By STEVE KRAH
Indiana University Kokomo got off to a slow start in its first collegiate baseball season then came roaring down the stretch.
The NAIA-affiliated Cougars, led by head coach Matt Howard, lost the first four games of 2018 then went on to post a couple seven-game win streaks and finished 31-21-1 overall and 16-11 in the River States Conference. IUK lost to Midway in the RSC tournament semifinals.
“We have a good group of guys,” says Howard. “We had a pretty balanced team. Pitchers kept us in ball games early in the year. Our batters came around late.
“With the success we had last year and being able to add some guys, it should be a pretty exciting year for us (in 2019).”
IUK hit .303 as a team, stole 67 bases and outscored opponents 397-261.
“We shoot for 100 bags a year and we were well short of our goal,” says Howard, who saw junior center fielder Tavon Lindsay (20) and freshman left fielder Jared Heard (19) paced the Cougars in pilfered bases. “We like to play aggressive, fast-paced and put as much pressure on the defense as we possibly can.
“Speed doesn’t slump.”
Among regulars, Heard (New Castle) at .347, Lindsay (Port Lucie, Fla.) at .346, freshman second baseman Max McKee (Shenandoah) at .344 and junior designated hitter Dalton Clarke (Newmarket, Ont.) at .320 were batting leaders.
Heard collected 58 hits and drove in 40 runs. Lindsay wound up with 66 hits and 39 RBI. Clarke popped seven home runs and knocked in 52 runs.
Bolstering the pitching staff was junior right-hander Renton Poole (Bloomington South) and freshman left-handers Owen Callaghan (Hamilton Southeastern) and Noah Richardson (Lafayette Central Catholic).
Poole made 14 appearances (12 starts) and was 7-2 with a 2.28 earned run average and 98 strikeouts in 79 innings.
In 14 appearances (13 starts), Callaghan was 7-5 with 2.92 ERA and 66 strikeouts in 71 innings.
Richardson took the mound 16 times (11 as a starter) and was 5-4 with a 2.87 ERA and 44 strikeouts in 62 2/3 innings.
Howard wants to have 40 players by the fall and is now on the recruiting trail.
“This is the time where we shore up our roster,” says Howard. “We identify the talent, find the Class of 2019 graduates and try to get them on campus in the summer or later fall so you can get some early commitments.
Howard is “looking for players that make us better and fit our culture.”
And just what does that mean?
“Our culture is one of hard work and dedication to the sport,” says Howard. “We push our guys very hard.
“When our guys go on the field, they expect and deserve to win because they’ve worked harder than the guys on the other side.”
To hone their skills and competitive edge even sharper, several IUK players have been placed in competitive summer collegiate baseball leagues.
Howard is a graduate of Slippery Rock University and managed the Kokomo Jackrabbits of the summer collegiate Prospect League prior to helping to build the IUK program from scratch.
Indiana University Kokomo plays its home games on the turf at Kokomo Municipal Stadium — the same facility used by the Jackrabbits and Kokomo High School.
Matt Howard led Indiana University Kokomo to 31 victories in their first season of college baseball in 2018. (IU Kokomo Photo)