Tag Archives: Kokomo Municipal Stadium

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)

 

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Team chemistry counts for plenty with Kokomo Post 6 baseball manager Andrews

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Don Andrews wants to fill his Kokomo American Legion Post 6 baseball team with talented players.

But playing ability is not the first priority for the man who enters his eighth season as senior team manager in 2018 after serving as an assistant and with Post 6’s junior squad.

“Team chemistry is more important than talent,” says Andrews. “It’s something we work really hard at.

“We’re finding out what the dynamics of the team are going to be. I go to a high school baseball game in the spring almost every night. I’m watching the players and also watching the parents.

“By the time (open) tryouts come around (in August) we almost know who we want (for the following year).”

Through his observations and conversations, Andrews will invite desired players to the tryout. He wants kids with a high baseball I.Q.

But — again — there’s more than that.

“A big basis of what we do is try to find high character kids,” says Andrews. “It’s a long, hot summer so we want to have good kids.”

Andrews normally goes through the regular season with about 15 or 16 players and adds a few worthy juniors at the end of the summer.

Post 6 plays around 35 games before the regional. This year, the regular season opens June 4 and closes July 10.

The Kokomo Summer Classic at Highland Park Stadium is slated for June 15-17.

Andrews estimates that 70 percent of Post 6’s games are at Highland Park.

“Everybody loves to play on that field,” says Andrews. “The parks department does a great job of keeping it up.”

Then there’s the dimesions.

“We have a big home field advantage,” says Andrews, eluding to the short distance down the right field line with a high fence. “We know we’ve just got to play. We don’t worry about hitting it over that fence.”

Meanwhile, left-handed batters on opposing teams are practically drooling when they see that short porch.

Kokomo has realized plenty of Legion diamond success in recent years.

The Sixers won regional titles in 2014, 2015 and 2016. Sectionals were eliminated in 2014, but Kokomo won a few of those on Andrews’ watch.

The Indiana American Legion State Finals rotates from north to south each year with teams bidding for the rights to host.

Kokomo hosted in 2016 at Kokomo Municipal Stadium and will do so again this year at Highland Park. The eight-team event (seven regional champions plus the host) is scheduled for July 27-31 (the Kokomo Regional is July 20-22).

The Great Lakes Regional Aug. 8-12 in Napoleon, Ohio, with the American Legion World Series Aug. 16-21 in Shelby, N.C.

Rockport Post 254 won the 2017 state championship in a tournament hosted by Terre Haute Post 346.

While the deadline for entries is still open, Andrews expects there to be up to 32 senior teams in Indiana this year and maybe a dozen or so junior (17U) squads.

Kokomo will also host junior regional and state finals at Highland Park and Northwestern High School July 13-15 and July 19-22, respectively.

Post 6 will take its senior players in 2018 from the following high schools: Kokomo, Northwestern, Western, Taylor, and Logansport.

Junior players come from those those schools plus Oak Hill, Sheridan and Tri-Central.

In some years, the Sixers had players from Eastern, Lewis Cass and Peru.

American Legion Baseball has been a tradition in Indiana since 1926. Legion ball thrives in many corners of the state.

While many Legion rules mimic those of Major League Baseball, the national organization voted not to adopt mound visit restrictions now used by MLB.

Andrews began his coaching career when son Reid was 5 and playing T-ball at Russiaville Little League. Andrews, with the help of Dan Weaver, followed his son up the line, including four years of travel baseball — three with the Bullpen Aces and one with the Central Indiana Kings — and summers with Kokomo Post 6.

Besides bench coach Weaver, Andrews is helped with his Sixers by third base coach Will Harris and first base coach Dave Takacs.

Reid Andrews, a graduate of Western High School and Purdue University, is now general at Roundtripper Sports Academy in Westfield and an assistant to head baseball coach Chris Estep at University High School in Carmel.

The Andrews family is full of coaches. Don’s wife Deb Andrews is a boys and girls swimming assistant coach at Western High.

Daughter Rae Andrews, an Indiana University graduate, is a swim coach and lifeguard at the YMCA of Greater Rochester (N.Y.).

Don Andrews, a 1977 Northwestern High School graduate, played a few years of prep baseball then discovered a talent for running and turned to track and field and cross country.

He was on the track team at Purdue when he was struck by a vehicle during a November training run. A few years later, he was on the cross country and track teams at Taylor University in Upland, Ind., and coached the sports during and after college.

Andrews now works at the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles transmission plant in Kokomo.

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Don Andrews is manager of the Kokomo (Ind.) American Legion Post 6 baseball team. The Sixers is scheduled to open the 2018 season June 4. Post 6 will also host regionals and state finals for both junior and senior divisions.

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)

 

Sinker effective pitch for Kokomo native, Padres minor leaguer Weir

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Making more of his pitches go down has helped T.J. Weir go up in professional baseball.

Weir, a graduate of Kokomo High School (2010) and Ball State University (2014), has incorporated a sinker into his pitching repertoire and is now at Double-A in the San Diego Padres organization after beginning the 2017 season at High-A.

According to Tim Weir, T.J.’s father, off-season throwing partner and pitching coach at Kokomo High, his son learned the sinker while playing catch a couple off-seasons back with big league reliever Craig Stammen.

Todd Linklater was one of T.J.’s pitching coaches at Ball State and had coached Stammen while guiding pitchers at the University of Dayton and helped get the two hurlers together.

“Last year he used a four-seam fastball and sometimes a sinker,” says Tim Weir. “This year, it’s primarily a sinker. He can rely on the sinker and can get a swing and miss or ground balls in counts where he used to give up hits.”

T.J. played at UCT Cal Ripken Baseball League until 12 and travel ball with the Central Indiana Kings (coached by Tim Weir, Chad Reida and Keith Vautaw) and Tim Weir-coached Indiana Force through his 15-year-old summer before he went with the Indiana Bulls to be coached by Todd Dunwoody then Alex Rynearson.

All the while Tim, a 1982 Kokomo graduate who played Wildkats baseball for Carl McNulty and Mike Smith, was paying close attention. He knows his sons’ mechanics almost better than he does.

“I don’t like to admit it, but sometimes he’s right,” says T.J. of his father. “He knows the game really well. He watches the game online and sees things I need to fix.”

The 25-year-old Weir now often uses the sinker — thrown at 90 to 93 mph — in fastball situations and it has aided the 6-foot right-hander in going 4-1 with a 1.65 earned run average in 31 games and 49 innings with the Double-A San Antonio Missions after going 1-0 with a 1.86 ERA in 10 games and 19 1/3 innings with the High-A Lake Elsinore Storm.

Weir, who also throws a curve, slider and occasional change-up, has a way of describing himself as a pitcher.

“I’m a strike thrower,” says T.J. “I get ahead in the count and keep (hitters) off-balance.”

In his last 10 appearances, Weir has thrown 101 of 230 pitches for strikes while going 1-0 with an 0.56 ERA over 16 innings.

“I take pride in throwing strikes, being able to field my position and things like that,” says Weir, who was often a third baseman or shortstop when not pitching at Ball State.

Getting ahead in the count allows Weir to sometimes “pitch backwards” from the conventional sequence.

“The Texas League only has eight teams (four in Texas and four up north),” says T.J. “We play the same three teams over and over again. You need to be able to adjust on the fly.”

But players don’t actually fly in the Texas League. All trips are by bus. The shortest from San Antonio is 2 1/2 hours. It takes about 12 to get to Springfield, Mo. The Missions take two buses on that long haul and don’t have to share seats. Otherwise, players do their best to get comfortable on one. Not an easy task for Weir, but even tougher for bullpen mates like (6-9 Brad Wieck) and (6-7 Trey Wingenter).

T.J. played for Steve Edwards at Kokomo and was a classmate of right-hander Nolan Sanburn, now in the Washington Nationals system.

Weir was recruited to Ball State by Greg Beals and played for Alex Marconi his first two collegiate seasons and Rich Maloney his last two. Before Linklater, his pitching coach at BSU was Jeremy Plexico.

“It was cool to be able to hear from both of them,” says T.J. “They came from two very different experiences. (Plexico) is tall and left-handed. (Linklater) is a short righty.”

Weir went back and forth from believer to starter at Ball State. He was primarily a starter his senior season, when he was selected in the 17th round of the 2014 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Padres.

Of his 124 minor league appearances, all but 20 have come as a reliever.

“I’ve found a rhythm and a routine I like in the pen,” says T.J., who usually pitches two innings per outing and has yet to pitch on consecutive days.

He has also learned much from San Antonio pitching coach Jimmy Jones.

“He’s great,” says T.J. of Jones. “We relievers listen in during starter’s bullpens. He’s always dropping knowledge.”

Jones has conveyed the importance of control over the body — even when tired from the long season.

“You learn how to play catch the right way,” says T.J. “You can get in so many bad habits. We play six months straight. You learn how to conduct yourself as a professional and take every rep seriously.”

T.J. will be seriously busy once the 2017 season ends.

Giving back to his hometown, he will conduct a free kids baseball camp Sept. 30 at Kokomo Municipal Stadium.

On Nov. 18, T.J. is to marry former Ball State volleyball player Kati Vasalakis in Muncie and then move to Cincinnati where she is now working.

After recovering from the 2017 season, Weir begins ramping up his throwing program in preparation of 2018 in December.

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T.J. Weir delivers a pitch for the 2017 San Antonio Missions. The Kokomo, Ind., native is in the San Diego Padres organization. (San Antonio Missions Photo)

 

Keeping Kokomo Wildkats on even-keel duty of Swan

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Not every hop is true.

Not every line drive off your bat finds grass before it finds an opponent’s glove.

Not letting those moments keep you down is key to long-term success.

These are the kinds of things Kokomo High School head baseball coach Sean Swan is teaching his Wildkats.

Swan was a Kokomo assistant for four seasons before taking over leadership of the program for the 2015 season. That year, he had six freshmen in the starting lineup. The young Kats had the talent to compete, but were not always equipped for baseball’s inevitable rough patches.

“We prepare these young men to go out and do great things whether it’s in baseball or just life,” says Swan. “We use the game to teach those lessons. We talk about failure a lot. Failure is something you have to work through and how you can learn from it.

“We’ve made great strides in dealing with failure and adversity. We’re not perfect yet and I tell the kids we’re not going to be. Baseball is like that. You’re going to have games where things don’t go your way and you don’t play your best.”

Swan talks to his players about being mental toughness and playing a hard-nosed brand of baseball.

That approach got Kokomo off to a 14-0 start in 2017 even though it found itself down by 13 runs in one of those victories. The Kats fell behind 14-1 in the second game of a North Central Conference doubleheader against Lafayette Harrison only to win 21-18 with the decisive run coming at the end of the game.

“I was pleased we stuck with the process and kept fighting,” says Swan. “I want our guys to be very even-keeled. We talk about playing with emotion but not emotionally. We tell them to focus on playing the game the right way and not so much on who they’re playing against.”

When Kokomo took its first loss of the season — 12-1 to Zionsville — the Kats responded with a 2-1 NCC tournament quarterfinal win against Harrison in eight innings.

The ’17 Kats have 43 players on three squads — varsity and two junior varsity teams (Blue and Red).

Swan’s varsity coaching staff includes Tim Weir (pitching), Eric Dill (infield and hitting), Nick Shanks (outfield and statistics), Shawn Mayfield (hitting) and George Phares (quality control). There’s also Eli Grimes (JV Blue head coach), Andy Dicken (JV Blue assistant), Matt Turner (JV Red head coach) and Chris Beane (JV Red assistant).

Weir is the father of T.J. Weir, a Kokomo graduate and a pitcher in the San Diego Padres organization.

Phares, a member of the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association and Howard County Sports halls of fame who won an IHSAA Class 2A state championship at Taylor in 2000, serves as an extra set of eyes. He scouts the Kats and gives Swan an honest evaluation on areas that need improvement.

“Sometimes as a head coach, you have blinders and get focused on what you’re trying to accomplish and you miss some things,” says Swan of Phares. “He challenges me in some areas.

“The guys on my staff are great baseball men, but great men in general. I want quality individuals that are high-character people.”

Kokomo once played at historic Highland Park Stadium and practice and play on the turf at Kokomo Municipal Stadium, home to the Kokomo Jackrabbits of the summer collegiate Prospect League.

“We are blessed,” says Swan. “It’s one of the best fields in the state.”

With its fast surface, playing not the carpet has been an adjustment. Even softly-struck balls sometimes get through the infield and outfielders are asked to play deeper in an attempt to keep balls out of the gaps.

At all games — but especially at Municipal — the Kats look to put pressure on the defense by putting the ball in play.

“We try to be aggressive and get pitches we can drive,” says Swan. “Early in counts we want them to be sitting on fastballs. After the count gets deeper or they fall behind in the count, their (strike) zone expands a little bit. They shorten up their swing and then it’s about putting balls in play.”

Swan looks at the new pitch count rule and says it has more of an effect at the JV level than the varsity.

“We build up (varsity) players so they can throw 80 to 100 pitches and we’re comfortable with that,” says Swan. With varsity depth, starters generally pitch just once a week. “But the rule makes us be forward-thinking with our younger guys. We have two junior varsity teams and they’re not efficient with their pitches.

“Bigger schools it won’t effect quite as much, but I really see it effect JV programs, especially at small schools. They just don’t have that depth. They don’t have the arms to eat up innings.”

Swan, a Muncie Central graduate, began his coaching career as an assistant at his alma mater while still in college.

His first head coaching job came at Lapel. The Bulldogs won just one game the year before he arrived and a few years later won a sectional.

Swan then served five years as assistant to Ryan Bunnell at Westfield and considers him a mentor.

“I learned a great deal from him,” says Swan. “He’s a great baseball guy.

“I tend to be more emotional and he’s very steady. He’s great with X’s and O’s and I watched how he drew up a practice plan.”

Swan was head coach at Tri-Central for three seasons before joining Tim Weeks’ staff at Kokomo, where Swan also now serves as assistant principal.

SEANSWAN

Sean Swan is in his third season as head baseball coach at Kokomo High School. He was an assistant for the Wildkats for four seasons before that. He is also an assistant principal at KHS.

Kokomo’s Thatcher on next diamond adventure

rbilogosmall

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Joe Thatcher didn’t see himself pitching in Major League Baseball.

But he did it.

He didn’t see himself coaching college baseball in his hometown.

But he’s doing it.

Thatcher grew up playing the game in Kokomo. There was UCT Little League and stints with Kokomo American Legion Post 6, Russiaville Cubs and Indiana Bulls in the summer and Kokomo High School in the spring.

Many games were played at Kokomo’s historic Highland Park, which was once home to Kokomo Giants, Kokomo Dodgers and Kokomo Highlanders.

“The short porch in right is what I remember most,” Thatcher said. “It was a cool place to play. There were a lot of stands and so it felt big at the time.”

After graduating from KHS in 2000, Thatcher became a legacy at Indiana State University. His father — Phil — played for the Bob Warn-coached Sycamores and so did Joe.

The Warns were family friends and the Thatchers spent many alumni weekends in Terre Haute. It was an easy decision for Joe to go to ISU and be a teammate of Barry Warn, son of Bob the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association and American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer.

“(Coach Warn) was great,” Thatcher said. “He really cared about his players. You felt you were part of a family.”

A 6-foot-2 left-hander, Joe started as a freshman then served as ISU’s closer as a sophomore and junior. When the Sycamores got off to a tough start in his senior year and there was not much call for someone to get the last few outs, he went back into the starting rotation.

When the 2004 MLB Draft came at the end of final college campaign, Thatcher’s named wasn’t called. Instead, the southpaw played part of two seasons in the independent Frontier League.

Thatcher joined the Milwaukee Brewers organization in 2005 and made his MLB debut came with the San Diego Padres in 2007.

By this point, he knew he was exclusively a reliever.

“In organized pro ball, hard-throwing guys are usually projected as closers,” Thatcher said. “I knew I was going to be a left-handed match-up guy (lefty on lefty). That’s what I tried to focus on.”

Sometimes called a LOOGY (Left-handed One-Out Guy charged with getting out the opponent’s big left-handed batters lat in games), Thatcher was also called upon to pitch full innings, worked with his low three-quarter delivery against left-hander and right-handers.

“I always had confidence in myself that I could get anybody out,” Thatcher said. “I ended up having pretty good numbers against righties in my career.

He also kept himself in shape and shared his off-season regiment along with Dr. Jamey Gordon of St. Vincent Sports Performance and USA Baseball at the recent IHSBCA State Clinic.

“I was around some of the best conditioning staffs in the world (in pro baseball),” Thatcher said. “I saw all the innovative stuff.”

Thatcher was with the Padres organization until being traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2013. He pitched for the D-backs and Los Angeles Angels in 2014 and the Houston Astros in 2015. His 2016 was spent with Triple-A clubs in the Los Angeles Dodgers, Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs organizations, but was not on the postseason roster during the World Series run. He decided to retire at the end of the season at age 35.

“I’m most proud of how long I was able to play,” Thatcher said. “It takes a lot to stay there and build up that trust with the coaches and front office people. To go from being un-drafted to someone who spent nine years in the big leagues, I’m pretty proud of that.”

Thatcher had studied insurance and risk management in college and planned to follow his father into that business (Phil works for Regions Bank Insurance) and even got his license and spent some off-seasons as an agent.

“I wasn’t planning on having a big league career,” Thatcher said.

Now, he is staying in baseball as associate head coach for a brand new program at Indiana University Kokomo (the IUK Cougars are scheduled to debut in 2017-18). He has been on the recruiting for about a month.

“We have a lot to offer — an IU degree, good coaching staff (including head coach Matt Howard and assistant coach Zach Hall) and (Kokomo Municipal Stadium) is a huge draw,” Thatcher said. “It gives us a leg up on the competition.

“(The school) wanted to make sure they did it right before they started the program so it wasn’t just thrown together. They do everything top level, first class. The only thing small school about what we’re doing is the actual school size (around 4,100 enrolled students, according to the IUK website).”

IU Kokomo has centrally-located campus and is up to nine sports in its athletic department. The Cougars are an NAIA program and member of the River States Conference.

Thatcher will share his experiences with his student-athletes.

“I played with a lot of good veterans and learned how to be a pro,” Thatcher said. “That meant being disciplined enough to take care of your business without being told to do it.”

And he almost didn’t do it at all.

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Kokomo’s Joe Thatcher as a pitcher with the San Diego Padres.