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Hershberger’s Ivy Tech Titans fight way to 25-18 in inaugural season

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Nobody said it would be easy — particularly Lance Hershberger — but Ivy Tech Community College Northeast completed its inaugural season in 2018 at 25-18.

For various reasons, the Fort Wayne-based Titans wound up the season with a roster of 14 — Alec Agler (Fort Wayne Northrop), Nick Bradley (Fort Wayne Concordia Lutheran), Trey Bruce (East Noble), Drew Buffenbarger (Churubusco), Andrew Carpenter (Lakewood Park Christian), Drew Dobbels (Bellmont), Turner Gentry (Lexington, Ky.), Zack Haefer (East Noble), Deven Hill (Richmond, Mich.), Brandon Jencks (Churubusco), Zach Orn (Eastside), Noah Parish (Fort Wayne Concordia), Tyler Rickert (Leo) and Alex Vela (Indianapolis Cardinal Ritter) — and 12 able bodies.

There were no backups for position players. Rickert caught 18 straight games.

Head coach Hershberger, whose passion was captured by IndianaRBI.com last summer, calls them “The Dirty Dozen.”

“We fought tooth and nail and I give them all kinds of credit.,” says Hershberger. “They never made an excuse for it. I’d like to think that reflected the demands of their coaches. We didn’t cut them any slack.

“We were trying to get them to withstand all the things it was going to take to be successful with that few people.”

Ivy Tech, a two-year school, took the field as independents without conference affiliation.

Because of less-than-ideal meteorlogical conditions, Ivy Tech cobbled together a schedule that only slightly resembled the original 54-game sale.

“It wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on part way through the season because of the weather,” says Hershberger. “It got to the point that we’d play whoever. We had to go find people to play.”

The Titans wound up sending his squad against Kellogg (Battle Creek, Mich.) and Sinclair (Dayton, Ohio) — ranked Nos. 2 and 17, respectively, in the latest National Junior College Athletic Association Division II polls — a combined 10 times. “As the season went along, it got even tougher (to find games) because they found out we weren’t an easy win.”

Asked many times why they would choose to pick up games against the two toughest teams in Region 12, Hershberger had a ready answer.

“It was kind of house money because we can’t participate in the regional the first year,” says Hershberger. “But you can look across the diamond and see where you need to get to.

“When I was at Indiana Tech (1991-2002), we played as many (NCAA) D-I’s as would play us. That’s how you get better.”

It was a fun weekend for Hershberger. All but two of the players from the 1998 NAIA World Series runners-up came from all over the country to Fort Wayne for the Indiana Tech Athletics Hall of Fame induction of the squad. The coach had the honor of introducing each of the Warriors.

“It was a great time,” says Hershberger.

He was back at Indiana Tech a few days later when Ivy Tech had a makeup game against Edison State (Piqua, Ohio) and Shoaff Park was occupied by Fort Wayne Bishop Dwenger High School.

After the contest, Hershberger was admiring the championship banners his Indiana Tech teams had earned.

Then one of his Ivy Tech players came to the outfield to join him.

“He says, ‘Coach. Hey, I just want to tell you thanks for everything. I’d probably be dead if I wasn’t here playing for you.’ … He meant it. I could see it in his eyes. We started hugging and I started balling.

“I haven’t hugged and been told ‘I love you’ and said ‘I love you’ with so many grown men since the last couple of days.”

Full of emotion, Hershberger was so wound up after the final game that he and faithful dog Ryno just drove around town.

Hershberger had been coaching in high school and travel baseball with the Summit City Sluggers  the last few years, but had not coached college players since leaving Indiana Tech.

In his postgame remarks, Hershberger told his Titans, “I want to thank you for allowing me to get back into college baseball. That’s how I’m going to remember this group.

“I told (assistants Dru Sebastian and Benny Clark) that they’re young coaches and may coach another 30 years,” says Hershberger. But they may never get so much out of a team. We finished with 12 players.”

Connor Wilkins is also an assistant coach. Part-time help comes from Jim Cahill and Tony Georgi, mostly in the area of community outreach in the Urban Initiative Program that Hershberger and company run through Community Impact Zone/Strike Zone Training.

Hershberger had let those that were there at the beginning of the year know that the standards were set high.

Players reported three days at week at 6 a.m. for workouts at Optimum Performance Sports. There was practice every day after school and three nights of study table each week.

It was too much of a commitment for some and they didn’t stay.

“They said, wait a second. This isn’t LSU, it’s Ivy Tech,” says Hershberger. “But you’ve got to start the expectations.”

A history buff, Hershberger borrowed a page from Sam Houston and the line in the sand during the fight for Texas independence in the 1830’s.

Wielding a sword from the school mascot, Hershberger came to practice and drew his own line.

“Step across if you’re buying into this. If you’re not, get out of here,” says Hershberger of what he told his players that day. “We’re going to move forward with this.”

Hershberger knows that he can be polarizing and is unapologetically old school. He frequently quotes former University of Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler: “Those who stay will be champions.”

“Difficult. Hard. Demanding. Being in good physical shape. No excuses,” says Hershberger. “Those aren’t bad words in our program.

“That’s not for everybody. I don’t think it’s antiquated either.

“I tell recruits that there isn’t a whole lot of gray area. It’s black-and-white. You either buy in or you don’t.

“The worst thing you can say about a coach is, ‘Oh, he’s OK.’ There are too many kids sleepwalking though life. You need to be passionate about what you’re doing. If they say ‘he’s a horse’s patoot’ at least he’s passionate about it.”

Hershberger tells recruits and our players that the goal is to get to Enid, Okla., and win a national championship .

“That’s not hot air,” says Hershberger. “That’s what we want to do and that’s extremely difficult.

“The standard that they’re held to is the perfect game. You seek perfection and settle for greatness. The less mistakes you make, the better chance you have of winning a national championship.

“There’s going to be demands put upon you. You’re going to be challenged. That’s where we’re coming from.”

Hershberger doesn’t expect his teams to win every game, but he insists they play the game the right way.

“The selling point to me about junior college baseball is that you get to teach the game,” says Hershberger.

Looking to 2018-19, Ivy Tech has signed 17 new recruits to put with the 14 who intend to come back for their second and final season.

Ivy Tech could be independent again or find a home in the Ohio Community College Athletic Conference.

Fundraising efforts are needed to bring an on-campus stadium that would be shared with Dwenger. Hershberger says the Titans could go back to Shoaff Park or find a home at the Ash Centre.

Whatever happens with Ivy Tech with Hershberger in charge, one thing is certain:  It won’t be easy.

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Ivy Tech Community College Northeast in Fort Wayne finished its inaugural baseball season in 2018 with 14 on the roster and wound up 25-18. (Ivy Tech Photo)

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Ivy Tech baseball coaches from left: Head coach Lance Hershberger and assistants Benny Clark, Dru Sebastian and Connor Wilkins. The Fort Wayne-based Titans just concluded their first season with a 25-18 record. (Steve Krah Photo)

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Oakland City’s Fletcher enjoys watching Mighty Oaks grow as ballplayers, students

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Drawn to a private Christian school in southern Indiana renowned for its education, Kentucky native T-Ray Fletcher went to Oakland City University in the early 1990’s as a student-athlete and never really left the campus in Gibson County.

After graduating in the spring 1995, Fletcher was named to the OCU baseball staff for the fall. By the spring, he was the Mighty Oaks head coach and 2018 will mark his 24th season.

“It was one of those right place at the right time situations,” says Fletcher, who was a catcher for the Oaks after playing at Madisonville North Hopkins High School. He was junior varsity as an eighth and ninth grader and varsity his last three years.

“(Oakland City) used to be known as the teacher/preacher school and it is still known for the School of Education and School of Business,” says Fletcher. “It’s a strong academic school.

“As a part of our core principles and values, we set the example of what other athletes should be on campus. We’re pretty adamant about class attendance. We give them resources to succeed academically. Drugs and alcohol are not going to be tolerated here.”

Fletcher, an Oakland City University Intercollegiate Athletic Hall of Fame inductee, says communication is the key to making it all happen and most of his players have graduated and flourished in a structured environment.

“Kids still want to be coached and they still want discipline,” says Fletcher.

At one time, the coach had 16 former players coaching high school or travel baseball in the Indiana-Kentucky-Illinois tri-state area.

Among six players Fletcher has sent into professional baseball, the most recent is Eric Barnes, who was recently named head baseball coach at Boonville High School.

In 2017, Oakland City went 18-29 and made its 12th National Christian Collegiate Athletic Association tournament appearance on Fletcher’s watch (the Oaks placed ninth after finishing third in 2016).

In 2016, Fletcher passed the 400-win plateau and has the most victories in the long history of the program.

Oakland City is also an NCAA Division II member — one of just three baseball-playing schools in Indiana. The others are the University of Indianapolis and the University of Southern Indiana. Saint Joseph’s College was D-II, but that school closed at the end of the 2016-17 school year.

By comparison, Indiana collegiate baseball boasts nine in NCAA D-I (Ball State, Butler, Evansville, Fort Wayne, Indiana, Indiana State, Notre Dame, Purdue, Valparaiso), nine in NCAA D-III (Anderson, DePauw, Earlham, Franklin, Hanover, Manchester, Rose-Hulman, Trine, Wabash), 13 in NAIA (Bethel, Calumet of Saint Joseph, Goshen, Grace, Huntington, Indiana Tech, Indiana University Kokomo, Indiana University South Bend, Indiana University Southeast, Marian, Purdue Northwest, Saint Francis, Taylor) and three in the National Junior College Athletic Association (Ancilla, Ivy Tech Northeast, Vincennes).

While there is no set number of athletic scholarships available, Fletcher says athletes at Oakland City can get scholarship money through a combination of academic and athletic performance and economic need. A dollar amount is divided among athletes.

“We do not offer full-ride scholarships to any athlete on campus,” says Fletcher. “We’re looking for a strong academic kid who can be supplemented from athletic money. You get a good package here.”

OCU typically has 450 to 500 students. The incoming freshmen class of 100 was the biggest in a decade. The 2010 census had nearly 2,500 folks living in the town of Oakland City, making it the third-largest in Gibson County behind Princeton and Fort Branch.

An independent with no conference affiliation, Oakland City does play several schools in the Great Lakes Valley Conference and Great Midwest Athletic Conference — both D-II leagues.

“My whole philosophy is to play the best competition we can play to challenge our athletes and also give us a chance to succeed,” says Fletcher, who typically carries a roster of 25 to 30 with only a varsity schedule.

Fletcher handles recruiting for the Oaks. Most most players come from Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois. But there have been some from Canada, Puerto Rico and Venezuela as well as New York and Ohio.

“We’re located in a good geographic area for baseball in my opinion,” says Fletcher.

Oakland City plays on-campus on Brooks C. Pinnick Memorial Field. The facility has been upgraded over the years. In 2014, the outfield grass and drainage system was re-done and the Oaks spent much of the season on the road.

Fletcher’s assistant coaches for 2018 are former OCC players Alex Portee’ (fourth season) and Zach Deutsch (second season). Washington (Ind.) High Schoolg graduate Portee’ is the Oaks pitching coach. Deutsch went to Evansville Harrison High School and played two seasons at Vincennes University and two at Oakland City.

Tommy Ray Fletcher II has gone by T-Ray since age 1. He was given that nickname when older brother Zane asked why there were two Tommy Ray’s in the household of Tommy Ray and Judy Fletcher.

“(Zane) was a big influence on me at an early age,” says T-Ray of the brother who died in 2015. “He was a big fan of the Big Red Machine (Cincinnati Reds of the 1970’s) and really got me introduced to baseball at an early age.”

T-Ray became a Chicago Cubs fan and tries to attend a game at Wrigley Field each year.

It’s not always easy with a busy schedule that includes coaching, serving at OCU as assistant athletic director as well as in Compliance and the School of Business (he teaches three classes each semester) while spending time with wife Maddie and their three daughters — Sophie (10), Avery (8) and Alaine (4).

The Fletchers reside in Evansville. T-Ray also has two younger siblings — Brandon and Chiara.

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T-Ray Fletcher, a 1995 Oakland City University graduate, has been the Mighty Oaks head baseball coach since the 1996 season and has more than 400 victories. OCU is a member of both the National Christian College Athletic Association and NCAA Division II. (Oakland City U. Photo)

 

Hershberger pouring baseball passion into new Ivy Tech Northeast community college program

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Twice in a lifetime.

Lance Hershberger is starting another college baseball program in his native Fort Wayne.

Hershberger, who turns 62 Friday, June 9, built the Indiana Tech program from the ground up (1991-2003) and took the Warriors to multiple NAIA College World Series trips.

Now, Hershberger is heading up the new squad at Ivy Tech Northeast — the third community college baseball program in Indiana, following Vincennes University and Ancilla College. It also brings the number of Indiana college programs at all levels to 36.

Hershberger and his assistants — Connor Wilkins, Dru Sebastian, Todd Armstrong and and Mark Delagarza — are currently on the recruiting trail for the Ivy Tech Northeast Titans, which will field a team in the National Junior College Athletic Association Division II in 2017-18. Teams are allowed to play 56 spring games with more contests in the fall.

Hershberger would like to carry about a 25 players the first year. That’s a minimum of four outfielders, three middle infielders, four corner infielders, three of four catchers and as many pitchers as he can get.

“If we get 100 kids in here for visits, we’ll meet our 25,” says Hershberger. “The excitement level’s there.”

As an NJCAA D-II school, Ivy Tech Northeast is eligible to provide athletic scholarships limited to tuition, books, fees, and course required supplies. The school is researching the possibility of joining a conference in the region.

Hershberger, who was inducted last weekend into the Northeast Indiana Baseball Association Hall of Fame and coaches the Summit City Sluggers 16U travel team which includes son Grant (daughter Maddie just graduated from Homestead High School), is educating folks about community college baseball.

“I think there’s really a place for a JUCO here in northern Indiana,” says Hershberger. “In Indiana there’s a big void of knowledge about junior college. A lot of players think it’s a step down (from NCAA Divisions I, II and II and NAIA).

“You go south and you go west and they understand what they’re about.”

Hershberger, a Wawasee Prepatory School and Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne graduate (he also attended the University of Saint Francis) who has also coached high school ball at Fort Wayne Concordia Lutheran, Fort Wayne Bishop Luers, Fort Wayne Bishop Dwenger and Whitko and with the Wildcat Baseball League, lists some of the main reasons a player chooses a junior college:

1. His grades weren’t good enough to go to a four-year school.

2. Maybe he was drafted and didn’t get the round or the money he wanted and doesn’t want to wait until after his junior year to get drafted again.

3. He’s not big enough yet or needs to work on his skills.

The top two objectives when Hershberger was flying high at Indiana Tech were compete for the national championships (during Hershberger’s tenure, the Warriors won 407 games and were NAIA World Series runner-up in 1998 and a fifth-place finisher in 2003 as well as a World Series participant in 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002 ) and send players on to the professional ranks.

While winning is important, development and getting a player ready for the next level will be the top priorities at Ivy Tech Northeast.

“Every program I run or am coaching for is going to compete we want to win,” says Hershbeger. “But we’re going to get kids ready.”

Hershberger (Kansas City Kansas), Wilkins (Jackson of Michigan) and Sebastian (Owens of Ohio) all played community college baseball. Hershberger is excited that Ivy Tech Northeast chancellor Jerrilee Mosier once worked at Allen Community College in Iola, Kan., which is in the same conference at KCK.

“She gets it,” says Hershberger of Mosier. “She knows what it takes.

“If we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it right or I’m not in. You can be a great coach at the college level, but if you don’t have the resources to get players it doesn’t matter.”

State Representative Bob Morris has also helped make baseball at Ivy Tech Northeast a reality.

Hershberger notes all the ties to northeast Indiana with the Kankakee (Ill.) Community College team that won the 2017 NJCAA Division II World Series.

Assistant coach Bryce Shafer (Northfield High School) played for the Sluggers, Valparaiso University and in the Chicago Cubs organization. KCC’s 2017 roster included Logan Gallaway (Fort Wayne Bishop Luers), Noah Hoeffel (Fort Wayne Bishop Luers), Devin Peters (Churubusco), Pancho Luevano (West Noble), Waylon Richardson (West Noble) and Brennan Kelly (Southwood) plus Indiana products Benjamin Clevenger (Carmel) and Caleb Matthews (RoncallIi).

“We hope to keep some of (the local talent) home,” says Hershberger, “We would eventually like to recruit nationally, but I don’t think we can every forget that we are a community college.”

The NCAA D-I College World Series is slated for June 17-27/28. Hershberger promises that the eight teams in Omaha will have rosters with plenty of players from junior colleges.

Hershberger signed on at Indiana Tech in late July, meaning that it was too late in the recruiting cycle to bring in much talent and the first squad went 0-23.

“I think it better positioned starting out than Indiana Tech was,” says Hershberger. “People find that hard to believe because they look at the stadium down there (at the corner of Washington Boulevard and Anthony Road) which I designed. They see the end product.”

All that happened over time. When Indiana Tech was national runners-up in 1998, the Warrior Field had one set of bleachers behind a chain link backstop (most fans sat on the berm), wooden bleachers and the “press box” was a card table with scoreboard controller.

“There’s going to be bumps,” says Hershberger of the Ivy Tech Northeast program. “There’s going to be naysayers. Indiana Tech was the same way.

“(Baseball) put vibrancy into that school. We’re hoping to do it again.”

As he does with all his other baseball ventures, Hershberger is bringing passion and “ridiculous attention to detail.”

He has already been checking on the facilities at Ivy Tech Northeast’s North and South campuses, picked out “old school” green and white uniform designs, met with planners on a baseball stadium (the Titans are likely to play home games at Shoaff Park until a field can be constructed on the north campus behind the Innovation Center on Stellhorn Road), talked with local patrons about funding and on and on.

“I’m really busy,” says Hershberger. “I’m really tired. But it’s a good tired. I’m really fulfilling what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m involved in all kinds of baseball stuff in Fort Wayne.

“It’s what I do. I’m a baseball coach, a baseball guy.”

Besides getting Ivy Tech baseball up and running, he’s also the executive director of Community Impact Zone, a non-profit organization that is partnering with groups like Boys & Girls Clubs of Fort Wayne, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northeast Indiana and the Euell Wilson Center bring the game to intercity kids at Fort Wayne’s Strike Zone Training Center, 4141 N. Clinton.

Ivy Tech will also do its indoor workouts at the facility.

“It’s a been a dream of mine for a long time, this urban initiative,” says Hershberger. “I don’t want to walk away from it right when I’m finally getting it going. I don’t want kids to limit their options or their horizons. I want them to look at baseball as a viable option for college and beyond.

Many area high schools have already volunteered to the Community Impact Zone instructors.

Hershberger is working with urban leaders to get young adults from the community to observe his coaches so they can take knowledge back to their neighborhoods and maybe rejuvenate local youth leagues.

“I love teaching the game,” says Hershberger.

He does that for players from college age on down to kindergartners.

Baseball. It’s what he does.

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Lance Hershberger has been involved in many baseball ventures in his hometown of Fort Wayne in his 62 years. The latest include the new Ivy Tech Northeast community college program along with Community Impact Zone. (Steve Krah Photo)