Tag Archives: Lincoln Trail College

West Vigo baseball’s DeGroote wants to be role model to his players

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

As the son of coach and middle of three athletic brothers, Culley DeGroote soaked in plenty of knowledge on his way to becoming head baseball coach at West Vigo High School. He has led the West Terre Haute-based Vikings since the 2014 season after eight seasons serving under father Steve DeGroote.

The elder DeGroote was an assistant at Indiana State University to American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Bob Warn 1980-85 joined the coaching staff at West Vigo and led the program from 1993-2013. His teams went 441-118 with 11 Western Indiana Conference titles, 10 sectional champions, five regionals, one semistate and one state runner-up finish (2009). In 2017, he was inducted into the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame.

“Ninety-five percent of what I do I learned from (my father),” says Culley. “I learned how you treat players. Dad was a master motivator. He got them to buy into something bigger than themselves.”

While the rules were the same for all players, Steve DeGroote knew how to relate to each one as an individual, something he picked up from his athletic career and his days as an ISU recruiter.

“They say that coaching is not the X’s and O’s, it’s the Jimmys and Joes and dad got the most out of those Jimmys and Joes,” says Culley. “He was genius at reading talent. He was one of those who could see a kid come in as freshmen and see the finished product. He could see potential in a kid that very few people could see.”

Culley saw his dad attracted to the student and the athlete who was on a straight path.

“He had that ability to read people,” says Culley. “He could pick up on people’s habits and their priority in life. He navigated toward kids who had their priorities straight like him. Dad doesn’t drink, smoke or party. His faith is important to him. He was the (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) director at West Vigo. He lived a clean life and lived by example.

“I’ve tried to role model that with my players. I know you’re not going to be perfect, but you need to be striving for perfection.”

Steve DeGroote’s boys — Cory (West Vigo Class of 1991), Culley (1995) and Casey (1998) — were all three-sport athletes for the Vikings. Cory and Culley are both in the West Vigo Athletic Hall of Fame.

Cory DeGroote went to The Citadel to play basketball and baseball and then transferred to Indiana State, where he played baseball for three seasons. He coached multiple sports at North White High School and then served 12 seasons as head baseball coach at Mattawan (Mich.) High School. He is now president of Peak Performance, a travel sports organization based in Mattawan.

Casey DeGroote was drafted out of high school by the New York Yankees in the 11th round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft and pitched as a professional until 2004. He served as general manager of the Terre Haute Rex in the summer collegiate wood bat Prospect League and is now a train engineer.

Culley DeGroote earned the McMillan Award as the top male athlete in Vigo County and was an IHSBCA All-Star as a senior. He was a three-year starter in football, basketball and baseball and went on to be a three-year starter on both the hardwood and diamond at Franklin College.

His last baseball season was his junior year (he transferred to Indiana State to finish his degree). It was also the first as head coach for Lance Marshall, who still guides the Grizzlies.

“He cared about us as people,” says Culley. “He wanted to know your story and your background. I told myself that when I become a head coach, I hope my players in some way feel about me the way they felt about Coach Marshall.

“He was quiet and no-nonsense, but a super positive guy. You felt good about yourself after talking to Coach Marshall.”

Culley began his coaching career with a four-year stint on the staff of Scott Spada at Kalamazoo (Mich.) Central High School. Before Spada, Derek Jeter played baseball for the Maroon Giants and went on to be captain of the New York Yankees. Future Green Bay Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings did play for Spada.

Also the school’s head boys soccer coach, Culley heads in the 2018 baseball season with Zack Kent (varsity) and Kyle Stewart (junior varsity) as assistant coaches.

Steve DeGroote is still helping the Vikings baseball program as middle school director. The feeder program fielded two squads last spring — sixth and seventh graders combined and eighth graders. Playing 15 to 20 five-inning doubleheaders, the middle schoolers are heading into their third season in 2018.

“It’s an awesome thing,” says Culley. “It gives you a lot of flexibility and unity. It’s closed the gap between middle school and high school ball. We teach the same things. Getting coached in a lot of the little things that can win you a championship at a younger level.

“(Middle schoolers) get to play on the high school field and they love that.”

At a cost of more than $10,000, that field was upgraded in the fall of 2016 with more than 100 tons of infield dirt and artificial turf around the mound and home plate areas.

“That was the best idea I ever had,” says Culley. “We were getting in games (in 2017) we never got in before.”

Culley teaches physical education at the middle school and gets a chance to have a relationship with athletes as sixth graders.

West Terre Haute Little League, where Steve Shaffer is president, has three fields and four leagues (T-ball, minor and major).

“They are the lifeline of our program,” says Culley.

All of it has gone to help numbers at the high school. There were 15 freshmen baseball players at West Vigo in 2017 and 19 the year before that.

The varsity Vikings went 17-9 and lost to Edgewood in the semifinals of the IHSAA Class 3A Northview Sectional.

West Vigo is in the West Division of the Western Indiana Conference with Greencastle, North Putnam, Northview, South Putnam and Sullivan. Brown County, Cascade, Cloverdale, Edgewood, Indian Creek and Owen Valley comprise the WIC East Division.

With about 1,023 students, Northview is the biggest school in the 2A/3A league with Cloverdale (370) as the smallest. West Vigo (581) is in-between.

Conference games are played five straight Tuesdays with a crossover game on the sixth Tuesday.

Since 1998, the Vikings have sent eight players on to NCAA Division I baseball and had three players drafted out of high school (Casey DeGroote by the Yankees in 1998, infielder Lenny Leclercq by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 11th round in 2005 and Jeremy Lucas by the Cleveland Indians in the 12th round in 2009).

Right-hander Morgan Coombs, a 2006 graduate, played at Lincoln Trail College and Ball State University and went un-drafted before three seasons with the independent Gary SouthShore RailCats. He was the Australian Baseball League’s Pitcher of the Year in 2015 with the Adelaide Bite.

Middle infielder Tyler Wampler, a 2010 graduate, was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers out of Indiana State in the 17th round in 2014. He was head coach for the Terre Haute Rex in 2016-17.

Three of Culley’s players are currently at the D-I level — pitcher Davie Inman (West Vigo Class of 2015) at Coastal Carolina University, middle infielder Jordan Schafer (2016) at Indiana State and first baseman/pitcher Ty Lautenschlager (2017) at Northern Illinois University.

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Culley DeGroote, a 1995 West Vigo High School graduate, is entering his fifth season as Vikings head baseball coach in 2018. Before that, he was an assistant to father Steve DeGroote, an Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer.

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Despite challenges, baseball is making its way in Gary

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

It’s not easy being a teenage baseball player in Gary, Indiana.

Area schools have closed, making for less opportunities in the spring.

Little League nationwide has dropped its Big League (ages 17-18) divisions for baseball and softball, leaving several players looking for a place to play this summer, including more than 250 in Indiana District 1 (Gary area).

American Legion (19-and-under) to the rescue.

Kevin Bradley and Ray Dix III know the situation well. The two men coached a Big League team together last year. This spring, Bradley is back for his second season as head coach at Bowman Academy and Dix has joined a coaching staff that also includes Lorenzo Scott.

Bradley, 44, is a veteran of the Gary Fire Department who first played T-ball at East Glenn. When that field was damaged, he and others moved to Midtown Little League (now Gary Metro Area Little League, where he is now president), also at 21st and Harrison. He went on to now-closed Gary Lew Wallace High School, graduating in 1991. He earned a scholarship to Lincoln Trail College in Robinson, Ill., as a third baseman, shortstop and pitcher (he still plays in an area adult league).

After one season, he returned home as a volunteer coach in various leagues. coached at Gary Roosevelt for seven years before coming to Bowman.

Bradley wants to be involved for the good of the youngsters and the game.

“To me it’s important to have a high school coach — in this city especially — that knows the game and loves the game instead of just having somebody because they couldn’t find anybody else to coach,” says Bradley, who uses baseball to teach his players life lessons like accountability. “Once you leave high school everything is about life. If they want to play on the next level, they have to know what’s expected of them from their college coach as far as work ethic and everything like that.

“At the next level, you’re in the world now. There’s no more mommy and daddy picking you up to go to school.”

Thirteen players — seniors Zavion Brown, Martrell Dixon, Darreall Payne, Antonio Price, Devin Russell and Charles Thompson III, juniors Joseph Moore, Langston Stalling and Aaron Whittaker, sophomore Jordan Adams and Keondre Pippins and freshmen Deysean Jenkins and Ezekiel Sankey — come from all over the city come to Roosevelt Park at 21st Avenue and Harrison St. for home games and practices. It requires some boys to take two buses to get there.

Bowman Academy is a charter school.

“Charter schools offer an alternative education to public schools,” says Dix. “Parents who are a little more concerned about what’s in a child’s text book will send them to Bowman. It’s just a matter of choice.”

One of three Gary high schools fielding baseball teams this spring (West Side and 21st Century are the other two) Bowman has already played doubleheaders at South Bend Clay and Delphi.

“We try to expose the kids to different areas,” says Bradley. “We go out and play someone different as opposed to playing all the schools around here.”

The original idea was to beef up the schedule to get ready for sectional play. Because of IHSAA sanctions against all Bowman athletic teams, there will be no postseason this year and next.

These games will get some players ready for the summer, where American Legion baseball is going to fill some of the void left by the departure of Big League baseball.

At least three American Legion teams are being formed under the name Region Legion Expos with ties to East Gary Memorial Post 100 in Lake Station. Donations are being sought to foot the bills for uniforms, travel, umpires and more. Dix is also looking for more coaches.

While Bradley began playing baseball at age 4, many Gary kids are staying away from Little League at Gary Area Metro (west of I-65) or Miller (east of 1-65) because leadership has changed so much over the years.

“We’ve also found the older the kids get, the less interested they become,” says Bradley. “They old enough to drive, get a job or a girlfriend, whatever. In the this area basketball is the king. So we battle everyday trying to get these kids interested in baseball

“We try to make it feasible for parents to afford to have their kids play. Even if they never played before, we just want to introduce them to the game.”

Bradley, Dix and Scott look at baseball as “serious business” and that’s why they’ve embraced the Legion baseball for those who want to continue playing the game in high school and beyond.

Dix, 33, grew up playing baseball in East Chicago Civic Little League. His family moved to right before his freshman year and he played at Merrillville High School.

“I learned so much baseball from (Pirates coach Fenton Macke),” says Dix. “He allowed me as a freshman to ask too many questions. He was amazing.”

Dix went on to attend Indiana University and began helping as a coach with his little brother’s team at Merrillville Little League.

“By the end of the summer I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life and I was 19 years old,” says Dix.

Rahdric Dix went on to letter in basketball and baseball at Merrillville played baseball at Butler University and the University of Southern Indiana.

“My brother was an amazing athlete and a really good ballplayer,” says Dix, who went from coaching Little League in Merrillville to Lake Station. He was also an assistant for five years at Lake Station Edison High School. After a year off, he spent two years on the staff at Gary West Side — the same school that gave the baseball world 21-year big league pitcher LaTroy Hawkins.

Dix, who is working on his college degree, is concerned about all the potential idle youth caused by taking away baseball for older teens, but he is excited about the exposure that the ones who do get to play will receive. He plans to take his team to Illinois and Michigan and play 20 to 25 regular-season games this summer.

“The biggest hurdle we’re having is getting people to understand the giant change that’s come about,” says Dix. “I want to give as many opportunities to as many young men as I can (through American Legion baseball).

“The goal is to get kids seen (by colleges). Kids are going to get seen for $100. Everybody else is going to charge up to $1,000.”

Legion ball became an option when Dix came in contact with Indiana second district baseball chairman Joe Kusiak, who is looking to add teams around northwest Indiana.

There would have been multiple options if they cut off the program at 17U or 16U, but that would exclude players going into or coming out of their senior year or, for some, their freshmen year of college.

“It was the first league I saw that would allow our older kids to still play,” says Dix. “You don’t want to tell our kids they don’t have anything to do in the summer. That’s not the world’s greatest idea. They’ll find something to do that none of us would enjoy.”

Having organized baseball gives these young men a positive outlet.

“One of the things that scares me the most is when they go away to college and they have to come back here,” says Dix. “They’ve spent eight or nine months away from the situation, bettering their lives, and they have to come back here and they don’t have the structure they had when they were at school.”

Scott, a St. Louis native married to a local gal, played at Ball State University and then eight seasons in the minors, making it to Triple-A in the Marlins organization. He began coaching with Bradley last season at Bowman.

“We found a gem when they put us together,” says Bradley of Scott. “We have coaches here with the knowledge to teach. We’ve got a great group of kids. They are receptive to all of us.”

The coaches try to keep the communication at a high level. Bradley, Dix and Scott might all be saying the same thing but in different ways. If players are not grasping what they are being taught, they are encouraged to ask for an explanation from a coach they can best understand.

“You learn that every kid is different,” says Bradley. “I may have to find a new way to show this kid how to field this ground ball.”

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Bowman Academy’s baseball team pauses during practice Tuesday, April 25, 2017 at Roosevelt Park in Gary. The Eagles are (from left): head coach Kevin Bradley, Aaron Whittaker, Kiondre Pippins, Joseph Moore, Langston Stalling, Devin Russell, Jordan Adams, Antonio Price, Martrell Dixon and assistant coach Ray Dix III. Not pictured: assistant coach Lorenzo Scott, Zavion Brown, Ezekiel Sankey, Deysean Jenkins, Darreall Payne and Charles Thompson III. (Steve Krah Photo)

School is closing, but Saint Joseph’s College looking to go out in style

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

There’s a popular hashtag around Rensselaer, Ind.: #ForeverPumas.

It looks like this is the last spring Saint Joseph’s College will field a baseball team or any other team.

Because of monetary woes, SJC has decided to close at the end of the 2016-17 academic year.

The school, which was founded in 1889, went on financial probation by the Higher Learning Commission and then made the decision to cease operations — at least for the time being. Commencement is scheduled for May 6.

Rick O’Dette, a former Saint Joseph’s player and 17th-year head coach, has been in charge of the transition after the shocking news broke just before the season opener for this school with a history of diamond success.

“We’re going about it like it’s our last season,” O’Dette said Wednesday, March 29. “We’ve always had financial questions and concerns. But this all kind of hit us quickly.”

Dr. Robert Pastoor, SJC president, issued the following statement Feb. 2:

“At what is truly one of the most difficult points in the history of Saint Joseph’s College, when it seems that hope is lost and parties are divided, it is important to remember that our Community has made it through other difficult chapters, and that we all agree more than we disagree. We all want to find a way for SJC to overcome the present challenges and be resurrected with its mission intact. We need to pull together, rather than apart, during this transition period — students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents, and everyone who loves SJC.

“We wish the financial situation was different than it is, but it has been building over decades, and it will take time to work our way out of it. We regret that many people did not realize the financial situation we were in, and we are committed to sharing all relevant information with our Community, because through understanding we can develop solutions.

“With your prayers and support, you and we will help make Saint Joseph’s College strong again.”

O’Dette’s NCAA Division II No. 19-ranked Pumas (currently 16-6 overall and 2-2 in the Great Lakes Valley Conference) have gone about their on-field business while many of the players have looked to find a new collegiate home for next year.

“The process has been really difficult,” O’Dette said. “Our players have done a really good job from the standpoint of getting better and being of value to other programs.

“It’s a great place. It’s just a sad deal. We’re going to miss it for sure. These guys have bought in to making it the best opportunity they can.”

O’Dette’s coaching staff includes Matt Kennedy, Nic Sampognaro, Eric Bunnell and Dennis Khym. These men will also have to find new places, but the players have been top priority.

“Our first goal is to get these guys comfortable with what’s happening,” O’Dette said. “They don’t deserve this. It’s not their fault.

“We’ve done a good job of being out front with everything. We’ve made a ton of contacts so everybody who wants to play somewhere has an opportunity to play.”

O’Dette and his assistants have fielded hundreds of phone calls inquiring about player availability.

“The majority of our guys are already going somewhere,” O’Dette said. There were a few scouts at the doubleheader against Wayne State Wednesday, March 29 at SJC’s Gil Hodges Field/Rueth-Fitzgibbon Complex.

“A number of guys are going to (NCAA) Division I baseball,” O’Dette said. “We’ve got some guys who are going D-II, D-III, NAIA and a few will just end up going to school and finishing their degree.

“It’s tough to be done with their game and hand them over to another coach like we’re a junior college. It’s been a really difficult thing.”

O’Dette, who hails from Tinley Park, Ill., had concentrated much of his search for players in the Chicago area until those players became a little too costly to land. The recruiting trails has generally been a five-hour radius. But SJC has gone further.

The Pumas’ 53-man roster includes 11 seniors and 27 players from Indiana, 19 from Illinois, two from Puerto Rico and one each from Michigan, Massachusetts, Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin.

SJC seniors are Zachary Aring (Beecher, Ill.), Riley Benner (Tri-County High School), Kyle Estand (Evergreen, Ill.), Chase Fieldhouse (Lake Central High School), Joshua Handzik (Frankfort, Ill.), Ryan Keck (Edwardsville, Ill.), Martin Napleton (LaGrange, Ill.), Brenden Rivera (Temple Terrace, Fla.), David Schurr (Plainfield, Ill.), Kevin Sloat (Manteno, Ill.) and Tasker Strobel (Avon High School).

Benner, currently SJC’s leading hitter at .427, talked about the reason he chose to become a Puma.

“My dad (Mick) came here and always had good things to say about Saint Joe,” Benner said. “I took a visit and I loved everything about it. I just couldn’t wait to get on campus my freshman year.

“It’s been nothing short of awesome.”

How did the first baseman and business administration major take the news about the school closing, taking the baseball program with it?

“We speculated for awhile what was going to happen,” Benner said of the school of about 1,000 students (more than half being athletes). “But hearing they were not going to have students in the fall was in shock. It was utter sadness. I don’t no any better words to describe it.

“I can’t imagine some of the anxiety some of (my younger teammates) must have.”

Handzik, a third baseman and business administration/economics major hitting .329, expressed his feelings for his teammates.

“My first thought went to the younger guys — the freshmen, sophomores, juniors — all these guys that I’ve seen grow and how upset I was that I was not going to be able to see them finish here and have the full experience I had here,” Handzik said.

While the team does not have captains per se, there is a team-picked leadership group and Handzik is part of that.

“At the end of the fall, we went through an evaluation to rate people on the team who you think are leaders,” Handzik. “We make sure guys are on track off the field as well as on the field.”

Winning baseball is important. But that’s not the only objective at SJC.

“We want guys walking out of here as great people,” O’Dette said. “They care about each other. They care about this institution. They are about others in our community.”

To come to St. Joseph’s, they have to care about hitting the books as much as hitting a curve ball. The Pumas have a team grade-point average of 3.4 on a 4.0 scale with nine 4.0’s and 23 players with an average of 3.8 or higher.

“Our guys have done a really good job in the classroom,” O’Dette said. “We have to have a student-athlete here. This is not an easy academic institution.”

Strobel, a left-handed pitcher and business administration major who transferred from Lincoln Trail College in Robinson, Ill., to the University of the Illinois-Chicago to Saint Joe prior to the 2016 season, wants to Pumas to go out on top.

“Let’s go win it all. Why not make it a storybook ending?,” Strobel said. “Let’s make (an ESPN) ’30 for 30’ out of it. Why not us?

“We definitely have the talent to (win a championship). We have our iffy games. But if we put all through aspects together — running, pitching, hitting — we definitely have one of the best teams in the nation.”

O’Dette has that same mindset.

“Our guys deserve to go out on top,” O’Dette said. “Our alumni deserve to see that. We want success for everybody in this program.”

Napleton, a catcher and business administration major hitting .371, is more than pleased with his decision to attend SJC.

“I love it here,” Napleton said. “I’ve grown as a man — in my personal life and on the field as a baseball player.”

Napleton wishes nothing but the best to his younger teammates who will be wearing different uniforms in the coming seasons.

“It’s bittersweet that they don’t get to go here four years like I did,” Napleton said. “As a leader, I’ve got to be proud of my guys wherever they decide to go to school.”

Advice from O’Dette has stuck with Napleton. One stands out.

“Just do the little things right,” Napleton. “That’s so important in life. A lot of times if you’re doing the little things right, the breaks go your way. If you take care of business and the small details, life is a lot easier.”

Khym, an SJC volunteer coach since 1990, gave the main reasons he keeps making the trek from Monee, Ill.

“It’s the people,” Khym said. “Since I’ve been here, it’s the people more than baseball. There’s some special against Saint Joseph’s people. I didn’t go to school here, but they have adopted me so I’m almost like an alumni. They treat me with the utmost respect.

“There’s a lot of love at this school.”

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With Saint Joseph’s College announcing its closing, the 2017 baseball season will be the last for the Pumas. SJC is currently 16-6 and ranked No. 19 in the NCAA Division II poll.