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Notre Dame’s Ristano expects his pitchers to be aggressive

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

As Chuck Ristano sees it, delivering a baseball from 60 feet, 6 inches is not passive.

That’s why the pitching coach in his 10th year at the University of Notre Dame takes an active approach with his young athletes.

“Pitching development is a fight,” says Ristano, who was a presenter at the first PRP Baseball Bridge The Gap Clinic in Noblesville hosted by Greg Vogt. “It’s aggressive.”

Ristano uses an assessment with his ND arms he calls MMA — Mechanics, Metrics, Arm.

Ristano’s priorities for mechanics:

Establish an efficient/repeatable delivery.

“If you can repeat in an efficient manner we can, hopefully, keep you healthy and put the baseball where you want it,” says Ristano. “There’s not a lot of starts and stops. Once we start, we go.”

“To me, it lacks pauses and slow deliberate actions. Speeding the delivery up is usually one of the adjustments we make before we talk about arm path, hip and shoulder separation and what we look like at foot strike.”

Ristano uses the analogy of riding a bike to talk about funneling energy to home plate.

“I want the energy to go forward,” says Ristano. “If I ride slow and deliberate, I wobble.

“If I ride that line with some pace and stay in control, it makes it a heck of a lot easier to stay on a straight line.”

• Establish dynamic balance.

• Pitch athletically.

“You don’t want to take the venom out of the snake,” says Ristano. “You’re a good athlete and you need to pitch that way.

“The worst label you can get as an amateur or a high school player is the P.O. (pitcher only). It’s the most disgusting verbiage you can have for a pitching coach.

“The game doesn’t go until (the pitcher) decides it does. You start to label yourself into the P.O. mentality, you limit your athleticism.

“We want guys to behave and move athletically and pitch accordingly.”

• Glove in front of chest at release (proper blocking technique).

“We think about breaking the body in half,” says Ristano. “The front side is the steering wheel. The back side is the accelerator.”

Ristano teaches a “shadow sequence” where the delivery is broken down into six phases:

• Low balance. It’s the beginning of the leg lift.

• Dynamic balance. It comes at the peak.

• Hand separation. When the pitcher starts to come down toward the belt buckle.

• Power position/foot strike. Achieve symmetry with the lead and throwing arms.

• Release. Tension on the back side become energy on the front side.

• Finish. This is where the blocking technique comes in. The back foot comes off the ground and front side is firmed up.

In practice, pitchers of drills were they get to each of the phases to test their strengths and weaknesses and gain a feel for their delivery.

“If you want to find where the inefficiency in the delivery is, do it backward (finish to release to power position/foot strike to hand separation to dynamic balance to low balance),” says Ristano. “It’s a little weird. We call it ‘back shaping.’

“Some of these are monotonous, but they can really help if you do it right.”

Ristano also has his hurlers do three core drills:

• 3-pump balance. The quad is lifted three times before a throw is made. It helps to hit delivery check points. Energy is collected. The front foot comes off the ground. It is done at the pace of the delivery.

• Trace/retrace. There is a toe tap, the ball is brought back to the middle and then the throw is made. A trace is made from balance to power to balance. The energy stays over the back quad at landing. At toe tap, the throwing arm should be at peak height to be one time in the release zone.

• Kershaw’s/Houston’s. Based on social media visuals, including those of Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw, pitchers doing this drill get to the lowest point in their delivery and pause before they go forward. After that, the front hip goes and the sequencing toward home plate begins. The cues are: Hip, heel, toe, knee.

There’s also a drill that Ristano has called “El Duque’s” based on the delivery of former big league pitcher Orlando Hernandez.

“We throw from the ground up,” says Ristano. “We use the ground to go forward.

How quickly can I get that lower body going and force my upper body to catch up.”

Additional throwing drills (with purpose):

• One-hop drill (extension, release point and athleticism).

• Softball catch (extension and manipulation of spin).

• Maestro (Scap load, hand speed and opposite/equal).

• Weighted glove (stable front side and back side).

• Figure-8’s (hand speed).

Ristano says he has become a real believer in mechanical development via strength and share some statistics.

Reading an MLB.com article from two years ago, Ristano saw that the average height of an American male was 5-foot-10, yet 14 MLB teams didn’t have a pitcher under 6 feet tall.

The New York Yankees had one pitcher under 6-2 and boast five pitchers at least 6-7. The St. Louis Cardinals had eight pitchers 6-4 or taller. The Kansas City Royals were the only team in baseball with five pitchers 6 feet or under.

Of the top 50 pitchers of the last decade, less than five were 200 pounds or less.

“I know you can’t do much to manipulate your height,” says Ristano. “What’s my actionable data?

“I show this to my guys not because ‘mass equals gas.’ But pitchers today are men.

“As you develop, it’s important what training values you choose.

“(Strength and conditioning) is your new modality to get better. Sometimes when you’re having trouble throwing strikes, the key sometimes is not some wild mechanical adjustment. Sometimes it’s just that you lack the strength to be able to execute the highest angular velocity movements — the pitching delivery — that the world knows 100 times in a game and repeat it and repeat it and repeat it.

“You’ll be shocked once you start to hammer the strength and conditioning component, how well your body begins to align even when you’re not thinking about mechanics.

“It works for us.”

Kyle Jean is the strength and conditioning coach for the Irish.

Ristano says that developing the entire kinetic chain is taught at Notre Dame.

A native of Valley Stream, N.Y., and left-hander who pitched at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., certain workouts were not done when Ristano was in college.

“We didn’t touch the upper body,” says Ristano. “We pulled more than we pushed.

“There’s some validity to that to this day still, but we build guys who are big, tough and capable of withstanding 14, 15 or 16 starts if we’re going to pitch in Omaha (at the College World Series.”

Ristano says the earlier a pitcher can adopt this routine, the easier is will be for them.

ND pitchers use many tools including MediBall medicine balls.

Ristano makes these points regarding the value of metrics:

• Quantify what the eye sees.

• Validation of what we already know.

• Seeing some of what we don’t know.

“I know that not everybody has access to Rapsodo, TrackMan, Edgertronic,” says Ristano. “But it will become part of everybody’s development plan.”

ND’s director of baseball operations, who is now Steven Rosen, gives reports to the coaches after every outing and the data is shared with the players.

“What I look at immediately if I’m evaluating metrics is pitch movements (what are my pitches doing?),” says Ristano. This involves vertical and horizontal break plus spin efficiency rates and velocity. “You don’t just track it in singular entities. You have to track it over time to maximize the effectiveness of it.”

As for the arm, Ristano says conditioning is key and that the kinetic chain can break anywhere.

“If you don’t train your body holistically, you’re not conditioning yourself to be today’s pitcher,” says Ristano, who adds a caution. “When you get the benefit of throwing harder, you absorb the risk that angular velocities increase and you become more susceptible, unfortunately, to injury. How many guys throw 100 (mph) now vs. 10 years ago?

“You’ve got to be willing to adapt your training modalities and condition the entire body if you’re going to accept the gift of throwing harder.”

Ristano says low-intensity throwing can build feel for a pitcher.

The coach likes his hurlers to be able to spin the baseball at a low intensity and distance.

“You want to develop secondary stuff,” says Ristano. “Can I pronate from me to you (when playing catch) and still put the ball in your center of mass?”

Ristano says the bottom line is getting people out. That’s the job function.

“You need to learn how to build feel,” says Ristano. “The feel is the deal.”

There must be a time off from throwing.

“A rest period is worthless if you don’t get four weeks off at a time,” says Ristano, noting that time off from throwing doesn’t mean time off from training.

Most ND pitchers stopped throwing two weeks ago and won’t begin again until the second or third week of December. The Irish open the 2020 season on Feb. 14.

Ristano says the Irish long toss and it looks different depending on whether it’s in-season or out-of-season.

In-season, the pitcher is building to his next outing. Out-of-season, they can let it fly. Some throw 300 feet or more.

It’s a two-part phase in long toss — stretching out (aggressive with the lower half and easy with the arm).

Once at peak distance (which varies from day to day), Ristano says his pitchers spend as much time coming in as they do going out.

“I go from aggressive lower half and easy arm to aggressive lower half and aggressive arm,” says Ristano. “I keep those throws at eye level.

“That’s how you build arm strength with the long toss.”

Ristano talked about the progression of Notre Dame pitchers from preseason to season:

• Arm regeneration phase (late October to early December).

• End-of-semester throwing packet.

• Return to campus ready to hit the mound.

• Separation of roles (build up pitch count and get comfortable pitching in relief roles).

A sample week for an ND’s Friday night starter looks like this:

• Friday (pitch live with postgame flush cardio and recovery bands).

• Satruday (optional throwing with sprints, post game charts and lower body work).

• Sunday (long toss and MediBall circuit).

• Monday (short bullpen, intermediate cardio, postgame video review and total body work).

• Tuesday (drills, sprints and MediBall circuit).

• Wednesday (bullpen and intermediate cardio).

• Thursday (optional throwing).

This past fall, the first new Notre Dame head coach Link Jarrett, pitchers did not go above 50 pitches per outing. Appearances were prioritized over building up pitches and innings.

“What are we building up to?,” says Ristano. “We don’t need a guy to throw six innings in October.”

After the season, Irish pitchers receive the following:

• Full assessment of performance (see season summary).

• Clear directives on what needs to improve.

• Determination of what is best for your summer (continue pitching, rest, strengthening etc.).

Rest the arm is key for collegians and high schoolers alike.

“Be confident enough in who you are to take some time off,” says Ristano. “The bullets you fire at 15, 16, 17 years old, you don’t know the damage it potentially does until that kid’s 20 years old and he’s becoming a man.

“I’m not laying the arm injuries on the high school coaches because we are just as responsible. We bring guys back on short rest. We try to go to the College World Series. Big league baseball has its starters pitching the bullpen.

“When you’re 16, you don’t need to start Friday, pitch in relief Tuesday and start Friday again.”

Notre Dame emphasizes and charts getting ahead in the count and being efficient.

“We want to get the at-bat over in three pitches or less (A3P),” says Ristano. “We’ve tracked this for four years. We know that with a first-pitch strike, 72 percent of the time we get a positive outcome. When we executive an A3P, 75 percent of the time it results in a positive outcome.”

Ristano offers a final “M” — Mentality:

• Identity (what we want to be, how we want to be viewed).

• Culture (how we go about our business).

“How do we handle our business?,” says Ristano. “From the outside looking in, what would you take away from watching the Notre Dame pitching staff.

“We embrace each guy’s individuality. But we have to respect the standards of the group.”

Ristano says there are three parts to pitching the “Notre Dame Way.”

“We want to work fast, pitch offensively and project confidence,” says Ristano. “It’s very simple. It has nothing to do with our velocity.”

The Irish play in the very competitive Atlantic Coast Conference with a top-notch non-conference schedule.

“You do not out-think hitters in the ACC,” says Ristano. “You do not out-think hitters in most of college baseball.

“What do you do? You out-execute hitters. At this level, we prioritize pitch execution over selection. You throw the pitch you want to throw. I call pitches and let our guys shake (off the sign). But, at the end of the day, the well-executed pitch that was wrong is better than the poorly-executed pitch that was correct.”

It’s about developing young men who attack their work with ferocity.

“If you’re ready to go, suffocate the opposition,” says Ristano. “Press. Press. Press.

“It keeps the defense engaged. It’s a thing of beauty when you have a guy who’s throwing strikes. It’s disgusting when you have a guy who is not.”

Ristano says he is proud of be part of the state’s baseball community.

“I get that our locker room is populated by kids from 17 different states,” says Ristano. “But, yes, we have to do a really, really good job in the state of Indiana

“(Notre Dame is) a unique place that has unique standards aside from whether or not you can play.”

Ristano encourages coaches to “be a thief.”

“Learn something from everybody,” says Ristano, who still repeats ideas he heard at his first coaches clinic from Oklahoma City University head coach Denney Crabaugh. “Be willing to share and ask questions. Ego is the enemy.

“Be confident in what you do. We’re not all right and we’re not all wrong. What we do works for us.

“If you’re not comfortable teaching it, it makes it really hard to get buy-in from your players.”

Ristano says great pitchers think:

• 9 vs. 1 mentality.

“The deck is stacked in your favor as a pitcher,” says Ristano.

• Focus on what they can control.

• Embrace pressure situations.

• One pitch at a time mentality.

• Focus on solutions over problems.

• Embrace competition and don’t use how they feel/mechanics as a crutch.

These are the conduct standards at Notre Dame:

• Best effort in everything that you do.

• Bring energy. Also be vigilant against those who suck the energy out of us (gravity vs. energy).

“We don’t want the gravity to pull us down, we want the energy to pull us up,” says Ristano. “Are you a fountain or a drain?”

• Expect the best, don’t hope for it.

• Value what you project to the world (body language).

“Have some energy,” says Ristano. “If you don’t have it, fake it. It really matters. Somebody’s always watching.”

• Take advantage of additional development opportunities.

You want to be great? Do stuff that’s pitching-related but doesn’t actually consist of the actual throwing mechanics — MediBall stuff, video review, low-intensity throwing.

• Honest/constructive dialogue between teammates (as well as players and coaches).

“Spoiler alert: Your parents don’t give you honest/construct dialogue,” says Ristano. “At the end of the day, talk your coach. He’s there for a reason.

“What do I need to do to be better. There has to be an element of trust in your circle.”

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Chuck Ristano enters his 10th season as pitching coach for the University of Notre Dame baseball team in 2020. (University of Notre Dame Photo)

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Chuck Ristano, the baseball pitching coach at the University of Notre Dame, takes an aggressive approach with his staff. He wants them to train and execute with ferocity. (University of Notre Dame Photo)

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Chuck Ristano is entering his 10th season as baseball pitching coach at the University of Notre Dame. He is now working with new head coach Link Jarrett. (University of Notre Dame Photo)

 

Schreiber looks for Purdue Fort Wayne Mastodons to be in ‘overachieve mode’

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

New Purdue Fort Wayne head baseball Doug Schreiber has been defining the culture for his Mastodons.

With the help of PFW assistants Brent McNeil, Ken Jones and Gordon Cardenas, attitude will be at the forefront.

“We’re going to have to be in overachieve mode somewhat,” says Schreiber, who was hired at PFW in July 2019. “We’re going to be looking at players to play a little bit above their skill level.

“To be able to overachieve, you have to have the intangibles. You have to have the proper attitude and outlook. We’re recruiting attitude and that’s going to be a big focus.

“We want to make sure guys understand that having a positive attitude, a maturity level and a passion to play is the foundation of the program with respect, work ethic and trust being some of the cornerstones of what we’re trying to build.”

Schreiber says he makes few guarantees to his players. He doesn’t promise them he’ll add 10 mph to their fastball, get them drafted or even give them a starting position.

“One of the things I think I can guarantee is that if you don’t have the right attitude and the right mindset, you definitely aren’t going to overachieve and play above your skill set,” says Schreiber. “You are probably going to play below your skill set.”

A head coach for 20 seasons in West Lafayette, Ind., — 18 at Purdue University (1999-2016) and two at McCutcheon High School (20018-19), Schreiber knows that Purdue Fort Wayne may not be the biggest school with the very best facilities.

But the Mastodons are NCAA Division I and expect to be competitive at that level while playing home games at Mastodon Field and training in the strength & fitness area inside the Hilliard Gates Sports Center.

How does Schreiber and company recognize the intangibles during the recruiting process?

Stuff on the mound, bat speed and range in the field are fairly evident. It’s not as obvious with other attributes.

“It’s tough.” says Schreiber. “You do have to spend a little more time. In some of the recruiting opportunities, you just get a quick look.”

Because of NCAAA rules, coaches don’t get spend as an inordinate amount of time with the prospective student-athlete. That’s where they rely on the players’ coaches (high school, travel, junior college).

Schreiber said the vetting process also includes the answers that come from casual conversation.

The Mastodons staff has learned how to read body language. It’s something they pick up on when watching a recruit when they or their teammates are struggling and it’s something they can see in players on the roster.

“We can’t see what’s inside their head, their heart or their gut,” says Schreiber. “The best way you have at least a clue on what’s going on in there is their body language.

“It definitely is a red flag when you see some disrespect and those types of things.”

It’s important because there are only so many roster spots available (up to 35 with 11.7 scholarships at the D-I level) and coaches have to get it right.

“Within their baseball life, we’re going to have compassion for them as individuals with anything that’s going on in their life,” says Schreiber. “But we just don’t have time for them to feel sorry for themselves.

“It’s a tough enough game that if they start to feel sorry for themselves, that’s the beginning of a negative attitude. They’re going to start making excuses, blaming other people or not taking responsibility. We have to have student-athletes that are mature enough and coachable enough to be able to handle adversity and persevere through those types of things.”

Schreiber says human beings have negative thoughts. What are done with those are the key.

“Do you act out on them?,” says Schreiber. “Do you voice your negative opinion? There’s all kinds of things that can get you in trouble.

“We have to teach them how to channel those negative thoughts into some positive action and positive thoughts.”

Schreiber also puts stock in mental development. With that in mind, he will have his players in classroom settings taking part in open discussions on life skills.

Topics will include “a winning mentality vs. a whining mentality” plus leadership, team unity and much more.

Prior to taking over at Purdue, Schreiber served as an assistant at Ball State University (1991-92), Butler University (1993), the University of Notre Dame (1994) and Arizona State University (1995-98).

That’s why he values his experience at McCutcheon. When he went into coaching, he thought he would be at the high school level — something his father — 13-time Hall of Famer Ken Schreiber excelled at for 39 years at LaPorte (Ind.) High School.

“I had the opportunity to keep staying at Division I,” says Schreiber. “It  just kept working out.

“To (coach) at McCutcheon, where (Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer) Jake Burton had built the program up to such a high caliber was a great experience.”

Working with high school student-athletes, Schreiber learned about patience.

“I feel like I became a better coach by coaching younger players,” says Schreiber. “Those are the players we’re going to be recruiting now.

“Getting in-tune with how they communicate amongst each other and with coaches, parents and everything was an important piece of it, too.”

After his coaching tenure at Purdue, Schreiber went into an academic job at the school then got his real estate license, but never got into that field too heavily with his coaching position at McCutcheon.

I knew I wanted to continue to coach,” says McCutcheon. “I looked into few opportunities, but when this one (at Purdue Fort Wayne) came forward it was something I was very, very interested in and was very fortunate I got the opportunity to do it.”

“Staying in Indiana was important to my wife (McCutcheon guidance counselor Sarah) and I. We had visited and done some things in Fort Wayne. I’ve recruited over here.

“Fort Wayne is a great city. It’s got a lot of everything, but it still has the small Midwest town feel.”

The Schreiber have purchased a home in Fort Wayne, meaning the coach does not have the long commute he had when he first was hired.

“Other than that, it’s been smooth and thoroughly enjoyable,” says Schreiber of the transition. “Everything has been quality. I’ve got great support from our athletic director.”

Mastodons AD Kelley Hartley Hutton was head women’s volleyball coach for 15 seasons and 13 years as Senior Woman Administrator PFW. She was a four-year player at the University of Toledo.

“She understands the coach’s perspective,” says Schreiber. “We’re into having the best student-athlete experience possible. She gets it from both ends (coach and athlete).”

Staying in the state also allows Schreiber to keep his well-established network of high school and travel ball coaches. There’s also the junior colleges in the region.

This fall, recruiting has included plenty of looks at junior college players, who tend to be more mature physically and mentally.

“That’s not to say we’re not interested in high talent high school players as well,” says Schreiber. “We’re going to try to stay very strong in Indiana — players that have gone on to junior college and those from high schools.”

Ideally, most players will be on-campus for four or five years, giving time to mature and grow into leadership roles.

“There’s a always a little bit of a learning curve,” says Schreiber. “Ultimately, our base is going to be four-year players with a good mix of junior college players.”

Purdue Fort Wayne also participates in the Midwest Student Exchange Program, where students from several surrounding states get a break on out-of-state tuition. That allows Schreiber and company to take a little wider look while keeping Indiana as the recruiting base.

PFW is currently a member of the Summit League (with North Dakota State, Omaha, Oral Roberts, South Dakota State and Western Illinois). The Mastodons are joining the Horizon League in 2020-21. The league currently features Milwaukee, Northern Kentucky, Oakland, University of Illinois-Chicago, Wright State and Youngstown State.

Schreiber says geography is one factor for the switch.

“Student-athletes are missing a lot of class because of the distance,” says Schreiber. “We do create things with scheduling in the spring that allows them to minimize missed classes.”

That includes moving classes away from late in the day Thursday or altogether Friday and taking more online classes. On the road, there is quiet time for study on the bus and in the hotel. With some long road trips ending on Monday morning, a premium is placed on time and priority management.

“It’s going to benefit them from an academic standpoint,” says Schreiber of the move to the Horizon.

With Schreiber’s hiring, the Slicer quotient doubled for the Mastodons. Doug is a 1982 LaPorte High School graduate. Mastodons senior first baseman Travis Upp, son of current LaPorte head coach Scott Upp, got his diploma at LPHS in 2016.

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Doug Schreiber is the head baseball coach at Purdue University Fort Wayne (Ind.) (Steve Krah Photo)

 

Edgewood grad Smith in seventh season leading Ohio U. baseball

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Rob Smith identifies two qualities that he brings to his job as head baseball coach at Ohio University — intensity and consistency.

“There certainly is a lot of fire and passion in myself, yet a consistency in how we train, how we practice and what our expectations are,” says Smith, who was hired to lead the Bobcats program June 11, 2012. “I would like to think that I’m very competitive. I would like to think that resonates with our team and that we value hard work.”

Prior to taking over in Athens, Ohio, Indiana native Smith served two assistant stints at Purdue University on the staff of head coach Doug Schreiber and then at Creighton University for Ed Servais.

“Schreib is a very fiery, passionate coach,” says Smith. “He could really put a charge into a team. Coach Servais had that as well. He was probably the most consistent person I’ve ever been around.

“I’d like to think there’s a combination of a little bit of both (in me).”

Smith was a volunteer assistant at Purdue in 1999 then spent two seasons managing in the summer collegiate Northwoods League with the Wisconsin Woodchucks (winning a championship in 2001) before being hired by Schreiber as the Boilermakers pitching coach.

“Everything that I have been able to do as a coach I owe to that man without question,” says Smith of Schreiber. “He gave me a chance to be a college coach when I really didn’t have the resume to get that position.

“I had five awesome years there.”

Chadd Blasko, who was selected in the first round of the 2002 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, was among Smith’s Purdue pitchers.

Smith was associate head coach at Creighton in Omaha, Neb., 2007-12, while gaining wisdom from Servais.

“He’s — without a doubt — one of the 10 best college baseball coaches in the country,” says Smith of Servais. “He’s an outstanding coach, a great teacher of the game.

“A lot of the things I learned about how to run a practice, how to manage a ball club I learned from my time at Creighton with Ed.”

Switch-pitcher Pat Venditte, now with the San Francisco Giants organization, was a part of the Smith-led Bluejays staff.

Smith has built the Ohio Bobcats on a few simple concepts.

“In our program pitching and defense are two very big things that we spend a lot of time talking about,” says Smith. “It’s handling the ball and eliminating free bases.”

Ohio, a member of the Mid-American Conference, won MAC tournament titles and qualified for NCAA regional play in 2015 and 2017. Prior to 2015, the Bobcats had made just two NCAA tournament appearances in the 43 previous seasons.

Smith coached four Bobcats — right-handed pitchers Brett Barber, Tom Colletti and Logan Cozart and outfielder Mitch Longo — that went on to play minor league baseball. Colletti is currently in the San Diego Padres system, Cozart with the Colorado Rockies organization and Longo in the Cleveland Indians chain.

The 2019 team is 17-32 overall and 11-14 in the MAC and fighting for a spot in the six-team conference tournament, which is May 22-26 in Avon, Ohio. The Bobcats split the first two of a three-game series at Western Michigan, coached by Indiana native Billy Gernon, May 16 and 17.

There are three Indiana products on the roster — senior Kenny Ogg and freshmen Zyon Avery and Xavier Haendiges.

Smith grew up in Ellettsville, Ind., and is a 1991 graduate of Edgewood High School, where he played for and later coached under Bob Jones.

After his college playing career ended, Smith was hired to coach the Edgewood freshmen and also started a summer travel team called the Indiana Blue Storm.

Smith played at Vincennes University for National Junior College Athletic Association Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Jerry Blemker and Indiana University Southeast for Rick Parr.

“Coach Blemker taught me a lot,” says Smith. “Certainly baseball stuff, but probably more so about discipline, growing up and being a man.

“He’s been very instrumental in my life. He helped me mature. He was very patient with me through some times where I probably not the easiest player to coach.

“His patience and understanding and his toughness helped me in so many ways.”

At IUS, Smith saw right away Parr’s passion and knowledge about hitting.

Smith’s first college coaching gig came in 1998 at Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, where Mike Moyzis was head coach and Rick O’Dette (who would coach the the Pumas for years until the school was closed and is now leading the program at Saint Leo University in Florida).

At Ohio U., Smith uses statistics, trends and analysis to make decisions, especially in pitch calling.

“I believe in analytics,” says Smith. “I believe there’s a place for it. It’s very useful if you can get the right information.

“That’s always been the issue at the college level. The information you can get your hands on at times is spotty. It’s getting better and better. There’s the ability to watch film and more games are on TV.  There’s a lot more resources to gather good information to make decisions.”

Smith says the higher the sample size, the more reliable the information.

Rob and RaeAnna are the parents of four teenagers — identical twins Sierra and Serena (19), Tyson (15) and Isabelle (13). The twins just completed their freshmen year at Ohio. Tyson is a high school freshman. Isabelle is in the seventh grade.

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Rob Smith brings combination of intensity and consistency in his seventh season as head baseball coach at Ohio University in 2019. (/Emilee Chinn/Ohio University Photo)

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Rob Smith started as head baseball coach at Ohio University June 11, 2012. He took he Bobcats to the Mid-American Conference tournament titles and NCAA tournament berths in 2015 and 2017. (Maddie Schroeder/Ohio University Photo)

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Rob Smith is the head baseball coach at Ohio University. He grew up in Ellettsville, Ind. He played and coached Edgewood High School, played at Vincennes University and Indiana University Southeast and coached at Purdue University and Creighton University before landing in Athens. (Ohio University Photo)

 

Purdue Fort Wayne’s Birely helps pitchers navigate a world of knowledge

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Blending various talents into a cohesive unit, helping them navigate a world of knowledge and encouraging a flow of ideas.

This is what Grant Birely gets to do as pitching coach at NCAA Division I Purdue Fort Wayne (formerly Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne).

Birely, 36, has been on the job since the 2009 season. The Mastodons are scheduled to open the 2019 campaign Feb. 15-17 with four games at Alabama A&M.

The Purdue Fort Wayne roster features 14 active pitchers with two who will likely be medical redshirts.

“I make an individual plan with each of them to become the best they can,” says Birely. “As they get older and go through the program, they take a lot of ownership of their own development and I become a consultant for them. With the young guys, it’s about teaching them what it takes to pitch at this level.”

Birely says the cornerstone of Mastodons pitching is throwing and learning to spin pitches.

“In some form or fashion, there is throwing each day,” says Birely. “It might be 60 feet one day just to get loose. It might be 350 feet if they’re going to long toss that day. I don’t put a distance restriction on them. We tell them to listen to their arm and see how it feels each day.”

The point is, collegiate pitchers are asked to throw a lot.

“There’s no better way to learn to throw than to throw,” says Birely. “We’re working on their craft every single day.”

Playing baseball at the college level, especially Division I, is a major commitment between school work and hours spend getting ready for and playing games.

“We spend everyday with them and they spend so much time on it, they have to love baseball and showing up everyday and working on it,” says Birely. “One thing they’ll leave with is time management when they head into the real world.”

Purdue Fort Wayne pitchers do a hybrid training program that includes band work, stretching and some weighted-ball movements.

“We don’t dive straight into a full weight-ball program because these guys are competing the minute they get on-campus,” says Birely. “They never really have that down time to solely focus on velocity or anything like that. We’re always trying to work on command (of the strike zone) and commanding a second pitch.”

When the weather keeps the Mastodons off the frozen tundra, they do their throwing in a spacious fieldhouse large enough to make tosses of up to 250 or 260 feet.

“We’re very lucky to have that,” says Birely. “It’s just high enough so they can get a little bit of air under the baseball.”

The top two pitchers from 2018 in terms of innings pitched and victories are gone. Right-hander Brandon Phelps, a Fort Wayne Snider High School graduate, pitched 83 innings and won five games as a redshirt senior. Left-hander Damian Helm worked 73 1/3 innings with four victories in his senior season.

As the Mastodons head into the only four-game series of 2019, Birely says junior right-hander Chase Phelps (Brandon’s brother and also a Fort Wayne Snider graduate), junior right-hander Cameron Boyd (Fishers) and redshirt senior right-hander Shane Odzark will get the first opportunity to be starting pitchers.

The bullpen is being built with establishing strength in the late innings as a priority.

“We’ve got a lot of guys who are excited to try to go and finish games,” says Birely, who counts freshman left-hander Justin Miller (Homestead), sophomore right-hander Sean Ferguson (New Haven) and freshman right-hander Jarrett Miller in the closer mix.

Other right-handers include sophomore Trevor Armstrong (Fort Wayne Snider), sophomore Nathan Hefle, freshman Garrett Hill (University), junior Tyler Kissinger, junior Duane Miller, sophomore Brian Skelton (Westfield) and redshirt freshman Cade Willard (Eastside).

Another lefty is sophomore Spencer Strobel (Avon).

Birely says two freshmen right-hander — Grant Johnston (Hamilton Southeastern) and Drew Pyle (Hagerstown) — have had injuries that will likely make them redshirts.

The pitching coach has learned that he is dealing with players who have different ways of learning. They might be visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners.

“We have some guys who like to see themselves on video and they can make adjustments based off that,” says Birely. “Some guys I have to put in a position kind of in a kinesthetic way so they can feel it.

“It’s definitely a challenge to figure out each guy.”

And figuring it out is key.

“Anyone who is teaching might be the smartest person in the world but if they can’t get that information to the players, it doesn’t really work and it doesn’t help,” says Birely. “It’s been fun finding different ways to teach and different ways to convey information that I have to them.”

Birely notes that the current generation — Generation Z — gets a bad rap for asking so many questions.

“They have all this information at their finger tips,” says Birely. “Some of it is good and some of it is not good.

“I’d rather have them ask me a question or to try to figure something out than to just go and do it on their own.”

Group chats are a way that information is exchanged.

A pitcher will see a video in social media and ask, “what do you think of this, Coach?.”

Birely asks his hurlers to identify their favorite major league pitcher.

“That gives me some insight of who they’re going to watch,” says Birely. “My favorite pitcher to watch growing up was Greg Maddux. I was never the big velocity guy. Watching him throw a baseball looked like watching a wiffleball.”

He also followed the fortunes of another future Hall of Famer. Roy Halladay went to high school just a few years before Birely in nearby Denver suburb of Arvada.

Birley is a graduate of Chatfield Senior High School in Littleton, Colo. He played for current Purdue Fort Wayne head coach Bobby Pierce at Central Arizona College (the Vaqueros won the 2002 National Junior College Division I World Series) then finished his collegiate career at the University of New Orleans. That’s where he met his future wife, Bonnie. The two were living in the Big Easy when Hurricane Katrina hit and they moved closer to Grant’s family in Denver.

Retired as a player after one season of independent baseball with the Mesa Miners, Birley went into the business world when a friend asked him to help with freshmen tryouts at Regis Jesuit High School, figuring it would just be for a few hours on a Saturday.

“From the moment I walked out there, I was hooked,” says Birely, who spent two seasons at Regis Jesuit in Aurora, Colo. When Pierce became head coach at Metropolitan State University of Denver, he invited Birely to become Roadrunners pitching coach. When Pierce moved to Indiana to lead the IPFW Mastodons, he asked Birely to come with him.

“I wouldn’t have this opportunity without him,” says Birely of Pierce. “He’s been a mentor and a great person to learn from.

“The best thing about him is that he lets everybody in the organization from players to staff go do their job

he gives them the freedom and creativity to make the program better.”

Pierce promotes a spirit of working together for a common goal.

“He’s very positive,” says Birley. “He’s great to work for. He’s awesome to play for. He allows the players the freedom to exchange ideas.

“Let’s figure it out together.”

Grant and Bonnie Birely have figured out how to balance baseball and family life. The couple has two children — Fort Wayne Bishop Dwenger High School senior Tyler (who is active in theater and show choir) and sixth grader Kaylee.

“Like everyday says you’ve got to have a very understand wife,” says Grant. “She’s on this journey with me. Otherwise, I couldn’t do this.

“She keeps the fort going at home.”

Purdue Fort Wayne plays in the Summit League (with North Dakota State, Omaha, Oral Roberts, South Dakota State and Western Illinois). That makes for a good deal of travel. When the Mastodons go to the Dakotas, they often leave campus on Wednesday night and return at noon Monday.

“(Players) do a great job of doing their schoolwork on the road,” says Birely. “It’s not uncommon to walk through a hotel lobby and there’s 25 or 30 guys doing their homework.

It’s not uncommon for players to ask for the movies to be turned off on the bus to study for an upcoming test.

“We’ve had guys who understand what it means to be a true student-athlete,” says Birely. “It goes back to time management. They have to rely on themselves a lot to make sure they’re getting their work done.”

Coaches will proctor tests for professors, who email the exam and set the time limit and have the coaches sent it back. Other take online classes to allow flexibility and no requirement to be in a classroom.

Christine Kuznar is Senior Associate Athletic Director for Academics and meets with players each semester to them on-track toward getting their degree as quickly and efficiently as possible.

“She’s the rock star behind the whole thing,” says Birely.

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Purdue Fort Wayne was formerly known as Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne. In its new branding, the Mastodons have adopted black and gold as school colors with a hint of blue as homage to the IPFW brand. (Purdue Fort Wayne Image)

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Grant Birely, the baseball pitching coach at Purdue Fort Wayne, is a native of Colorado who played and coached for Mastodons head coach Bobby Pierce before following him to Indiana. (Purdue Fort Wayne Photo)

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Grant Birely has been baseball pitching coach at Purdue Fort Wayne (formerly Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne) since the 2009 season. (Purdue Fort Wayne Photo)

 

 

Northridge graduates, Fort Wayne seniors Baker, Logan have seen many baseball adventures together

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Who knows how much time Shannon Baker and Brock Logan have spent together on or near a baseball field?

The two have been teammates since they were 12.

They’ve worn the same uniform with the Michiana Scrappers, Bristol American Legion Post 143 and Northridge High School in Middlebury, where they played for coach Andrew Brabender and graduated in 2013.

Baker and Logan are now seeing their final college season wind down as redshirt seniors and team leaders for the NCAA Division I Fort Wayne Mastodons.

The pair have brought left-handed pop to the middle of the lineup.

But that’s not all.

“Those are two guys that work hard on the baseball field and in the weight room,” says Mastodons head coach Bobby Pierce. “They’re excellent students who are graduating. They are really model student-athletes.

“As a baseball coach, you worry about your players. You are responsible for them. When you can have guys who can do all the right things and have intrinsic motivation, it makes my job a lot easier. I’m going to miss them a lot.”

Pierce says he has enjoyed watching Baker and Logan — who were roommates their first three years of college — grow together and individually.

“There is a connection there that is very deep and sincere,” says Pierce. “They care for each other.

“We don’t officially have captains on this team, but they are. The cream rises to the top. On the position player side, they do the right thing, lead by example and they’re vocal as well.”

Says Logan, “We know each others’ abilities and we know we can rely on each other.”

When Baker and Logan arrived in Fort Wayne, the program was full of veterans and was winning games.

“From our mindset, I didn’t want to burn a year and have Shannon and Brock each get 10 at-bats (as true freshmen),” says Pierce. “So we redshirted them in a strategic move and it really paid off. They’ve been four-year starters in our program. I’m so happy to have them this year versus having them graduate last year.”

Baker, who batted in the No. 3 hole and split his time at first base and third base Tuesday, May 8 at Purdue, leads Fort Wayne in games played and starts (40 and 38) and walks (32) and is second in batting average (.302), hits (38), runs batted in (19) and multi-hit games (11), third in doubles (7) and tied for fourth in total bases (47).

Logan, who was in the fifth spot at designated hitter Tuesday and has played in 34 games (32 starts), is hitting .258 with nine runs batted in. He is first on the squad in being hit by a pitch (10) and second in walks (21). He has seven multi-hit games.

With Fort Wayne traveling to Fargo, N.D., for a three-game Summit League series at North Dakota State, Baker and Logan will miss Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne commencement Wednesday, May 9. Baker has earned a criminal justice degree with a minor in organizational leadership while Logan’s diploma is for business marketing.

Shannon, the son of John and Sara Baker and sibling of Shawn Baker and Samantha Baker, has a number of law enforcement officers — active or retired — in his family. Among those are his father, father David Baker and cousins Scott Weaver and Jeff Weaver.

“I’m going to keep on playing as long as I can,” says Shannon of his immediate post-college plans. “If not, I’ll go back home and try to get on the police force.”

Brock, the son of Mike and Karin Logan and older brother of Nicholas Logan, has already accepted a job with Federated Insurance — a connection he made through interview classes.

“It just seemed like an awesome fit and a great opportunity,” says Logan, who expects to train in Minnesota and then work near home in northern Indiana as a insurance salesman and business advisor.

Long bus rides and plenty of hotel time has allowed Fort Wayne players to become close.

“You get to bond with the team and you get to see a side of somebody you might not if you’re at school and separate from each other,” says Baker, who counts a tour of Omaha’s TD Ameritrade Park — home of the College World Series — as one of his favorite memories from the road.

Logan, who took time off from baseball during his college summers while working on farms and spending time with family, reflects on what he’s learned about baseball and himself the past five years.

“The time goes by real fast,” says Logan. “It’s a game of failure. You can’t let the little things get to you. There’s always another day of baseball. There’s always another opportunity. You just go play your game.

“Toward the end of my junior year and into my senior year, I just started playing for fun and not worry about anything. You don’t look at stats, you just go do ‘you’ and the results will happen.”

Baker, who also played a high school summer with the Indiana Chargers and has played during his college summers with the Syracuse (N.Y.) Salt Cats (where he has been used as a catcher), Hamilton (Ohio) Joes and in Morganton N.C., expresses gratitude for the patience shown by Fort Wayne coaches while he figured out some of the finer points of the game.

“My freshman year, they’d tell me something and it would take awhile,” says Baker. “Now, it goes right away.”

“I’ve improved by getting to know the game a little bit better than I did in high school. Coaches have helped me improve my game mentally and adjust to situations. That’s really helped me along the way.

“It comes with maturity and time.”

Baker and Logan finish their college careers May 15 at Ball State and May 17-19 at Mastodon Field against Oral Roberts.

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Shannon Baker (above and below) is a redshirt senior for the Fort Wayne Mastodons and is a 2013 Northridge High School graduate. (Fort Wayne Mastodons Photos)

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Brock Logan (above and below) is a redshirt senior for the Fort Wayne Mastodons and is a 2013 Northridge High School graduate. (Fort Wayne Mastodons Photos)

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Indiana Bulls have grown baseball in state nearly three decades

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Developing and showcasing homegrown baseball talent has been the mission of the Indiana Bulls since the travel organization was founded in 1991.

Taking players exclusively from Indiana was how co-founder Dave Taylor wanted it and that’s the way it has remained all these years.

The Bulls have sent countless players on to college baseball and dozens have been drafted by Major League Baseball.

Two players on the first Bulls team — Todd Dunwoody (Harrison High School in West Lafayette) and Scott Rolen (Jasper) — made it to the big leagues.

Rolen is on the latest National Baseball Hall of Fame ballot.

Recent Bulls alums to don MLB uniforms include Nevin Ashley (North Knox), Tucker Barnhart (Brownsburg), Tommy Hunter (Indianapolis Cathedral), Micah Johnson (Park Tudor), Adam Lind (Anderson Highland), Josh Lindblom (Harrison of West Lafayette), Lance Lynn (Brownsburg), Alex Meyer (Greensburg), Cameron Perkins (Southport), Clayton Richard (McCutcheon) and Drew Storen (Brownsburg).

“We have pride in that border with Indiana players,” says Bulls executive director Dan Held. “It’s impressive to see all the players that come out of here.”

In 2018, the Bulls have 26 teams from 8U through 18U.

With Held running the show, all will be present at noon Sunday, Jan. 28 at Westfield High School for the annual parent/player organizational meeting.

Barnhart will be the guest speaker and players will receive uniforms and equipment in anticipation of the upcoming season.

The campaign opens first for 8U to 14U. Those squads are expected to play 50 to 60 games apiece during their four-month season.

At this age, the Bulls try not to travel more than three weekends in a row.

“We are not chasing trophies,” says Held.

High school-aged teams — U15 to U18 — get started after the prep season concludes and have eight weekends worth of tournaments and will likely play 30 to 40 games each.

High school baseball is a priority at this age the the Bulls strive to develop relationships with prep coaches (and have several on the coaching staff).

“High school coaches are a fantastic resource,” says Held. “They are with those players for years.

“We are just an additional set of ears and eyes for those coaches.”

The 8U to 14U teams play many games in and around Indiana, but have been known to go to Cooperstown, N.Y., and Omaha, Neb.

Held puts all the schedules together for high school-level teams with an eye on exposure to college scouts.

Some of those showcases include the Music City Classic in Nashville, Tenn., and World Wood Bat Championships in Cartersville, Ga., as well as the Youth Amateur Baseball Championships and Midwest Prospect League run by Bullpen Tournaments at Grand Park in Westfield with its 26 synthetic surface diamonds.

At the end of the season, coaches fill out an evaluation form for each player — noting strengths and weaknesses — and presents it to the player or their parents and Held also gets a copy.

Annually, the Bulls offer three memorial scholarships — in honor of Daniel Mercer, Craig Moore and Lance Moore.

Once the season ends, there are optional fall workouts. There is no training activity in November and December.

Held left his post as a St. Louis Cardinals coach after the 2006 season to direct the Bulls, which are based in the Indianapolis area but draws players from all corners of the state.

With all his connections in the baseball world, Held is the face of the organization.

When he first came aboard with the Bulls, Held conducted player clinics. But with players spread out across Indiana it was difficult to reach all of them.

Held then decided to focus on educating the coaches to relay the message to the players.

He wants a non-threatening atmosphere and screamers and yellers are not welcome.

All coaches are hired by Held. He is looking for those with strong baseball backgrounds. That is more important than them having a standout player for a son.

“We need to have a coach who runs a quality program,” says Held. “We’d love to have all non-dad coaches. But with time restraints, we can’t always do that. (Coaching) does entail a lot of work.”

Head coaches get a stipend to off-set expenses which they share with their assistants. Player fees are waived for sons playing on a team coached by their father.

Last November, a mandatory coaches retreat was taken to Camp Emma Lou near Bloomington. It is the site of Rolen’s E5 Foundation camps for children and families dealing with illness, loss or other special needs.

“It was a big undertaking, but it was just worth it,” says Held. “It really paid off.

“Part of my job is make sure we’re doing things properly and evaluating the coaches. I give my coaches a big leash. Micro-managing them is a mistake.”

There is manual to help coaches conduct a productive practices.

“I don’t want them having home run derbies and just hitting ground balls,” says Held. “Practice is the most important thing. Players need to get something out of it.

“I monitor my coaches. I don’t want them to go rogue.”

Practices tend to be held once a week in the winter and twice a week in the spring for 8U to 14U teams. Games are mostly played on weekends.

Besides team practices in locales around the Indianapolis area, there are some organizational practices on the calendar. That’s one of the various ways the director stays connected with all the teams. Taking a cue from professional baseball, he has each coaching staff report to him after each weekend. If there was an incident or a significant injury, Held will know about it.

If a parent has a concern, Held says they need to go through the proper channels of communication. He prefers that the matter be addressed first with that player’s coach. Then comes a board member assigned to the team and then comes the director.

“I try to keep a close watch on the pulse of our teams,” says Held. “If there are issues, we try to be visible.

“It’s hard to control 300 sets of parents. You may give a message, but they hear what they want to hear. Our parents have been fantastic with going through the proper chain of command.”

The Bulls — an Indiana not-for-profit 501 (c) 3 organization has a board of directors filled with business professionals and a set of by-laws. There are currently 23 board members.

In a presentation at the 2018 American Baseball Coaches Association Convention in Indianapolis, Taylor told those assembled about how to put together and sustain a successful travel organization like the Bulls.

Taylor says the mission must be clear.

Some are established as high school feeder programs. Others are there to go after national championships. Yet others are there to develop talent.

The Bulls were formed to develop and gain exposure for ballplayers in the state.

“Indiana was Alaska in terms of developing college baseball players,” says Taylor.

It’s key to have business people of the board — bankers, lawyers, insurance agents etc. There expertise will help in securing facilities, making deals, establishing policies, setting budgets and managing social media. Other important things to consider are revenue, player fees, sponsors and fundraising.

Taylor says board members are expected to raise money and/or cut a check of their own. They should be “invested” in the organization.

The Bulls have had a sustaining corporate partnership with cap company Lids.

While keeping tabs on all the teams, Held will also coach 16U Black and join Rolen in coaching 10U Grey and their sons — Boston Held and Finn Rolen.

“We’re excited about that,” says Held. “We get our kids to play together and enjoy the game of baseball.”

Held and Rolen were both selected in the 1993 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Philadelphia Phillies — third baseman Rolen in the second round and catcher Held in the 42nd round. They were minor league teammates.

Rolen played 17 seasons in the big leagues. Held was a pro player for nine years and a coach for five.

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Developing and showcasing homegrown baseball talent has been the mission of the Indiana Bulls since the travel organization was founded in 1991. (Indiana Bulls Image)

 

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

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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.

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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)