal Plain League’s Fayetteville (N.C.) SwampDogs

It was a struggle at first.

“I started doing well toward the end,” says Graziano. “I got a lot better out there. I had a little adversity and I battled through it.”

Fayetteville was managed by David Anderson

Lefty Graziano was with the Prospect League’s Lafayette (Ind.) Aviators in 2018. There, he enjoyed living with a host family and got to play with Butler teammate Connor Schultz.

“You make a lot of new friends in summer ball,” says Graziano, who played for a Lafayette team managed by Will Arnold. Future Butler assistant Jake Ratz was also on the Aviators coaching staff.

Ben Norton is Butler’s pitching coach. He has taught Graziano a slider and helped instill confidence.

“He’s helped me develop into a great pitcher,” says Graziano of Norton. “He helps everyone

“If you struggle, he’s not going to give up on you.”

At Lake Central, three-year letterman Graziano went 20-7 (with a pair of perfect games), including 8-4 against Duneland Athletic Conference opponents. As a senior, he went 6-3 with a 2.11 ERA, 84 strikeouts and 13 walks in 60 innings and helped the Indians to an IHSAA Class 4A Munster Sectional title

He was all-DAC, all-area (Northwest Indiana Times) and Academic All-State.

Jeff Sandor was LC’s head coach for Graziano’s sophomore and junior seasons. Mike Swartzentruber took over the program in his senior year.

“(Sandor) is the craziest coach I’ve played for and one of the best coaches I’ve played for,” says Graziano. “He was tough on guys. But he had to be be. He demanded that level of play.

“You knew what you had to bring to the table.”

Graziano says Swartzentruber’s strength came in team building.

“Swartz was more calm than Sandor,” says Graziano. “We all knew what we wanted to do. We had a lot of good players. Swartz did a good job of bringing the team together.”

At Lake Central — a school with about 3,300 students — it is not uncommon for close to 100 players to try out for baseball. The high school is fed by three middle schools — Clark, Grimmer and Kahler].

“There’s a lot of competition,” says Graziano, who came through Grimmer. “You feel bad when your friends don’t make the team. The school is so big.”

While the rivalries among the middle schools is fierce, they become one team at LC.

While at Lake Central, southpaw Graziano used a curve ball that was “a little loopy and slow” that fooled many high school hitters.

When he got to Butler, he left the curve for a slider that has a tighter spin and has more horizontal than vertical break.

From his three-quarter overhand arm slot, Graziano also throws a tailing four-seam fastball and a “circle” change-up.

“It’s really good against righties,” says Graziano. “It has depth and tails away.”

Born in Munster, Ind., Graziano spent the early part of his life in nearby Hammond before settling in Schererville.

While playing for the Schererville Shock — coached by Dan Bosold and Dave Lopez — he made close friends. Among those are current Purdue players Ben Nisle and Bo Hofstra as well as Jarrett Lopez (who went to Purdue Northwest).

Grazing played for Apex Baseball in the summers leading into his last two years in high school. Marc Escobedo was the head coach. Brett Summers was his pitching coach/instructor.

“(Summers) always helped me,” says Graziano. “He was always patient.”

Graziano also enjoyed his time on the basketball court. At Lake Central, he played for head coach Dave Milausnic whom he salutes for getting the Indians ready for their demanding schedule.

“Our senior year, we didn’t have a big superstar,” says Graziano. “(Milausnic) had us prepared for every game. 

“I was the point guard as a senior. I was calling the plays and handling the ball a lot.”

Joe Graziano, a graduate of Lake Central High School in St. John, Ind., has pitched three baseball seasons for Butler University in Indianapolis (2018-20). The left-hander was a weekend starter during the COVID-19-shortened 2020 campaign. (Butler University Photo)
The summer of 2020 is the second for Joe Graziano on the Midwest Collegiate League’s Northwest Indiana Olimen. He played for the Whiting, Ind.-based team in 2017, right after his senior year at Lake Central High School in St. John, Ind. He has pitched three seasons at Butler University in Indianapolis. (Northwest Indiana Oilmen Photo)
Joe Graziano, a graduate of Lake Central High School in St. John, Ind., has pitched three baseball seasons at Butler University in Indianapolis. The left-hander was a weekend starter in 2020. (Butler University Photo)