Cameron Decker was a young baseball player at McCutchanville Community Park on the north side of Evansville, Ind., when he donned a Dodgers jersey. Flash forward about a decade later and Decker is with the Los Angeles Dodgers organization. The 18-year old was selected in the 18th round of the 2022 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Dodgers. The draft was held July 17-19, he signed July 30 and last week finished a short stint in the Arizona Complex League. He came back to Evansville for a few days then headed back to Glendale, Ariz., for “bridge” league and Arizona Instructional League (which conclude Oct. 8). The Dodgers’ training complex is at Camelback Ranch. The 6-foot-1, 205-pounder enjoyed a super senior season at Evansville North High School in 2022. He made 115 plate appearances and hit .447 with 12 home runs, five doubles, three triples and .617 on-base percentage as a righty-swinging shortstop. He bashed six homers in the Huskies’ first three games. “It was my goal going in to hit a lot of home runs,” says Decker of the offensive approach at the end of his high school career. “(After the hot start), I saw a ton of curveballs and balls. I switched my mindset to be less aggressive and more patient and take what comes my way. “As a pro, I’ve tried to hunt fastballs. In two-strike counts, I’m looking to put something in-play.” While he has not fully committed to it, Decker is considering becoming a switch hitter. “When I was about 12 I took a few (lefty) swing in the cage and my body felt well and not awkward,” says Decker. “I’ll sometime hit (lefty) in the cage to loosen things up.” Decker was selected to play in the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association North/South All-Star Series June 25-26 at Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion and Evansville North head coach Jeremy Jones was head coach for the South. A University of Central Florida commit, Decker opted to go pro rather than attend college. “It was a combination of a lot of things,” says Decker of the factors that went into his decision. “Three years of college is a lot of time. You’re not guaranteed to be drafted again. Development in pro ball is higher than three years of college. “My dream since I was a little kid to play Major League Baseball.” Decker, who turns 19 on Sept. 22, is getting used to the transition from amateur to pro baseball. “I’m enjoying you a lot,” says Decker. “It’s a job and it’s a lot of baseball. We’re at the field 9 to 12 hours a day getting work in and playing games. “I’m around a lot of smart people who love baseball. It’s pretty cool.” The Dodgers have used Decker as a corner infielder but he has also gotten reps in the outfield and at shortstop and second base. Decker considers strength and the ability to cover ground in the infield and outfield and run the bases well as some of his best qualities. “I’ve always been a strong kid,” says Decker. “I’ve always had power regardless of my height. I’ve been working on being more mobile and loose. “It’s part natural strength. I also hit weight room three times a week for a whole-body workout.” Since the end of his freshman year at Evansville North, Decker has worked out with Tyler Norton, who is a strength and conditioning coach for the Dodgers and runs TNT Fitness and Performance in Fort Branch, Ind. Decker was born in Evansville and grew up on the north side. After playing at McCutchanville, he was with Highland and competed in the Indiana Little League State Tournament at age 12. Playing for father Chad Decker, Cameron went into travel ball with the Evansville Thunder. “Then it was time to go chase bigger things,” says Cameron, who was with the Canes Midwest coached by David Bear and Phil McIntyre his 15U and 16U summers and 5 Star Midwest coached by Jerry Cowan at 17U. Along the way, Decker impressed scouts including those with the Dodgers, especially after he showed well in an event in Jupiter, Fla. Dodgers Upper Midwest area scout Mitch Schulewitz (who pitched the University of Illinois-Chicago) signed Decker to his first pro contract. Cameron — the oldest of Princeton (Ind.) Community High School graduates Chad and Libby Decker’s two sons — comes from a family with a strong baseball pedigree. Grandfather Joe Don Decker played at Indiana State and in the Cincinnati Reds system. He was a 1962 spring training roommate of Pete Rose and went as high as Triple-A. Father Chad Decker set records at Princeton then went to the University of Central Florida as a pitcher. After developing arm problems, he transferred to Indiana University to study business and now sells dental insurance. Cousin Jeff Goldbach broke Chad’s Princeton hitting records and was drafted in the second round of the 1998 MLB Draft by the Chicago Cubs. He was tragically shot and killed in Greensboro, N.C., in 2021. Uncle Quinn Decker pitched at Indiana State and lettered in 1996. Brother Cole Decker (Evansville North Class of 2024) is a lefty-swinging and lefty-throwing outfielder who spent the summer of 2022 with the traveling Louisville Legends. The spring high school season was his first baseball season playing with his big brother. “We’re a very tight family,” says Cameron. “But summers are usually split with mom and dad trading off (to followed one brother or the other).” Libby Decker is a former social worker now in marketing. She holds degrees from Indiana State and UCF.
Dimitri Ivetic does not yet know where he will play college baseball in 2022-23. But the right-handed pitcher has been in this position before and he’s not pushing the panic button. Along his college baseball path, 2019 Highland (Ind.) High School graduate Ivetic has been at Palomar College in San Marcos, Calif., Santa Barbara (Calif.) City College and Danville (Ill.) Area Community College. Ivetic (pronounced Eave-Uh-Titch) made the decision to attend each only a few weeks before going there. “I think it helps me weigh my options and advice and make the decision that I think works best for me,” says Ivetic, 21. Born in Dyer, Ind., and played in the Highland Babe Ruth League, then travel ball with Morris Chiefs (now 5 Star Great Lakes Chiefs) coached by Matt Mamula and Dave Sutkowski and Florida Pokers. His head coach at Highland High was John Bogner. “He’s very adamant on the fundamentals,” says Ivetic of Bogner. “He was very big on arm healthy and keeping guys healthy. Those are the biggest things I’ve been able to carry over into college. “We had a rough senior year, but my sophomore and junior years we won quite a few games.” How did a kid from northwest Indiana end up on the West Coast? “Ever since I was younger it was my dream to play college baseball,” says Ivetic. “My favorite school was UCLA. I always wanted to play there. I wasn’t good enough to go to UCLA so I decided to go to JUCO out in California.” Through a friend, Ivetic met Palomar pitching coach Hayden Carter while the latter was managing the summer wood-bat Kokomo (Ind.) Jackrabbits. After a visit and seeing the facilities and experiencing the weather, Ivetic joined the program. The righty got into five games totaling three innings for the 2020 Palomar Comets. “I struggled with command a little bit,” says Ivetic. “Then the pandemic hit and we got shut down with mandates and restrictions. We are all like super-disappointed. “During that time I was able to go throw at nearby fields. On one of the last days I strained my forearm. I felt something pull in there. “That bugged me for the next couple months. I worked through it and made some mechanical adjustments which ended up paying off.” Away from baseball, Ivetic went to the beach and on hikes with his roommates. “We became a lot closer,” says Ivetic. “Those are some of my best friends to this day that I still talk to (regularly).” In the summer of 2020, Ivetic did not play but trained at Randy Sullivan’s Florida Baseball ARMory in Lakeland. “He’s a great guy,” says Ivetic of Sullivan. “He’s very innovative. He helped me a lot over the course of a couple years.” When Ivetic learned that the pandemic was going to keep Palomar from baseball activities in the fall of 2020 he decided to transfer to Santa Barbara City College. That turned out to be a tough situation with several COVID-19-related shutdowns and — eventually — no 2021 season. He played for the Bomb Squad in the College Summer League at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind., then went back to Santa Barbara in the fall and it did not go well. “My velocity was down and I struggled,” says Ivetic. “I made one little adjustment that kind of messed everything up.” During his fall exit meeting, Ivetic was advised that if he wanted more playing time in 2022 he should transfer so he went back to the Midwest and Danville Area, where he pitched in 12 games (26 2/3 innings) and went 2-2 with two saves, 36 strikeouts and 12 walks. “Danville was great,” says Ivetic. “The coaches were great. We struggled through some stuff, but overall it was decent. “I definitely made some memories.” Throwing from a high three-quarter arm slot, Ivetic uses a four-seam fastball (which has been clocked as high as 90 mph), curveball and sweeping slider. “My slider is what I’ve been most comfortable with,” says Ivetic. “I can throw it for a strike in basically any count. It’s got more horizontal movement, but sometimes it will start to look more like my curveball.” Ivetic says he could return to Danville Area in the fall, but has no plans to do so. “It wouldn’t make much sense to go back to junior college at this point because — academically — it would just put me so far behind on how many credits would transfer,” says Ivetic, a Finance major who is in the Transfer Portal. “I’m not quite sure where I’m going. But we’re starting to get some idea of where I’d like to go.” Ivetic is back with the CSL’s Bomb Squad and was named to the July 4 All-Star Game. He also trains with PRP Baseball at the Mojo Up Sports Complex in Noblesville, visiting there before games at Grand Park. PRP Baseball, which was founded by Greg Vogt (now a rehab pitching coach for the Toronto Blue Jays organization), is under the day-to-day guidance of Anthony Gomez. He has coached Ivetic since he was 16. Dimitri is of Serbian descent and the only child born to Zarko and Paula Ivetic. His father sells for Jack Tuchten Wholesale Produce in Chicago and his mother works at Nordstrom.
Damen Castillo likes to maintain a routine. “I am very superstitious, especially when it comes to baseball,” says Castillo, a 2018 graduate of Highland (Ind.) High School, where he played for John Bogner, and is in his final season at Benedictine University (Lisle, Ill.) in 2022. “I have a Red Bull before every game — no matter what. “I’ll play catch in the same spot. I’ll go through the same routine for hitting.” Castillo has also been known to keep his helmet or equipment bag in the same location. Why? “I have no idea,” says Castillo, a 6-foot-2, 240-pounder who plays first base and bats clean-up for the Benedictine Eagles. Going into action Tuesday, April 26 against North Central College, the righty-swinger is hitting .381 (40-of-105) with seven home runs, nine doubles, 37 runs batted in and 25 runs scored for a team that is 21-6 overall and 15-1 atop the Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference standings (Benedictine was 29-13 and 15-5 in 2021). Because of COVID-19, Castillo has another year of eligibility remaining, but is planning to finish his degree in Management and Organizational Behavior with a concentration in Operations Management. Castillo, who spent the summer of 2021 with the Prospect League’s Illinois Valley Pistol Shrimp, says he will entertain professional baseball opportunities if they come his way. Otherwise, he intends to enter the work force, going into construction like members of his family. “I want to start out as a worker so I can learn things,” says Castillo. “I don’t want to manage something so young like that.” He has thoroughly enjoyed his college experience. “The relationships you build with people are for the rest of my life,” says Castillo. “The baseball part of it has been fun.” As an NCAA Division III program, Benedictine conducted fall workouts and then had “captain’s practice” — where coaches were not allowed instruct — in the winter. Adam Smith is the Eagles head coach. “We’ve become really close,” says Castillo. “He’s really good with everybody. He’s easy to talk to as a coach. “He’ll get on you when you do something wrong but teach you so you can do it right the next time.” Benedictine practices tend to top out at two hours and there is also weightlifting and extra hitting during a typical week. “Coach Smith likes to give us free time,” says Castillo. “You’ve got to get away from it a little bit.” Castillo, who lives in an on-campus apartment with three teammates, likes to relax with video games like Call of Duty and MLB The Show.
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.
As part of Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Bob Shinkan’s coaching staff at Munster High School, Mike Mikolajczyk saw the importance of keeping the sport fun for players. “You’ve got to be loose,” says Mikolacjzyk, who enters his 24th year in the program and first as head coach in 2022. Only IHSBCA Hall of Famer Mike Niksic and Shinkan have held that title before Mikolajczyk, who was Mustangs freshmen coach for 20 seasons and varsity assistant for three. He is a 1989 graduate of Bremen High School in Midlothian, Ill., where he played four years of baseball for Braves coach Tom Johnson and earned all-conference and all-area honors as a junior and senior and was a team captain. He spent a half year with the baseball team at South Suburban College in South Holland, Ill. He later earned a bachelor’s degree in Teaching from Purdue University Calumet and a master’s degree in Arts and Language Arts from Governors State University. Mikolajczyk (Mick-O-Lie-Check) teaches sixth grade Reading and Language Arts at Wilbur Wright Middle School in Munster. In 2021, the Mustangs were part of an IHSAA Class 4A sectional grouping with East Chicago Central, Hammond Morton, Highland, Lake Central and Merrillville (host). Munster won its 13th sectional title — the first since 2016. “We have 11 guys coming back from last year’s team,” says Mikolajczyk. “We will be pretty senior strong.” The Class of 2022 includes right-hander Brady Ginaven (Indiana State University commit), left-hander Jake Thometz (uncommitted) and right-hander Will Moell (Johns Hopkins University commit) at the top of the mound rotation. “I’m pretty excited about our top three pitchers,” says Mikolajczyk. “I could put those guys against anybody in northwest Indiana and we’ll be competitive.” Another key senior is outfielder/first baseman Tyler Lukowski. Juniors drawing D-I attention are outfielder Kozy Denham and outfielder/shortstop Kevin Hall. Recent graduates moving on to college ball include 2020 graduates in right-hander Costa Sirounis (Indiana University), right-hander Will Melby (Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs) and infielder Ronnie Nowak (Marshalltown, Iowa, Community College). From 2021, there’s right-hander/third baseman and IHSBCA North/South All-Star Bryce Schaum (Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis.), second baseman/catcher Ben Greiner (DePauw University) and middle infielder/outfielder Derrick Wiening (Purdue Northwest). Munster (enrollment around 1,600) is located in Lake County and a member of the Northwest Crossroads Conference (with Andrean, Highland, Hobart, Kankakee Valley and Lowell). The Mustangs plan to field three teams — varsity, junior varsity and freshmen — in 2022 — and Mikolajczyk estimates there will be 45 to 50 in the program. The first time Munster had paid assistants was four years ago. Mikolajczyk’s assistants include Matt Backs, volunteers Brian Boliek and Adam Musielak with the varsity, Mark Dye with the JV and an as-yet-to-be-named freshmen coach. Backs, who coached one year at Thornton Fractional North High School in Calumet City, Ill., and 27 years as Munster JV coach, will handle infielders and outfielders and coach first base. The Illinois State University graduate is a Project Lead The Way teacher at Wilbur Wright. Boilek, who enters his fifth year on the staff who has more than two decades experience of coaching travel and American Legion ball, is a bench coach and handles strength and conditioning. He works in banking and finance. Musielak was head coach for six years at Whiting (Ind.) High School and took the Oilers to the IHSAA Class 2A Final Four in 2019. He has 10 years of coaching experience for baseball, basketball and football. The Indiana University alum teaches Physical Education at Munster. Dye is a Munster graduate who played at Earlham College In Richmond, Ind., and served a freshmen coach at Portage (Ind.) High School for six years. He teaches Social Studies at Munster. Infielders and catchers will be part of Mikolajczyk’s responsbilities. Munster had 10 IHSAA Limited Contact Period sessions in September and early October with nearly 60 participants (not involved in fall sports). There were open fields and gyms with activity on Mike Niksic Field (which has a turf infield and grass outfielder), diamonds at Community Park, located next to the school and the home to Munster Little League and Munster Babe Ruth or the turfed football field. “In fall workouts, we get an idea of who’s really dedicated to you and who’s not,” says Mikolajczyk. An off-season weight program is baseball-specific and is geared toward flexibility and mobility. “What we’re trying to emphasize is bigger, faster, stronger,” says Mikolajczyk. “We’re not trying to bulk up. It’s about maintenance and an injury-prevention type of thing.” For the first time in program history, a 500-pound club (total for bench press, clean and jerk and deadlift) has been established to promote bonding and buy-in. Just before break, all 13 who attempted to qualify for a club made it and got a T-shirt. Qualifying is planned again in January and February. Mikolajczyk says strength and conditioning training has drawn 30 to 35 participants each time without freshmen. Little League (T-ball to age 12) and Babe Ruth (13-15) feed players to Munster High School. Several players are in travel ball with Morris Baseball, which is run by alum Bobby Morris. Hal Morris, Bobby’s brother, is a Munster graduate who made it to the big leagues primarily as a first baseman (1988-2000) and is also in the IHSBCA Hall of Fame. More recently, outfielder Craig Dedelow played at Indiana University (2014-17) and is now in the Chicago White Sox organization. The Manous brothers — right-hander Connor (Class of 2016) and outfielder Garrett (Class of 2019 — were both on the IU roster in 2021. An avid golfer, Mikolajczyk is a 7-handicap on the links. He also enjoys hunting. He lives in Frankfort, Ill., with significant other Maribel Soto Piccinini. She has a son named Troy (26). Tanya Mikolajczyk, who was married to Mike, died of colon cancer in 2019.
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).
Jordon VanWienen has spent his life in the DeMotte/Wheatland, Ind., community and now he’s head baseball coach at his alma mater — Kankakee Valley High School. The 2006 KVHS graduate was officially moved up from Kougars assistant coach in July. He had served four years as junior varsity head coach — one on the staff of Doug Greenlee and three under Ryan Armstrong then three years as a varsity assistant to Doug Nelson. “Seeing the KV program excel is true to my heart,” says VanWienen, who was a catcher for Greenlee as a Kougar player. “He’s got a lot of heart and passion — not only for the game but for his players,” says VanWienen of Greenlee. “He’s about more than just winning baseball games. “He had our backs.” An IHSAA Limited Contact Period concluded Oct. 16 and VanWienen had about 20 to 25 athletes not in fall sports participating in the twice-weekly sessions. “We got outside every week that we went with good solid practices,” says VanWienen. “We would work on defense one day and offense another day. “We had a good turnout. The numbers were high, which is a good sign for the program. There are a lot of good work ethics. We’re headed in the right direction.” Kankakee Valley (enrollment around 1,100) is a member of the Northwest Crossroads Conference (with Andrean, Highland, Hobart, Lowell and Munster). In 2021, the Kougars were part of an IHSAA Class 3A sectional grouping with Culver Academies, Glenn, Hanover Central, Knox and River Forest. Kankakee Valley has won four sectional titles — the last in 1999. Outfielder Nolan McKim (Class of 2020) is on the reserve baseball roster at Indiana Tech. VanWienen says a pair of current Kougars – left-handed pitcher Max Schultz and infielder-outfielder Luke Andree — have college potential and there are others that could play at the next level. VanWienen’s assistants are Jim Pint, Scott Holmes and Jeremy Rohzon. Hitting coach Pint has been a volunteer at KV for 22 years. Pitching coach Holmes and JV head coach/varsity assistant Rohzon are both Kankakee Valley graduates. KV has two baseball fields on its Wheatfield campus. A JV/freshmen diamond was used for the first time in 2021. A strong feeder system is a priority for VanWienen. “My goal is to have a large involvement with local Little Leagues,” says VanWienen, who sits in the DeMotte Little League board. A travel ball program of DeMotte/Wheatfield players — the NWI Warriors — was established in August. There are currently 9U and 12U baseball teams. “The program is designed to get boys playing in April in tournaments and they can play in Little League as well,” says VanWienen. “I intend to start middle school season after high school season.” VanWienen wants to narrow the gap between Little League and high school where some players lose interest or get involved with other things. After KV, VanWienen to Franklin (Ind.) College for a few years. He was with the Lance Marshall-coached Grizzlies in fall ball and was involved in athletic training. He now works in the grains department at Iroquois Bio-Energy Company, LLC in Rensselaer, Ind. Besides coaching Little League and at KV, VanWienen led Outcast Thunder 15U, 16U and 17U travel teams from 2017-19. Jordon and wife Julie (a 2008 Kankakee Valley graduate) have been married for 12 years. They have two children — son Ayden (10) and daughter Hayley (9). Ayden VanWienen is active in soccer, basketball, baseball and 4-H. Hayley VanWienen participates in soccer, gymnastics and 4-H. The VanWienens have a San Pierre, Ind., address.
Playing with and against players from bigger schools, Damen Castillo enjoys showing what he can do on a baseball diamond. Castillo, a 6-foot-3, 240-pound righty-swinging/throwing first baseman, plays during the spring at NCAA Division III Benedictine University in Lisle, Ill. This summer, the Highland (Ind.) High School graduate is with the Prospect League’s Illinois Valley Pistol Shrimp in the team’s first season in Peru, Ill. “It’s the competition level,” says Castillo, 21. “The pace of play is faster than what I come from. “It’s fun being around guys from different schools like that.” Of the 31 players listed on the team’s online roster, 18 are from Illinois with eight from California and one each from Arizona, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio and Wisconsin. Castillo is one of six players from NCAA D-III schools (the others are pitchers Jake Dahl of Rockford University, Chandler Kerr of Concordia University Chicago and Justin Rios and Jason Shanner of North Central College and infielder Garry Maynard of Concordia University Chicago). There are 20 from NCAA D-I, two from NCAA D-II and three from National Junior College Athletic Association institutions. Teams on Illinois Valley’s schedule, which consists of squads from the Wabash River, Great River, Prairie Land divisions, boasts no less than 105 D-I players. The Pistol Shrimp are owned and managed by John Jakiemiec, who co-owns a player development academy in Naperville, Ill., Evolution Athletics. “He’s been great,” says Castillo of Jakiemiec. “When we play, it’s real serious. “You get your work in and still try to win at the same time. “It’s been a fun summer.” Jakiemiec, who played baseball at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., uses his Ivy League education to throw out random facts during bus trips. “We don’t always know what he’s talking about,” says Castillo. “But we laugh.” Through 25 games with the Pistol Shrimp, Castillo was hitting .280 (23-of-82) with five home runs, four doubles, 14 runs batted in and 10 runs scored. “One of my best qualities as a hitter is the ability to drive the ball to the right side of the field,” says Castillo. “I get pitched away and I get a lot of off-speed. Over the years I’ve gotten good at hitting the outside pitch.” Adam Smith is the head coach at Benedictine. “He’s been real supportive,” says Castillo of Smith. “He come to me with things he think I can change.” Castillo appreciates how Smith keeps practices loose and competitive. “Our team tends to do better when things are like that,” says Castillo, who helped the Eagles go 29-13 overall and 15-5 in the Northern Athletic Collegiate Conference in 2021. “We do competition things in practice. It’s better than taking mass ground balls or BP. “It makes it fun.” In 42 games (all as a starter), Castillo hit .347 (61-of-176) with nine homers, one triple, 18 doubles, 51 RBIs, 35 runs and a 1.009 OPS (.395 on-base percentage plus .614 slugging average). The 2021 season was his third at Benedictine. In the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season, he started all seven games and hit .217 (5-of-23) with one extra-base hit (a double), four RBIs, three runs and a .557 OPS (.296/.261). As a freshman in 2019, Castillo played a little bit of third base before becoming a full-time first baseman. In 28 games (24 as a starter), he hit .323 (32-of-99) with four homers, six doubles, 21 RBIs, 16 runs and a .885 OPS (.380/.505). With two years of eligibility left, Castillo is a year away from earning a degree in Management of Organizational Behavior through the Goodwin College of Business. Castillo and his Eagles teammates are to report back to campus in late August and will get right to work for about eight weeks of workouts before “captain’s practice” where NCAA D-III rules limit contact by the coaching staff. Born and raised in Highland to Damen and Jodee Castillo with little sister Angelica (a volleyball and softball athlete entering her senior year at Highland High in 2021-22), “D” played travel ball around his hometown until 12 and then went with the Dave Griffiin-coached Indiana Playmakers, Morris (coached by Jim Tucker), Chiefs (coached by Dave Sutkowski) and Midwest Irish (coached by Shane Brogan). When the Midwest Collegiate League shut down and Castillo was not able to play for the Southland Vikings in 2020, he assisted Brogan with the Irish. “He has been the closest coach to me,” says Castillo of Brogan. The two talk every other day. This year, Castillo helps Brogan out in practice when his schedule allows. John Bogner was Castillo’s coach at Highland and had the third baseman on the varsity since early in his freshmen year with the Trojans. “He was a great high school coach and I learned a lot from him,” says Castillo, who stays in touch with Bogner and dropped by practice during the end of 2021 season to hit with the Highland team.
In the spring of 2019, the Kougars baseball team had eventual IHSAA Class 3A state champion Andrean down 7-3 in the seventh inning of the Kankakee Valley Sectional championship game before bowing 8-7.
“That’s how close we are to beating a good team,” says Nelson. “But you’ve got to get 21 outs.
“A lot of kids from that team that are back (two years later).”
The COVID-19 pandemic took away the 2020 season.
“Boys are champing at the bit and ready to get back on the field,” says Nelson. “We have a mix of seniors doing a good job of being leaders with juniors following their lead and sophomores continuing that.
“I like our depth.”
In the fall, the Kougars held IHSAA Limited Contacted Period practices outside as often as possible with plenty of fungos to fielders and swings by hitters.
“Being out on the field again was awesome,” says Nelson. “We had 20-plus (participants) every time.”
Nelson expects 40 to 45 players in the spring to fill out varsity, junior varsity and freshmen teams.
Winter workouts have consisted of plenty of weight room and batting cage work. When the weather has allowed, KV players have gone outside and used the baseball field on turf football playing or practice fields.
“We have a pretty nice field,” says Nelson of the lighted facility that has served many times as a sectional host site. Beyond the right field fence is a corn field. In left there is woods.
Assistant coaches for 2021 are Jim Pint (varsity), Jordon VanWienen (varsity), Jeremy Rozhon (JV) and Steve Schmidt (freshmen).
During his stint at Portage, Nelson assisted Bob Dixon.
“He was just great for the kids — a players’ coach,” says Nelson. “He would give the shirt off his back for the boys. He had them playing hard for each other.
“Portage takes a blue-collar/us-against-the-world mentality. We stuck together and fought.”
Randy Roberts is the head coach at Washington Township. His 2019 Senators were Class 1A state runners-up.
“Randy Roberts is the best coach of any sport in northwest Indiana,” says Nelson. “He is very humble. The (Porter County Conference) is a very good small-school baseball conference.”
Nelson was introduced to Roberts by brother Dustin. Max Roberts, Randy’s son and a Valparaiso High graduate, has pitched in the Seattle Mariners organization.
At Hanover Central, Nelson took the Wildcats to the 2011 Class 2A championship game where they were topped 8-1 by South Spencer. HC ace Andy Wellwerts stuck out 128 batters in 73 innings that season. He went on to play in the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association North/South All-Stars Series.
Jesse Wilkening, a 2015 Hanover Central graduate, set the state career record for hits (206) and went on to play at the University of Nebraska and in the Philadelphia Phillies system.
Nelson holds an elementary education degree with a physical education endorsement from Valparaiso University, where he played one season of baseball for Paul Twenge. Merel Nelson, Doug’s father, was VU’s athletic equipment manager.
A masters degree in administration was later earned by Nelson.
Doug is married to Ann Marie and has two sons — Nathan Ramian (28) and Kale Nelson (21). Nathan has coached freshman baseball and girls basketball at Portage and works in the IT department for Portage Township Schools). Kale is a junior at Indiana University Purdue University-Indianapolis.
Migley Field was started with some scrap fencing in 2006 and elements have been added over the years, including Wrigley-like scoreboard and marquee.
Before each home game, they play recordings of retired Wrigley Field organist Gary Pressy and the voice of radio play-by-play announcer Pat Hughes welcomes everyone. Regular-season home games start at 1:20 p.m. as do the Hometown Cup semifinals.
The Hometown Cup draws 70 to 80 teams most years. Twenty fields are used during Saturday pool play — some at the Little League park and some at New Prairie High School.
The Top 48 return Sunday for single-elimination play with the semifinals and championship on Migley Field. Dimensions roughly emulate those in Chicago. It’s 95 feet down the left field line, 98 in the power alleys, 100 to center and 93 down the right field line.
This year, all-time home run leader Scott Soos of the Newts belted his 400th circuit clout. The league has been keeping stats since about 2010.
While Hometown Days is canceled for 2020, the Hometown Cup aka The Wiffle® Ball Championship will go on July 24-26. The home run derby is July 24, pool play July 25 and the Top 48 in single-elimination plus the semifinals and finals July 26. The last two rounds are at Migley Field.
Past finals have drawn hundreds of spectators. BroadcastSport.net is again planning to stream the semifinals and finals on the internet.
ORWBL is one of the few Wiffle® Ball leagues around that has home fields for all its teams — Palace of Bourissa Hills (301 St. Meridian St., New Carlisle) for the Wildcards, The Garage (7564 E. 400 N., Rolling Prairie) for the Kings, The Barnyard (9352 S 150 W., Union Mills) for the Cyclones, Magic Park (Kesling Park, A Street, LaPorte) for the Magic, various locations for the Heat, The Spin Factory (3810 Lincolnway East, Mishawaka) for the Meatspins, The Goat House (53105 Ironwood Rd., South Bend) for the Billy Goats, Manor Field (2332 Kenilworth Dr., Elkhart) for BFAM, Cam Snead Field (51972 Gentian Lane, Mishawaka) for the Panthers, The Hideout (410 French St., Niles, Mich.) for the Godfathers, Rocko’s Park (29481 Lynn St., New Carlisle) for the Leprechauns, Migley Field (500 S. Bray St., New Carlisle) for the Newts, The Land Down Under (110 S. Harris St., New Carlisle) for Emery’s Army and Helmet Head Field (10109 S. 600 W., Union Mills) for the Goon Squad.
Week 4 (June 3) players of the week were Eric Wodrich (Meatspinners) in the American League and Nate Hansen (Leprechauns) in the National League. Wodrich went 15-of-22 (.682 average) with six homers, 12 RBIs and 11 runs. Hansen was 10-of-17 (.588) with eight homers, eight RBIs at the plate and went 2-1 in 19 innings pitched with a 7.68 earned run average.
The ORWBL plays tripleheaders on Sundays for a 24-game regular season. Playoffs run through August. Games are six innings and last 45 minutes to an hour each. The league plays with a pitcher, catcher and three fielders.
The pitching rubber is between 30 and 40 feet from home plate. There will be no called strikes, balls or walks. Batters can strike out swinging. Foul tips caught by the catcher with two strikes will also be a strikeout. The pitcher’s hand rule applies for outs. There is no bunting allowed in slow-pitch Wiffle® Ball.
It’s always been pitch-to-hit league. Every pitch has to have some sort of arc.
“It was built as a fun league — giving the batter a pitch to hit,” says Magic manager and ORWBL commissioner Alex Friedman. “You get action all the time. Balls are being batted into the field of play. Defense has to be played.
“People enjoy watching our style.”
Maple City is the defending three-time league champion. Friedman took over ORWBL commish duties from Keck.
Friedman says one of the reasons the league uses three outfielders is that Bourissa Hills — home of the former league champion Pterodactyls — is so wide and there’s so much outfield ground to cover.
Covering the world of ORBWL is the Don’t Get Wifflenated podcast. WiffleTalk.com follows all things slow-pitch Wiffle® Ball.
There’s even a ORWBL Hall of Fame.
The Dirtyard (1117 W. Epler Ave., Indianapolis) is known as one of the top Wiffle® Ball fields in the country.
Circle City will be hosting the National Wiffle® World Series there Sept. 18-20 (it moved from Morenci, Mich.).
The league typically plays Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. There is a one-day round robin tournament to get all eight teams to the field at one time and promote league camaraderie. That recent Sunday event went from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. There are lights at The Dirtyard.
To be a National Wiffle® member league, a website, statistics and video presence must be kept.
“It’s to prove you are a competitive Wiffle® Ball league,” says Circle City president/commissioner and Short Shorts player Brendan Dudas, oversees The Dirtyard in his parent’s backyard. “You have to be 18 to play for liability reasons.”
Most teams have there own Twitter accounts. Games are often streamed live. Podcasts keep Wiffle® wackos informed.
Dudas and has friends were middle schoolers fooling around in the back yard with a ball and bat in 2009. Four years later, Circle City Wiffle® Ball became a reality.
“It’s been slowly evolving ever since,” says Dudas, who played baseball at Perry Meridian High School and the University of Indianapolis and coached at Center Grove with former Perry coach John Carpenter.
“All the guys in the league are either former athletes,” says Dudas. “They like the competitive nature of sports in general.
“It’s low impact, a controlled environment and we still fulfill the competitive drive we all have. We enjoy being around each other and having fun.”
Circle City plays six-inning games. It’s 3-on-3 (pitcher and two fielders). There can be on a roster and all of them can bat. It’s 45 feet between bases, 47 1/2 feet between the rubber and the strike board.
“You have to have (quality) pitchers in fast pitch (Wiffle® Ball) or it becomes a walk fest,” says Dudas. “In the national tournament, it’s all about pitching. The recipe to win tournament is throw a shutout, make one big play and hit a home run. Scores are often 1-0 and 2-1.”
The Dirt Yard dimensions are 89 feet down the left field line, 97 to left-center, 95 to right-center, 102 to center and 85 down the right field line.
Dudas has observed that most leagues have fields between 75 to 100 down the lines and 85 to 110 to center.
“You get further than than and it gets hard to poke the ball out,” says Dudas.
When the 8 Balls joined the league in 2017, they brought snazzy uniforms with them and the league soon followed suit and now sublimated jerseys are a Circle City requirement.
“We encourage guys to run wild with it,” says Dudas, who cites Keck and the ORWBL as the inspiration for creating his league.
“It’s fun to do something competitive one you get out of high school” says Ratajczyk. “It satisfies everybody’s competitive desires in the summer.
“We had enough friends that wanted to do it consistently. We’ve embraced it as a weekend getaway where we get to see our friends.”
Traditionally a Sunday league, Griffleball went to four weekend tournaments (pool play Saturday and single-elimination Sunday) for the 2020 slate. Remaining dates are June 27-28, July 18-19, Aug. 1-2.
New players can pick the team of their choice. There is also a league waiver wire.
Every squad picks out new flashy uniforms each season.
“We usually sit down in January and February and brainstorm,” says Ratajczyk of Griffleball planning. “This year was the exception with coronavirus.”
While childhood 1-on-1 games between Ryan Galiher and Kyle Lidster can be cited as the genesis of Griffleball, the league’s modern origins date to 2010 when it played on a public basketball court and set up fencing around the grass — ask the Griffle Grounds in Highland.
The 2017 all-star game was played at Bridges’ Scoreboard Restaurant & Sports Bar in Griffith and the league moved its games there for 2018 and 2019.
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, a new field — The Warehouse, 5000 W. 45th Ave., Gary — was selected for 2020 action. Opening Day was June 6.
The first eight years of Griffleball, teams were kept intact year after year. The last two years, things were shaken up and there was a re-drafting of players.
Even with the moves, Griffleball has stuck with the same field dimensions — 60 feet down the foul lines, 85 to the gaps and 80 to center.
Griffleball games are five innings and last around an hour. There are four players per team though there is only a pitcher and two fielders at a time. Everyone in the lineup hits.
There is no catcher in fast-pitch Wiffle® Ball, but a strike board (which is 20 inches wide, 32 inches tall and 12 inches off the ground).
There are two outs per inning, five balls for a walk or two hit batsmen in the same at-bat.
Ratajczyk, who has played in all four National Wiffle® (formerly National Wiffle Ball League Association) leagues in Indiana, says fast pitch Wiffle Ball is all about the batter vs. pitcher duel and the scores of games often rely on the elements.
“If the wind is blowing, there will be no runs,” ays Ratajczyk. “If the wind is blowing out, there will be a ton of runs.”
The GBL has accounts on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Snap Chat.
LWA plays all its games at a six-field compound in an incorporated community near Crown Point on land owned by commissioner/president and Leroy Riot owner/manager Tim Wiltjer. The address is 4504 E. 145th Ave., Crown Point.
In 2020, the league includes 12 teams — Backdoor Sliders, Barn Stormers, Bushleague Badgers, Fabulous Flamingos, Lake County Liners, Leroy Riot, Marvelous Maniacs, Mighty Melon Heads, Noble Narwhals, Porter County Porkers, Squints Sluggers and Walking Tacos.
The Sluggers are the defending champions.
Ty Bothwell (a redshirt pitcher for Indiana University baseball in 2020) and Bo Hofstra (a junior pitcher at Purdue University) are on the Badgers.
There are seven players on each roster with four players competing in games. There are three players on defense — one pitcher and two fielders. The fourth player keeps stats or takes a break.
All four players have to pitch one inning, giving everyone a chance to bat, field and pitch. Regular-season games are five innings with two games a night. A team’s best pitcher goes two innings with one apiece for the other three.
Post-season games are six innings. Forty-eight players compete each Wednesday.
“It breaks up the week,” says Wiltjer of the preferred gameday.
A unique feature of LWA is that only the manager can stay with a team year after year while the rest of the rosters are shuffled.
“We start fresh,” says Wiltjer. “We don’t have a Golden State Warriors thing going on.
“As commissioner, I want to see our guys get along and get together. Teams from so many different cities with so many friend groups.”
The LWA is numbers-driven.
“I’m obsessed with stats,” says Wiltjer.
To keep things competitive, Wiltjer has devised a “salary cap” based on the batting and pitching numbers put up by players. All awards are stat-based. The highest salary is the MVP. Ironman awards go to those with the most at-bats or most innings pitched.
While the first official LWA season was 2014, Wiffle Ball was part of a Lawn Olympics on the property before that.
Leroy plays a hybrid style of Wiffle® Ball. Throwing fast pitch, pitchers can run up a count of up to five balls. After that, he moves closer to the batter and lobs it.
Once a 10-ball count is reached, the batter can elect to take a single or he can elect to keep hitting. At 15 balls, it becomes an automatic double, 20 an automative triple and 25 an automatic home run.
“It’s the best of both worlds,” says Wiltjer. “It gets runs all the time.”
Teams rotate among the six fields. Two fields are symmetrical with dimensions being 85 feet down the lines and 95 to center.
The four other wider fields give a flavor for Major League Baseball parks, including Boston’s Fenway Park (short porch in right and deeper in right center), Houston’s Minute Maid Park (deeper center, shallow left and right), Pittsburgh’s PNC Park and Chicago’s Wrigley Field.
It’s 45 feet between bases with 48 feet between pitching rubber and strike board.
Batting lineup pitching lineup are the same and must be submitted 24 hours before the game.
The LWA normally begins the first or second week of May. There’s an 11-week regular season (22 games per team).
The 12th team does not make the playoffs. Teams seeded 7-10 go into a single-elimination “death bracket” with the winner earning the No. 8 in the Final Eight. Teams then play two-game series plus a one-inning sudden death game to break ties (if necessary). There can be extra innings.
Pitchers switch every inning during the playoffs.
“All four Indiana (National Wiffle®) leagues are very, very unique,” says Wiltjer. “That’s what makes it awesome.”
Going Corn is the podcast of the Leroy Wiffle® Association.
Indiana players are well-represented on the rolls of the Wiffy Awards presented by National Wiffle®.
Migley Field (ORWBL) was the National Field of the Year in 2019.
The New Carlisle Newts (ORWBL) had the Team Jersey of the Year in 2019.
Friedman (ORWBL) was National Commissioner of the Year in 2018 and National Manager of the Year in 2017.
Nick Arndt (ORWBL) belted his way to National Home Run Champ and Jay Ryans (ORWBL) tossed his way to National Closer of the Year — both in 2012.
Garrett Curless (ORWBL) powered to National Home Run Champ in 2011.
The Dirtyard (CCW) was chosen as National Field of the Year in 2018.
Mid City Moonshots (CCW) sported the Team Logo of the Year in 2019
Caleb Jonkman (LWA) was selected as National Player of the Year in 2017 and 2019 and thumped his way to National Home Run King in 2019. He also is regular in all four Indiana National Wiffle® leagues.
Matt Dykstra (LWA) was National Closer of the Year in 2016.