BY STEVE KRAH
Chris Estep, his coaching staff and players have built a culture of confidence for the University High School baseball.
“The kids have bought into what we’re trying to do as a program,” says Estep, the head coach that has his Trailblazers (27-6) meetings Tecumseh (20-9) in the IHSAA Class 1A Plainfield Semistate at 1 p.m. EST Saturday, June 9. “When we run out on to the field we can play with anybody.”
What is the root that confidence?
“It’s how we’ve structured practices,” says Estep. “We make practices run faster.”
In practices — and games — University pushes the limits on offensive and defense.
“We want to be very, very aggressive,” says Estep. “The last thing we want to see is a kid afraid to make a mistake. The more aggressive you are, the more chance you’ll have to make aggressive plays.
“You can not expect a kid to make a great play if they don’t practice making great plays.”
University, a private school of just under 300 students located in Carmel which played in its first IHSAA tournament in 2007, won the University Sectional and the Morristown Regional to find itself one win short of going to Victory Field in Indianapolis for the 1A state championship game.
Estep, who is supported by assistants Reid Andrews, Michael Thompson and Steve Nerney and athletic director John Walls, points to the regional to show how his players are prepared deal with misfortune on the diamond.
The Trailblazers were up 2-0 in the semifinals against Indianapolis Lutheran only to find themselves down 4-3 in the next inning. They came back with a 9-4 victory.
The championship game was tied 0-0 going into the seventh inning. Estep saw a pinch-hitter foul off pitches to get to a full count and University went on to score three runs in the top of the frame and then hold Hauser for a 3-0 win and the regional crown.
“If you can’t handle adversity, you can’t be a champion,” says Estep. “We put them into as many adverse situations as we can and ask them to go out and make a play.
“You never know when it’s going to be your time and you better be ready to answer the bell.”
The aim is to play as close to flawless as possible and make up for any mistakes that do happen.
“There’s really no such thing as a perfect game,” says Estep. “But if we try, we will give ourselves the opportunity to win.”
There are 18 players in the program in 2018.
University is a member of the Pioneer Conference (along with baseball-playing schools Anderson Preparatory Academy, Bethesda Christian in Brownsburg, Greenwood Christian, Indianapolis Shortridge, Liberty Christian in Anderson, Muncie Burris and Seton Catholic in Richmond). The Traliblazers went 7-0 this spring to win the conference title.
Top University pitchers include senior right-hander Cade Carlson (committed to Northwood University in Midland, Mich.), junior right-hander Brock Moore and senior right-hander Garrett Hill (Purdue Fort Wayne commit). When not pitching, the three rotate between first base and third base.
Hill, junior shortstop Dawson Estep (the coach’s son), Moore, freshman left fielder and senior center fielder Ryan Williams (committed to Morehouse College in Atlanta) are among the Trailblazers’ leading hitters.
Coach Estep calls No. 9 hitter Williams “a major catalyst” with “speed to burn.”
Estep watched junior catcher Kolton Stevens fight through hot conditions to shine in the regional.
“He caught best two games I’ve ever seen a kid catch,” says Estep. “I can’t tell you how balls he blocked.
“Nobody ever notices that position until there is a mistake.
“He was absolutely phenomenal.”
It’s phenomenal plays or games that earns players the right to wear the “U chain”.
Borrowed from the University of Miami football “turnover chain,” Andrews brought the motivating bling to University baseball in 2017.
“Miami’s ‘The U’ and we’re the ‘The U,’” says Estep. “It’s been (Andrews’) baby. He hangs the ‘U chain’ on the fence before games. He awards it to a kid and pictures are taken. Kids are excited for whoever gets the ‘U chain.’”
Also for the second year, the “U” took a southern trip at the beginning of the season. The Traliblazers played in Tennessee.
The squad got away and spent quality time together at the ballpark and the breakfast table.
“It’s really important for team camaraderie,” says Estep. “We went and played four games then released them to spring break. When they came back, we got back to work.”
Estep, 51, has been working as a baseball instructor for decades. His Roundtripper Sports Academy in Westfield is coming up in 25 years.
“It found me out more than I found it,” says Estep.
He grew up on the east side of Indianapolis and played wiffleball, basketball and football and, of course, baseball. Organized ball came at Christian Park, where he played for John Gannon.
“He was the greatest youth coach in the history of Little League,” says Estep of Gannon, who is expected to be at Saturday’s semistate. “He’s a legend. “He made sure we all stayed out of trouble. He was an unbelievable mentor to kids.”
A 1985 Carmel High School graduate (he played his first two prep seasons at Indianapolis Cathedral before his family moved), Estep was an outfielder at the University of Kentucky for two seasons and was selected in the 12th round of the 1988 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates. He played at the Double-A level in 1991 and 1992.
While he was still a professional player, he was approached by a parent about giving lessons to one of their sons. They were impressed enough to bring another son to him. Before you knew it, Estep had a long list of students and less and less time to work out himself.
“Even though I didn’t hit very well, I understood the processes for hitting and defense,” says Estep, who now sees to the needs of many baseball and softball players. “The girls are quicker learners and they’ll do whatever they tell them. The boys will fight you on it.”
Roundtripper alums include Jeremy Hazelbaker, Tommy Hunter, Lance Lynn, Dillon Peters, Kevin Plawecki, Micah Johnson, Drew Storen and Chris Ulrey.
Extra-busy giving lessons and running the Indiana Mustangs travel organization, Estep put up a fight when he was approached repeated by a former University administrator a decade ago.
“He would not leave me alone,” says Estep. “He said, ‘If you don’t do it, these kids can’t play.’ That got me. I called my wife and begged for forgiveness that I took on another job.
When we first started I couldn’t have weekend games because of the workload. The school made it work. Now we play every weekend. The program’s worth it. I’m willing to pay a little extra price — my family is, too, though my wife doesn’t like me very well.”
Besides Dawson, Chris and Sue Estep have an older son (Chandler, who plays football at Elon University in North Carolina) and a younger daughter (Jasmine, a talented athlete who is headed into the ninth grade).
For Estep to be close to his business, University began playing its home games at Roundtripper and still does.
His first team was overmatched. The first game was a 32-0 loss.
“They were the the kids that always got chosen last,” says Estep. “But that team set the standard. This is where we built from. This present team has an attitude that they’re going to fight you to the bitter end.
“I love them for that.”
Estep does not love the IHSAA decision to suspend Indianapolis Scecina junior right-hander Mac Ayres (who is also in the Mustangs organization) for the 2A Jasper Semistate. Ayres went over the IHSAA pitch count rule (1 to 35 pitches requires 0 days rest; 36 to 60 requires 1 day; 61 to 80 requires 2 days; 81 to 100 requires 3 days; and 101 to 120 requires 4 days) in the Park Tudor Regional and the violation was self-reported by Scecina coach Dave Gandolph.
“It was a clerical/addition error,” says Estep. “(Scecina coaches) thought they were taking a kid out on 119 pitches for two games.
“There was no malice there. Now the kid is going to be penalized.”
If Estep had his way, pitch counts would be tracked in an official book in the press box and not with the home team. The scorekeeper would let the teams and umpires know how many pitches a player had going into the next game. When they got to 110, the coaches would be alerted.
“It should be a drop-dead (when the limit is reached),” says Estep. “You stop and make a pitching change.”
Saturday, June 9
Class 1A: Northfield (16-14) vs. Daleville (20-9), Noon CST/1 p.m. EST.
Class 3A: Andrean (29-6) vs. Jay County (20-6), following.
Class 2A: Boone Grove (19-5) vs. Lafayette Central Catholic (26-4), Noon CST/1 p.m. EST.
Class 4A: Chesterton (18-7) vs. Fishers (27-7), following.
Class 1A: University (27-6) vs. Tecumseh (20-9), Noon CST/1 p.m. EST.
Class 4A: Indianapolis Cathedral (21-8-1) vs. Castle (22-8), following.
Class 2A: Indianapolis Scecina (13-15-1) vs. Southridge (24-6), Noon CST/1 p.m. EST.
Class 3A: Indian Creek (24-5) vs. Silver Creek (24-2), following.
University High School head coach Chris Estep wears the “U chain” and assistant Reid Andrews holds the cake celebrating Estep’s 100th career win with the Trailblazers.
University High School won the IHSAA Class 1A University Sectional and Morristown Regional and will play Saturday, June 9 in the Plainfield Sectional. Chris Estep is the head coach of the Trailblazers.