Jim Brownlee built a long, successful baseball coaching career on the principles of fundamentals and discipline. Now 76, retired and living with wife of 51 years — Candy — in Gulf Breeze in the Florida Panhandle (the couple moved there in April 2021), Brownlee can look back on a run that includes 23 seasons as head coach at the University of Evansville (1980-2002), seven seasons at Illinois State University (2003-09) and one season as University of Iowa pitching coach (2013). He was also a longtime basketball official. “I learned the game of baseball from my college baseball coach Duffy Bass,” says Brownlee of the former Illinois State University head coach and American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer. “He was about as good at fundamentals of anybody I’ve been around — whether it was catching, hitting, bunting or pitching. I kind of patterned myself after him.” A 1963 graduate of Antioch (Ill.) Community High School, Brownlee played for Bass at Illinois State from 1967-70 and was a teammate of future major league pitcher Buzz Capra. The 1969 Collegiate Division National champions went 33-5 and ran the table in the postseason. “I learned the running game at a very young age,” says Brownlee. “We were very aggressive at Evansville. One year we had 202 stolen bases. “I had lesser talent at Evansville. We didn’t have the full amount of scholarships. We had guys we thought would get better and they did. We had guys never drafted out of high school that were drafted out of college. “I think college baseball has always been that way. (Development’s) at an all-time high. But we’re still behind the 8-ball with scholarships and dates. It used to be we had 120 games between fall and spring (at the NCAA D-I level and now it’s 56 games in the spring with 11.7 scholarships for a roster of 35). “College baseball keeps growing. It’s become a money-maker.” That money is bound to go even higher if the season was moved into the warmer months. Says Brownlee, “40 years ago I proposed we play in the summer.” Brownlee was “hard-nosed” as a coach. “Discipline is important to me as a retired Marine,” says Brownlee. After his playing days ended and having served a stint with the U.S. Marines, Brownlee became an assistant baseball coach at Illinois State (1975-76) and was as head coach for the Galesburg Pioneers in the Central Illinois Collegiate League (which later merged with the Prospect League), where he encountered Bloomington Bobcats pitcher Tim Stoddard. The 6-foot-7 right-hander from East Chicago, Ind., was on his way to an MLB career and is now an assistant coach at North Central College in Naperville, Ill. Before UE, Brownlee coached at Princeton (Ill.) High School (1976-79). As Evansville coach, Brownlee won 701 games with four 40-win seasons and seven conference coach of the year honors. Among his players were future big leaguers Sal Fasano, Andy Benes and Jamey Carroll and Purple Aces head coach Wes Carroll. Benes and the Carroll brothers are Pocket City natives. The Purple Aces have retired Brownlee’s No. 6 and Benes’ No. 30. Brownlee has been inducted into the Illinois State University Athletics Hall of Fame as part of the Redbirds’ ’69 national champions, the University of Evansville Athletics Hall of Fame, the Lake County (Ill.) High Schools Sports Hall of Fame, the Bloomington-Normal Officials Association Wayne Meece Hall of Fame and is slated to go into the Indiana Sports Hall of Fame in Evansville in May. A founding member of the Tri-State Hot Stove Baseball League, that group will honor Brownlee with its Legends Award Jan. 15. Tri-State Hot Stove Baseball League supports amateur athletics around the Evansville area. It started as an effort to save Bosse Field, which was established in 1915 and for years was the home to high school baseball and football, American Legion baseball and the Triple-A Evansville Triplets before affiliated pro ball left town. The stadium, which now houses the independent pro Evansville Otters and was host to the IHSBCA North/South All-Star Series in 2021, looked to be condemned and torn down back in the ‘80s. That’s when Brownlee — who had his UE teams playing home games there at the time — got together with former minor league relief pitcher and manager “Singin’ Ed” Nottle and Evansville Central High School coach Paul Gries and brought in folks like Indiana, College and Pro Football Hall of Famer and Rex Mundi High School graduate Bob Griese, former MLB all-star and Evansville Memorial alum Don Mattingly and former big league pitcher and Evansville Central High grad Benes to help raise funds. Since then, not only has Bosse Field been saved but local high school and college fields have been upgraded. “It’s about facilities and making it better and showing it’s an important sport,” says Brownlee. UE now plays on turf at German American Bank at Charles H. Braun Stadium. “It was a labor of love for all of us,” says Brownlee. “I’m really proud of what we’ve built with the baseball community there.” Brownlee had both his sons — Tim and Ryan — as UE players and then coached with both of them. Tim Brownlee was also on the Illinois State staff and employed his father for a decade with his Normal, Ill.-based baseball tournament company — Diamond Sports Promotions. Between Evansville and ISU, Tim assisted his father for 17 seasons. Ryan Brownlee was an assistant at Evansville (1998-99), James Madison University (2000-03) and Iowa (2004-12) and head coach at Western Illinois University (2013-19) and is now Assistant Executive Director and weekly podcast host for the Greensboro, N.C.- based ABCA. The ABCA Convention is Jan. 6-9 in Chicago. He plans to appear at the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association State Clinic Jan. 14-16 in Indianapolis. Jamey Carroll is to go into the IHSBCA Hall of Fame Jan. 15.
Purdue University’s special 2018 baseball season was heading toward a conclusion when senior closer Ross Learnard began thinking about his future. The Boilermakers were on their way to a 38-21 record that included 17-6 mark in the Big Ten Conference — second to Minnesota — and an NCAA Regional berth. Learnard was finishing up his Agricultural Economics degree. “After each game late down the stretch I’d be in the shower and thinking my last out is going to come here soon,” says Learnard, a 6-foot-2 left-hander went 2-2 with 15 saves, a 3.37 earned run average, 33 strikeouts and eight walks in 34 2/3 innings in 2018. “I just can’t see myself getting a 9-to-5 inside job. “I decided at that point that I wanted to coach and began to pursue my options.” Purdue pitching coach Steve Holm went to Illinois State University to become head coach and brought Learnard on as a graduate assistant (he earned a Master of Business Administration degree at ISU) and director of operations in the fall of 2018. From there Learnard went to Parkland College in Champaign, Ill., where he had pitched in 2015 and 2016, and served as a recruiting coordinator and taught many parts of the game in helping Cobras head coach Jon Goebel. Greg Goff, who was a Purdue volunteer assistant in 2018 and has been head coach since Mark Wasikowski left for the University of Oregon after the 2019 campaign, recently hired Learnard to handle Pitching Analytics & Team Operations. High on Learnard’s list of duties is collaborating and communicating with pitching coach Chris Marx as it relates to player development. “He sets the expectation and culture with the pitching staff and its my job to supplement that and to make it better.” To do that means making sense of available numbers. “The game is going towards being data-driven, especially with this generation we’re coaching now,” says Learnard. “(Players are) always on their phones. “This era of baseball and player that we have is the most read up on the scientific aspect of how you pitcher, where it be biomechanics or ball-flight metrics (like horizontal and vertical break and Revolutions Per Minute aka RPMs). “It’s insane what analytics can really tell you. ERA, hits allowed and WHIP (walks and hit per innings pitched) can only give you a small portion of the context. You have to pull back the layers and see where you’re getting your swings and misses, where you’re getting your weak contact, “It’s just untapped potential.” There are also students on campus who understand data analysis that give feedback to the baseball program. Just three years removed from being a player, Learnard sees a difference. “At least in my circle, it was not as data-driven,” says Learnard. “I try to be a lifelong learner as a coach. You can never be satisfied. It’s adapt or die. I’m trying to read as much as I can about the new-school metrics, analytics and data. “It’s very important to be well-versed in all things numbers and all the different modalities to train pitchers.” Purdue uses a Rapsodo machine to read ball-flight metrics and determine things like spin axis, spin direction and spin efficiency. “You can see the way the ball is moving in space,” says Learnard. “We also use a high-speed camera to see how guys are releasing the ball. “We can give them mental cues to shape the pitch that we’re going for.” Learnard, who turns 26 on Oct. 5, went to Catlin (Ill.) High School near Danville and graduated in 2014. A co-op with Jamaica High School (Sidell, Ill.) was called Salt Fork for sports. The lefty made 21 mound appearances (12 in relief) and went 10-3 with 2.72 ERA, 105 strikeouts and 25 walks in 76 1/3 innings for Parkland in 2015 and 2016. At Purdue in 2017 and 2018, Learnard got into 56 games (all in relief) and was 8-2 with 19 saves, a 1.78 ERA, 70 stakeouts and 18 walks in 81 innings. As a senior, he was named a Collegiate Baseball Third Team All-American, Third Team all-Big Ten and was on the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association Stopper of the Year Watch List. He was Big Ten Pitcher of the Week in April and Perfect Game National Pitcher of the Week in May. He was also Academic all-Big Ten. Purdue’s 45-day window for 2021 fall workouts began Sept. 9 and plans call for it to wrap Oct. 23. Fall ball scrimmages are open to the public Sept. 29, Oct. 1, Oct. 3, Oct. 5, Oct. 8, Oct. 15 and Oct. 28. The Boilers host two 1 p.m. exhibition games with junior colleges — Oct. 9 against Wabash Valley College (Mount Carmel, Ill.) and Oct. 16 against John A. Logan College (Carterville, Ill.). The Black and Gold World Series is slated for Oct. 21-23. “Right now we’re in full team mode,” says Learnard. “We’re setting the expectations of what we want in the spring. We’re helping these (newcomers) perform at a high level and bring them up to the returner speed. “We’re always trying to individualize (development). It’s not cookie cutter.”
Three years after graduating from Carroll High School in Fort Wayne, Ind., Hayden Jones is bigger and stronger and more mature. Jones, who signed last week as a free agent with the Cincinnati Reds out of Illinois State University, says his biggest growth since his prep days has come on the mental side. That’s why he wanted to go to college first instead of pursuing his pro career right away. “I put the dollar amount so high no one was going to sign me (out of high school),” says Jones, who turned 21 on April 27. “I’ve learned to accept failure when it comes, knowing its not going to be the end of the world.” Hayden, whose father Ken Jones was drafted as a catcher by the San Diego Padres in the 33rd round of the 1995 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft and is now a Purdue Fort Wayne assistant coach and grandfather Bill Jones (who died in November 2015) was a founding member and longtime executive director of the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association and selected as an IHSBCA Hall of Famer in 1982, played for Dave Ginder at Carroll. The lefty swinger and earned four letters while garnering IHSBCA all-state honors three times and being selected as MVP of the 2018 IHSBCA North/South All-Star Series. Hayden’s uncle, Brad Jones, lettered in baseball at Ball State University. His son, Tyler Jones, played at the University of Dayton in 2021. Cousin Chris Menzie was a baseball letterwinner at Huntington (Ind.) University. Jennifer Jones is Hayden’s mother. Hayden Jones spent his freshmen season at Mississippi State University in 2019, appearing in 27 games (14 starts) and hitting .224 (11-of-49) with one home run, four doubles, five runs batted in, five runs scored and a .636 OPS (.269 on-base percentage plus .367 slugging average). His fielding percentage with the Chris Lemonis-coached Bulldogs was .971 with 64 putouts, three assists and two errors. Because of NCAA Division I transfer rules, he had to sit out the 2020 season. In 2021 at Illinois State, he played in 38 games (31 starts) and hit .230 (28-of-122) with five homers, two triples, six doubles, 28 RBIs and 15 runs. His OPS was .730 (.296/.434). He also fielded at a .990 clip with 182 putouts, 21 assists and two errors. “I loved Mississippi State,” says Jones. “My girlfriend (Savannah Shinn) still lives down there. It just wasn’t a fit (baseball-wise).” At ISU, Jones worked with Redbirds head coach and former big league catcher Steve Holm. Jones’ mechanics were changed back to where he had been while working with his father in high school. “It all clicked from there,” says Jones. “I was growing and maturing and understanding the game at a faster pace.” To Jones, blocking, receiving and controlling the opponents’ running game are important. But overall baseball knowledge is a major key to catching. “My dad and grandpa gave me that big piece,” says Jones. “You need that support staff. Now they can let go and let the Reds do the magic. I text my dad every single night. He’s learning from me now.” Playing 18 games this summer in the new MLB Draft League with the Mahoning Valley Scrappers (Niles, Ohio), Jones hit .237 (9-of-38) with one homer, one double, seven RBIs, six runs and .725 OPS (.383/.342). He learned from manager Coco Crisp and coach Ron Mahay — both former big leaguers. While he still has years of eligibility left, Jones decided now was the time to move forward as a baseball player. “I was ready,” says Jones, who was draft eligible three years out of high school. “I wanted to get my career going and get my foot in the door.” Jones’ name was not called during the 20-round 2021 MLB Draft. The phone did ring five minutes after its conclusion with his agent telling him that Reds senior director of player personnel Jeff Graupe wanted the catcher. In short order, he was traveling to Goodyear, Ariz., to take a physical and sign his contract with scouting supervisor Andy Stack. “It was not the money I was expecting, but you don’t make your money until you get to the big leagues,” says Jones, who has began training. He and other free agents and draftees will see if the Reds assign them to the Arizona League, send them out to an affiliate (Low Class-A Daytona, Fla., Tortugas, High Class-A Dayton, Ohio, Dragons, Double-A Chattanooga, Tenn., Lookouts, Triple-A Louisville, Ky., Bats) or just keep working at camp. “Nobody knows what to expect,” says Jones. “It’s where they need help in the organization.” Jones spent the summer of 2020 with the Brent McNeil-coached Turf Monsters in the College Summer League at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind. Among those running the CSL were Phil Wade and Blake Hibler, who coached Jones on Team Indiana in the Fall of 2016 and 2017. Outside the all-star series, Jones was at Mississippi State in the summer of 2018. He was the New England Collegiate Baseball League’s Newport (R.I.) Gulls in 2019. Jones was pursuing a Recreation and Park Administration at Illinois State. He says he could complete it in another year.
Duncan Hewitt has always played baseball with emotion. As the Indianapolis native has matured he has learned how to harness that passion and make it work for him. Hewitt, a 2016 graduate of Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis, credits Wildcats head coach Richard Winzenread for helping him channel his emotion on the diamond. “I learned how to control my competitive edge playing for him,” says Hewitt. “I’m an emotional guy. He taught me how to embrace (my emotions). “Don’t run from it. Find a way to turn that into something positive.” Hewitt continued to do that at Butler University in Indianapolis. He played for the Bulldogs 2017-21, taking a medical redshirt year when he tore his meniscus 15 games into the 2019 season. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he still has a year of eligibility. “I’m certainly more level-headed and more calm, cool and collected than I have been at any time in my career,” says Hewitt, a team captain the past two seasons after having that unofficial designation at the end of his prep days. Playing for Butler head coach Dave Schrage, Hewitt has appeared in 123 games (96 starts) with 675 putouts, 58 assists and just four errors and a .995 fielding percentage. Though he played in just 15 games, Hewitt’s best offensive season was 2019 when the righty swinger hit .333 (15-of-45) with two home runs, 18 runs batted in and a .967 (. 434 on-base percentage plus .533 slugging average). “It’s been a lot of fun,” says Hewitt of the Butler experience and playing for Schrage. “I got very, very lucky. “He’s been around the game so long. I know he’s always got my back. I know he cares for me and my teammates very deeply.” The connection between Hewitt and Winzenread continues as they still talk on a weekly basis and enjoys getting together with the coach and former LN teammate Nolan Watson (who pitches in the Kansas City Royals system) to talk baseball. Hewitt, who turned 23 on May 17, is with the Coco Crisp-managed Mahoning Valley Scrappers (Niles, Ohio) of the new MLB Draft League this summer. He and his teammates were going to travel to Pittsburgh to work out for the Pirates at PNC Park today (June 7) and then play a three-game series at the West Virginia Black Bears and three-game set at the Frederick (Md.) Keys. “It’s a really, really cool idea,” says Hewitt of the MLB Draft League, an exposure circuit that sprung up out of the overhauling of Minor League and college summer league baseball with the MLB First-Year Player Draft being pared down and moved to July (the 20-round 2021 MLB Draft is scheduled for July 11-13). “I’m surprised its taking this long for something like this to come to fruition. “It’s really giving guys a chance to come out and play and get a couple of last looks (for professional teams) and I’m finding it’s more for guys who haven’t gotten any looks at all. They’re proving they can play with anybody in the country. It’s cool to some of these come out with a chip on their shoulder and show what they can do.” The MLB Draft League gives players a taste of pro baseball. They learn what it’s like to play everyday with most games beginning at 7 p.m. They see what its like to prepare for that and get the proper rest so they can perform at their best. A typical day at the park is 1 to 10 p.m. “There are nuance things you can only gain through experience,” says Hewitt. Three other Indiana players — Sam Crail (Sheridan High School and Saint Leo University), Hayden Jones (Fort Wayne Carroll High School and Illinois State University) and Garrett Schoenle (Fort Wayne Northrop High School and University of Cincinnati) — are on the Mahoning Valley roster and there are others in the league. What Hewitt appreciates most about summer baseball is the blending of players. “We’re coming from extremely different lifestyles,” says Hewitt. “But we’re all chasing the exact same thing.” As a catcher, Hewitt has come to see the game like a coach or manager. “(Catcher) is a position that takes good leadership and understanding personalities — when to chew someone out and when to put a hand on someone’s shoulder,” says Hewitt. “It’s a big, big reason I pride myself on making decisions in moments like that.” Growing up in Lawrence Township, Hewitt got his first taste of league baseball through Oaklandon Youth Organization. He began playing for various travel teams around 9 including the Indiana Bulls in high school. “I think I did it right,” says Hewitt. “My dad (Mike Hewitt) kept me away from the daddy ball experience and the crazy parents. “I wore a lot of jerseys, but I always say I played for the Bulls.” Dan Held was Hewitt’s coach with that travel organization. “He was the first coach I had that was a professional himself,” says Hewitt of Held, who played at the Triple-A level in the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets organizations and is now an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at Indiana University. “To be on his team you had to be at a certain skill level and invited to play,” says Hewitt. “He introduced me to professionalism on the field. “It was the way you carried yourself and how you went about your business.” Duncan’s mother is Heather Hewitt and his sister is Presley Hewitt (18). The Lawrence North graduae is heading to the University of Cincinnati as a sophomore after starting at Ball State University.
After beating Virginia Tech 8-0 and losing to Virginia 14-1 at the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Greensboro, N.C., the Irish will host the South Bend Regional. It will be the first time postseason baseball has been at ND since 2004.
Each regional field features four teams, playing in a double-elimination format. All 16 regionals are scheduled to be conducted from Friday, June 4 to Monday, June 7 (if necessary).
Notre Dame (30-11) plays Central Michigan (40-16) at 1 p.m., followed by Connecticut (33-17) against Michigan (27-17) at 7. Irish head coach Link Jarrett was named the ACC Coach of the Year.
Indiana State went 3-2 at the Missouri Valley Conference tournament in Carbondale, Ill. — beating Illinois State 5-2 and Southern Illinois 11-8, losing to Dallas Baptist 10-1, beating Southern Illinois 9-7 then losing to Dallas Baptist 12-8 (in 11 innings).
The Sycamores are in the Nashville Regional. Georgia Tech (29-23) plays Indiana State (30-19) at 1 p.m. Friday while Vanderbilt (40-15) takes on Presbyerian (22-21) at 7.
Indiana State earned its 11th NCAA postseason appearance in program history and the third under head coach Mitch Hannahs.
Ball State (38-18) swept a four-game Mid-American Conference home series with Miami (Ohio). The Cardinals did not hear their name called Monday.
Nor did Indiana (26-18). The Hoosiers went 1-2 in a Big Ten Conference series at Maryland.
Purdue (16-26) wrapped the season with one win against Penn State and a doubleheader split against Minnesota in a Big Ten pod weekend.
The 2021 season also closed at the MVC tournament for Valparaiso (16-35) and Evansville (28-27). Valpo went 2-2 and UE 1-1 in Carbondale.
The event is slated for May 25-30 in Greensboro, N.C.
The Irish meet No. 12 seed Virginia Tech in Tuesday’s second game. ND’s current four-game win streak includes a three game weekend sweep at Virginia Tech.
Penn High School graduate and Notre Dame first baseman Niko Kavadas heads to Carolina with 16 home runs and 49 runs batted in.
Missouri Valley Conference tournament play begins and Indiana State (27-17, 14-10) goes in as the No. 2 seed while Evansville (28-26, 11-16) is No. 7 and Valparaiso (14-33, 9-19) No. 8.
Games will be played May 25-29 at Southern Illinois-Carbondale.
The Sycamores receive a first-round bye to Day 2 while UE (vs. Illinois State) and Valpo (vs. Missouri State) play on the first day.
Indiana State overcame an 8-0 deficit to win 13-10 at Evansville Saturday to secure the No. 2 seed in the eight-team tourney behind Dallas Baptist (33-15).
Left-hander Geremy Guerrero is 9-1 with a 1.92 earned run average and catcher Max Wright has 14 homers and 37 RBIs for the Sycamores.
Ball State (34-18, 25-11) won its first two games then lost two in a Mid-American Conference series at Ohio. The Cardinals wrap the MAC season May 28-30 with four games against Miami (Ohio) in Muncie.
Nick Powell (.353) leads BSU in hitting. Right-hander John Baker (7-3, 2.45) has been the No. 1 starting pitcher.
Indiana (24-16, 24-16) has lost the first three games of its Big Ten Conference pod series, dropping two to Nebraska and one to Ohio State in Bloomington. The Hoosiers host the Buckeyes again today (May 24).
A 9-8 loss for Purdue (14-25, 14-25) at Minnesota Sunday kept the Boilermakers from a four-game sweep of the Golden Gophers.
A three-team pod (Purdue, Penn State, Minnesota) in West Lafayette is slated for May 27-29.
The 2021 season came to a close for both Butler (14-23 overall, 8-13 in the Big East Conference) and Purdue Fort Wayne (11-35 overall and 8-28 in the Horizon League).
The five-team finals of the NCAA Division III Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference tournament saw Transylvania emerge as champions.
Transy bested Earlham (25-20, 21-18) in the final game. Bluffton knocked out Anderson (23-19, 20-17). A loss to Anderson eliminated Franklin (25-14, 23-12).
Indiana Tech (35-27) and Indiana Wesleyan (44-14) both bowed out in NAIA Opening Round play in the Marion Bracket.
Vincennes (24-31) saw its slate finish in the junior college Mid-West Athletic Conference tournament.
Of the state’s 38 college baseball programs, eight are still playing. There’s seven in NCAA Division I and there’s one in NAIA.
Indiana University Southeast (48-14) earned its first trip to the NAIA College World Series, which is May 28-June 4 in Lewiston, Idaho.
“I love playing center field,” says Crews, a 6-foot-1, 187-pounder. “It’s the most fun thing of everything about baseball.”
Crews, 23, tends to play shallow for the Purple Aces and chases balls over his head.
“I feel more comfortable running back and catching balls over my shoulder,” says Crews, who used to do a similar thing as Heritage Hills football wide receiver.
When Crews reached UE, his favorite number — 5 — was not available. It was the number worn by his father Michael, who was a center fielder and a football player at Ball State University.
Kenton decided to go with 15 in purple, orange and white because that’s the digit donned by fly-chasing center fielder Jim Edmonds with the St. Louis Cardinals. Kenton grew up rooting for the Redbirds and stars like Edmonds, Jasper, Ind., native Scott Rolen and slugger Albert Pujols.
Speed put Crews in the outfield and made him effective in the lead-off slot with the Aces at-bat.
“One thing that we really focus on is that when the lead-off hitter each inning gets on base your chances of scoring go up,” says Crews. “A lot of (lead-off hitters) will take pitches. But if you can get a hittable pitch you should swing at it — especially fastballs early in the count instead of swing at the pitcher’s pitch.
“I’m usually pretty aggressive when I’m hitting lead-off.”
Going into a Missouri Valley Conference series April 23-25 against Illinois State, Crews is hitting .393 (35-of-89) with three home runs, four triples, eight doubles, 22 runs batted in, 21 runs scored and 6-of-9 in stolen bases. He sports a 1.145 OPS (.471 on-baseball percentage and .674 slugging average) in 28 games (24 starts).
For his career — which includes a redshirt season due to injury in 2019 — Crews is hitting .295 (161-of-545) with 11 homers, eight triples, 32 doubles, 79 RBIs, 81 runs and 33-of-42 in stolen bases. His OPS is .793 (.349 on-baseball percentage and .444 slugging average) in 143 games.
The righty swinger has 10 multi-hit games in 2021. He hit for the cycle (homer, triple, double and single) March 21 against visiting Butler. His 4-for-5 day produced four RBIs and two runs scored.
During his cycle, Crews tripled to left center in the bottom of the first inning, doubled to center in the third, homered to left in the seventh and singled in the eighth.
“Teammates were talking about it at a whisper,” says Crews about the Evansville dugout. “People didn’t know how to act.
“I was nervous about it. I didn’t want to let everybody down.”
The first two cycles of Crews’ baseball life came as a grade schooler with a Dale (Ind.) Buffaloes.
Born in Evansville, Kenton lived with father Michael, mother Kathleen and sister Sienna in a house in Lincoln State Park.
Kenton grew up catching snakes, frogs and turtles for the nature center where his father was — and still is — an interpretive naturalist. He was a football coach at Heritage Hills Middle School was a long stretch.
When Kenton was 7, the family moved to a 100-acre farm, where the Crews raised big, wooly mammals and ran a restaurant — Buffalo Run Farm, Grill & Gifts — for two decades.
Michael coached Sienna’s T-ball team (she is a year older than her brother). After the Buffaloes, Kenton played travel ball with the Southern Indiana Spikes from 8-13. He was with the HHMS and was on a Pony team in Tell City, Ind.
Greg Gogel was then head baseball coach at Heritage Hills.
“I love Coach Gogel with all my heart,” says Crews of a longtime family friend and former teammate of cousin Cole Seifrig (who took a lateral from future pro quarterback Jay Cutler and threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to Cutler in overtime to lead Heritage Hills to a 27-24 victory against Zionville in the 2000 IHSAA Class 3A state championship game). “He taught me more lessons in life than anyone other than my dad.”
He also liked the sincerity displayed by Aces head coach Wes Carroll and his staff during the recruiting process.
“They came to me instead of me chasing after somebody else,” says Crews. “I appreciated that effort and that honesty.
“Coach Carroll knows what he’s talking about. He told me he can make me into a better baseball player. I hope we can be friends and have a relationship the rest of my life.”
Kenton is the fourth NCAA Division I competitor in the family.
“She’s the real athlete in our family,” says Kenton of his mother.
As Kathleen Beumel, she was a 10-time state champion in cross country and track at Apollo High School in Owensboro, Ky. After attending Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, she transferred to the University of Hawaii at Manoa where she was cheer captain. At 20, she experienced a crippling injury.
“She broke her neck and was paralyzed,” says Kenton. “She wasn’t supposed to walk again or have kids.
“It’s a miracle she was able to move again and she was able to run.”
Kathleen Crews is now a program assistant at Heritage Hills and involved in the community.
“If you just show up on your high-intensity or game days, you’re not going to get much better,” says Vogt. “Guys are around other guys with high energy and motivation who do not skip drills, warm-ups and recovery.”
During the week, there are also high school players (many of whom are in travel ball tournaments Thursday through Sunday) working out, too. There is weight training, Core Velocity Belt work to emphasis the lower half and the use of PlyoCare Balls.
Each player follows an individualized workout plan based on their Driveline Baseball profile.
“Everyone does a pre-assessment,” says Vogt. “We measure strength, power and velocity and create a plan off that.”
Because of COVID-19 many of the players have not been able to get on an outside diamond in a sanctioned game for months.
Many were not able to do much in the way of throwing or lifting weights for two months.
College players saw their seasons halted in mid-March. High school players heading into college lost their campaigns altogether.
Minor League Baseball has not began its 2020 season nor has the Utica, Mich.- based USPBL .It’s uncertain when or if MiLB will get going. The USPBL has announced it will start with smaller rosters June 24 and expand when fans are allowed at games.
“It’s just a really fun time to come out here and really put all the work that me and all these guys put in throughout the week to a test,” says Polley. “It’s really cool to be able to see the guys come out here and thrive whenever they’ve made adjustments.
“It’s a time to relax and get after each other.”
Donning a T-shirt defining culture as “A wave that inspires a community to achieve greatness” (by Atlanta Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson), Polley relates to the atmosphere at PRP Baseball and Finch Creek.
“They bust your butt during the week and whenever it’s time to play, it’s time to play,” says Polley. “We don’t worry about the mechanics or the drills we’re working on throughout the week. Let’s see what you got and you make adjustments week to week.”
Polley’s focus was on having a good feel for all his pitches and moving the way they’re supposed to based on Rapsodo-aided design.
Though the timetable is unknown, Polley says being prepared to return to live baseball is the key.
“I view this as an opportunity to improve my craft,” says Polley. “I come off and throw and lift everyday to make myself better.
“Whenever it is time to show up, I’m going to be better than whenever I left.”
Polley came down with the coronavirus in March after coming back from spring training in Arizona and was unable to throw the baseball for two weeks.
For that period, he and his girlfriend stayed away from everyone else and meals were brought to the bedroom door by Polley’s parents.
With facilities shut down, he was able to train in a barn and at local parks.
“To just be a kid again was really cool,” says Polley. “As a kid, you’d go to the park with your friends and practice. You’d compete and try to get better.
“That’s all it has been this entire quarantine. You come back into a facility like (Finch Creek) ready to go.”
Vogt has noticed an attention to detail Polley.
“If the minor league season happens, he’s going to be ready to go,” says Vogt.
“This gives me a chance to compete and feel out my stuff,” says Milto. “I get a chance to improve and see what’s working and what’s not working.
“This time is kind of weird, not knowing when or if we’re going to go back. So I’m just here, seeing the competition and staying ready.”
Milto just began coming to PRP Baseball this past week after hearing about it through friends.
“I really love all that they offer,” says Milto.
While maintaining strength, Milto also makes sure he stays flexible.
“For longevity standards and being able to move well consistently for as long as possible, I think it’s important so I work on by flexibility,” says Milto. “Especially with my upper body. My lower body is naturally flexible.
“I’m working on by thoracic rotations and all that kind of stuff. It’s helped me feel good everyday.”
Milto just began adding a cutter to his pitch assortment.
“Using the cameras and the Rapsodo here is really helping me accelerate the development.
“I’m feeling it out (with the cutter). I’ve already thrown a slider. I’m trying to differentiate those two and make sure they look the same out of my hand but different coming to (the batter).”
Milto says he’s made a switch in his take on how electronic devices can help.
“At first, I didn’t buy much into the technology,” says Milto. “It was all just too much to look at. As of late, I’ve started to pay more attention to it. I’ve realized the benefits of it.
“My mentality has been to just go out there, trust my stuff and compete instead of I need to get my sinker to sink this much with this axis. But I’ve started to understand how important that stuff. You make everyone look the same until it isn’t.
“It’s immediate feedback when you’re training. You release it. You know how you felt. And you know exactly what it did.”
Gray, 25, is a right-hander who played at Columbus (Ind.) East High School, Western Michigan University, Gulf Coast Community College and Florida Gulf Coast University before being signed as a minor league free agent by the Colorado Rockies in 2019. He was released in February 2020 and reports to the Milkmen this weekend.
“I see that they get results here,” says Gray. “It’s always great to push yourself and compete with others that are good at sports.”
Gray, who has been working out with PRP Baseball since prior to the COVID-19 lockdown, counts down his pitching strengths.
“I compete. That’s a big one,” says Gray. “I throw strikes. I’m determined to get better and be the best version of myself.”
When the quarantine began, Gray had no access to a weight room.
“I did a lot of body weight stuff and keep my body there,” says Gray. “I was lifting random stuff. I was squatting with my fiancee on my back. I was finding a way to get it done.
“I knew at some point COVID was going to go away and baseball was going to be back and I needed to be ready.”
Strobel, 25, is a left-hander who played at Avon (Ind.) High School and for the final team at Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind. (2017) before pitching for the independent Frontier League’s Joliet (Ill.) Slammers that summer. He underwent Tommy John reconstructive surgery and missed the 2018 season. He appeared in 2019 with the AA’s Gary (Ind.) SouthShore RailCats. When not pitching, he’s helped coach pitchers at Avon and for the Indiana Bulls 17U White travel team.
Strobel coached at Grand Park early Friday and then scooted over to Finch Creek for PRP “Compete Day.”
“I try to mimic what we do here,” says Strobel of his pitching coach approach. “It’s mainly work hard and be safe.
“Summer ball is now acting like the high school season. It’s been about getting everyone up to speed. Some guys were not throwing over the spring. They just totally shut down. You have other guys who’ve been throwing.”
Strobel has been training with Vogt for about four years.
“I like the routine of everything,” says Strobel. “Everything’s mapped out. You know what you’re doing weeks in advance. That’s how my mind works.”
And then comes the end of the week and the chance to compete.
“Everything’s about Friday live,” says Strobel. “Everyone has a routine getting getting for Friday.”
Strobel has been told he’s on the “first call” when the USPBL expands rosters.
He was “on-ramping” in February when the pandemic came along and he switched to training at the barn before coming back to Finch Creek.
“I really didn’t have to shut down,” says Strobel. “It’s just been a long road from February and still throwing.
“I help out in any way that I can,” says Sullivan, who reached out to Vogt in the spring of 2019, interned last summer and then came on board full-time. “We mesh well together because we believe in a lot of the same sort of fundamentals when it comes to pitching and developing a pitcher.
“It helps to have an extra set of eyes and that’s where I come into play. I dealt with a lot of mechanical issues myself and my cousin help me out. That sparked me to want to do the same for other players.”
Sullivan is pursuing his Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).
“Once I have that, it opens up a lot more doors and opportunities for me in the baseball world,” says Sullivan. “Baseball has had a funny route to where it is today. When I grew up a lot of times you threw hard because you were blessed and had the talent.
“Now, it’s been proven that you can make improvements — whether it be in the weight room, overall health or mechanical adjustments in your throwing patterns — and can train velocity.
“A lot of people are trying to find a balance of developing the mechanical side of things while strengthening things in the weight room. They kind of go hand-in-hand. You can’t have one without the other.”
Sullivan says that if the body can’t support the force that’s being generated through it, it’s going to lead to a faster breakdown.
“That’s where the weight room comes into play,” says Sullivan. “Being able to transfer force is kind of the name of the game right now.”
“It was a pretty good timing situation,” says Jones, who was asked to join the staff of new Mastodons head coach Doug Schreiber in the same town where he teaches lessons. “He was looking for some guys and I wanted to get back into it.”
“Coach Decker treated you with a lot of respect and communicated very well,” says Jones. “He told you what he expected and you needed to do it. I still have a lot of his attitudes that I use today.”
“(Maloney) helped me get my start. He was really good on the infield. On the recruiting side, he was good as projecting what kids were going to be. He looked at their body type and athleticism. Mid-majors have to project some kids and then they develop over two or three years and become that top-level kid.”
Twice an academic All-American at WMU, where he earned a degree in aviation operations, he gained a master’s in sports administration at BSU in 1998.
The relationship at Purdue Fort Wayne brings together sons of baseball pioneers. Bill Jones and Ken Schreiber helped form the Indiana High School Baseball Association in 1971. The elder Jones was the organization’s executive director for many years. Schreiber won 1,010 games, seven state titles and was elected to 13 halls of fame. Jones passed away in 2015 and Schreiber in 2017.
“I think I’ve got my old dad in there,” says Jones of his coaching approach. “Every once in awhile you have to light a fire under a guy. You can’t be one-dimensional. You have to know your kid and know what works for them. You coach accordingly.
“When my dad coached you could be a little more tough, demanding and vocal. It was a different generation. You have to roll with the times a little bit and see how kids respond. It’s a different society. You have to understand how the kids tick.”
At PFW, Ken Jones has been working with hitters, catchers and outfielders.
“My strongest abilities lie with hitters,” says Jones, who came to find out that he shares a similar philosophy on that subject with Doug Schreiber. “We want low line drives. We want hitters to keep the barrel on the ball through the zone as long as possible.
“We want guys to focus gap to gap.”
Jones says his hitters sometimes ask questions about things like exit velocity and launch angle, but he has the Mastodons focusing on what happens once they strike the ball.
“We can still see what needs to be done without having all the bells and whistles,” says Jones, noting that PFW pitchers do some work with Rapsodo motion detection data. “In our first 15 games (before the 2020 season was halted because of the COVID-19 pandemic), it was refreshing to see we had some decent results without all the technology focus.”
As a player for his father at DeKalb High School in Waterloo, Ind., and for Decker at Western Michigan, Jones was a two-time all-Mid-American Conference catcher and was selected in the 33rd round of the 1995 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft and played briefly in the San Diego Padres system.
His emphasis with Purdue Fort Wayne catchers has been on receiving, blocking and throwing.
“I’m learning through my son and other catching guys,” says Jones, whose son Hayden Jones, a lefty-swinging backstop who played at Carroll High School of Fort Wayne and sat out 2020 after transferring from Mississippi State University to Illinois State University. “I’m trying to gain some new knowledge.
“You never want to be satisfied with where you’re at and educate yourself on better ways to get things done. You soak in some information and put those things in your tool box. We do that as coaches and players. You figure out what works and what doesn’t work.”
McNeil is the pitching coach and organizes much of the recruiting. The coronavirus shutdown has made that process a little different.
“It’s phone calls,” says Jones. “We wan’t have kids on-campus. We are able to walk through campus with FaceTime.”
In some cases, a player might commit before ever coming to Fort Wayne.
Some summer collegiate baseball leagues have canceled their seasons and others are playing the waiting game.
“Guys will be scrambling (for places to play),” says Jones. “It will be a very fluid situation the whole summer for the college guys.”
Ken Jones is an assistant baseball coach at Purdue Fort Wayne. He is also senior lead instructor at the World Baseball Academy in the same Indiana city. He was an assistant at Western Michigan (1999-2004) and Ball State University (1997 and 1998). (Purdue Fort Wayne Photo)
“They were not the easiest people in the world to play for,” says Ryan Brownlee, 45. “But they would keep you accountable.
“I’m in a way better position because of the way I was handled in youth sports.”
Memorial lost in the first round of the 1992 IHSAA State Finals to finish 29-1 and sent many players on to college baseball. That was Ryan Brownlee’s junior year.
“I owe (Merkel) a lot,” says Brownlee. “Over the summer, I read a book on the mental aspects of baseball and that changed my playing career.
“I looked at myself in the mirror. Coach Merkel didn’t need to change. I was the one who needed to change.”
In 1993, Memorial went 36-2 and reigned as state champions (Tim Brownlee was part of a state championship team as a Memorial senior in 1989) with team leaders John Ambrose and John Sartore trading duties on the mound and at third base.
“Quentin was very organized (using the same signs at each level from freshmen to varsity),” says Brownlee. “He doesn’t get the credit, but he was very forward-thinking.
“We were doing breathing techniques back then. He saw it as a way to change mentally.”
Playing for Jim and Tim, Ryan was motivated to be a four-year starter for the Purple Aces and twice earned all-conference honors and was an ABCA All-Region selection.
“You just never got a break,” says Brownlee. “I needed someone to push me.
“There’s always things you needed to improve on. I didn’t need to get complacent.”
Brownlee moved to Evansville in 1979 when his dad went from a teacher and coach at Princeton (Ill.) High School and manager for five summers of the Galesburg Pioneers of the old Central Illinois Collegiate League to head coach at UE. Young Ryan got to see the Evansville Triplets, managed by Jim Leyland, and spend lots of time at one of the country’s historic ballparks.
“I fell in love with the game at Bosse Field,” says Brownlee, who played there as Memorial Tiger, Evansville Purple Ace and then for one summer (1997) as a professional with the Greg Taggert-managed Evansville Otters.
“The first half we were terrible,” says Brownlee. “Our bus broke down in Johnstown (Pa.) and we bonded as a team.”
The Otters got hot in the second half and ended up losing in the independent Frontier League finals to the Canton (Ohio) Crocodiles.
The UE staff included Tim Brownlee (now owner/president of Diamond Sports Promotions), Jeff Leystra (a student assistant who played with Ryan Brownlee on the Otters) and Ryan Barrett (who played with Ryan from age 9 through college).
After 18 years in the Pocket City, Ryan moved nine hours to Harrisonburg, Va., to join McFarland at James Madison.
“(McFarland) was at complete opposite end of the spectrum (from Quentin Merkel, Jim Brownlee and Tim Brownlee),” says Ryan Brownlee. “He had a low pulse and was very laid-back with a dry sense of humor. You could be yourself.
“Spanky is one of the best pitching minds in the world (he’s coached future big league pitchers Kevin Brown, Dan Meyer, Ryan Reid and Brian Schmack, the current Valparaiso University head coach, among others during his career).”
Brownlee also learned much from James Madison assistant Chuck Bartlett. He had batted No. 4 in a Mississippi State University lineup surrounded by Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro and is now a New York Yankees scout.
Being in a new area also challenged Brownlee to get out of his comfort zone. While at JMU, he earned his masters degree in athletic administration. The Dukes were good enough during Brownlee’s time there (averaging 36 wins per game) that he got his foot in the door at Iowa.
Brownlee helped Dahm stabilize a program that had fallen on hard times. He saw Dahm’s personality somewhere between his father’s and McFarland’s.
“He’s just a really good person,” says Brownlee of Dahm, who later hired Jim Brownlee as Hawkeyes pitching coach after the elder Brownlee was head coach at Illinois State University. “We had to do some heavy lifting in nine years to get that thing built up. I wouldn’t be in the position I am now if not for him.”
In 2012, Brownlee addressed the ABCA Convention in Anaheim, Calif., on the “10 Rules of Recovery.”
It was a time management planner that he continued while at Western Illinois and plans to share his values on personal development during speaking engagements with the ABCA.
“If you can manage yourself away from your working environment that carries into your working environment,” says Brownlee. “Hopefully, that makes you productive. The most successful people can handle a lot more. They can balance things. They don’t seem as rushed.
“I guarantee those people are taking some times for themselves, too. It can’t be all work and it can’t be all free time. You have to have that mix.”
While leading the Western Illinois Leathernecks program presented its challenges because of facilities and school size, Brownlee thoroughly enjoyed his time there because of the people he met.
“For me it was about the relationships with the guys,” says Brownlee, who slept in his office his first year at WIU. “That needed to be our niche. That was an enjoyable experience for me. The coaches were great and the kids were great.
“The opportunity with the ABCA was going to be great.”
Brownlee arrived in Greensboro, N.C., Wednesday (Oct. 23) and his first full day at the office was Thursday (Oct. 24).
“It’s similar to coaching,” says Brownlee of his ABCA role. “You wear a lot of different hats.”
This fall, he helped host ABCA Barnstormers Regional Coaches Clinics across the country (he took 10 and Jim Richardson took 10). He also lines up the youth speakers and helps with the hot stoves at the national convention (which is Jan. 2-5, 2020 in Nashville). He assists the ABCA’s youth and travel baseball committees and is a liaison for NCAA Division II. After the New Year, he will be part of the ABCA podcast.
“My dad was an ABCA member. I’ve been an ABCA member for 22 years. This is an opportunity. It’s a great company. It’s been around since 1945. The ABCA has always been there to help coaches. Hopefully, that helps players.”
Ryan has been married to Henderson, Ky., native Aimee for 17 years. The Brownlees have two children — Jackson (16) and Norah (14). Ryan says the plans plan is to have the rest of the family move to North Carolina at the end of the school year.
Ryan Brownlee (right) shares a moment with daughter Norah. Ryan Brownlee, who played high school, college and pro baseball in Evansville, Ind., and was a college coach for 22 (the last seven at Western Illinois University) has become an assistant executive director for the American Baseball Coaches Association.