By STEVE KRAH
Indiana University Southeast has been oh-so close to punching its ticket to the NAIA Baseball World Series in recent years.
In 2021, the Grenadiers finally made it and will be in Lewiston, Idaho for the 10-team event, which begins May 28 and runs through June 4.
“We’ve been moving vertically over the last decade,” says Ben Reel, IU Southeast’s 13th-year head coach. “We’ve learned what wins and what doesn’t to win the big game you’ve got to have a lot of resiliency, chemistry and poise.
“That’s what we’re looking at from a recruiting standpoint — those intangibles.”
The Grenadiers have a roster with 20 players from Indiana high schools. In the final game of NAIA Opening Round Kingsport Bracket, there were five of them in the starting lineup.
In that contest against No. 1-ranked Tennessee Wesleyan, this was Reel’s batting order: Lawrenceburg’s Clay Woeste (.371, 7 home runs, 50 runs batted in, 35 stolen bases) at second base, Drew Hensley (Bedford North Lawrence) .402, 0, 15) at first base, Brody Tanksley (Bedford North Lawrence) .355, 18, 69) at catcher, Marco Romero (Caracas, Venezuela) .370, 6, 55) in right field, Derek Wagner (Tri-West Hendricks) .314, 4, 25) in left field, John Ullom (Louisville, Ky.) .361, 5, 42) in center field), Ben Berenda (Lafayette Central Catholic) .247, 0, 32) at designated hitter, Jacob Scott (Huntington Beach, Calif.) .316, 5, 53) at third base and Daunte Decello (Hamilton, Ohio) .366, 1 29) at shortstop.
“I love homegrown players,” says Reel, a native of Dillsboro, Ind., and South Dearborn High School graduate. “There’s something to be said about development.
“This is a program.”
IU Southeast prides itself in having a team full of battlers at the dish.
“We’re definitely going to grind it out at the plate,” says Reel. “We’re tough to strikeout and fast on the bases.”
As a team, the Grenadiers are hitting .332, 62 homers and 526 runs (8.4 per game) with a .949 OPS (.434 on-base percentage plus .515 slugging average).
At 48-14 (including 26 in the River States Conference), the 2021 IU Southeast team has tied the school record for single-season victories set in 2017.
But it hasn’t been all smooth sailing.
Including being swept in a four-game home series Feb. 26-27 against Huntington (which wound up 33-16), the Grenadiers got off to a 5-10 start.
Since March 3, IU Southeast is 43-4 with win streaks of 18, 14 and six games (current).
After going 26-1 during the River States Conference regular season, the Grenadiers beat Point Park (40-16) to win the RSC tournament title.
The Kingsport (Tenn.) NAIA Opening Round saw IUS win one-run games against Warner (33-23) and No. 1-ranked Tennessee Wesleyan before another World Series berth-clinching win against the Bulldogs (53-6).
Along the way, IU Southeast has had to deal with injuries (RSC Player of the Year and New Lenox, Ill., native Matt Monahan, who hit 428 with 14 homers and 55 RBIs, went out with a season-ending ailment late) and then there’s been all the COVID-19 testing, virtual classes and other issues.
“We’ve been through a lot of trials and tribulations,” says Reel. “But it’s not about what people think you’re supposed to do, it’s about what you’re actually going to do.
“We’ve focused on the little things. We’ve always tried to put our team in the best situation. You have to plan ahead or you’re going to plan to fail.”
The Grenadiers’ pitching strength comes from its depth. It’s not an insult to say “Johnny Wholestaff” is pitching today.
“Johnny’s alive and well down here,” says Reel. “That’s given us a lot of confidence.”
Left-hander Hunter Kloke (Henderson, Ky.) is 9-1 with a 3.01 earned run average and has made 17 mound appearances (14 starts).
Right-hander Cade Reynolds (Greensburg) is 5-2 with a 3.45 ERA with 15 appearances (13 starts).
Besides his first base duties, right-hander Hensley is 8-3 with a 5.21 ERA on the bump with 16 appearances (12 starts).
Lefty Trevor Reynolds (Greensburg) is 9-1 with a 2.81 ERA. All but three of his 22 games are in relief.
There are eight other pitches with at least 10 appearances.
The saves leaders are right-hander Jacob Frankel (Louisville, Ky.) with four at a 1-1 record, righty Brenden Bube (Lanesville) with three at 4-3 mark and right-hander Lane Oesterling (Batestville) with two and a 5-1 ledger.
“The moment has not too big for (our pitchers),” says Reel. “We’ve made some great plays defensively.
“When we need to make a play we’ve found a way to make it.”
While the NAIA World Series will be a first-time experience for Reel and his program, he will be among friends Idaho.
LSU Shreveport (La.) coach Brad Neffendorf is probably Reel’s best friend in baseball. They were groomsmen in each other’s weddings and Reel is the godfather to Kash Neffendorf.
Jeremy Sheetinger will have his Georgia Gwinett team there. Reel knows Sheets from his days at Brescia.
Reel also counts Southeastern (Fla.) coach Adrian Dinkel as a buddy and he met Central Methodist (Mo.) coach Nate Breland this past year.
The field will also feature Concordia (Neb.), Faulkner (Ala.), Keiser (Fla.), Lewis-Clark State (Idaho) and Oklahoma Wesleyan.
Reel and his team are learning about all the travel details that goes with playing across the country.
Then there’s the fact that he came home to wife Morgan and newborn son Beckham (born April 24 and in NICU for the first seven days) and water issues at the house.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” says Reel. “I guess (my son) is my lucky charm.”