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Lost limbs, lost life put things into perspective at Silver Creek

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Baseball is important at Silver Creek High School.

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.”

That same week practice, Decker shared the baseball and faith story of John Scolinos and “Staying at 17 Inches.” It’s the reason the Dragons wear a 17 on their practice shirts.

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 Dragons are drilled on the fundamentals and on Mental Toughness Training through Dan Thurston of Long Toss Indiana. After winning four straight Class 3A sectionals, Silver Creek lost 2-1 against host North Harrison in 2015. Decker chalks that up to strong opposing pitching.

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.

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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.

IHSBCA adds five to Hall of Fame in 2017

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

For what they have meant to the game, five more men have been added to the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame and will have plaques hanging in Jasper.

The Class of 2017 included (in order of induction on Jan. 20): Chip Sweet, Greg Marschand, Paul Ehrman, Steve DeGroote and Bart Kaufman. Don Jennings, a Hall of Fame inductee in 1988, was also spotlighted during festivities Friday, Jan. 20 in Indianapolis. The Hall of Fame is located on the Vincennes University-Jasper campus, where expansion is planned in 2017.

Chip Sweet (180th HOF inductee): The 1975 Shakamak High School graduate and retired Lakers coach led his alma mater for 21 years — in two stints. His final season of 2014 culminated with an IHSAA Class 1A state championship. His youngest son, Luke, was on the team.

“It was really a pretty special experience,” Sweet said of going out on top.

Older son Josh had been on Shakamak state runner-up teams in 2004 and 2006. The 2012 Sweet-coached Lakers were also state runners-up.

An outfielder as a player, Sweet left the Hoosier State for the Sunshine State for his college baseball experience. After never having been away from home, Sweet spent five years about 1,000 miles away with two years of junior college ball at Central State Community College and three at the University of Florida.

In 1979-80, Sweet coached at Oak Hill Private School in Gainesville, Fla., where the three sons of famed slugger Roger Maris played.

Sweet said Maris did not impose himself on the program.

“He let the coaches do their coaching,” Sweet said. “He was a nice guy.”

Maris did arrange for Yankees owner George Steinbrenner to donate sod for the field.

“We put down every roll,” Sweet said. “It was a lot of hard work.”

Sweet took the time at his induction to thank the Jasonville, Ind., community which supports Shakamak.

“We’re a very small school,” Sweet said. “Everybody knows everybody.”

In closing, Sweet also shared a story renowned in baseball coaching circles — Stay at 17 Inches about John Scolinos at the American Baseball Coaches Association clinic in Nashville in 1996 and it’s message of faith.

Greg Marschand (181st HOF inductee): The 1972 Lewis Cass High School graduate and current Kings coach and athletic director played his college baseball at Columbus (Ga.) State University, where he won a school-record 32 games and learned much from the leader of the program.

“Coach (Charles) Ragsale was a fantastic coach,” Marschand said. “He molded guys from all over nation into a team. But, most of all, he taught us to be men and, on top of that, he taught us to be Christian men.”

A sign on the Cass dressing room points to Proverbs 27:17: “Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.”

Marschand came back from Georgia to Walton, Ind., and through 36 seasons, he had amassed 556 wins with a Class 2A state runner-up finish in 2009.

One of the fitness challenges during Cass practices is called the “Victory Field Challenge.”

“Your ultimate goal is to get back there again (at the State Finals),” Marschand said.

One of his most memorable moments came during the Kings’ annual alumni doubleheader when one of his former players landed his Black Hawk helicopter in right field just to drop in to say hello to his former coach. The player — who Marschand chose not to identify — has since served his country overseas and thrown out the first pitch at a Kings game.

“In coaching, when those kind of things happen, they are more important than any wins, championships or anything else,” Marschand said. “That was a pretty emotional time for me.”

Thanking many family and school members, Marschand also saluted 28-year assistant Steve Ford. They’ve shared many a bus ride together.

Marschand said that when he was down with major back surgery, causing him to miss half the 2016 season, the records were dug out to establish his Hall of Fame credentials.

“What an honor to be voted on by your peers,” Marschand said. “I appreciate each and every one of them for taking the time to cast the ballot to make this happen.”

Paul Ehrman (182nd HOF inductee): The veteran umpire from Batesville and 1963 Carol (Flora) High School graduate began his 49-year career of making the calls in 1964 on the high school and college level after being cut by Ball State Teachers College coach Ray Louthen for being “absolutely too slow.” He had umpired youth games back in 1958.

Ehrman worked the first IHSAA state tournament in 1967. One of his most memorable State Finals came in 1978 and 1979. Future Yankees first baseman and IHSBCA Hall of Famer Don Mattingly was on Evansville Memorial teams in those years, winning the first one and seeing a 59-game win streak end in the latter.

A baseball and basketball coach and then an AD in the early part of his career, Ehrman became an insurance salesman while continuing umpiring at many levels. He worked in 10 different states and 57 different IHSBCA Hall of Fame coaches. He logged 45 sectionals, 26 regionals, 15 semistate and eight State Finals.

“There’s some really good things and some really bad things about being an umpire,” Ehrman said. “When you’re an umpire, nobody likes you.”

But enough coaches and athletic directors liked him enough to hire him and soon he was scheduling the umpires around southeastern Indiana.

“I enjoyed every minute that I worked,” Ehrman said. There were stretches where he was gone from home more than 40 straight nights while umpiring and appreciates the support from his family.

Married to Karen on June 5, 1965, he worked through many wedding anniversaries.

“She never once complained,” Ehrman said.

Steve DeGroote (183rd HOF inductee): The retired West Vigo High School coach came to Indiana after playing high school and college baseball in Iowa.

DeGroote was on IHSBCA Hall of Fame coach Bob Warn’s staff at Indiana State University before becoming a West Vigo assistant and then head coach from 1993-2013 before another stint on the ISU staff.

DeGroote went all over the U.S. and Canada to recruit players for the Sycamores. Over the years, he noticed more and more baseball talent has turned up on Hoosier soil that has gone on to the college and pro ranks.

One of the highlights of DeGroote’s coaching career came in 2009 with a Class 3A state runner-up finish. The Vikings went into the State Finals at 28-1.

“We had so many people there in green,” DeGroote said. “(The State Finals) was important to our people.”

West Vigo won 525 baseball games on DeGroote’s watch.

DeGroote played football, basketball and baseball in high school and college and his three sons — Cory, Culley and Casey — were also three-sport athletes.

“It makes you a better warrior,” DeGroote said of the multi-sport or non-specializing athlete. “You can work out, but you can never go through warriorship like you do in competition. We don’t have that problem (at West Vigo). We really back each other (as coaches) and try to share (athletes) the best we can and it works out for us.”

DeGroote is also thankful for the lack of outside interference when coaching his athletes.

“I had no problems,” DeGroote said. “They weren’t pampered. I kept telling them, ‘if you guys keep working this hard, you’re going to get my name in the paper.’

“I knew it was more about them than it was about me … All we want is respect.”

Bart Kaufman (184th HOF inductee): The benefactor from Shelbyville was introduced by long-time friend Del Harris, an Indiana Basketball Hall of Famer.

“My first love was baseball,” Harris said. “We all love baseball, but nobody loves baseball any more than Bart Kaufman … How many of you played until 72 (at a Dodgers fantasy camp)?

“He’s one of the most generous and caring people I’ve known in my long life.”

Kaufman, who was nominated by the IHSBCA Hall of Fame Veterans Committee and graduated from Shelbyville High School in 1958 and Indiana University in 1962, spoke about his appreciation for the game and what it has done for him.

“Baseball has been an incredibly important part of my life. It’s permitted me to make lifelong friends like Del Harris and Bill Garrett (the first African-American to play basketball in the Big Ten Conference) … (IHSBCA Hall of Famer and IU coach) Ernie Andres had confidence in me, especially against left-handers. I wasn’t so sure … I enjoyed coaching many boys and men and teaching them the game I loved. I used the discipline that I learned from many coaches … Carl Erskine was the first to suggest I go to Dodgertown in Vero Beach (Fla.) and learn baseball the Dodger Way. Carl has been a friend ever since … Like one of my children told me, if you can’t get inducted into Cooperstown, this is about as good as you’re going to get.”

Kaufman, an outfielder, led the Hoosiers with a .452 batting average in 1961.

One of his most memorable moments came during his junior year when he helped Indiana sweep Ohio State and then got pinned to Judy and they have now been married 54 years with four children.

He went on to play and coach in Indianapolis amateur leagues. He was appointed to a committee that tried to bring Major League Baseball in Indy by Mayor William Hudnut.

Through Kaufman’s philanthropy, baseball fields at IU and Marian University and a softball stadium at the Jewish Community Center in Indianapolis all bear his name. Bart Kaufman Field at IU will be the site of the Big Ten tournament May 24-28.

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(From left): Don Jennings, Steve DeGroote, Greg Marschand, Paul Ehrman, Bart Kauffman and Chip Sweet.