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Eye disease can’t stop Plymouth, Murray State grad Elliott

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Brandon Elliott may not view the world the way he once did.

But the former standout ballplayer is not letting a rare eye disease keep him from living life to its fullest.

A three-sport athlete in the Plymouth (Ind.) High School Class of 2009 (he captained the football and baseball teams as a senior and also played basketball) who went on to play NCAA Division I baseball at Murray (Ky.) State University.

Brandon, the son of Todd Elliott and Julie and Dave Shook, was born in Munster, Ind., and played youth baseball in nearby Schererville before moving to Plymouth in 2003. His brother is Tyler Shook. His sisters are Shannon Elliott, Andria Shook and Allie Shook.

He was a college graduate and working at his dream job when Brandon began to notice something wasn’t right with the vision in his left eye.

Trying to get some answers, he went to optometrists and opthomalogists in Kentucky.

It was the opinion of Dr. Landen Meeks in Paducah that Brandon likely had Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy (LHON) — a sudden, painless loss of central vision. The condition typically starts in one eye and progresses to the other eye within eight months.

Meeks had never diagnosed LHON before. Brandon underwent a spinal tap done to rule out other things.

“He was a straight shooter and Brandon liked that,” says Julie Shook. “He told him there is no cure (for LHON).”

Meanwhile, central vision in the right eye was also going cloudy. Though blurry, Brandon could see shadows and movement in his peripheral vision. He described looking straight ahead like looking into the hole of a donut.

Julie Shook found Dr. Sophia Chung, a neuro-opthalmologist with SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital, and took her son to St. Louis. Only genetic blood tests would determine the cause of Brandon’s vision loss so he went through eight hours of testing.

Several weeks went by. On May 10, 2016, the call came. A 25-year-old Brandon Elliott was diagnosed with LHON.

The condition is an inherited form of vision loss. This inheritance applies to genes contained in mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondria produce most of the energy that cells need to function and these inherited mutations disrupt the mitochondria and cause cells in the retina to stop working or die.

LHON is a maternal hereditary disease, which means it is passed from the mother. Shannon Elliott was tested and she is a carrier. It is more prominent coming out in males in their mid- to late-20’s. It is not as common to come out in females.

“It is rare,” says Julie Shook. “Everyday they’re learning more. It’s hard as a mother when you find out something they have is something you gave them. But I had no idea.”

After learning of his condition, Brandon let it be known that his life was in Murray, Ky., and he had no intention of returning to Plymouth.

“That was hard,” says Julie Shook, who is dean’s administrative assistant at the University of Notre Dame Law School. “I also know you need to let people make their own decisions on their own time.

“I needed to be strong for him and listen to what he wanted.”

After the tests in St. Louis, the ride back to Kentucky was quiet at first. Then Brandon asked his mother a question.

“He said , ‘How do you go from seeing a 90 mph fastball to not being able to see it?,’” says Julie Shook. “‘It is what it is. God gave it to me for a reason. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I’m strong and maybe I can help someone somehow.

“‘I just have to go on with life. This is what I’ve been given. I have to go on and enjoy life.’”

That life includes marriage and children, a fulfilling occupation and plenty of support from family and friends.

About six months after graduating with a business administration degree from Murray State in 2013, Elliott went to work for Sportable Scoreboards in Murray.

The family-owned company started in 1986 by Mike Cowen serves clients all over the place and has one of their boards at Johnny Reagan Field — home of Murray State baseball and the place where Elliott earned Freshman All-America honors in 2010 and finished his four-year career with a .323 average, six home runs, 35 doubles, 85 runs batted in and 135 runs scored in 180 games (171 as a starter).

Brandon was employed in the customer service department and one day a new employee came along — digital designer Meagan Cowen. He soon learned that she was Mike and Joyce Cowen’s granddaughter.

While Brandon and Meagan knew each other before the diagnosis, they began dating after it. They did not tell their grandparents until they had become serious. The young couple was married April 14, 2018 in Paris, Tenn.

“It was an emotional day,” says Julie Shook. “He told me in the morning of that day, ‘Mom, you don’t need to worry about me anymore. This is the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.’

“What a statement for a 27-year-old to make who lost their vision at 25.”

When she walked down the aisle to become Meagan Elliott, Brandon took out a pair of binoculars to see her when she first appeared.

“That brought everybody to tears,” says Brandon Eggenschwiler, whose Murray State career parallels Elliott’s. “It’s truly amazing. He hasn’t missed a step in his daily life. He still goes on golf outings.

“He’s been a real champ about this whole situation.”

Shannon Elliott expresses her gratitude for Meagan coming into her brother’s life.

“Brandon thought he would never get another girlfriend again,” says Shannon, a 2011 Plymouth High School graduate who played tennis at Saint Mary’s College, graduating in 2015, and earned a mortuary science degree from Vincennes University in 2017. “Mom and I prayed he’d find someone who would accept him for who he is.

“It’s a touching thing.”

While the 25-year-old works for a funeral home in Austin, Texas, sister and brother remain very close.

“He’s my best friend,” says Shannon of Brandon. “I talk to him and his family in Kentucky probably three times a week.

“Meagan been there for him. It’s been unbelievable. I can’t imagine being in her shoes. She has to drive everywhere. I couldn’t be more thankful for what she does for him.”

Brandon and Meagan expect to welcome a baby girl on Thanksgiving Day.

Shannon has been raising money and awareness of her brother and LHON through a website — howhesees.org. She sells bracelets with the inscription “VI510N” — which tells the date his brother was diagnosed.

Brandon and Meagan wrote their own wedding vows. Brandon also wrote vows to Meagan’s young son, Bentley (who would turned 5 in September).

The wedding party was quite large and included Tyler Shook, Brandon Eggenschwiler, Ty Stetson and Reed Thompson.

Three of them had been the top three batters in the Murray State Racers’ lineup at the end of 2013 — left fielder Stetson (Carmel, Ind.) leading off, followed by third baseman Elliott and designated hitter Eggenschwiler (Lexington, Ky). First baseman Michael Kozolowski (Crown Point, (Ind.) was the clean-up hitter. Those four were also roommates in 2012-13.

“Brandon has so many wonderful friends,” says Shook. “That’s just a tribute to Brandon. He’s just such a sweet kid. He has a big heart. People are just drawn to him.

“He’s an inspiration.”

Tyler Shook, a 2010 Plymouth graduate, played baseball and football with stepbrother Brandon in high school and was also an American Legion teammate.

“He was one of the best athletes I’ve ever played with or against,” says Tyler. “He was just good at everything and a quick learner.”

There was competition for competitive bragging rights around the Shook/Elliott household. But never any animosity.

“We all got along really well,” says Tyler. “we still do. Brandon was pretty humble for the skill he had. He wasn’t going out and telling everybody about it. It was always about the team.”

One the football field, defensive end/linebacker Brandon and safety Tyler were called the “Bash Brothers” for their ability to hit on defense even though they wore casts on their hands much of the 2008 season as the John Barron-coached Rockies went 10-1.

“My dad (Dave) raised us with the mindset of ‘tough it out,’” says Tyler. “For lack of better words, ‘If your legs aren’t broken you walk yourself off the field, play through it for the team’ kind of mindset.

“(Brandon) had the grit and was not afraid to stick his nose in there. They called him ’Squirrel’  because he was one of the smallest guys on the field — maybe 5-10, 170. He was not a big guy, but definitely played like one.

“He’s always been incredibly competitive whether it be team sports, golf, video games, you name it. He just has the biggest and strongest heart and drive of anyone I know. I think that mentality is what has helped him through the ups and down of the last few years.”

Thompson, an outfielder from Cheyenne, Wyoming, did not play with Brandon. But he lived near him and was around when his vision began to change and has witnessed how he has adjusted since the LHON diagnosis.

“He can still move around just fine,” says Thompson. “He just has a hard time seeing fine details. His work has been awesome for him. They’ve gotten him a 40-inch flat screen as computer monitor.

“He loves that job. That’s why he stayed in Murray.”

Tony Plothow was both head baseball coach at Plymouth High School and manager for Plymouth American Legion Post 27 when Brandon was a player. Plothow also coached Brandon in basketball at PHS.

Brandon played for Post 27 each summer after his four years of high school and first year of college.

“(Brandon) started for us as a freshman,” says Plothow. “He came in with a lot of confidence and he fit in pretty well. He became a mentor to younger kids.

“He was one of those kids you didn’t have to motive. As he got older, he was a great leader in the locker room.”

Brandon hit .438 with three homers, 22 RBIs and 42 runs scored as a Plymouth senior  and was named MVP of the 2009 Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association North/South All-Star Series. In Legion ball, he shined against tough competition and got the the attention of Murray State, where he played for head coach Rob McDonald.

Mike Hite was an assistant coach for PHS and Post 27 when Brandon was a player.

“As an athlete, he was a competitor,” says Hite of Brandon. “He was a winner. He was a perfectionist. He always wanted to be the one that came through in the clutch. That was pretty special.”

As Plymouth parks superintendent, Hite employed Brandon for several summers. Allie Shook, Brandon’s stepsister, works for Hite now.

“(Brandon) wanted to excel in whatever he was doing — cutting grass, pulling weeds or going deep in the hole to turn a double play (at shortstop).

“He’s used to succeeding in everything he does and he still is.”

Former Plymouth head basketball coach John Scott recalls Brandon’s contributions in 2007-08, a season that saw the Pilgrims go 22-4 and make it to the Class 3A Warsaw Semistate.

“Brandon was so very athletic,” says Scott. “He was a very streaky shooter. We played NorthWood just before Christmas. He hit some huge 3-pointers for us that night on the road. He, along with a great game from Nick Neidlinger, got us off to a good start in the (Northern Lakes Conference).”

Scott is also assistant athletic director and longtime public address announcer for Pilgrims/Rockies sports.

Evan Jurjevic got to know Brandon as a fellow middle infielder for Plymouth Post 27. Shortstop Elliott was the lone Plymouth High product surrounded by three LaPorte Slicers — second baseman Jurjevic, first baseman Shawn Rogers and third baseman Jake McMahan.

“(Brandon) was an incredible baseball player,” says Jurjevic. “He was extremely hard-working and talented. He played with a lot of energy and heart.

“He was an overall great guy, a good team player. He was always pushing others to get better.”

Jurjevic, a part-time strength coordinator and instructor for the Indiana Chargers travel organization who is pursuing a physical therapy doctorate at Trine University-Fort Wayne, sees his old friend meeting his condition head-on.

“Baseball is easy compared to something like this,” says Jurjevic. “It’s puts things into perspective.

“It’s definitely a challenge and an obstacle he had to overcome.”

While he must sit very close to view television and uses a large monitor at work, Brandon tries to lead as normal a life as possible. He bowls, plays golf and has fun in the backyard with Bentley.

“He doesn’t want people to know,” says Julie. “He was very hesitant about seeing someone about visual needs.”

Dave Shook spent a week with his stepson and they met with Kentucky Visual Aid. Brandon told them he could not take the aids because they were too expensive.

Then he was asked: “Do you pay taxes?”

His answer: “Yes.”

The reply: “You’ve paid for it.”

For more information on Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy, visit lhonsociety.org.

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Brandon Elliott, a Plymouth (Ind.) High School graduate, hits the baseball for Murray (Ky.) State University, where he graduated in 2013 after four seasons. (Murray State University Photo)

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Brandon Elliott finished his four-year baseball career at Murray (Ky.) State University with a .323 average, six home runs, 35 doubles, 85 runs batted in and 135 runs scored in 180 games (171 as a starter). He earned Freshman All-America honors in 2010. (Murray State University Photo)

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Brandon Elliott, a 2009 Plymouth (Ind.) High School graduate, is on the school’s athletic Wall of Fame for being named MVP of the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association North/South All-Star Series. He also excelled at football and basketball at Plymouth.

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Meagan and Brandon Elliott on their wedding day — April 14, 2018.

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Brandon, Meagan and Shannon Elliott share a moment during Brandon and Meagan’s wedding on April 14, 2018.

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Brandon Elliott, who was diagnosed in 2016 with Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy (LHON) — a sudden, painless loss of central vision — uses binoculars to see his bride, Meagan, during their wedding April 14, 2018. The couple met at Sportable Scoreboards in Murray, Ky. Her grandfather, Mike Cowen, founded the company.

 

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With emphasis on fundamentals, Gratz has Columbus East Olympians in the regional

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Placing a premium on fundamentals, Columbus East finds itself playing in an IHSAA baseball regional in 2018.

Under the direction of seventh-year head coach Jon Gratz, the Olympians beat Columbus North 7-6 Monday, May 28 to win the Class 4A Shelbyville Sectional and are headed to the Evansville Reitz Regional at Bosse Field on Saturday, June 2.

Columbus East (20-7) plays Castle at 10 a.m. CST, followed by Franklin Central vs. Jeffersonville. The regional final is scheduled for 6 p.m. CST.

Gratz, who was a junior varsity and freshman coach for the Olympians for five years before taking over the program, is a 2001 Manchester High School graduate.

At Manchester, he gained an affinity for “playing the game the right way” from Squires head coach Jack Rupley.

“He believed in playing hard and taking care of the little things,” says Gratz. “We’ve had great pitching all year long and very good defense. We’re not necessarily the fastest team, but we run the bases well.

“We had a dry spell early in the season, but we’re starting to hit the ball really well.”

Gratz, who teaches math at Columbus East, played his college baseball at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind.

The Olympians’ top pitchers are junior left-hander Julian Greenwell, sophomore right-hander Cole Gilley, and senior right-handers Alec Burnett and Drew Hasson. When not pitching, Greenwell plays in right field, Gilley at third base, Burnett in left field and Hasson at first base.

The leading hitters are sophomore catcher Dalton Back, Gilley, Greenwell, Hasson and junior shortstop/lead-off man Jonah Wichman.

Greenwell and Gilley have committed to Indiana University, Hasson to Northern Illinois University and Wichman to Murray State University.

The Class of 2017 sent Jon Crawford to the University of Indianapolis, Jonathan Foster to Taylor University and Luke Hostetler to Jackson College in Jackson County, Mich.

Gratz, who teaches math at Columbus East, is assisted by John Major, Andrew Golinvaux (pitching coach), Jerry Schoen and Chris Fox at the varsity level with Levi Pollert and Nathen Swafford guiding the junior varsity.

Columbus East won its 18th all-time sectional this spring and first since 1999.

“We don’t really talk about that here,” says Gratz. “We’re concerned with this team, this year.”

For the record the other sectional titles came in 1973, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1996 and 1997.

The Olympians will have a chance at the program’s 10th regional title Saturday, having won at that stage in 1978, 1979, 1982, 1983, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989 and 1993 with semistate crowns earned in 1979, 1987 and 1989.

Columbus East has also won three semistates and appeared in the State Finals, bowing in the semifinals all three times (1979, 1987 and 1989).

The Olympians belong to the Hoosier Hills Conference. They finished as runner-up in 2018 to Jeffersonville. Other HHC members are Bedford North Lawrence, Floyd Central, Jennings County, Madison Consolidated, New Albany and Seymour.

Columbus East plays its games on-campus. Gratz says he is hopeful that the facility will get a new scoreboard this summer.

Jon and Kathleen Gratz have two children — daughter Morgan (5) and son Michael (2).

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Columbus East High School head baseball coach Jon Gratz celebrates a 2018 sectional title with his family. Above is the seventh-year Olympians leader with daughter Morgan and son Michael. Below, Jon and wife Kathleen and kids mug with the trophy.

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Giesler going deep a lot in last season for Indiana State Sycamores

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Indiana State University swept its weekend baseball series at Valparaiso University and now heads to Dallas for the Missouri Valley Conference tournament.

The Sycamores (29-22) go to “Big D” to play Southern Illinois University on Wednesday, May 23 with their own “Big D.”

Dane Giesler, a 6-foot-2, 230-pound redshirt senior first baseman, who smacked home runs in the first and third games against Valpo to raise his season total to 14 and his ISU career roundtripper mark to 32 and moving him into a tie for fourth place all-time Sycamores history with Tyler Thompson.

“I’ve been working with (head) coach (Mitch) Hannahs and my other coaches, trying to pay attention to the fine details and implement them into the game,” says Giesler, a left-handed swinger who takes a .298 average with one triple, seven doubles, 43 runs batted in with a .584 slugging percentage and .427 on-base percentage into the Valley tournament. “For the past couple of years, I’ve been getting pitched a lot tougher. I had to make some adjustments, figuring out pitches and what pitches I’m going to get thrown to me in different counts.”

With 31 homers the past two years, does the 2012 Jasper High School graduate consider himself a power hitter?

“I guess so,” says Giesler. “I’ve been around the game my whole life and being a big kid kind of helps.”

Hannah’s has watched Giesler improve at recognizing pitches and hitting them hard.

“He’s gotten better at handling all pitches and in all zones,” says Hannahs. “That’s where you’ve seen the jump in his power numbers.”

Giesler (proounced GEESE-ler), who played summer collegiate baseball for the Acadiana Cane Cutters (Louisiana) in 2016 and Terre Haute Rex in 2017, has been productive at the plate for years.

Playing for an Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association  Hall of Famer in head coach Terry Gobert, Gielser helped Jasper to a IHSAA Class 3A state runner-up finish as a sophomore in 2010.

He represented the Wildcats in the IHSBCA North/South All-Star Series as a senior in 2012, the same year he was an IHSBCA honorable mention all-state selection and also counts the Indiana Prospects travel ball organization among his baseball stops.

Before landing in Terre Haute, Giesler spent the 2014 season at Wabash Valley College in Mt. Carmel, Ill., where he hit .365 with six homers, 13 doubles, 53 RBI and 49 runs scored while also earning Academic All-American honors for the Rob Fournier-coached Warriors.

So Giesler, 25, has understood what it means to play at a high level for a long time.

“That was bred into him before he ever left Jasper or ever left Wabash Valley,” says Hannahs. “We got the benefit of a guy who was mature when he came into our program.”

Hannahs says playing for Gobert helps players make the transition to college baseball.

“Terry’s guys learn very quickly to make a commitment and they compete,” says Hannahs. “It’s not a springtime deal down there in Jasper. It’s a year-round commitment. That’s important for guys going to college. We’re not going to jump out in February and play a few games. It’s a year-round commitment.

“The guys who have already had that in the high school setting are ahead of those who have not.”

What did Giesler gain at Jasper?

“Just the high expectations you have to play with there,” says Giesler. “Every team’s coming to beat you. It’s a well-known team throughout Indiana. Everybody knows who you are. You ain’t going to get a bad game from any team.

“You have to come ready to play everyday.”

Dane, the son of Jeff and Angie Giesler, has had family members who know the college baseball experience.

Older cousin Neil Giesler, who collected 138 hits for Jasper and played at the University South Carolina.

“I looked up to my cousin Neil quite a bit, watching him grow up,” says Dane Giesler of the Greater Evansville Baseball Hall of Famer.

Neil’s father, Stan, played at Murray State University and mother Nancy, attended Indiana State.

Younger cousin Mark Giesler took to the diamond at the University of Dayton.

Fournier’s Wabash Valley clubs competed against those led by Hannahs when the current ISU head coach was in charge of the Lincoln Trail College Statesmen.

“He does a very good job with his club year in and year out,” says Hannahs of Fournier, who picked up his 900th career coaching win this spring.

“Rob taught me how to compete,” says Giesler of Fournier. “You go out and play because you love the game (in junior college baseball).

“There’s nothing pretty about it.”

Giesler, who graduated with a degree in business administration, has thoroughly enjoyed being a teammate at ISU.

“It’s the team camaraderie and getting to know new guys every year and they become best friends during the season,” says Giesler.

Giseler and his buddies are the No. 4 seed in the MVC tournament. Southern Illinois is No. 5. The event at Dallas Baptist University’s Horner Ballpark has two, four-team brackets in a double-elimination format. The winners of the two brackets will play in the championship game Saturday, May 26. The tournament will receive an NCAA Division I tournament bid.

And what about Giesler’s baseball career after college?

“If a (professional) team will give me a shot, I’d love to play,” says Giesler.

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Indiana State University’s Dane Giesler swings the bat against Purdue University in 2018. (Indiana State Athletic Communications Photo)

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Indiana State University’s Dane Giesler runs the bases against Missouri State University in 2018. (Indiana State Athletic Communications Photo)

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Indiana State University’s Dane Giesler addresses the pitcher against Western Illinois University in 2018. (Indiana State Athletic Communications Photo)