Tag Archives: JUCO Bandit

Indiana native Estep finds himself while playing in Oklahoma

By STEVE KRAH
http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Dawson Estep counts it a privilege to play baseball.
So even though he considers himself a middle infielder, he’ll go wherever coaches want to use him.
“I don’t write the lineup,” says Estep, a 2019 graduate of University High School in Carmel, Ind., who is preparing to return to Connors State College in Warner, Okla., in mid-August. “I’ll play anywhere as long as I’m on the field having fun.
“I’m just excited to be out on the field playing.”
This summer, the 21-year-old has been primarily been used at second base by Moon Shots head coach Kevin Christman in the College Summer League at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind.
Estep and Christman go way back.
“I’ve know him known since before I was 10,” says Estep. “He’s watched me grow up.
“It’s fun playing for him in the summer.”
Christman, a retired San Francisco Giants scout, has helped Chris and Sue Estep at RoundTripper Sports Academy in Westfield and the Indiana Mustangs travel organization and is very familiar with the Estep children — Tron, Dawson and Jasmine.
RoundTripper/Mustangs founder Chris Estep is a master instructor and University High head coach. He played at the University of Kentucky. Sue Estep was a cheerleader at UK.
Indianapolis Cathedral High School graduate Tron Estep played football at Elon (N.C.) University, where he has earned underrate and masters degrees, and is about to go to U.S. Army National Guard boot camp.
Competitive dancer/cheerleader Jasmine Estep is heading into her senior year at Carmel High School.
“She’s probably the best athlete in the family,” says Dawson of his sister. “She can do 10 straight back flips.”
Cousin Chase Estep, who played with Dawson on the Indiana Mustangs, played his second season at Kentucky in the spring and is with the Northwoods League’s Kenosha (Wis.) Kingfish this summer.
Dawson Estep helps out at RoundTripper when he’s not working out, honing his skills or playing in the CSL.
At 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds, Estep has added about 15 pounds of muscle since going to Connors State in January.
A catalyst for University’s IHSAA Class 1A state runner-up and state championship teams in 2018 and 2019, Estep went to Rend Lake College in Ina, Ill., and played for the National Junior College Athletic Association Division II Warriors in the spring of 2020, a season shortened to 12 games by the COVID-19.
After the shutdown, Estep took online classes and worked out back in Indiana. When there was a change in the Rend Lake coaching staff and uncertainty about the 2021 season, he began looking for other opportunities.
“We were at the height of COVID and I didn’t know what was going to happen,” says Estep. “I didn’t want to get stuck and not have a place to be.”
Estep posted Twitter videos of himself on offense and defense and Connors State reached out. He visited and ended up going with the Perry Keith-coached Cowboys.
“I’ve found myself as a ballplayer,” says Estep. “It’s the right spot for me.
“I’m in the right environment where I can grow as a player and a person.”
Keith has been at Connors State for more than three decades and amassed more than 1,600 wins. His teams have made five JUCO World Series appearances.
“He’s a legend in the coaching world,” says Estep of Keith. “He’s one of those coaches that makes you go the extra mile. He gets the best of everybody. He’s honest even if you don’t want to hear it.
“He’s the guy you want to go to battle for and he’ll go to battle for you.”
Estep credits Keith for helping him mature and grow.
Estep has embraced the “JUCO Bandit” approach to baseball.
“You’re on your own but you’re not on your own,” says Estep. “You have to grow up fast.
“You use the resources you have and come up with things on the fly. You have a lot of ingenuity and use what you have. When I’m back home I have a lot more things at my disposable. It makes makes me appreciate them.”
Estep says junior college baseball — for those who work at it – provides a chance to play right away and find their niche in the game. In his first season Connors State, he worked out at many infield positions in a utility role.
In 17 games, he hit .324 (11-of-34) with seven runs batted in, 11 runs scored and two stolen bases as the Cowboys went 37-18.
In the fall, JUCO players are often at the field up to 10 hours a day.
“The fall is where the boys become men,” says Estep. “It’s the grind.
“Once they move on to a four-year school they’re prepared for anything.”
Since he was 14 or 15, Estep has been a switch hitter.
“I liked hitting left-handed when I played wiffle ball with my friends,” says Estep. “I started becoming comfortable (in baseball).”
Estep explains the advantage of hitting from both sides of the plate.
“I don’t have issues hitting a breaking ball,” says Estep. “Everything comes into me. I go after the fastball and stay back on the change-up.
“I don’t see lefties a lot. I’ve had maybe 10 at-bats right-handed this summer. So I work even harder on the right side.”
For either side, Estep does plenty of tee work and sets the pitching machine at high velocity to get ready for game speed.
He does drills that concentrate on his lower half.
“I sometimes get antsy with my feet and try to kill the ball,” says Estep. “I try to be a fundamentally-sound as possible.”
He likes to take the same amount of cuts righty and lefty since he does not know who is coming out of the bullpen if the starter should leave.
Dawson was born in Indianapolis and spent his whole life in Carmel.
While he and his father probably talk about baseball everyday, there’s also conversations about school. After he gets his basic classes completed and lands at a four-year school, Dawson sees himself pursuing a degree in sports management or business.
“I want to get into coaching and help younger kids,” says Dawson of his post-playing ambitions. “This game has helped me so much.
“I might as well do that for the rest of my life.”

Dawson Estep (Connors State College Photo)
Moons Shots second baseman Dawson Estep (College Summer League at Grand Park Photo)
Moon Shots infielder Dawson Estep (College Summer League at Grand Park Photo)
Moons Shots second baseman Dawson Estep (College Summer League at Grand Park Photo)
Switch hitter Dawson Estep (College Summer League at Grand Park Photo)

Mannan out to change lives with Fort Wayne North Side Legends

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Austin Mannan has found his “why” and he pursues it on a daily basis as an educator and coach.

“I felt like I’ve had so many people pour their time and effort into me,” says Mannan, a special education teacher at Lane Middle School in Fort Wayne, Ind., and the head baseball coach at Fort Wayne North Side High School. “I have a duty to give that back to kids.

“I want to change somebody’s life. At the end of the day I don’t care what kind of baseball player you are, I want you to be a better person than when you got to me.

“I want them to look back and say he really cared about me. He really went the extra mile.”

Mannan has embraced his mindset and takes a cue from motivational speaker Eric Thomas, who asks “What’s Your Why?”

“Everybody has a reason to get out of bed everyday,” says Mannan. “You have to decide what that motivation is and what you can do to get there.

“(North Side) is an inner-city school. These kids have challenging backgrounds. We want to help them to be a better person.”

North Side (enrollment around 1,600) is a member of the Summit Athletic Conference (with Fort Wayne Carroll, Fort Wayne Bishop Dwenger, Fort Wayne Bishop Luers, Fort Wayne Concordia Lutheran, Fort Wayne Northrop, Fort Wayne Snider, Fort Wayne South Side, Fort Wayne Wayne and Homestead).

The Legends are part of an IHSAA Class 4A sectional grouping with Columbia City, Fort Wayne South Side, Fort Wayne Wayne, Homestead and Huntington North. North Side is seeking its first sectional title.

Zach McKinstry is a 2014 North Side graduate. The middle infielder made his Major League Baseball debut for the eventual World Series-winning Los Angeles Dodgers Sept. 16, 2020.

North Side plays its home games at Carrington Field, located in Daryl B. Cobin Memorial Park on Coliseum Boulevard and about five miles from the school. 

With high schools in Fort Wayne Community Schools going from 9:10 a.m. to 4:10 p.m., games generally do not start before 5. 

Also the home of the Fort Wayne Baseball Federation‘s Jackers, Carrington Field underwent renovations that the Legends did not get to enjoy in 2020 with the prep season being wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s pretty nice,” says Mannan, who notes that many previous games at Carrington were wiped out when it rained. 

Eight seniors were on the 2020 roster, including college recruits in left-handed pitcher Max Meisner (Huntington University), shortstop Cameron Woehnker (Grace College) and hurler Taegan Armey (Indiana Tech).

Mannan’s 2021 assistants are Jordan Young, Toni Georgi and Armey, who developed an arm injury that caused him to shut it down rather than play college ball.

North Side junior right-hander Nate Spurlock has been getting attention from college programs.

Mannan, who was born and raised in Putnam County, Ind., and played at Cloverdale (Ind.) High School before Lincoln Trail College (Robinson, Ill.), Spoon River College (Canton, Ill.) and the University of Saint Francis (Fort Wayne). Until middle school, he split his time between third base and catcher. From high school on, he was a catcher.

Bryan Archer was Mannan’s high school head coach.

“I owe a lot to the person and player I am to him,” says Mannan, a 2013 Cloverdale graduate. “He never let feel sorry for myself. He just pushed, pushed, pushed.”

Spoon River head coach Ron Clark, who died in 2016, was an old school coach who embraced the fundamentals.

“By doing the little things right all the time that would lead to big things,” says Mannan. “My coaches were all fundamental guys. You can’t over-due fundamentals.

“I’ve broken down every aspect to try to give (North Side players) a solid foundation.”

A relationship built with Manny Lopez, owner of The Diamond Baseball and Softball Academy in Fort Wayne, Mannan has been able to get indoor reps for his North Side players.

“We made huge strides,” says Mannan. “Last year was going to be a our ‘back on the map year.’”

Mannan appreciates the way Lopez deals with the North Side kids.

“Manny tells them you can thank me when you make it,” says Mannan. “He understands what my kids go through on a day-to-day basis.

“I’ve never forgotten that.”

Besides being an assistant at Woodlan Junior/Senior High School (Woodburn, Ind.) while doing his student teaching, Mannan has coached the Northern Indiana Elite, Chicago 29ers and Fort Wayne Diamondbacks in summer ball. He is currently a 16U coach for the Diamondbacks.

As a player, Mannan got to know the junior college baseball grind from two head coaches — Kevin Bowers at Lincoln Trail and Clark at Spoon River.

“As a JuCo Bandit you’re a grinder,” says Mannan. “You’re putting in the work and getting after it.

“The grind of being a junior college player is incredible. You become so tough playing at that level.”

A typical schedule began with conditioning at 5 a.m., followed by classes, practice, study table and more practice with it all winding up about 10 p.m. Then the same thing the next day.

To get in games against top early-season competition, the team would cram 10 players each in three vans and drive 14 hours to Texas. Meal money was capped at $5 a day.

Junior college baseball is full of potential professional players and they are all MLB First Year Player Draft-eligible.

Two of Mannan’s Lincoln Trail teammates — Damon Olds (Kansas City Royals out of Indiana State University) and Justin Watts (Toronto Blue Jays out of the University of Southern Indiana) — were drafted in 2017.

In Mannan’s LTC recruiting class, 10 of 13 went on to NCAA Division I programs. Two went to NCAA Division II.

After a year at Spoon River (2014-15), Mannan landed at NAIA Saint Francis for two years (2015-16 and 2016-17). Greg Roberts was the Cougars head coach and his successor, Dustin Butcher, was an assistant.

Mannan, who also played summer ball for the Danville (Va.) Marlins in 2015 and Laramie (Wyo.) Colts in 2016, was honorable mention all-Crossroads League in the spring of 2016. 

At Saint Francis, Mannan earned a Secondary Education degree in 2018 and a Masters in Special Education in 2020. 

It was by coming to Fort Wayne that Mannan met an Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne student from Crown Point, Ind., named Adalyn. 

Austin and Adalyn Mannan were married in September 2020. She is a manager at Planet Fitness.

“We were supposed to go on our honeymoon during Christmas break,” says Mannan. Instead, the couple had a bout with COVID. Austin spent a week in the hospital. Except for occasional shortness of breath, he says that has recovered.

Austin Mannan was catcher with the Laramie (Wyo.) Colts in the summer of 2016.
Austin Mannan, who played at the University of Saint Francis in 2016 and 2017 and hold two degrees from the school in Fort Wayne, Ind., is the head baseball coach at Fort Wayne North Side High School. (University of Saint Francis Photo)

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)