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Skelton, Meyer span eras of Fort Wayne Snider Panthers baseball

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

They’ve got continuity happening on the northeast side of Fort Wayne, Ind.

Marc Skelton has been coaching baseball at R. Nelson Snider High School for three decades.

Skelton, a 1985 Snider graduate, enters his eighth season as Panthers head coach in 2019 after 22 as an assistant.

Bruce Meyer, who has also coached at Snider for 30 years, and Skelton can trace their lineage back to the origins of the Panthers program.

“We played for or coached with every (head) coach in Snider history,” says Skelton, who is Snider’s fifth head baseball coach. Jerry Miller (1971-83) was the first, followed by Jim Rousseau (1983-87), Dave Hey (1988-92) and Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Andy Owen (1993-2011).

Miller and assistant Adrian Deusler held the first practice April 15, 1971 and had 95 boys trying out.

“He loved baseball and worked hard it it,” says Skelton of Miller. “He’s still our No. 1 fan. He comes out to games. It’s always good to see Coach.

“(Rousseau) stressed fundamentals and doing things the right way.”

Skelton leads the current Panthers squad while putting effort and excellence at the forefront.

“We believe in hard work,” says Skelton. “You want to give it your best effort every time you’re getting after something.

“Ten quality reps are better than 100 sloppy ones, just going through the motions.”

Besides Meyer, Snider assistants include Josh Clinkenbeard, Rob Hale, Peyton Bieker with the varsity and Tim McCrady, Eric Cirillo and Brandon Phelps with the junior varsity. All but Cirillo and Phelps are returnees to the staff.

Marc is the son of David and Karen Skelton. David Skelton has been scorekeeper for the Panthers for 30 years.

Skelton says he tends to have between 30 and 40 players in the program each season.

During the current IHSAA limited contact period, Snider players are working to get their arms in shape while position players and hitters are also getting in their training.

“We’re getting pitchers arms built up so we avoid injuries down the road,” says Skelton, who can take his team to a couple of tunnels in the gym to get things done.

Snider (enrollment around 1,900) is a member of the Summit Athletic Conference (with Fort Wayne Concordia, Fort Wayne Bishop Dwenger, Fort Wayne Bishop Luers, Fort Wayne North Side, Fort Wayne Northrop, Fort Wayne South Side and Fort Wayne Wayne as baseball affiliates).

SAC teams play each other in a home-and-home series, usually within the same week, to determine the conference champion.

“Theoretically, you need more than one pitcher to do it,” says Skelton.

Non-conference opponents include Blackhawk Christian, DeKalb, East Noble, Fort Wayne Canterbury, Fort Wayne Carroll, Homestead, Huntington North, New Haven and Norwell. The Panthers play in the Warsaw Invitational on May 18. DeKalb and Penn have been a part of that even in the past.

The Panthers are part of an IHSAA Class 4A sectional grouping with DeKalb, East Noble, Fort Wayne Carroll, Fort Wayne Northrop. DeKalb and Carroll have rotated as the host site in recent years. Snider has won 11 sectional crowns — the last in 2017. State championships were earned in 2006 and 2009.

Snider plays its home games at Hawley Field, which is about 2 1/2 miles off-campus on Long Road. The facility is owned by Fort Wayne Community Schools and is maintained mostly by the baseball team.

The 2019 season marks the third of the IHSAA’s pitch count rules (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). This year, the standards will be the same for varsity and below varsity.

“It’s for the health of the arm so it’s a good thing,” says Skelton. “We want you to throw strikes because you are on a limit. Pitch to contact, so to speak.

“Strikeouts are boring. Work quick so the the defense doesn’t have time to wonder and can say sold behind you.”

Snider senior Mason McMurtry recently made a college baseball commitment to Ivy Tech Northeast Community College in Fort Wayne. Recent graduates Michael Brewer (Eastern Kentucky University) and Matt Eastman (Ivy Tech Northeast) have gone on to the next level.

The Panthers get players from many sources, including Georgetown Little League and several travel organizations.

“The last 10 years it’s been going strong,” says Skelton of travel ball. “As long as they don’t over-do it, it’s a good thing they’re playing baseball. It gets them in competitive situations.”

Even though Snider is a large school, there are a number of multi-sport athletes in the school.

“We leave them alone during other seasons,” says Skelton. “When they come to us (in baseball), they participate with us.”

Skelton graduated from Indiana University in December 1989 and came back to Fort Wayne to be an educator and coach.

Blackhawk Middle School is where Skelton, Meyer and Terah Brogan (Skelton’s sister) are teachers.

Snider graduates have gone on to professional baseball.

Andy Replogle pitched at Kansas State University and two seasons in the majors with Milwaukee Brewers.

Right-hander Kevin Cahill pitched at Purdue University and in the Washington Nationals system.

Catcher-outfielder Kyle Day took the field for Michigan State University and in the Cincinnati Reds system.

Left-hander Adam Sheefel hurled at Ball State University and in the minors with the Reds.

FORTWAYNESNIDERPANTHERS

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Marc Skelton, a 1985 Fort Wayne (Ind.) Snider High School graduate, enters his eighth season as Panthers head baseball coach in 2019 after 22 as an assistant.

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After landing in Indiana, Kroll quickly makes his baseball mark at Ben Davis, Roncalli

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Aaron Kroll first made a baseball name for himself in Iowa.

He then coached high schoolers and collegians in Arizona.

An invitation from a friend brought him to Indiana and he worked his way up to high school varsity head coach — first at Ben Davis and then at Roncalli. The 2018 season will mark his fourth leading the Rebels.

Kroll played at Burlington (Iowa) High School and graduated in 1998 before going to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to join the diamond program at NCAA Division III Coe College.

Dan Reid, an Iowa High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer, was coach of the Burlington Grayhounds.

“He was really fun guy to be around,” says Kroll of Reid. “He was a really good in-game manager and really cared about his players.”

When Kroll arrived on campus, Steve Cook was near the beginning of his days leading the Coe Kohawks.

“He was first person I would credit with teaching in-depth about the game,” says Kroll of Cook. “He was a very knowledgeable guy and a really good teacher of the game.”

By this time, a teenage Kroll already knew he wanted to go into coaching and soaked up as much baseball information as he could.

Since the college season was in the spring and Iowa plays its high school in the summer, Kroll was able to be an assistant for two seasons at Notre Dame High School in Burlington and then one as freshmen coach at Prairie High School in Cedar Rapids.

Right after college, Kroll moved to Arizona and took his first head coaching position for one season at Parker High School. He also served three seasons with the Havasu Heat of the summer collegiate Pacific Southwest Baseball League.

With a buddy’s girlfriend studying at the University of Indianapolis, Kroll was asked to move to Indy and began fresh in an unfamiliar baseball community.

“I knew after awhile I wanted to get back to the Midwest,” says Kroll. “When I got to Indianapolis I really had to start over. I really didn’t know anybody.”

Kroll got his foot in the door by coaching eighth graders at the Lynhurst 7th & 8th Grade Center in the Ben Davis school district.

After one season with middle schoolers, he became a junior varsity coach on Brian Hardman’s Ben Davis High staff in 2007. Knowing he would be leaving, Hardman began teaching Kroll the ropes.

Kroll was head coach at Ben Davis from 2008-14, helping the Giants to an IHSAA Class 4A Perry Meridian Sectional championship in his final season on the West Side.

“That’s one of the things I’m most proud of,” says Kroll. “I was able to work my way up on my own. Things happened quickly.”

Kroll and his family (Aaron and wife Brooke have two children — Griffin, 8, and Kamryn, 6) live on the South Side and he applied for the Roncalli job when it came open a few times.

“It was really just a timing thing,” says Kroll, who led the Rebels to a 4A Pike Sectional, Decatur Central Regional, Plainfield Semistate and state championship titles in his second season of 2016 and at Roncalli Sectional crown in 2017. “I wanted to get to a top-end program. The leadership at the school is just tremendous. I’ve been rawly fortunate to work with some great people.”

Kroll, who still teaches Algebra at the Ben Davis Ninth Grade Center, is grateful to folks like Roncalli principal Chuck Weisenbach, former athletic director Dave Toner and current Rebels AD David Lauck for their support at the interparochial archdiocesan Catholic high school.

“I owe a lot to those guys for the success in our program,” says Kroll.

What does the coach believe he brings to Roncalli baseball?

stability

“Stability and overall toughness as a program,” says Kroll. “We’ve put together the most difficult schedule we could to challenge our kids. That’s critical. It’s a big part of why we won the state championship in ’16.

“We want to be challenged every time we take the field.”

Besides Tuesday and Wednesday home-and-home series in the two-year-old Circle City Conference (which also includes Chatard, Brebeuf, Guerin Catholic and Heritage Christian), the Rebels also meet Lawrence Central, Center Grove, Indianapolis Cathedral and Carmel, play in the Super Prep Tournament at Louisville Ballard and then against top-notch competition from Illinois, Michigan and Ohio in the Midwest Select Invitational at Grand Park in Westfield as well as the Marion County Tournament.

“It’s very competitive each time out,” says Kroll.

During his time at Roncalli, he has sent a number of players on the college baseball, including Michael McAvene (University of Louisville), Pauly Milto (Indiana University), Cody Smith (Danville Area Community College), Tyler Lucas and Christian Beard (University of Indianapolis), Caleb Matthews (University of South Carolina Upstate) and Drew Naumovich (Franklin College). Will Harris went to DePauw University to play football.

Current Rebels who have committed to college baseball program include Nick Schnell (Louisville) and Colten Panaranto (Michigan State University) and there are likely to be others.

Kroll’s assistants for 2018 include Mark Pieper, Sam Konkel and Jay Hundley with the varsity, James Thorpe and Ryan Parrott with the junior varsity and Ron Wilson and John Mullin with the freshmen.

Roncalli plays home games on-campus at La Pinta Field.

With the help of the athletic administration, the facility has seen recent significant upgrades. Among them are a new clubhouse, drainage system, mound and plate areas and fencing with blue slats. There is new paint on the dugouts and press box and the outfield fence now sports several banners.

Roncalli baseball has made three State Finals appearances (1982, 2012, 2016) and won 13 sectionals (1976, 1979, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998 in 3A, 1999 in 3A, 2002 in 3A, 2004 in 3A, 2012 in 4A, 2016 in 4A, 2017 in 4A), eight regionals (1979, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1999, 2012, 2016) and three semistates (1982, 2012, 2016) plus conference and other honors.

“We think it’s really important to have the best field we possibly can and to give our kids the best experience possible,” says Kroll. “It’s really important in building and sustaining a successful program.”

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Aaron Kroll helped lead Roncalli to an IHSAA Class 4A state baseball championship in his second season leading the Rebels in 2016. (Victory Views Photo)

AARONKROLLTHESOUTHSIDERVOICE

After seven seasons as head coach at Ben Davis High School, Aaron Kroll was hired as head baseball coach at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis prior to the 2015 season. (The South Side Voice Photo)

 

Lafayette’s McNeil has Aviators in thick of pennant chase

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

With players coming and going and roles constantly changing during the 2017 summer collegiate wood bat baseball season, Brent McNeil has kept the Lafayette Aviators in the Prospect League playoff hunt.

McNeil, a 2007 Lafayette Jefferson High School graduate and the only head coach the Aviators have had in their two seasons of existence, took his squad into play July 29 and with eight regular-season contests remaining, West-leading Lafayette was 30-22 and two games ahead of Terre Haute.

The Prospect League, which debuted in 2009, includes two divisions in 2017 — Lafayette, Terre Haute, Danville (Ill.), Quincy (Ill.) and Springfield (Ill.) in the West with Butler (Pa.), Champion City (Springfield, Ohio), Chillicothe (Ohio), Kokomo (Ind.), West Virginia (Beckley, W.Va.) in the East.

The 60-game season, wood bats and strong competition gives players a taste for professional baseball. Some thrive and others see that the grind is too much for them.

Prospect League rules limit rosters to 28 (the current Aviators roster features players with hometowns in 13 states and Puerto Rico). Mostly because of injuries, there has been plenty of movement for the Aviators throughout the summer.

“You really have to watch out for warning signs of injuries, take care of them and make sure (pitchers) are not throwing too many pitches in one inning,” says McNeil, who played Eastern Illinois University and recently recently hired as the pitching coach at Quincy (Ill.) University after past two spring seasons on the coaching staff at the University of North Florida and director of baseball operations at Indiana State University prior to that.

There is no disabled list in the PL. Players are either on the roster or they are released. It’s up to the teams to find replacements.

“I can’t count how many times the roster has changed since I started putting it together in the fall,” says McNeil, who enlisted the help of second-year assistant Ryan Dineen in building the Aviators. “Having college contacts is huge. Some players have reached out, but I’ve mostly relied on his own contacts. There are coaches I’ve known over the years and trust.”

The old saying in baseball is you can never have too much pitching and that really rings true in summer collegiate baseball, where injuries and innings limits keep mound staffs continually morphing.

“(Working with) pitchers is tough,” says McNeil. “The top 1, 2 and 3 (starters on college teams) are either shut down for the summer or go to Cape Cod or the Northwoods (leagues). I believe we began the summer with about nine starters (and now have seven).

“We’re still trying to establish roles at this point in the season. At any moment, you could lose that guy. You have to find more guys and figure out where they fit in.”

Caleb Sleeman fit the bill July 23 when the Michigan State University right-hander threw the franchise’s first no-hitter in a 12-0 win against Kokomo.

With so many talented players and so much playing time, McNeil makes it a point to do something constructive with his bench players on a daily basis — maybe extra time in the batting cage.

College baseball players try to put on muscle in the weight room during the summer.

“It’s real hard when you’re playing six days a week,” says McNeil.

Loeb Stadium next to the Columbian Park Zoo is the Aviators’ home field. McNeil played his high school baseball there and was with the Lafayette Lightning in the Colt World Series after coming up through the Pony Baseball Leagues at Lafayette’s Armstrong Park. He was a Prospect League player for the former Slippery Rock (Pa.) franchise.

Dineen, who serves as hitting, infield and third base coach for Lafayette, played at Andrean High School for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Dave Pishkur then at Eastern Illinois University for Jim Schmitz. He played two seasons as an infielder in the Houston Astros system and has served on the coaching staff at McKendree University.

Parker Osborne replaced Dan Peterson as an Aviators assistant during the season.

Osborne, a former Southern Illinois University outfielder, has been an assistant at Western Illinois University.

Peterson pitched at Indiana State and went to Iowa to pursue a junior college coaching opportunity.

The Aviators are operated through MKE Sports & Entertainment, the same group that runs the rival Kokomo Jackrabbits.

LAFAYETTEAVIATORS

Gernon building successful baseball culture at Western Michigan

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Billy Gernon is reaping the rewards of his labor as a college baseball coach while also giving back to a game he embraced as boy.

Gernon saw his sixth Western Michigan University squad go 22-34 and win the school’s first-ever Mid-American Conference tournament championship in 2016 while the Broncos earned their first NCAA tournament berth since 1989.

“We’ve got a lot of exciting things going on,” says Gernon. “I’m trying to capture that momentum and bottle it.”

Left-handed pitcher Keegan Akin was chosen as WMU’s first MAC tournament MVP and was then selected by the Baltimore Orioles in the second round of the 2016 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, getting an invitation to big league spring training in 2017.

Akin was the Broncos’ highest draft pick since Harry Shaughnessy in 1970. Shortstop Connor Smith was named 2016 MAC Freshman of the Year.

As if to prove that old adage about the importance of pitching and defense, Western was among the nation’s leaders in fielding percentage at .978 — the all-time best mark at a school that started playing baseball in 1911.

“The strengths for me as a coach speaks to where I come from,” says Gernon. “Competition for big bats is heavy. Competition for defense is not as high.”

Gernon’s first season in Kalamazoo was 2011 after two at Michigan State University and nine as head coach at Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne.

Gernon grew up near the baseball fields near Mt. Tabor Road in New Albany, Ind.

“The game became surrogate father,” says Gernon. “The game’s been taking care of me for a long time.

“I came from a broken home at a very early age. I had an unexplainable love for the game. I was gifted at pitching. Being good at it probably made me like it more.”

Now 50, Gernon still fondly looks back to his 13-year-old summer at playing Babe Ruth League baseball in New Albany, Ind., for a trio of enthusiastic coaches — Louis Jensen Jr., Buzz Benson and John Shine.

“They were young guys and they were a lot of fun,” says Gernon. “I remember looking forward to going to practice.”

Jensen is now director of high school eduction for New Albany Floyd County Consolidated School Corp.

After graduating from New Albany High School in 1985, Gernon took his pitching talents to Indiana University Southeast in New Albany. He was the MVP for the IUS and that gave him a chance to play for IU Bloomington as a senior in 1990. Head coach Bob Morgan asked him to join the Hoosiers and he was excited about his opportunity.

Then tragedy struck.

“My brother died it the day I got there,” says Gernon. A car wreck took David Gernon’s life in 1989. “I was a very vulnerable person.”

Morgan’s passion pushed Gernon to succeed on the diamond.

“At Big Ten level, you need to win,” says Gernon. “You need to perform.”

With Morgan’s insistence on hard work, no excuses and accountability, Gernon flourished and became IU’s closer.

“He catapulted me to another level,” says Gernon.

Somewhere along the line, his focus went away from becoming a radio announcer and a chance to coach came along.

“I just decided to go for it,” says Gernon.

There were bumps along the way. At IPFW, Gernon took over a program that made a transition from NCAA Division II to NCAA Division I during his tenure. For seven of his nine seasons in Fort Wayne, the Mastodons were not in a conference and had just five in-state scholarships with no paid assistant coaches. The teams averaged 11 home games and 40 road games per season.

Yet, Gernon still scheduled the best competition he could find even if his record (157-275-3 in those nine campaigns) suffered for it.

“The biggest teacher for me, personally, has been failure,” says Gernon.

Time, maturity and sincerity plus having a son of his own (Jacob David is 16 and a sophomore at Portage Central High School) have also taught him to be a better coach.

“I always try to keep my brother’s spirit alive in me,” says Gernon. “It’s important to me that my players know I love them. I need to do a better job of not only making sure I was saying it, but doing it.”

His Broncos have responded to that passion.

“Players want to perform for me,” says Gernon, who is 136-193 at WMU. “When they don’t, they’re so bothered. They don’t need anything from me but to address the wound.

“Failure is an event, not a person. The game is riddled with failure and great players learn how to deal with it.”

More than ever, Gernon is concerned with building the culture.

“Cultures are more important than anything,” says Gernon. “Great cultures win over talent. It’s my job as a leader to have guys know what the culture is and become great messengers of the team’s philosophy and culture.”

Gernon expects players to spread the word in the locker room: This is how we do things and this is what’s expected.

“Great culture is why Western won the first MAC tournament in school history and went to the NCAA tournament,” says Gernon. “We have great leaders.”

And through it all, he’s giving back.

“I want to thank every player whoever sweated or sacrificed in a uniform in any place I was ever privileged to coach,” says Gernon. “The game’s been taking care of me for a long time. I’m trying to do everything I can to serve it in the form of gratitude. I talk to current players more about their legacy, how they want to be remembered and the mark they want to leave on other players.

“I want to thank every player whoever sweated or sacrificed in a uniform in any place I was ever privileged to coach.”

It’s just that important.

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Western Michigan University head baseball coach Billy Gernon played at New Albany High School, Indiana University Southeast and IU Bloomington and coached at Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne before heading north. (Western Michigan University Photo)