By STEVE KRAH
The 2021 college baseball season will mark the 15th as head coach for Ryan Thompson at MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe, Kan.
But there are still plenty of Indiana connections for the former pitcher.
Thompson is a 2000 graduate of Bethel College (now Bethel University) in Mishawaka, Ind., where he was a Liberal Studies major and Business minor while pitching for head coaches Sam Riggleman (1998 and 1999) and Mike Hutcheon (2000) learning from Bethel assistant and Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Hall of Famer Dick Siler.
As an elementary student, Thompson was always writing out lineups and plays. At first all he wanted to do was play baseball. When that time was over, he turned his attention to coaching.
“I’ve always loved baseball and sports,” says Thompson. “God’s gifted me in that capacity.”
Thompson is a 1995 graduate of Cowden-Herrick Senior High School in central Illinois. His graduating class had 33 students. With too few boys to have a football team, the Bobcats played conference games in the fall and the rest of the schedule in the spring with a healthy American Legion schedule in the summer.
In the fall of 1995, Thompson was a 17-year-old walk-on at Olney (Ill.) Central College, where the Blue Knights head coach was — and still is — Dennis Conley.
“He was a great coach,” says Thompson of Conley. “He was intense and demanding. It helped me grow up and mature.”
Familiar with area junior college baseball from his time at Southern Illinois University, Riggleman recruited Thompson to Bethel.
“I love Sam,” says Thompson. “We still talk frequently.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Riggleman has been on several Zoom calls with the MidAmerica Nazarene coaching staff.
Thompson recalls Riggleman as a fierce yet caring coach.
“Sam left the benchmark in my mind,” says Thompson. “I remember what the practices were like.
“(Players) really respected him.”
Among his Pilots teammates were Indiana high school products Craig Sherwood (Elkhart Central), Jeremie Riggleman (Mishawaka), Seth Zartman (Caston), Brian Blondell (South Bend Washington), Ryan Takach (Penn), Shawn Summe (Penn) and Allen Hodge (Goshen).
Jeremie Riggleman, a shortstop at Bethel, is Sam’s son.
Zartman has been head baseball coach at Bethel since the 2004 season.
Blondell was a Bethel assistant and head coach at Holy Cross College and is the founder of the Michiana Scrappers travel organization.
Takach was in the Arizona Diamondbacks chain, including a stint with the 2000 South Bend (Ind.) Silver Hawks, and in indy ball.
Former college baseball coach Summe is now athletic director at Avila University in Kansas City, Mo. — less than 20 miles from MidAmerica Nazarene.
Thompson, Takach and Blondell were the top pitchers on the 1998 Bethel team which lost to Indiana Tech in the NAIA regional.
Thompson got to know Hutcheon as a player then coached for him for three seasons each as pitching coach at Bethel and Air Force Academy.
“Hutch is a great communicator and recruiter,” says Thompson. “He’s a good friend as well.
“I enjoyed my time with him.”
Thompson also maintained contact with Siler and received a visit from him in the summer of 2019.
“He was a numbers guy and taught me so much,” says Thompson of Siler, who died July 20, 2020 at 84. “I just learned so much from him.”
Thompson coached future professional pitchers Eric Stults, David Humen and Greg Kloosterman.
Left-hander Stults, an Argos (Ind.) High School graduate, was in the majors with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Colorado Rockies, Chicago White Sox, San Diego Padres and Atlanta Braves.
Right-hander Humen also pitched at Rice University and Oral Roberts University and made it to Double-A with the Miami Marlins and also logged mound time in the Kansas City Royals system and in independent ball.
Left-hander Kloosterman, an Elkhart Central graduate, competed in the Milwaukee Brewers organization.
Before leaving for Air Force, Hutcheon and Thompson recruited Justin Masterson out of Ohio to attend Bethel. They later faced him in the Mountain West Conference when Masterson transferred to San Diego State University. He went on to pitched in the bigs for the Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians and St. Louis Cardinals.
At MNU, Thompson’s coaching staff includes former Huntington (Ind.) University pitcher and Taylor University (Upland, Ind.) assistant Colton Punches as pitching coach. He was recommended by Trojans head coach Kyle Gould.
Cam Screeton, a Rochester (Ind.) High School and Indiana Wesleyan University (Marion, Ind.) graduate and former head coach at Grace College in Winona Lake, Ind., is a graduate assistant working with MNU Pioneers hitters.
In a program with around 60 players (varsity and junior varsity), Elkhart Central alum Brycen Sherwood (Craig Sherwood’s nephew) is a sophomore second baseman and Zionsville (Ind.) Community High School graduate Jake Bisland is a sophomore catcher.
Chad Jenkins, a teammate and roommate of Thompson at Bethel, is MNU’s Sports Information Director.
Thanks to Jenkins’ efforts, the Pioneers stream home baseball games in HD with a center field camera.
MNU’s last game before the shutdown of the 2020 season was March 13. Thompson opted to start the 2021 campaign Jan. 29 at Wayland Baptist in Plainview, Texas.
“It’s a little out of my comfort zone and not ideal, but we’ve been off long enough,” says Thompson of the early start. The Pioneers, a member of the NAIA and the Heart of America Athletic Conference, typically open in mid-February.
Players left campus at Thanksgiving and are due back Jan. 10 for COVID-19 protocol with the first practice Jan. 10 and in-person classes resuming Jan. 12.
The other Indiana connection is at home. Ryan’s wife Kristie is a graduate of NorthWood High School in Nappanee, Ind. The Thompsons have six homeschooled children (three boys followed by three girls) — Ty (15), Kade (13), Beau (11), Bailee (9), Kamryn (8) and Taylor (6). A homeschool hook-up on Fridays in Olathe has allowed the kids to explore different sports.