Tag Archives: Kokomo Jackrabbits

Alum McTagertt keeps growing the game at Lafayette Jeff

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Scott McTagertt paid his dues before becoming head baseball coach at his alma mater.

A 1986 graduate of Lafayette (Ind.) Jefferson High School, McTagertt was still a Purdue University student when he became a Jeff assistant for the 1988 season.

He has been bringing baseball knowledge to Bronchos ever since. 

McTagertt played for head coach Mark Strader and served on the staffs of Tony Primavera, Ed Gilliland and Kevin Maxwell before taking the reins of the Lafayette Jeff program for the 2008 season.

“(Strader) is probably the best athlete that ever came through Lafayette Jeff,” says McTagertt. “He was very demanding. We respected the guy because you knew what he knew in baseball.

“We put so much intensity into practice. (Strader) got (to play for and) coach with (Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Paul) “Spider” Fields. (Strader) brought some of that fire to us.”

A shortstop and pitcher at Jeff, McTagertt was on the Purdue team for one season behind future big leaguer Archi Cianfrocco while working toward what would be an Education degree from Indiana University Purdue University-Indianapolis (IUPUI).

As a young coach, McTagertt marveled at Primavera’s game management skills.

“I don’t know if there was anybody better than him,” says McTagertt. “He knew everything in the game was going to happen before it happened.

“He was fun to learn from.”

Gilliland had played for and coached with IHSBCA Hall of Famer Ken Schreiber at LaPorte High School.

“(Gilliland) was a disciplinarian,” says McTagertt. “This is the way we’re going to do it. He had set routines. The kids worked hard for him. 

“He liked to ride his top two pitchers a lot. It was the LaPorte Way.”

In a decade with Maxwell, McTagertt witnessed a strong organizer.

“(Maxwell) ran very structured practices,” says McTagertt. “Everything was written out. The kids had to know the practice plan.”

Along the way, McTagertt has continued to have a growth mindset. He has learned much about the game from networking, attending clinics and — in this pandemic year of 2020 — Zoom meetings and other online resources.

“We’re probably the most sharing group of coaches you’re going to find in any sport,” says McTagertt. “Tthere are so many ways to teach in baseball.

“You can always steal an idea or two.”

McTagertt was born in Greenwood, Ind., and came to Lafayette as a fourth grader. That first day in town he attended the Colt World Series at Loeb Stadium.

“It was a big place for my family,” says McTagertt, who started working at Loeb in 1988 and did so until the facility dedicated in 1940 was torn down to make way for the New Loeb Stadium.

Teaching fifth grade STEM at nearby Sunnyside Intermediate, McTagertt drops by regularly to see the progress of the ballpark adjacent to the Columbian Park Zoo that mimics Kokomo Municipal Stadium (home to Kokomo High School, Indiana University Kokomo and summer collegiate Kokomo Jackrabbits) and is oriented the other way from the old Loeb (left field faces the pool and right field is closet to the zoo).

“I didn’t know if I’d ever see this place,” says McTagertt. “It’s absolutely gorgeous.”

With construction of the new Loeb (also home to the summer collegiate Lafayette Aviators), Jeff was going to spend much of 2020 playing road games. But the COVID-19 pandemic took away the season. The Bronchos were just days away from tryouts when what became lockdown began. Individual workouts were distributed via computer. 

In fall IHSAA Limited Contact Period practice, the focus was on individual skills and position development.

“We put a premium on teaching since we lost a season,” says McTagertt, who sent the Bronchos from the World Series to the weight room until Dec. 22 and expects to resume activities Jan. 4.

McTagertt’s 2021 coaching staff features John Ripke, Alex Igo and Sean McDonald as varsity assistants. Kevin Igo is the JV Red head coach and is helped by Brian McDonald and Matthew Koeppen. Tim Whitaker is the JV Black (or C-team) head coach and is aided by Daniel Nelson.

The Bronchos tend to have around 40 players in the program. On days when all three squads are in action, there might be 13 to 15 with the varsity, 13 with JV Red and the rest with JV Black.

Jeff (enrollment around 2,080) is in the Northern Central Conference (with Anderson, Arsenal Tech, Harrison, Kokomo, Logansport, Marion, McCutcheon, Muncie Central and Richmond).

The Bronchos are in an IHSAA Class 4A grouping with Harrison, Kokomo, Logansport and McCutcheon. Jeff won the last of its 17 sectional titles in 2013. The program has also claimed 12 regionals, four semistates, two state championships (1969 and 1973) and one state runner-up (1971).

Two recent Jeff players — brother Justin Walker Jr. (Purdue) and Jacob Walker (Parkland College in Champaign, Ill.) — have moved on to college diamonds. Current Bronchos Caleb Koeppen and Brady Preston have received college offers.

For years, Jeff and Lafayette Central Catholic developed young players through the Lafayette Lightning.

About eight years ago — wanting to get more Jeff-bound youngsters involved in competitive play — Junior Broncho Baseball was established. The group fielded 10U, 11U and 12U teams that first year and now has teams from 8U to 15U.

That first 12U team were freshmen in the spring of 2020.

The Junior Bronchos play often at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind., and Indianapolis Sports Park.

Elite players are encouraged to play for teams like the Indiana Bulls and Indiana Nitro.

“We take rest of the kids and run them through our practices and camps,” says McTagertt. “We get the best of both worlds.”

Utilizing diamonds at Armstrong Park and McCaw Park, Lafayette Youth Baseball is still going strong.

“There’s a wonderful working relationship city, parks department and baseball programs in Lafayette,” says McTagertt.

Scott and Fawn McTagertt (a McCutcheon High School teacher) have three children. Rileigh McTagertt is a junior Education major at Purdue who coaches tennis at Tecumseh Junior High School in Lafayette. She was in cheerleading, basketball and tennis at Jeff.  

Ashlynn McTagertt played golf, basketball and softball for the Bronchos and is now a freshmen softball player at Danville (Ill.) Area Community College. 

Drew McTagertt is a Tecumseh eighth grader who plays tennis, basketball and baseball.

Scott McTagertt is the head baseball coach at Lafayette (Ind.) Jefferson High School — a position he’s held since the 2008 season. The 1986 Jeff graduated joined the Bronchos coaching staff in 1988.

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)

Columbus native Gray deliver for Milwaukee Milkmen in a big way

BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Peyton Gray has spent July and August dodging bats.

The right-handed pitcher from Columbus, Ind., playing independent professional baseball has been dominant in his back of the bullpen role.

As the closer for the American Association’s Milwaukee Milkmen, Gray goes into play today (Aug. 26) with a 2-0 record, 10 saves and a 0.00 earned run average. In 24 innings, he has yet to allow a run and has struck out 41 (15.375 per nine innings) and walked 10.

“For the most part, I try to stay with myself and pitch to my strengths,” says Gray. “I’ve been able to catch some breaks.

“It’s been fun so far.”

A 6-foot-3, 200-pounder, Gray delivers a fastball, slider and change-up from a three-quarter overarm slot. The slider breaks in on left-handed batters and away from righties and the “Vulcan” change sinks.

But it’s his four-seam fastball that’s been his out pitch. It travels 90 to 93 mph and — he learned while working out in the off-season with Greg Vogt of PRP Baseball at Finch Creek Fieldhouse in Noblesville, Ind. — that it has an above-average spin rate.

The 2020 season marks Gray’s third in pro ball. He was signed as a non-drafted free agent by the Colorado Rockies in 2018 out of Florida Gulf Coast University and played rookie-level and Low Class-A ball in the Rockies system in 2018 and 2019.

A 2014 graduate of Columbus (Ind.) High School, where he was a four-year letterman for Olympians head coach Jon Gratz, Gray pitched one season at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo (0-1 with two saves, a 3.58 ERA, 21 strikeouts and 18 walks in 37 2/3 innings in 2015), one at Gulf Coast Community College in Panama City, Fla. (8-1 with one save, a 3.93 ERA, 55 strikeouts and 13 walks in 71 2/3 innings in 2016) and two at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, Fla. (6-5 with one save, a 5.49 ERA, 110 strikeouts and 42 walks in 95 innings in 2017 and 2018).

Gray was both a mid-week starter and weekend reliever at Florida Gulf Coast. He came out of the bullpen in the Rockies organization.

With the Milkmen, he has been used mostly for one-inning outings with two exceptions. He has never faced more than seven batters at a time.

“Throwing’s very crucial,” says Gray. “When you’re sore force yourself to throw and break up whatever’s tight in the body.

Gray uses Driveline PlyoCare balls for recovery both on days he pitches and days he does not.

At 25, Gray is one of the youngest on a roster that features no less than six players with big-league experience — pitchers Henderson Alvarez, Tim Dillard, David Holmberg, Drew Hutchison, A.J. Schugel, and infielder David Washington.

“It’s been really good for me to be around an older crowd like this and learn the game more,” says Gray. “It’s pretty close-knit team. Everybody’s very friendly and down-to-earth.

“I watch how they go about their business. As a professional, you’re in charge of your career. You have to know the ropes if you want that career to last long.”

Gray is now with a team managed by Anthony Barone with Hayden Carter (formerly of the Kokomo, Ind., Jackrabbits) as pitching coach that plays its home games in the Milwaukee suburb of Franklin, Wis.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the American Association is operating with six teams — Milwaukee, Chicago Dogs, Fargo-Moorhead Redhawks, Saint Paul Saints, Sioux Falls Canaries and Winnipeg Goldeyes — playing a 60-game schedule. When the season began, Milwaukee was one of three hubs. Later on, Chicago and Saint Paul opened back up and began hosting games. Winnipeg has been playing mostly road games.

Milwaukee is about a five-hour trip from Columbus meaning his family has been able to see him play in-person.

“They’re huge baseball fans,” says Peyton of father Billy Gray and older brother Jordan Gray. “They get to live their baseball dream through me. They’ve traveled and supported me through all these years.

“It makes me happy to make them proud.”

Billy Gray played high school baseball at Columbus North and Jordan Gray at Columbus East. 

From 12 to 17, Peyton played travel baseball for the Indiana Blazers. Billy was head coach of that team in the early years and Shelbyville’s Terry Kuhn filled that role in the later ones.

Bowling is a big deal in the Gray family. Billy owns Gray’s Pro Shop in Columbus Bowling Center. Jordan is the men’s bowling coach at Marian University in Indianapolis and his fiancee — Jerracah Heibel — is an associate head bowling coach at MU. Billy Gray is a Knights assistant.

Lisa Gray, wife of Billy and mother of Jordan and Peyton, works for Bartholemew County Youth Services Center.

Peyton Gray holds a Criminal Justice degree from Florida Gulf Coast and goes on ride-alongs with police officers during the baseball off-season. He says he sees himself going into some form of law enforcement in the future.

Peyton Gray, of Columbus, Ind., has been a lights-out late-inning baseball pitcher for the independent American Association’s Milwaukee Milkmen in 2020. He played at Florida Gulf Coast University before being signed by the Colorado Rockies in 2018.

Kansas Jayhawks’ Metcalf wearing Northern Michigan Dune Bears jersey this summer

BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Nolan Metcalf’s 2020 summer plans had him playing baseball in the Northwoods League with the Kokomo (Ind.) Jackrabbits.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the league was reconfigured and the two-year starting first baseman at the University of Kansas is in Traverse City, Mich., as part of a three-team regional pod.

Metcalf, a 2017 graduate of Penn High School in Mishawaka, Ind., has been assigned to the new Northern Michigan Dune Bears. That team plays games against established Traverse City Pit Spitters and new Great Lakes Resorters at at Turkey Creek Stadium. Players are being housed in cabins at Interlochen Center for the Arts, located between Duck, Geneva and Long lakes and close to Lake Michigan.

“We play every two days,” says Metcalf, who was the designated hitter during a season-opening victory Thursday, July 2 against the Pit Spitters. Former Jackrabbits hitting coach Alex O’Donnell, who played at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pa., and is an assistant at Mercyhurst-North East was made a winner in his managing debut. “I’ve been to the beach a couple of times.”

Before the Kansas season was halted in March, Metcalf appeared in 15 games with 12 starts at first base and hit .244 (10-of-41 with two home runs, two doubles, six walks and 10 runs batted in. He belted his homers against Charleston Southern Feb. 22 and Indiana State March 7.

The Jayhawks, with Ritch Price as head coach and his son Ritchie Price as hitting/infield coach, recruiting coordinator and third base coach, were returning from a series March 10-11 at the University of Iowa when they learned that the Ivy League had canceled its season.

“We practiced the next day and the coaches told us it was not looking good,” says Metcalf. 

Soon after that, the season was canceled and campus was closed. Metcalf finished his spring semester classes via computer back in Granger, Ind.

“I was trying to learn accounting online,” says Metcalf, who is working toward a major in Sport Management with a minor in Business. “I got it done.”

The son of Dave and Leslie Metcalf and brother of Lexie Metcalf quarantined for about a month then began going to the Harris Township fields for daily batting practice with Penn classmate Niko Kavadas, who completed his third season at Notre Dame in 2020. 

Metcalf also resumed lessons with Mike Marks at his Hitters Edge training facility in Sturgis, Mich., and began mowing lawns with the Penn-Harris-Madison School Corporation. 

“I wasn’t super-confident about the summer (baseball season),” says Metcalf, who was told June 15 to report to Traverse City, which is about 250 miles due north of Granger. “Now I’m trying to get back into the swing of things.”

Metcalf expects to split his time with the Dune Bears between DH, first base and catcher.

Last summer he played for the Chillicothe (Mo.) Mudcats of the MINK (Missouri-Iowa-Nebraska-Kansas) Collegiate League. He was named to the all-star team and finished second in the home run derby at St. Joseph, Mo., even though he belted 32 total homers in three rounds.

At Kansas in 2019, Metcalf appeared in 44 games (27 starts) and hit .256 (30-of-117) with four homers, seven doubles and 23 RBIs.

The summer of 2018 had him in the Expedition League with the Western Nebraska Pioneers.

As a Jayhawk freshman, Metcalf got into 14 games (one as a starter) and hit .077 (1-for-14) with one RBI.

Playing for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Greg Dikos at Penn, Metcalf was a career .379 hitter while earning all-state and District Player of the Year recognition and being named to the IHSBCA North/South All-Star Series as a senior. 

Metcalf was on the High Honor Roll four times. The Kingsmen won four Northern Indiana Conference and IHSAA sectional titles, three regionals, two semistates and a Class 4A state championship (he scored two runs in a 3-2 win against Terre Haute North Vigo in 2015). The 6-foot-3, 245-pounder also played football at Penn.

What’s the difference between high school and college baseball?

“It’s the faster pace,” says Metcalf. “It’s how good every single player is. You have to prepare for every single game like it’s a big game — even the mid-week ones. 

“It’s fun, but hard work.”

Metcalf, a righty swinger, sees his power and his ability to hit to all fields as his strengths as a hitter.

“Hitting veto — guys that throw in the low to mid-90’s — means having quick hands,” says Metcalf. “You need to have a short, steady stroke. (The pitcher) will provide the power.”

From his 7U to 14U summer, Metcalf played travel baseball for the Granger Cubs. Teammates included Kavadas, Trevor Waite, Matt Kominkiewicz and Tony Carmola.

He played for Penn’s summer team after his first two high school campaigns then one summer each with the Eric Osborn-coached Indiana Nitro (17U) and Mike Hitt-coached Indiana Blue Jays (18U). Prior to his senior year, he played for the Kevin Christman-coached San Francisco Giants Fall Scout Team.

Nolan Metcalf, a 2017 graduate of Penn High School in Mishawaka, Ind., has spent three baseball seasons at the University of Kansas. This summer he is with the Northern Michigan Dune Bears of the Northwoods League, playing all his games in Traverse City, Mich. (University of Kansas Image)

Westfield assistant Van Skike accentuates confidence factor

RBILOGOSMALL copy

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Confidence and self-assurance was valued by Jason Van Skike as a baseball player and are traits emphasized by him as a coach.

“Baseball is a great teacher of things that happen in your life,” says Van Skike, the second-year pitching coach at Westfield (Ind.) High School. “You focus on the things you can control. There are three things we talk about everyday — work ethic, attitude and confidence.

“You can’t make up for a lost day,” says Van Skike. “You want to always go to bed at night knowing you put in your best effort.”

That’s work ethic.

“You have a choice to have a good attitude or a bad attitude,” says Van Skike. “It’s a mindset. It’s an opportunity to get better.

“If you believe good things are going to happen, good things tend to happen. If you believe bad things are going to happen, bad things tend to happen.”

That’s attitude.

“My job is to make sure (Westfield pitchers) feel that they are the absolute man,” says Van Skike. “That’s all do-able if they’ve done the things they need to do on the days leading to (the game appearance).”

That’s confidence.

Van Skike, who turned 31 in April, was a right-handed pitcher at Gig Harbor (Was.) High School, Treasure Valley Community College (Ontario, Ore.) and Indiana State University before the Chicago White Sox system and the independent professional Wichita (Kan.) Wingnuts. He has coached for Federal Way (Was.) High School, the Kokomo (Ind.) Jackrabbits and Des Moines (Iowa) Area Community College.

Rick Heller, who is now head coach at the University of Iowa, was ISU head coach when Van Skike was in Terre Haute. Heller had him join the Sycamores after seeing the righty at a sophomore showcase while he was at Treasure Valley.

“(Heller) would preach ‘chest out; a lot of confidence,’” says Van Skike. “I would hear that all the time. I found out that body language plays into the game. If you can trick yourself into thinking you’re the man, you might be the man.

“(Heller) was always talking about body language and confidence.”

Van Skike says it was not until the end of his college career that this lesson really began to sink in.

“I was an excuse maker,” says Van Skike. “If I walked a guy, it wasn’t my fault.”

Tyler Herbst, who is now an assistant at Iowa Western Community College (Council Bluffs, Iowa), was Indiana State’s pitching coach when Van Skike was there.

“(Herbst) made me feel comfortable,” says Van Skike. “He didn’t try to change too much of what I was.”

Herbst went on to help steer Sean Manaea, who is now in the majors.

“He was a baby giraffe at Indiana State and didn’t know how to pitch,” says Van Skike of Manaea.

Van Skike had come a long way by the time he pitched for the Sycamores.

He entered Gig Harbor, he was 5-foot-5 and maybe 135 pounds. He didn’t make the varsity squad until he was a senior.

“They kept me around since I had a sense of urgency,” says Van Skike, who played for Washington State Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Pete Jansen. “I ran on and off the field. I needed to in order to stand out.”

By the time he was a senior, he had began to fill out and stood 6-3.

He went to Treasure Valley, where Rick Baumann was head coach, with a fastball clocked at 78-82 mph. That’s when he began showing up an hour early for practice every day to do a towel drill. By the end of the fall, he was up to 84 mph. During indoor workouts, he was sitting at 83-86. On a nice day, the team went outside and he was at 88-91 and he was able to sustain that speed.

“I made a 10 mph jump in a four- to five-month span,” says Van Skike. “I needed those extra reps.”

Extra reps is what Van Skike got in junior college, where there is less restriction on the amount of times players and coaches can spend working on the game.

“I loved every moment of it,” says Van Skike of the juco diamond life. “You spend so many hours with your teammates and coaches. You build that brotherhood. Reflecting back, junior college baseball was the most fun for me.”

Van Skike sings the praises of junior college because it also offers a chance to develop. A juco player might get 60 at-bats in the fall between games and scrimmages and around 200 more in the spring. By the end of their sophomore year, they’ve gotten almost 500 at-bats and that doesn’t count summer ball.

Van Skike says a D-I player who does not crack the lineup as a freshman and sophomore — which is often the case — might go into their junior year with less than 100 career at-bats.

“You’ve got to play,” says Van Skike. “You’ve got to get game experience.”

Van Skike left college in 2011 unsure of his baseball future. Scout Mike Shirley (now amateur scouting director) brought him to Madison County for a workout and signed him to a White Sox contract as an undrafted free agent. He hustled to Bristol, Va., of the Appalachian League and picked up an extra-inning victory in his first outing.

His pitching coach at Bristol was Larry Owens, now head baseball coach at Bellarmine University in Louisville.

“(Owens) simplified the game for me,” says Van Skike.

Through 2013, Van Skike appeared in 73 games (64 as a reliever) and went 10-8 with a 3.18 earned run average in 150 2/3 innings. He was 3-5 with a 2.80 ERA in 74 innings at Advanced Class-A Winston-Salem in 2013.

“(Winston-Salem pitching coach) J.R. Perdew was a tremendous help,” says Van Skike. “He told me things I had never thought about before.

“The more simple you can keep baseball the better off you’re going to be.”

Perdew is now the White Sox assistant pitching coordinator.

Van Skike learned to use a cut fastball to be effective against left-handed hitters.

He had a six-month lease on an apartment in St. Louis and expected to be in spring training in 2014 when he was released by the White Sox. He went to live with his parents — Ike and Cathy Van Skike — in Arizona and got a job delivering pizzas. Not having a steady catch partner, he threw into a chain link fence. Occasionally, he would work out with a high school team and they had no trouble hitting his deliveries.

Still, an invitation was extended in Wichita. Even though he did not have a stellar spring training with the Wingnuts, he had enough of a resume on affiliated ball to keep him. The 2014 season saw him start 26 games and got 12-5 with a 3.35 ERA in 110 innings. He started the American Association All-Star Game and helped Wichita win the league title.

It tended to be very breezy out to left field in Wichita. Van Skike used it to his advantage.

“A lot of hitters get big egos when the wind blows,” says Van Skike. “I made my living down and away (to right-handed hitters) and got roll-overs to the shortstop.”

The 2015 campaign was not as successful (7-8, 4.89 in 116 innings) and Van Skike retired as a player.

“Getting into college coaching is extremely difficult,” says Van Skike. He went with friend Arlo Evasick, the head coach at Federal Way and the Eagles qualified for the 2016 state tournament.

That summer, Van Skike ended up back in Indiana on the coaching staff of Jackrabbits manager Matt Howard, who is now head baseball coach at Indiana University Kokomo.

Van Skike was starting to prepare for a chance to play pro ball in Australia when Heller let him know about an opportunity in Des Moines.

“I got extremely lucky,” says Van Skike.

David Pearson was hired as DMACC head coach and soon hired Van Skike as an assistant. The two had to dismantle the roster after the first season and went into the second year (2018) with mostly freshmen.

Near the end of that season, Van Skike began to examine his relationship with baseball.

“It consumed my life and I missed a lot of family events (as a player),” says Van Skike. “I began missing those again as a college coach.

“I need more of a balance. I didn’t know what that was at the time.”

Through a fortunate sequence of events, Van Skike moved to central Indiana and wound up taking a job as an Edward Jones financial advisor in Westfield.

He was at the right place at the right time since Westfield High School head coach Ryan Bunnell was also looking to fill a slot for a pitching coach.

“I’m still heavily involved with baseball and I can still be around my family and friends,” says Van Skike. “That’s what I was searching for.

“I’m extremely lucky I’m at Westfield.”

The COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic took away the 2020 season.

“We had an extremely talented group,” says Van Skike of a Shamrocks team that received votes in the Class 4A preseason poll. “We could’ve won state. But there’s nothing we can do to control it.

“It’s an awkward time for these seniors,” says Van Skike. “They almost don’t want to hear about baseball.

“It’s still a little tender.

“We’ve been talking with juniors and saying let’s do it next year for these seniors (in 2021). They shouldn’t complain one day. Don’t ever take things for granted.”

To help fill the baseball void, Van Skike and Bunnell talk about the game almost daily. They are also involved in Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Zoom video conference instructional meetings on Thursday nights.

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Jason Van Skike is a financial advisor at Edwards Jones and the pitching coach at Westfield High School, both in Westfield, Ind. The graduate of Gig Harbor High School in Washington  pitched at Treasure Valley Community College Oregon and Indiana State University as well as in the Chicago White Sox organization and in independent professional baseball. (Edwards Jones Photo)

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Westfield (Ind.) High School varsity baseball coaches in 2020 include (from left): assistant Bill Lindley, head coach Ryan Bunnell and assistant Jason Van Skike. Shamrocks pitchers are led by Van Skike, who played collegiately at Treasure Valley Community College in Oregon and Indiana State University and professionally in the Chicago White Sox system and with the independent Wichita (Kan.) Wingnuts. (Westfield High School Photo)

 

Northridge, Evansville graduate Troyer to play independent pro baseball

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Sam Troyer has changed his swing to add more power and he’s taking it into pro baseball.

A graduate of Northridge High School in Middlebury, Ind. (2015), and the University of Evansville (2019), Troyer has been added to the roster of the independent United Shore Professional Baseball League’s Birmingham Bloomfield Beavers. The USPBL plays all its games at Jimmy John’s Field in Utica, Mich., a northern suburb of Detroit.

“I’m super-excited about going there,” says Troyer, a righty-swinging third baseman/shortstop. “I know I can get signed to an affiliated club.”

Since getting his business management degree in May 2019, Troyer has been splitting his time between work and honing his game. Joined by former Jimtown High School and Ball State University pitcher Nick Floyd, training is done in a friend’s barn. Troyer also works out with the Northridge team.

Troyer has been traveling regularly to the St. Louis suburb of O’Fallon, Mo., to work with hitting coach Kevin Graham, whose son, Kevin, was the 2018 Gatorade Missouri Player of the Year and now plays at the University of Mississippi.

“He’s the best hitting coach I’ve ever had,” says Troyer of the elder Graham.

Troyer met Graham through Ben Bailey, Troyer’s former Indiana Chargers travel baseball coach who now lives in Missouri.

Bailey, Joel Mishler and George Hofsommer founded the Chargers. Troyer played for the organization from 13 to 18, missing his 17U summer for Tommy John surgery.

“I considered (Bailey and Mishler) both my mentors,” says Troyer. “They’ve been there, done that

they have their connections.

“They know what they’re talking about.”

Troyer attended various tryout camps that went nowhere then in January and February, he went to Palm Springs to play in the California Winter League, a showcase for unsigned players. He impressed former big leaguer Von Joshua and the Birmingham Bloomfield manager invited him to join his club. Joshua was a coach for the 1993 South Bend (Ind.) White Sox.

USPBL spring training is scheduled for April 25-May 7 in Utica. The Beavers’ first game is slated for May 9.

Troyer appeared and started in all 53 games for Evansville as a senior in 2019, batting .249 with two home runs, 11 doubles, 25 runs batted in and 27 runs scored. He also stole 21 bases in 25 attempts. He usually hit first or second in the order to take advantage of his speed.

“I was getting on base and creating opportunities for everybody else to drive in runs,” says Troyer.

As a junior in 2018, Troyer played in 42 games (40 as a starter) and hit .220 with two homers, four doubles, 16 walks and 13 stolen bases in 14 attempts.

Wes Carroll is head coach for the Purple Aces.

“He’s very knowledgeable with an extensive background,” says Troyer of Carroll. “He made it to Triple-A.

“He brought a lot of energy, which I like.”

To get Evansville ready for the Missouri Valley Conference, Evansville played teams like Vanderbilt, Indiana, Boston College, Creighton, Florida Gulf Coast and Iowa.

Troyer chose Evansville after two years at Rend Lake College in Ina, Ill.

“It was my best scholarship,” says Troyer, who had a friend sell him on the academics at UE. “I enjoyed my two years (at Rend Lake).”

Troyer played for the Warriors in 2016 and 2017. Tony Etnier was his head coach his freshmen year and Rend Lake player and strength coach Tyler O’Daniel took over the program his sophomore season.

Etnier offered Troyer a full ride on his first day and O’Daniel was high energy.

“The thing I loved about going to Rend Lake, the competition out of high school was no joke,” says Troyer. “I immediately got better. It turns you from a boy into a man real quick.

“(The Great Rivers Athletic Conference with John A. Logan, Kaskaskia, Lake Land, Lincoln Trail, Olney Central, Rend Lake, Shawnee, Southeastern Illinois, Southwestern Illinois, Wabash Valley) is one of the better junior college conferences in the country.”

As a sophomore at Rend Lake, Troyer was hit by a pitch 22 times and ranked second among National Junior College Athletic Association Division I players in that category.

In two seasons at Rend Lake, he hit .285 with two homers, 59 stolen bases and was hit by 41 pitches.

Summers during Troyer’s college career were spent with the Great Lakes League’s Richmond (Ind.) Jazz in 2016, briefly with the Norhwoods League’s Mankato (Minn.) Moondogs and then-Prospect League’s Kokomo (Ind.) Jackrabbits in 2017 and South Florida Collegiate League’s Pompano Beach Clippers in 2018.

At 15 and 16, Troyer trained with former Notre Dame baseball and football player Evan Sharpley.

Troyer helped Northridge to the 2015 IHSAA Class 4A Elkhart Sectional title while playing for head coach Andrew Brabender.

“He’s intense, but in a good way,” says Troyer of Brabender. “He brought out the best in me.

“He was able to mold me to be ready for college.”

Troyer earned four letters for the Raiders and hit .429 with seven homers and 35 stolen bases as a senior while earning team MVP and best bat awards. He was a two-time all-Northern Lakes Conference honoree and was named all-state and to the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association North/South All-Star Series (The North swept the three-game series in Terre Haute in 2015).

As an NHS sophomore, Troyer played alongside two future NCAA Division I players in Shannon Baker and Brock Logan.

Sam is the third of Steve and Shanna Troyer’s four children. Sean Troyer was not an athlete. Scot Troyer played baseball and football in high school. Sara Troyer is currently a diver at the University of Nebraska. In the recent Big Ten meet, she placed fifth in the 3-meter and 10th in the 1-meter.

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Sam Troyer, a graduate of Northridge High School in Middlebury, Ind. (2015) and the University of Evansville (2019), is to play in the independent United Shore Professional Baseball League. He is a righty-swinging third baseman and shortstop. (University of Evansville Photo)

 

Following culture of hard work, IU Kokomo Cougars win 31 games in inaugural baseball season

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Indiana University Kokomo got off to a slow start in its first collegiate baseball season then came roaring down the stretch.

The NAIA-affiliated Cougars, led by head coach Matt Howard, lost the first four games of 2018 then went on to post a couple seven-game win streaks and finished 31-21-1 overall and 16-11 in the River States Conference. IUK lost to Midway in the RSC tournament semifinals.

“We have a good group of guys,” says Howard. “We had a pretty balanced team. Pitchers kept us in ball games early in the year. Our batters came around late.

“With the success we had last year and being able to add some guys, it should be a pretty exciting year for us (in 2019).”

IUK hit .303 as a team, stole 67 bases and outscored opponents 397-261.

“We shoot for 100 bags a year and we were well short of our goal,” says Howard, who saw junior center fielder Tavon Lindsay (20) and freshman left fielder Jared Heard (19) paced the Cougars in pilfered bases. “We like to play aggressive, fast-paced and put as much pressure on the defense as we possibly can.

“Speed doesn’t slump.”

Among regulars, Heard (New Castle) at .347, Lindsay (Port Lucie, Fla.) at .346, freshman second baseman Max McKee (Shenandoah) at .344 and junior designated hitter Dalton Clarke (Newmarket, Ont.) at .320 were batting leaders.

Heard collected 58 hits and drove in 40 runs. Lindsay wound up with 66 hits and 39 RBI. Clarke popped seven home runs and knocked in 52 runs.

Bolstering the pitching staff was junior right-hander Renton Poole (Bloomington South) and freshman left-handers Owen Callaghan (Hamilton Southeastern) and Noah Richardson (Lafayette Central Catholic).

Poole made 14 appearances (12 starts) and was 7-2 with a 2.28 earned run average and 98 strikeouts in 79 innings.

In 14 appearances (13 starts), Callaghan was 7-5 with 2.92 ERA and 66 strikeouts in 71 innings.

Richardson took the mound 16 times (11 as a starter) and was 5-4 with a 2.87 ERA and 44 strikeouts in 62 2/3 innings.

Howard wants to have 40 players by the fall and is now on the recruiting trail.

“This is the time where we shore up our roster,” says Howard. “We identify the talent, find the Class of 2019 graduates and try to get them on campus in the summer or later fall so you can get some early commitments.

Howard is “looking for players that make us better and fit our culture.”

And just what does that mean?

“Our culture is one of hard work and dedication to the sport,” says Howard. “We push our guys very hard.

“When our guys go on the field, they expect and deserve to win because they’ve worked harder than the guys on the other side.”

To hone their skills and competitive edge even sharper, several IUK players have been placed in competitive summer collegiate baseball leagues.

Howard is a graduate of Slippery Rock University and managed the Kokomo Jackrabbits of the summer collegiate Prospect League prior to helping to build the IUK program from scratch.

Indiana University Kokomo plays its home games on the turf at Kokomo Municipal Stadium — the same facility used by the Jackrabbits and Kokomo High School.

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Matt Howard led Indiana University Kokomo to 31 victories in their first season of college baseball in 2018. (IU Kokomo Photo)

 

Kokomo’s Sanburn brothers impacting baseball, business worlds

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Parker Sanburn looks into the future and makes a prediction for himself and his two brothers:

“Give us another 20 years and we’re going to change the world, that’s all I know.”

In the present, the siblings from Kokomo — Nolan (26), Parker (23) and Connor (19) — are having an impact on their little slices of the world.

Nolan and Parker are professional baseball pitchers and Connor is a college student. All three Kokomo High School graduates and sons of executive pastor Dick Sanburn and public relations coordinator Crystal Sanburn have curious minds and entrepreneurial ambition.

“We’re always bouncing ideas off each other,” says Nolan Sanburn of his brothers. “All three of us our dialed in on being better people everyday.”

Nolan owns real estate and is about to launch a baseball-related podcast — The Ballplayer Mindset.

Parker, who was on his way to medical or physician’s assistant school when pro baseball opportunity came knocking, is also interested in the mental side and keeps a notebook of ideas and inventions.

Connor is a talented videographer and pre-Telecommunications major and Urban Planning minor as a freshman at Ball State University. One of his projects is “How Baseball Has Impacted the Sanburn Family” and served as digital entertainment coordinator for the summer collegiate baseball Kokomo Jackrabbits.

Nolan Sanburn was selected in the 34th round of the 2010 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Detroit Tigers and did not sign.

The right-hander pitched two seasons for the University of Arkansas, going 2-4 with eight saves, a 3.62 earned run average, 35 strikeouts and 15 walks in 32 1/3 innings and 24 appearances (all in relief) in 2011 and 4-1 with a 2.43 ERA, 49 strikeouts and 22 walks in 40 2/3 innings and 22 appearances (18 in relief) in 2012.

Nolan was chosen in the second round of the 2012 MLB draft by the Oakland Athletics. He worked in the A’s system 2012, 2013 and 2014 and was traded to the Chicago White Sox in 2014 and pitched with that organization in 2015 and 2016 —  mostly at Double-A Birmingham.

He was released by White Sox in March 2017 and became a minor league free agent, landed with the Washington Nationals — going 4-3  with one save, an 4.87 ERA, 56 strikeouts and 27 walks in 64 2/3 innings and 17 appearances (nine in relief) at High Class-A Potomac — and was released by the Nats in August to again become a minor league free agent.

All but 23 of Nolan’s 141 pro games have been out of the bullpen.

“I’m going to wait and see if something shakes,” says Nolan. “If it doesn’t, I may just move on with my life.”

Parker Sanburn, a 2013 Kokomo graduate, also pitched at Arkansas (going 0-1 with a 15.58 ERA in 11 relief appearances in 2015 after red-shirting in 2014) and then Des Moines Area Community College in 2017 (going 5-3 with a 3.44 ERA, 72 strikeouts and 36 walks in 55 innings and 14 appearances) after attending Indiana University in Bloomington. The right-hander went un-drafted but was signed by the Texas Rangers in 2017. He began his pro career at short-season Class-A Spokane and finished the season at Low Class-A Hickory, combining to go 0-2 with a 2.40 ERA, 16 strikeouts and 12 walks in 15 1/3 innings and nine appearances (all in relief).

While they were never teammates until Nolan was a senior and Parker a freshman at Kokomo High, the two older Sanburn brothers both came up playing baseball in Kokomo’s UCT youth league. Then came Babe Ruth League. Nolan played for Kingsway and the Indiana Bulls. Parker was with Kingsway, the Indiana Chargers and then the Indiana Bulls.

Connor Sanburn earned a International Baccalaureate degree from KHS in 2017. He was involved in CEO (Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities), founded a film festival and made videos for teacher recruitment and how to add to the school’s legacy plus features from the City of Kokomo. His video production company is CCS Entertainment.

“I really loved Kokomo High School,” says Connor. “I just have this urge that I need to build something and create a brand. I know I want to do something in business someday. It just excites me.”

His baseball video on the Sanburns included interviews with his grandfather, brothers and parents.

Connor also produced fun music videos featuring his siblings.

More recently, Nolan has his youngest brother thinking about real estate and investing.

“He read that book, “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” (by personal finance author and lecturer Robert Kyosaki). He realized early that baseball isn’t forever and needs to make a living. He’s had players approaching him on how to invest. He absolutely loves that.”

While Nolan is keeping active while waiting to see where his baseball career is headed, he does a lot of reading and business research in Birmingham, Ala.

“It’s a lot of fun to learn stuff you don’t know,” says Nolan. “Everyday I read it’s like drinking out of a firehose.

“It never gets old. It’s about never being complacent, always trying to learn and consistently staying focused.”

He is engaged to a Birmingham girl — loan officer Rachel Thornton. Her father is a commercial real estate investor.

A few business concepts have stuck with Nolan.

“Don’t trade hours for dollars,” says Nolan. “Make money work for you.”

His baseball signing bonus allowed Nolan to buy property for cash and he has employed managers to tend to his 13 properties around Kokomo.

“It makes things really smooth,” says Nolan. “The experience has been awesome.”

He has been working with angel investors and became interested in online sales through family friend Chris Beatty. Before becoming an internet entrepreneur, the left-hander pitched at Arizona State University in 2003.

For his podcast, Nolan has interviewed teammates, coaches and scouts to get insights into their mental approach to baseball.

“I’m just trying to pick their brain and give the listeners one or two tidbits,” says Nolan. “You can still win the game by being mentally stronger than the competition.

“You may not be a physically gifted, but you can still compete by having a mental edge.”

Nolan made himself into a student of the game.

“I’ve worked way too hard to be here and get beat because I was not mentally prepared,” says Nolan.

A kinesiology major at Arkansas, Nolan went into pro baseball as a draft-eligible sophomore before completing his college degree. His deal with the Athletics call for them to pay for the rest of his schooling.

Nolan learned baseball lessons at Kokomo High from head coach Steve Edwards (who is now principal at Frankfort High School).

“He would talk baseball and talk life,” says Nolan of Edwards. “He was such a great leader.

“He showed us that you need to learn to be a leader on and off the field. It’s OK to have fun, but you are a guy that people look up to (for leadership).

“It was his respect for the game and passion to be the best. He was a leader of men. He wanted us to be great individuals.”

At Arkansas, Nolan played for head coach Dave Van Horn.

“He was so ambitious and so passionate about being successful and winning,” says Nolan of Van Horn. “He drove everybody around him to be better.”

Intense?

Van Horn was known to pull a batter for not getting a bunt down on the first pitch.

“Do things right the first time so you don’t have to go back and do it again,” says Nolan.

His first season as a Razorback, Nolan was a catcher, outfielder and pitcher. He was drafted in high school as a catcher. He eventually settled on pitching.

He was whizzing pitches at 98 mph and higher while playing with the Battle Creek (Mich.) Bombers in the summer collegiate Northwoods League in 2011 and as an Arkansas sophomore in 2012.

Last summer, he was sitting at 90 to 92 mph and looking to put movement on every delivery.

“I was blowing it by guys in college,” says Nolan. “In pro ball, 98 mph is going to get turned around.

“I’m cutting, sinking and throwing change-ups behind in the count,” says Nolan. “I’m always making the ball move.

“Nothing can ever be straight. It’s difficult for hitter to time it up, especially if it looks the same out of your hand.”

Parker had essentially three seasons in 2017. He started at Des Moines Area Community College, spent a month with the Grafton, Wis.-based Lakeshore Chinooks in the Northwoods League and then signed with the Rangers.

“I learned a lot,” says Parker. “I met a lot of good people.”

A person that he knew is one of the reasons he is still in the game.

Jason Van Skike was the pitching coach for the Kokomo Jackrabbits in 2016 and Parker was on the mound staff.

After leaving Arkansas and enrolling at IU, Parker was thinking about moving on from a baseball playing career. Then Van Skike reaches out as pitching coach and recruiting coordinator at DMACC and Parker enrolled Jan. 5, 2017.

Right now, he is spending the off-season in Kokomo while preparing for spring training in Arizona. He gained 15 pounds and now carries 210 on his 6-foot-2 frame.

“I’m getting in the weight room, eating more and eating healthy,” says Parker. “I’m a lot bigger, stronger and smarter.

“It doesn’t hurt to be strong. I set myself up to maximize this upcoming season.”

Parker went into 2017 with a four-seam fastball and knuckle-curve ball and added a two-seam fastball and circle change-up to his repertoire.

In his final outing, he was able to throw all four pitches for strikes.

“I’m starting to learn to pitch as opposed to throw,” says Parker. “In the past, I had not been so proficient at throwing strikes. It was how hard can I throw this? Not where’s it going?

“It’s easier to get people out if you’re throwing it over the plate.”

He hit the radar gun at 92 or 93 mph in high school, got it up to 97 a few times in college and sat at 94 or 95 last season.

At Kokomo High, Parker was able to throw the ball past hitters. Now, he’s trying to dodge their bats.

Parker saw the differences and similarities of college and the minor leagues.

“College is more geared toward winning,” says Parker. “Pro ball is more geared to development until you get to The Show.

“In professional ball, you’re doing what makes you the best player you can be. You’re not doing what everybody else is doing. In pro ball, you’re at the ball park longer and not worrying about going to class and doing homework.

“But they’e still hitters (and you have to get them out).”

He’s also out there making his way in the online business world through WillowHead.com.

“I’m learning about customer service and price points,” says Parker. “I try to keep my hands in everything so I can make it all work out.”

After all, he is on a path to change the world.

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Kokomo’s Sanburn brothers (from left): Nolan, Connor and Parker. (Sanburn Family Photo)

 

Howard looking for first IU Kokomo baseball team to play the game fast

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Matt Howard hit the ground running when he took over as head coach for the new baseball program at Indiana University Kokomo.

That’s fitting since Howard wants his Cougars to play the game fast and put pressure on opponents.

Since starting in January and hitting the recruiting trail, Howard and his assistants — associate head coach/pitching coach Joe Thatcher (a Kokomo High School graduate who pitched in the big leagues), recruiting coordinator Zach Hall (who played at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn.) and infield/assistant hitting coach Jason Leone (who played at Avila University in Kansas City, Mo.) — have built a roster and begun establishing a culture.

“We want to play fast,” says  says Howard, who used his speed as a outfielder to a be an NCAA Division II All-American and Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference Player of the Year at Slippery Rock State University and was an assistant at Chestnut Hill College, where the Griffins were consistently among the D-II leaders in stolen bases. “We want guys that understand the game and play the game hard. We want to put pressure on the defense and take advantage of any mistake they make.”

A Philadelphia, Pa., native, Howard served three seasons as manager of the Kokomo Jackrabbits of the summer collegiate Prospect League (2014-16) and was on the baseball staffs at Ball State University, LaSalle University and Chestnut Hill after his collegiate playing career.

Howard and his IU Kokomo staff have a group of 38 for 2017-18 and are now working on the recruiting class of 2018-19.

“We’re just looking for the best student-athlete we can find,” says Howard. IUK has about 3,000 students — many of them of commuters.

What attracted him to the heart of Indiana?

“Kokomo is a special place,” says Howard. “It’s a baseball town. We’re at an institution where we can attract a very strong student-athlete

“Our athletic department is young and looking to add sports strategically and run them in a competitive manner,” says Howard.

By having nearly 40 players, its creates competition within the squad and gives the Cougars some depth as they go through fall ball activities. Practices will wrap in a few weeks and players will hit the weight room. When classes begin again after winter break on Jan. 8, the team will kick it into gear as it prepares for the inaugural season opener Feb. 9 at Bryan College in Dayton, Tenn. It’s the first of three straight weekend series in Tennessee. The home opener on the turf at Kokomo Municipal Stadium is Feb. 27 against Indiana Wesleyan.

At 28, Howard is one of the younger head coaches in NAIA baseball. He sees it as a positive.

“It’s an advantage,” says Howard. “I have a lot of energy and passion for what I do. I’m out everyday to prove I’m the guy for the job. I’m able to get my players on the field more.

“Baseball is a beautiful game that teaches a lot of life lessons and about (dealing with) failure. Baseball is a tough game to play. You need to take the positives from the negatives.”

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Matt Howard, 28, is the head coach of a brand new NAIA baseball program at Indiana University Kokomo. He is a Philadelphia, Pa., native who was an NCAA Division II All-American at Slippery Rock State University. (IU Kokomo Photo)

 

Terre Haute’s Wampler learning patience with Rex

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Tyler Wampler has learned plenty in his two seasons as the head coach of the summer collegiate wood bat baseball Prospect League’s Terre Haute Rex.

At the top of the list is patience.

“I’m pretty young so I’m just out of playing,” says Wampler, 25. “I realize I can’t go out there (on the field). I can’t control anything. I need to patient with the players and understand that mistakes are going to happen and just be the same guy everyday.”

Wampler, who played for Rick Heller and Mitch Hannahs at Indiana State University 2011-14 and in the Los Angeles Dodgers system 2014-15 then spent the spring of 2016 as a volunteer assistant coach at ISU, was given full authority by general manager Bruce Rosselli put together the entire 2017 Rex roster.

Prospect League rules limit rosters to 28 players. Last year, Wampler used around 40 players in 2016 and expects to do the same this summer.

“There’s a lot of turnover,” says Wampler. “It’s not like you’re just releasing guys. It’s usually for injuries or innings limits (on pitchers).”

As is the case all around the baseball world, pitching is a priority in Terre Haute.

“I’m a firm believer that pitching and defense wins champions,” says Wampler. “We want to start off getting the best arms we can and get as many as we can. You will have to shut guys down midway through the season because their arms are getting tired or they reach a certain amount of innings. You have to be real careful with them.”

Scott Lawson is pitching coach for the Rex. Lawson is a 1997 Terre Haute North Vigo High School who played at John A. Logan Community College, the University of Georgia and in independent professional baseball before coaching at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and at Terre Haute North.

Wampler is coaching in his hometown again this summer and giving baseball lessons at The Hitting Zone in the off-season. He is a 2010 graduate of West Vigo High School, where he played for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Steve DeGroote.

Wampler helped the Vikings to an IHSAA Class 3A state runner-up finish as a junior in 2009. He started at shortstop and went 2-of-3 in the title game.

Playing for DeGroote, Heller and Hannahs, Wampler experienced three different coaching styles.

“They all worked so I can use all three and mold it into my own way,” says Wampler.

The Prospect League is a 10-team circuit in 2017 with Terre Haute, Danville (Ill.), Lafayette (Ind.), Quincy (Ill.), Springfield (Ill.) in the West Division and Butler (Pa.), Champion City (Springfield, Ohio), Chillicothe (Ohio), Kokomo (Ind.) and West Virginia (Beckley, W.Va.) in the East.

Going into play Aug. 1 and with six regular-season contests remaining, Terre Haute was 29-25 and three games behind West-leading Lafayette. The two-tier playoffs are scheduled to begin Aug. 6.

“This league is headed in the right direction and has a lot of good things going,” says Wampler. “It’s a way for these guys to play 60 games (in the summer after 50 or more games in the spring). It’s close to a minor league schedule. They’re getting great experience. They have to come out and perform every night. They’re expected to play well because they have guys behind them that can take their spot.”

Wampler played three summers in collegiate wood bat leagues — two in the Northwoods League (Brainerd Lakes Area Lunkers in Minnestoa and the Eau Claire Express in Wisconsin) and one for the Rex (named for the Clabber Girl brand of coffee).

While some players come from across the country and stay with host families, Wampler notes the uniqueness of the Terre Haute franchise, which plays on ISU’s Bob Warn Field.

“We try to get a lot of local guys,” says Wampler. “We think Terre Haute and the Wabash Valley is a hotbed for baseball.

“We do have guys come from all over, including Florida and the Dominican Republic (outfielder Jalbert Melo was a recent PL Player of the Week). They stay with host families. Our host families are great. We turn people away each year, there are so many families that want to host. That’s a good problem to have.

“I remember when I was a player. Host families are like family to you and they care about what you’re doing. They stay in-touch years later.”

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