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Right-hander Lynn driven to make most of his talents

By STEVE KRAH
http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Lance Lynn has long been known for his athletic tenacity.
It started while he grew up in Avon and Brownsburg in central Indiana and has continued at the University of Mississippi and during his Major League Baseball stops with the St. Louis Cardinals (2011-17), Minnesota Twins (2018), New York Yankees (2018), Texas Rangers (2019-20) and Chicago White Sox (2021 to the present).
The 6-foot-5, 275-pound right-hander has the drive that has made him go 115-77 in 288 games. His 2.69 earned run average for the White Sox in 2021 would have led the American League, but he was five innings short of the innings requirement.
Where does Lynn’s push come from?
“I have a brother (Keith) that’s 12 years older than me,” says Lynn, 34. “It was him, my dad (Mike) and myself growing up for the most part so I had to learn to be competitive and learn to take care of myself or I’d get left behind.”
Mike Lynn, a Brownsburg High School graduate, played slow pitch softball and Keith Lynn, an Avon High School alum, played many sports and young Lance was there.
“I was always playing with the older kids because I had to and I was bigger,” says Lance. “I had to learn to compete and I enjoyed winning so it just kind of kept going.”
A 2005 Brownsburg graduate, Lance Lynn helped the Pat O’Neil-coached Bulldogs to an IHSAA Class 4A state runner-up finish in 2004 (27-7) and state title in 2005 (35-0).
To this day, Lynn and Indiana Baseball Hall of Famer O’Neil are in regular contact.
“I have great respect for Coach O’Neil,” says Lynn. “He’s someone who’s stayed close in my life even after I left high school. He was there for a lot of us growing up, took care of us and made us grow up as human beings.
“We’re still pretty close.”
Since 12 or 13, Lynn has gone to Jay Lehr for pitching instruction and made the trek over from Marion, Ill., to with him at Pro X Athlete Development in Westfield, Ind., before attending Monday’s national championship football game in Indianapolis.
“He takes care of all my winter throwing programs, making sure I have everything I need,” says Lynn of Lehr, who saw big leaguers and Indiana residents Tucker Barnhart (Detroit Tigers) and Carlos Rondon (White Sox) at the facility before Lynn’s workout. “Then during the season if I get in a pinch or just to stay on top of things, he’s always there to send me what I can work to keep moving.”
Also present at Pro X was Sean Cochran, Lynn’s strength coach since after the 2018 season.
“I needed someone to bounce stuff off of and was going to be there for the rest of my career,” says Lynn. “Sean and Jay go way back and I actually met Sean as a little kid.
“We’ve had a pretty good run since we started working together.”
Cochran, who was once based in Indianapolis and now calls San Diego home, travels all over to work with athletes and counts World Golf Hall of Famer Phil Mickelson among his clients.
“I’ll pick Sean’s brain and can you ask Phil about this or that and Phil tells me to just worry about pitching,” says Lynn, who is a right-handed amateur golfer.
Lynn appreciates the relationship he’s built with White Sox pitching coach Ethan Katz.
“You’re looking at a guy who’s worked his way up from being a high school pitching coach all the way through the minor leagues and every stop,” says Lynn. “He’s able to show you what you do well using all the technologies.
“He’s able to communicate and show you what you need to see.”
Lynn’s three primary pitches are a four-seam fastball, cutter and sinker.
“You make sure those are good and make sure your stuff can play off of them from there,” says Lynn, who also occasionally uses a curve or change-up (he threw just four change-ups during the 2021 season).
Lynn pitches from a low three-quarter overhand arm slot, which developed as he career progressed.
“When I was younger I was a little more upright and had a little more shoulder lean. Over time I’ve been able to keep my shoulders a little more flat. The arm slot kind of just fell into place.”
The slot has served him well.
“I’ve been able to use it to create a good angle of attacking hitters,” says Lynn. “It’s hard for them to make good contact.
“There’s a lot of deception and hitters don’t love it.”
Lynn made 28 starts for the White Sox in 2021 — one of those was Aug. 12 at the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa.
“That was pretty cool,” says Lynn. “It was fun. When you look back it we put on a show. Kevin (Costner) was there. We had a good game. There was a walk-off home run (by Tim Anderson). I don’t think you could have scripted it any better than that.
“I threw the first pitch in a major league game in Iowa. It’s something I’ll always remember.”
Major League Baseball is now in the midst of a lockout. Spring training at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Ariz., normally has pitchers reporting in early February.
Lynn has 333 MLB plate appearances with 24 hits (five doubles). As an amateur he was quite a slugger and folks still talk about a high school home run in South Bend.
“I hit it on the church out of the stadium,” says Lynn of a clout at what was then called Stanley Coveleski Regional Stadium (now Four Winds Field). “I had power, but it was an aluminum bat.
“I don’t think I’d want to face me now.”

Lance Lynn throws at Pro X Athlete Development in Westfield, Ind. 1-10-22 (Steve Krah Video)
Lance Lynn throws at Pro X Athlete Development in Westfield, Ind. 1-10-22 (Steve Krah Video)
Lance Lynn (Getty Images)
Lance Lynn at Pro X Athlete Development in Westfield, Ind. (Steve Krah Photo)
Lance Lynn at Pro X Athlete Development in Westfield, Ind. (Steve Krah Photo)
Lance Lynn at Pro X Athlete Development in Westfield, Ind. (Steve Krah Photo)
Trainer Sean Cochran (left) and Lance Lynn at Pro X Athlete Development in Westfield, Ind. (Steve Krah Photo)
Lance Lynn (left), Dr. Jamey Gordon and Jay Lehr at Pro X Athlete Development in Westfield, Ind. (Steve Krah Photo)

Fishers, Indiana Wesleyan alum Davis comes back to baseball as a coach

By STEVE KRAH
http://www.IndianaRBI.com

When Brice Davis got the call that led him into professional baseball he was busy on the field.
Davis was coaching third base for Indiana Wesleyan University in a doubleheader when the independent Frontier League’s Schaumburg (Ill.) Boomers manager Jamie Bennett, who pitched of the DuBois County (Ind.) Dragons and Gary (Ind.) SouthShore RailCats coached with the RailCats, and outgoing hitting coach Derek Shomon reached out about filling Shomon’s spot since he had taken a coaching job in the Minnesota Twins organization.
“They wanted to see if I’d get rattled,” says Davis of the timing. “It was a twisted joke.”
But Davis impressed and after the twin bill received text messages and got a good review. The next thing he knew he is joining the Boomers for spring training and after that came a 96-game regular season and the fourth league championship in franchise history.
“It was whirlwind,” says Davis of the 2021 baseball season began in early February with Indiana Wesleyan in Lakeland, Fla., and ending in late September with Schaumburg in Washington, Pa. “It was an incredible year and an incredible ride.
“It was a really special group (at IWU). To be leaving them at that time was incredibly tough. I’m in awe that we got to share all those runs together.”
Indiana Wesleyan wound up 2021 at 44-14, Crossroads League regular-season and tournament champions and an NAIA Opening Round host.
Davis, a four-year starter at IWU and a 2013 graduate with a Sports Management degree, spent three seasons on the staff of Wildcats head coach Rich Benjamin (2019-21).
“He’s a huge offensive mind and about hitting for power,” says Davis of Benjamin, who was an assistant at Fishers (Ind.) High School before moving on. “I saw it as an opportunity.
“I wanted to see if I could hack it at the college level.”
Davis first became a hitting instructor in 2009 (his training business is Davis Baseball LLC). But it was a big transition to working with professional hitters in 2021.
“You’re helping prepare guys to be successful (in pro ball),” says Davis. “At the college level, you’re doing a lot of development. They’re making strides every single month to be the best versions of themselves and trying to stay locked in.
“Guys at the professional level are already pretty talented. They want to take their skill level and apply it against a pitching staff (or individual). In both arenas the goal is to simplify life. You pick out an approach that is going to breed results and success.”
The difference between high school and college and pro baseball is that the pros play everyday with much more travel and they don’t have as much time to work on their craft.
“Learning how to hit when you’re only 80 percent or getting your two knocks comes in a lot of ways,” says Davis. “I was amazed how many guys played hurt.”
How a player felt on any given day is how they prepared for that day’s game. That might mean more batting practice or less.
“You can’t treat everyday like Opening Day,” says Davis. “It just doesn’t work like that.”
Since Schaumburg is an independent league team, scouting is done differently. Major League-affiliated clubs have access to plenty of stored data on opponents.
The only resource available to the Boomers staff was Frontier League TV (2021 was the first year that all league clubs broadcast games). Coaches and players spent a lot of time looking at video to find tendencies.
The Evansville Otters were the only team who put pitching velocity on the screen during their broadcasts, leaving Schaumburg to study those videos when teams took on Evansville.
In the league championship series against the Washington Wild Things, the staff was at a disadvantage. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Boomers had not played anyone on Washington’s side of the league during the regular season. Also, there was no radar gun reading available at Wild Things Park.
“It was all hearsay. You had no more information than in a non-conference high school baseball game. It was ‘see it and hit it, boys!’
It was absolute gauntlet level from our staff and our players. It’s not copy-paste-print like it is at some of the other levels. It’s not like high school baseball where you can trade tapes.
“It was a big learning curve.”
Davis notes that the Frontier League is now partnered with Major League Baseball so maybe things will change for the better.
Not all pro players take to information the same way.
“This guy wants to know velo and out pitch and this guy wants to know as much as possible,” says Davis. “Other guys don’t want to know anything and just play the game.”
And if a pro hitter doesn’t want info, it’s not up to the coach to shove it down his throat.
“You have respect for what they’re trying to do,” says Davis.
While Schaumburg players hail from all over the country, there are also a number with ties to the area, including former Indiana Wesleyan pitcher Isaiah Rivera from Des Plaines, Ill.
“There are a lot of college players in the region,” says Davis. “You don’t want to miss on anything in your back yard. Chicago is a cool city with a lot of great athletes in it.”
Davis says many have the misconception that independent ball is full of 27-year-old has-beens. But a good deal have been selected in the MLB First-Year Player Draft and spent time in the affiliated minors.
The Frontier League is unique because it puts players into Rookie, Experienced and Veteran eligibility classifications and there is a cap on veterans (those turning 29 by Oct. 1). Teams can also make just 30 transaction moves per season.
“The world of independent baseball is fascinating,” says Davis.
Another thing about 2021 in much of independent ball is that there was no season in 2020 because of the pandemic.
“They’re learning how to play baseball again and getting their timing back,” says Davis. “It’s like they’ve been waiting for the prom for two years.
“It was about managing emotions, telling them to enjoy the moment and don’t overthink it.”
There was a time when Davis didn’t want to think about baseball. It stung too much when his playing career was over and he did not watch a game for two years.
Brice’s father was a high school boys basketball coach for many years. Hagerstown, Ind., native Jerry Davis was a head coach at Triton Central and Wawasee and an assistant at Marion and Hamilton Southeastern. He came back to Indiana from Dallas, where Brice was born, to teach math and coach hoops.
“I grew up in the gym,” says Brice. “My safe place to process life was listening to bouncing balls. That’s a sanctuary few people understand.”
Davis, who did not play high school basketball to focus on baseball opportunities, joined the Hamilton Southeastern hardwood staff of Brian Satterfield and coached freshmen for two seasons.
“Climbing up the hard way in basketball appealed to me,” says Davis. “Going to clinics and studying tape was a journey in itself.”
Then came the call back to baseball and he answered it.
“I’m in a better head space when I’m going to the field,” says Davis, who received words of encouragement that still resonate with him.
Brian Abbott, the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association executive director and a former IWU assistant, approached Davis at the IHSBCA State Clinic when the latter was on Matt Cherry’s Fishers Tigers staff.
“He was one of the first people who told me I needed to be in coaching,” says Davis of Abbott, the IHSBCA Hall of Famer. “It’s because of kids like myself. He said, ‘you belong in this industry. You might be the only person who gets to tell a kid that day that they matter.
“You have a purpose to connect with kids.”
Davis has taken that connection to heart.
“I love teaching the game,” says Davis. “I know it’s what I’m supposed to be doing. A lot of good can be done by powerful teaching and coaching.
“It’s a great profession.”
Davis, who was part of Fishers’ first graduating class in 2008, was reunited with Cherry for three seasons (2016-18) as an assistant coach. The 2018 team made an IHSAA Class 4A state title run.
“He’s single-most influential person in my life besides my dad since I was 15,” says Davis of Cherry. “He knows there’s more to people than baseball. He’s transformational.”
Cherry, who had coached Davis prior to the 2016 season he needed a freshman coach. Davis accepted the invitation.
“I’ll be darned if I wasn’t completely consumed,” says Davis. “I told (Cherry) the next year I want to be a varsity coach. I want to be with the older kids. I want to dive in and see where it could go.”
In 2017 and 2018, Davis was Fishers’ hitting coach. The latter team set 21 school records.
“We had all the fun in the world,” says Davis.
Now 32 and living in Wheeling, Ill., Davis is teaching at area facilities, including Parkway Bank Sports Complex aka The Dome in Rosemont, Ill., and East Sports Academy in Itaska, Ill., and helping at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines. Owls head coach Bill Fratto is also an assistant/first base coach for the Boomers.
Through it all, Davis has developed a fraternity of brothers at each baseball stage and keeps in-touch with people on his high school, college and pro path. Kris Holtzleiter, the new Eastbrook High School head coach, played and coached with close friend Davis at IWU.
“Every season has a story whether it’s good or bad,” says Davis. “You must make the most of the moment you’re in.
“It’s not about the championships or the trophies.”
It’s the people.

Brice Davis.
Jerry Davis and Brice Davis.
Brice Davis with mother Jerry and mother Paige.
Brice Davis and M.J. Stavola.
Bill Fratto and Brice Davis.
Young Schaumburg (Ind.) Boomers fan and Brice Davis.
Former Indiana Wesleyan University players Isaiah Rivera and Brice Davis a player and coach with the Schaumburg Boomers.

Wapahani, Ball State graduate Wilburn takes over Delta baseball program

By STEVE KRAH
http://www.IndianaRBI.com

The way Devin Wilburn sees it, life is about timing.
Just when he and his wife were looking to move closer to home and family for the arrival of their first child, a job opportunity opened up.
Teacher Devin and nurse Maddie Wilburn were living in Florida when the chance to come to come back to the Muncie, Ind., area came as daughter Tatum was on the way.
Tatum is now 2 months old and Devin (who turned 30 on Sept. 18) is the head baseball coach and a physical education teacher at Delta High School.
Delta (enrollment around 800) is a member of the Hoosier Heritage Conference (with Greenfield-Central, Mt. Vernon of Fortville, New Castle, New Palestine, Pendleton Heights, Shelbyville and Yorktown).
In 2021, the Eagles were part of an IHSAA Class 3A sectional grouping with Guerin Catholic, Hamilton Heights, Jay County, New Castle and Yorktown. Delta has won 13 sectional crowns — the last in 2016.
The Wilburns reside in Selma, about 10 minutes from both sets of grandparents and in the same town where they graduated from Wapahani High School.
Devin went 24-9 and struck out 309 batters while while walking 79 in 203 1/3 innings while playing for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Brian Dudley and graduating in 2010.
“A lot of stuff fell in place,” says Devin Wilburn, who comes to the Eagles after spending the 2021 season as an assistant to head coach Kyle Gould at Taylor University in Upland, Ind., after one spring season (2020) as head coach at Countryside High School in Clearwater Fla.
Wilburn, who holds a Sport Administration degree (2014) and Masters in Sport Administration (2016) from Ball State University, was an assistant to head coach Rich Maloney at BSU in Muncie in 2019 after spending the fall of 2018 on Matt Bair’s staff at Anderson (Ind.) University. He was the pitching coach at Taylor 2015-18.
A left-handed pitcher, Wilburn played three seasons for head coaches Alex Marconi (2011 and 2012) and Maloney (2015).
At 20, Wilburn had a colon procedure and spent the better part of two years recuperating then returned to the diamond with the Cardinals.
“It was a cool ending to my career,” says Wilburn. “I working out with my best friend, Jon Keesling (who played at Wapahani then Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion).
“My ball was moving pretty good. Maybe I’ll give (a comeback) a shot.”
Wilburn made the team and in 27 mound appearances (26 in relief) went 4-2 for a 33-25 squad that played in the Mid-American Conference championship game in 2015.
“That last year I got to play changed my life in so many ways,” says Wilburn. It was through Ball State volunteer assistant Rhett Goodmiller that he was connected with Taylor.
The summer before joining the Trojans, Wilburn was the head coach of the Indiana Prospects 17U national travel team. The talented club featured future Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft first-round pick J.J. Bleday plus two others now in the minors — Gianluca Dalatri and Sean Mooney — with the help of father Bryan Wilburn.
Wilburn has formed his coaching philosophy through the men he played for and coached with — Dudley, Maloney and Gould — and more.
“Along the way you make it yours,” says Wilburn. “You learn from coaching conventions and podcasts and put your own spin on it.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to be around some really good baseball teams and coaches.
“Coach Dudley and I have a real good relationship. He just does things the right way. He was my first mentor. I learned so much from him.
“He had such a high expectation for us. He let us shine with what we were good at.”
Devin, the only child of Bryan and Missie Wilburn, moved from Muncie to Selma in the fourth grade and his first teacher was Jason Dudley, Brian’s son and a longtime Wapahani baseball assistant.
“I was part of those good traditions that shape your life in so many ways,” says Wilburn, who counted three former Wapahani teammates in the wedding party when he married Maddie a little over three years ago. “I’m so grateful to go through that program.
“I look back fondly on my high school days.”
A youth baseball coach for several decades, Russell Wilburn had a field named in his honor in Muncie’s Chambers Park when Devin was a young boy.
Bryan Wilburn and brother Dan both played baseball at Muncie Central High School and Bryan went on to the diamond life at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis and Dan to Valparaiso University.
After being recruited by Greg Beals, playing for Marconi and then Maloney, the latter hired him as an assistant.
“I wore many hats,” says Wilburn. “I got to work with catchers and some with outfielders. My end goal was to find a head coaching job at small college or high school.
“I wanted to be a well-rounded coach.”
Wilburn is appreciative of Blake Beemer, who was a Cardinals teammate and then a coaching colleague.
“I’m grateful for his mentorship,” says Wilburn of Beemer. “I also coached with Dustin Glant. He’s one of the smartest guys I’ve ever heard talk about pitching.”
Gould gave Wilburn his first crack at college coaching.
“He is probably the best mentor in my life,” says Wilburn. “I’ve learned so much from him from the baseball and the life perspective
“He opened my eyes in so many different ways. I could not be more grateful for the time I spent over there learning from him. (Taylor) is a wonderful place.”
It was at Taylor that Wilburn also got to be on staff with IHSBCA Hall of Famer Rick Atkinson and Justin Barber.
“Coach A forgot more about baseball than what I knew,” says Wilburn. “Justin and I had a good relationship when we recruited his players when he was with the Indiana Chargers.”
At Delta, Wilburn has hired former Ball State teammate Scott Baker as his pitching coach with other assistant hires pending school board approval.
The Eagles play on Veteran’s Field.
“We’ve got a couple of projects,” says Wilburn, whose been assessing Delta’s baseball needs since taking the job. “We’ve got a nice facility and a real supportive booster club.”
Feeders for Wilburn’s program include Delta Little League in Royerton and East Central Indiana junior high league run by Jason Dudley.
Current senior left-hander Nick Crabtree has committed to Taylor.
And Wilburn continues his love affair with the game.
Says the coach, “Baseball is what keeps me sane in life and forget the daily stress.”

Devin Wilburn (Delta High School Image)
The Wilburns (from left): Maddie, Tatum and Devin.
Devin and Maddie Wilburn with daughter Tatum.
Devin Wilburn (red pullover) with Ball State University head coach Rich Maloney (2), assistant Blake Beemer (24) and the Cardinals in 2019.
Devin Wilburn (right) coaches at Taylor University.
Devin Wilburn and the Taylor University baseball team celebrate a victory.
Devin Wilburn (second from left) with mentor and Taylor University head baseball coach Kyle Gould.

New Richmond head coach Brankle combining Old School, New School

By STEVE KRAH
http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Matt Brankle is a familiar face in a different place on the Wayne County, Ind., baseball scene.
Brankle pitched at Earlham College and for the Richmond RiverRats and was head coach for the Richmond Jazz and Cambridge City Lincoln Middle/High School.
In July, the 28-year-old became head coach at Richmond High School.
With the Red Devils, Brankle is establishing a culture where Old School meets New School.
“I’m going to use a lot of the Old School strategies, but try to do it with a modern approach,” says Brankle. “That’s what our players have grown up with.
“We’re going to be disciplined in how we handle every moment of our day. I’m high on grades. We expect to miss zero assignments and have zero F’s. We’ll be 10 minutes early everywhere we go, including school. We’ll be dressed properly with shirts tucked in and hats forward.
“I know there’s a lot more to this life than baseball I’m going to try to teach them skills in baseball that will help them in those situations.”
Brankle has learned coaches he played for and applied it to his coaching style.
“I’ve taken the best of all of those and found a middle ground,” says Swinson.
Steve Swinson was his coach with the Kokomo (Ind.) Longhorns travel ball team.
“He never yelled,” says Brankle of Swinson. “He built a relationship with you that you respected.
“My high school coaches were more demanding, but also understood the New School mentality.”
Brankle played three years for Jeremy Luna and Brent Owens as a senior at Taylor High School in Kokomo.
(Luna) was hard-nosed — kind of a football style — and was upbeat all the time,” says Brankle, who played shortstop and third base when he was not pitching for the Titans. “(Owens) was even-keeled most of the time.”
At Earlham, Brankle’s head coach was Steve Sakosits.
“Coach was full of energy all the time — most of the time it was positive,” says Brankle of Sakosits. “He has one heckuva of a drive in him and it definitely leaks out to his players.”
Old School in his approach, Coach Sak’s Quakers were expected to be clean-shaven with short hair cuts.
At EC, Brankle was named Newcomer of the Year (2012), Pitcher of the Year (2013) and earned the All-Heartland Collegiate Conference Sportsmanship Award (2013), Captains Award (2015) and George Van Dyke Outstanding Athlete Award (2015). At the time of graduation, he was No. 1 in all-time strikeouts, No. 2 in career saves and innings and No. 3 in career mound appearances.
Brankle played for the RiverRats in the summers of 2013 and 2014. After graduating in 2015 with a Fine Arts degree, he played independent professional baseball with the Lake Erie Crushers.
He was the head coach for the Jazz in the summer of 2016 and assisted Patrick Flanagan at Eaton (Ohio) High School in the springs of 2016 and 2017.
Brankle was head coach at Cambridge City 2018-21. He taught at Richmond Community School’s Test Intermediate School for 2 1/2 years before Cambridge City and is now a Special Education teacher at Richmond’s Dennis Middle School.
In May 2021, Brankle completed a Masters in Education from Indiana University East and is now working on a Masters in Educational Leadership from American College of Education.
Richmond (enrollment around 1,375) is a member of the North Central Conference (with Anderson, Arsenal Tech, Harrison of West Lafayette, Kokomo, Lafayette Jeff, Logansport, Marion, McCutcheon and Muncie Central).
The NCC is split into two divisions with Richmond in the East.
In 2021, the Red Devils were part of an IHSAA Class 4A sectional grouping with Anderson, Greenfield-Central, Mt. Vernon (Fortville), Muncie Central and Pendleton Heights (2021 host). Richmond has won 29 sectional titles — the last in 2011.
Richmond plays home games on John Cate Field at Don McBride Stadium.
“The history is the best part,” says Brankle of a park built in the 1930s that has seen Bob Feller, Satchel Paige and many more diamond legends play there. “We don’t talk about it enough.
“Some of the kids don’t understand the significance.”

Matt and wife of seven years, Kelsey Brankle, have three children — daughters Amillia (5) and Abigail (3) and son Broden (1 1/2).

Matt Brankle (Richmond High School Photo)
The Brankle family (from left): Amillia, Abigail, Broden, Kelsey and Matt.
The Brankle family (from left): First row — Amillia and Abigail; Back row — Broden, Matt and Kelsey.

Thoughts of American Legion baseball keep Cruz going during COVID-19 battle

By STEVE KRAH
http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Antonio “Tony” Cruz Jr., came close to losing his life and the sport that occupies much of thoughts.
The COVID-19 virus struck the husband and father of three in the first half of 2020 and he spent 25 days of May in Memorial Hospital in South Bend, Ind. — nine in the Intensive Care Unit. His oxygen level dropped to 55 and twice was not expected to make it.
One night he was visited by a doctor and nurse. Cruz recalls the doctor’s words: “Well, we’re not going to sugar-coat it. We’re going to be honest with you. You might die tonight. We’ve got a yellow legal pad right here. If there’s anything you might want to write to anybody, now’s the time.”
There was also plenty of support of his family — wife Ilka, sons Carlos and Santana and daughter Neveah and Amiyah, father Antonio Sr. (who also in the hospital with COVID but released before his son) and mother Lucy.
“It wasn’t your time,” is what Lucy Cruz told her son of why he survived and recovered.
Baseball also played a big part.
“Legion was always on my mind,” says Cruz, the manager of the South Bend American Legion Post 151 senior baseball team. “It gave me a reason to keep fighting and get out of there.”
Drawing strength from messages sent by coaching friends including John Kehoe, Joel Reinebold, Tom Washburn and Dennis Ryans.
“You don’t forget that stuff,” says Cruz. “It means a lot to me.”
While the pandemic caused American Legion Baseball to cancel its state, regional and national tournaments in 2020, Indiana teams were allowed to play games if they could provide their own insurance.
Cruz got out of the hospital and with air bottle in tow came to the place he considers his home away from home — the baseball field.
Jim Reinebold Field — named for the late Indiana High School Baaeball Coaches Association Hall of Famer —  is where the South Bend Clay High School Colonials play and Cruz serves as an assistant coach and home to Post 151, though COVID caused cancellation of the high school season and had the Legion team playing home games at South Bend’s Boland Park in 2020.
For his baseball foundation, Cruz looks back to his days at Maurice Matthys Little League, where his coach from 12 to 16 was Terry Cline.
“He is who I pattern my coaching style after,” says Cruz of Cline. “He was about caring and giving back.”
As a player at South Bend LaSalle High School, where he graduate in 1997, Cruz played for Lions head coach Scott Sill.
Cruz was a coach on Kehoe’s staff at South Bend Washington High School and also led the baseball program at Dickinson Middle School — going 23-1 in two seasons — then joined Joel Reinebold at Clay.
“Joel is so supportive,” says Cruz. “I’ve been blessed to be around him for so many years.”
Carlos Cruz (now 23) and Santana Cruz (21) both played for the Colonials, graduating in 2016 and 2018, respectively. Carlos attended Indiana State University for three years. Santana also played at Ancilla College in Donaldson, Ind.
Neveah Cruz (who turned 19 July 12) has been around Clay baseball from seventh grade until the present and has been a student manager, director of operations and coach. This summer, 2020 Clay grad and Sport and Recreation major at Trine University in Angola, Ind., is Post 51 Juniors (17U) team manager and assistant coach to her father with the Post 51 Seniors (19U).
“It’s a good bonding experience with my dad,” says Neveah. “I’ve met a lot of good people through baseball — role models.”
Being around teams has given Neveah something more.
“I have a lot of older brothers now,” says Neveah.
Youngest daughter Amiyah is 11.
This is the sixth year Tony Cruz has coached American Legion ball. When Lenny Kuespert was no longer able to manage South Bend Post 50, Cruz started Post 357. He was 357 manager for two summers and after guidance from former Bristol Post manager Jim Treadway and Legion baseball organizer Joe Kusiak and consulting with post commander Mike Vargo has led Post 151 since the 2018 season.
“Legion ball is good for families who can’t afford to play travel ball, which can be salty,” says Cruz.
Post 151 baseball is supported through $650 registration fees and fundraisers to cover things like insurance, uniforms, hat, socks, field rental, umpires and, in the advent of rain, field conditioner.
If there’s any money left over, Cruz use it to buy Legion shirts etc. for his players.
“I always give back to the kids,” says Cruz. “It’s not about me.”
Custom COVID masks were purchased as well a Post 151 visors for players’ mothers.
Believing that Legion baseball is also a tribute to veterans and patriotism, Cruz outfits his squads in red, white and blue uniforms.
American Legion teams are allowed to roster 18 players for the postseason. There is a total enrollment limit of 6,000 in the top three grades for the high schools that provide players.
Besides Santana Cruz at Ancilla, athletes who have played for Cruz and gone on to college baseball include Hunter Aker at Manchester University in North Manchester, Ind., Robbie Berger, J.P. Kehoe, Mason Ryans and Andrew Washburn at Lincoln Trail College in Robinson, Ill., Tyler Bortone at Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Tyler Cuma at Ivy Tech Northeast in Fort Wayne, Gabe Galvan at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, Nathaniel Garcia at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, Chris Gault, Cooper Lee, A.J. Klimek, Andy Migas and Lee Timmons at Trine, Colin Greve at Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., Dylan Hensley at Indiana Tech in Fort Wayne, Roman Kuntz and Bryce Lesher at Lake Michigan College in Benton Harbor, Mich., Michael Payne at Wabash Valley College in Mount Carmel, Ill., Hunter Robinson at Purdue University Northwest in Hammond, Ind., Cole Steveken at Ancilla, Chantz Stover at Glen Oaks Community College in Centreville, Mich., Tony Valle at Bethel University in Mishawaka, Ind., Cameron Waters at Kalamazoo (Mich.) Community College and Gabe Yonto at BCA College Post Grad in Knoxville, Tenn.
Both 151 teams played about a dozen regular-season weekday games in 2021.
Thursday, July 15 at 5 p.m. and following and Friday, July 16 at 5 (if necessary), South Bend Post 151 hosts Bristol Post 143 in best-of-3 Regional 3 at Jim Reinebold Field for a berth in the eight-team State Finals Friday through Tuesday, July 23-27 at Highland Park in Kokomo.
Other feeder regionals are slated at Highland Post 180 Regional 1-2 (with Valparaiso Post 94, East Chicago Post 369/Lake Station Post 100 Region Legion Expos and South Haven Post 502), Regional 4 at Kokomo Post 6 (with Lafayette Post 11 and Muncie Post 19), Regional 5 at Terre Haute Post 346 (with Crawfordsville Post 72 and Sullivan Post 139), Regional 6 at Jasper Post 147 (with Washington Post 121) and Regional 7 at Rockport Post 254 (with Newburgh Post 44 and Boonville Post 200). As State Finals host, Kokomo will represent Regional 4 with the other highest finisher also advancing. The top two at Highland and the winner at the other sites will move on.
Vera Cruz Tree Service has tended to customers in the South Bend, Ind., area for four decades. Recently, Tony Jr. took over the running of the family business from his father.
Not long after the Legion season ends comes the Jim Reinebold Fall Baseball Camp (the instructional league is heading into its 27th year).
Between seasons and conditioning, Cruz is involved with baseball about 10 months a year.
The diamond — and what it represents — is his passion.

Neveah and Tony Cruz Jr. (Steve Krah Photo)
Tony Cruz Jr. and daughter Neveah.
Neveah and Tony Cruz Jr.
A regional title was won by South Bend American Legion Post 151 in 2018.
Tony Cruz Jr. battles COVID-19 in 2020. He was hospitalized 25 days in May, including nine in Intensive Care.
Tony Cruz Jr. had to go on high-flow oxygen during his battle with COVID-19 in 2020.
Out of the hospital after his COVID-19 battle, Tony Cruz came “home” to Jim Reinebold Field, home of South Bend Clay High School and South Bend American Legion Post 151 baseball.
Jim Treadway (left) and Tony Cruz Jr. bond over American Legion, high school baseball.

Evansville Central’s Hermann named MVP; South sweeps IHSBCA all-star series

By STEVE KRAH
http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Evansville Central outfielder Blake Hermann was chosen as MVP and the South beat the North 7-5 in Game 3 of the 2021 Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association North/South All-Star Series Sunday, June 27 at historic Bosse Field.
The win gave the South a 3-0 sweep of ’21 games. The North now leads 68-66 in the all-time series.
The righty-swinging Hermann smacked a two-run triple in the bottom of the sixth inning and also singled in the eighth Sunday.
The sixth is when the South scored three runs and turned a 5-3 deficit into a 6-5 lead.
The University of Evansville commit went 2-of-2 with a pair of doubles and an RBI in Game 1 Saturday and collected a single, walk and scored a runs in Game 2.
Saturday’s contests were held at the UE with the South prevailing 5-3 and 7-6.
“I came out here and I just had some fun,” said Hermann. “I was playing with the best players in Indiana and got to know them a little.”
Hitters in Sunday’s game wore their high school uniforms and wielded wood bats.
“I’m used to it,” said Hermann. “It’s one of my favorite bats to swing.”
While Hermann will the turf at the University of Evansville home, he was plenty familiar with the confidences of Bosse Field.
“I played here all throughout high school so it feels like home,” said Hermann, who will be playing travel ball this summer with the Jeremy Johnson-coached Evansville Razorbacks.
Columbus East’s Parker Harrison belted a two-run home run to left in the South third inning.
Crown Point’s Cal Curiel lashed a two-run single for the North in the second inning.
Zionsville’s Nate Dohm pitched three hitless innings — fourth, fifth and sixth — with seven strikeouts as the winning pitcher.
Indianapolis Cathedral sidearmer Chris Gallagher pitched the last three innings and earned the save.
Westfield’s Logan Nickel took the loss.
Evansville was the all-star series host for the first time since 2009.
The 2022 IHSBCA Futures Game and North/South All-Star Series is to be played at Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion.

IHSBCA NORTH/SOUTH ALL-STAR SERIES
(At Evansville)
Game 3
(Wood Bat)
SOUTH 7, NORTH 5
North 031 000 100 — 5 8 0
South 002 103 10x — 7 7 0
WP — Dohm. LP — Nickel. Save — Gallagher.
Pitchers: North — Bryce Schaum (Munster; 3 innings, 4 strikeouts, 2 walks, 1 hits, 2 runs), Logan Nickel (Westfield; 3 innings, 0 strikeouts, 0 walks, 4 hits, 4 runs), Kyle Tupper (South Bend St. Joseph; 2 innings, 0 strikeouts, 1 walk, 3 hits, 1 run). South — Kyler McIntosh (Columbus North; 3 innings, 3 strikeouts, 1 walk, 5 hits, 4 runs), Nate Dohm (Zionsville; 3 innings, 7 strikeouts, 0 walks, 0 hits, 0 runs), Chris Gallagher (Cathedral; 3 innings, 4 strikeouts, 1 walk, 3 hits, 1 run).
North: Hits — Rocco Hanes (Norwell), Sergio Lira Ayala (NorthWood), Jacob Loftus (Peru), Cal Curiel (Crown Point), Carter Mathison (Homestead), Kameron Salazar (Wawasee), A.J., Bordenet (Lafayette Central Catholic), Garrett Harker (Lebanon). 3B — Mathison. RBI — Curiel 2. Runs — Lira Ayala, Loftus, Mathison, Salazar, Matthew Dobuck (Plymouth). LOB — 3.
South: Hits — Blake Hermann (Evansville Central) 2, Parker Harrison (Columbus East), Ty Rumsey (Evansville North), Nick Sutherlin (Greencastle), Pierson Barnes (Riverton Parke), Eli Watson (Providence). HR — Harrison. 3B — Watson. 2B — Sutherlin, Rumsey. RBI — Harrison 2, Hermann 2, Sutherlin, Andrew Oesterling (Oldenburg Academy). Runs — Oesterling, Harrison, Sutherlin, Watson, Herman, Evan Goforth (Floyd Central), Henry Brown (Evansville Central). SB — Barnes. LOB — 6. T — 2:20.
MVP: Blake Hermann (Evansville Central).

Blake Hermann (Steve Krah Photo)

Lehrman still having fun in 43rd season leading Heritage Patriots

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Dean Lehrman has been around the baseball program at Heritage Junior-Senior High School in Monroeville, Ind., long enough that he is coaching a second generation of Patriots.

Just at the varsity level, there are four players whose fathers played for Lehrman at Heritage. There are seniors Cody David (son of Chad) and Clay Gerardot (son of Matt) and sophomores Jackson Bearman (son of Wade) and Austin Buuck (son of Greg).

The 2021 season is Lehrman’s 43rd season as a head baseball coach — 34th at Heritage after nine at Woodlan

At present, the 1973 Heritage graduate has 632 career wins. The ’21 Patriots are off to a 17-2 start.

“I got in this business because I love baseball and it’s a kids game,” says Lehrman, 66. “I wanted to pass that on to my sons and everybody in the neighborhood’s sons.”

Heritage (enrollment around 600) is a consolidation of Monroeville and Hoagland and that opened in 1969. The Patriots are a member of the Allen County Athletic Conference (with Adams Central, Bluffton, Jay County, South Adams, Southern Wells and Woodlan). ACAC teams meet each other one time.

The Patriots are part of an IHSAA Class 3A sectional grouping with Bellmont (the 2021 host), Marion, Mississinewa, Norwell and Oak Hill. Heritage has won nine sectionals (the last in 2015), three regionals and one semistate — all but a 1976 sectional crown on Lehrman’s watch. 

“A bunch of blue-collar, hard-nosed, out-work-you kids” with no superstars earned a state runner-up finish in 2007 (losing to South Spencer in the 2A title game).

Lehrman’s Heritage teams have won numerous conference titles and he has often been chosen ACAC Coach of the Year. He has twice been Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association District Coach of the Year and was on the IHSBCA North/South All-Star Series coaching staff two times.

“In my mind we are still a 2A school although we’ve officially been 3A for several years,” says Lehrman. “It’s a numbers thing.”

Lehrman does not favor athletic specialization and embraces the idea of the multi-sport athlete. He enjoys a sense of cooperation between himself and fellow head coaches Casey Kolkman in football and Adam Gray with basketball and the sharing of athletes.

“I want my kids to be involved in as many sports as they can,” says Lehrman. “It seems that more and more they get funneled into one thing 365/24-7. That’s not good for kid. You get more kids getting burned out that way.

“We’re not pulling kids in different directions and telling them you’ve got to do this in the summer or you can’t play. I’m a firm believer that a kid has to be a kid. He’s got to be free to choose. 

“He should be able to play football, basketball and baseball or whatever combination of sports you want to throw in there.”

Janice Lehrman has been a coach’s wife for all these decades.

“I can’t count how many uniforms she’s sewn back together and she still does it,” says Dean. “She just did it for a JV kid.”

Dean and wife Janice, who live in the country near Hoagland, have three children — Camryn, Derek and Ryne.

Camyn Klocinski is a social studies teacher at Summerfield Junior-Senior High School in Petersburg, Mich. She has traveled the world and is an expert on World War II.

Derek Lehrman is married with three children. He played football and baseball at Heritage (and was one of several IHSBCA all-stars coached by his father) and baseball at Eastern Michigan University and in the Detroit Tigers system.

He is now the Patriots hitting coach and serves on a staff with pitching coach Scott Lewis, a former left-handed pitcher from Van Wert, Ohio. Junior varsity coaches for 2021 are Heritage alums Jeremy Hullinger, Nick Bosler and Matt Saylor.

Ryne Lehrman (who gets his first name from Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg) played football and baseball at Manchester University in North Manchester, Ind. He and his wife are traveling physical therapists and have one child.

Youth leagues in Monroeville and Hoagland as well as the Harding and New Haven areas feed into Heritage. 

A 5-foot-9, 170 pounds, Lehrman used his mechanics, wrist and forearm to generate velocity as a pitcher. His boyhood idol was Nolan Ryan

Lehrman took the mound for four years at Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne (now Purdue Fort Wayne) for Hal Prickett and Dave Hey and drew attention from bird dog major league scouts.

As a coach, Lehrman encourages his pitchers to change speeds and the eye levels of batters.

“No matter how hard you throw if that’s all you do, they’re going to catch up to you,” says Lehrman. “Kids today are trained on pitching machine and you can se the machine to throw 90 or 95 (mph) and they can work on that — boom, boom, boom.

“To me, the change-up is the next-best pitch behind the fastball.”

Among the pitchers to come through Heritage are Andrew Saalfrank, a left-hander who hurled for Indiana University and is now in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization.

Branson Dossen, son of former pro Jarrod Dossen, played baseball at Heritage then Indiana Tech. The younger Dossen was a standout quarterback for the Patriots.

Dustin Butcher is the head baseball coach at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne and just led the Cougars to a single-season school record of 34 victories.

The IHSAA has been observing a 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) since 2017. Lehrman has been tracking numbers for 43 years.

“We’re never going to hurt a kid,” says Lehrman. “I keep them in by book. At the end of the inning, I can tell you how many pitches he threw and what his first-pitch strike percentage was.”

Lehrman’s father — Donald — ran his scorebook for three decades and Dean now keeps it while his assistants coach the bases.

A teacher of mathematics after college, Lehrman retired from the classroom in June 2020.

“I was very blessed there because I had calculus and trigonometry,” says Lehrman. “I had good kids that wanted to be there and wanted to learn.

“That’s a huge reason I stayed in it for 43 years.”

The East Allen County Schools administration asked him to stay on to lead the Patriots on the diamond.

“As long as I’m still having fun, I’m going to hang around and coach baseball,” says Lehrman.

For many falls, he was on the staffs of two Indiana Football Hall of Famers — Leland Etzler at Woodlan and Bob Yager at Heritage. 

Lehrman was Yager’s defensive coordinator then served six years as Patriots head coach (going 40-26 from 2010-15) before stepping away from the gridiron

He was coaxed back by alum Kolkman, who heads into his second season as Heritage head football coach in the fall.

“Casey was an eighth grader when I first started teaching here,” says Lehrman. “He asked me to help out. I said I’ll do it on one condition. I’m strictly a volunteer and as long as I’m having fun I’ll stick around and do anything you ask.

“Casey has turned the program completely around. Look for big things out of our football team the next couple of years.”

Heritage baseball’s full week began Tuesday, May 11 with a win against Bluffton. The Patriots are slated to visit Van Wert Wednesday, Jay County Thursday and Manchester Friday with a rare Saturday off.

Dean Lehrman, a 1973 graduate of Heritage Junior-Senior High School in Monroeville, Ind., is in his 43rd year as head baseball coach at his alma mater in 2021. The quote on the Patriots dugout wall is from former Heritage pitching coach Don Grabner. (Steve Krah Photo)

Thixton going out with a bang at Indiana Wesleyan

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Tye Thixton figures he was born to play baseball.

He is named for his great grandfather on his mother Amy’s side — Leonus “Tye” Goheen, a standout pitcher in Kentucky in the 1920’s and 1930’s who once was matched up against a young Hall of Famer-to-be Dizzy Dean

Goheen led the Dawson Springs Daylight Ball Club to the state championship in 1932 and an appearance in the Little World Series in Battle Creek, Mich., in 1937.

When Tye Thixton was but a tyke his father — Jeff Thixton — introduced his oldest son to the game with wiffleball and followed him all the way through youth and travel ball and college until his passing at 50 on Jan. 10, 2020 with wife Amy and sons Tye and Trey surviving. 

“We bonded a lot of the time through baseball,” says Tye, who was granted an extra year of eligibility at Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Ind,, because of the COVID-19 pandemic that shortened the 2020 season and is shining in 2021 (Trey Thixton, 20, is a sophomore on the IWU men’s tennis team). “I want to leave it all on the field for dad.”

Tye has his father’s initials — JLT — on his wrist tape and writes them in the dirt each time he comes up to bat.

Thixton’s Indiana Wesleyan team, which also features “COVID seniors” Tanner Killian, Austin Swift and Jon Young, goes into a Crossroads League series today (April 16) and Saturday (April 17) against visiting Huntington at 32-11 overall and 21-3 in conference play. The team has its sights on being the program’s first 40-game winner.

Center fielder and lead-off man Thixton is hitting .349 (60-of-172) with 11 home runs, one triple, 11 doubles, 45 runs batted in, 48 runs scored and is 15-of-15 in stolen bases. He sports an 1.039 OPS (.423 on-base percentage plus .616 slugging average) with 20 multi-hit games.

For his IWU career, Thixton is hitting .360 (151-of-419) with 21 homers, three triples, 28 doubles, 96 RBIs, 106 runs and is 29-of-32 in stolen bases. His OPS is 1.020 (.428 on-base percentage plus .592 slugging average).

Thixton’s most-recent circuit clout came Monday, April 13 in Game 1 of a CL doubleheader against Taylor. The two-run shot in the fourth inning to left field cut through a steady cross wind and landed on the football stadium next to Wildcat Field.

“Off the bat I was thinking, ‘get on 2,’” says Thixton. “The fact that it got out gave us a lot of momentum and helped us get into their pen.

“My whole game has changed. I’m a little bit of a power threat this year. I think the COIVD year helped guys develop. We got to spend more time in the weight room and more time to work on the swing.

“Across the board players progressing and numbers on the pitching and hitting side a lot better.”

A center fielder and No. 1 hitter in the batting order since his days at Center Grove High School in Greenwood, Ind., Thixton relishes both roles.

“I like being able to run the outfield,” says Thixton. “It’s fun playing gap-to-gap.

“I’ve always loved being a lead-off hitter — just being able to set the tone of the game.”

Thixton, 23, is finishing up his Business Management degree. Commencement at IWU is slated for May 1.

“I’ll be done,” says Thixton of his college days which began with two years at Danville (Ill.) Area Community College, including a team MVP season in 2018. “Then I get on to the real world.”

Competing against NAIA No. 1-ranked Southeastern in Florida and No. 6 Faulkner in Alabama to begin the season in February, the Wildcats got off to an 0-7 start.

“We got walked off three times in seven games,” says Thixton. “But we knew we could compete with the highest level. We could’ve easily won three of four of those games.

“Nobody’s head was down. It was time to go on a win streak.”

And that’s just what IWU did. 

The Wildcats won their next 16 under the guidance of head coach Rich Benjamin.

“He loves all of his players,” says Thixton. “He’s done such a good job of bringing a team together and making guys want to play for each other and for him.

“We’ve got a good mix of all ages. Guys able to learn from each other. That’s really contributed to this year.”

Going through the uncertainty of the pandemic has also impacted the team’s outlook.

“We’ve played every game with the thought it could be our last,” says Thixton.

Born in Greenwood, Thixton started school at Clark Elementary in Whiteland and played at Whiteland Little League then moved to the Center Grove area as a third grader and he attended the former West Grove Elementary. 

He played in the Center Grove Little League then travel ball with a Center Grove team coached by Mike Chitwood that morphed into Indiana Elite Baseball and Pony Express Baseball, where his coaches were Kyle Beachy, Quentin Brown and Grant Bellak

“(Brown and Bellak) were a blast to be around,” says Thixton. “They helped me develop my game so much. 

Thixton graduated from Center Grove High School in 2016. Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Dave Gandolph was in his final season with the Trojans while Thixton played on the junior varsity as a freshman. 

Keith Hatfield was Thixton’s varsity coach for three CG seasons.

What is Thixton’s impressions of Hatfield?

“It’s his passion for the game,” says Thixton. “We had so much fun playing with Coach Hatfield (in 2016).

“We had a talented group of seniors. We lost to (eventual IHSAA Class 4A state champion) Roncalli in the (Plainfield) Semistate.”

Clayton Hicks, who is now head coach at Danville Area, was an assistant when he recruited Thixton for the Jaguars and got him to play for head coach Tim Bunton.

“He’s the best baseball mind I’ve ever been around,” says Thixton of Bunton. “He took my game to a completely different level mentally.

“It was about winning every pitch and winning the little things in baseball.

“There are so many metrics now. But the game still comes down to the mental side and what to do when the ball is in play

“What you can do at-bat to help your team team?”

In two seasons at Danville Area (2017 and 2018), Thixton hit .376 (139-of-369) in 101 games (98 starts).

In the summers after his freshman and sophomore years, Thixton played for the Hicks-managed Hannibal Hoots in 2017 and the St. Louis Kats in 2018.

Tye Thixton (Indiana Wesleyan University Photo)

Taylor U. assistant Atkinson has seen so much baseball around Indiana

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Having Rick Atkinson around has given the baseball program at Taylor University in Upland, Ind., “second eyes” for the better part of the last two decades.

“I’m the Don Zimmer of the outfit,” says Atkinson, who has seen plenty on a diamond in his 73 years and has lent his insights to the Trojans for 18 years — the past 16 on a coaching staff headed by Kyle Gould

Bone cancer has not allowed the former Taylor player and longtime Gas City, Ind., resident to travel with the team on its 2021 trips to Arizona and Tennessee.

“I was looking forward to going,” says Atkinson, who tracks the 7-3 Trojans on the internet.

While COVID-19 precautions have also kept him away recently, Atkinson has shared plenty of diamond wisdom over the years.

“On the road, Kyle and I would be together and talk about baseball, the team and what-not,” says Atkinson. “We would not always agree. But when we left our room we were on the same page.”

Atkinson’s health no longer allows him, but he used to coach first base for the Trojans.

“I can’t move too quick,” says Atkinson. The cancer has eaten away his second vertebrae. “It’s good medicine to go over there when I don’t feel good.”

It had once been Atkinson’s responsibility to mow and water the grass and paint the lines at Winterholter Field. 

“All of the sudden we can’t do that,” says Atkinson.

With the advent of artificial turf, those staples of baseball coaching are no longer necessary.

Rick and Sondra Atkinson have three children who all live nearby — Molly and Abby in Gas City and Adam in Muncie. There are eight grandchildren.

“They love to come over to Taylor and hit in the barn or get in the new press box,” says Atkinson. 

A three-time Hall of Famer — Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association and Grant County (Ind.) as an individual and Taylor University as part of a team — Atkinson was a standout third baseman for Jack King-coached Taylor teams from 1966-68 and played one season at Greenville (Ill.) College before playing in the Atlanta Braves organization.

Playing for NAIA Coach of the Year Bob Smith at Greenville in 1969, righty-swinging corner infielder Atkinson hit 12 home runs in 22 games and lead NAIA in homers per game (.55). He was also third in runs batted in per contest (1.55) while hitting .428. Greenville lost in the regional that year and Taylor went on to the NAIA World Series. Smith was also president of the International Baseball Federation that helped get the sport in the Olympics.

As a fast-pitch player, Atkinson helped the Plymouth Club Bombers to three Amateur Softball Association state titles and two runner-up finishes.

Atkinson was in secondary education for 38 years (physical education and health) — eight at Eastbrook High In Marion, Ind., and 30 at Mississinewa High in Gas City. 

At Eastbrook, he was on the football staff with Terry Hoeppner (who went on to be head coach at Miami University in Ohio and Indiana University) at Eastbrook. 

Before returning in 2005, Atkinson served Mississinewa for 24 years as the athletic director and 20 years as the Indians’ baseball coach. He was the North head coach in the IHSBCA North/South All-Star Series in 1990.

It was while dining at Cracker Barrel that Atkinson ran into Larry Winterholter who asked him to join his coaching staff at Taylor.

“Will you come back and help me?” Atkinson says of Winterholter’s question. “I’ve been there ever since.”

Gould was a freshman during Atkinson’s first season as as Trojans coach.

“We developed a good relationship,” says Atkinson. “A lot of people think I’m Kyle’s dad.”

Many relationships were formed through baseball over the decades. Atkinson got to know Dick Siler when they were both high school coaches.

“They had the ugliest uniforms I’ve ever seen,” says Atkinson of the bright red and yellow donned by Siler’s Elkhart Memorial High School teams, which included all-star pitcher Matt Ruess in 1990.

The friendship continued when they both began college coaching at Crossroads League schools — Atkinson at Taylor and Siler at Bethel.

Atkinson invited Siler to stay with him whenever he was in the area. IHSBCA Hall of Famer Siler died in 2020.

A 1965 graduate of Mississinewa, Atkinson earned 11 varsity letters playing baseball and basketball for coach Junior Mannis and football for coach Charlie Fisher. Nine of those teams won conference championships.

One of his fondest memories is playing five games in three different places in the same day.

“When I was 15 we had a high school doubleheader,” says Atkinson. “My mom took me to Kokomo for an American Legion doubleheader (featuring Jonesboro Post 95) then to Indianapolis for semipro tournament (with the Twin City Bankers). 

“We won all five games that day.”

A rivalry with the Gas City-based Twin City Bankers and Portland Rockets is well-chronicled in Bill Lightle’s book “My Mother’s Dream.”

Atkinson played against one of former major league pitcher and Anderson, Ind., native Carl Erskine’s sons.

Erskine doesn’t address Atkinson by name. It’s “Hey, Gas City!”

He was 14 when Atkinson started playing for the Bankers. His father, John, was the team’s manager. 

John Atkinson helped build a diamond that is still used today.

There were days when young Rick sold Cokes while sitting on the back part of a station wagon.

At 15, the Bankers placed third in the state tournament and all-stater Atkinson hit .454.

Atkinson recalls when amateur baseball went from wood to metal bats.

“I didn’t like it,” says Atkinson. “I collect fungos. None of them are aluminum.

“I do not remember breaking a bat. I’m sure I did.”

He does remember mending some clubs.

To keep wood bats in circulation, Atkinson used to use small black brad nails to hold them together.

For a few years, Atkinson was in charge of Taylor hitters.

He’d study the players’ swing to see what suited him best. It was easy to identify the best ones.

“A blind man can come into this barn and tell who the good hitters are just by the sound,” says Atkinson. “It’s a different sound.”

Leading a Taylor-based team in a collegiate wood bat league, Atkinson counted future big league center fielder Kevin Kiermaier as one of his players.

Atkinson encouraged the Fort Wayne Bishop Luers graduate to cash in on his speed.

“I know Coach, bunt the ball,” says Atkinson of Kiermaier’s echoing what the coach often told him. “They don’t teach the bunt anymore.”

The coach also lent his know-how with the independent professional Dubois County Dragons in Huntingburg, Ind., and the Anderson (Ind.) Lawmen. The latter team was managed by Texas Rangers bird dog scout Jay Welker and featured Brian Cruz who also played for Atkinson at Mississinewa.

For a few years, Atkinson was a camp director for Little League Central Region Headquarters in Indianapolis.

“I really loved it,” says Atkinson. “Kids from all over the country would come in.”

Campers and counselors affectionately referred to Atkinson as “Papa Bear.”

Rick Atkinson, a longtime assistant baseball coach at Taylor University in Upland, Ind., is the member of the Indiana High School Baseball Association, Grant County (Ind.) and Taylor University halls of fame. (Taylor University Photo)

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.