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Process among points of emphasis for Brabender, Northridge Raiders baseball




Seeing the value in the process, staying with trends and building relationships.

That’s what baseball coaching is all about for Andrew Brabender, who enters his 11th season in charge at Northridge High School in 2018.

“I believe in the little things, the process of things,” says Brabender. “It’s getting kids to buy into doing the things that need to happen for the end result to happen. We’re not not looking toward the end result, but the little wins that happen throughout the process to get us to the end.

“I believe in staying current. It’s a great time to coach baseball. At the tips of your fingers you have Twitter, YouTube videos, apps and other gadgets.

“The guys on my staff are eager to learn and they really want to be current. What is the best stuff out there? What are the elite hitters doing? What are the elite throwers doing? What are the elite infielders doing and how do we make our kids do that?”

One way Brabender and his assistants — James Greensides, Dyrk Miller, Mike Miller, Blake Fry and Arick Doberenz — get players to focus on the path itself and not its end is the Raider Process Index, a system modified from Justin Dehmer and his 1 Pitch Warrior teachings.

“If we do this, this and this, the end result is going to take care of itself,” says Brabender, who has helped the Raiders to an IHSAA Class 4A Elkhart Sectional championship (2015) and numerous conference titles.

The first section in the Raider Process Index is the Freebie War, which counts Northridge totals vs. opponents for errors, walks, hit-by-pitch, catcher’s interference, strikeouts, stolen bases and dead-ball reads.

The second section is Pressure (or Press). Point totals are given for:

• Producing a big inning (10 points).

• Rally scored. If Yes (2 points each time).

• Eliminated rally scores. If Yes (2 points each time).

• Scored first. If Yes (10 points).

• Scored with two outs. If Yes (5 points).

The game goal is 30 points.

The third section is Quality At-Bats. QAB points can be given for a hard-hit ball (fly ball), freebie (walk, hit-by-pitch, error, catcher’s interference), moving a runner with no outs, a base hit or extra base hit, a six-pitch at-bat not ending in a strikeout and an nine-pitch at-bat even ending in a strikeout.

The overall RPI target is 48 points.

“We want to put pressure on the other team,” says Brabender. “We want to score first. We always want to have a shutdown inning after a big inning.

“This Raider Process Index is way for our kids to stay with the process. If we do that, the winning will take care of itself.”

Brabender regularly posts the RPI and QAB in the dugout.

“We don’t show our kids batting average,” says Brabender. “We just show them Quality At-Bats.

“They may have went 0-for-3 hitting, but went 2-for-3 in Quality At-Bats. That’s a good day. We’ve got lots of things in place for kids to value the process. You can’t just say it. You have to have things that will show them that we all value the process.”

For years, the Raiders have employed the mental training methods of sports psychologist Brian Cain.

The past five years, all Northridge players have been on a Driveline weighted ball throwing program.

Brabender says there are many benefits but the top ones are that is that it force feeds good arm action as well as arm development and the ability to throw with intent.

This year marks the second year that the Raiders are using a weighted Axe Bat regimen and the first year they’re really “diving into head-first, full speed ahead.”

The Axe Bat features overloaded and underloaded bats, which teaches intent and body positioning.

“With every kid in our program, exit velocity is up from the first time that we tested,” says Brabender, who has seen gains in hitting and throwing.

Exit velocity is measured with radar guns and with Blast Vision motion capture technology, which keeps track of all the post-contact metrics (things like launch angle, exit velocity and the distance the ball traveled). Blast Motion is used for pre-contact measurements.

Brabender has employed Blast Motion for three years and this is his first using Blast Vision.

Video analysis is also done with a RightView Pro app.

The Raiders boss was not talking about Launch Angle a decade ago.

“Now that’s all we talk about,” says Brabender, who had his youth campers hit on an upward plane. They were competing Saturday to get as many balls above a line on the curtain in the NHS fieldhouse. Below that line of 20 degrees or so was a groundout. Too far above it was a fly ball out.

“That’s what we call result-oriented training,” says Brabender. “That’s straight from (former Miami Marlins, Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs and current Philadelphia Phillies hitting coach) John Mallee. He does a ton of that.

“It forces kids to put their bodies in the right position to make something happen. If it’s not happening, they’re not doing it correctly.”

Northridge (enrollment around 1,400) belongs to the Northern Lakes Conference (along with Concord, Elkhart Memorial, Goshen, NorthWood, Plymouth, Warsaw and Wawasee). It is a double-round robin 14-game slate. Except for the final week of the NLC season, conference games will be played on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

The Raiders are grouped at 4A sectional time with Concord, Elkhart Central, Elkhart Memorial, Goshen, Penn and Warsaw.

What about the pitch count rule (1 to 35 pitches requires 0 days rest; 36 to 60 requires 1 day; 61 to 80 requires 2 days; 81 to 100 requires 3 days; and 101 to 120 requires 4 days)?

“We’ve always believed in it,” says Brabender. “One of the things that’s always made our program strong is the amount of depth we’ve created in our pitching. Most of the kids in our program are going to pitch.

“I don’t think you can have enough arms at this level. In my 11 years, we’ve only had a handful of kids go over 100 pitches.

“Unless you’ve got someone with plus velocity — I’m talking 85 mph plus — you’re just asking for trouble. Getting a new guy in there just gives (the opponent) a different look anyway.”

Andrew’s father talked about the “24-hour rule.” A pitcher’s rest would go an hour by number of pitches thrown. That makes 24 hours if he throws 24 pitches and so on.

It comes down to the welfare of the player.

“It’s important that if kids want to play at the collegiate level, they’re healthy enough to do that,” says Brabender

Former Northridge players currently on college rosters include Shannon Baker and Brock Logan at Fort Wayne, Sam Troyer at Evansville, Matt Miller and Andy Ross at Indiana University South Bend and Andrew Kennedy at Taylor.

So far, current Raiders seniors Cody Bible (Indiana University Kokomo) and Dylan Trick (Spring Arbor University) have made college commitments.

Many Northridge players are part of travel baseball organizations like the Indiana Chargers, Michiana Scrappers and Middlebury Mavericks. Brabender and company also conduct coach clinic and player camps for Middlebury Little League.

Andrew is the son of Tom and Dorothy Brabender. Tom, who died in 2015, played football at Western Illinois University for Lou Saban and was a baseball coach in central Illinois for 40-plus years.

“The biggest thing from my dad was the way he related to his players,” says Andrew. “For them to follow what you want to accomplish, there has to be some likability.”

Brabender sees it as his duty to figure out a way to relate to each athlete in some way. He saw his father do it. Tom Brabender coached American Legion baseball into his late 60’s and was still relating with teenage players.

“That’s not easy,” says Andrew. “I hope I’m doing that here. I feel like I am. I want them to value the relationship with me more than baseball and for them to know that I’ve always got their back no matter what.

“It’s not about me. It’s about the kids.”

Before becoming head coach at Northridge, Brabender served one season as an assistant to Troy Carson — a man he also coached with in the Raiders football program.

Before Northrdge, Brabender spent three seasons as a baseball assistant to Steve Stutsman at Elkhart Central High School.

Prior coming to Elkhart County, Brabender followed his last two seasons as a baseball player at Hannibal-LaGrange College in Missouri with two seasons on the Trojans coaching staff.

His coach and then his boss was Scott Ashton, who brought Brabender to the NAIA school after he played two seasons of junior college ball at Lake Land College in Mattoon, Ill., following his graduation in 1996 from St. Teresa High School in Decatur, Ill.

“He was a huge influence in my life — spiritually, baseball-wise,” says Brabender of Ashton, who is now Mid-Missouri director for Fellowship of Christian Athletes and team chaplain for University of Missouri baseball, football and softball. “He taught me how to be a man We’re still close. We talk as much as we can.

“He’s a mentor me not just with baseball but my walk with the Lord.”

Ashton came along at a rough time in Brabender’s life.

In 1998, Andrew was playing in a wood bat tournament in Evansville and his parents and girlfriend (later wife) Marcie were there to watch. When they got home, they learned that Jason Brabender — Andrew’s brother — had been killed in a car accident.

“It was devastating,” says Andrew. “It was a crossroads in a lot of different avenues in our lives.”

Marcie, who Andrew met at Lake Land, had committed to play basketball at the University of Southern Mississippi. Hannibal-LaGrange was one of the few schools that was recruiting both Andrew and Marcie.

“We just took that leap and that’s where we ended up,” says Brabender. “It worked out great. I met some dear lifelong friends there. Marcie was part of the national tournament team in 2000. Two of my buddies from Lake Land ended up transferring there. It was cool.”

Andrew and Marcie married in the summer of 2000. They have four children — Emma (16), Beau (12), Kate (8) and Luke (6). Andrew grew up with an older sister, Mindy, and months ago found out he has another sibling named Lisa.

During the school day, Brabender teaches physical education for Grades K-5 at two Middlebury Community Schools buildings — Jefferson Elementary and Heritage Intermediate.


Andrew Brabender is entering his his 11th season as head baseball at Northridge High School in 2018. (Steve Krah Photo)



Swinson returns to high school dugout for Eastbrook Panthers




A man who’s been coaching since the late 1980’s has returned to a head high school baseball post after six seasons away.

Steve Swinson is now in charge at Eastbrook High School near Arcana in Grant County.

Swinson, who is both a football defensive coordinator and head wrestling coach at Northwestern High School near Kokomo as well as a supervisor for the Howard County Highway Department, served as head baseball coach at Eastern High School in Greentown from 2006-11, leaving after he wife Stacey’s son Saxon’s senior season to help coach daughter Shayden’s youth softball teams.

Saxon is now 25 and Shayden is an Eastern freshman.

Prior to his stint at Eastern, Swinson was a baseball assistant at Northwestern from 1998-2005. With Ryan Berryman (now head coach at Western High School in Russiaville) as head coach, the Tigers were IHSAA Class 2A state runners-up in ’05.

Swinson is a 1987 graduate of Kokomo High School, where he played baseball for coach Mike Smith.

“He was very competitive,” Swinson says of Smith. “He was a black-and-white coach. It was yes or no. There was no gray area. That’s how I try to coach myself. It’s either right or wrong. It’s what works for me and my system.”

After high school graduation, Swinson coached for South Side Youth Baseball based in Kokomo’s Highland Park. His 1995 team was runner-up in the 12U Bambino Baseball World Series in Abbeville, La.

Swinson is proud of his long career of leading athletes.

“Every year I coach, I feel blessed in being around the kids and building relationships with coaches,” says Swinson.

The Eastbrook Panthers have enjoyed plenty of success in football, going 37-4 the past three falls with 2A state runner-up finish in the fall of 2016 and a regional title in 2017.

“I see no reason they can’t be successful in the spring,” says Swinson, who takes over a baseball program that sent all-state catcher Andrew Lawvere to the 2017 Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association North/South All-Star Series and then on to NCAA Division I baseball at Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne and also graduated pitcher Ross DeBonis.

Returnees for the Panthers include senior third baseman/right-handed pitcher Matt Hollars, senior middle infielder Wyatt Jackson and senior left-hander/outfielder Ryan Mansbarger (who recently surpassed 1975 graduate Rick Harness to become Eastbrook’s all-time leading basketball scorer), junior first baseman/right-hander Joshua Pluimer, junior outfielder Mason Hale (a football quarterback), junior catcher Joe Hayes and sophomore shortstop/right-hander Dylan Bragg.

“We have a strong junior class,” says Swinson, who counts former Madison-Grant High School and Indiana Wesleyan University pitcher Ryne Brown and former Madison-Grant Mike Brown as well as Steven Shelby and Hoyt Young as assistant coaches. “They are really good athletes. They like baseball. They just don’t have the fundamentals yet. We are going to work fundamentals hard.”

Swinson also plans to have all his players — including the seventh and eighth graders at Eastbrook Junior High School — working a rake or an edger on the school’s diamond.

“It’s a big thing at all levels for kids to take ownership of the baseball field and make it look nice,” says Swinson. “It’s not my field, it’s their field.

“It’s about accountability and what it takes to be part of a good program.”

There has been excitement on the campus with the talk of building new baseball and softball fields along with concession stand, restrooms and fieldhouse that is located closer to the football field.

“I’m excited about the future,” says Swinson.

Besides the junior high team which offers a local alternative to travel ball, EHS baseball is fed by Van Buren and Upland youth leagues. Swinson says they may merge into single league for baseball and softball.

The Panthers last won a sectional championship in 2004 and are currently in a 2A sectional grouping with Alexandria-Monroe, Eastern (Greentown), Elwood, Madison-Grant, Taylor and Tipton.

Eastbrook belongs to the Central Indiana Conference (along with Alexandria-Monroe, Blackford, Elwood, Frankton, Madison-Grant, Mississinewa and Oak Hill).

The CIC has each team play the other once with conference games often being played on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Swinson says playing them like this means one team will likely dodge another’s No. 1 pitcher.

Speaking of pitching, 2017 marked the introduction of new IHSAA pitch count rules (1 to 35 pitches requires 0 days rest; 36 to 60 requires 1 day; 61 to 80 requires 2 days; 81 to 100 requires 3 days; and 101 to 120 requires 4 days).

“I like it,” says Swinson of the idea of limits. “I’ve seen too many kids over the years have to stop playing because they’ve been taught the wrong fundamentals.”

There’s also all the wear and tear that happens with all the throws that happen during or before the game that don’t get recorded as part of the pitch count.

“It’s for the safety of kids,” says Swinson. “As a football coach, we have the helmet-to-helmet rule. We have a set of shoulder pads. We say ‘let’s tackle the right way.’”


Steve Swinson, a football defensive coordinator and head wrestling coach at Northwestern High School, is now also head baseball coach at Eastbrook High School.


Steve and Stacey Swinson have two children — Saxon and Shayden. He has added head baseball coach at Eastbrook High School to a list of jobs which also includes football defensive coordinator and head wrestling coach at Northwestern High School. He has been a baseball head coach at Eastern (Greentown) High School and a baseball assistant at Northwestern.




Westview’s Rahn knows little things can go a long way in baseball




Attention to detail.

Sweating the small stuff because it can lead to big results.

Understand that there is more than one way to do something better.

These are some of the concepts that Jason Rahn brings to his players as the head baseball coach at Westview High School in LaGrange County, Ind.

“You’ve got to be good at that stuff to be able to play at a high level,” says Rahn, who enters his eighth season as Warriors head coach after serving three years as an assistant to Joel Mishler. “We’re fortunate at Westview to be good with things that often get overlooked.”

One area where Rahn looks for improvement is on the basepaths— not just stealing bases, but being aggressive and knowing how to make a dirt-ball read to take an extra base.

“I learned quickly in college that if you know how to run bases you were going to be effective,” says Rahn, who played for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Hall of Famer Mike Frame at Huntington University and graduating from Huntington North High School, where he was on squads led by IHSBCA Hall of Famer Don Sherman and then Chad Daugherty. “You can steal a bag or catch a guy sleeping with the ball in his hand.”

Rahn expects his pitches to throw strikes. But not just pitches in the strike zone.

“Where do you want the strike thrown?,” says Rahn, who knows some strikes can’t be barreled up and others can be crushed.

Rahn goes into each practice with a plan. There is a playbook (written in a way that high school players who have many other things in their life besides baseball can understand).

“It’s repetition and building muscle memory,” says Rahn. “We break down moments and tell why we’re doing it this way. When you see the light bulb come on, you see a huge transition in the kid.”

Mishler, who has experience as a college player, college and high school coach and pro scout and is the founder of the Indiana Chargers travel organization, gets credit from Rahn for his way of teaching game situations.

“He makes it make sense for the kids. You have to realize that some of these kids are 15-year-olds.”

Another dynamic Rahn enjoys is seeing olders players explain things to the younger ones.

“You see who your leaders are just by posting the practice schedule and seeing what happens,” says Rahn.

As a young player on Sherman-coached team, he saw how he interacted with upperclassmen.

“He would push them, but he was also working alongside them as a teammate,” says Rahn. “He was teaching the game as a fan of them.”

Sherman coached the Huntington North baseball team for 38 years until he retired in 2001.

Rahn said some of his best conversations with Sherman came over the fence when first baseman Rahn was playing in college and Sherman was there to watch.

Those moments almost didn’t happen.

In high school, Rahn was all-in for basketball and thought that would be his path in college. He didn’t go out for baseball as a sophomore then watched best friend Thad Frame (Mike’s son) start at shortstop as a freshman.

An ankle injury helped Rahn decide to switch his focus away from the hardwood and onto the diamond.

He was part of a large senior class who enjoyed a special final season in 2003.

He recalls the enthusiastic words of a teammate who said he should be grateful for the opportunity to play and be outside under the blue skies.

As a Huntington University player, Rahn got close with his teammates got to know Mike Frame even better.

“When you sweat and cry next to a guy long enough, you have these tight relationships,” says Rahn. “(Coach Frame) was leading that.

“There has always been a level of intensity about Coach Frame in all aspects of life. He has never been one to not wear his emotions on his sleeve. He’ll always let you know how much he loves you. Coming from a guy who is pushing you physically and mentally, that goes a long way.”

Rahn also gained knowledge from HU assistant coaches Dennis Kas, Brian Abbott and Dave Kennedy. Kas is an IHSBCA Hall of Famer. Abbott is the IHSBCA Executive Director.

At Westview, Rahn guided the Warriors to an IHSAA Class 2A LaVille Sectional title in 2011. His team enjoyed a memorable 2014 season that included a Westview Sectional championship and 18-inning marathon loss to Lafayette Central Catholic championship game of the Whiting Regional.

Five of those Warriors had played for the Indiana Chargers.

Three of them are in college baseball — Judah Zickafoose (Northwestern Oklahoma State University), Tarrin Beachy (Huntington U.) and Jamar Weaver (Huntington U.).

“I knew they were being taught well,” says Rahn, who has also had travel ball players with the Michiana Scrappers, Hitters Edge and Elkhart Titans.

A direct feeder program is Warrior Youth Baseball, which has been overhauled and has Rahn’s thumbprint on it more than ever.

“They use more of my verbiage,” says Rahn, who will have the 12U Warriors (coached by former Westview head coach Mark Engle) playing around 60 games by July 4. There will also be a limited travel scheduled for a 13U/14U team.

Westview is a member of the Northeast Corner Conference (along with Angola, Central Noble, Churubusco, Eastside, Fairfield, Fremont, Garrett, Hamilton, Lakeland, Prairie Heights and West Noble).

Rahn’s 2018 high school coaching staff his a family feel to it. Varsity assistants include Steve Christner, Adam Christner and Nate White. Derrike Johns is the junior varsity coach.

Steve Christner’s is Rahn’s father-in-law and Adam Christner his wife’s brother.

Jason, who is employed at Jayco in Middlebury when not coaching, and Whitney Rahn first met at Huntington University.  They got to know one another better when Jason was living in Fort Wayne and Whitney was attending Indiana Purdue at Fort Wayne. The couple has three children — son Brigham (6), daughter Preslee (6) and son Sullivan (1 1/2).


Jason Rahn, a product of Huntington North High School and Huntington University, is entering his eighth season as head baseball coach at Westview High School in LaGrange County, Ind.


Pierce puts long-term plan in place for D-I Fort Wayne Mastodons




Going from a squad full of veterans and experiencing NCAA Division I baseball success in 2016, the Mastodons of Fort Wayne had much less college experience and suffered growing pains in 2017.

With a new focus, Fort Wayne is looking to get things turned around in 2018 under the guidance of 10th-year head coach Bobby Pierce.

“We wore it last year,” says Pierce, who saw the Mastodons go 9-43 after losing 14 impact players — senior shortstop Greg Kaiser, senior outfielder Brandon Soat and and drafted sophomore pitcher Evan Miller among them — from a 33-26 campaign in ’16 that included a second straight trip to the Summit League tournament finals. “(Junior college) guys made the (2016) team as good as it could be. Freshmen (in 2017) need to learned how to play here and do damage on the Division I level.

“But we like to think over the next three or four years, that was worth it. Strategically, it’s the right move to get where we want to get. We have to think more long-term. Up until this time, we were using a steady mix of high school and junior college guys and it was holding us back a little bit.”

Fort Wayne just wrapped annual fall workouts with the Blue-Black intrasquad series with teams captained by sophomore infielder Travis Upp and junior pitcher Damian Helm on one side and junior infielder Brandon Yoho and senior pitcher Brandon Phelps on the other.

“We got after it somewhere in the middle of September,” says Pierce. “We’ve been grinding it out until this (past) weekend.”

Pierce, assistants Grant Birely and Connor Lawhead and the Dons will continue work in preparation for the 2018 campaign.

As he goes forward, Pierce has the longest tenure as head coach in program history. Previous coach Billy Gernon (now at Western Michigan University) was also in charge for nine seasons.

Pierce, who turned 39 on Oct. 17, came to Fort Wayne with lessons learned as a player, assistant coach and head coach.

A Las Vegas native, Pierce played for Rodger Fairless at Green Valley High School in Henderson, Nev. Fairless coached 12 state championship teams at three Nevada schools. He helped develop Greg Maddux before going to Green Valley and turning that school into a diamond powerhouse. With the Gators, he produced a state champion in the program’s third season. Two Green Valley players — Chad Hermansen and Dave Krynzel — went on to the big leagues.

Pierce, a middle infielder, played at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, Central Arizona College and New Mexico State University.

Clint Myers was Pierce’s head coach at Central Arizona. National Fastpitch Coaches’ Association Hall of Famer Myers won more than 1,000 games as a baseball and softball coach with a number of national titles to his credit.

At New Mexico State, Pierce played for National College Baseball Hall of Famer Gary Ward and his son, Rocky Ward.

“I’m very fortunate to come from a very good pedigree of coaches,” says Pierce. “(Fairless) was super disciplinarian and fundamental coach and that was a great start for me. I got indoctrinated in it during my high school career. (Myers) taught me a team management perspective.”

Through structured live play drills in practice, Pierce is able to grow a player’s intelligence in playing the game — something he gained from Myers.

Pierce considers Gary Ward one of the best offensive-minded coaches of all-time and styles his Fort Wayne offense based in the Hall of Famer’s philosophy.

After he was done playing (he developed a labrum injury at New Mexico State), Pierce had planned to become an accountant in Albuquerque.

But fate intervened — hiring was curtailed after Sept. 11, 2001 and he was asked to go back to college for more schooling.

Pierce instead pursued coaching, first serving as an assistant at Central Arizona then the University of Arkansas-Little Rock (where he pulled his first tarp) before becoming head coach at Metropolitan State University of Denver for two seasons before becoming head coach at Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne for the 2009 season.

“The early years were hard. I was cutting my teeth,” says Pierce. “But you have to cut your teeth and learn your craft somehow.”

Pierce explains why he has stayed longer in the position than anyone else.

“It speaks to the people I work with and the community,” says Pierce. “The city of Fort Wayne is great. My family (Bobby and Lizette Pierce have two children — Bobby Jr., and Daycee) has grown roots and really love it here.

“I’ve been very fortunate to coach some student-athletes and been around great people. I love this job and I love baseball.”

Fort Wayne pulls many players from northern Indiana and the Indianapolis area, but is able to draw from outside of the state with the school’s policy of out-of-state students paying 150 percent of what in-staters pay.

“Before, we couldn’t afford out-of-state players,” says Pierce. “Their dollar goes further now. Indiana residents are still cheaper on our books. We target Indiana kids. We still like home cooking. We try to turn rocks up here.”

NCAA Division I allows 11.7 scholarships for baseball. Pierce says that of the 35 players on the roster, 27 of them can be on scholarship and those are broken up based on a number of factors, including performance and need.

“There is no such thing as a full-ride,” says Pierce.

Like most programs, most money goes to pitchers and then to the interior of the defense (catcher, shortstop, center field).

“We think we can do a good job of developing hitters,” says Pierce. “We spend the majority of our money in pitching.”

Balance must also be considered.

“Like pro baseball, if you overspend in one area, you are going to be light in another area,” says Pierce. “It becomes a numbers game.”

Pierce is proud to say that the Mastodons have performed well in the classroom with three straight years of 3.0 or higher (on a 4.0 scale) as a team grade-point average. All players are encouraged to graduate in four years and take 15 hours in both the fall and spring semesters.

To help them meet their scholarly goals, schedules are made to limit the amount of missed class time. There is an academic advisor, study halls and the resources of the Mastodon Academic Performance Center.

“I’ve proctored exams,” says Pierce. “Professors on our campus are willing to work with us. We’ve got it figured out.”

Being in the Summit League with Denver, North Dakota, North Dakota State, Omaha, Oral Roberts, South Dakota, South Dakota State and Western Illinois, there is plenty of travel.

But it’s not like the first few years of NCAA Division I status as an independent. That’s when Fort Wayne was on the road for all but a handful of its 56 regular-season games away from Mastodon Field. Having no conference ties meant a berth in the NCAA tournament was virtually impossible.

One former Don player is seeing the world while still playing the game. Caleb Fenimore, a senior catcher on the 2014 team, was recently named the top hitter in the North in the German Professional League. The Rushville Consolidated High School graduate has played in Germany in the summer and Australia in the winter.


Bobby Pierce is entering his 10th season at head coach of Fort Wayne Mastodons baseball in 2018. The NCAA Division I program is a member of the Summit League. (Fort Wayne Mastodons Photo)




LaPorte’s Miller pitching professionally in ‘second home’ of Fort Wayne




Evan Miller was born in LaPorte and learned his baseball in the land of the Slicers.

Fort Wayne has become like a “second home” to Miller, who played baseball at Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne and is now trying make his way in pro ball as a pitcher with the Fort Wayne TinCaps.

“I love this place,” says Miller, who went 10-10 with two saves a 5.39 earned run average in 31 appearances over two seasons while taking general studies classes at IPFW. “There’s plenty to do.”

The 2014 LaPorte High School graduate and Michiana Scrappers travel player was selected by the San Diego Padres in the 22nd round of the 2016 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.

Miller was the third player ever drafted out of the school and became the first former IPFW Mastodon on the TinCaps roster when he appeared in six games with the Low Class-A Midwest League club in 2016.

A 6-foot-2, 185-pound right-hander, Miller has spent 2017 moving between extended spring training in Arizona, the Tri-City Dust Devils in Washington state and Fort Wayne.

“Everything’s a learning experience,” says Miller. “I started off hot, I hit my rough spot and now I’ve gotten my feet back under me and I’m pitching a little better.

“I just want to pitch well and control what I can control. I don’t worry about moving up or down.”

Besides the numbers, what tells Miller things are going right for him?

“I’m throwing strikes,” says Miller. “I’m getting ahead in the count. I’m being consistent with the off-speed and throwing that for strikes.

“I like my fastball. I throw it early and often. I’m trying to get (batters) to swing in the first three pitches.”

In his most recent outing for the TinCaps — July 22 against Kane County — he came out of the bullpen to pitch two-plus innings.

Throwing 30 pitches (23 fastballs and 21 strikes), Miller faced 10 batters and allowed four hits and two earned runs. He tossed a first-pitch strike to six hitters and got ahead 0-2 on three batters.

Three times, he fired pitches shown as 94 mph on the Parkview Field scoreboard and was at 91 or above 22 times.

“If I’m going to get beat, I’m going to get beat with my best pitch, which I think is my fastball,” says Miller, who likes to mix his fastball — which thrown with a four-seam grip but runs and sinks like a two-seamer — with his slider and change-up.

Parents David and Sheree Miller and grandparents Larry and Bev Miller were in the Fort Wayne crowd. LaPorte is only about 100 miles away. When Evan was in college, playing for head coach Bobby Pierce, his dad and grandfather were known to travel as far away as Fargo, N.D., and Tulsa, Okla., to see their boy pitch.

Of course, Evan was a starter most of the time at LaPorte, where he was an honorable mention all-state selection for head coach Scott Upp in 2014, and at IPFW (where he struck out a school-record 94 batters in 80 innings in 2015 and followed that up with 71 K’s in 72 1/3 innings in 2016) so they knew when he was scheduled to play.  There’s not as much certainty coming out of the bullpen, but there are days when relievers are considered “hot” and ready to be used on a given day.


Evan Miller, a 2014 LaPorte High School graduate who pitched at Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne in 2015 and 2016, is now with the Fort Wayne TinCaps in the San Diego Padres organization. (Steve Krah Photo)



Creating opportunities, building character among goals of Michiana Scrappers




With its focus on competition, instruction and development, the Michiana Scrappers travel organization is in its 14th season in 2017.

Began in 2004 with one 15/16 squad — the School of Hard Knocks Scrappers — the Michiana Scrappers now have 17 baseball teams in age groups 9U through 17U (the organization is also involved in softball, basketball and hockey).

There are 260 baseball players and 38 softball players currently playing in tournaments around the Midwest — put on by Baseball Player’s Association, Pastime, United States Speciality Sports Association, Bullpen and others — and training out of The Scrap Yard in Elkhart.

Teams practice twice a week January to April and one to two times a week during the season, which concludes in late July or early August. Tryouts for 2018 are slated for July 29-30 and Aug. 5-6.

Players 9U to 14U are often invited back for the next season. All players 15U and above are asked to try out.

Scrappers founder Brian Blondell reports a low turnover rate of 8 percent.

“Most kids in our organization are not leaving,” says Blondell. “We’re usually filling 1-2 spot max per team.”

Once players try out, coaching staffs will have a chance to offer their sales pitch to the families of players they want. Trying to find the best fit is a priority.

About the time the Scrappers came along, summer high school programs were decreasing and travel ball was growing so then-South Bend St. Joseph assistant Blondell found a place for Indians head coach John Gumpf to send his players in the summer.

“We learned a lot,” says Blondell, who is also director of player operation and a 14U head coach in 2017. In 2005, the organization had swelled seven teams and with interest the growth continued.

Softball was added to the mix in 2014.

While Blondell and his coaches, including Greg Fozo and Buddy Tupper with the current 14U squad, are just as competitive as anyone and the Scrappers have won their share of tournaments, win-at-all-costs is not the driving force.

“Nobody is gaining anything by winning a trophy,” says Blondell. “We’re trying to be as competitive as we possibly can be. The era we’re in — with a lot of parents — everything is driven by awards, placement and trophies.

“We focus on development. If we develop correctly, we’re going to win a lot of championships.”

With a few exceptions, Scrappers players come from the counties surrounding South Bend and Elkhart.

While players are working to make themselves better and — for the older players — get college exposure for themselves, the Scrappers emphasize that baseball is a team game.

“It’s not an individual sport,” says Blondell, the pitching coach at Elkhart Memorial High School (Crimson Chargers head coach Scott Rost and assistant Bruce Baer are Scrappers head coaches) and former head coach at Indiana University South Bend, Holy Cross College and South Bend Riley High School. “We’re about growing and developing a team environment.”

The implied daily question to players: How are you helping our team get better?

After all, high school and college coaches want good teammates and not selfish players.

Distinguished Scrapper alums include Evan Miller (LaPorte H.S.; IPFW; San Diego Padres system), Chad Whitmer (Penn H.S.; Southern Illinois U.; New York Yankees system), Nathan Thomas (Mishawaka Marian H.S.; Northern Illinois U.), Brock Logan (Northrdge H.S.; IPFW), Blake Cleveland (NorthWood H.S.; Central Michigan U.), Shannon Baker (Northridge H.S.; IPFW), Brett Carlson (South Bend Riley H.S.; Austin Peay U.; Purdue U.) and Pat Borlik (South Bend Washington H.S.; Western Michigan U.).

Just like Sam Riggleman — his coach at Bethel College — said to Blondell, Scrappers are expected to “check their ego at the door.”

“We do everything as a team,” says Blondell, whose son Bryce Blondell plays on his squad. “I also want it to feel like family. We allow them to be kids and really enjoy it.”

Mike Logan, head coach of a 16U team in 2017, is in his 11th season with the Scrappers.

The former Northridge High School head coach sees his job as getting college exposure, building up their baseball skills and teaching them life lessons.

Logan tells players and their parents about college opportunities and stresses the academic side of the equation.

“A lot of times schools might not have much athletic money to give,” says Logan. But there is bound to be funds for good students.

Logan points players toward showcases and sends out weekly emails to college coaches giving them the Scrappers schedules, roster, contact numbers and more.

With players coming from so many different backgrounds, Logan and his assistants — Brian Bishop and Chad Sherwood — stay with the fundamentals and build on their foundation of skills.

Most importantly to Logan is developing “young men of character.”

“This game can teach you about failure,” says Logan. “You get to learn to handle adversity at a young aage. When they become adults, it’s for real.”

Logan, which coached older son Brock with the Scrappers and now is with younger son Nick, sees a group of players that it is talented enough to be successful on the diamond and is also tight off the field.

One group text message and the boys are off the movies together.

It’s this kind of philosophy which drew the former Indiana Dirt Devils from the Fremont area to join the organization in 2017 as the 13U Black Scrappers.

“The kids in that organization are amazing,” says 13U pitching coach Geoff Gilbert. “They support each other. (Younger players) know who the better older kids in our organization are they talk about them all the time. They look up to them.

“I brag on my team all the time and they are pretty good, but our kids are even better young men than they are baseball players.”

The Dirt Devils won two BPA World Series titles, finished second in another and high in yet another before hooking up with Blondell and company.

“The Scrappers have a great reputation,” says Gilbert, who counts son and left-hander Carter Gilbert among his pitchers. “They have big-name recognition. We were a little tiny team in a little tiny pond and couldn’t get kids to try out with us. We’ll be drawing from a much bigger talent pool.”

As a single-team organization, the Dirt Devils dictated everything. With the Scrappers, where Blondell handles all the administrative matters, Gilbert, head coach Brian Jordan and assistant Michael Hogan retain control over their roster and some say in their schedule while also benefitting from the bulk buying power of a larger organization which is sponsored by DeMarini and Wilson.

“With everything they had to offer in the winter, it was a great opportunity,” says Gilbert, who works a few nights a week at the Scrap Yard and has daughter Ava Gilbert playing for the 10U Lady Scrappers team. “We decided to make the switch.”

With players spread out, 13U Black practices one day a week in Ashley (near Fremont and Kendallville) and once at either Pierre Moran or Riverview parks in Elkhart or Newton Park in Lakeville. The older teams practice at Elkhart Memorial, Elkhart Central or South Bend Washington high schools. Scrappers softball practices are conducted at Penn High School.

While players 15U and above tend to play after the high school season is over, the younger teams like 13U Black play 10 to 12 tournaments in the spring and summer.



The Michiana Scrappers 13U Black players and families celebrate the Fourth of July. in 2017 (Michiana Scrappers Photo)



Scientific training from Marks helps give state finalist hitters an edge




Better offense through science.

Following the scientific methods prescribed by Mike Marks at the Hitters Edge training facility in Sturgis, Mich., has helped players going after high school state titles in Indiana.

Penn (Class 4A) and South Bend St. Joseph (3A) both go after IHSAA state crowns Saturday, June 17 at Victory Field in Indianapolis.

The Kingsmen (27-6) take on Indianapolis Cathedral (28-0) for the 4A title around 5 p.m. after the Indians (24-4) meet Jasper (30-4) for the 3A championship at approximately 2 p.m.

Among Marks’ weekly pupils are Penn seniors Nolan Metcalf (Kansas University commit), Niko Kavadas (Notre Dame) and Trevor Waite (Dayton) and junior Payton Kerr and St. Joe seniors Tony Carmola and Tyler Kleva (Trine).

“I use analytics and metrics to help them reach their potential,” says Marks. “I’m not the traditional baseball trainer.

“All you have to do is give good athletes information. All I do is use science to prove it to them and then they understand it.”

Marks gets hitters to be able to analyze their own swings.

“I want to know what they did wrong, so they can make an adjustment,” says Marks. “It’s more of a college/pro tech approach. We want a kid to be low maintenance at the next level.”

Marks, who started coaching his own Kalamazoo, Mich., area travel team in 2002-03 and worked at Around The Horn baseball school in Kalamazoo 2004-07 before starting his own place in Sturgis in 2008, talks about the kinetic chain of energy, building the swing from he bottom up.

Metcalf, the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association district player of the year for 2017, has been going to Marks since age 12 with Kavadas, Waite, Carmola and Kleva plus Mishawaka Marian senior Riley Tirotta (Dayton), South Bend Clay senior Trenton Stoner (Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne) also being longtime students. Kerr and South Bend Adams senior Spencer Nelson are newer clients.

Using video analysis and HitTrax technology, Marks talks with these players are many others (he has a long wait list because of demand) about things like launch angle and exit velocity.

Unlike the traditional approach, Marks encourages his hitters to drive the baseball in the air.

“We do not hit down on the ball like I was taught 20 years ago,” says Marks, who played at Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek, Mich. “Line drives over the infielders’ heads leads to extra-base hits. I’d rather see a deep ball to center field than a grounder to shortstop.”

It’s an exciting moment when hitters can inform Marks they had 0 percent ground balls on 100 swings.

The Hitters Edge facility Wall of Fame is filled with many current and former Major League Baseball hitters at the point of contact.

Marks encourages his hitters to find a match and then goes about breaking them down.

“There is a small reconstruction period with kids,” says Marks. “I break the kids down to nothing to teach them core movements that they need to know.

“I want to teach them technique first. Then they can put their own style to the swing.”

Hitters are encouraged to have quick hands and not get jammed at the plate.

Marks wants his hitters to build muscle memory and to become unpredictable at the plate by being able to use all fields and not just pull or hit to the opposite field.

“Then they don’t know how to pitch to you,” says Marks.

IHSAA State Finals players have been tough outs in 2017. Witness some of the Penn numbers.

Penn left-swinging lead-off man Waite is hitting .491 with six home runs, five triples, eight doubles and 40 runs batted in.

Righty Metcalf (.410, 4 HR, 7 2B, 36 RBI), lefty Kavadas (.370, 4 HR, 3 3B, 9 2B, 26 RBI) and righty Kerr (.377, 1 HR, 5 2B, 23 RBI) have also been potent.

Then there’s righty-swinging St. Joe boys Carmola (.446, 3 HR, 4 3B, 12 2B, 28 RBI) and Kleva (.360, 1 HR, 9 2B, 31 RBI).


Hitters Edge instructor Mike Marks meets up with three pupils (from left): Penn High School and Indiana Nitro travel baseball players Trevor Waite, Nolan Metcalf and Niko Kavadas. The three Kingsmen have helped their team into the 2017 IHSAA Class 4A state championship game.