Nick Spence wants to bring pep to the steps of ballplayers in yet another part of Hendricks County, Ind. Spence, who played and coached at nearby Brownsburg (Ind.) High School and coached at neighboring Avon (Ind.) High School, was hired as head baseball coach at Tri-West High School in Lizton, Ind., in August 2021 and set about spreading his enthusiasm from the youth level on up. “I want my kids to be excited to be a part of Tri-West baseball,” says Spence. “It’s easier to get kids to play when they’re excited to come to the ballpark. “I’ve gotten nothing but positive vibes from the community.” The fall IHSAA Limited Contact Period was mostly about getting to know athletes and showing them what he plans to implement. “I’m pretty fiery and I’m energetic,” says Spence. “We want competition to come through with whatever we’re doing. Baseball is an individual game played by a team. “Baseball is a sport of failure and you have to learn from failure. Don’t let it come to your next AB or on the mound with you.” A big believer in situational baseball, Spence prefers to devote his practices to either offense or defense. “I’m not a big station guy,” says Spence, who looks forward to the first official IHSAA practice date of March 14. Spence’s coaching staff includes Bryan Engelbrecht and Adam Montgomery with the varsity, Gordie Lucas and James Miller with the JV and Mike Gongwer as youth coordinator. Engelbrecht is a longtime Tri-West coach. Montgomery and Gongwer were with Spence at Avon. He wants establish his system and spread the excitement at the youngest levels. “In the past, we’ve had a really good community-based program at Tri-West,” says Spence, who remarried on Dec. 20, 2021 and lives with wife Allison in Pittsboro, Ind. (Nick has three children from a previous marriage all attending Brownsburg schools — junior Madyson (who turns 17 next week), eighth grader Easton (14) and fifth grader Maya (10). “I’ve been working with youth directors, trying to get that back.” Younger players will be involved with Tri-West Little League and Bruin Heat. Spence says he can see that morphing into the Tri-West Baseball Club by 2023. That’s when Tri-West High is scheduled to debut a four-field baseball/softball complex. “They’re starting to push dirt,” says Spence of the project that will bring varsity and junior varsity grass fields with stadium seating, netting and more. In addition, coaches offices and a hitting tunnel will be located on the north end of the football field. “It’ll beautiful.” Spence played for Wayne Johnson and Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Pat O’Neil at Brownsburg High, graduating in 2001, and served as JV coach in 2006 and 2007 then helped current Bulldogs head coach Dan Roman as pitching coach in 2021. Spence counts 2009 Brownsburg graduate Tucker Barnhart as his best friend and was the best man in Barnhart’s wedding. Tucker is now a catcher with the Detroit Tigers. An Indiana Bulls assistant to Troy Drosche during the travel ball season, Spence was the pitching coach on Drosche’s Avon High staff for five years while the Orioles won sectional titles in 2016, 2017 and 2019 and a regional crown in 2019. Spence has also coached with the Bill Sampen-led Indiana Expos travel organization. Spence’s college playing career included one season on the field each pitching for Dennis Conley at Olney (Ill.) Central College, Tim Bunton at Danville (Ill.) Area Community College and Joe Decker at Indiana University Southeast. He went to spring training with the independent Evansville (Ind.) Otters then began focusing on helping others. “I always wanted to coach,” says Spence. “I always wanted to be involved.” Spence has also been an assistant to Bulldogs head coach Mike Silva (now head coach at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La.) at Clarendon (Texas) College, where Adrian Dinkel (now head coach at Southeastern University in Lakeland, Fla.) was an assistant. He landed there after meeting Silva at a tournament in Stillwater, Okla., while working for Tom Davidson and Blake Hibler at Pastime Tournaments. Indiana Tech head coach Kip McWilliams had Spence on his staff for one season. Tri-West (enrollment around 630) is a member of the Sagamore Athletic Conference (with Crawfordsville, Danville Community (coached by Pat O’Neil), Frankfort, Lebanon, North Montgomery, Southmont and Western Boone). In 2021, the Bruins were part of the IHSAA Class 3A sectional grouping with Brebeuf Jesuit, Danville Community, Greencastle and Indianapolis Cardinal Ritter. Tri-West has won seven sectional crowns — the last in 2018. Recent Tri-West baseball players Riley Bennett (Trine University) and Kai Ross (DePauw University football) have moved on to college sports.
Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association members have voted and selected 16 district players of the year for 2021.
All-State and Indiana Player of the Year voting begins June 6.
The IHSAA state tournament series begins with sectionals May 26-31, followed by regionals June 5, semistates June 12 and the State Finals June 21-22. The IHSBCA Futures Games and North/South All-Star Series is slated for June 23-27 in Evansville.
Here’s a look at the 16 seniors chosen at Players of the Year in Districts A through P:
Says Swartzentruber: “Carter has been with us for two years following his transfer from Illiana Christian … Great kid, great student and great leader on our young team. One of my favorite players I have coached during my 24 years. … He has been a dominant player this year for us both on the mound and at the plate. There is not a doubt in my mind that he will do great things at Purdue and beyond. Great work ethic and very competitive young man.”
Lake Central is in the Class 4A Merrillville Sectional.
Says Evans: “He’s been a great pitcher for us, probably one of the more dominant pitchers in the (Duneland Athletic Conference). He’s a leader on and off the field. He also plays football and basketball. He’s a hard-working kid.”
Valparaiso is in the Class 4A Chesterton Sectional.
Says Smolinski: “Kyle has been blessed with an amazing ability to excel in both athletics and academics. Along with Kyle’s great leadership skills, he’s an outstanding teammate who respects his coaches, teachers and family. He’s hard-working, motivated and driven in everything that he does. I’m so proud of Kyle and very fortunate to have had the opportunity to coach him. I look forward to seeing him succeed on and off the field in the future … Kyle is the type of player where you wish you had nine of him on the field. He does everything you ask. He makes his teammates better.”
St. Joseph is in the Class 3A South Bend Clay Sectional.
Says Byall: “He has been a phenomenal player for us for four years. He is extremely talented, but has also worked extremely hard to transform his body and skills to an elite level … He is phenomenal to coach because you know he’s going to work hard and go about his business the right way every single day. He has been phenomenal for us this year, performing at such a high level, and by working hard everyday. He has a really bright future.”
Homestead is in the Class 4A Huntington North Sectional.
E — Jacob Loftus (Peru). A righty-swinging catcher for Tigers coach Chuck Brimbury, the 5-foot-11, 180-pound Loftus has not yet made his college commitment. He plans to major in Secondary Math Education.
Say Brimbury: “Jacob is the best high school player I have coached at Peru High School in my two-plus decades. Hard worker, captain, tough, talented, and a model of ‘team first’ guy. We have have had two drafts, dozens of college players and several D-1 players from our program. Jacob ‘Yogi’ Loftus is our best to play here.”
Says King: “Hunter is a very talented player — one of the best I’ve had. Hunter is probably the best all-around hitter I’ve ever had. He’s definitely a five-tool player. He has the ability to play not only at the collegiate level but the professional level … He’s a good leader (for the program’s first outright Hoosier Heritage Conference championship). He talks hitting and situations all the time with our guys.”
Mount Vernon is in the Class 4A Pendleton Heights Sectional.
Says Marker: “I don’t think there’s another player in the state of Indiana that means more to his team than Luke means to ours. He strikes out between 15 and 21 guys (per game) … He’s had 11 strikeouts in four innings (a couple of times) … At the 1A level he strikes fear into the hearts of hitters … He’s got six pitches. He’ll have to whittle that down at the next level.”
Seton Catholic is in the Class 1A Seton Catholic Sectional.
Says Doty: “Kameron is the kind of player every coach hopes they will have the opportunity to coach — hard-working, dedicated, coachable, but most importantly a leader! Add it in the athletic ability and that describes Kameron Salazar. He has the ability to hit any pitch in any count to all fields. He is one of the best pure hitters I have had the opportunity to coach … His quick hands aid him both on the offensive and defensive side of the game. He will use all fields offensively and has significant range in the middle of the infield … All of those abilities — as great as they are — of course don’t come even close to describing his character! He is one of the nicest young men you would ever meet and terrific teammate! He has been (would have been) a four-year starter for us at shortstop if not for COVID. He has been the heart and soul of our program for the past four years and he will be great missed as he moves on to Marian next year. It’s truly been an honor to have the opportunity to coach him these past four years.”
Says Koeppen: “He’s by far one of the most enjoyable kids I’ve ever coached. He works as hard as anybody at practice. He does things the right way all the time … It’s been fun to sit back and watch him play this year.”
Lafayette Jeff is in the Class 4A Lafayette Jeff Sectional.
Says Cosgray: “Garrett is just a very well-rounded player. He’s an exceptional right-handed pitcher, topping out at 95 mph with good command of his curveball, slider and change-up … Defensively at shortstop, he’s very sound. He makes the routine play but also has the ability to make the spectacular play when necessary … He hits in the 3-hole for us. He can hit for power. He’s a gap-to-gap approach hitter, hitting over .500. It’s hard to find a more well-rounded player than him.”
Lebanon is in the Class 3A North Montgomery Sectional.
Says Freje: “He’s been a lead-off hitter and the top arm we go to … Chris is comfortable (as a sidearmer). He’s taken that role and run with it … He’s been incredibly impactful on the bases. He’s a gamer. He’s embraced all the roles he’s been given. He’s been a pleasure to coach.”
Says Jones: “He throws 92 mph-plus and he mixes his pitches real well. He gets a lot of strikeouts. He’s able to throw the ball up, throw the ball down and hit the corners … He hits well. He’s well over 400. He’s just a consistent guy.”
Edgewood is in the Class 3A Owen Valley Sectional.
Says Decker: “He’s had a really good senior year. He’s been good on the mound and at the plate for us. He probably could have gone some places to be a two-way (having played all over the field). He’s one of the better athletes I’ve got to coach … Stuff comes really easy to him.”
Silver Creek is in the Class 3A Silver Creek Sectional.
Says Mattingly: “He’s one of those kids who’s humble, hard-working and he competes. He want to be the best and he goes about his business to be the best … I’ve been around him a long time and he’s just a good kid.”
Southridge is in the Class 3A Southridge Sectional.
Says Goedde: “He’s been our most-consistent player all year. He’s in the middle of a good season. He’s had minimal slumps …. He’s versatile enough that he can play just about anywhere. Henry moves very well. He’s got a good, athletic body.”
Evansville Central is in the Class 4A Evansville Reitz Sectional.
IHSBCA 2021 District Players of the Year (School/Head Coach)
The 21st-ranked Grenadiers are in Kingsport, Tenn., for a five-team double-elimination event Monday through Thursday, May 15-18.
The winner out of No. 1 seed Keiser (Fla.) (39-18), No. 2 Tennessee Wesleyan (39-18), No. 3 Indiana University Southeast (45-13), No. 4 Talladega (Ala.) (36-22) and No. 5 Marian (Ind.) (29-21) advances to the 10-team NAIA World Series May 26-June 2 in Lewiston, Idaho.
The Grenadiers are slated to play Tennessee Wesleyan in Game 2 Monday afternoon. Kingsport is where IUS used to go for their conference tournament. Upon arriving Saturday night, they learned that former Grenadier Shane Weedman had pitched a no-hitter for the Evansville Otters of the independent professional Frontier League.
After losing seven starters from 2016, IU Southeast reloaded in 2017.
“It’s definitely been a year to remember,” says IUS head coach Ben Reel. “This team has been very competitive. When they show up everyday, they work.”
With Opening Round appearances in 2010 and 2011 as Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference conference champions and at-large berths in the KIAC and new River States Conference the past two springs, the Grenadiers have established a respected program.
It’s been a progression that’s taken time to achieve.
When Reel took over as head coach for the 2009 season at age 24 (he followed Joe Decker, who decided to go back to Silver Creek High School), the coaching staff was paid with stipends.
“We were like starving artists,” says Reel. “And nobody knew where we were.”
For the record, the school is in New Albany, just across the Ohio River from downtown Louisville.
“We had to crawl before we could walk and walk before we could jog,” says Reel, now 33 and still one of the younger head coaches in college baseball. “We’re starting to run a little bit. We’re starting to get some momentum and it’s taken a decade.”
That’s the year IUS went 39-20 (setting a school record for wins), NAIA second team All-American Kyle Lenn smacked 24 home runs and the program produced its first Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft selection — Cameron Conner to the Kansas City Royals in the 20th round.
“Once that happened, everything started rolling,” says Reel. “That’s what put us on the map in our region.”
“You have to be very competitive,” says Reel, who looks at a roster with 15 players with Indiana hometowns and five from Kentucky. “But once prove you can mentor and develop players, you’ll start getting some better athletes.”
That’s not easy when you only have one scholarship to offer (11 below the NAIA limit).
“That puts us in bottom 10 percent out of the 198 (NAIA) teams in the country,” says Reel. “We take a lot of kids who are raw and help them find a niche.
“We get a lot of guys here who want to be coached. Myself and my staff do a lot of player development. We coach the heck out of them.”
Andrew Stanley, a high school teammate of Reel’s, has been with him since the beginning. The young coaching staff also features Jarret Young (second season), Brian Coffman (first season) and student assistants Justin Franz (fourth season) and Logan Coughlin (first season).
“We roll up our sleeves and get in (the batting cage) with them,” says Reel, who considers his communication skills (he’s talk to just about anyone for hours) and practicality as strengths. “That’s how I was raised. I’m not going to tell you what to do. I’m going to show you what to do. That’s what we believe as a staff.
“We go the extra mile. Our biggest selling point is these kids will be coached.”
Reel grew up on a farm near Prairie Creek in Vigo County, spent his middle school years in West Virginia then came back to Indiana and landed at South Dearborn.
With the Knights, he was a catcher for head coach Jay Malott.
“He was a fierce competitor,” says Reel of the former Indiana Purdue-Indianapolis coach. “He was a perfectionist. Nothing was ever good enough. We were never done practicing. We were just relentless. I learned that sense of dedication in high school.”
“Coach Poli taught me a sense of professional,” says Reel. “He was very calm and very businesslike. He was organized and concise. He would be very honest and open with you about what you needed to do to get to the next level and be a man.”
Reel saw coaching in his future and behind the plate — where he did not make a an error as a sophomore (matching the feat of his senior high school season) — helped prepare him for the profession.
“As a catcher, you’ve got to get to know all these pitchers,” says Reel. “You get to know a bunch of strangers at the collegiate level.”
Relationships have always been important to Reel. One of his best friends — who he met through coaching — is Tennessee Wesleyan assistant Brad Neffendorf (they were in each other’s weddings).
“This game has some of the best people that Planet Earth has to offer,” says Reel. “They just truly love the sport and the people in it.
“That’s the most memorable part of doing this, it’s the people that you meet.”
Reel notes three major things IUS has going for its in community support, education and location.
“We fundraise $50,000 a year,” says Reel. “I takes $70,000 year to run a college baseball program. Our budget is $33,000. You have to have synergy to do that.
“We’re offering an IU degree. We have a tutor on the bus. It’s a big time education.”
Being so close to Louisville is very helpful. There’s so much to do there and there is easy access to an international airport.
At 33, Ben Reel is in his ninth season as head baseball coach at Indiana University Southeast. He has the Grenadiers in the NAIA Opening Round for the fourth time in 2017. (IU Southeast Photo)
The Joe Decker-coached Dragons work hard to make themselves good at the sport and they have several wins and IHSAA sectional titles (2000, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014) to show for it.
But a 2012 natural disaster and the 2017 passing of a teen athlete from a rival school have help put it all in perspective.
Silver Creek is in the southern Indiana town of Sellersburg — 10 miles from Henryville and 83 miles from Southridge High School in Huntingburg.
Tornadoes in 2012 leveled Joe and Stephanie Decker’s Henryville home and caused Stephanie to lose both of her legs.
With the help of their faith, the community and a desire to help others, the family has moved forward. The Stephanie Decker Foundation was started and she travels all around on prosthetic legs to help bring sports to children without limbs.
“She handles it really well,” says Joe Decker. “She’s a lot tougher than I am. I know that.
“We’re like everybody else at this point. We’re chasing kids around.”
The Deckers make sure youngest son Dominic gets to travel baseball and daughter Reese to travel softball. Nolan is 19 and living in Columbus.
“Five years ago my family learned it’s just a game,” says Decker. “(Baseball) will teach them a lot, but at the end of the day it’s just a baseball game.”
Joe makes sure his high school players count their blessings.
“We tell them ‘be glad you get to do this everyday because a lot kids don’t,” says Decker. “Even for them to live where they live. They live in rural Indiana. Their problems are nothing. Compared to a lot of other kids, they are extremely lucky. They are just really good kids and they care about other people.”
Evidence of that came a few weeks ago. Southridge assistant baseball coach Gene Mattingly’s daughter, Lexi, had experienced cardiac arrest at tennis practice and was hospitalized in Louisville before Silver Creek visited the Raiders for a non-conference baseball game.
Joe knew Gene a little bit. Both have coached for the Ironmen— a Christian-based travel baseball organization. Joe did not know Lexi. Feeling compassion, the Dragons presented Gene with a signed baseball and Dragons T-shirt for his daughter before the Silver Creek-Southridge game.
After being in critical condition, Lexi seemed to be recovering when Joe got a call on gameday against South Central last week. She was being flown back to Louisville.
Around the fifth inning of the contest, he got a call that Lexi Mattingly had passed. He shared the news with his assistant coaches, including Ryan Wheeler, but not his players.
Sophomore Tyler Wheeler noticed a look on his father’s face and asked “Dad, are you alright?”
He told him the sad news just before Tyler’s next turn at bat.
Tyler, who had been struggling at the plate, draws a little “L” in the batter’s box and socks the second pitch for his first high school home run.
“He comes around third base and he’s almost in tears,” says Decker. “It’s pretty amazing.”
Decker, 47, is in his second stint of teaching baseball and life lessons at his alma mater. Beginning at 22, he was head coach for five seasons at Brown County High School (1992-96). The Eagles won the school’s first sectional in any sport in 16 years in 1992. He led the program at Silver Creek 1997-2003, served as head coach for three seasons at Indiana University Southeast in nearby New Albany (2004-06), took two seasons off and came back to the Dragons head coaching post in 2009.
Decker and his assistants want Silver Creek baseball to a be a family for current and former players. It’s not unusual to see alums from the past five years in the dugout during games.
“It’s really important to us that our kids like being here and they like coming back,” says Decker. “They feel it’s there program.”
The 6-3 loss to Brownstone Central in the 2016 North Harrison Sectional title game — even with three freshmen and two sophomores in the SC lineup did not sit well with Decker.
“Last year it was more like we played not to lose,” says Decker. “From my aspect that was a mental thing. As a coach, I’ll take the blame for it.
“We were not mentally tough from a competitive standpoint. (Most players) never faced adversity … Eyes were wide and they kind of tightened up.”
The idea is to stop the feature of failure.
“We talk about making aggressive mistakes,” says Decker.
Actions in practice — like not getting a bunt down, making the throw to the right base or an unexcused absence — have consequences for the Dragons like extra running.
“We play the process and not the score,” says Decker. “We’re teaching them baseball, but we really focus on work ethic. We tell them the one thing you can control is how hard you work. We’ve tried to keep that workmanlike mentality. That helps them keep a chip on their shoulder a little bit.
“We spend a lot of time just talking about the mental side of the game. It goes back to playing the process. If you can get them to not think about winning and losing and just playing the right way, winning takes care of itself.”
Besides pitching coach Ryan Wheeler, the coaching staff includes Ritchie Ware, Scott Jennings and Brent Falcone. It is Falcone that runs the arm care program for the Dragons.
Silver Creek plays in the Mid-Southern Conference (with Austin, Brownstown Central, Charlestown, Clarksville, Corydon Central, Eastern-Pekin, North Harrison, Salem and Scottsburg). All MSC teams play one another, often on Mondays and Thursdays. Decker would like to see the conference go to a tournament and free up other regular-season dates for strong non-conference competition.
The Dragons finish the season at the Jasper tournament and also play New Albany and Jeffersonville heading toward the IHSAA state tournament series.
Joe Decker is the head baseball coach at Silver Creek High School in Sellersburg. His wife Stephanie lost both legs in the Henryville tornado of 2012. This season, his team experienced the loss of a teenage athlete at rival Southridge.