By STEVE KRAH
Kokomo, Ind., touts itself as the “City of Firsts” with claims to America’s first commercially-produced automobile and more.
Northwestern High School is enjoying some its own “firsts.”
For the first time, the Tigers have artificial turf on three of their athletic fields — baseball, football and softball.
As Phase 1 of a improvement campaign, a committee of administrators, teachers, parents and community members used grant money to make the upgrades. While not yet determined, a second phase could bring lighted fields and academic improvements.
Fourth-year head baseball coach Ryan Ward got a chance to send his baseball players on the carpet for the first time during fall workouts.
“If it’s warm enough, we can take some kids out there in January and February,” says Ward. “We have the best practice field in the state, especially a school our size (enrollment around 550).”
As the Tigers play their first season on the new-look field in 2018, Ward will continue to assert some other firsts — something he has done since taking over as head coach in 2015 after serving on Kyle Beachy’s staff for the IHSAA Class 3A Twin Lakes Sectional-winning 2014 season.
“We want to play an aggressive style of baseball,” says Ward. “For pitchers, we emphasize first-pitch strikes. As hitters, we look for to drive early in the counts. As baserunners, we will be aggressive. If we make mistakes, they are aggressive mistakes. That’s the brand of ball we’re trying to play.
Ward knows it’s not always easy teenagers to make the right catch, throw and tag in the heat of the moment, so he is going to have his players force the issue.
“We’ve got to keep empowering the kids on our team,” says Ward. “The more we can force our opponents to do, the better chance they are going to make mistakes and give ourselves a better chance to win.”
Ward graduated from Hickory High School in Hermitage, Pa. (about 75 miles northwest of Pittsburgh), in 2009.
Gary Hinkson was Ward’s high school coach. He saw the potential for Ward to go into the profession.
“He gave me that encouragement and motivation,” says Ward of Hinkson, who would win 301 games at Hickory from 1994-2015. “He treated us (players) like we were major leaguers. We carried on the expectations that he set for us.”
In Ward’s sophomore season (2007), the Hickory Hornets won their first Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association District 10 title in 10 years, repeated the feat the next spring and lost in the district championship game in 2009.
At Northwestern, Ward prepares his Tigers for competition in the Hoosier Conference and athletic director and former Northwestern baseball coach Dan Armstrong schedules many other teams in the Kokomo and Lafayette areas.
The HC is split into two divisions — Northwestern, Cass, Hamilton Heights, Tipton and Western in the East and Benton Central, Lafayette Central Catholic, Rensselaer Central, Twin Lakes and West Lafayette in the West.
Teams play all the schools in their division in home-and-home series on Wednesdays and Thursdays with crossover games at the end. The top teams in each division square off the title with East Division No. 2 facing West Division No. 2 and so on.
Ward, who counts Jeff Trueblood and Dan Butcher as assistant coaches for 2018, gears his pitching staff toward conference games.
“We have our Wednesday starter and Thursday starter,” says Ward. “It helps pitchers get into a routine and guys are working to be a conference starters.”
In 2017, the IHSAA implemented 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 love the intent of the rules,” says Ward. “It’s putting the focus on the health of the athlete. I’d like to see better communication on how we execute the rule between coaches, umpires and the IHSAA.
“Wow do we keep improving it?”
Northwestern doesn’t have to look far to see the future of its program since the Northwestern Youth Baseball League (T-ball through major baseball) is housed on school grounds and seventh and eighth grade teams play 15 to 20 games in the spring on the varsity field. Truebood, a Northwestern graduate who played college baseball, is NYBL president. Joel Downey and Bruce Smith are middle school coaches.
“From the time they’re 6, they think about wearing purple one day,” says Ward. “They are coming back as alumni. We’re putting the focus on the Northwestern school district and those relationships.”
Many high school-age Tigers play in the summer for travel teams or Kokomo American Legion Post 6.
Ward went to Butler University with the idea of playing baseball, but was cut in his freshman year. He still respects then-Bulldogs head coach Steve Farley as a mentor.
“He was honest with me,” says Ward, who earned a degree from Butler in 2013 and began teaching fifth grade at Northwestern Elementary that fall. Ryan and wife Katelyn, a 2008 Kokomo High School graduate and third grade teacher in Kokomo schools at Lafayette Park International Elementary, were wed in September 2016 and live in the Northwestern district.
Ryan Ward and wife, Katelyn, are both elementary school teachers — Ryan in the Northwestern district, Katelyn in Kokomo. Ward is entering his fourth season as Northwestern High School head baseball coach in 2018.