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Thoughts of American Legion baseball keep Cruz going during COVID-19 battle

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

Antonio “Tony” Cruz Jr., came close to losing his life and the sport that occupies much of thoughts.
The COVID-19 virus struck the husband and father of three in the first half of 2020 and he spent 25 days of May in Memorial Hospital in South Bend, Ind. — nine in the Intensive Care Unit. His oxygen level dropped to 55 and twice was not expected to make it.
One night he was visited by a doctor and nurse. Cruz recalls the doctor’s words: “Well, we’re not going to sugar-coat it. We’re going to be honest with you. You might die tonight. We’ve got a yellow legal pad right here. If there’s anything you might want to write to anybody, now’s the time.”
There was also plenty of support of his family — wife Ilka, sons Carlos and Santana and daughter Neveah and Amiyah, father Antonio Sr. (who also in the hospital with COVID but released before his son) and mother Lucy.
“It wasn’t your time,” is what Lucy Cruz told her son of why he survived and recovered.
Baseball also played a big part.
“Legion was always on my mind,” says Cruz, the manager of the South Bend American Legion Post 151 senior baseball team. “It gave me a reason to keep fighting and get out of there.”
Drawing strength from messages sent by coaching friends including John Kehoe, Joel Reinebold, Tom Washburn and Dennis Ryans.
“You don’t forget that stuff,” says Cruz. “It means a lot to me.”
While the pandemic caused American Legion Baseball to cancel its state, regional and national tournaments in 2020, Indiana teams were allowed to play games if they could provide their own insurance.
Cruz got out of the hospital and with air bottle in tow came to the place he considers his home away from home — the baseball field.
Jim Reinebold Field — named for the late Indiana High School Baaeball Coaches Association Hall of Famer —  is where the South Bend Clay High School Colonials play and Cruz serves as an assistant coach and home to Post 151, though COVID caused cancellation of the high school season and had the Legion team playing home games at South Bend’s Boland Park in 2020.
For his baseball foundation, Cruz looks back to his days at Maurice Matthys Little League, where his coach from 12 to 16 was Terry Cline.
“He is who I pattern my coaching style after,” says Cruz of Cline. “He was about caring and giving back.”
As a player at South Bend LaSalle High School, where he graduate in 1997, Cruz played for Lions head coach Scott Sill.
Cruz was a coach on Kehoe’s staff at South Bend Washington High School and also led the baseball program at Dickinson Middle School — going 23-1 in two seasons — then joined Joel Reinebold at Clay.
“Joel is so supportive,” says Cruz. “I’ve been blessed to be around him for so many years.”
Carlos Cruz (now 23) and Santana Cruz (21) both played for the Colonials, graduating in 2016 and 2018, respectively. Carlos attended Indiana State University for three years. Santana also played at Ancilla College in Donaldson, Ind.
Neveah Cruz (who turned 19 July 12) has been around Clay baseball from seventh grade until the present and has been a student manager, director of operations and coach. This summer, 2020 Clay grad and Sport and Recreation major at Trine University in Angola, Ind., is Post 51 Juniors (17U) team manager and assistant coach to her father with the Post 51 Seniors (19U).
“It’s a good bonding experience with my dad,” says Neveah. “I’ve met a lot of good people through baseball — role models.”
Being around teams has given Neveah something more.
“I have a lot of older brothers now,” says Neveah.
Youngest daughter Amiyah is 11.
This is the sixth year Tony Cruz has coached American Legion ball. When Lenny Kuespert was no longer able to manage South Bend Post 50, Cruz started Post 357. He was 357 manager for two summers and after guidance from former Bristol Post manager Jim Treadway and Legion baseball organizer Joe Kusiak and consulting with post commander Mike Vargo has led Post 151 since the 2018 season.
“Legion ball is good for families who can’t afford to play travel ball, which can be salty,” says Cruz.
Post 151 baseball is supported through $650 registration fees and fundraisers to cover things like insurance, uniforms, hat, socks, field rental, umpires and, in the advent of rain, field conditioner.
If there’s any money left over, Cruz use it to buy Legion shirts etc. for his players.
“I always give back to the kids,” says Cruz. “It’s not about me.”
Custom COVID masks were purchased as well a Post 151 visors for players’ mothers.
Believing that Legion baseball is also a tribute to veterans and patriotism, Cruz outfits his squads in red, white and blue uniforms.
American Legion teams are allowed to roster 18 players for the postseason. There is a total enrollment limit of 6,000 in the top three grades for the high schools that provide players.
Besides Santana Cruz at Ancilla, athletes who have played for Cruz and gone on to college baseball include Hunter Aker at Manchester University in North Manchester, Ind., Robbie Berger, J.P. Kehoe, Mason Ryans and Andrew Washburn at Lincoln Trail College in Robinson, Ill., Tyler Bortone at Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Tyler Cuma at Ivy Tech Northeast in Fort Wayne, Gabe Galvan at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, Nathaniel Garcia at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, Chris Gault, Cooper Lee, A.J. Klimek, Andy Migas and Lee Timmons at Trine, Colin Greve at Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., Dylan Hensley at Indiana Tech in Fort Wayne, Roman Kuntz and Bryce Lesher at Lake Michigan College in Benton Harbor, Mich., Michael Payne at Wabash Valley College in Mount Carmel, Ill., Hunter Robinson at Purdue University Northwest in Hammond, Ind., Cole Steveken at Ancilla, Chantz Stover at Glen Oaks Community College in Centreville, Mich., Tony Valle at Bethel University in Mishawaka, Ind., Cameron Waters at Kalamazoo (Mich.) Community College and Gabe Yonto at BCA College Post Grad in Knoxville, Tenn.
Both 151 teams played about a dozen regular-season weekday games in 2021.
Thursday, July 15 at 5 p.m. and following and Friday, July 16 at 5 (if necessary), South Bend Post 151 hosts Bristol Post 143 in best-of-3 Regional 3 at Jim Reinebold Field for a berth in the eight-team State Finals Friday through Tuesday, July 23-27 at Highland Park in Kokomo.
Other feeder regionals are slated at Highland Post 180 Regional 1-2 (with Valparaiso Post 94, East Chicago Post 369/Lake Station Post 100 Region Legion Expos and South Haven Post 502), Regional 4 at Kokomo Post 6 (with Lafayette Post 11 and Muncie Post 19), Regional 5 at Terre Haute Post 346 (with Crawfordsville Post 72 and Sullivan Post 139), Regional 6 at Jasper Post 147 (with Washington Post 121) and Regional 7 at Rockport Post 254 (with Newburgh Post 44 and Boonville Post 200). As State Finals host, Kokomo will represent Regional 4 with the other highest finisher also advancing. The top two at Highland and the winner at the other sites will move on.
Vera Cruz Tree Service has tended to customers in the South Bend, Ind., area for four decades. Recently, Tony Jr. took over the running of the family business from his father.
Not long after the Legion season ends comes the Jim Reinebold Fall Baseball Camp (the instructional league is heading into its 27th year).
Between seasons and conditioning, Cruz is involved with baseball about 10 months a year.
The diamond — and what it represents — is his passion.

Neveah and Tony Cruz Jr. (Steve Krah Photo)
Tony Cruz Jr. and daughter Neveah.
Neveah and Tony Cruz Jr.
A regional title was won by South Bend American Legion Post 151 in 2018.
Tony Cruz Jr. battles COVID-19 in 2020. He was hospitalized 25 days in May, including nine in Intensive Care.
Tony Cruz Jr. had to go on high-flow oxygen during his battle with COVID-19 in 2020.
Out of the hospital after his COVID-19 battle, Tony Cruz came “home” to Jim Reinebold Field, home of South Bend Clay High School and South Bend American Legion Post 151 baseball.
Jim Treadway (left) and Tony Cruz Jr. bond over American Legion, high school baseball.

Ball State grad Riedel appreciates his diamond education

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Baseball taught Jeff Riedel lessons about mental toughness and personal relationships.

Riedel played at Cookeville (Tenn.) High School, Jackson (Mich.) College and Ball State University and coached briefly at the collegiate level and gave lessons before going into construction to support his young family.

Born in Macomb, Mich., Riedel moved to Tennessee around 10 and played at Cookeville for Butch Chaffin.

“He was very much a mental coach,” says Riedel of Chaffin, who mentored the Cavaliers to a 36-2-1 record and a Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association AAA regional title in Riedel’s senior year of 2013. “You need to be mentally tough or you won’t be physically tough.”

Cookesville was put out of the tournament by future major league left-handed pitcher Justus Sheffield and his Tullahoma team.

Chaffin had his players read a book that Riedel would return to as his diamond career progressed — “Mental Toughness: Baseball’s Winning Edge (by Karl Kuehl, John Kuehl and Casey Tetertiller).”

Riedel (rhymes with needle) appreciated the testimonials from big leaguers that related to specific aspects of mental toughness.

After taking a year away from the diamond, Riedel began his two-year junior college experience at Jackson College. Rick Smith was — and still is — the Jets head coach.

“He knew the game better than anyone I had been around to that point,” says Riedel of Smith. “For a lot of the guys he was hard to understand. I got it right away. We had a really good connection. He expectations for me and I had expectations for myself.

“I probably went above those and that’s what he and I were hoping for.”

As a Jackson sophomore in 2016, Riedel was a National Junior College Athletic Association Division II first-team All-America selection and the Michigan Community Collegiate Athletic Association Player of the Year. The righty-swinging outfield paced a 37-14 team in batting average (.489), on-base percentage (.571), slugging percentage (.883), runs scored (69), hits (67), doubles (21), triples (12), runs batted in (61) and stolen bases (school-record 48).

“At the junior college level, it was different,” says Riedel. “Our coaches really expected us to better ourselves.”

Players had essentially unlimited access to practice facilities to get in work on their own time.

“It was very much do-it-yourself,” says Riedel. “That helped me going to the Division I level.”

In the fall of 2016, Riedel signed to play at Oakland (Mich.) University, but a coaching change led him to forego that opportunity.

Chris Fetter, then a Ball State assistant (and now pitching coach for the Detroit Tigers), brought Riedel to Muncie, Ind., for a visit and he soon signed with the Cardinals and went on to enjoy his time around head coach Rich Maloney and assistants Scott French and Dustin Glant.

“Having that connection calms you down and lets you relax,” says Riedel. “Coach Maloney was very passionate about the game. He was very intense. 

“What really struck me with him on my visit was that he was very personable. He was very genuine. He told me what he expected out of me. He was very upfront.”

It also got Riedel’s attention that Alex Call was selected in the third round of the 2016 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Chicago White Sox.

“I knew Alex signed (at Ball State) for a reason,” says Riedel. “I wanted to see what that was all about.”

In two seasons at BSU, Riedel started 104 times in right field. The first year Alex Maloney, son of the coach and now a volunteer assistant coach at Tennessee Tech University in — of all places — Cookeville, was a roommate.

In 2018, Riedel was named to the all-Mid-American Conference second team and hit .380 in 22 MAC games.

But was a non-league game that really turned heads. In the second game of a March 9 doubleheader at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C., Riedel went 5-of-6 with a NCAA-record five doubles.

“I will never forget that day,” says Riedel, who batted in the No. 3 hole in the 20-8 Ball State victory. “I always knew how it was going to go based on my first at-bat. If I was seeing the ball well, I knew it was going to be a good day.”

After sharply grounding out to the shortstop in the first inning, Riedel socked two-baggers to left center in the third, center in the fourth, right center in the fifth, down the third base line in the sixth and to left center in the seventh and final frame.

Riedel earned his Interpersonal Communication degree from Ball State in 2018 and began his coaching career at Kalamazoo (Mich.) Valley Community College that fall. He also taught lessons at the Hardball Fans Academy in Kalamazoo, and coached briefly with the Kalamazoo Growlers during the 2019 Northwoods League summer collegiate wood bat season before opting to take a construction job.

“The thing I enjoyed about coaching was the connection you made with the players,” says Riedel, now 26. “They came to play for you. They had respect for you and you had respect for them.

“The best coaches I played for, I had respect for them as a coach and had a personal connection with them. It relaxed me more.”

While COVID-19 restrictions have interrupted work, Riedel and wife Kayla got to spend extra time with daughter Nora shortly after her birth in Nora in March. The couple that calls Battle Creek, Mich., home welcomed son Wyatt in February 2018.

Jeff Riedel, a 2018 Ball State University graduate, went 5-for-6 with five doubles in a 2018 baseball game against Western Carolina. In two seasons at BSU, he started 104 times in right field. (David Wegiel Jr./Ball State University Photo)
Jeff Riedel locks in a a pitch while playing baseball for Ball State University in 2018. Riedel was born in Michigan, played high school baseball in Tennessee and then junior college ball in Michigan before his two seasons at BSU — 2017 and 2018. He was on the all-Mid-American Conference second team as a senior. (Tim Cowie/Ball State University Photo)
Jeff Riedel was the regular right fielder for the Ball State University baseball program in 2017 and 2018. He went on to briefly coach at the collegiate level and give lessons before taking a construction job. Jeff and Kayla Riedel reside in Battle Creek, Mich., and have two children. (Ball State University Photo)

Fundamentals key for Brumbaugh’s Fort Wayne Northrop Bruins

RBILOGOSMALL copy

BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Fundamental defense.

Deep pitching.

Timely hitting.

These are the main goals of the baseball program at Fort Wayne (Ind.) Northrop High School, where alum Matt Brumbaugh is entering his ninth season as head coach in 2020.

“We will play small ball and try to hit the ball gap-to-gap,” says Brumbaugh. “We run the bases. We hit-and-run. At the higher levels you hardly see it at all. We probably use it more than most teams.”

Brumbaugh will take a hitter that may be struggling at the plate and ask them to hit-and-run.

“They can go up there thinking about nothing but putting the bat on the ball,” says Brumbaugh.

A 1985 Northrop graduate who played for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Chris Stavreti, Brumbaugh was the starting second baseman and lead-off hitter on the Bruins’ 1983 state championship team. He was first-team all-Summit Athletic Conference, first-team all-area and second-team all-state in 1984. He is among Northrop’s leaders in career (104) and single-season (46 in 1984) for base on balls.

“It was a great opportunity for me to play for a coach who really stressed fundamentals,” says Brumbaugh of Stavreti. “He was a fiery guy who wanted to get the best out of every player he coached.”

Brumbaugh appreciates that Stavreti allowed him to immerse himself in every aspect of coaching as a Bruins assistant.

“He helped me to develop my overall skills as a coach,” says Brumbaugh, who sports a career record is 160-79 with four SAC titles.

In 2016, Northrop earned a sectional championship and Brumbaugh was IHSBCA Regional Coach of the Year.

Northrop has played on its current field since 1982. Since 1999, it’s been known as Stavreti Field. A project was recently completed on Stravreti Clubhouse, a structure with concession stand, rest rooms and coaches office on the first floor and a 37-stall locker room and press box on the second level.=

The field does not have lights. The diamond is sometimes in the flight path of planes flying in or out of nearby Fort Wayne International Airport.

One of Brumbaugh’s Northrop teammates was Eric Wedge, who went on to play and manage in the majors and is now head coach at Wichita State University.

“When he was a player, he was such a hard-nosed, goal-driven person,” says  Brumbaugh. “He was a freshmen playing at the varsity level and had goals and ambitions beyond high school baseball.

“I’m really happy for him he’s back in the game at Wichita State, where he won a College World Series. It’s going to be a challenge. But he’s the kind of guy who can rise to challenge. You could see that coming from a young age.”

Brumbaugh and Wedge has stayed in-contact over the years and he has been known to visit Northrop players when he’s in Fort Wayne.

A 1990 graduate of Huntington (Ind.) College, Brumbaugh was a first-team all-Mid-Central Conference shortstop 1987-89 and first-team all-NAIA district shortstop in 1988 and 1989, playing for IHSBCA Hall of Famer Mike Frame.

After college, Brumbaugh played for Crumback-Symons, a five-time Indiana state champion in Stan Musial baseball. The 1996 team placed third at the National Amateur Baseball Federation World Series.

Brumbaugh was a Northrop assistant coach 1990-97. The 1997 Bruins were a Final Four team in the final year of single-class baseball in Indiana.

From 1998-2005, Brumbaugh was an assistant to Lance Hershberger at Indiana Tech. He was the three-time acting head coach at the NAIA World Series. The Warriors won the NAIA World Series in 1998.

Brumbaugh was Hershberger’s assistants at Fort Wayne Concordia Lutheran High School 2007-10.

“He’s one of the best teachers of the game. He’s a stickler for details,” says Brumbaugh of Hershberger, who started the baseball program at Ivy Tech Community College in Fort Wayne. “He’s a master of all aspects of the game. He’s a tremendous coach. You can’t learn enough from him.

“He’s intense, but he gets his point across.”

Brumbaugh leads a Northrop coaching staff that features Gary Gatchell (who works with hitters), former big leaguer Dustan Mohr (outfielders, base runners and hitters), Jeremy Downs (infielders), Chad Kohli pitchers), Ben Kline (infielders) and Caleb Wynn (catchers) at the varsity level. Mason Neuman is the head junior varsity coach and is assisted by Trevor Snyder and Northrop graduate David Keating.

It’s a big staff, especially considering that Northrop usually has 25 to 30 players for its two squads.

“Only two are paid and the rest are volunteers,” says Brumbaugh. “They love the game and they love the program.”

In recent years, Northrop has sent players on to college programs. Among them are 2017 Gatorade Indiana Baseball Player of the Year Garrett Schoenle to the University of Cincinnati. Ben Yoss went to Rose-Hulman Institute, Anthony Miller to the University of Saint Francis and Mike Snyder, Jack Hayden and Braden Klinedinst to Indiana Tech.

Current senior Jackson Foote has committed to Kalamazoo Valley Community College.

Northrop (enrollment around 2,100) plays 14 SAC games against Fort Wayne Bishop Dwenger, Fort Wayne Bishop Luers, Fort Wayne Concordia Lutheran, Fort Wayne North Side, Fort Wayne Snider, Fort Wayne South Side, Fort Wayne Wayne and Homestead.

Most are home-and-home series in the same week or doubleheaders with the teams trading last at-bats. One of the Northrop-Snider games is slated as part of the Parkview Sports Medicine Series at Parkview Field on April 21.

Non-conference opponents include Bellmont, Carroll, Columbia City, DeKalb, East Noble, Fort Wayne Blackhawk Christian, Huntington North, Leo, New Haven and Norwell.

The Bruins are part of an IHSAA Class 4A sectional grouping with Carroll, DeKalb, East Noble and Snider. Northrop has won 15 sectional titles — the last in 2016. Besides being state champions in 1983, the Bruins were state runners-up in 1981.

Over the years, St. Joe Little League and Wallen Baseball, which serve players up to age 14, have been a feeder system for Northrop though more and more players are going the travel baseball route.

Matt and Karen Brumbaugh have been married for 22 years and have two daughters at Indiana University – Jensen (20) and Kendall (18).

MATTBRUMBAUGH

Matt Brumbaugh, a 1985 Fort Wayne (Ind.) Northrop High School graduate, enters his ninth season as the Bruins head baseball coach in 2020.