Tag Archives: Olivet Nazarene University

Gongaware serving baseball community with Prospect Select, Indiana Chargers

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Tony Gongaware coached college baseball.

Now he’s serving both college coaches and players who want to get to the collegiate level.

As event coordinator for Prospect Select Baseball — a Florida-based national tournament company — Gongaware is helping to get players exposure in front of the right college coaches and scouts.

Gongaware, who is based in Fort Wayne, Ind., seeks answers to baseball questions.

“What are the greatest needs of those college coaches that are trying to identity who those players are?,” says Gongaware. “How can we utilize our events as a meeting place for that to happen?

“We want to create what we would consider the greatest value-added events for everyone that shows up — players, parents, umpires, college coaches, pro scouts. How are they getting their particular needs met?

“What are we doing as a tournament company to facilitate the greatest opportunities for them to play at the next level, which is ultimately what everybody in travel baseball in trying to do?”

Gongaware notes that not all exposure is equal exposure and the aim is to have close to a 1:1 ratio of players to college coaches and scouts at events.

Emphasizing quality over quantity, Prospect Select has 13 high school tournaments on its 2019 calendar. There are events in Florida, the Carolinas and Boston as well as the Midwest — Kansas City, St. Louis, Quincy, Ill., and Fort Wayne.

“We’re not going to oversaturate and try to do 15 different things,” says Gongaware. “We look to find a great host venue city with great baseball complexes.

“People will mark their calendars every year and say, ‘I can’t wait to come back.’”

The idea is to provide great competition and the opportunity to get better while being seen by a coach who could realistically add a player to his program.

The 2019 Fort Wayne Classic for 16U and 18U teams is July 25-29 at World Baseball Academy, a facility on the west side of town with three turf fields for high schoolers.

WBA was the site of the Great Lakes Fall Invitational in 2018.

“I’ve worked with (Director of Operations/Tournaments) Andy (McManama) and (CEO) Caleb (Kimmel) here at World Baseball (Academy) and they’re fantastic,” says Gongaware. “It’s a great partnership. They clearly care for the student-athletes at a much higher level than what they do on the baseball field.

“We believe in the same thing as a company (at Prospect Select).”

One of the fun parts of Gongaware’s job is experiencing baseball culture in other parts of the country.

“We’re all connected through this awesome game,” says Gongaware. “But it’s different everywhere. It’s just like language and dialects.”

Gongaware says a point of pride is that all full-time PS staff have played or coached at the college or professional level and have strong relationships in that area.

“We can facilitate networking,” says Gongaware. “We try to build very strong relationships with college and travel coaches so that when we make a recommendation for a college coach or travel team to attend one of our events, we have strong confidence that it’s going to meet their needs.”

After labrum tears ended his playing career at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Ill., before it began, Batavia (Ill.) High School graduate Gongaware became interested in coaching.

“At the time I was getting bigger and stronger, I got hurt,” says Gongaware. “Let’s be honest, it was from inefficient body actions and mechanics. How I could help other players not go through that?”

Recruited while Rich Benjamin (now head coach at Indiana Wesleyan University) was pitching coach, Gongaware was at ONU as Elliot Johnson moved on as head coach and Todd Reid took over.

After graduating from Olivet in 2010, he was in youth ministry for three years and then became volunteer assistant pitching coach to Andy Gossel at Covenant Christian High School in Indianapolis.

The two met when Gongaware was officiating an Upward Basketball game featuring one of Gossel’s sons.

“I’m forever indebted to him with getting me involved in the game of baseball as a coach,” says Gongaware of Gossel — aka “Goose.”

Gongaware went to Quincy (Ill.) University to become a graduate assistant in baseball at the same time his wife, Steph, was a graduate assistant in women’s basketball. The former Stephanie Wagner, a graduate of Jimtown High School in Elkhart, Ind., finished her playing career at Quincy.

Josh Rabe was the head baseball coach at Quincy and the Hawks were on the cusp of becoming an NCAA Division II power.

“Coach Rabe took a huge risk on me with not having college playing experience,” says Gongaware, who earned a masters degree in Educational Leadership at QU in 2016. “There was so much knowledge he was willing to share with me.”

Matt Stembridge was then pitching coach at Quincy. He later became a Midwest tournament coordinator for Prospect Select and helped connect Gongaware as well as teaching him much about strength and conditioning.

“He’s one of my closest friends in the game of baseball,” says Gongaware of Stembridge. “He’s challenged me — not just on the baseball side — why do I believe what I believe? He’s really got me to ask a lot of questions.”

Stembridge is also general manager of the Hannibal (Mo.) Hoots and co-owner of the Normal (Ill.) CornBelters in the summer collegiate Prospect League.

Gongaware’s next stop after Quincy was as pitching coach at Hannibal-LaGrange University. Then he became pitching coach and recruitment/placement coordinator at Inspiration Academy, a high school and post-graduate institution in Bradenton, Fla.

When he got back to the Midwest, Gongaware was hired by Joel Mishler as an assistant operations director for the Indiana Chargers travel organization.

“He’s been such an awesome influence for me,” says Gongaware. “He’s been around this game so long. It’s so easy for guys like that to get caught up in this is the way it’s always been.”

Gongaware says Mishler continues to learn and get better and promotes the same thing with his staff, including taking them to the annual American Baseball Coaches Association Convention.

The Chargers have training facilities in Goshen and Fort Wayne. Younger players are based closer to home while the best high school players come together for the travel tournament season. Gongaware helps coordinate the staff in in Fort Wayne while coaching younger players on a volunteer basis.

In his two roles, he enjoys getting to be on both sides of the travel ball equation.

Gongaware knows that travel baseball and college recruiting is big business so he wants to make the experience worthwhile for all parties in his role with Prospect Select.

“If kids are going to pay money to play in one of our tournaments, we need to be honest and fair with them about where they are and what level of baseball they’re playing,” says Gongaware. “We need to be very open and honest with the college coaches about who they should come see and how they watch.”

With this in mind, Prospect Select tournaments are structured so equal-level teams are playing each other in each pool.

“Typically college coaches are attending the first two or three days because there are more teams playing,” says Gongaware. “It’s pool play. Everyone’s still in the tournament. Once it gets to bracket play and there’s only five or six teams, they’re not getting as much bang for their buck.

“If my ceiling is I’m a right-handed pitcher and I throw 82 (mph), I don’t need to go against the No. 1 prospect in the country who every time he faces me is going to hit it out of the park.

“If I’m a D-III hitter I don’t need to go against Daniel Espino, the No. 1 prospect last year, throwing 100 mph. It’s not going to do me any good. It doesn’t help his coach recruit him.”

Tony and Steph Gongaware will be married six years in June. The couple have two children — Ella (3) and Abram (who turns 1 in July).

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Tony Gongaware, who resides in Fort Wayne, Ind., is an event coordinator for Prospect Select Baseball — a Florida-based national tournament company. He also works operations and coaching for the Indiana Chargers travel baseball organization. (Steve Krah Photo)

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Tony Gongaware will help stage Prospect Select Baseball’s Fort Wayne Classic at World Baseball Academy July 25-29, 2019.

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Wellenreiter lends wisdom to Goshen Maple Leafs

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Doug Wellenreiter has been swinging a fungo and dishing out baseball knowledge for a long time.

The 2019 season marks his 40th as a coach — five as an assistant at Goshen College after 35 in Illinois at the junior high, high school and professional level.

Since arriving on Hoosier soil, he’s also taken to coaching for the Michiana Scrappers travel organization in the summer.

What does he believe in as a coach?

“Hopefully my kids learn the game and it’s a lifelong value to them,” says Wellenreiter. “The values that you teach are not just baseball. You teach them things in baseball that will help them for the rest of their life — whether it’s discipline, being on-time or never say quit. You hope you have a lasting effect on kids down the road.

“I can’t tell you how many games I’ve won or lost (he actually 625 and went to the round of 16 in the Illinois High School Association tournament six times in 27 seasons at Momence High School). It really doesn’t matter.

“The only important thing is the next one. You don’t take the games with you. You take the people with you. That’s why (baseball’s) the best fraternity to be a part of.”

That fraternity may not have a secret handshake, but it’s given Wellenreiter plenty of memories and perspective.

“Lifelong stuff is what you take with you,” says Wellenreiter, who was pitching coach for a few summers with the independent professional Cook County Cheetahs. “I sometimes had a junior high game in the morning and a minor league game at night. I’m probably the only guy in America who coached junior high and minor league at the same time. Sometimes the junior high game was better.”

What’s the difference between junior high, high school, college and pro?

“In the big picture, the fundamentals of the game is the same,” says Wellenreiter. “It just happens at a faster rate at each level. At the pro level, it happens at 88 to 93 mph. At (the college) level, it happens in the low to mid 80’s. At the high school level, it happens in the 70’s.”

Wellenreiter sees freshmen working to make that adjustment when they arrive at Goshen.

“They may have seen a kid who threw 85 occasionally in high school,” says Wellenreiter. “Now, you’re going to see somebody like that almost everyday at our level. Everybody runs much better at this level. Everybody’s got a better arm.”

Before retiring in 2014 and moving to Goshen to be closer to be closer to one of his daughters and his grandchildren, Wellenreiter was a biology teacher and driver’s education instruction in Illinois.

“I never had any intentions of being a bio teacher when I went to Millikin (University) in Decatur,” says Wellenreiter. “They had the foresight into what the future was going to hold in the education field. You take so much science when you go into P.E. They said, you’re crazy if you don’t take the extra classes so you’re certified to teach science. Make yourself as marketable as you can. That’s all I’ve ever taught — biology.”

With that know-how, it has given the coach a different outlook on training.

“I know how cells work,” says Wellenreiter. “I know what origin of insertion means and the difference between induction and abbuction.”

At Goshen, Wellenreiter works on a staff headed by Alex Childers with Justin Grubbs as pitching coach.

“Alex gives me a lot of freedom,” says Wellenreiter, who knew Childress when he was a student and baseball player at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Ill., and Wellenreiter was an assistant men’s basketball coach for the Tigers (He was also a long-time basketball assistant at Momence) and later a part-time ONU baseball assistant.

Wellenreiter helps with scheduling (he has spent plenty of phone time already this season with postponements and cancellations), travel and, sometimes, ordering equipment. He assists in recruiting, especially in Illinois where he knows all the schools and coaches.

On the field, his duties vary with the day. While Grubbs is working with the pitchers, Wellenreiter and Childress mix it up with the positional players. He throws about 400 batting practice pitches a day and coaches first base for the Maple Leafs.

“When you’re at a small college, you have to be a jack of all trades to get things done. You don’t have a huge coaching staff. I’m part-time, but I’m like part-time/full-time.”

Wellenreiter makes up scouting reports before every game. He keeps a chart on every hitter and what they’ve done against each GC pitcher.

“I do it by hand,” says Wellenreiter. “chart where they hit the ball and plot whether it was pull, oppo or straight.

“The most important pitch is Strike 1. I chart that.”

Wellenreiter recalls a batter from Taylor University who swing at the first pitch just three times in 48 at-bats against Goshen.

“Gee, this isn’t rocket science,” says Wellenreiter. “If the guy isn’t going to swing at the first pitch, what are we putting down (as a signal)? Let’s not be fine. Let’s get Strike 1. Now he’s in the hole 0-1 and you’ve got the advantage.

“Sometimes, you can’t over-think it as pitchers. You’ve got to pitch your game and use your stuff. If the guy’s not catching up to your fastball, go with that. Don’t speed his bat up.”

Goshen coaches will sometimes call pitches from the dugout, but generally lets their catches call the game.

Wellenreiter says charts and tendencies sometimes backfire.

“I remember for one player, the chart said he had pulled the ball to the right side in all eight at-bats,” says Wellenreiter. “So he hits the ball to the left of the second base bag.

“That’s baseball.”

Wellenreiter learned baseball from Illinois High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Jim Scott at University High School in Normal, Ill.

“That’s where I learned my stuff,” says Wellenreiter, a 1975 U-High graduate. “(Coach Scott) gave me a chance. I played on the varsity when I was a sophomore.”

Wellenreiter has added to his coaching repertoire as his career has gone along.

“You steal from here. You steal from there,” says Wellenreiter. “You hear something you like and you add it in.”

Smallish in high school, Wellenreiter ran cross country in the fall and played baseball for Pioneers in the spring. He played fastpitch softball for years after college.

“I miss playing,” says Wellenreiter. “ I had a knee replaced four years ago. I hobble around now.”

While coaching in the Frontier League with the Cheetahs (now known as the Windy City Thunderbolts), Wellenreiter got to work alongside former big leaguers Ron LeFlore, Milt Pappas and Carlos May.

One of Wellenreiter’s pitchers made it — Australian right-hander Chris Oxspring — to the majors.

Cook County manager LeFlore was infamous for running his pitchers hard.

“They had to run 16 poles (foul pole to foul pole) everyday,” says Wellenreiter. “Ox couldn’t do them all. We had to DL him because he was too sore and couldn’t keep up with conditioning.”

After spending 2000 with the Cheetahs, Oxspring was picked up by affiliated ball and played for the Fort Wayne Wizards in 2001 and made five appearances for the 2005 San Diego Padres.

Wellenreiter drove up to Milwaukee and spoke Oxspring after his MLB debut.

The pitcher called to his former coach and they met in the visitor’s dugout before the game.

“Hey, Coach Doug,” Oxspring said to Wellenreiter. “Remember those poles? I can do them now.”

Wellenreiter notes that Oxspring made more money in his 34 days with the Padres than he did his entire minor league career.

“That’s why guys fight to get up there,” says Wellenreiter of the baseball pay scale and pension plan.

While coaching the Momence Redskins, Wellenreiter got a close look at future major league right-hander Tanner Roark, who pitched for nearby Wilmington High School.

“I had him at 94 on my radar gun,” says Wellenreiter of Roark, who helped his school win Class A state titles in 2003 and 2005, the latter squad going 41-1. “He’s probably the best I’ve had to go against.”

Wellenreiter notes the differences between high school baseball in Indiana and Illinois and cites the higher number of games they play in the Land of Lincoln.

Illinois allows 35 regular-season games and teams are guaranteed at least one game in the regional (equivalent to the sectional in Indiana). In 2019, the Illinois state finals are May 31-June 1 for 1A and 2A and June 7-8 for 3A and 4A. Regionals begin in the middle of May.

The maximum number of season baseball games in which for any team or student may participate, excluding the IHSAA Tournament Series shall be 28 and no tournament 26 and one tournament.

When eliminated from the tournament, most Illinois teams will let their seniors go and launch right into summer ball, playing 40 to 45 games through early July. The high school head coach usually coaches the team.

“Any kid worth his salt is playing another 25 games in the fall,” says Wellenreiter. “That’s 90 to 100 games a year. The difference in experience adds up. Illinois kids are seeing more stuff.”

Coaching with the Scrappers, Wellenreiter’s teams have never played more than 28 contests.

Junior high baseball is a fall sport in Illinois and has a state tournament modeled after the high school event. The season begins a few weeks before the start of school.

Wellenreiter coached junior high baseball for more than two decades and guided many of the same player from Grades 6 through 12.

There are pockets of junior high baseball around Indiana.

At a small school like Momence (enrollment around 325), coaches had a share athletes. What Wellenreiter saw is that athletes would pick the “glory weekend” if there was a choice between two or more sports.

“One thing I don’t miss about high school is fighting for the kids’ time,” says Wellenreiter. “I never asked my baseball players to do something during the basketball season.”

At Goshen, Wellenreiter can focus on baseball and his family. Doug and wife Kelly have Brooke, her husband and children living in New Paris, Ind., with Bria and her husband out of state.

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Doug Wellenreiter is in his fifth season as an assistant baseball coach at Goshen (Ind.) College. It’s the 40th year in coaching for the Illinois native. (Steve Krah Photo)

 

Benjamin finds his baseball fit at Indiana Wesleyan

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Rich Benjamin is not the same person who took up residence in Marion, Ind., as head baseball coach at Indiana Wesleyan University prior to the 2016 season.

“I didn’t realize — in a positive way — how much it would change me in two years,” says Benjamin. “I enjoy being around like-minded coaches who care more about the other coach in the room than their own sport.

“It’s been a great place to be a mentor, to be mentored and grow and develop in the profession.”

Benjamin came to IWU following eighth seasons at Judson University in Elgin, Ill., where his teams amassed 304 wins with three Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference regular-season titles, four CCAC tournament championships. The Eagles also earned five NAIA regional appearances and two National Christian College Athletic Association World Series berths. Near the end of his stay, Benjamin added athletic director to his Judson responsibilities.

He began his coaching career as a student assistant at Martin Methodist College in Pulaski, Tenn. (He played his last two college seasons there following two at Milligan College in eastern Tennessee).

From Martin Methodist, Benjamin became an assistant Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Ill., before landing at Judson. He has extensive experience in coaching summer teams and working at camps and clinics.

Faced with multiple opportunities, Benjamin weighed his options and asked himself some questions before leaving Judson.

“What is the best fit for how I’m wired? What is the best fit for my family?,” says Benjamin, who is married to Casey and has a 5-year-old son in Ty. “Professionally, you do not want your job to cost your family more than what they’re benefitting from it.

“That’s always a delicate balance in the coaching profession.”

He recalls his initial meeting with Indiana Wesleyan athletic director and former Wildcats head baseball coach Mark DeMichael.

“I was blown away with the uniqueness of the environment,” says Benjamin of the NAIA member school. “It is a faith-based institution. It is not Christian in name only. The athletic department is founded on the Philippians 2 vision which — in short — means to be selfless. That was really attractive.”

Benjamin calls DeMichael one of the most-impressive leaders he’s ever been around.

“He really understands people, excellence and humility,” says Benjamin. “All the (IWU) coaches end up in his office at some point to use him as a sounding board for some of the cultural challenges that we are going through with our teams.

“He never tells you what to do. He lets you talk out loud. He asks really healthy open-ended questions and helps you find the answer you feel is the best solution for your program.”

During the interview process, Benjamin also learned from DeMichael about an institution with high academic and competitive standards. Every sport on campus had a combined grade-point average above 3.0 and the department winning percentage was in the top 15 in the nation.

“Here is an athletic department winning championships and killing it academically and they’re focused on people-first,” says Benjamin. “This is paradigm-shifting in college athletics. I was really attracted and wanted to be a part of it.

“Indiana Wesleyan is not one of those places where you can sell out in a couple areas to win games. You have to consider the social, academic and athletic sides of the person.

“We say, ‘if you build the person, the player will follow.’ You bring in a person and put them in a high-motored environment and you see them over their first 24 months. It’s a fun process to watch unfold because you have to do that part well.”

It’s all a matter of the right fit.

“Wherever you’re at, you have to recruit to your culture and the identity of your school, your resources,” says Benjamin. “We’re not fully-funded program (at IWU). Having to stretch dollars is the most-challenging aspect of the job.

“It’s also why we go after high financial-need students because they’ll get some government assistance or we go after high-academic students because they’re going to get a lot of academic aid.”

While attending the 2018 American Baseball Coaches Association Convention Jan. 4-7 in Indianapolis, Benjamin took the time to write in his journal about how he had performed with the knowledge he had gained since his first ABCA convention in 2004.

“It was humbling,” says Benjamin, noting some years were very good and some were not.

With the help of assistant coaches Kris Holtzieter (pitching coach and recruiting coordinator) and Drew Brantley (former Anderson University head coach, base-running/infield coach and assistant recruiting coordinator), Benjamin is looking for his players to grow from the start of the school year until the finish.

NAIA rules allow teams to be full-go for 24 weeks with a dead period between fall workouts (IWU was outdoors for about two months) and preseason training that allows coaches to be present for conditioning, strength training and team development without being able to coach baseball activities.

“That’s really healthy,” says Benjamin of the dead period. “There has to be a moment in which the player has space to go and figure out for himself the concepts you’ve been unpacking

“I’ve never had a great player that didn’t have a high motor to go take a lot of swings on their own and to find answers to the questions that have been exposed.”

To Benjamin, a coach is defined by someone who can help someone learn about themselves and the coach-player relationship works best when the athlete owns the process.

Mental training is also a part of what the Wildcats do.

“We realize your person can get in the way of your player and part of your person is your mental game and it’s your character,” says Benjamin. “We’ve all been around people who play above their skill because of their character and we’ve been around people who play who their skill because of their character.”

There are team values and goals and each player is asked to list three to five character areas they want to focus on.

“We’re able to use their list to interact with them about how they’re handling the performance level,” says Benjamin. “One of areas might be competitiveness or being fearless.

“If they get in the (batter’s) box and they have an unhealthy amount of fear or they’re not competitive or passive, they’re already beat,” says Benjamin. “If we can put guys in these scenarios each day and then talk about their person — those character values they want to grow in — you’re doing mental training right there.”

Benjamin’s 2016 Wildcats went 37-25-1 overall and 14-14 in the Crossroads League and followed that up with 27-30 and 12-15 in 2017.

Senior center fielder Brandon Shaffer (Albuquerque, N.M.) hit .348 with home runs and 39 runs batted in and 17 stolen bases made the 2017 all-Crossroads team. Freshman catcher/first baseman Brady West (Rockford, Ill.) hit .350 with 10 homers and was named CL Newcomer of the Year.

Honorable mention selections on the all-league squad were sophomore catcher Andrew Breytenbach (Palatine, Ill.) who hit .326 with 10 homers and 61 RBIs, sophomore right-handed reliever Kyle Hall (Chatham, Ill.), who went 3-1 with a 3.86 earned run average, and freshman right-handed starting pitcher Jon Young (Batavia, Ill.), who went 7-3 with a 3.74 ERA.

In addition, sophomore Caleb Eder (Jennings County High School graduate) hit .346 with eight homers and 40 runs driven in.

Indiana Wesleyan set four school records in 2017. The pitching staff racked up 379 strikeouts. On the offensive side, the Wildcats belted 68 home runs with 317 RBIs and a .478 slugging percentage.

The 2018 squad opens the season Feb. 9 against Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Benjamin considers Indiana and the adjoining states of Ohio and Michigan plus the Chicagoland area of Illinois to be fertile recruiting territory.

In comparing the two NAIA conferences where he has been a head coach — the Chicagoland Collegiate and Crossroads — Benjamin sees many similarities.

“Both conferences have a lot of coaches that coach for the right reason,” says Benjamin. “They are very professional in the way they interact with other teams, umpires, players and so forth. In a profession where you’re trying to build the person, it’s nice to be around other people who share the same vision.”

Besides Indiana Wesleyan, the Crossroads League features Bethel, Goshen, Grace, Huntington, Marian, Mt. Vernon Nazarene, Saint Francis, Spring Arbor and Taylor. All 10 schools are private.

Baseball-playing schools in the CCAC are Calumet of St. Joseph, Indiana University South Bend, Judson, Olivet Nazarene, Robert Morris, Roosevelt, St. Ambrose, St. Francis, Saint Xavier, Trinity Christian and Trinity International.

With IWU adding football (the first game is slated for Sept. 1, 2018 against Taylor), the whole athletic department has benefitted, including baseball. A $1.2 weight room has been added.

With the establishment of the football complex came a re-establishing of the dimensions and a brand new wall for the baseball field. A five-year plan includes other upgrades such as playing surface, backstop and fencing.

“Indiana Wesleyan has a vision for everything,” says Benjamin. “They are proactive. They think ahead.”

Looking back, Rich (who has a twin brother Bobby) grew up in Rhode Island and moved to Tennessee as he and his brother were turning 9.

Rich started playing baseball year-round.

“It was my escape. It was fun,” says Benjamin. “I had more passion for it than anybody else in my family.”

When he was 12 and 13, he attended the Doyle Baseball School in Orlando, Fla., and recalls his parents taking extra jobs to pay for his week-long immersion in the game.

“The Doyles (Denny, Brian and Blake) are very professional faith-based people,” says Benjamin. “They were the first people to share Christ with me. It became a very defining moment in my life. I didn’t realize it at the time. But looking back on it, it was certainly a game-changer.”

Bobby Benjamin is restaurant owner in Louisville, Ky. The twins have a stepsister named Kayla. Mother Janet is married to Gary Piper. Father Ben is married to Vicki.

With Casey’s parents, Ty can be spoiled by three sets of grandparents.

“As a 5-year-old boy in Indiana, he wants to be a farmer,” says Rich of Ty. “He’s a John Deere guy right now. That’s where his focus is. But he’ll pick up a bat. He’ll pick up a football. He enjoys jumping on this indoor trampoline.

“He certainly enjoys being around our team.”

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Rich Benjamin enters his third season as head baseball coach at Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Ind., in 2018. (IWU Photo)

 

Childers teaching lessons about adjustment, baseball concepts at Goshen College

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Pulling together a Goshen College roster with players from 10 different states and one Canadian province, Alex Childers is going about teaching lessons on and off the baseball diamond.

Childers, who in his fifth season as head coach for the Maple Leafs, wants his athletes to be adaptable, students of the game and above all else — students. After all, GC is a highly-ranked institution of higher learning.

“At the college level, you have got to be good at development,” says Childers, who played his college baseball at Goshen College and Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Ill. “You want to recruit good players, but you’ve got to develop the talent as well.

“When you let then be athletes and players, you can maximize potential. That’s what we try to do.”

Making the most of the fall and winter and the rare spring practices, Childers and his coaching staff of Justin Grubbs, Jackson Callahan and Doug Wellenreiter do their best to create intelligent baseball players.

“I try to teach the game and concepts,” says Childers. “When you micro-manage too much, you’re not teaching the concepts of the game.

“I want guys to understand when it’s a good time to run vs. I’m going to give you the steal sign so you’re going to run. I want players to understand the game. When is it a good time to be aggressive on a ball in the dirt? When is it a good time being aggressive going first to third? As opposed to me just moving the chess pieces around.”

Childers also expects players to be willing to move around on the diamond, which sometimes involves some candid conversations.

“Most guys on our team had a position change,” says Childers. “In the fall, we try to move every single one of our guys around.”

The thought is that knowing a different position never hurts and it gives a player more of a chance to crack the lineup.

“If you think you’re just a second baseman and that’s where you think you’re going to play, that’s great,” says Childers. “But you have to make our team the best when you’re at second base.

“Sometimes that’s a tough concept for guys to get.”

Citing a couple of examples of getting Leafs to buy into a switch, Childers points to current senior Preston Carr and former player Arick Armington.

Carr, who hails from Ontario, came to GC as a pitcher-second baseman. He was turned into an honorable mention all-conference selection and two-time Gold Glove winner in center field.

Armington, who played high school baseball at Elkhart Christian Academy, was convinced to make an adjustment, moving from the middle infield.

“I told him, ‘Aric, we’re better when you’re in center field,’” says Childers. “You have to get guys to buy in.”

And confidence is key.

“It’s a tough thing,” says Childers. “You know how baseball is, if you don’t have an ego you don’t last very long because of how much failure is involved.

“You’ve got to believe that you belong. You’ve got to respect decisions I make as the coach. But if you don’t believe you can do it, you’re in the wrong sport.”

Childers wants his players, especially freshmen, to know what to expect.

“Let’s be honest, here in the north you play on good weather days,” says Childers. “On poor weather days, you’re not playing and you’re back in the (batting) cage. We play 55 games in essentially 2 1/2 months. It is a sprint.”

GC coaches talk about players having the ability to be present.

“We talk say ‘be where your feet are,’” says Childers. “That basically means stats are a reflection of what’s happened in the past, you need to be present right now. If you don’t have that concept, the season can get on you quick. Before you know it, you’re throwing away at-bats or throwing away games and you don’t want to do that in a career that’s so short.”

Some Leafs don’t have a short trip to campus. Besides Indiana and Ontario, the 2017 roster features players from California, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah and Virginia.

“We have students from all over, why can’t we have baseball players from all over?,” says Childers. “I’d love to have local guys, but we can’t limit ourselves to just that. We have to think outside the box (in recruiting).”

When recruiting, Childers and his staff are looking for players who are academically strong. The NAIA allows 12 scholarships for baseball, but the Crossroads League has a limit of 7.6, so things like institutional aid come into play.

“If the kid has a high GPA, it just increases his scholarship level for the school which I can add onto from a baseball standpoint,” says Childers. “It’s a little bit of a matrix trying to figure out how to package guys the best.”

Childers said players have gone on to professional baseball out of the Crossroads League, but that’s not the focus at GC.

“At the end of the day, college baseball is a means for you to get an education.” says Childers. “If you can keep playing for four more years, that’s just icing on the cake. We treat it that way. I tell parents all the time, we don’t apologize for the academic portion of what we do. You want to keep in perspective what you’re trying to accomplish.”

Childers, who graduated from New Haven High School in 2003, said he owes much of what he knows about baseball to Bulldogs head coach Dave Bischoff.

“You’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who practices harder and is more passionate about the game,” says Childers of the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer. “He’s somebody who cares deeply.”

Bischoff instilled in Childers, who was also a New Haven assistant for two years after his college playing days, the importance of mental toughness and getting the most out of players.

“My senior year in high school was a pretty senior-laden group but not the most talented group,” says Childers. “Coach Bischoff got the most out of us. We were a 20-win team and won a sectional title. He fit guys into roles and maximized the potential he had.

“I’m pretty fortunate in having him as a mentor.”

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Alex Childers is in his fifth season as head baseball coach at Goshen College in 2017. (Goshen College Photo)

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Alex Childers (left) coaches third base during the 2014 season. (Goshen College Photo)