Tag Archives: IUK

IU Kokomo’s Cheek emphasizes competition, classroom, community

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Ryan Cheek spent the summer collegiate baseball season of 2015 playing for the Kokomo Jackrabbits.

Coming off his first season as a pitcher at Indiana State University, Cheek played for manager Matt Howard.

The two maintained a relationship and Cheek came back to town as an assistant to head coach Howard at Indiana University Kokomo. The 2021 season will be his third with the Cougars.

“I love it,” says Cheek of working with the energetic Howard. “He will push you day in and day out to be a better leader on or off the field.

“What I enjoy most about him is he gives freedom (to his assistants) as if we were in-charge. I can make the pitching program my own. There is trust my abilities.”

Cheek, 26, is not only IUK’s pitching coach but he leads the program’s academic supervision and community service and helps with camps.

At pitching coach, he looks for aggressiveness and competitiveness. 

“What we strive to do is attack hitters,” says Cheek. “We recruit a lot of guys who are athletes that go out and compete. They piece it together inning by inning and put up zeros.”

Cheek wants his hurlers to trust their defense.

“We have plenty of gold glovers on the field so pound the zone,” says Cheek. “Execution is big for us.”

Knowing that not all pitchers are the same, Cheek looks to get each one to identify what makes them successful.

“Every guy is going to have different pitches and different sequences that they throw,” says Cheek, who knows some will around 90 mph with their fastball while others will have to pitch backwards, starting with a breaking ball and spotting their fastball.

“It’s about letting them know their success and know what they have to bring to the table,” says Cheek. “When they take pride int he role they have that’s where you start to see success.”

About half way through fall practice, IUK pitchers (a group that includes Ryan’s brother, Kacey Cheek) are currently in COVID-19 quarantine.

“It’s been a tough fall,” says Cheek. “It make guys see the picture of how they approach each day with an appreciation and a full passion for the game.”

That can be said of the whole squad, which includes returning college players who had their spring season cut short and incoming freshmen who had their senior high school seasons canceled.

Cheek and the other IUK coaches encourage them to respect the game but also have passion.

“Show up with a chip on their shoulder,” says Cheek. “Keep a goal in mind each day and don’t let a day pass.”

Because of the pandemic, the NAIA has granted an extra year of eligibility to those who want to use it.

Among those back to lead the Cougars are right-handed pitcher Renton Poole (at Bloomington High School South graduate who was selected in the 28th round of the 2018 Major League First-Year Player Draft by the Texas Rangers but opted to stay in college) and infielder Austin Weiler.

While being aware of contact tracing, IUK baseball coaches work to separate players on the field and in the weight room. With pitchers away, there are a number of machine scrimmages. 

“We’ll have developmental work and one-on-one work when pitchers come back,” says Cheek.

As an academic supervisor, Cheek makes sure players are keeping up their grades up. He stays in-touch with professors and sets study table hours.

“They’re coming to IUK to get an IU degree and play baseball,” says Cheek. “The goal is to get these guys to where they want to go in life.

“My goal is to make sure they’re reaching their goals in the classroom.”

IUK students are currently taking a hybrid of in-person and online classes. After Thanksgiving to the end of the semester that will be all online.

While COVID-19 regulations and protocols has limited what players can do at the moment, there was plenty of community service with local groups last fall. Cheek says that each team member did up to 25 hours in the fall while meeting Kokomo know they care.

Cougars associate head coach Drew Brantley heads up camps and is helped by Cheek and Howard.

Cheek took his current job after serving as varsity boys basketball and varsity baseball coach at his alma mater Oblong (Ill.) High School. In 2018 and 2019, he coached Britton’s Bullpen 16U travel team.

As a player, Cheek was in spring training with the independent professional Evansville (Ind.) Otters in 2017.

Cheek pitched two seasons at Indiana State University (2015 and 2016) and two at Vincennes (Ind.) University (2013 and 2014).

As a right-handed collegiate pitcher, Cheek went 10-5 in 32 mound appearances (16 starts) at VU and 2-0 in 11 games (all in relief) at ISU.

Cheek was the National Junior College Athletic Association Division II Region 12 MVP in 2014 and helped Vincennes make the NJCAA D-II World Series (placing seventh).

He earned Management and Marketing degree from Indiana State in 2016.

Mitch Hannahs was the head coach and Jordan Tiegs the pitching coach at ISU.

Cheek went to youth camps run by Hannahs when the latter was coaching at Lincoln Trail College in Robinson, Ill.

“He’s one of the greatest coaches I’ve ever played under,” says Cheek of Hannahs. “He understands the game and knows how to compete.

“He helped me grow as a player and a person.”

Tiegs, who is now a coach in the Rangers organization, had an impact on Cheek.

“He was really smart and knew how to develop guys,” says Cheek of Tiegs. “He really sparked my interest about what a routine meant and entailed — throwing everyday, arm health, your body moving correctly and competing at a high level.”

Cheek appreciates his time with Vincennes head coach Chris Barney.

“He knew the game,” says Cheek of Barney. “He was a little Old School, but I loved it.”

The term “JUCO bandit” is used in baseball circles these days. Cheek tells what it means to him.

“They are guys who are hard-nosed and a little blue collar,” says Cheek. “It was a really good fit for myself to go junior college route. I learned a lot about myself — who I am as a person and player.”

Without the time restrictions of the NCAA and NAIA, junior college players have the chance to spend plenty of time working on their craft.

“We had a fall and spring season and a lot of competition,” says Cheek. “You’d get out of class and then be at the field for six hours at a time.

“We learned what ‘no off days’ meant,” says Cheek. “You didn’t get many.”

Cheek grew up in Oblong, which is Crawford County about 20 miles from the Indiana line and Sullivan County, Indiana. 

The 2012 OHS graduate played golf for coach Jason Hartke, basketball for coach Brent Harper and baseball for coach Dave Miller.

Richard and Kelly Cheek have three children — Ryan, Kacey (20) and Lincoln Trail College freshman Katie (18). 

Ryan Cheek, a graduate of Oblong (Ill.) High School, Vincennes (Ind.) University and Indiana State University, is heading into his third season as a baseball assistant coach at Indiana University Kokomo in 2020-21. (IU Kokomo Photo)

Heard takes on leadership role for Indiana University Kokomo baseball

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Indiana University Kokomo wasted little time in getting on the collegiate baseball map.

The Cougars’ debut season of 2018 yielded a 31-21-1 record, followed by 36-17 in 2018. IUK was 11-8 through its first 19 games of 2020.

“I’m really proud of where the program’s at,” says Indiana Kokomo head coach Matt Howard. “We’ve been lucky to get a lot of really good student-athletes to come to IUK that have believed in me and believed in our process.

“We’ve been able to accomplish some pretty cool things pretty quickly. We’re still hungry. We still want to be one of — if not the best — NAIA programs in the state.”

IU Kokomo is a member of the River States Conference. The campus is located along South Washington Street, about two miles south of downtown, where the Cougars’ home field — Kokomo Municipal Stadium — is located.

“I tell guys you get a Division I experience here,” says Howard. “You get a Big Ten degree and facility and get some pretty good coaching as well. The only small-school thing about our set-up is our campus.”

One of the student-athletes that was there from the beginning of the baseball program is Jared Heard. Once a first baseman and left-handed pitcher, he was converted into an outfielder at New Castle (Ind.) High School and began to flourish.

Swinging from the left side of the plate, Heard hit .341 with one home run, 40 runs batted in, 54 runs scored and 19 stolen bases in 28 attempts as an IUK freshman in 2018.

In 2019, he hit .337 with seven homers, 33 RBIs, 41 runs and was 16-of-17 in steals.

Through 19 games in 2020, he was hitting .350 with three homers, 15 RBIs, 21 runs and was 3-of-3 in swiping bases.

“Everyone sees the impact he has on the field,” says Howard of Heard. “That is not even close to the impact that he has for us. He’s a great guy, great teammate, great leader, great captain. He’s a guy that just does everything the right way.

“Our program is where it’s at largely because of him.”

Howard says he didn’t know that much about Heard when he recruited him.

“We were starting a program and just kind of throwing a wide net,” says Howard. “We were bringing in everyone we thought could be talented and see what we could do with them. Jared turned out to be a diamond in the rough and a guy a lot of other people should have been recruiting.

“We’re lucky that he ended up here. He’s done a great job for us — on and off the field.”

On a team with several new faces this season, Heard is embracing his leadership role.

“As one of the captains of the team and someone who knows the ins and outs of program so far, that’s one of the biggest things,” says Heard, who shares the title of captain with junior left-handed starting pitcher Owen Callaghan (Hamilton Southeastern High School graduate) and sophomore outfielder Mark Goudy (Noblesville High School graduate).

Heard, a general studies major with minors in psychology and sociology, gets instructions from the coaching staff — associate head coach Drew Brantley (Western High School graduate), assistant Ryan Cheek and student assistant Tyler Lunger — and relays them to his teammates, answering questions when necessary.

“On or off the field, you’ve just got to be that guy who’s open to everybody on the team,” says Heard, who chose to come to Kokomo after hearing Howard’s vision. “I thought this was going to be a better fit for me than other schools.

“I love it here.”

About a month ago, Heard found out that he has a labrum injury meaning he can’t throw and play left field. He has been the Cougars’ designated hitter.

“It’s been a big adjustment for me,” says Heard. “If I’m having a bad day at the plate, I use the field to fuel me up for the rest of the day. If I’m having a bad day in the field, I use the plate to fuel me.

“It’s a big change when you’re used to playing the game the whole time. It’s a big change when you’re sitting in the dugout. I have time to think about my at-bat and what I did wrong and what I did right, but I do like cheering on my teammates.”

Heard has been used anywhere in the first four or five slots in the IUK batting order, dependent upon and opposing pitcher.

“Anywhere you put him, he’s going to be dangerous,” says Howard. “He’s going to be circled by the other team.”

What role does Heard like best?

“I’d say around the 2- to 4-hole,” says Heard. “I was the lead-off hitter my freshmen and sophomore year. That was a big change for me. In high school, I was always a 3- or 4-hole hitter.

“(Howard) told me I had a very different swing than some people. It’s not the most fundamental, but it worked and it helped me get on-base.”

Heard says his swing has not changed, but his role has.

“Over the course of time, I’ve gotten bigger and stronger,” says Heard, who is listed at 5-foot-11 and 198 pounds. That size and muscle has led to more power — often gap-to-gap, but sometimes he pops it over the fence.

At New Castle, Heard played for head coach Brad King (now head coach at Mt. Vernon of Fortville).

“He’s a great coach in my eyes,” says Heard of King. “He really helped me out in my pursuit of playing college baseball. I love him to death. He helped me get to where I am today.”

Heard play for various travel baseball teams, the last being the Indiana Bulls coached by Troy Drosche (who is also head coach at Avon High School).

Jared’s parents are Gary and Melanie Heard. Sister Destiny Heard played collegiate softball.

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Jared Heard, an Indiana University Kokomo junior, has been with the Cougars since they started their baseball program in 2018. He has become a leader for a team that has already gotten used to success. (Steve Krah Photo)