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Saint Leo’s Wright familiar face around the Midwest Collegiate League

BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Amir Wright has been a summer fixture in the Midwest Collegiate League.

Right after graduating from Griffith (Ind.) High School and before heading to Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind., in 2016, the outfielder joined the John Ely-managed Southland Vikings.

Wright was with the Adam Enright-managed Northwest Indiana Oilmen all summer in 2017. 

After a short stint with Brent McNeil’s Lafayette (Ind.) Aviators of the Prospect League, he closed out the summer of 2018 in Whiting, Ind., as the Oilmen skipper Enright’s designated hitter.

The lefty swinger went away from his home territory in 2019 and played in the Valley Baseball League for the Tony Hurla-managed Front Royal (Va.) Cardinals.

Wright finds himself back in the MCL in 2020. This time he’s with the Matt Vitulli-managed Joliet (Ill.) Generals.

At 22, Wright has years on most other players in the MCL.

“They make a lot of jokes about it — like this must be my 12th year in the league,” says Wright, who graduated with a Communication degree from Saint Leo (Fla.) University and plans to be a “Corona Senior” with the Rick O’Dette-coached Lions in 2020-21 while pursuing a Marketing masters degree.

Wright, who weighs 190 pounds and stands 5-foot-11 (with his cleats on), followed O’Dette to Saint Leo when the veteran head coach landed there after SJC closed its doors following the 2017 season.

“What you see is what you get,” says Wright of O’Dette. “He’s to-the-point. He’ll tell you how it is. He’s truthful and he’ll push you.

“That’s all you can ask for in a coach. That makes people better in the end.”

Wright’s personality is laid-back. But as he has aged, O’Dette has asked him to become more vocal in his leadership.

“I lead by example — on the field or off the field,” says Wright. “I’m setting the tone leading off the game.”

Wright has been used as a lead-off hitter since his junior year at Griffith playing for head coach Brian Jennings

Before that year, he grew four or five inches and lowered his 60-yard dash time from 7.4 seconds to 6.6.

“I had the speed to bunt,” says Wright. “Even before I had speed, I didn’t swing and miss a lot and I got on base a lot.”

Last fall at Saint Leo’s Pro Day, Wright was clocked in 6.5 for the 60.

Wright played in 55 games (53 starts) as a Saint Joseph’s freshmen, hitting .306 with 63 hits, one home run, three triples, seven doubles, 30 runs batted in, 44 runs and six stolen bases. 

Wright has started in all 109 games at Saint Leo, hitting .340 (146-of-430) with six homers, one triple, 27 doubles, 68 RBIs, 111 runs and 25 stolen bases. 

The COVID-19-shortened 2020 season saw him hit .410 (25-of-61) with one homer, one triple, seven doubles, eight RBIs, 23 runs and three steals in 16 games.

“It was a big transition,” says Wright of his move from Indiana to Florida. “I ended up loving it. People are super nice. The school is amazing. Facilities are second to none.”

In-person classes at Saint Leo are scheduled to begin Aug. 25. Wright says he plans to go a few weeks before that to settle into his apartment.

At Griffith, Wright was an honorable mention all-state selection as well as a first-team all-area and second-team all-Northwest Crossroads Conference pick. He helped the Panthers win four sectional titles.

“(Coach Jennings) definitely wanted us to represent Griffith to the fullest of our ability,” says Wright. “A lot of talented players played with me.”

Born in Harvey, Ill., Amir moved to Griffith at 2. He began playing T-ball at 4 and was at what is now called Griffith Youth Baseball until 12. Meanwhile, he also played for the traveling Griffith Growlers from 10 to 13.

Many high school teammates played together since the were young. That includes Kody Hoese, who is the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 2020 60-player roster player.

“He left for LA last week,” says Wright of Hoese. “I was with him a couple days before that. Our families are really close.”

Wright spent his 14U and 15U summers (2012 and 2013) with the Dave Griffin-coached Indiana Playmakers and 16U and 17U summers (2014 and 2015) with the Indiana Seminoles. That team was coached by George Jaksich (father of Wright’s SJC teammate, Luke Jaksich).

When the Southland Vikings needed an outfielder in 2016, Wright filled the bill.

“I got lucky,” says Wright. “I was added about a month before the season started.

“It helped me get ready for college baseball.”

Amir (22) is the oldest Willie and Luchie Wright’s three sons ahead of Anson (19) and Aydin (16). Their father is a used car salesman. Their mother is an occupational therapist.

Anson aka “A.J.” played baseball at Griffith High and just finished his freshmen year at Northwood University (Mich.). Aydin was at Griffith as a freshman then transferred to Thornwood High School in South Holland, Ill., for his sophomore year in 2019-20. This summer, he plays for the Chicago White Sox ACE travel organization.

Amir Wright rounds third base for Saint Leo (Fla.) University. The Griffith (Ind.) High School graduate has played three seasons with the Lions. (Saint Leo University Photo)
Amir Wright is a catalyst as a lead-off hitter for the Saint Leo (Fla.) University baseball team. He is a Griffith (Ind.) High School graduate. (Saint Leo University Photo)’
Speed is an asset on the baseball diamond for Saint Leo (Fla.) University’s Amir Wright. The Griffith (Ind.) High School graduate has played three seasons for the Lions. (Saint Leo University Photo)
Amir Wright, a Griffith (Ind.) High School graduate, is on the baseball team at Saint Leo (Fla.) University. He is spending the summer of 2020 with the Midwest Collegiate League’s Joliet (Ill.) Generals. (Saint Leo University Photo)

Southpaw Samuelson keeps racking up K’s as Braves minor leaguer

BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Andy Samuelson has long had a knack for strikeouts.

Since he began pitching baseballs as a young boy living in LaPorte, Ind., and playing in the KVA youth league, the left-hander has been racking up K’s.

“I’ve missed bats my whole life,” says Samuelson, a 21-year-old who is now in the Atlanta Braves organization. “With my delivery, I hide the ball very well. It stays behind my body.”

Selected in the 12th round of the 2019 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by Atlanta out of Wabash Valley College in Mt. Carmel, Ill., Samuelson made eight appearances (all in relief) with the Gulf Coast Braves last summer, going 1-1 with one save and a 6.39 earned run average. In 12 2/3 innings, he struck out 21 and walked six in a season cut short by Hurricane Dorian. That’s a rate of 14.9 strikeouts per nine innings.

The lefty played two seasons for National Junior College Athletic Association Division I powerhouse Wabash Valley, where Rob Fournier is head coach and Aaron Biddle the pitching coach/associate head coach.

In the spring of 2019, Samuelson was 1-0 with two saves and a 2.93. He got into 16 games (all in relief). In 15 1/3 innings, he fanned 29 and walked 13 for the 55-4 Warriors. That’s 16.6 K’s per nine innings.

As a freshman in 2018, Samuelson made 11 mound appearances (all in relief) and went 1-0 with a 3.86 ERA. He fanned 17 and walked seven in 9 1/3 innings as the WVC Warriors went 45-11-1. His K-per nine rate was 16.3.

Samuelson is a 2017 graduate of LaPorte High School. In his senior season with the Slicers he went 4-4 with one save and a 1.69 ERA. Playing for head coach Scott Upp and pitching coach Jeff DeMass, he whiffed 67 and walked 20 in 45 2/3 innings. That’s 10.2 strikeouts per seven innings.

“I had a lot of fun playing high school baseball for the Slicers,” says Samuelson. “Coach Upp (an Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer) is perfect mix of intense and making sure you have fun.

“He’s a really good coach. He knows what he’s doing.”

Samuelson played two years on the junior varsity and two years on varsity. At the start, he resisted developing a compliment to his fastball and curveball.

“When I was younger I refused to throw a change-up,” says Samuelson. “Coach DeMass is the only reason I have any semblance of a change-up at all.”

To this day, Samuelson uses his “circle” change sparingly. His “out” pitch is his curve. 

“It got me on the radar of college coaches and pro scouts,” says Samuelson of his bender. “It’s more of a sweeper, moving 10-to-4 or 10-to-5. It’s been my bread-and-butter pitch since I’ve been a pitcher. 

“There are games I might have thrown it more than my fastball.”

A four-seam fastball with natural movement comes out of the hand of the 6-foot-4, 200-pounder.

“There are days when my fastball runs arm-side a lot,” says Samuelson. “I don’t know why.”

Samuelson never hit 90 mph on the radar gun his freshmen year at Wabash Valley. But after a year of daily long toss and plenty of weight lifting, he was hitting that mark consistently as a sophomore.

“Playing at Wabash was quite an experience,” says Samuelson. “They’re so focused on getting better and winning games. Everyday we did something. There were no days off. It was an absolute grind.”

Samuelson calls Fournier one of the most intense coaches he’s ever seen.

“He got upset if we didn’t play up to our potential,” says Samuelson. “We were so talented. I’d put us up against a lot of (NCAA) Division I college teams. A lot of players turned down the (MLB) Draft or went to very good Division I programs. The talent level just pushes you to be better.”

Samuelson credits Biddle for tweaking his mechanics, but also instilling confidence.

“He was a big mindset guy,” says Samuelson of Biddle. “It takes a lot of mental fortitude to be a good pitcher.”

Samuelson, who earned an Arts, Media & Science associate degree at Wabash Valley, was headed to Division I baseball after his junior college experience, but opted to go pro instead.

“It’s one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made,” says Samuelson. “I was very close to going to North Carolina State. But I’ve always wanted to play professional baseball.”

Since being drafted, Major League Baseball has been talking about shrinking the minors and cut the draft from 40 to five rounds in 2020.

“Looking back, I’m very glad I did what I did,” says Samuelson.

The summer between his freshmen and sophomore collegiate seasons, the southpaw was with the Ohio Valley League’s Henderson (Ky.) Flash. Adam Hines was the head coach and Brandon Mattingly the pitching coach.

“(Mattingly) helped me a lot with straight mechanical stuff,” says Samuelson. “Like using my lower half and staying on-plane.”

After he spent a summer with the LaPorte Titans, Samuelson’s junior high and high school travel ball seasons were spent with the Scott Ellrich-coached Indiana Breakers.

“I credit him for a lot of the pitching I’ve learned,” says Samuelson, who still regularly converses with Ellrich.

Samuelson was at 2020 Braves spring training less than two weeks when it was shut down because of COVID-19 and he returned to LaPorte.

He had been working out since fall — lifting weights at the LaPorte County Family YMCA and throwing at at facility own by the Land family (LPHS Class of 2023’s Jackson Land was often his catcher).

He also worked as a substitute teacher at LaPorte Middle School.

During and after quarantine, Samuelson stayed in game shape. Recently, he found out there will be no Minor League Baseball season in 2020 and cut back on the intensity.

It was ferocity that helped Samuelson and his teammates to basketball success while playing for Tom Wells at LaPorte High.

“We were never the most athletic kids with the most skills,” says Samuelson. “Basketball was not our first sport. The other four starters were football players.

“(Wells) instill straight toughness. We played grittier and tougher than anybody else, that’s why we won a lot of games.”

Andy is the oldest of Greg and Becky Samuelson’s three children. Greg Samuelson is a seventh grade science teacher at LaPorte Middle School. Becky Samuelson is a sixth grade math teacher at Kesling Intermediate School). 

Emily Samuelson, who played softball at LPHS, just finished her freshman year at Purdue University where she is studying nursing. Tommy Samuelson was a LaPorte freshman in 2019-20, playing baseball and baseball.

“He’s already as tall as me,” says Andy of Tommy. “He has a chance to be better than I ever was.”

Andy Samuelson, a graduate of LaPorte (Ind.) High School and Wabash Valley College in Mt. Carmel, Ill., signs with the Atlanta Braves in 2019. He played with the Gulf Coast Braves in his first professional baseball season. The 2020 Minor League Baseball campaign was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Brogan, Midwest Irish take the diamond for 13th season

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

When the Midwest Irish took the diamond for 2020 travel season it began Shane Brogan’s 25th year as a baseball coach.

“I was just as passionate in 1995 as I am now,” says Brogan, a Hammond (Ind.) High School graduate who coached the Hammond Seminoles starting in ’95. 

Brogan talked about his organization while waiting for his team’s next game in the Pastimes Tournaments event Tuesday, June 16 at Four Winds Field in South Bend.

Brogan started the program 13 years ago in Chicago as South Side Irish Baseball. He ran a baseball academy in Bridgeview, Ill., and fielded three teams.

When Shane’s son, Stone Brogan, was deciding on which high school he would attend, he picked Andrean in Merrillville, Ind., and the move was made from Chicago to northwest Indiana. The Brogans landed in Schererville and the travel team became the Midwest Irish.

Shane began coaching at Andrean and has been a 59ers assistant for nine years.

The 2020 Midwest Irish have four teams — 15U, 16U, 17U and 18U. Brogan is head coach of the 18U team. Rosters are predominantly made up of northwest Indiana players, but there are some from Illinois.

“We get a variety of college level players,” says Brogan. “We have a lot of everything.”

Stone Brogan played at NCAA Division III Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind.

“I watched Division III baseball for a long, long time,” says Brogan. “There’s great players everywhere.

“There’s a stigma attached to all of these divisions. That’s not the case. There’s tremendous baseball at all levels.”

Nearly half of the current Midwest Irish 18U squad has been with the Irish for at least three seasons. There are 17 players — all from the Class of 2020. 

Lake Central’s Brock Begesha (University of Dayton), Marian Catholic’s Adam Huekels (Niagra University) and Mount Carmel’s Nick Miketinic (Butler University) are committed to NCAA Division I schools for baseball.

Portage’s Xavier Rivas (University of Indianapolis) and Mount Carmel’s Ethan Imlach (Purdue Northwest) are going to D-II programs, Andrean’s Jacob Mullen (Wabash College) and Sam Nagy (Benedictine University), Boone Grove’s Austin Lamar (Manchester University), Chesterton’s Zach McKenna (Anderson University) and Marian Catholic’s Dominick Angellotti (University of Chicago) to D-III schools and Lake Central’s Doug Loden (Joliet Community College), Andrean’s Mason Sannito (Waubonsee Community College), Chesterton’s Max Weller (Wabash Valley College), Taft’s Ernie Day (Iowa Western Community College) and Illiana Christian’s Tavares Van Kuiken (College of DuPage) to junior college baseball.

Boone Grove’s Elijah Covington is currently uncommitted.

“There’s a place for kids who say. ‘I’m going to put in my time. I’m going work hard and I’m going to get good grades.’ If they do that, there’s somewhere to play in baseball. Then however it works out is how it works out.

“At the end of the day, we know that baseball only goes so long for some guys. It’s about a school and a fit and getting that degree. Are program has a lot of that which excites me.”

The 18U Midwest Irish expect to participate in seven tournaments this summer. Following the Pastime event with games at Four Winds Field, Ancilla College, Bethel Unicersity and U.S. Steel Yard in Gary, the organization is heading to Michigan beginning Thursday, June 18. After that comes a tournament with games at minor league parks in Crestwood, Ill., and Rosemont, Ill. The squad is to compete in the Pastimes 18U National Championship (The Irish were runners-up in 2018) at Butler in Indianapolis and at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind.

“We don’t do the excessive traveling,” says Brogan. “We don’t go to Georgia. We don’t go to Florida.

“I’m a big fan of Pastime. They are getting better and better with how they run their tournaments. They’re putting out more information. They’re shooting more video stuff. I’m really impress with the direction Pastime’s going. President Tom Davidson does a great job.”

With the cancellation of high school ball to COVID-19, the Midwest Irish have practiced more than they have in the past. Fields are northwest Indiana are used. Illiana Christian in Dyer, Ind., has been a home field, but is currently off limits along with all other high school facilities.

“It’s a strange, strange summer,” says Brogan. “I’m just so happy to see kids on the baseball field. Just being able to practice about three weeks ago put a smile on my face.”

Northwest Indiana Sports Performance, owned by strength and conditioning coach and Andrean assistant Jordan Smolar, is the indoor training facility for the Midwest Irish.

Brandon Murray, who played for the Irish and at Hobart (Ind.) High School and the University of South Carolina, is a Northwest Indiana Sports Performance pitching instructor.

Frank Podkul leads hitters at the facility.

Brogan says the Midwest Irish season might be lengthened by a week or two.

“We might go a little bit farther,” says Brogan. “We’ll just see how it goes health-wise. All my guys on my 18U team will be going off to college. Some may leave early so my roster might be a little thinner.

“We’ll see we’re at.”

Other Irish coaches include Damen Castillo at 18U, Luke Adams at 17U, Mike Huttel at 16U and Frank Podkul, Nick Podkul and Chase Dawson at 15U. Charlie Patrick is another assistant.

Castillo plays at Benedictine. Adams is a Crown Point High School graduate now playing at Bethel University. Huttel is an Andrean assistant. 

Both Podkul brothers played at Andrean. Frank went on to Franklin College and played independent pro ball. Nick went to Notre Dame and is now in the Toronto Blue Jays organization. 

Dawson played at Andrean and Valparaiso University. Former Irish player Patrick went to Crown Point and is on the roster at DePauw University.

The Midwest Irish travel baseball organization is in its 13th season in 2020. It started out at the South Side Irish in Chicago.
The Midwest Irish travel baseball organization was established by Shane Brogan 13 years ago. There are four teams in 2020 —  15U, 16U, 17U and 18U.

Allowed to return to practice, gratitude is the attitude for Morris Baseball

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

With the lifting of some COVID-19 restrictions, players at Morris Baseball in northwest Indiana can finally practice again and founder/president Bobby Morris couldn’t be happier.

“It’s as much fun as I’ve had on a baseball field in ages,” says Morris of a workout earlier this week. “The big reason is quarantine and the chaos going on around us.

“I feel a sense of gratitude. Our players feel a sense of gratitude — more so than in January or February.”

Morris says he hopes his organization with around 200 clients, including Chiefs travel teams, will help bring a sense of community and unity as the 2020 season moves forward.

“if we can spread a little positivity and a little gratitude, I’m all for it,” says Morris, who started his training business in 2011 and merged five years ago with the Hammond Chiefs, which mark their 30th season this year.

The first clients Morris had were 9-year-olds.

“Those kids are just now graduating and going on to play college baseball,” says Morris.

A relationship began when Brian Jennings brought Morris together with Chiefs founder Dave Sutkowski.

“It’s mutually a good fit together,” says Morris. “Dave has been pleasure to work with. We got some Chiefs coaches when we merged. They’ve been great mentors with our kids.”

The Morris Baseball mission statement: To recruit excellent talent and provide them with disciplined, well-organized, focused practices with superior instruction and place them in highly competitive opportunities to achieve principle-based success.

“If we produce great players, everything will take care of itself,” says Morris. “We make sure we have great practice facilities and plenty of practice time. 

“We try to produce well-rounded baseball players. I think we’re doing a pretty good job of it.”

Until recently, Morris Baseball and the Chiefs were housed at Franciscan Physician Network Schererville Family Health Center (formerly Omni Health & Fitness).

The organization just moved to a training facility at 1075 Breuckman Drive in Crown Point. Morris says the name for the new place will be revealed soon.

The new centrally-located home includes plenty of workout space plus classrooms, player’s lounge, kitchen and coach’s offices.

“For our kids it will be great,” says Morris. “We have internet at player desks. They can hang out there all day if they want.

“We prefer that they study and take batting practice.”

The Morris Chiefs tend to play many local games at the Crown Point Sportsplex, Central Park in Dyer, Ind., and Ho Chunk Baseball Tournaments in Lynwood, Ill.

“Our kids play a lot ,” says Morris. “We do a lot of practicing during the off-season. We play a lot during the season.

“One of our strengths is we keep our kids active throughout the year.”

This summer, the Chiefs’ 15 current teams (with manager): 2021 (Chip Pettit), 17U (Alex Triantafillo), 2022 (Bobby Morris), 16U (Trevor Howard), 15U (Andrew Lowe), 15U (Lee Turnbough), 14U (Shawn Donovan), 13U (Trevor Howard), 13U (Corderro Torres), 12U (Michael Scharnke), 12U (Alex Triantafillo), 11U (James Stovall), 10U (Derek Woerpel), 9U (Bobby Morris) and 8U (Bryan Lopez). 

Sutkowski and Mike Curiel assist Pettit with the 2021 squad. Pettit, who is superintendent of Duneland School Corp., was the first Indiana Mr. Baseball in 1992.

“It’s an extremely gifted group,” says Morris of the 2021 team. “(Pettit and Sutkowski) are two phenomenal sports minds.”

Assistants for Morris with the 2022 Chiefs are Morris Baseball general manager Mike Small plus Tim Horneman.

Bobby’s youngest son, Gavin (10), plays for the 9U Chiefs. Bobby also helps coach the 8U team.

Nick Amatulli has more than 40 years of coaching experience and helps with both of Trevor Howard’s squads. 

Some other Chiefs coaches are John Adams, Tom Blair, Brad Fedak, Brian Fernandez, Trent Howard, Dale Meyer, Kevin Peller, Brad Rohde, Kenny Siegal and Eric Spain.

“We don’t differentiate ‘A’ team and ‘B’ team,” says Morris. “It’s more geared toward the name of the coach. We don’t want the potential for the stigma there. It also incentivizes our coaches to play the game hard and represent themselves well.

“We want Chiefs teams to play hard and be smart players. Any given day, anyone can beat anyone.”

Three Chiefs alums are currently playing pro baseball — third baseman Mike Brosseau (Tampa Bay Rays) and left-handed pitcher Sean Manaea (Oakland Athletics) in the majors and second baseman Nick Podkul (Toronto Blue Jays) in the minors.

Other players who were selected or played in pro baseball (affiliated and/or independent) include right-hander Matt Pobereyko (Arizona Diamondbacks, New York Mets), infielder/outfielder Ryan Dineen (Houston Astros), left-hander Trent Howard (Baltimore Orioles), right-hander Dan Faulkner (drafted by Philadelphia Philies), left-hander Blake Mascarello (Phillies), left-hander Andy Loomis (Florida Marlins, Phillies, Orioles), outfielder Ryan Basham (drafted by the Blue Jays), right-hander Cesar Carrillo (San Diego Padres), right-hander Mike Ryan (Atlanta Braves), outfielder Mike Coles (Orioles), left-hander Jon Nourie (Padres), first baseman Matt Mamula (New York Yankees) and right-hander Neal Frendling (Rays).

Morris is a 1990 graduate of Munster (Ind.) High School where he played for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Bob Shinkan.

“Bob is an extremely decent man,” says Morris of Shinkan. “He has such a genuine, caring nature.”

Shinkan can also be strict and he expects his players to be disciplined.

“I had a great experience there with Bob,” says Morris. 

After high school, lefty-swinging infielder Morris spent three seasons at the University of Iowa playing for long-time Hawkeyes head coach Duane Banks.

“Duane was just a smart baseball guy,” says Morris. “At Iowa, they really believed in self starters. They threw you out there and expected you to compete for a position.

“That culture helped me a lot in professional baseball.”

Morris was selected as a third baseman in the ninth round of the 1993 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Chicago Cubs and played nine minor league seasons (1993-2001), logging 636 games and hitting .290 with 36 home runs and 326 RBIs. He reached Double-A in the Cubs, Cleveland Indians, Texas Rangers and Cincinnati Reds systems. By hitting .354 with seven homers and 64 RBIs, he was chosen as MVP of the 1994 Peoria (Ill.) Chiefs of the Low Class-A Midwest League. That team was managed by Steve Roadcap

Morris also played for teams managed by Steve Kolinsky, Dave Trembley and Bruce Kimm while with the Cubs, Joel Skinner, Jeff Datz and Max Oliveras with the Indians, Bobby Jones with the Rangers and Mike Rojas and Phillip Wellman with the Reds.

Men that stick out for Morris in his development include Trembley, Jimmy Piersall, Sandy Alomar Sr. and Joe Tanner.

While Trembley never played pro baseball, he managed (Orioles) and coached (Houston Astros) in the big leagues.

“Dave had a great habit for excellence,” says Morris, who won a High Class-A Florida State League championship with Trembley on the 1995 Daytona Cubs. “He expected a lot out of himself and a lot out of us and how we carried ourselves.”

Morris, who turns 48 in November, grew watching Piersall and Harry Caray call Chicago White Sox games on TV. When he learned Morris was from Chicagoland, Piersall became close to Morris as a minor league hitting/outfield coach.

“Jimmy took on a second grandfather role for me,” says Morris.

It was in the Cubs organization that Morris encountered Alomar.

“He’s as smart a baseball person as I’ve ever met,” says Morris. “He’s an absolute genius.”

Tanner was Morris’ first full-season hitting instructor and the inventor of Tanner Tees — a product used by Bobby and brother Hal Morris (a left-handed first baseman/outfielder who played 14 seasons in the big leagues).

“Joe was a was a renaissance man for baseball,” says Bobby Morris. “I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of great influences.”

His earliest diamond influences came from brother Hal.

Hal is seven years older than Bobby. 

“We were constantly competing with one another,” says Bobby. “I was challenged a lot. We were always very close. As I matured and got into high school, Hal brought back stuff from his (college and pro) coaches and we worked on it. 

“That helped in fine-tuning my ability to hit at an early age.”

As youngsters, the brothers spent hours taking batting practice with father Bill pitching and mother Margaret chasing baseballs.

Bill Morris was a four-year baseball letterman Davidson (N.C.) College, went to medical school, did his residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, entered the U.S. Army and was at Fort Rucker in Alabama when daughter Beth (who went on to be a state swim champion at Munster High) and son Hal (who shined in baseball for the Mustangs) were born.

The family later came to northwest Indiana, where Bill was a pediatrician working at the Hammond Clinic, St. Margaret’s Hospital in Hammond and Community Hospital in Munster. He died at 82 in 2017.

“He taught us how to compete and how to be gentlemen,” says Bobby Morris of his father. “He was a class southern gentleman.

“My mom is still with us. She has probably shagged as many baseballs in her life as any big league pitcher.”

Bobby and Gloria Morris have three children. Besides Gavin, there’s recent Arizona State University graduate Gina (22) and Indiana University Purdue University-Indianapolis student John (19). Gloria Morris is a Hobart (Ind.) High School graduate.

“We’re Region rats,” says Bobby Morris. “I love northwest Indiana.”

The Morris family (from left): Gina, John, Gloria, Gavin and Bobby. Morris Baseball was established by Bobby Morris, a former college and professional player, in 2011. Five years ago came a merger with the Hammond Chiefs travel organization.

Baseball, friendship has Leyva assisting Bair at Anderson U.

RBILOGOSMALL copy

BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Carlos Leyva’s baseball connection to Matt Bair goes back more than two decades.

Leyva and Bair were Babe Ruth teammates in Anderson, Ind., at 13, 14 and 15. Rudy Mannie was the head coach. Leyva was mostly an outfielder and Bair a middle infielder.

In high school ball, Leyva represented the Phil Nikirk-coached Madison Heights Pirates while Bair was nearby with Terry Turner’s Anderson Indians. Both players graduated in 1995.

Leyva, Bair and Mannie were reunited when Bair became the head coach at Anderson Highland High School with Leyva and Mannie as assistants.

“It was cool to see that come full circle,” says Leyva of he and Bair getting to coach with a boyhood mentor in Mannie. “He was a big influence in both our lives.”

Madison Heights and Highland have since been consolidated into Anderson High.

After serving four seasons (2004-07) as a Scots junior varsity coach on the staff of Highland head coach Jason Stecher (current to Turner at Daleville (Ind.) High School and son of long-time Highland head coach Bob Stecher, who retired with more than 500 victories), Leyva was a varsity assistant for three years with Bair (2008-10).

So it was a natural when Bair took over as head baseball coach at Anderson University that he’d reach out to his friend.

“We really hit it off (at Highland) then he asked me to come with him to AU,” says Leyva. “We were getting the band back together.”

The 2020 Anderson season – though it was shortened to nine games because of the COVID-19 pandemic — was the third on Leyva with the Ravens.

His duties include working with outfielders, base running and assisting Bair with hitters. He also coaches first base when AU is at the plate.

Leyva has keys for his outfielders.

“The most important thing we can do is re-direct the ball back to the infield,” says Leyva. “We can shut down the other team’s offense.

“We focus on three goals at all times — keep the double play in order, limit the offense to one base at a time and with balls in the ground we’re 100 percent (no errors).”

The stolen base is a major part of Ravens baseball.

“We got progressively better as we implemented our system,” says Leyva. “We take pride in our base running.

“In a game where the defense has the ball we can take some control back on offense. We’re constantly studying what the game is giving us to see where we can find an advantage.”

Anderson, a member of the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference, swiped 105 bases in 45 games in 2018. Once Leyva and Bair had their system in place, the team lost to one of the more prolific teams in NCAA Division III, pilfering 109 in 37 games in 2019 and heisting 42 in nine contests in 2020.

“As a rule of thumb, the entire team has the green light,” says Leyva. “We live on those opportunities we’re creating.”

Bair runs the overall hitting system, including small group work in practice. Leyva spends time on the offensive side the outfielders.

“Our staff at AU is affluent in the game of baseball,” says Leyva of a group that also features Brandon Schnepp, John Becker, Jeff Freeman, Zach Barnes and Nate McKeon. “We dip our toes into each other’s pools at times.

“We have a rather large staff for a college team. That’s a testament to Bair and local guys who love the game and know what’s going on. Opinions and input is always welcome.”

Prior to joining the Ravens, Leyva spent seven seasons as an an assistant at Pendleton (Ind.) Heights High School (2011-17) under two Arabians head coaches — two years with Bill Stoudt and five with Travis Keesling. The PHHS program is now headed by Matt Vosburgh.

“That was awesome, spending time in the dugout with a Hall of Famer,” says Leyva of his experience with Indiana High school Baseball Coaches Association enshrinee Stoudt.

Leyva says Keesling’s ability to leverage the abilities of his coaching staff is one of his strengths.

“He had a football mentality with position coaches,” says Leyva. “He let the infield guy be the infield guy (and so on). He took over that managerial role of figuring out how to best put those pieces together.

“You see staffs being put together that way all over the country. He was early to that concept.”

Leyva fondly looks back on his days playing at Madison Heights for Nikirk (who is now secondary school principal at Heritage Christian School in Indianapolis).

“He was really big on personal responsibility and accountability and was really fair,” says Leyva. “He gave the guys opportunities.

“Those are qualities I’ve carried forward in my coaching career.”

Leyva has also coached travel baseball. He was co-founder and a head coach of the Indiana Magic in 2011-12 and was an assistant to Ryan Bunnell with Indiana Bulls 16U in 2013, Mike Farrell with the Indiana Outlaws (an organization started by Jay Hundley which is now part of Evoshield Canes Midwest) in 2014 and Mike Hitt with the Indiana Blue Jays 2015-17.

The Magic was comprised of players from Madison and surrounding counties and won 60 games in two summers.

Besides leading a Bulls team, Bunnell is also head coach at Westfield (Ind.) High School.

Farrell, who played at Indiana State University, is a veteran instructor and a scouting supervisor for the Kansas City Royals.

“That may have been as much fun as I’ve had in baseball.” says Leyva of his time coaching the Blue Jays. “We were a single (18U) team. The roster was all guys committed to playing college baseball at a high level and there were no egos.

“We just had a blast playing really good baseball. We were like 60-5 in three years.”

Thomas Hall, Leyva’s nephew, was on each of those travel teams. The Pendleton Heights graduate was selected for the 2015 IHSBCA North/South All-Star Series in Terre Haute and played at Heartland Community College in Normal, Ill.

After graduating from Madison Heights, Leyva attended DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., for two years then transferred to Indiana University in Bloomington. He majored in Computer Information Systems and is a 2000 graduate of IU’s Kelley School of Business and has worked since 2008 for IBM as a System Storage Enterprise Client Technical Specialist.

Carlos and Julie Leyva have three children — fourth grader Mia (10), second grader Izzy (8) and kindergartener Cruz (7). Julie is on the front lines of the pandemic as a nurse practitioner.

CARLOSLEYVAANDERSONU

Carlos Leyva has been an assistant baseball coach at Anderson (Ind.) University since the 2018 season. (Anderson University Photo)

 

Former Pendleton Heights catcher Etchison scouting for Cleveland Indians

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Aaron Etchison used to play baseball for a coach who was invested in his players as people as ballplayers.

Now Etchison evaluates diamond talent with an eye for more than the obvious skills.

Etchison was a catcher for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Bill Stoudt at Pendleton (Ind.) Heights High School, graduating in 2007.

“He is one of he best human beings of all-time,” says Etchison of Stoudt. “He was close with his players and his players were close with each other. Everyone who played for him just loves him.

“He was so much more than a baseball coach. He was invested in you. He genuinely cares about people.”

Etchison, 31, makes it a point to look Stoudt up whether it’s in Indiana or Florida.

In his third year as an area scout for the Cleveland Indians, Etchison greatly values character.

“The Indians very progressive in how they go about scouting,” says Etchison. “We collect information and get to know a player. Every player has strengths and weaknesses.

“We emphasize make-up as an organization. The make-up is just so huge.”

Etchison, who played at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., Chipola College in Marianna, Fla., and the University of Maryland after his Pendleton Heights days (which included back-to-back Hoosier Heritage Conference championships in 2006 and 2007 and a senior season in which he hit .392 with five homer runs, seven doubles and 20 runs batted in and a spot on the 2007 IHSBCA North/South All-Star team; former Arabians head coach Travis Keesling assisted Stoudt; The PHHS program is now headed by Matt Vosburgh), wants to know a player’s level of perseverance and his ability to overcome challenges and perform under pressure.

His job is to identify someone who will impact the game at the big league level.

As an area scout living in Dexter, Mich., Etchison is responsible for a territory which includes Indiana and Michigan plus Illinois, Iowa, North Dakota, northern Kentucky, South Dakota, western Ohio and Wisconsin.

He goes to games and tournaments in the spring and summer and scout days in the fall featuring players from these territories or — especially in this time of no live baseball because of the COVID-19 pandemic — analyzes video to do player assessments and projections.

“I don’t know what we would have done without Synergy (Sports Technology) video,” says Etchison. “We can see mechanical things on tape — things that weren’t possible 10 years ago — and go through it with a fine-tooth comb.”

That’s one piece of the scouting puzzle.

“We’ll never not value going to the ballpark,” says Etchison. “There are a lot of things you can’t see on tape.”

Among those are pregame routines and what the player does during warm-ups or batting practice and how he interacts with his coaches and teammates. Body language won’t always show up on a video that is cut up by pitch and swing.

It is said that there are five tools in baseball (hitting for average, hitting for power, base running, throwing and fielding).

“Old school scouting relies so heavily on tools,” says Etchison. “In the majors, a lot of players have one or two.

“The hit tool, that’s the one that matters (for non-pitchers).”

Etchison hears people say that an outfielder can run like a deer and has a cannon for an arm.

But can he effectively swing the bat? Those defensive tools might show up once or twice a week.

“The bat shows up four times every game,” says Etchison. “All (big league) outfielders are offensive positions.”

Etchison, who also played travel baseball with the Indiana Bulls prior to college, redshirted his first season at Ball State (2008) and apparel in 20 games for Greg Beals-coached Mid-American Conference West Division champions in 2009.

Knowing that he would see limited playing time in his third year, Etchison made the choice to transfer to Chipola and joined the that program just weeks before the start of the 2010 season.

“The first time I really took a chance on myself was going down there,” says Etchison. “It was a sink-or-swim situation.”

He could either make it or go back to Indiana and leave his baseball career behind.

Playing for Jeff Johnson on a team loaded with future pro players, Etchison became part of the Chipola Indians brotherhood.

“It’s one of the top junior college programs in the country,” says Etchison. “(Johnson) had a very similar impact on his players as Coach Stoudt. He was a big personality, a great baseball coach and a great mentor.

“(Chipola) opened doors for me.”

Johnson had a relationship with then-Maryland head coach Erik Bakich and it helped Etchison land with the Terrapins as part of Bakich’s first recruiting class. He played in 28 games (25 as a starter) in 2011 and 31 (20 as a starter) in 2012. He threw out 14-of-25 runners attempting to steal during his senior season which opened with a dislocated finger that caused him to miss two weeks. He had already suffered a broken hand and a torn meniscus while at the Big Ten school.

Etchison was a Maryland team captain as a senior, helping the Terps win 32 games.

Meanwhile, Bakich encouraged Etchison to consider coaching when his playing days were over. He graduated from Maryland with a bachelor’s degree in Finance from the Robert H. Smith School of Business in December 2012.

“He thought I’d be good at it,” says Etchison. “I had a few real world job opportunities in the finance industry. My parents (Jeff and Shelly Etchison) encouraged me to get into (coaching). They’ve always wanted me to go out and take chances.”

When Bakich became head coach at the University of Michigan he brought Etchison on in the volunteer role, one he stayed in for five seasons (2013-17) plus part of the fall before going into scouting.

“I fell in love with coaching,” says Etchison. “I really loved being around baseball everyday.”

There was continuity in the Wolverines program and chances to earn money by working camps.

“I was in a great spot,” says Etchison, who briefly got the chance to go on the road and recruit when Sean Kenny left Michigan for the University of Georgia. “Financially, I was able to survive.”

He also got to spend time around a mentor in Bakich.

“He is one of my closest friends,” says Etchison, who got married last summer with Bakich performing the wedding ceremony.

Aaron became the stepfather to two boys — Reid (now 10 and in the fourth grade) and Grant (now 7 and in the first grade). Emily Etchison, who is from Saline, Mich., is due to bring a baby girl into the family at the end of July.

Etchison explains why he became a scout for the Cleveland Indians.

“The organization was extremely impressive,” says Etchison. “It was a great opportunity for growth.”

Another significant person in Etchison’s baseball life is fellow Anderson, Ind., native Mike Shirley, who is now Director of Amateur Scouting for the Chicago White Sox.

Growing up, Etchison was a regular at Shirley’s training facility.

“Like so many players who grew up in the area and are proud to be ‘Barn Guys,’ I would be remiss if I did not give credit to him for being a baseball mentor and friend for over 20 years,” says Etchison.

AARONETCHISON

Aaron Etchison, a Pendleton (Ind.) High School graduate who played baseball at Ball State University, Chipola College and the University of Maryland and coached at the University of Michigan, is an area scout for the Cleveland Indians.

 

Stout sees ‘cool moments’ in roles with Indiana Prospects

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

So many in the baseball world are eager to step between the white lines.

The COVID-19 pandemic has cut college seasons short and taken away high school slates.

As Indiana and other states move into various stages of emerging from quarantine, what about travel ball and getting exposure for players looking to play in college?

Austin Stout, Director of Player Development for the Indiana Prospects and head coach for the organization’s 2022 team (16U), is hopeful that his organization will be able to begin play in mid-June.

Assisted by Kenny Overbey and Jeff Brisman, Stout is supposed to take his squad to three events at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind., the Music City Classic in Nashville, the World Wood Bat Association National Championship in Georgia and the Marucci World Series in Louisiana.

“There are some kids you can tell they have it at a young age,” says Stout, who is anxious to show off the talents on a roster made up of athletes from multiple states.

That includes University of Kentucky commit Caden Dana, a right-handed pitcher/lefty-swinging third baseman from Montgomery, N.Y.

“(Dana) has tremendous feel on the mound,” says Stout.

Among the uncommitted on the 2022 Prospects are lefty-batting catcher/third baseman George Baker from Waldorf, Md., and 6-foot-5, 270-pound right-handed pitcher/first baseman Hunter Pudlo of Antioch, Ill.

“We have kids who will be committed at a high level,” says Stout. “The 16-year-old summer is most important summer for recruiting.”

While they can’t sign until the fall of their senior year, many players are expected to make a verbal commitment in the summer or fall.

“The 17-year-old season is still recruited,” says Stout. “But in this day and age scholarship money is pretty much gone at that point.

“We educate kids as much as possible and prepare them for the next step. You don’t want them to enjoy (the commitment) so long you don’t improve. (College) coaches have walked away from a kid (even after a commitment has been made).

“College coaches get paid to win.”

That’s why Stout stresses that a player should go where he is comfortable and he must produce once he gets there.

“It’s all about relationships and how you treat people,” says Stout. “Baseball is a small world. You never want to burn bridges You don’t lie about kids. It’s all about finding right fit for the kid.

“It is cool as an organization to commit to a high-level school. But we don’t want to kids to get on campus and transfer out. That doesn’t make us think we did our job.”

Austin Stout, 25, is the son of Shane Stout, President of the Indiana Prospects.

“My dad is passionate about what he does,” says Austin. “I’ve seen some cool moments.”

Austin saw his father weep when former Prospects player J.J. Bleday was selected in the first round of the 2019 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft out of Vanderbilt University by the Miami Marlins as a lefty-swinging outfielder.

Bleday, a 2019 Golden Spikes Award finalist, was going to visit with current Prospects via a Zoom video conference this weekend.

“It’s important for the kids to hear about different types of recruitments,” says Stout, who recently brought on lefty-batting shortstop Clay Dungan to share his story. Dungan played for the Prospects and was a sophomore at Yorktown (Ind.) High School when Stout was a senior then was a mainstay at Indiana State University. He was drafted in the ninth round by the Kansas City Royals in 2019.

Dungan was undersized coming out of high school.

“He committed as a roster spot guy,” says Stout. “He started 90 percent of the games for (Sycamores head coach) Mitch Hannahs.

“He’s earned it. It’s fun to watch.”

Stout grew up aroundC Muncie and began playing with the Prospects at 11. He played for Mike Larrabee at Yorktown, graduating in 2013, followed by Dennis Conley at Olney (Ill.) Central College (2014 and 2015), where he was a middle infielder, and Mike Kunigonis at Northern Illinois University (2016 and 2017), where he was mostly at designated hitter.

“(Conley) made a man of me,” says Stout. “He was a no-cutting-corners coach.

“He’s in the junior college Hall of Fame for a reason. That guy’s a legend.

Shane Stout and Kunigonis developed a relationship when the latter was a Virginia Tech assistant and saw Austin as a undersized kid.

The younger Stout grew in stature and talent and Kunigonis brought him to DeKalb, Ill., shortly after taking over the program there. Stout earned at Corporate Communication degree from NIU in 2017.

Besides his Prospects duties, Stout is an assistant at Yorktown on the staff of P.J. Fauquher.

It was only natural that Stout would go into player development after his playing days.

“I’ve been around it from a very young age,” says Stout. “I’ve always felt I could do this side of it. I love the beginning steps of baseball. I’ve had no motivation to be a college coach.

“There are some kids who wouldn’t go to college without baseball as a vehicle. I truly enjoy what I do. I’m a helping hand in grooming those kids who will some day be husbands and fathers.”

Prospects founder Mark Peters is the father of major league pitcher Dillon Peters.

AUSTINSTOUT

Austin Stout, a graduate of Yorktown (Ind.) High School and Northern Illinois University, is an assistant baseball coach at his alma mater and Director of Player Development for the Indiana Prospects travel baseball organization.

 

Getting to know players well is key for Rangers area scout Medici

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

How a player can swing a bat or throw a baseball is important to Texas Rangers area scout Mike Medici.

But it goes deeper than that.

“It’s about doing a better job of knowing the person,” says Medici, who lives near Danville and Avon on the west side of Indianapolis. “I appreciate the story. I like to know what drives them, the influences in their lives.

“There’s adversity. It’s not smooth sailing all the time. It’s important knowing anything and everything about them. I go as deep as I have to. I go to the people who don’t have a vested interest.

“It’s anyone who is going to give you a straight answer about that player. If he shows up to camp and he’s a screwball and not putting in the work, that comes back to the signing scout.”

Much can be learned from trainers and strength and conditioning coaches who sometimes spend more time with players than their on-field coaches.

Some players may be found to be a little immature or party too much.

“They may have been coddle a little bit in high school,” says Medici. “We can work with that.

“If so-and-so needs to grow up a little bit, teams will try to pair guys up away from the complex that are going to be good influences on each other.”

Medici says the high school player is the riskiest to draft but offers the most upside because of their age and the time they have to develop.

Major League Baseball organizations are investing in these athletes so they want to know what they’re getting and scouts like Medici are the ones gathering much of that information and forming those relationships.

Medici, who was an area scout in Indiana and Illinois for the Toronto Blue Jays December 2009 to June 2013 before going with the Rangers and scouting Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Kentucky since November 2013, sees mid-range prospects getting to and making an impact at the big league level.

He uses Paul DeJong — a fourth-round draft pick in 2015 out of Illinois State University and now the starting shortstop of the St. Louis Cardinals — as an example.

“We want to see how big the make-up component shapes who he is,” says Medici.

Gavin Lux was a 2016 first-round selection by the Los Angeles Dodgers out of Wisconsin. He made it to the majors in 2019, but not before experiencing some trials in the minors.

“I could have told you that he will overcome,” says Medici. “That’s the kind of kid he was with a tireless work ethic and dedication to the game.”

Medici notes that some players have never really experienced prolonged failure, begging the question: “Can he handle adversity and overcome?”

“A high school kid may have been the big fish in a small pond for a long, long time,” says Medici. “When they fail and they’re trying to make adjustments at a high level and they don’t know how to handle it.”

Medici relates it to football.

“How many Five Star high school recruits become great NFL players?,” says Medici. “They go to college where there is structure and systems that allow them to succeed.”

It changes when the athlete becomes a professional.

“I tell my guys, ‘it’s your career,’” says Medici. “You have to own your career. We’ll guide you, but you’ve got to put in the work.”

Born in Albany, N.Y., Medici is a former catcher at Shaker High School in Latham, N.Y. (north of Albany) and NCAA Division I Niagra University near Niagra Falls, N.Y., and an assistant coach at The College of Saint Rose in Albany.

Medici says his background as a catcher helped him make the switch to scout.

“It’s amazing the way they see the game,” says Medici of catchers. “They end up learning every position on the field and they know pitching staff.”

When he was hired by the Blue Jays and then general manager Alex Anthopoulos, Medici moved to Chicago. When he went to the Rangers and added Wisconsin and Kentucky to his territory, he settled in the Indianapolis area.

“We absolutely love it here,” says Medici. “The thing I’ve learned about living here is that people are passionate about their sport

“This has been a very productive state for me. Every year, there’s players up here.”

Invited to fall instructional league while with the Blue Jays, Medici was able to be sort of a member of the coaching staff, hitting fungos, pitching batting practice and soaking it all in.

“I would listen, learn and ask questions,” says Medici.

Also while in Chicago, Medici lived near Sal Fasano and learned a lot about baseball from a man who played at the University of Evansville and was a catcher in the big leagues and now a catching coach for the Atlanta Braves.

Former major league infielder and coach Mike Mordecai and hitting coach Anthony Iapocci are also counted among Medici’s baseball mentors.

Medici estimates that he puts in 30,000 miles a year looking for prospects. Whenever possible, he commutes to be home with his wife of seven years, Beth (a southern Illinois native), and their three children, 6-year-old son Miles and 1-year-old twins Beckham (boy) and Raelyn (girl).

With fall games winding down in the Midwest, Medici is transitioning to doing face-to-face meetings with college players. He will do this up until about Thanksgiving then turn to high school players. During the winter, he will invite college players in to work out — often at former major league pitcher Bill Sampen’s Samp’s Hack Shack in Plainfield.

“I can see them work away from campus,” says Medici.

There has been rumors of restructuring and shrinking the minor leagues and the scout has his take.

“If you start taking levels aways, it’s going to hurt the development,” says Medici. “The game’s getting younger.

“There’s a need to have (multiple levels). You can’t rush young kids.”

Medici, who also holds a masters degree in sport management from Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., started a website last winter — ScoutSchool.org — as a way to educate scouts and bring them together as a community.

Medici went on The Baseball Awakening Podcast to talk about scouting in June.

 

The Medici family (from left): Raelyn, Beth, Miles, Mike and Beckham. Mike Medici is an area scout with the Texas Rangers. The family resides near Danville and Avon on the west side of Indianapolis.

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The Medici family (clockwise from upper left): Mike, Beth, Miles, Beckham and Raelyn. Mike Medici is an area scout for the Texas Rangers. The Medicis reside near Danville and Avon west of Indianapolis.

18666The Medici family (from left): Beckham, Beth, Miles, Mike and Raelyn. Mike Medici is an area scout with the Texas Rangers. The Medicis live in central Indiana.

 

Barney’s spent decade leading Vincennes U. baseball

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Student-athletes are constantly coming and going. That’s the nature of junior college sports.

Chris Barney is in his 10th season as head baseball coach at one such two-year institution — Vincennes (Ind.) University.

“I enjoy the challenge,” says Barney. “I enjoy the aspect of recruiting. You’re always looking for the next best thing.”

A poor team can get better quickly with a solid recruiting class.

‘I’m often asked, what are you looking for in college baseball? Bats play. If you can swing the pole, you’re going to play at the junior college level.”

VU’s stated mission is “to provide associate degree and certificate programs in a wide variety of academic and occupational majors leading to entry to a four-year university or to the workforce.”

Vincennes serves more than 17,000 at its various locations with about a third of that number at the main campus.

“It’s not the typical junior college,” says Barney. “It has a mid-major collegiate feel.”

The goal of the baseball program is to place student-athletes with a place to play at a four-year college. As of last week, 96 Vincennes players had moved on during the decade that Barney’s been in charge, including 32 to NCAA Division I, many to NCAA D-II and NAIA and a few to NCAA D-III.

Barney sees players choose the junior college route for many reasons. Among them are cost, grade issues, level of play, the chance to play right away or be drafted by Major League Baseball and not have to wait to turn 21 or play three seasons like is required at four-year schools.

The Trailblazers’ core beliefs revolve around faith, family, school and baseball.

“It’s like a three-ring circus of academics, athletics and the social scene,” says Barney of Vincennes campus life. “You have to have self-discipline and time management skills. You prioritize where you want to spend your time and what you want to get accomplished out of college.

“You can obtain your full potential as a player. That’s what junior college offers guys.”

Junior college players are allowed to practice more often that those at other levels.

All the time with the team allows individuals to built work ethic, character and emotional stability and, hopefully, have a positive experience.

“It’s an opportunity to get better,” says Barney. “There’s always obstacles and challenges for guys, where it’s an injury, a class, a teammate or playing time. But they learn the fundamental game of baseball.”

School rules say Vincennes freshmen must stay in campus housing. Sophomores have the choice to live on-campus or off-campus. Barney says there’s about a 50-50 split for his current sophomore class.

Barney, who is assisted by Hank Lopez and Matt Goebel, started out with 37 players in the fall and took 31 into the spring.

Almost all of those have hometowns in Indiana.

Until a couple of years ago, Indiana was Barney’s recruiting base. Such scholarship money is based on in-state tuition.

With the favorable rates and so many Illinois junior college baseball programs as opposed to Indiana (which now has three — Vincennes, Ancilla College and Ivy Tech Northeast), plenty of Indiana players choose to play junior college baseball in Illinois.

But Illinois has been opened up so that VU can offer students there a cost similar to what they would get in-state.

“I hope to drive up the price of poker in Illinois for some of those guys,” says Barney of landing Illinois players for the VU program.

Rules allow junior colleges to play 20 games against outside competition in the fall. Vincennes also plays about 10 intrasquad games. There are 56 regular-season games in the spring.

That’s a lot of innings to cover so Barney typically carries 16 to 18 pitches, some of whom also play other positions.

“I love those guys,” says Barney. “If they can be successful at both, it’s well worth or time and energy to put the effort into that.”

The Trailblazers are in National Junior College Athletic Association Division II Region 24. The region is made up of nine Mid-West Athletic Conference members — Vincennes plus Danville (Ill.) Area Community College, Heartland Community College (Normal, Ill.), Illinois Central College (East Peoria, Ill.), John Wood Community College (Quincy, Ill.), Lewis & Clark Community College (Godfrey, Ill.), Lincoln Land Community College (Springfield, Ill.), Parkland College (Champaign, Ill.) and Spoon River College (Canton, Ill.).

Vincennes went into play April 3 at 15-12 overall and 4-4 in the conference.

There is a 32-game conference schedule. The top eight teams go to the MWAC tournament. The winner advances to the NJCAA D-II World Series (May 25-June 1 in Enid, Okla.).

“There’s a lot of positives in moving over to that region,” says Barney. “Before, we were independent in Region 12, which is Indiana, Ohio and Michigan. Trying to find games in late March, April and part of May was a bear.”

Vincennes went to the World Series in 2010 and 2014 under the old qualifying format. Teams were required to make it through a sub-regional to get to an eight-team double-elimination tournament that sent the champion to championship series.

The Trailblazers play home games at Jeremy Blemker Field.

Huntingburg, Ind., native Blemker coached for 38 years, including 26 at Vincennes (1980-2006) and amassed a NJCAA-record 1,037 victories. He sent more than 180 players on to play at universities around the country and 27 signed professional contracts.

Blemker, who died in 2012, was an inductee of the NJCAA and Greater Evansville Baseball halls of fame.

The original Blemker Field was on the VU campus. It was razed to make room for Updike Hall Scienc Earth and Mathematics Learning Center and the Trailblazers moved to a new baseball complex on Old Terre Haute Road five years ago.

Barney says the university has continued to provide the team with the means to maintain the facility.

Before landing at VU, Orlando, Fla., native Barney has made several baseball coaching stops. He was assistant coach and recruiting director for 13 years at the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville.

Barney, a graduate of Tennessee Wesleyan University in Athens, Tenn., has also served as head coach of the Quincy Gems and Springfield Rifles in the Central Illinois Collegiate League (summer) and was an assistant at Tennessee Wesleyan, Tusculum University (Greeneville, Tenn.) and St. John’s River State College (Palatka, Fla.) as well as serving on the summer staffs for the Frontier League’s Midwest Sliders (Ypsilanti, Mich.) and New England Collegiate Baseball League’s Vermont Mountaineers (Montpelier, Vt.).

Barney counts Mike Policastro, Tom Griffin, Mike Goedde and Mike Robins among his baseball mentors.

Barney played for Policastro (now head coach at Cleveland State Community College in Tennessee) at Tenessee Weselyan and was a teammate and coached alongside Griffin (now head coach at Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City, Tenn.) at that same school. Goedde (now head coach at Evansville Central High School) was USI head coach when Barney was on the staff. Robins led the squad at St. John’s River.

“You take a little bit from everybody,” says Barney. “You put your own personality on the program, too.

“It’s fun. The kids keep you young and always bring something new to the table.”

VINCENNESUBLAZERS

CHRISBARNEY

Chris Barney is in his 10th season as head baseball coach at Vincennes (Ind.) University in 2019. (Steve Krah Photo)

 

Kiifner wants South Newton Rebels to be strong up the middle

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

A border town will play more baseball in 2019 on the side of the state line where it plays its home games.

South Newton High School, located in rural Newton County, Ind., between the incorporated towns of Kentland, Brook and Goodland, went 17-10 in 2018 and played 15 games against Illinois high schools.

After three seasons in the Illinois-based Sangamon Valley Conference (current members are Cissna Park, Clifton Central, Dwight, Iroquois West, Momence, Paxton-Buckey-Loda and Watseka), South Newton (enrollment around 190) is a member of the Midwest Conference (with Indiana schools Frontier, North Newton, North White, Tri-County and West Central).

Jim Kiifner, a 1984 graduate of Sheldon (Ill.) High School (now consulted into Milford Township), is entering his 10th season on the South Newton coaching staff — his third as head coach.

The 2019 Rebels — led by Kiifner and assistants Jason Krug (third season), Ricky Montemayer (fourth season) and Conner Ulmer (first season) — are scheduled to play 23 varsity and 13 junior varsity contests. Ulmer, a 2013 South Newton graduate, is a teacher while the others are lay coaches. Kiifner works in a warehouse for DuPont Corporation.

“My boss allows me to be a little flexible,” says Kiifner. “It also helps that I work in the Eastern Time Zone and coach in the Central Time Zone.

“I gain an hour.”

South Newon’s non-conference varsity opponents include Attica, Benton Central, Fountain Central, Frontier, Kankakee Valley and Seeger in Indiana and Cissna Park, Milford Township, Momence and Watseka in Illinois.

The Rebels are part of an IHSAA Class 1A sectional grouping with Caston, North Miami, North White, Northfield, Southwood and West Central. South Newton has won eight sectional titles — the last in 2017. That year, the Rebels advanced to the semistate for the first time, losing to eventual state runner-up Rossville at Plymouth.

“We’ve been pretty successful the last four years,” says Kiifner, 52. “We get a lot of fan support.”

Athletic budgets at the small school are supplemented through community fundraisers.

Kiifner was coaching in the Travelers Babe Ruth League when then-South Newton head coach Ron Benakovich invited him to join his staff. Benakovich led the Rebels from 2009-12 and Glenn Donahue from 2013-16 before Kiifner took over the as leader of the program in 2017.

“I want the kids to have the most fun as possible,” says Kiifner. “Discipline is a big thing. But I don’t like to be a brow beater.”

Program numbers are up to 23 with 11 newcomers.

“We’re working to get them up to speed on what we expect and do,” says Kiifner, who had a veteran team the past two seasons. The 2018 squad had six seniors and three juniors in the starting lineup.

Kiifner says he wants his teams to be strong up the middle on defense.

“Defend the middle first and work your way out,” says Kiifner. “(Pitchers are asked to) throw strikes and let the defense do the work behind them.”

With that in mind, South Newton has junior Austin Miller and sophomore Brandon Gilliam in the mix at catcher, senior Levi Sample and freshman Kayden Cruz at shortstop and Cruz and junior Terron Welsh in center field.

Senior left-hander Riley Patterson is the top returning pitcher who also plays first base. Senior Tyler Martell is at second base and freshman Kellen Krug at third base. Senior Ben Bryant is a candidate to play a corner outfield spot.

Offensive approach depends on personnel. Kiifner says the Rebels are transitioning from a power team to more of a small-ball squad.

The Hammel brothers have taken their pitching talents from South Newton to the college level.

Junior left-hander Jarrett Hammel started at Saint Joseph’s College and is now at Valparaiso University.

Freshman Jay Hammel was an all-state third baseman as junior, all-state first baseman as a senior and became the school’s second Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association North/South All-Star Series player (Trent Smith was the first in 1990) and is now a freshman right-hander at Quincy (Ill.) University.

Trent Smith is the brother of Tracy Smith, a South Newton graduate who played at Miami University in Ohio and in the Chicago Cubs system before head coaching assignments at Miami University-Hamilton, Indiana University and Arizona State University. Smith’s 2019 Sun Devils were off to a 22-1 start.

Rebel Field, located on the South Newton campus, is a small non-lighted diamond with the distance down the foul lines at 272 feet to right field and 300 to left. Kiifner says there is talk about moving the fences back in the future.

With the school and field sitting in the midst of farm land, it is a breezy place.

“The are winds always blowing,” says Kiifner. “And it’s either too hot or too cold.”

Sheldon was a school of less than 100 students and baseball was a fall sport where there was no football team. Kiifner’s baseball coach was John Spezia, who has gone on to win more than 500 games as a basketball coach.

“He broke down fundamentals really well and brought it to your level,” says Kiifner of Spezia. “He tried not to overwhelm (his players).”

Jim and Madonna Kiifner have been married for 26 years. They have two sons who both played baseball at South Newton — William (24) and Luke (22).

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This is the 2019 South Newton High School Rebels baseball team.

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South Newton won a sectional and regional baseball title in 2017.

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Jim Kiifner is the head baseball coach at South Newton High School in rural Newton County, Ind., between the incorporated towns of Kentland, Brook and Goodland.