Tag Archives: Indiana Bulls

Lake Central, Purdue grad Olund gets pro start with Traverse City

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STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Two weeks after stepping off the college diamond for the last time, Alec Olund made his professional baseball debut.

Olund, a graduate of Lake Central High School and Purdue University, played for the Boilermakers (38-21) June 3 in the Chapel Hill Regional and soon made his way home to northwest Indiana.

Early last week, he had separate workouts for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Cincinnati Reds and independent Windy City Thunderbolts.

On Thursday, he got a call from Traverse City (Mich.) Beach Bums manager Dan Rohn asking him to join the independent Frontier League club in Evansville.

“It was just out of the blue,” says Olund. “I had never worked out for them or had any previous contact.

“As a crazy side note, my dad (Tony) bought bath bomb for my mom (Lyda) a few weeks ago and name of the bath bomb is Beach Bum and the colors are navy and yellow just like the team. It’s sign that this is meant to be. It’s pretty insane, actually.”

The Olunds as well as the family of Alec’s girlfriend, Rachel Bell, have already been talking about the 300-mile trip to see Alec play and the beach along Lake Michigan.

Alec Olund arrived on Saturday June 16, signed his contract and was on the bench that night. On Sunday, June 17, he was in the lineup. He played in left field and went 0-for-3 from the No. 9 hole.

He picked up his first pro hit —  a fourth-inning single — Tuesday, June 19, at Washington, Pa.

Olund, a right-handed hitter, hit .231, .254, .219 and .336 in his four seasons at Purdue. He appeared in 183 games (152 as a starter). He hit four home runs (two coming in one game his freshman season of 2015).

How has he improved over the years?

“My first two years (at Purdue), I showed glimpses of what I was capable of,” says Olund. “But I had a lot of inconsistencies. I was still — for the lack of a better word, a little immature at times. I was trying to do too much with my swing.

“I’ve always been great defensively with great speed and a great arm.”

Olund went into the 2018 college baseball season thinking it could be his last at any level.

“I tried to simplify some things and just put a good swing on every pitch and not try to do too much,” says Olund. “That’s why I found a lot more success at the plate. I was able to tie everything together.”

In the summer of 2017, Olund played a few games with the Northwest Indiana Oilmen of the Midwest Collegiate League. But he spent most of his time getting bigger and stronger and tweaking his swing. It was something the Purdue staff, who had originally planned to send him to Palm Springs Calif., for the summer season, wanted him to do.

Olund hired a personal trainer — Justin Connors — to put him through a series of vigorous workouts.

“I owe a lot of my success to Justin,” says Olund, who first discussed training with Connors while in Jamaica for older brother Tony Olund’s wedding. “He’s a great guy. He’s really, really good. I wish I would have went to him sooner.

“I worked my absolute tail off and put about 20 pounds of muscle on (at 6-foot-1 1/2 frame).”

Olund had been around 180 pounds and played in the spring at between 198 and 202. “It’s been a huge key for me. I’ve been able to put easier swings in the ball.

“When I was lighter, I had to manufacture a lot of my power. I was using a leg kick and trying to get the timing perfectly. Now, I’ve simplified and I’ve been using my core and my strength to put good swings on the ball.”

Besides the strength building, Olund studied successful major leaguers — guys like Mike Trout, Jose Altuve and Nolan Arenado — and tried to incorporate what they do into his offense.

“I experimented with a lot of different things,” says Olund. “I tried to find what works best for me.”

Former Lake Central coach Jeff Sandor brought Olund up to the varsity during his freshman year and the player never looked back.

Olund was the only sophomore on LC’s 32-1 IHSAA 4A state championship team in 2012.

“Jeff was really, really tough on me,” says Olund of Sandor. “There were times when I would get mad at him. He was hard on me because he knew I had the potential and I could be really, really good.

“He kind of held me to a different standard than other players.”

Olund played four seasons of football in high school and was away from baseball workouts for months in the late summer, fall and early winter.

But even that first season, Sandor had him practicing and — soon after — playing with the varsity.

“That was a really neat experience for me,” says Olund. “Here I was 14 or 15, playing with 17- and 18-year-olds.”

The older guys were accepting of the frosh.

“They felt like I belonged there and I did as well,” says Olund. “They took me in with open arms. Jimmy McNamara is one of the nicest kids I’ve ever met. He’s a special kid. He really took me under his wing.

“He said it was OK to be myself. I really jelled with that team and we had a lot of fun.”

McNamara was two years ahead of Olund and was the L.V. Phillips Mental Attitude Award winner in 2012 before going on to a four-year playing career at Central Michigan University.

Olund’s earliest experience with organized baseball came with youth leagues in Schererville. After that, Tony Olund started the Region Redbirds and the team traveled around the Midwest.

The summer leading into Alec’s freshman year at LC, the Redbirds went 73-7.

“It was amazing,” says Olund. “That was kind of my first taste of really good baseball.”

His 15U summer, he played for what is now known as the Cangelosi Sparks, a travel organization in Illinois led by former major leaguer John Cangelosi.

“That guy’s really, really good at what he does,” says Olund, who went to Cangelosi for hitting lessons for years during his teens. “I really liked him a lot.”

From 16U to 18U, Olund played for the Indiana Bulls. He is appreciative of his years with the elite travel organization.

“Dan Held, Quinn Moore, Gary Sylvester, Ryan Bunnell — so many Bulls people hold a special place in my heart,” says Olund. “That was the most fun I’ve ever had playing baseball, that 17U summer on the Black team.

“That was an incredible ride, that whole Indiana Bulls experience. I’m grateful for that because it’s put me in the position I am today.”

The Held-coached 17U Black squad was stacked. Many players went on to NCAA Division I baseball and are now playing in the pros, including Drew Ellis and Logan Sowers.

Olund was brought to Purdue by head coach Doug Schreiber and played his two seasons for him and his last two for Mark Wasikowski.

“Doug is tough,” says Olund. “I liked that. He was old school. We were going to work hard.

“Coach Waz brought a winning attitude. We build a culture of whatever it takes to win, we’re going to do that. We played hard, aggressive baseball.”

While at Purdue, he earned a degree in organizational management.

After his freshmen season, Alec was going to play in the Great Lakes Summer Collegiate League.

But his mother was diagnosed with skin cancer and he opted to stay close to home, playing with the Oilmen.

“Thankfully, it’s been gone now,” says Olund of the melanoma that was removed. “She’s been really healthy. I still pray for that everyday, that she stays healthy.”

Olund started dating Bell when he was a Lake Central senior and she was a sophomore. The daughter of Craig and Lisa Bell is now heading into her junior college basketball season at Indiana Tech in Fort Wayne.

“There’s always constant support with her and her family,” says Alec. “They are really good people.”

The Olunds and Bells live about a minute apart in the Schererville area.

Playing sports at a high level is something else Alec and Rachel have in common.

“There’s a lot of things that she’s been through that I’ve been through,” says Olund. “I try to help her as much as I can. I also don’t want to dominate her life because I want her to experience it for herself.”

A middle infielder most of his Lake Central career, Olund moved to the outfield.

“They saw me as an outfielder in high school because I had a long arm and good speed,” says Olund. “They could use me in center field.”

Olund played some center field at Purdue and was then moved to right field.

“I feel I profile more as a center fielder,” says Olund. “I can track down balls really well.

“If I was in the infield, I’d profile more as a third baseman because I do have a long, strong arm. Those middle infielders have short, quick arms.”

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Alec Olund, a Lake Central High School and Purdue University graduate, made his professional baseball debut June 17, 2018 with the independent Frontier League’s Traverse City Beach Bums. (Steve Krah Photo)

 

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Former Highland, Purdue hurler Minch moves up to Double-A in Cubs system

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Jordan Minch has moved up in the Chicago Cubs organization.

The left-handed reliever made his debut with the Double-A Tennessee Smokies Tuesday, June 5, pitching retiring three of four batters in the ninth inning of a 10-2 win at Jackson.

Minch is a 2012 Highland (Ind.) High School graduate who pitched for two seasons at Purdue University before being selected in the 35th round of the 2014 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Cubs.

He spent the 2014 season at Short Season Class-A Arizona, 2015 at Low-A South Bend and parts of the past three seasons (2016, 2017 and 2018) at High Class-A Myrtle Beach.

He pitched in 36 games with the 2015 South Bend Cubs.

Injuries in 2016 (Grade 2 lat strain) and 2017 (shoulder and ankle issues) slowed his promotion.

With those ailments behind him, he began the 2018 season at Myrtle Beach by going 3-1 in 18 appearances (all in relief) with eight games finished and one save. His earned run average was 3.65 with 28 strikeouts and 13 walks in 24 2/3 innings.

“I’m happy I’m healthy again and pitching well,” said Minch before leaving Myrtle Beach, where the manager is Buddy Bailey and Anderson Tavarez the pitching coach. “I’ll keep doing my thing and everything else will take care of itself.”

The 24-year-old southpaw has made 120 professional mound appearances (all out of the bullpen).

“It’s a completely different mindset,” said Minch of relieving vs. starting. “As a starter, you have your days where you’ll do long toss, side work and touch-and-feel.

“As a reliever, you have to listen to your body and save your bullets for the games. I’ve been a late-inning guy. You have to produce in those big moments.

“It’s about having a routine and sticking with it. We play 140 games in 152 days. It’s a grind. You have to get your body ready to go out and compete.”

Minch said he gets “natural lefty run” from his three-quarter overhand arm slot and uses a two-seam fastball, slider (which breaks pretty late) and a “circle” change-up.

His fastball sits at 92 to 94 mph, topping out at 95. His breaking pitch is about 10 mph slower.

“It looks like a fastball in my hand and just dives down,” said Minch, who is now working with manager Mark Johnson and pitching Terry Clark at Tennessee.

Minch verbally committed to Purdue as a high school sophomore. As a Boilermaker, 28 of his 30 games came as a starter.

“I started the second game of the year my freshmen,” said Minch. “They threw me right into the fire.”

Purdue pitching coach Tristan McIntyre helped refine the fire-balling left-hander.

“In high school, I threw hard,” said Minch. “(McIntyre) told me to not try to overthrow and let my mechanics work.”

He was taught “pitchability” and learned how to keep batters guessing by pitching backward.

The lefty also saw what he could do against top-flight hitters in the Cape Cod League, where he appeared in 10 games with the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox in the summer 2013 and five contests with the Hyannis Harbor Hawks in 2014.

Minch is glad he went to college instead of straight into pro ball.

“I wasn’t ready,” said Minch. “I needed to go to school and grow up a little bit.”

At age 13, Minch played travel baseball for the Chicago White Sox Academy. At 14, he was with the Indiana Bulls. He later played for Highland American Legion Post 180.

At Highland High, Minch played for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Dan Miller.

“He set the table for me coming up. He humbled me. I had all these. scouts coming to the games. He kept me humble and even keel and taught me to bring it 100 percent to the field every day.”

Minch was a four-year varsity letterwinner for Miller’s Trojans, leading the team in strikeouts as a sophomore, junior and senior and also pacing Highland in doubles as a junior and batting average as a senior. He was chosen for the White Sox Area Code team as a junior and the IHSBCA North/South All-Star Series as a senior.

He was a three-year all-conference performer and all-area honoree in basketball and an honor roll student.

Minch was married Dec. 30, 2017. Jordan and Emily, who met through mutual friends, recently bought at house in Indianapolis.

His parents — Jack and Dawn Minch — as well as older brother Josh and twin sister Sarah all reside in Highland.

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Jordan Minch delivers a pitch for the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. He is a Highland (Ind.) High School graduate who pitched at Purdue University before being drafted by the Chicago Cubs (Myrtle Beach Pelicans Photo)

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Jordan Minch takes the mound for the High Class-A Myrtle Beach Pelicans before being promoted to the High Class-A Tennessee Smokies. All 120 of his professional appearances have been in the bullpen. (Myrtle Beach Pelicans Photo)

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Because of injuries, Jordan Minch pitched for Myrtle Beach in 2016, 2017 and the beginning of 2018. The left-hander was just promoted to Double-A Tennessee. (Myrtle Beach Pelicans Photo)

Mattingly’s Southridge Raiders ‘grind’ way into 2A semistate

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Grit.

That’s what the Southridge High School baseball team brings to the diamond under first-year Raiders head coach Gene Mattingly.

“Our kids grind. We’re not flashy,” says Mattingly. “I don’t have a lot of college recruiters or pro scouts attending our games.

“We just have a bunch of guys who play really, really hard and hate to lose.”

Besides that, it’s all about the team.

Mattingly also describes his players as “unselfish.”

“They don’t play for themselves,” says Mattingly. “That’s a testament to their character, their parents and the type of community they’re growing up in.”

That approach has Southridge (24-6) in the IHSAA Class 2A Jasper Semistate against Indianapolis Scecina on Saturday, June 9. A win there sends the Raiders to the 2A state championship game at Victory Field in Indianapolis.

“Our goal is to never take a pitch off, whether that’s offense or defense,” says Mattingly, a part-time assistant in the program for about a dozen years before taking over the reigns from Dave Schank in 2018. “Our mantra is to win every pitch. We grind out at-bats. We grind on the mound when we don’t have our best stuff.

“We don’t let up.”

Southridge, located in the Dubois County city of Huntingburg, Ind., is 5-4 in one-run games.

The Raiders went 7-1 to win the outright Pocket Athletic Conference title. The lone loss in the nine-member circuit was a 2-1 decision against Gibson Southern. Other PAC members are Forest Park, Heritage Hills, North Posey, Pike Central, South Spencer, Southridge, Tecumseh and Tell City.

Southridge’s top pitchers are juniors Logan Seger and Kade Allen and freshmen Camden Gasser and Ethan Bell.

When not pitching, Seger is usually the designated hitter. Allen plays some first base. Gasser is the third baseman.

Leading hitters include outfielder Tucker Schank, catcher Chase Taylor, shortstop Colson Montgomery and Gasser.

Of the 11 players who started at some point during the Southridge Sectional or Austin Regional, eight are three-sport athletes and one other is a two-sporter.

“We encourage multi-sport athletes,” says Mattingly. “We get in the weight room and get bigger, stronger faster.

“We can play good baseball, but we’re not necessarily baseball players. We buy into a system. We work on becoming really good athletes in the summer time. We don’t have a lot of flash, but we like to compete.”

Mattingly’s assistant coaches are Brian Craig (head assistant), Mark Peters, Joe Keusch (pitching coach), Andy McKeough and Casey Lindeman at the varsity level with Jace Merkel and Jason Barnett working with the junior varsity. Mattingly and McKeough were teammates at the University of Mobile (Ala.). Lindeman also coordinates the middle school baseball program.

Through cooperation between the city, parks department and Southwest Dubois County School Corporation, the Raiders play and practice at League Stadium — famous for its scenes in the movie “A League of Their Own.”

“It’s just a neat, neat place,” says Mattingly. “And it’s a fair field. It plays deep and long. It’s a nice doubles park.

“Our kids enjoy it.”

Southridge is plenty familiar with Jasper’s Ruxer Field, too. The Jasper Wildcats are annual opponents so the Raiders go there every other regular season it’s only about nine miles to the north.

Mattingly is a 1988 graduate of Vancleave (Miss.) High School.

His baseball coach at Mobile was Mike Jacobs, the man who built the Rams program from scratch.

Jacobs’ discipline, attention to detail and grinder approach rubbed off on Mattingly and he used it while coaching Little League and travel teams in Mississippi and in the Huntingburg area. He coached the Dubois County Crush and later the Dirtbags.

Payton Mattingly, Gene’s son, also played for the Indiana Bulls and Ironmen Baseball Club. The 21-year-old just finished at Olney (Ill.) Central College and will be a junior at Asbury University in Wilmore, Ky.

Gene and Traci Mattingly (a 1989 Southridge graduate and a health teacher at the school) also have a daughter — Southridge freshman-to-be Ella Mattingly (14). Older daughter Lexi Mattingly passed away April 20, 2017.

IHSAA SEMISTATES

Saturday, June 9

North

Kokomo

(Municipal Stadium)

Class 1A: Northfield (16-14) vs. Daleville (20-9), Noon CST/1 p.m. EST.

Class 3A: Andrean (29-6) vs. Jay County (20-6), following.

Plymouth

Class 2A: Boone Grove (19-5) vs. Lafayette Central Catholic (26-4), Noon CST/1 p.m. EST.

Class 4A: Chesterton (18-7) vs. Fishers (27-7), following.

South

Plainfield

Class 1A: University (27-6) vs. Tecumseh (20-9), Noon CST/1 p.m. EST.

Class 4A: Indianapolis Cathedral (21-8-1) vs. Castle (22-8), following.

Jasper

(Ruxer Field)

Class 2A: Indianapolis Scecina (13-15-1) vs. Southridge (24-6), Noon CST/1 p.m. EST.

Class 3A: Indian Creek (24-5) vs. Silver Creek (24-2), following.

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Southridge High School head baseball coach Gene Mattingly (left) talks with Jayce Harter. The Raiders are in the 2018 IHSAA Class 2A Jasper Semistate.

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Southridge High School celebrates a sectional championship in the Raiders’ first season under head coach Gene Mattingly. Southridge also won a regional crown and advanced to the IHSAA Class 2A Jasper Semistate on Saturday, June 9.

 

Year of maturity pays off for Mack’s Morgan Township Cherokees

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Going through a tough stretch at the end of the 2017 high school baseball season has paid off for the 2018 Morgan Township Cherokees.

In Cory Mack’s first season as head coach, he took over a program with just two returning varsity starters.

“The other boys were being educated with every game that we played,” says Mack.

Morgan got off to a 15-3 start before hitting a stretch of bigger schedules. Losing one-run games to Valparaiso, Hobart and John Glenn along the way, the IHSAA Class 1A Cherokees (about 250 students) lost nine straight and finished 15-12 in 2017. “It taxed my boys mentally.”

Having gone through that, Morgan did not experience that kind of skid this spring.

“There is maturity,” says Mack. “They know how to make those adjustments that are necessary to right the ship.”

The Cherokees beat Washington Township 8-0 Monday, May 28 to win the fourth sectional in program history (2004, 2012 and 2013 are the others) — avenging a 10-0 regular-season loss to the Senators — and take a 20-5 record into the Caston Regional Saturday, June 2.

“(The loss to Washington Township) burned in the pit of their stomach,” says Mack, who admits to getting upset during that contest. “It may have fueled the fire for sectional.

“The guys could not have played a more fundamentally-sound game (in the rematch).”

Morgan meets Fremont at 11 a.m. EST Saturday, followed by Northfield vs. South Central (Union Mills). The regional final is slated for 7 p.m.

The Cherokees’ top pitchers are senior right-hander Colin Mack (the coach’s youngest son and an Indiana University South Bend commit), junior right-hander Hunter Swivel, senior righty Jeremy Landgrebe and senior lefty Tyler Bush. When not pitching, Mack is at shortstop, Swivel at third base, Landgrebe at second base and Bush sometimes plays first base.

Mack (the school’s all-time hits and stolen base leader), Swivel and senior center fielder Connor Malmquist (a Trine University soccer commit) are hitting above .400 and senior first baseman Colton Rosenbaum and junior catcher Cody Maxwell are over .350.

Morgan has plenty of speed and base-stealing threats.

“We force the issues to make things happen,” says Mack. “As long as we can put a guy on base, we can score without a hit.

“We make something happen when nothing is really working.”

Even though only two seniors are gong to the next level for athletics, most are college-bound.

“They’re all intelligent kids,” says Cory Mack. “Sometimes they think too much and don’t react enough.

“Athletes play off their gut and not their brain.”

Mack’s assistant coaches are Paul Lipski and son Tyler Mack.

The Valparaiso-Based Cherokees play in the Porter County Conference (along with Boone Grove, Hebron, Kouts, LaCrosse, South Central, Washington Township and Westville).

A 1991 LaCrosse graduate, Mack played four seasons of baseball for the Tigers. His head coach was Bill Drook. He spent a couple years in college before coming home to begin raising a family.

Cory and Michelle Mack have two boys. Seven years separate LaCrosse graduate Tyler Mack and Morgan senior Colin Mack.

The younger son has gained experience with a number of travel baseball organizations over the years, including the Indiana Bulls, Indiana Prospects, Motor City Baseball Club Hit Dogs, Ironmen Baseball Club, Collier/DB A’s and Midwest Mayhem.

Many of his teammates and opponents are playing or have committed to play at the NCAA Division I level.

“I was trying to expose my son to as many conditions and as many different styles of teammates as I could,” says Mack. “Drop him in anywhere and you’re going to get the same performance.”

For his folks, it’s a chance to do something they really love — spend time together at the ballpark.

“We’re baseball junkies,” says Cory Mack. “We live for this stuff. For my wife and I, it’s like vacation. It’s fun to watch a kid who loves playing. We’ve been everywhere with this kid.

“It’’s been a blast.”

Colin Mack has played  multiple times at places like the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex and East Cobb. His club won a title in a 106-team tournament at Cooperstown Dreams Park.

In all of his years of coaching and watching travel baseball, Cory Mack has witnessed too many younger kids throwing breaking balls.

“A lot of coaches letting kids throw curve balls way too soon,” says Mack, noting that the strain takes its tolls on arms, muscles and ligaments that are still developing. “Guys rely on a curveball before they can locate a fastball. The curveball is just putting miles on an engine. Every dad in the world needs to teach his kid to locate a fastball and throw a straight change.

“Kids always think the curve ball is sexy, but the only thing it does is slow the ball down. The change-up does the same thing.”

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Cory Mack (far right in top photo and far left in bottom photo) is in his second season as head baseball coach at Morgan Township Middle/High School in Valparaiso. His Cherokees are in the IHSAA Class 1A Caston Regional Saturday, June 2.

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Former Indiana Mr. Baseball, MLB first-rounder O’Conner lands with independent St. Paul Saints

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Justin O’Conner was a highly-touted professional baseball prospect when he wore the uniform of Cowan Junior/Senior High School.

As a sophmore at the Muncie, Ind., school, he helped the Camden Pankhurst-coached Blackhawks earn an IHSAA Class 2A state runners-up finish in 2008.

In 2009, O’Conner put up head-turning numbers as a shortstop and pitcher: .521 average, 19 home runs, 61 runs batted in, 7-0 record, 0.30 earned run average, 101 strikeouts in 46 2/3 innings.

That summer, he won the Home Run Derby at the Perfect Game National Showcase at the Metrodome in Minneapolis and was invited to the Perfect Game Aflac All-American High School Baseball Classic at PETCO Park in San Diego.

In 2010, he was Indiana’s Mr. Baseball and selected in the first round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Tampa Bay Rays right out of Cowan.

As a pro, O’Conner became a catcher. He played 48 games with the Gulf Coast Rays in 2010.

In 2011, he played at rookie-level Princeton threw out 16 of 45 base stealers.

He helped Hudson Valley win the New York-Penn League championship in 2012.

O’Conner played at Low Class-A Bowling Green of the Midwest League in 2013.

That winter, he played for the Brisbane Bandits of the Australian Baseball League.

“It was awesome,” says O’Conner of his time Down Under. “It was a chance to go to another country, live there for three months and get to see their culture and also get to play baseball.”

In 2014, O’Conner played at Charlotte and was an MiLB.com Organizational All-Star and Florida State League All-Star, FSL Post-Season and Baseball America High Class-A All-Star.

He played in the Arizona Fall League and was placed on Tampa Bay’s 40-man roster in November.

O’Conner spent the entire 2015 season at Double-A Montgomery and led the Southern League in total chances (91) and threw out 29 of 60 base stealers.

“For me, it’s big part of the game,” says O’Conner. “Being able to control the running game can keep runners off of bases in scoring position and keep them from scoring runs. If the pitcher can give me a good time to the plate, mix his looks in.

“It’s really more on the pitcher and the infielder making a good tag along with me making a good throw. It’s just not me, it’s everybody involved.”

In 2016, he began the season in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League because of a back injury. He was promoted to Double-A in August.

It was discovered he had a herniated disk and he had two back surgeries in October and November and and was removed from the 40-man roster in December.

“I’m all good now,” says O’Conner of his procedures. “The back pain really wasn’t the issue, it was the sciatica down my leg. I needed to get it fixed.”

O’Conner started 2017 at Double-A and was promoted to Triple-A Durham in August. The Bulls won the Triple-A National Championship.

After the season, he was granted his free agency and signed a minor league contract with the San Francisco Giants in November 2017. The Giants released him in April 2018 and he inked a deal with the St. Paul Saints of the independent American Association, a circuit which also features the Gary SouthShore RailCats.

The Saints got off to a 5-1 start and O’Conner is coming off a 3-for-3 game with two RBI and two runs scored Wednesday, May 23 at home against the Chicago Dogs.

He belted home runs May 18 at Gary and May 23 in St. Paul.

O’Conner quickly learned the difference between high school and professional baseball while with the Rays and Giants organizations and it holds true with St. Paul.

“It’s a grind,” says O’Conner, 26. “You’re playing baseball, but it’s also a job. You’ve got to come out and try to win everyday.

“You learn that right away. You’re playing every single day. It takes a toll on your body and it’s something you’ve got to get used to.”

O’Conner played for a number of travel baseball organizations growing up then spent two years while in high school with coaches Dan Held and Quinn Moore and the Indiana Bulls.

Justin is the son of Muncie’s Randy and Kim O’Conner and has an older brother and a younger sister.

Jacob O’Conner is in law school in Cincinnati. Kirsten O’Conner, a former Ball State University softball player, is a nutritionist in Illinois.

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Justin O’Conner, who was Indiana’s Mr. Baseball at Cowan Junior/Senior High School and a first-round draft selection of the Tampa Bay Rays in 2010, is now with the independent St. Paul Saints. Released by the San Francisco Giants organization, the catcher signed with the team shortly before the beginning of the 2018 season. (St. Paul Saints Photo)

Notre Dame baseball’s Podkul keeps producing and keeping Irish loose

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

If 2018 turns out to be the last baseball season at the University of Notre Dame for Nick Podkul, the draft-eligible junior has been treating Fighting Irish followers to a memorable last go-round.

Through Sunday, May 6, the 21-year-old second baseman has started all 48 games for a 24-26 squad and leads the team in batting average (.328), hits (59), runs scored (36), on-base percentage (.446), total bases (95), walks (29) and hit by pitch (12).

Podkul, a right-handed swinger who is among the top Atlantic Coast Conference hitters in all games, is second on the squad in triples (3), stolen bases (9) and multi-hit games (16) and third in home runs (6) and runs batted in (33).

Second baseman Podkul has combined with best friend and junior shortstop Cole Daily to solidify ND’s up-the-middle defense and aid the offense. Podkul has participated in a team-high 33 double plays. Daily is next at 29.

Podkul’s bloop single in the fifth inning Sunday drove in Daily to tie the game.

“He’s been great from start to finish,” says Notre Dame head coach Mik Aoki of Podkul. “Defensively, he’s been unbelievable and really, really good.

“He gets consistent quality at-bats and makes hard contact.”

The young man that Aoki calls a “good old fashion baseball rat” for his willingness to work on his game has learned a valuable lesson that he takes with him in each trip to the plate.

“You have to understand that — no matter what — every at-bat counts,” says Podkul, a 6-foot-1, 198-pounder. “That’s how rallies start — when you don’t give up at-bats and you string two or three together.

“That’s a big improvement I’ve made over the years I’ve been here.”

Aoki has noticed.

“He gives away fewer at-bats,” says Aoki. “Pitchers have to work to get him out.

“He’s got a decent walk-to-strikeout ratio (29:28).

“He has been able to increase his power numbers a little bit each year he’s been here through strength and conditioning and getting a little bit more bat speed and more reps.

“He loves to play baseball. I’m really glad to see him having the type of year that he’s having.”

In his three seasons under the Golden Dome, the Andrean High School (Merrillvile, Ind.) graduate’s stock has continued to rise.

As a freshman in 2016, Podkul played in 40 games — 36 as a starter between third base, first base and designated hitter — and hit .288 with no homers, six doubles, 11 RBI, .413 on-base percentage, .352 slugging percentage and eight multi-hit games.

He followed that up as a sophomore in 2017 by starting all 58 games with .285 with five homers, 15 doubles, 20 RBI, .386 on-base percentage, .439 slugging percentage and 17 multi-hit games.

Podkul played for the Nortwoods League’s Battle Creek Bombers in the summer of 2016 and Coastal Plain League’s Morehead City Marlins in 2017.

The 2018 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft is June 4-6.

“I’m certain he’ll be drafted,” says Aoki. “It’ll just be a matter of where.

“He’ll sit down with his family and I’ll sit down with Nick and we’ll figure out what is best for Nick.

“If he gets drafted where I think he deserves to be drafted, it’s probably time for him to go start his professional career.

“If — for some reason — he goes later, we’’l have to see how that goes.”

Nick, the son of Frank Podkul Sr. (who played baseball and football at Wabash College) and Jackie Weiser, is well aware of his pro potential at the end of the season.

“It’s hard not to think about it,” says Nick. “It’s exciting.

“But at this point, I want to do whatever I can to help the team win. We’ve got a really good group of guys.

“We just want to have fun the rest of the season and see if we can make a run with this thing.”

Podkul and Daily, who were paired together up the middle much of the 2017 season and have spent countless hours taking ground balls together, do their best to keep a smile on their teammates’ faces.

“We like to have fun and keep the guys loose,” says Podkul. “We crack a couple jokes when we’re down. We remind them that we’re still playing a kids game. We’re supposed to have fun with it.”

Says Aoki, “He’s a kid that’s done a phenomenal job of leading our team by example.”

While the American Studies major has been busy with his classes and baseball, Nick has had time to keep up with older brother Frank Podkul Jr.’s senior diamond season at Franklin College.

“He’s killing it this year,” says Nick of Frank. “I’m really happy to see his success.

“He’s a real good role model for me.”

Frank Jr., who is 18 months older than Nick, is hitting .340 with 14 homers, 10 doubles, 54 RBI and 49 runs scored while starting in the infield for the NAIA Grizzlies (35-3).

Nick helped Andrean win Indiana state Class 3A state championships in his junior and senior seasons for 2014 and 2015 and Frank was also there for the first title. In the off-season, the Podkul brothers and other 59ers baseball alums spend some time at Andrean working on their swings and helping out Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame coach Dave Pishkur.

“Andrean was a huge part of my life,” says Nick Podkul. “My basketball and baseball coaches were great. They taught me how to respect the game and how to go about it the right way.

“The teachers put a big emphasis on being a good student and a good person. That really sets you up to do well at Notre Dame.”

Nick spent his younger travel baseball years with the Hammond Chiefs and Indiana Saints.

In his 17U summer — leading into his senior year at Andrean — Podkul played for the Dan Held-coached Indiana Bulls.

“I have to attribute a lot of my success and going to Notre Dame to the Indiana Bulls that summer,” says Podkul. “Coach Held is a really, really good guy. He definitely put me in the right position to succeed and I can’t thank him enough for that.”

With its home schedule wrapped Sunday and final exams this week, Notre Dame visits Northwestern May 15 and Louisville for a three-game ACC series May 17-19.

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Nick Podkul, a University of Notre Dame junior, is leading the Fighting Irish baseball team in categories in 2018. (Fighting Irish Media Photo)

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Nick Podkil, a University of Notre Dame junor and Andrean High School (Merrillville, Ind.) graduate, has raised his stock for the 2018 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft with his performance this season. (Fighting Irish Media Photo)

 

Mercer makes relationships, mental skills priority for Wright State Baseball

RBILOGOSMALL copy

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Embracing the importance of personal relationships and the process, Indiana native Jeff Mercer continues to enjoy baseball accomplishment in Ohio.

Mercer, a 2004 Franklin County High School graduate, is in his second season as head coach at NCAA Division I Wright State University in Dayton.

After leading WSU to a 38-21 mark in 2017, Mercer had the Raiders at 29-13 heading into a May 4-6 Horizon League series against the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Mercer served as an assistant to Rich Maloney at the University of Michigan (2011), Matt Myers at Western Kentucky University (2012-13) and Greg Lovelady at Wright State (2014-16) before taking over the reigns of the RaiderGang when Lovelady took the heading coaching job at the University of Central Florida.

As a power-hitting first baseman, Mercer played two seasons at the University of Dayton (2005, 2007) for head coach Tony Vittorio then two at Wright State (2008-09) for head coach Rob Cooper.

While playing for WSU, Mercer was a two-time all-Horizon League first-team selection at first base. In 2009, he was HL Player of the Year and a Collegiate Baseball Newspaper third-team All-American as he hit .357 with 26 doubles and 74 runs batted in.

As a Franklin Community Grizzly Cub, he learned from three coaches — Mark Pieper, father Jeff Mercer and Brian Luse.

Mercer, 32, credits Pieper for instilling an appreciation for relationships.

“That’s one thing I’ve tried to make a core value and staple of my coaching staff,” says Mercer, who counts Nate Metzger, Matt Talarico, Alex Sogard, mental skills development coordinator Diamyn Hall, director of operations Denton Sagerman and volunteer Jacob Burk among his Wright State assistants. “We have to have personal relationships with our players.

“If you want to bring out the best in them — physically, emotionally, academically and all those things — the core of that is the relationship where you can help them build and grow.”

Mercer, who earned an organizational leadership degree from Wright State in 2009, does not buy into the generation gap excuse.

“I am young — one of the younger (D-I) head coaches in the country,” says Mercer. “I take it a little bit personally when people talk about ‘kids these days.’ You take the time to develop a relationship, the generation of the kid you’re dealing with is no different.

“They need to know that you care. They need to know you’re invested.”

This trust allows Mercer and his staff to drive the Raiders.

“We’re hard on players,” says Mercer. “We push them. We have really high expectation levels.

“But if they knew you have their best interests at heart then they have no problem with that kind of tough love.”

The elder Jeff Mercer, who helped start the Indiana Bulls travel baseball organization and is now assistant superintendent of Franklin Community Schools, passed along his affinity for structure and discipline to his son.

“Everything was always very methodical,” says Mercer. “There was always an organizational plan. I took from that the confidence you have in preparation.

“We recruit a very confident kind of kid. First and foremost that comes from him. There’s only so much confidence we can give somebody. The confidence that comes from preparation can only be earned. It can’t be bought. You can’t pay for it.

“It just comes with time. It made me more confident as a player and as a coach knowing how much time and work we put into it.”

Mercer notes that Wright State has enjoyed much success against highly-ranked opponents and in hostile environments.

“Guys are confident because they know they are prepared to play at that level,” says Mercer, whose team earned two 2018 road wins against No. 20 Louisiana and one triumph against vote-getter Sam Houston State. The Raiders play at No. 29 Louisville Tuesday, May 8.

Mercer says Luse blend qualities from Pieper and his father.

“We played loose and free for him,” says Mercer. “But he also had a feel for the structure and discipline of it. Consequently, we had a lot of success. We were a very good team.

“You learn something from everybody you come in contact with and I certainly learned a lot during my high school time.”

Vittorio, who grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from Southport High School in 1984, brought toughness and discipline to his coaching.

“I knew that he cared,” says Mercer, who was a walk-on for the Flyers. “The relationship that I have with him now is really nice. He’s around a lot.”

While Mercer was at Dayton, another coach had a lasting impact on him.

“My relationship with hitting coach Cory Allen really shaped the way I view hitting from a mechanical aspect that I’ve carried forth to this day,” says Mercer. “It was the first time that anyone had discussed biomechanics, centrifugal force and different movements.

“It was an eye-opening experience and it drove me to be a much better player. I wasn’t a very talented player. Understanding a lot of those basics allowed me to have an advantage.”

After transferring to Wright State he formed a personal relationship with Cooper.

“At that point, there was nobody better in my career at making us all feel valued,” says Mercer. “I learned so much about that from him.

“He was the first person that introduced me to the mental game aspect.”

In the years since he played, Mercer has seen the field of mental skills training take off.

“It’s become an industry in and of itself,” says Mercer. “At the time, there was nobody talking about ‘don’t worry about the outcome, it’s the quality of the at-bat. It’s the process over the outcome.’ At the time it was very cutting edge and it was new information for me.

“I was a much better baseball player at Wright State than I was at Dayton

“It was directly attributed to the mental game and understanding that I couldn’t just play with reckless abandon when it came to my emotions. Physically, I could play very hard. But emotionally, there has to be some constraint.”

One of the keys is to know where place the emphasis.

“If I go through the process the right way and I work on things I’m supposed to work on and invest in things I’m supposed to invest in and I have the at-bat I’m supposed to have and putting a good swing on a good pitch, whatever happens from there is completely out of my hands,” says Mercer. “Once I did that I became a much better player.”

Mercer recruits plenty of football and wrestling athletes.

“Their mentality is I can work harder and harder,” says Mercer. “That’s not always effective in baseball.”

In his first season as head coach, he found the mental game to be a bit lacking and he thinks he knows the reason.

“When it comes from the head coach it can become a bit stale because I’m always talking and communicating with players,” says Mercer. “My voice is always heard.

“I like having a big coaching staff and having them deal with each player individually because it keeps things fresh. We need to have multi-faceted relationships.”

Then opportunity knocked.

Hall, who is from nearby Centerville, Ohio, had just ended his collegiate playing career and was looking to find his way in the mental skills field.

The decision was made to bring him on-board as the very first full-time mental skills coordinator in D-I baseball.

“We had a mutual need,” says Mercer of Hall. “He needed a place to begin his career. We needed someone who was a fresh face and had an ability to communicate with young people in an electric way, in an impassioned way. He has a magnetic personality.

“It’s been a beautiful union.”

Hall meets with players as a group and one-on-one, providing his knowledge and helping athletes reach their potential.

“We’re providing the players with the resources to be the best they can,” says Mercer. “It’s really about knowing yourself and what you need to be successful.”

Jeff and is one four boys born to Jeff and Pam Mercer. His mother teaches math at Whiteland Community High School.

Stephanie Mercer, Jeff’s wife, teaches sixth grade at Ankeney Middle School. The former Ohio Northern University athlete is also an assistant boys volleyball coach at Beavercreek (Ohio) High School.

Jeff and Stephanie are expecting their first child — a boy — in the fall.

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Jeff Mercer, a 2004 Franklin Community High School graduate, is in his second season as head baseball coach at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. At 32, he is one of the youngest head coaches in NCAA Division I baseball. (Wright State Photo)