Tag Archives: North Dakota

Bickel making memories in first season at Purdue Fort Wayne

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

Jarrett Bickel had a decision to make after playing junior college baseball for two seasons.
The infielder from South Bend, Ind., with two years of eligibility remaining could take another year at the JUCO level allowed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Head coach Kyle Forbes invited him to stay at Palm Beach State College.
“I was ready to move on to a four-year school and play at the (NCAA) Division I level,” says Bickel, who chose Purdue Fort Wayne over East Tennessee State, New Orleans, Alcorn State and Savannah State.
Why the PFW Mastodons?
“I was sold on Coach (Doug) Schreiber and his history at Purdue University,” says Bickel. “I knew he was coming here to turn the program around.
“He’s awesome. His knowledge for the game is through the roof.”
Bickel appreciates Schreiber not only for what he can do for him on the diamond, but away from it.
“He shows you how to carry yourself off the field and be a man,” says Bickel, 22.
As a player, Bickel has gone from third base to shortstop and settling in as Purdue Fort Wayne’s starting shortstop and lead-off hitter.
His double play partner is redshirt sophomore second baseman Brian Erbe.
“He has a confidence and swagger he brings everyday,” says Bickel of Erbe. “We kind of feed off that energy.”
Going into an April 27 non-conference game at Michigan State, righty swinger Bickel was hitting .259 (38-of-147) with five home runs, 12 doubles, 19 runs batted in, 18 runs scored and a .306 on-base percentage. He collected a season-best four hits April 3 against Wright State and drove in a season-high three runs April 16 at Northern Kentucky.
Bickel even pitched 2/3 of an inning Feb. 27 at Cal Baptist.
Though he was not in the middle of either, two memorable moments for Bickel came with walk-off wins March 20 against Youngstown State and April 22 vs. Northern Kentucky.
Away from the field, Bickel likes to hang out with teammates. He also likes to play golf and go fishing.
“I’m an outdoorsy person,” says Bickel. “I don’t like to be inside that much. I love to fish.”
A St. Joseph River dam near campus gives him a chance to pull in catfish and bass. In the warm climes of Florida, he liked going on the ocean and catching snook.
Bickel grew up a few minutes from Notre Dame and Bickel got to play against the Irish April 20, going 1-for-4 with an RBI.
“I’ve always been a Notre Dame fan since I was little,” says Bickel. “Going back there and playing them was pretty special.”
ND is No. 3 behind Tennessee and Dallas Bapist in the D1Baseball.com RPI.
Bickel assessed the Link Jarrett-coached Irish.
“They’re very well put-together and do all the little things,” says Bickel. “They’re well-coached. They are good at situational hitting and have very good (pitching) arms.”
Currently fifth in the Horizon League, the Mastodons are looking to finish in the top six to earn a berth in the conference tournament May 25-28 with games hosted by the top seed. The last HL series wraps May 14. The regular season is to end May 21.
Enrolled at Purdue Fort Wayne as a General Studies major, he has been taking mostly Business classes.
Bickel plans to spent the summer with the Prospect League’s Lafayette (Ind.) Aviators. Mastodons pitching coach and recruiting coordinator Brent McNeil managed that team a few years ago. Chris Willsey, Bickel’s head coach two years ago in the College Summer League at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind., is slated to guide the Aviators in 2022.
A 2018 graduate of Marian High School in Mishwawaka, Ind., Bickel played for Joe Turnock. The Knights won an IHSAA Class 3A Jimtown Sectional title in 2016.
In 2019, Bickel played 41 games for Miami Dade College. He did not play in the spring of 2020 — the COVID-19 season.
That summer, Bickel was with the Indiana Collegiate Summer Baseball League’s Mishawaka Brewers as well as the CSL’s Snakes and Northwoods League’s Bismarck (N.D.) Bull Moose, hitting .271 with a .403 OBP in 16 games. He played for the Bismarck Larks in 2021 with a OBP of .321 over 112 at-bats.
Jarrett is the middle son of Joe and Megan Bickel. Tyler Bickel (24) is working toward becoming a fireman. Xavier Bickel (18) is a Marian senior. Cousin Trey Bickel is head baseball coach at Marian University’s Ancilla College — a junior college in Donaldson, Ind.

Jarrett Bickel (Purdue Fort Wayne Photo)
Jarrett Bickel (Purdue Fort Wayne Photo)
Jarrett Bickel (Purdue Fort Wayne Photo)

Shelbyville alum Lux producing for Duke Blue Devils

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

Damon Lux has made his way to everyday player in his senior season at Duke University in Durham, N.C.
A 2018 graduate of Shelbyville (Ind.) High School, Lux has been starting for the Blue Devils baseball team in center field and batting anywhere from No. 4 to No. 6 in the batting order through the first eight games of the 2022 season.
Heading into a March 4-6 home series against Bucknell, Lux has driven in seven runs in 30 at-bats with five coming in a Feb. 19 game against Virginia Military Institute (the righty swinger went 2-of-3 with three-run home run).
“I like that I get a lot of chances to score some guys,” says Lux of hitting in the middle of the order for the Atlantic Coast Conference squad. “I consider myself to be an RBI hitter.”
Lux, a 6-foot-1, 200-pounder, finds himself really bearing down in those situations.
“It’s made me focus to be a much tougher out and putting the ball in play whenever there’s guys in scoring position,” says Lux. “It’s having great plate discipline, not swinging on pitches out of the zone and fouling off pitches.
“I still have a lot of work to do.”
Coming into this season, Lux had played in 42 games with his lone start coming as a designated hitter in a 2021 game against Liberty.
Lux was a center fielder for much of his time in high school and travel ball. He prefers the middle of the outfield to the corners.
“I like playing center,” says Lux. “I have a lot of room to roam and move. It makes it easier to get good reads on balls. (In in left field or right field) you have to worry about the wall.
“Some of the farthest throws on the baseball field (come from center field). I’d like to think I have a pretty solid arm.”
Lux has spent his whole Duke career with head coach Chris Pollard, associate head coach Josh Jordan and assistant/hitting coach Jason Stein.
“I really enjoy playing for Coach Pollard,” says Lux. “We’ve developed a really good relationship the last four years. We can trust each other. We can lay it out on the table. We can talk about anything.
“Coach Jordan and I have built a relationship over the last four years as well. He was tough starting out. When I was a freshman, he picked on me and gave me some tougher skin.
“I like how Coach Stein is kind of a players’ coach. He lets players have the freedom to personalize their swings and approach at the plate. He doesn’t micro-manage.”
Lux spent the past three summer in collegiate wood bat leagues. He was with the Kalamazoo (Mich.) Growlers of the Northwoods League in 2021, the Local Legends of the College Summer League at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind., in 2020 and the Bismarck (N.D.) Larks of the Northwoods League in 2019.
Duke has been feeding players to the Growlers, including Lux’s roommate Jake Topolski.
“I enjoyed (Kalamazoo) Coach (Cody) Piechocki,” says Lux. “He knows a lot about the game.”
Lux is a Sociology major who is also working toward a certificate in Markets and Management Studies and is due to graduate from Duke in May.
“What I enjoy most about Sociology is the broadness of topics we discuss in class — from from how we interact in society to the medical field to anything in-between,” says Lux. “It’s to be determined if I will go for a fifth year. I would definitely love the opportunity (to play pro ball).”
Unless that chance comes this summer, Lux expects to pursue an internship while preparing for “the real world.”
Lux came into the world in Indianapolis and grew up in Shelbyville with a brief move to Illinois and back. He played in the Shelby County Babe Ruth League then travel ball with the Indiana Bandits, Indiana Travelers and then the Indiana Bulls from 14U to 17U. His 17U head coach was Sean Laird.
“He was extremely energetic and passionate about the game,” says Lux of Laird.
Lux was a four-year varsity player at Shelbyville High. Scott Hughes led the Golden Bears his first three years and Royce Carlton was head coach his senior year.
Hughes was Lux’s Biology teacher in eighth grade.
“He’s an overall great guy and easy person to talk to,” says Lux of Hughes. “He’s a mentor who helped me with anything I needed.
“Coach Carlton was very passionate about the team and winning, which I admired. I loved his energy.”
On the football field — in a program led by Patrick Parks — Lux was a wide receiver for three seasons then a running back as a senior. Combined receiving and rushing, he had more than 4,000 yards 2014 to 2017.
“(Parks) was very knowledgeable about the game of football and how to make guys stronger and better athletes,” says Lux. “He was a game. He knew what he was doing.
“He helped me hit the ground running when I got into high school and started playing football. I’ll be grateful for that the rest of my life.”
Lux played basketball as a freshman and sophomore then decided to focus more time on developing in baseball.
Damon (22) is the middle child of Jared and Leigh Lux between sisters Anastasia (24) and Alex (19).

Damon Lux homers for Kalamazoo (Mich.) Growlers.
Damon Lux (Duke University Photo)
Damon Lux (Duke University Photo)
Damon Lux (Duke University Photo)
Damon Lux (Duke University Photo)
Damon Lux (Duke University Photo)
Damon Lux (Duke University Photo)
Damon Lux (Duke University Photo)

Keeran to manage Lafayette Aviators at new Loeb Stadium in ’21

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Corn is not involved. But there’s a kind of a reverse “Field of Dreams” thing going on in Lafayette, Ind.

“If You Build It, He Will Come” — in this case — refers to Michael Keeran.

A new Loeb Stadium is being built for the Lafayette Aviators baseball team. After discussions with owner Bill Davidson, Iowa native Keeran has been named as field manager for 2021.

Keeran, a 2012 graduate of Clear Lake (Iowa) High School and the holder of two degrees from Waldorf University in Forest City, Iowa (a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education and Masters in Organizational Leadership with a Sport Management emphasis), welcomes the chance to bring his wife closer to family while also moving up in the baseball world.

“My wife is from Centralia, Ill.,” says Keeran. “I’ve coached near by hometown the past couple summers. (With the Aviators,) I get to coach in a very good league and I get two birds with one stone.”

Michael and Kaitlin Keeran are expecting their first child in December. Centralia is 220 miles from Lafayette and Kaitlin will be able to spend time there and also visit her husband.

“I always wanted to go to a bigger league. It’ll be a brand new stadium and a very good franchise. I thought it would be a good fit.”

The Prospect League is a 14-team college wooden bat summer circuit with teams in Indiana (Lafayette Aviators and Terre Haute Rex), Illinois (Alton River Dragons, Danville Dans, DuPage Pistol Shrimp, Normal CornBelters, Quincy Gems and Springfield Sliders), Ohio (Champion City Kings and Chillicothe Paints), Missouri (Cape Catfish and O’Fallon Hoots), Pennsylvania (Johnstown Mill Rats) and West Virginia (West Virginia Miners).

While 2021 Aviators assistant coaches have been consulted, the official word of their hiring is yet to come.

Keeran managed Pioneer Collegiate Baseball League champions in 2018 and 2019 — the Albert Lea (Minn.) Lakers followed by the Bancroft (Iowa) Bandits.

After one season as an assistant at Valley City (N.D.) State University (NAIA), Keeran became head coach at Bismarck (N.D.) State College (National Junior College Athletic Association Division II) for the 2020 season. The Mystics had played two games and were in Arizona to play 10 or 11 more when the COVID-19 pandemic caused the season to be halted.

“We were on a bus for 60 or 70 hours,” says Keeran. “It was awful.

“It’s tough to tell a bunch of young men that their season is over and it has nothing to do with wins or losses.”

While they could have taken an extra year of eligibility because of COVID-19, Keeran encouraged his second-year players from 2020 to take their associate degrees and go to a four-year school.

“It’s not ethically right to hold on to those sophomores,” says Keeran. “I didn’t see the point. You’ve got your degree, now move on.

“We have a very new group (in 2020-21) and we’re very talented.”

With players taking a hybrid class schedule (some in-person and some online), Bismarck State played  few games this fall against four-year schools.

“We treated it like a test for what it’s going to be like in the spring with temperature checks and protocols,” says Keeran.

As a outfielder and pitcher, Keeran played four seasons at Waldorf while also beginning his coaching career. 

Since high school baseball in Iowa is a summer sport, Keeran was able to play college ball and be on the Clear Lake coaching staff for four seasons (2013-16) and helped the Lions win three state titles (2013 in 3A, 2015 in 2A and 2016 in 2A).

“It was pretty cool to be coach at a young age and be mentored,” says Keeran. “Baseball should be played in the summer when it’s warm. That’s why I like coaching in the summer.

“It feels so authentic.”

Keeran says a typical high school gameday would involve batting practice and field preparation around 1 p.m. and the players would come back for a 5:30 p.m. junior varsity game, followed by the varsity.

“It gives kids a chance to work morning jobs in the summer and they don’t have to worry about the stress of class,” says Keeran. “It gives athletes a chance to do other sports. One of my best friends was a four-sport athlete (football in the fall, basketball in the winter, track in the spring and baseball in the summer).”

While the pandemic wiped out high school baseball last spring in Indiana, there was season in Iowa. Four 2020 state champions were crowned Aug. 1 in Des Moines. 

In 2021, the Iowa High School Athletic Association has set the first practice date for May 3 with first of 40 allowed contest dates May 24 and state tournament concluding July 31. Showcase leagues ran by Prep Baseball Report and Perfect Game are typically conducted in the spring.

The 2020 baseball season was the first for head coach Michael Keeran at Bismarck (N.D.) State College, a National Junior College Athletic Association Division II school. In the summer of 2021, he is to manage the Lafayette (Ind.) Aviators. (Bismarck State College Photo)
Michael Keeran, a graduate of Clear Lake High School and Waldorf University in Iowa and the head coach at Bismarck State College in North Dakota, has been named field manager for the Lafayette (Ind.) Aviators of the summer collegiate wood bat Prospect League in 2021. (Lafayette Aviators Photo)

Bickel’s baseball track takes him to Bismarck Bull Moose

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Jarrett Bickel just arrived with his third baseball team of summer 2020.

After splitting time with the Indiana Collegiate Summer Baseball League’s Mishawaka (Ind.) Brewers and the College Summer League at Grand Park’s Snakes, the middle infielder is with the Northwoods League’s Bismarck (N.D.) Bull Moose.

The Shawn Harper-managed Brewers lost this week to the Jackers in the tournament finals and the Grand Park league wrapped last week. Snakes manager Jake Martin and the rest of the team witnessed a home run by righty-swinging Bickel that TrackMan measured at 436 feet with a 103 mph exit velocity.

“I feel like I can do everything well on the baseball field,” says Bickel, a 2018 graduate of Marian High School in Mishawaka, Ind., and a member of the Palm Beach (Fla.) State College squad. “I hit for power. I have speed. I am smooth in the field with a strong arm.”

“It all comes back to my work ethic and how hard I train.”

Bickel, who is primarily a shortstop but can play second base or third base, got to North Dakota’s capital city after a 14-hour drive from South Bend. He reached out to Bull Moose manager Mitchell Gallagher, sent video and stayed in-touch with the Xavier University assistant.

“He brought me aboard when they had a need for an infielder,” says Bickel, who joins a team that is 6-26 playing in the COVID-19-induced pod system. The North Dakota Region consists of three teams all playing at Bismarck’s Dakota Community Bank & Trust Field — the Bull Moose, Larks and Mandan Flickertails. Players are housed in a hotel two-to-a-room. The season is to continue until Sept. 1.

“Hopefully, I can put up so good numbers here since I won’t get much exposure this fall,” says Bickel, alluding to the fact that junior college baseball canceled its fall season, meaning the loss of more than 20 games at the Palm Beach State Pro Day. 

Online classes for the Business Management major begin Aug. 31. The school is closed until January, meaning Bickel will come home to South Bend after his time in North Dakota. Bickel’s 21st birthday is Jan. 21, 2021.

Born and raised in South Bend, Bickel got his organized baseball start at Chet Waggoner Little League, where he played until 9.

At 10 and 11, he played travel ball for the Michiana Scrappers — first for Andy Biskupski and then Bill Petty.

After that came two summers with the Brian West-coached South Bend Baseball Factory. 

Longshots Baseball — based in Downers Grove, Ill. — was Bickel’s baseball home away from home. He played with that Rob Rooney-led organization in fall (weekday games and weekend doubleheaders).

Bickel was a three-year varsity player at Marian, playing for Knights head coach Joe Turnock — 2015, 2016 and 2018. 

His junior year, Bickel played in the Hitters/Prep Baseball Report Spring League in Kenosha, Wis.

His collegiate career began at San Jacinto College in Texas. After the fall semester, he transferred to Miami Dade College in Florida.

He struggled at the plate with the National Junior College Athletic Association Division I Sharks and opted to take off 2019-20 to re-tool his swing. Bickel was offered a scholarship by head coach Kyle Forbes to join the Palm Beach State program. The Panthers are NJCAA D-I members and part of the Florida College System Activities Association

Jarrett, 20, is the middle child of Joe and Megan Bickel. Joe owns a lawn care service. Tyler Bickel is 23. Xavier Bickel is 17.

Jarrett Bickel, a 2018 graduate of Marian High School in Mishawaka, Ind., swings the bat in 2019 for Miami Dade College in Florida. He is now on the baseball roster at Palm Beach (Fla.) State College. (Miami Dade College Photo)
Jarrett Bickel (left) takes a throw while playing for Miami Dade during the 2019 baseball season. The 2018 graduate of Marian High School in Mishawaka, Ind., is now on the roster at Palm Beach (Fla.) State College. (Miami Dade College Photo)
Jarrett Bickel, a 2018 graduate of Marian High School in Mishawaka, Ind., played baseball at Miami Dade College in Florida in 2019 and is now on the roster of Palm Beach (Fla.) State College. (Miami Dade College Photo)
Shortstop Jarrett Bickel, a 2018 graduate of Marian High School in Mishawaka, Ind., played at Miami Dade College in 2019 and is now on the baseball roster at Palm Beach (Fla.) State College. This summer, he has played for the Mishawaka Brewers and Snakes of the College Summer League at Grand Park and just joined the Northwoods League’s Bismarck (N.D.) Bull Moose. (Miami Dade College Photo)

Former Pendleton Heights catcher Etchison scouting for Cleveland Indians

RBILOGOSMALL copy

BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Aaron Etchison used to play baseball for a coach who was invested in his players as people as ballplayers.

Now Etchison evaluates diamond talent with an eye for more than the obvious skills.

Etchison was a catcher for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Bill Stoudt at Pendleton (Ind.) Heights High School, graduating in 2007.

“He is one of he best human beings of all-time,” says Etchison of Stoudt. “He was close with his players and his players were close with each other. Everyone who played for him just loves him.

“He was so much more than a baseball coach. He was invested in you. He genuinely cares about people.”

Etchison, 31, makes it a point to look Stoudt up whether it’s in Indiana or Florida.

In his third year as an area scout for the Cleveland Indians, Etchison greatly values character.

“The Indians very progressive in how they go about scouting,” says Etchison. “We collect information and get to know a player. Every player has strengths and weaknesses.

“We emphasize make-up as an organization. The make-up is just so huge.”

Etchison, who played at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., Chipola College in Marianna, Fla., and the University of Maryland after his Pendleton Heights days (which included back-to-back Hoosier Heritage Conference championships in 2006 and 2007 and a senior season in which he hit .392 with five homer runs, seven doubles and 20 runs batted in and a spot on the 2007 IHSBCA North/South All-Star team; former Arabians head coach Travis Keesling assisted Stoudt; The PHHS program is now headed by Matt Vosburgh), wants to know a player’s level of perseverance and his ability to overcome challenges and perform under pressure.

His job is to identify someone who will impact the game at the big league level.

As an area scout living in Dexter, Mich., Etchison is responsible for a territory which includes Indiana and Michigan plus Illinois, Iowa, North Dakota, northern Kentucky, South Dakota, western Ohio and Wisconsin.

He goes to games and tournaments in the spring and summer and scout days in the fall featuring players from these territories or — especially in this time of no live baseball because of the COVID-19 pandemic — analyzes video to do player assessments and projections.

“I don’t know what we would have done without Synergy (Sports Technology) video,” says Etchison. “We can see mechanical things on tape — things that weren’t possible 10 years ago — and go through it with a fine-tooth comb.”

That’s one piece of the scouting puzzle.

“We’ll never not value going to the ballpark,” says Etchison. “There are a lot of things you can’t see on tape.”

Among those are pregame routines and what the player does during warm-ups or batting practice and how he interacts with his coaches and teammates. Body language won’t always show up on a video that is cut up by pitch and swing.

It is said that there are five tools in baseball (hitting for average, hitting for power, base running, throwing and fielding).

“Old school scouting relies so heavily on tools,” says Etchison. “In the majors, a lot of players have one or two.

“The hit tool, that’s the one that matters (for non-pitchers).”

Etchison hears people say that an outfielder can run like a deer and has a cannon for an arm.

But can he effectively swing the bat? Those defensive tools might show up once or twice a week.

“The bat shows up four times every game,” says Etchison. “All (big league) outfielders are offensive positions.”

Etchison, who also played travel baseball with the Indiana Bulls prior to college, redshirted his first season at Ball State (2008) and apparel in 20 games for Greg Beals-coached Mid-American Conference West Division champions in 2009.

Knowing that he would see limited playing time in his third year, Etchison made the choice to transfer to Chipola and joined the that program just weeks before the start of the 2010 season.

“The first time I really took a chance on myself was going down there,” says Etchison. “It was a sink-or-swim situation.”

He could either make it or go back to Indiana and leave his baseball career behind.

Playing for Jeff Johnson on a team loaded with future pro players, Etchison became part of the Chipola Indians brotherhood.

“It’s one of the top junior college programs in the country,” says Etchison. “(Johnson) had a very similar impact on his players as Coach Stoudt. He was a big personality, a great baseball coach and a great mentor.

“(Chipola) opened doors for me.”

Johnson had a relationship with then-Maryland head coach Erik Bakich and it helped Etchison land with the Terrapins as part of Bakich’s first recruiting class. He played in 28 games (25 as a starter) in 2011 and 31 (20 as a starter) in 2012. He threw out 14-of-25 runners attempting to steal during his senior season which opened with a dislocated finger that caused him to miss two weeks. He had already suffered a broken hand and a torn meniscus while at the Big Ten school.

Etchison was a Maryland team captain as a senior, helping the Terps win 32 games.

Meanwhile, Bakich encouraged Etchison to consider coaching when his playing days were over. He graduated from Maryland with a bachelor’s degree in Finance from the Robert H. Smith School of Business in December 2012.

“He thought I’d be good at it,” says Etchison. “I had a few real world job opportunities in the finance industry. My parents (Jeff and Shelly Etchison) encouraged me to get into (coaching). They’ve always wanted me to go out and take chances.”

When Bakich became head coach at the University of Michigan he brought Etchison on in the volunteer role, one he stayed in for five seasons (2013-17) plus part of the fall before going into scouting.

“I fell in love with coaching,” says Etchison. “I really loved being around baseball everyday.”

There was continuity in the Wolverines program and chances to earn money by working camps.

“I was in a great spot,” says Etchison, who briefly got the chance to go on the road and recruit when Sean Kenny left Michigan for the University of Georgia. “Financially, I was able to survive.”

He also got to spend time around a mentor in Bakich.

“He is one of my closest friends,” says Etchison, who got married last summer with Bakich performing the wedding ceremony.

Aaron became the stepfather to two boys — Reid (now 10 and in the fourth grade) and Grant (now 7 and in the first grade). Emily Etchison, who is from Saline, Mich., is due to bring a baby girl into the family at the end of July.

Etchison explains why he became a scout for the Cleveland Indians.

“The organization was extremely impressive,” says Etchison. “It was a great opportunity for growth.”

Another significant person in Etchison’s baseball life is fellow Anderson, Ind., native Mike Shirley, who is now Director of Amateur Scouting for the Chicago White Sox.

Growing up, Etchison was a regular at Shirley’s training facility.

“Like so many players who grew up in the area and are proud to be ‘Barn Guys,’ I would be remiss if I did not give credit to him for being a baseball mentor and friend for over 20 years,” says Etchison.

AARONETCHISON

Aaron Etchison, a Pendleton (Ind.) High School graduate who played baseball at Ball State University, Chipola College and the University of Maryland and coached at the University of Michigan, is an area scout for the Cleveland Indians.

 

Pierce puts long-term plan in place for D-I Fort Wayne Mastodons

rbilogosmall

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Going from a squad full of veterans and experiencing NCAA Division I baseball success in 2016, the Mastodons of Fort Wayne had much less college experience and suffered growing pains in 2017.

With a new focus, Fort Wayne is looking to get things turned around in 2018 under the guidance of 10th-year head coach Bobby Pierce.

“We wore it last year,” says Pierce, who saw the Mastodons go 9-43 after losing 14 impact players — senior shortstop Greg Kaiser, senior outfielder Brandon Soat and and drafted sophomore pitcher Evan Miller among them — from a 33-26 campaign in ’16 that included a second straight trip to the Summit League tournament finals. “(Junior college) guys made the (2016) team as good as it could be. Freshmen (in 2017) need to learned how to play here and do damage on the Division I level.

“But we like to think over the next three or four years, that was worth it. Strategically, it’s the right move to get where we want to get. We have to think more long-term. Up until this time, we were using a steady mix of high school and junior college guys and it was holding us back a little bit.”

Fort Wayne just wrapped annual fall workouts with the Blue-Black intrasquad series with teams captained by sophomore infielder Travis Upp and junior pitcher Damian Helm on one side and junior infielder Brandon Yoho and senior pitcher Brandon Phelps on the other.

“We got after it somewhere in the middle of September,” says Pierce. “We’ve been grinding it out until this (past) weekend.”

Pierce, assistants Grant Birely and Connor Lawhead and the Dons will continue work in preparation for the 2018 campaign.

As he goes forward, Pierce has the longest tenure as head coach in program history. Previous coach Billy Gernon (now at Western Michigan University) was also in charge for nine seasons.

Pierce, who turned 39 on Oct. 17, came to Fort Wayne with lessons learned as a player, assistant coach and head coach.

A Las Vegas native, Pierce played for Rodger Fairless at Green Valley High School in Henderson, Nev. Fairless coached 12 state championship teams at three Nevada schools. He helped develop Greg Maddux before going to Green Valley and turning that school into a diamond powerhouse. With the Gators, he produced a state champion in the program’s third season. Two Green Valley players — Chad Hermansen and Dave Krynzel — went on to the big leagues.

Pierce, a middle infielder, played at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, Central Arizona College and New Mexico State University.

Clint Myers was Pierce’s head coach at Central Arizona. National Fastpitch Coaches’ Association Hall of Famer Myers won more than 1,000 games as a baseball and softball coach with a number of national titles to his credit.

At New Mexico State, Pierce played for National College Baseball Hall of Famer Gary Ward and his son, Rocky Ward.

“I’m very fortunate to come from a very good pedigree of coaches,” says Pierce. “(Fairless) was super disciplinarian and fundamental coach and that was a great start for me. I got indoctrinated in it during my high school career. (Myers) taught me a team management perspective.”

Through structured live play drills in practice, Pierce is able to grow a player’s intelligence in playing the game — something he gained from Myers.

Pierce considers Gary Ward one of the best offensive-minded coaches of all-time and styles his Fort Wayne offense based in the Hall of Famer’s philosophy.

After he was done playing (he developed a labrum injury at New Mexico State), Pierce had planned to become an accountant in Albuquerque.

But fate intervened — hiring was curtailed after Sept. 11, 2001 and he was asked to go back to college for more schooling.

Pierce instead pursued coaching, first serving as an assistant at Central Arizona then the University of Arkansas-Little Rock (where he pulled his first tarp) before becoming head coach at Metropolitan State University of Denver for two seasons before becoming head coach at Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne for the 2009 season.

“The early years were hard. I was cutting my teeth,” says Pierce. “But you have to cut your teeth and learn your craft somehow.”

Pierce explains why he has stayed longer in the position than anyone else.

“It speaks to the people I work with and the community,” says Pierce. “The city of Fort Wayne is great. My family (Bobby and Lizette Pierce have two children — Bobby Jr., and Daycee) has grown roots and really love it here.

“I’ve been very fortunate to coach some student-athletes and been around great people. I love this job and I love baseball.”

Fort Wayne pulls many players from northern Indiana and the Indianapolis area, but is able to draw from outside of the state with the school’s policy of out-of-state students paying 150 percent of what in-staters pay.

“Before, we couldn’t afford out-of-state players,” says Pierce. “Their dollar goes further now. Indiana residents are still cheaper on our books. We target Indiana kids. We still like home cooking. We try to turn rocks up here.”

NCAA Division I allows 11.7 scholarships for baseball. Pierce says that of the 35 players on the roster, 27 of them can be on scholarship and those are broken up based on a number of factors, including performance and need.

“There is no such thing as a full-ride,” says Pierce.

Like most programs, most money goes to pitchers and then to the interior of the defense (catcher, shortstop, center field).

“We think we can do a good job of developing hitters,” says Pierce. “We spend the majority of our money in pitching.”

Balance must also be considered.

“Like pro baseball, if you overspend in one area, you are going to be light in another area,” says Pierce. “It becomes a numbers game.”

Pierce is proud to say that the Mastodons have performed well in the classroom with three straight years of 3.0 or higher (on a 4.0 scale) as a team grade-point average. All players are encouraged to graduate in four years and take 15 hours in both the fall and spring semesters.

To help them meet their scholarly goals, schedules are made to limit the amount of missed class time. There is an academic advisor, study halls and the resources of the Mastodon Academic Performance Center.

“I’ve proctored exams,” says Pierce. “Professors on our campus are willing to work with us. We’ve got it figured out.”

Being in the Summit League with Denver, North Dakota, North Dakota State, Omaha, Oral Roberts, South Dakota, South Dakota State and Western Illinois, there is plenty of travel.

But it’s not like the first few years of NCAA Division I status as an independent. That’s when Fort Wayne was on the road for all but a handful of its 56 regular-season games away from Mastodon Field. Having no conference ties meant a berth in the NCAA tournament was virtually impossible.

One former Don player is seeing the world while still playing the game. Caleb Fenimore, a senior catcher on the 2014 team, was recently named the top hitter in the North in the German Professional League. The Rushville Consolidated High School graduate has played in Germany in the summer and Australia in the winter.

BOBBYPIERCE

Bobby Pierce is entering his 10th season at head coach of Fort Wayne Mastodons baseball in 2018. The NCAA Division I program is a member of the Summit League. (Fort Wayne Mastodons Photo)