BY STEVE KRAH
Connor Lawhead was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest.
Thanks to baseball, Fort Wayne, Ind., became his Midwest home in the fall of 2012.
The right-hander played for Warriors head coach Dave Meliah and pitching coach C.J. Biagi and was named a first-team all-East Region relief pitcher and second-team all-Northwest Athletic Conference relief pitcher in 2012 while garnering six saves.
“Coach Meliah taught me a lot of physical and mental toughness and how to prepare at a higher level,” says Lawhead. “I learned how to attack and compete relentlessly and not have any fear.
“I played on two of the grittiest and most-competitive teams I’ve ever been a part of.”
Lawhead describes the juco experience.
“The days are long in junior college, but it helps you develop an appreciation of how much better you can get by working,” says Lawhead. “There’s a natural progression. You can speed up and expedite that process a little bit.”
“Lucky for me, they needed arms,” says Lawhead. “I wanted to play at the (NCAA) Division I level as well. That’s the reason I went to junior college in the first place.”
“It was a great experience with Coach Pirece and Coach Birely,” says Lawhead. “They helped me see things in detail and that 90 percent of game can be controlled by that pitcher-hitter confrontation.
“They gave us a lot of freedom. There was no micromanaging. We took ownership of our own development.”
Many of Lawhead’s former teammates from the Fort Wayne area have remained very good friends.
“They are my Midwest family if you will,” say Lawhead, 29.
After his playing career, he served as a graduate assistant and then as paid assistant in the Mastodons program from 2015-19.
Lawhead coached three All-Americans at IPFW — Evan Miller (who was selected in the 22nd round of the 2016 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the San Diego Padres and pitched for the Low Single-A Fort Wayne TinCaps 2016-18 and in Triple-A in 2019) and all-Summit League performers Greg Kaiser and Brandon Soat (who played for the 2017 independent pro Evansville Otters).
All three are Indiana prep products — Miller from LaPorte, Kaiser from Fort Wayne Bishop Dwenger and Soat from Homestead.
In the summers of 2014 and 2015, Lawhead was head coach for 13U and 14U teams for the Indiana Chargers travel baseball organization, working alongside founder/general manager Joel Mishler and director of operations Justin Barber.
“Joel was another big influence in my life as a coach,” say Lawhead. “(The Chargers) are youth organization so devoted to developing players and men.”
Barber is now the pitching coach at Taylor University.
Zac Mishler, Joel’s youngest son, was Lawhead’s teammate at IPFW.
Former Mastodons infielder and assistant coach Kristian Gayday was offered an opportunity to stay in Fort Wayne and join the coaching staff at the University of Saint Francis by Cougars head coach Dustin Butcher.
Gayday was later joined at the NAIA and Crossroads League member school by Lawhead, who left IPFW (now known as Purdue Fort Wayne) when Pierce left to take to take an athletic administration job in Arizona.
“Coach Butcher is great to coach under,” says Lawhead. “Before I even got here, he had established a culture with good athletes and good human beings. There’s also that (relentless) mentality I spoke about earlier. It makes my job a lot easier.
“We can focus on the things that can help us win games in the heat of competition. (Butcher) gives his assistant coaches full autonomy. He does not micromanage. We have a really good relationship.”
At IPFW, Lawhead worked primarily with position players on defense and collaborated with Pierce on hitting.
As a Saint Francis assistant, he throws batting practice and helps out with defense whenever he can but Lawhead’s primarily responsibility is with the Cougars pitching staff.
He covers a variety of areas, but a competitive mentality is a key.
“We talked about body language, self talk and all the thing we can control,” says Lawhead. “We want to compete relentlessly with no fear.
“We want to get to that fight or flight response. We like our guys competing at everything they do and doing it to the highest of their abilities.”
Lawhead has his pitchers using their arms often to build up their tolerance.
“We throw just about everyday, but not as hard as they can,” says Lawhead. “We want to be able to expose hitters’ weaknesses and get them out.”
COVID-19 restrictions did not allow Saint Francis to have any games with other schools during the six weeks of fall practice, but there was plenty of intrasquad action.
“In my opinion we accomplished our goal of pitchers learning their strengths and how they are going to attack hitters,” says Lawhead. “During week, (pitches) prepared to perform on the weekend. We had a plan in place to recover so we can do that again and again.”
Lawhead says its likely that the Cougars will not have mid-week games during the 2021 season with four-game weekend series in the conference (7- and 9-inning doubleheaders on Fridays and Saturdays).
Saint Francis finished the fall semester before Thanksgiving. Students, including ballplayers, are due back on-campus in January.
While the student-athletes are away, the coaching staff is recruiting and planning for the season.
“We’re working on how we’re going to attack practice as efficiently as possible when the guys get back,” says Lawhead.
Connor and Victoria Lawhead have a daughter who turns 1 on Dec. 31 — Avery. While Victoria is teaching sixth grade English at Woodside Middle School (a Homestead High School feeder), he is at home with the baby then often heads to the office.