Tag Archives: Pastime Tournaments

At all his coaching stops, Ratcliffe emphasizes hard work, character

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Brett Ratcliffe helped change the mindset in his return to the Trine University baseball coaching staff.

Ratcliffe had helped Thunder head coach Greg Perschke during the 2012 and 2013 seasons and assisted in school-record 25-win seasons then went back to the high school ranks before coming back on board in Angola, Ind., for 2020.

Trine, an NCAA Division III school with a 40-game regular-season limit, averaged 17 wins per year from 2014-19 with high-water marks of 19 in 2017 and 2018.

That was not considered good enough.

So the Thunder went to work in the fall.

“We have our limits when we can and can’t be with them,” says Ratcliffe referring to NCAA D-III contact rules. “But there are expectations from Coach Perschke. His passion for the kids is electric. It just gets everybody.

“There’s an off-season weight program. Kids work around their academics to get a workout in.”

The message is clear: If you want the team to get better, this is what has to happen. Here’s how you do it. Do you want to be a part of that?

At a school full of engineering students and others with rigorous majors, the find a way to get the job done.

“We give them a lot of instruction during our weeks,” says Ratcliffe. “They take this and work hard in the off-season.”

Brought in to help with catchers, infielders and hitters and be a bench coach during games, Ratcliffe says there’s a difference between high school and college that has do with more than age.

“Kids at the college level want to be there instead of doing something in high school,” says Ratcliffe. “Development is extremely different. In high school, you’re developing their skills. In college, you’re fine-tuning their skills.”

Through conversations and short videos, Perschke (Trine head coach since 2002 and the Thunder’s pitching coach) and assistants Ratcliffe and Nick Pfafman provided instruction for a month and then the team’s veterans led a few more weeks of workouts heading into the winter.

“We developed a mindset of how to react and respond to things,” says Ratcliffe. “It’s one of the things I was brought in for.”

When the team came back from Christmas break it had less than a month before its first games. 

Trine went 1-2 Feb. 22-23 in Kentucky then 8-0 March 1-6 in Florida.

Then — suddenly — the season was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Thunder gathered for an impromptu team photo after a practice and said their goodbyes.

“It was a huge gut punch,” says Ratcliffe. “We had eight seniors (Tony Bottone, Caleb Deiter, Jacob Douglass, Chase Hall, Shawn Ligocki, Nick Ricci, Thomas Rivet and Jake Roddy) that took to this year’s culture. No longer was 18 wins a good year.”

Trine was chosen to finish seventh in the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association preseason poll, but seemed to be a on a path that would put them in the MIAA’s top four and a playoff berth.

This summer, Ratcliffe is head coach for the 17U DeKalb County Thunder travel team. His assistant is Cody Krumlauf, a graduate of DeKalb High School and Earlham College who has been a player and coach for the Quakers.

The program was started a few years ago when the players were at the 15U level. The Thunder now also fields 15U and 13U teams.

To be eligible to play for the Thunder, players must play in community baseball organizations in Auburn, Butler, Garrett or St. Joe.

The 17U Thunder is a showcase team for college exposure and plays in events put on by Pastime Tournaments, Crossroads Baseball Series and at Taylor University in Upland, Ind., and the World Baseball Academy in Fort Wayne.

Ratcliffe was head baseball coach at Garrett (Ind.) High School for two stints totaling 13 seasons (2000-06 and 2014-19).

He served as an assistant to DeKalb High head coach Chris Rhodes 2007-11 and was on the staff of Keith Potter at Fort Wayne’s Homestead High School 1997-99.

While with the Spartans, Ratcliffe got to work with future big league catcher Rob Bowen.

“I remember he was a starter working on being a switch hitter,” says Ratcliffe. “If he hit 50 balls off the tee right-handed, he had to hit 50 left-handed. Balance had to be there if h was serious about being a switch hitter.”

Ratcliffe recalls that Bowen hit homers from both sides of the plate early in his minor league days and went on to play in the majors with the Minnesota Twins, San Diego Padres, Chicago Cubs and Oakland Athletics.

Caleb Kimmel, who went on to play at Valparaiso University and is now CEO of the World Baseball Academy, was also at Homestead when Ratcliffe was on staff.

Summers from 2002-14 for Ratcliffe meant coaching and evaluating young players for USA Baseball through Tournament of Stars and National Team Identification Series programs. Working in Joplin, Mo., and later Cary, N.C., he got to be around rising diamond stars as teenagers, including Mike Moustakas, Freddie Freeman, Mike Trout, Trevor Bauer, the Upton boys (Justin and B.J.) and Jarrod Parker.

“(Moustakas) had the same kind of energy as a 17-year-old that he did (with the Kansas City Royals) in the World Series. 

“That guy has not changed one bit. He’s such a team player.”

Freeman became of Ratcliffe’s favorites.

“His character in the dugout was unbelievable,” says Ratcliffe of the future Atlanta Braves first baseman. “He was very coachable. Freddie wanted to get better. 

“I’ve told my players this is what you need to be like. It’s not all about baseball. Character is very crucial.”

Trout and Bauer are superstars now. But they didn’t make the national team back then. They didn’t sulk. They put in the work to get better.

The Uptons also failed, but learned from those around them and rebounded. Justin’s path to The Show included 113 games with the 2006 Mark Haley-managed South Bend (Ind.) Silver Hawks during his 18-year-old season.

While they were nearly two decades apart, Ratcliffe (Class of 1990) and Parker (2007) were both graduates of Norwell High School in Ossian, Ind.

Ratcliffe had coached against right-handed pitcher Parker in high school and saw him help Norwell to an IHSAA 3A state championship in 2007.

When it came time for Parker to take the mound that summer Joplin, Ratcliffe offered a little advice: “Go be yourself.”

Parker went on to work out with the Top 40 players in Atlanta and was selected in the first round (No.9 overall) of the 2007 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft and pitched in the bigs for the Arizona Diamondbacks and Oakland Athletics. David Price and Moustakas went 1-2 in the ’07 draft.

Ratcliffe’s head coach at Norwell was Stan Reed.

“He had compassion for the players,” says Ratcliffe. “He really cared about us. It showed whether we won or lost.”

A catcher, Ratcliffe went to Purdue University and was redshirted his first season and played sparingly for Boilermakers coach Dave Alexander in his second, though he did get to catch Sherard Clinkscales, a right-handed pitcher who was selected in the first round of the 1992 MLB Draft, later scouted for Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Kansas City and coached at Notre Dame before going into athletic administration. 

Clinkscales was associate then senior associate athletic director at North Carolina State and is now AD at Indiana State University.

When Alexander left Purdue to become a scout and pitching coach Steve Green was promoted to head coach, he had a chat with Ratcliffe. It was apparent he was not going to get to play much for the Boilers.

“I was a kid who needed to play,” says Ratcliffe, who was released and allowed to sign at Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne, where Matt Kinzer was the Mastodons head coach.

What did Ratcliffe learn from Norwell grad Kinzer during the 1993 and 1994 seasons?

“It takes a lot of hard work to get to that level,” says Ratcliffe. “If you want to get there you’ve got to put some time in. 

“Talent doesn’t get you to the next level. It takes things like working hard and having good character.”

By the time Tom Muth took over at IPFW in 1995, Ratcliffe knew he wanted to be a coach so he took the opportunity to play multiple positions and learn their nuances. Since the Dons were in need of a second baseman, Ratcliffe moved there and still took time to catch bullpens.

Ratcliffe played independent professional ball as a middle infielder for the Frontier League’s Richmond (Ind.) Roosters in their inaugural season of 1995. Larry Nowlin was the manger and Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer John Cate part owner.

One of his teammates was future major league switch-hitting first baseman/designated hitter Morgan Burkhart. When he came to Fort Wayne as a member of the San Diego Padres coaching staff, Ratcliffe made sure he found a good fishing hole.

After finishing his degree at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, Ratcliffe became a teacher. 

Besides coaching baseball, he instructs special education classes at Garrett Middle School. His wife of 19 years — Stacy — is a kindergarten teacher at J.E. Ober Elementary in Garrett. The couple have two sons — GHS senior-to-be Blake (17) and GMS eighth grader-to-be Easton (13).

Brett Ratcliffe returned to Trine University in Angola, Ind., for his second stint as assistant baseball coach. He has also been a head coach at Garrett (Ind.) High School and an assistant at DeKalb High School in Watlerloo, Ind., and Homestead High School in Fort Wayne. He has helped coach and evaluate players for USA Baseball. This summer, he is the 17U head coach for the DeKalb County Thunder travel program.

Former two-way standout Whisler still passing along diamond wisdom

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Wes Whisler was still playing when he began passing along his baseball knowledge.

During breaks from off-season training as a professional, Whisler provided lessons in the same town where he became Indiana Mr. Baseball at Noblesville (Ind.) High School in 2001 before coming a two-way player at UCLA and pitcher in the Chicago White Sox and Florida Marlins systems.

“I had extra down time,” says Whisler, now 37 and the owner of Wes Whisler Academy at The Strike Zone, 15475 Endeavor Drive, Noblesville (he founded his business in 2014, buying The Strike Zone and re-branding it). “What can i do to keep my mind sharp and give back to the younger generation? 

“At the end of my playing career, I was able to make a smooth transition to coaching and instructing, something I loved to do.”

There are three regular baseball instructors at the academy — Whisler, Travis Reboulet and Brent Miller (also with Pastime Tournaments). 

Jim Reboulet, who helps Travis coach the Indiana Nitro 18U Gold team, has conducted infield schools. 

Academy softball instructors are Kevin Schmidt, Kristen Boros and Alexandria Heygood. Schmidt coaches for the Indiana Dream travel program. Boros and Heygood played softball at Butler University.

After two years as general manager, Whisler is also in his second full year of running USAthletic Baseball Club, a travel organization he took over from long-time friend Rob Barber when the latter began focusing on The BASE Indy urban youth inititative.

USAthletic Baseball Club currently has four teams — 15U, two in 16U and 18U. 

Whisler says he looks to added other levels in the future, but is building with purpose.

With the recent lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, USAthletic players just got back together after about 10 weeks apart.

“Everybody is on a shortened time frame and under the gun,” says Whisler, who will see teams open their seasons June 14. “We’ve got to be ready to go. We pretty much jump into games.”

Whisler is always trying to provide another learning tool for his players and encouraging them to be students of the game.

Problem is the pandemic shut down live baseball in mid-March and Major League Baseball still has not started in 2020 season.

“If you’re going to play, one of the best ways is by watching,” says Whisler. “Wait, there’s no games on (TV).”

Plans call for USAthletic to play in games at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind., Victory Field in Indianapolis plus road trips to Louisville and St. Louis.

Whisler has about 125 private instruction clients at his academy — many are two-way players.

A lefty hitter and thrower, the 6-foot-5, 235-pound Whisler was a first baseman/designated hitter as well as a pitcher through his college career and first two pro seasons.

“That’s all I knew my entire life,” says Whisler. “I said let’s see how it plays out. Essentially, they were getting two players for one.”

In three seasons at UCLA (2002-04), Whisler hit .304 with 34 home runs and 129 RBIs and also went 11-14 with a 5.00 earned run average, 172 strikeouts and 105 walks in 259 1/3 innings on the mound.

Selected in the second round of the 2004 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the White Sox, Whisler got to swing the bat some when not pitching and went to Chicago in the off-season to work with hitting instructors.

“The decision came down after two seasons that we’re going to make you a left-handed pitcher,” says Whisler. “That’s the way we want it. 

“At the time, the system was loaded with first baseman. (As a pitcher) I could be on the upswing and move up quicker.”

Whisler made three relief appearances with the big-team White Sox in 2009 with Ozzie Guillen as manager and Don Cooper as pitching coach and remained in pro baseball through 2013. He retired having been in Triple-A in six of 10 minor league seasons.

Whisler got his organized baseball start at Skiles Test Little League in Indy’s Lawrence Township. His seventh grade year, his family, including father Mike, mother Kristie and older brother Brandy, moved to Noblesville. 

Wes played for the Indiana Bulls from age 13-18. That last summer before college he also suited up with the Ohio’s Midland Redskins.

At Noblesville High, Whisler’s head coaches were Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Dennis Kas for baseball and Dave McCollough for basketball.

“They were very in-line together with their coaching styles,” says Whisler. “They were both hard-nose and expected a lot of you. It was a work ethic they instilled.

“I may not have agreed with everything, but I can look back and say it made me a better player and a better person.”

Ohio native Gary Adams was head coach at UCLA when Whisler was with the Bruins.

“Skip was extremely genuine and a heart-felt guy,” says Whisler. “He was on the shorter side, but when he got fired up he was a pistol.”

Adams retired in 2004 after 30 seasons at UCLA. At 65, he ran five miles a day.

“He always expected and gave us his all,” says Whisler of Adams. “He got you back on track when you needed it.”

Gary Adcock was UCLA’s pitching coach for Whisler’s first two seasons.

“In high school, I was a hard thrower,” says Whisler. “He helped me learn what it was to pitch at that level.

“Facing top hitters night in and night out, it’s easy to get lost if you don’t know what you’re doing

he helped me under that process.”

In 2004, former big league pitcher Tim Leary was the Bruins pitching coach and helped Whisler get ready to make the leap into pro ball.

Vince Beringhele was UCLA’s hitting coach for all three of Whisler’s seasons. He had worked with a long list of distinguished alums, including Chase Utley, Troy Glaus, Eric Karros, Dave Roberts and Eric Valent.

One day, Beringhele called in Glaus to take batting practice with Whisler. Once he got over being starstruck, he got to pick the brain of a big league power hitter.

The summer after his first two collegiate seasons, Whisler went to the Cape Cod Baseball League to play for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox. Future big leaguer Chris Carter was on the team in both 2002 and 2003. Future MLB players Michael Bourn, former Indianapolis Cathedral High School catcher Jake Fox and Jamie Vermilyea played for Y-D in 2002 and Trevor Crowe, Philip Humber, Nick Hundley, Rob Johnson, John Mayberry Jr., John Meloan, Garrett Mock and Curtis Thigpen in 2004.

Whisler looks back fondly on his summers on the Cape. 

“There was camaraderie on that team,” says Whisler. “We were very good.”

Whisler encountered a number of managers (Marc Bombard, Chris Chambliss, Chris Cron, Ken Dominguez, Nick Leyva, Joe McEwing, Max Oliveras, Rafael Santana, Joel Skinner and Julio Vinas) and pitching coaches (Britt Burns, Richard Dotson, J.R. Perdew, Sean Snedeker and Bobby Thigpen) in the White Sox minor league chain.

“They were all instrumental in helping me get to the big leagues,” says Whisler. “They are gave me a piece in helping me become a complete pitcher.”

Whisler credits Perdew for getting his mechanics back on track after a bout with shoulder tendonitis and Dotson cleaned things up even more.

Wes and Warsaw, Ind., native Kara have four children — 5-year-old triplet girls Gwynn, Molly and Vivyan and 3-year-old boy Guy.

The Whisler family (from left): Front row — Guy, Molly, Gwynn and Vivyan; Back row — Wes and Kara. Wes Whisler is the owner of Wes Whisler Academy at The Strike in Noblesville, Ind., and runs USAthletic travel teams. He was Indiana Mr. Baseball at Noblesville High School and played at UCLA and in the Chicago White Sox system, making the majors in 2009.

Kara and Wes Whisler are the parents of Gwynn, Molly, Vivyan and Guy. Wes owns Wes Whisler Academy at The Strike Zone in Noblesville, Ind. He was Indiana Mr. Baseball at Noblesville Noblesville, Ind., and runs USAthletic travel teams. He was Indiana Mr. Baseball at Noblesville High School and played at UCLA and in the Chicago White Sox system, making the majors in 2009.
Wes Whisler, a graduate of Noblesville (Ind.) High School who played at UCLA, made it to the majors with the Chicago White Sox in 2009. In 2014 he established Wes Whisler Academy at The Strike Zone in Noblesville. He also runs the USAthletic travel baseball organization.

As instructor, coach, Basham still endorses narrow offensive focus

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Ryan Basham did not have multiple hitting philosophies floating in his head when he stepped into the batter’s box as a Lowell (Ind.) High School Red Devil.

Lowell head coach Kent Hess let Basham do his thing and it paid dividends.

“He was a really positive guy,” says Basham of Hess. “He was hands-off. That made a big difference in terms of my development.

“I was keeping a narrow focus.”

That approach allowed lefty-swinging Basham to hit .539 in three varsity seasons (2001-03), one of the best plate careers in Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association annals.

As a senior lead-off hitter, Basham hit .583, clubbed 15 home runs and drove in 48 runs and was named the 2003 Northwest Indiana Times Player of the Year as well as all-conference and first-team all-state.

Basham’s junior year saw hum hit .538 with seven homers and 33 RBIs and was all-conference and first-team all-state.

As a junior, Basham hit .495 with eight homers, 50 RBI and gathered all-conference and all-state honors.

He went on to play three seasons at Michigan State University (2004-06).

Basham played for the Spartans right away and hit .297 with eight homers, 15 doubles and 27 runs batted in.

“I hit well, but in terms of being a situational hitter, I was leaving a lot of guys on and not driving guys in,” says Basham. “After I made that a primary focus, changed RBI output for the rest of my career.”

MSU head coach Ted Mahan and hitting coach John Young got Basham to see his problem as a hitter with runners on base.

“Early on I put a lot of pressure on myself in those situations,” says Basham. “The pressure is really all on the pitcher with a runner in scoring position. I had zero pressure on me. I relaxed. This is where I want to be.”

His coaches also reminded Basham that scoring a runner from third base doesn’t always require a hit. Sometimes hitting to the right side of the infield or lofting a fly ball will do the trick.

Basham hit ..358 with eight homers, 12 doubles and 43 RBI as a sophomore. As a junior, with David Grewe as head coach, he hit .373 with eight homers, 12 doubles and 53 RBI. He was twice named all-Big Ten Conference and earned a marketing degree from MSU (2007).

The Toronto Blue Jays selected Basham in the 29th round of the 2006 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.

After an injury kept him from playing in the Blue Jays organization, but he did log five seasons of independent professional baseball with the Florence (Ky.) Freedom (now known as the Florence Y’alls), Windy City Thunderbolts (Crestwood, Ill.) and Joliet (Ill.) JackHammers.

In 420 pro games, Basham hit .285 (195-of-573) with 50 homers, 39 doubles and 123 RBI.

Now owner of Basham Baseball LLC, a training facility in Whitestown, Ind., Basham still endorses the theory that hitters can have too many voices.

Some players can have many different opinions coming at them from the their head coach, hitting coach, travel coach, father, grandfather and so on.

“They’re all trying to tell them different things,” says Basham. “It happens quite a bit.”

As Basham’s playing career was winding down, he became a coach. He was an assistant to Jim Nohos at Hanover Central High School in Cedar Lake, Ind. He knew Nohos through the Hammond Chiefs and Hammond Seminoles travel organizations.

Basham was an assistant to Mike Kahirsky at Robert Morris University in Chicago.

At 13, Basham was an original member of the Playmakers travel team fielded by Dave Griffin. His instruction career began at Dave Griffin’s Baseball School in Griffith, Ind.

He has also worked with Justin Stone of Elite Baseball Academy, and former major leaguers John Cangelosi, Dean Anna, and the legendary Bo Jackson at the Bo Jackson Elite Sports Dome in Lockport, Ill.

Ryan and Jessica Basham (both 35) moved from Plainfield, Ill., to central Indiana in 2013, landing first in Whitestown then last winter in Zionsville. Jessica, who is also from Lowell, is a human resource business partner for Sales Force. The couple has two daughters — Emelia (8) and Clara (5).

After the move, Basham was an instructor at RoundTripper Sports Academy in Westfield, Wheelhouse Baseball Academy and Zionsville Little League. He coached the Indiana Mustangs prior to his current role as 16U coach with the Indy Titans, an organization that has Justin Kamm as president.

Basham was with the same group in 2019 when they competed in 15U events.

“I love work working up through high school — 15U to 17U,” says Basham. “The continuity year or year is important in their development process.”

While the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic has everyone separated and training on their own right now, the Titans hope to have a 2020 season.

“We want to try to play as much as possible through June and July,” says Basham. “We usually play 6-8 tournaments.”

The tentative schedule includes appearances with Bullpen Tournaments at Grand Park in Westfield and Pastime Tournaments out-of-town.

“I’m going to reach out to families to see comfort level in traveling in a couple of months,” says Basham, who has been communicating with players via email with suggestions for workouts. “It’s almost like going back in time. They have to learn how to train on your own the best you can with what you’ve got.

“You can hit a bucket (of balls) a day if you have the resources.”

The youngest of Jerry and Janice Basham’s four children (following Laurie, Doug and Mike), Ryan fondly remembers spending hours as a kid having Doug throw batting practice on a field in Lowell.

“Throwing and sprinting are the things you can be doing and can do without anybody else there.”

Basham says if this had been a normal year, his team would have been six weeks into training together six days a week.

This quarantine also offers a chance for players to focus on recruiting by reaching out to coaches with notes of interest and videos.

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Ryan Basham, a Lowell (Ind.) High School graduate, played three baseball seasons at Michigan State University (2004-06), twice earning all-Big Ten Conference honors. (Michigan State University Photo)

RYANBASHAMWINDYCITYTHUNDERBOLTSRyan Basham, a graduate of Lowell (Ind.) High School and Michigan State University, swings for the independent professional Windy City Thunderbolts. Basham played five pro seasons and is now a baseball instructor and coach based in central Indiana. (Windy City Thunderbolts Photo)

RYANBASHAMFAMILYThe Basham family of Zionsville, Ind., includes Jessica (35), Ryan (35), Clara (5) and Emelia (8). Ryan and Jessica are both graduate of Lowell (Ind.) High School. Ryan is a baseball instructor and coach.

RYANBASHAM4Ryan Basham, a graduate of Lowell (Ind.) High School and Michigan State University, offers baseball instruction. He was a three-time all-state player in high school and twice named all-Big Ten Conference at MSU.

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Ryan Basham, a graduate of Lowell (Ind.) High School and Michigan State University, demonstrates the baseball swing to a young player. Basham was a three-time all-state player in high school and twice named all-Big Ten Conference at MSU.

RYANBASHAM2Ryan Basham is the owner of Basham Baseball LLC in Whitestown, Ind. He is a graduate of Lowell (Ind.) High School and Michigan State University.

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Ryan Basham is the owner of Basham Baseball LLC in Whitestown, Ind. He is a graduate of Lowell (Ind.) High School and Michigan State University.

Evansville Razorbacks promote accountability, communication, commitment

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

The 18U Evansville (Ind.) Razorbacks have been a force in the travel baseball world with four Pastime Tournaments national championships and a National Amateur Baseball Federation World Series runner-up finish.

The 2017 team went 40-0.

Established in 2002 by Jeremy Johnson, the Razorbacks have had 336 players sign on with college baseball programs and numerous players have been in pro ball.

“This program sets guys up not only in baseball, but their whole life,” says Johnson. “It’s a fraternity. You’re going to be a Razorback the rest of your life.

“It’s bigger than anybody, including me.”

Johnson is a 1993 Mater Dei graduate. He grew up spending Saturday mornings helping his father groom youth diamonds around Evansville. C.J. Johnson is a 2017 inductee into the Greater Evansville Sports Hall of Fame as a baseball administrator.

At 14, Jeremy severely hurt his right arm and learned how throw serviceably with his left. In high school, he was a successful cross country and track runner.

Johnson networks with college coaches and does his best to educate players and parents on the recruiting process and deciding on the best fit for them.

“My job is to help you find out your ‘why,’’ says Johnson. “What is driving you? If you don’t know that, you can get lost. You need to have a really good grasp on that. If you don’t and everything starts to go south, you’ll start panicking.”

And it doesn’t have to be NCAA Division I or bust. Some are best-suited by going the D-II, D-III, NAIA or junior college route.

“I’m completely over the fact that Division I is the best case scenario (for every player),” says Johnson. “You should pick a school where, if you didn’t play baseball any more, you wouldn’t want to transfer.

“It’s very, very personal thing for each kid. Look at schools that fit you personally. Start putting together legitimate ideas on what you know you want instead of what you think you want.

“High school is very status-orientedYou’re not doing it for your teammates. There’s a 50-50 shot you’ll meet your wife there.

“It’s way more than baseball.”

Johnson says he has watched the transfer portal blow up in recent years in part because of so many early commits (freshmen and sophomore are making verbal commitments these days) and players and parents not doing their due diligence on what they want and what a program has to offer.

“They may be good enough to be a tweener with D-I,” says Johnson. “But they could play more at D-II or go to D-III and be an All-American.

“We don’t want them to have regrets or at least minimize them.”

While he has been involved in most of the 336 college signings, Johnson doesn’t take credit. It’s the players with the talent.

“I’m not the reason any of my kid plays in college,” says Johnson. “I’m just a guy who goes to bat for them. My job is to market them. I’m an avenue.

“The kids are the ones that deserve everything. I didn’t throw a ball, catch a ball or hit it. I’m not the reason for the season.”

A junior college advocate, Johnson says those players tend to play with a chip on their shoulder. Six starters on the Razorbacks’ 2018  team went on to JC ball. The 2017 club was made up mostly of D-I commits.

“It saves money and keeps their options open,” says Johnson. “It makes you grind a little bit. You find out if you really love baseball if you go junior college.”

Johnson says the Razorbacks are well-represented in the Great Rivers Athletic Conference (John A. Logan, Kaskaskia, Lake Land, Lincoln Trail, Olney Central, Rend Lake, Shawnee, Southeastern Illinois, Southwestern Illinois, Wabash Valley).

Johnson says parents don’t always receive personal feedback when they take their sons to showcases. They get the numbers, but not an idea of what that coaching staff thinks of the player and how they would fit in their program.

Players can go to showcase after showcase and the money spent can add up to the cost of a scholarship.

“Tell me what you’re interested in doing and let me market you,” says Johnson. He will do his best to have college coaches look at the player and let them know what they think.

“College recruiting always in flux,” says Johnson. “(Recruiters) don’t want to tell you yes or no. There’s a lot of maybes. That’s a frustrating thing. I tell parents to build an idea of where their kid really fits.”

In showcases or with private lessons, many times players are told over and over again how good they are.

“Some are honest about good things and bad things,” says Johnson. “There’s nothing wrong with constructive criticism. You need it.”

Johnson sees his role with the Razorbacks as driven by relationships.

“I get to know the kids,” says Johnson. “I spent a lot of time on the phone with them.”

While many players come from southern Indiana, southern Illinois and Kentucky, there is no real limit and have come from several states away.

“I’m not afraid to ask anybody,” says Johnson. “We have the ability to house a few kids.”

Many players spend two seasons with the Razorbacks, which Johnson says averages 17 to 20 college commits per year. In any given year, a third to half of the squad goes into the summer uncommitted.

Among the 2019 high school graduates from Indiana schools on the ’19 summer team were Evansville North shortststop/second baseman Alex Archuleta (University of Southern Indiana), Austin shortstop/right-handed pitcher/third baseman Drew Buhr (Saint Louis University), Castle left-handed pitcher Blake Ciuffetelli (USI), Castle first baseman Brodey Heaton (Belmont University), Evansville Memorial right-handed pitcher Isaac Housman (USI) and Tecumseh outfielder Steven Molinet (USI).

There’s also shortstop/second baseman Alex Adams (Purdue University), catcher Garret Gray (Butler University), right-handed pitcher Trey Nordmann (Howard College in Texas) and left-handed pitcher/outfielder/first baseman Mark Shallenberger (University of Evansville).

Former Ben Davis High School catcher Zyon Avery (Ohio University), Decatur Central right-hander Bradley Brehmer (Wright State University) and right-hander Garret Simpson (Eastern Kentucky University) are among the recent Razorbacks now playing college baseball.

Razorback alums left-hander Dean Kiekhefer (Oakland Athletics), right-hander Derek Self (Washington Nationals) and outfielder Cole Sturgeon (Boston Red Sox) played at Triple-A in 2019. All three played at the University of Louisville. Kiekhefer appeared in the majors with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2016 and with Oakland in 2018.

There’s also former Backs Easton McGee and Stewart Ijames.

Right-hander McGee played for Bowling Green in the Tampa Bay Rays system in 2019.

Outfielder Ijames, a former U of L player and in the Arizona Diamondbacks system, was with the independent Kansas City T-Bones in 2019.

Clint Barmes, a Vincennes Lincoln High School graduate who recently went into the Indiana State University and Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association halls of fame after a major league career, played for the Evansville Black Sox (1993-2001), which were picked up by the Razorbacks in 2002.

Johnson was an outfielder for the Jim Wittman-coached Black Sox in 1993-94. In a Black Sox alumni game, Johnson’s last pitch resulted in a Barmes home run.

“I hadn’t pitched in two years,” says Johnson. “Didn’t matter. Would happened on my best day.”

Former U of L catcher Jeff Arnold was signed by scout Kevin Christman and played in the San Francisco Giants organization.

Right-hander Morgan Coombs went to West Vigo High School and Ball State University then played independent ball.

Outfielder Sean Godfrey played at New Albany High School and Ball State before time in the Atlanta Braves system and indy ball.

First baseman Jon Hedges played at Indiana State.

Third baseman Kevin Hoef went to the University of Iowa and played indy ball.

Catcher Jeremy Lucas played at West Vigo and Indiana State before time in the Cleveland Indians system.

Black Sox right-hander Stephen Obenchain played at Evansville Memorial and the University of Evansville before stints in the Athletics system and independent ball.

First baseman Derek Peterson, who hails from New Jersey, went on to Temple University and played in Baltimore Orioles organization.

Black Sox right-hander Andy Rohleder played at Forest Park High School and the University of Evansville before tenures with the Florida Marlins organization and indy ball.

Right-hander P.J. Thomas, a Jeffersonville High School graduate who played at USI, was twice-drafted by the Red Sox and played indy ball.

Catcher Kolbrin Vitek (Ball State) played in the Red Sox organization.

Former Black Sox, Heritage Hills High School and University of Dayton catcher Mark Wahl was in the Orioles system.

While the Razorbacks run a full program with off-season training, Johnson says he is a realist and he knows that players have commitments to their hometown teams and work with their own hitting and pitching instructors. He doesn’t ask them to drive several hours to Evansville to hit them grounders.

“I’m not that full of myself,” says Johnson. “I have the utmost respect for high school programs.

“I love travel ball. But a large amount of travel ball is B.S. It’s such a money-driven situation. Travel ball — as a whole — is expensive for families with travel, hotels and all of that. We try to keep that cost down as low as we possibly can.”

When the 18U Razorbacks do travel, the team stays together in the same hotel.

Many of the players are getting close to going away to college. They get to experience curfews, team meetings and learn personal accountability. It’s an early look at their freshmen year and that first taste of freedom. They are responsible for their own laundry.

“The team runs the team,” says Johnson. “There’s a lot to be learned off the field until they go to college.”

Parents are encouraged treat the weekend like a getaway. All they have to do is attend the games and watch their sons play.

The organization expanded this off-season to 10 teams — 8U, 9U, 10U, 11U, two 12U squads, 13U, 14U, 16U and 18U. 8U to 14U is high school prep. 15U to 18U is college prep.

According to Johnson, whose 18U assistant coaches are Bob Davis, Ryan Dills and Buddy Hales, the emphasis is on teaching player accountability at an early age, communication with parents, speed and strength conditioning and commitment to helping the person, then the player.”

Top 18U events in 2020 include June 12-14 in Midland, Ohio, June 18-21 in Louisville, Ky., June 26-28 in Midland, Ohio, June 30-July 1 at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, July 5-9 at Perfect Game World Series (invitation only) in Hoover, Ala., and July 15-19 at the 18U Nationals in Indianapolis.

Jeremy and Christi Johnson married in 2013. There are three children — Seth (18), Ava (14) and Conner (13). Conner Johnson, now an eighth grader, was born in 2007, the same year the Razorbacks were NABF World Series runners-up.

“Spending summers with him with me is what ties it all together,” says Jeremy Johnson of time spent with Conner and Backs baseball.

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The Evansville (Ind.) Razorbacks have placed 336 players in college baseball since 2002. (Evansville Razorbacks)

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Jeremy Johnson (center) is the founder of the Evansville (Ind.) Razorbacks travel baseball organization. The Razorbacks’ first season was in 2002. (Evansville Razorbacks Photo)

 

Hutchinson serves UIndy pitchers, Pastime Tournaments participants

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Landon Hutchinson is developing pitchers in a scientific way at the University of Indianapolis.

Heading into his third season as pitching coach at the NCAA Division II school in 2020, Hutchinson uses the latest training methods while staying focused on the ultimate objective.

“It’s very tech-driven,” says Hutchinson, who was learning more about his craft at the Jan. 2-5 American Baseball Coaches Association convention in Nashville. “But at the end of the day you’ve got to try to get guys out.”

To get his pitchers ready to do that, Hutchinson pays close attention to health.

“Arm care is definitely the No. 1 point of emphasis,” says Hutchinson. “Workload is managed. We’re not throwing too much. We’re not throwing too little.

“We make sure we’re recovering and moving the right way. We’re making sure we’re getting proper sleep, nutrition, all those things.”

Motus sensors are used to monitor throwing. It’s a seven-day workload that maps out to a 28-day workload.

“If you keep that on pace it helps ramp things up in a safe manner,” says Hutchinson. “We use the Florida Baseball Ranch style of training as far as the cycle goes.”

The Greyhounds have heavy day followed by a recovery day, connection day (a time to work on movement patterns) and max intent day.

“If you keep repeating it, you don’t have to think about it out on the mound,” says Hutchinson. “The last thing I want them thinking about is that. Their job is to get guys out.”

Flexibility are the mobility of the Thoracic spine (T-spine) are also deemed important.

With the help of Chad Odaffer, an instructor in UIndy’s Kinesiology, Health & Sport Sciences department, full-body assessments are performed.

If deficiencies are found those can be addressed by head strength and conditioning coach Steve Barrick.

To improve core strength, pitchers do plenty of yoga. There’s also chaos training and HIIT (high intensity interval training) workouts to get the heart rate up.

“We want to make sure we’re athletic,” says Hutchinson. “Pitchers are athletes.”

Hutchinson notes that ABCA members are harping on how far golf is ahead of baseball in terms of movement patterns.

“The amount of video that we take on our guys is insane,” says Hutchinson. “I don’t know if I have one video of me pitching when I was in college.”

As a right-handed pitcher, Hutchinson graduated from Liberty Union High School in Baltimore, Ohio, then played four seasons (2012-15) at the University of Rio Grande (Ohio).

After his playing career, Hutchinson served the 2016 and 2017 seasons for the Red Storm as a graduate assistant. He received a bachelor’s degree in Educational Studies in 2016 and a master’s in Coaching Leadership in 2017 and joined the UIndy staff in the fall of 2017. Indianapolis went 31-23 in 2018 and 30-20 in 2019.

Since each pitcher on his staff is unique in his approach, cues won’t be the same for each one.

“Sometimes it’s best to tell them to change their aiming point or use their legs more because they have nothing to do with their mechanics,” says Hutchinson. “If you’re glove side is flying open, you might be told to stay tight.

“Little things like that can help guys stay in line and stay true.”

D-II baseball teams are allowed 45 days of practice in the fall. After that comes individual work. That’s when the process of developing velocity and pitch design begins.

During pitch, Hutchinson will create video overlays of all the pitches in a hurler’s repertoire.

“We want to make sure all those are tunneled and we’re going from the exact same arm slot,” says Hutchinson. “We want them to mimic each other. Around the 40-foot mark is our goal for when they start to separate. That’s when the spin actually takes effect.

“I’d rather have later movement than earlier (giving the hitter little time to react).”

Each pitcher is given an individualized plan that begins when they arrive on campus in the fall. Hutchinson asks them the last time they threw live

“I tell them to be honest,” says Hutchinson. “There’s no point in lying because you’re just going to hurt yourself.”

Once they get to winter break after final exams, UIndy pitchers are given six- to eight-week plan they can follow when they are away from the coaches.

Players are due back on campus Jan. 13.

“That’s when we start hitting things pretty hard,” says Hutchinson. “We open up Feb. 15 (against Hillsdale in Johnson City, Tenn.).”

The Hounds will also play several games inside their dome.

“We’ve got plenty of arms,” says Hutchinson. “Guys are getting full ground balls and full fly balls since it’s seven stories high.

“Hitters are seeing live (pitching) and it’s  white background. If you can hit the ball in there, you can probably hit the ball almost anywhere.

“With our pitchers we do a good job making sure their intensity and pitch count is where it needs to be.”

Hutchinson says UIndy head coach Al Ready wants pitchers to be able to throw seven innings or up to 100 pitches within their first outing.

“If we can get them to that point we know we’re going to have a chance to win,” says Hutchinson. “If they can go seven innings, we have a bullpen that can seal the game for them.”

When Hutchinson arrived on campus, there were 15 pitchers. The following year that moved to around 27. This year, there are 30.

“To be a fully-funded program, there must be at least 45 man on the roster,” says Hutchinson. “Why not bring in arms?”

Besides his role at UIndy, Hutchinson is also national scouting coordinator and regional director for Pastime Tournaments, which runs travel baseball events all over the country.

He is in charge of staffing all events. Last summer, the organization employed around 250 250 independent contract workers.

Hutchinson makes certain baseballs and merchandise go to the right places.

On tournament weekends, president Tom Davidson, vice president and national director Brent Miller and Hutchinson divide up the 25 or more tournaments and oversee them with the help of site directors.

Hutchinson also acts as a point of contact between players, parents and college coaches and educates the recruited on the process. He lets them know that the colleges will want to know things like age, grade-point average and SAT score. Players should get their own email address to be used in corresponding with colleges.

“I want to recruit the athlete,” says Hutchinson. “I don’t want to recruit the parents.”

It also helps to have a presence on social media, where videos and other important information on a recruit can be placed.

To help college programs, Hutchinson can let coaches know which teams and players will be playing in which region so they can take a look at that uncommitted left-hander they seek.

When filling tournament fields, Davidson likes to pool like competition to keep them challenging for all involved.

Pastime’s social media presence has swelled in recent years. The organization has more than 8,500 followers on Twitter and more than 1,000 in Instagram.

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Landon Hutchinson is baseball pitching coach at the University of Indianapolis and national scouting coordinator and regional director for Pastime Tournaments. (UIndy Photo)

Zartman coaches, cares for Bethel College Pilots

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Seth Zartman has shared slices of life with hundreds of players in two decades as a college baseball coach.

There have been moments shared in dugouts, on bus rides and at team meals and community service projects.

The man who has led the program at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Ind., since the 2004 season has always viewed these young men as more than athletes.

They are people, too.

“I want to love those guys the very best that I can while they’re here,” says Zartman. “When they leave, that love doesn’t change. You’re very appreciative of who they are as people.”

Zartman, a 1998 Bethel graduate, tries to see what makes each one tick and does his best to lead them on and off the diamond.

“Your players are more than just a roster number,” says Zartman. “They’re more important than that.

“It’s the relationship you build with those guys and getting to know them for who they are not only on the field but off. Who are they within their families? What do they like to do?.

“To have a genuine care for who they are as a person allows you to understand how you can deal with them on the field as well and make them the best baseball player you can.”

It’s a lesson he learned while playing at Bethel for head coach Sam Riggleman. 

Zartman, who wrapped his career as the Pilots’ all-time leader in home runs (37), runs batted in (181), doubles (61) and slugging percentage (.625) and was inducted into the Bethel College Athletic Hall of Fame in 2006, saw Riggleman’s example of how to “treat and love your players.”

Riggleman displayed an attention to detail and a way of pushing the right button to get the most out of his players.

“When you’re a player for Sam you understand real quickly the importance of details and the small things,” says Zartman, who is going into his 16th season as Bethel head coach in 2018-19. “Coach was very well-organized. You never question whatever plan he had for what we were doing every single day.

“It had to do with your focus and what attitude you were going to show up with everyday. Those are things I’ve tried to carry on in my coaching career.”

Prior to returning to his alma mater, Zartman started the program at Mid-Continent College in Mayfield, Ky. The school (which has since closed) was changing to a liberal arts institution and adding athletics.

Zartman tried to get a graduate assistant coaching position after graduating from Bethel and when he found none, he went into the business world for a year.

Zartman is now in his 20th season as a head coach without ever having been an assistant.

“It’s very unusual,” says Zartman. “Guys ask all the time about how to get going in this realm. I can tell them that my story’s not the one that you look at.

“I was very fortunate to get that opportunity freshly out of school.”

Most head coaches went through the grind, starting out as a graduate assistant and/or volunteer coach before serving multiple seasons as a full-time assistant.

One year removed from being a player, Zartman took a call from Riggleman and found out about Mid-Continent.

“In my interview I found out they had already interviewed 20-plus coaches that had experience at the college level and every single one of them turned down,” says Zartman, recalling the summer of 1999. “Then here comes this young kid one year out of college. But — Praise God! — I got the call and they offered me the job.

“I started the program from Ground Zero.”

In the four seasons that Zartman was there, Mid-Continent built a baseball field from scratch and finally reached double digits in wins in his last season.

“It was a tough road, but a road I wouldn’t trade for anything,” says Zartman. “When you’re thrown into the fire like that, you learn a lot and quickly.

“You’re young and green and you just go with instinct. You and learn the best way you know how.”

Between learning on the job, spending time on the phone with Riggleman and being led by the Mid-Continent administration, Zartman began to navigate life as a college head coach.

Recruiting has changed for Zartman during his time in charge at BC, where the current tuition is about $28,500.

“Just in my 16 years here at Bethel, we’ve had four different scholarship systems,” says Zartman. “We go from a standard to a certain pot of money to a period of time with no (athletic) scholarships to today when we’re in a discount rate system.”

Zartman says the biggest switch in recent years is that players are making their college decisions a lot sooner. Rare are the days that they commit in the summer and then come to campus in the fall.

“It’s helped us build our recruiting lists earlier,” says Zartman. “We’re in the period right now where a lot of Class of ’19 kids are making their decisions.

“They want to have a stress-free senior year.”

While trying to build a roster that the Bethel administration wants to be between 28 and 35 athletes, the Pilots coaching staff (Zartman, Kiel Boynton and Dick Siler) get out to high school games at the end of the college season and then really focus on summer travel tournaments — particularly Pastime Tournaments at the University of Notre Dame and Bullpen Tournaments at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind.

Bethel coaches also see players via video and identify potential recruits through Prep Baseball Report.

“A lot of kids are now promoting themselves,” says Zartman. “With the videos, we can get a quick glimpse to see what they’re like.”

The current roster includes players with hometowns in Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, California, Nevada, New Jersey, New York and Venezuela.

“We’re starting to branch out and get guys from a broader spectrum,” says Zartman. “Some of these guys have never seen snow before. They end up adapting and they really enjoy their experience.”

Bethel is a member of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. The NAIA allows its baseball teams to play 55 games during the school year. The Pilots are to play six games that count toward their record this fall with Saturday noon doubleheaders Sept. 22 (vs. Trinity International University), Sept. 29 (at University of Michigan-Dearborn) and Oct. 6 (vs. UM-Dearborn).

“I love the NAIA from the standpoint that we can spend time with our players,” says Zartman, who was a four-time NAIA All-American as a player. “We can do things off the field with them.”

On the baseball side, teams are allowed 24 weeks of activity during the school year, counting backwards from the last regular-season game. For Bethel this year that means six weeks in the fall and the rest in the spring.

Bethel belongs to the Crossroads League (along with Goshen College, Grace College, Huntington University, Indiana Wesleyan University, Marian University, Mt. Vernon Nazarene University, Spring Arbor University and Taylor University). The CL tries to play as many conference games on weekends as possible.

With schedules aligning, Bethel and Grace are slated play their series in Vero Beach, Fla., in March 2019.

A member of the American Baseball Coaches Association, Zartman plans to attend the ABCA Convention Jan. 3-6 in Dallas.

“I definitely love the camaraderie,” says Zartman. “There is so much perspective to gain from other coaches.

“The clinic speakers are next to none. We also get to have our voices heard (in NAIA meetings).”

Zartman is a 1994 graduate of Caston High School in Fulton, Ind., where he played for head coach Dick Farrer (who is now at Pioneer High School in Royal Center, Ind.).

In his freshman season, Zartman, Farrer came to him and his teammates asking about their diamond dreams. For Seth, it was to be a starting catcher and that goal was attained.

“He enabled us to go for it,” says Zartman of Farrer. “He allowed us to get into those positions and really show what we could do.

“I remember Coach Farrer saying as long you’re giving me your best then I have nothing to complain about. He really, really enhanced the positives.”

Zartman began playing summer youth baseball in Fulton and then switched to Rochester, Ind., to be closer to father Marty’s job. Marty coached back then and later helped Seth at Bethel.

Seth played in Rochester through Babe Ruth before entering high school. In the summers, he played for Walton American Legion Post 418. His coaches were Mike Platt and Larry “Bud” Jones, the latter being the head coach at Logansport High School.

“Coach Jones was a very attention-to-detail guy. He was big on the fundamentals of the game.

“I was very fortunate in all my levels to play for coaches that emphasized how important the fundamentals of baseball are and working those all the time are what makes you the player you’re going to be.

“It’s not just showing up everyday because you have the talent to overpower somebody.”

Zartman knows that a lot of people say that’s the old school way of baseball.

“I’m a firm believer that the old school is the new school,” says Zartman. “You have to do those things.

“That repetition in practice — doing things over and over — implants in you those things that become second nature when you go play a game.”

In addition to his coaching duties, Zartman is the head groundskeeper for outdoor athletic facilities at Bethel. He is assisted by head women’s soccer coach Jamie Lindvall and head cross country/assistant track and field coach Ryan Sommers.

Zartman was diagnosed in January 2012 with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). It is a thickening of the heart muscle (myocardium). The condition can make it harder for the heart to pump blood. HCM may also affect the heart’s electrical system.

“I had a good check-up in May,” says Zartman. “I go to Boston in October for my yearly check-up with my main HCM doctor.

“I feel very blessed. God’s been really good in protection and provision.”

Marty and Joyce Zartman, who are also Caston High graduates, have four boys. Seth is one year older than Sean, five years older than Luke and 15 years older than Ethan. Between the three, they have six children. Seth coached Ethan Zartman at Bethel.

Seth and Anitra Zartman, who met at Bethel as student-athletes, have been married for 18 years. The couple has four kids — Senica (14), Ty (14), Lyric (7) and Evik (5).

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SETHZARTMAN

Seth Zartman, a 1998 Bethel College graduate and BC Athletic Hall of Famer, is in his 16th year as head baseball coach at his alma mater. (Steve Krah Photo)

 

State’s baseball talent exposure has multiplied; Just ask Hibler of Bullpen Tournaments, PBR Indiana

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

There was a time when college baseball recruiters and pro scouts did not hold the Hoosier State in high regard.

“Indiana has always been talented as a state,” says Blake Hibler. “But from an exposure standout, it was always overlooked.

“Indiana was some place you drove through. People are now stopping. They realize what kind of talent there is.”

Hibler, founder of Prep Baseball Report Indiana who is now kept busy as program director/event manager for Bullpen Tournaments at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind., has watched the state raise its profile with the help of travel baseball and strong college programs.

“(Big leaguers like) Adam Lind, Scott Rolen and Lance Lynn kind of paved the way for Indiana baseball to become big,” says Hibler. “The explosion came when Purdue was a No. 1 regional seed in the NCAA tournament (in 2012) and (Indiana University) went to Omaha (for the College World Series in 2013).”

At the lower levels, the University of Southern Indiana went NCAA Division II World Series in 2007 and won it all in 2010 and 2014. The University of Indianapolis went to the D-II World Series in 2000 and 2012. Manchester appeared in the D-III World Series in 2004 and 2013.

“This allowed Indiana to become more exposed,” says Hibler. “When we started PBR, college coaches contacted us asking ‘where is that sleeper?’ We don’t have sleepers anymore.

“Colleges are very aware of every player in our state.”

In his role at Grand Park, Hibler oversees 16 straight weekends of travel baseball events in the spring and summer and another six in the fall.

There’s something baseball-related going on — games, tournaments, showcases — at the facility with 26 diamonds from the end of January through October.

There are 12 full-size fields — four with full synthetic turf fields and eight with synthetic infields and grass outfields. Hibler considers eight of those high school or college fields.

Bullpen Tournaments, which counts 90 percent of its business as baseball with some softball, leases the facility from Grand Park. The land is owned by the City of Westfield.

As the sole operator, Bullpen’s 100 employees take care of everything from restrooms to common area mowing to field maintenance to practice scheduling and more.

From the beginning of June to the end of July, there are 230 to 280 teams at Grand Park every weekend. Of those, 115 are high school-age squads.

There are often more than one tournament going on — maybe U9 through U12 games on one side of the complex and high schoolers on the other.

In June and July, Bullpen hosts American Baseball Championships for Youth Baseball, U13, U14, U15, U16, U17 and U18.

An elite event is the PBR Future Games. The eighth annual tournament is slated for Aug. 1-4 with 24 teams and players from more than 40 states.

In 2017, all five collegiate power conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC) were represented with more than 80 percent of schools in those leagues in attendance.

“This year won’t be any different,” says Hibler of the 16U event. “It’s the best uncommitted sophomores in the country.

“It’s kind of a culmination of their season and kickoff to their junior year. The recruiting calendar falls in perfect. Sept. 1 is when college coaches can begin calling and have direct  conversations with these recruits.”

The first Future Games was held in 2011 with four teams.

Nolan Watson was MVP in 2015, the year he was selected in the first round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Kansas City Royals out of Lawrence North High School.

Technology helps keep track of all Bullpen tournaments.

There is a phone app for that. It can be uploaded from the Google Play Store.

Hibler is the “tech guy” for both Bullpen Tournaments and PBR-Indiana and does a podcast with PBR owner/director Phil Wade. Many of those focus on events at Grand Park or the top high school players and teams in the state.

With all its facilities, there is a large economic impact that comes with the complex.

“The most common question we get is: How do you pay for Grand Park?,” says Hibler. “Ultimately, the mayor (Andy Cook) took a risk. He decided to make youth sports his industry.”

The City of Westfield owns the land and owns and operates the Grand Park Events Center, which will house the Indianapolis Colts Training Camp this year, and the soccer facility.

Hotels and restaurants are on the way. There are also private facilities springing up like Pro X Athlete Development and Pacers Athletic Center.

A graduate of Lawrence Central High School who played for the Indiana Mustangs and Danville Area Community College, Hibler has worked for RoundTripper Sports Academy in Westfield and Pastime Tournaments as well as an associate MLB scout.

Hibler joined the PBR family in November 2010. At the time, he was in his second stint as the pitching coach for Lawrence Central, where he saw two pitchers get drafted in 2011 — Christian Montgomery (11th round, Mets) and Jared Ruxer (29th round, Indians). He was originally the pitching coach from 2004-2005 before returning for 2007-2011.

He has seen how competitive recruiting is, but it is usually not cut throat.

“Baseball is little more loyal with the verbal commitment than other sports,” says Hibler. “College coaches are buddies. They don’t necessarily go after other kids as aggressively as basketball and football.

“I would be naive to say it doesn’t happen (in baseball).”

A premium is placed on players who play in the middle of the diamond.

“Pitching is the easiest thing to project,” says Hibler. “If you’re 92 (mph) now, you’re going be 92 or better we you reach college. There’s a lot more to dream on with your catchers, shortstops and centerfielders.

“Typically, you’re looking for in that younger age group is athleticism and physicality. You get the combination of athleticism and physicality, those are the kids who typically commit early.”

Hibler notes that outside of the state’s top 10 or so players, most commit in their junior or even senior years.

How is success gauged in the travel baseball world?

“For 14-and-under, success is still defined by wins and losses,” says Hibler. “15-and-up is defined by scholarships and exposure.

“Lost in all of this is competitiveness. In the Future Games, Indiana always plays Illinois on Friday night. That’s still the most-attended game because there’s a rivalry there.”

Hibler says players appreciate playing against equal competition. With so many travel teams out there, mismatches happen.

“The better players relax or shut down during games,” says Hibler. “They don’t play hard during the summer sometimes unless they are in front of college coaches or playing a really good team.”

The ABC tournaments were designed with two tiers — the first to determine which division teams belong in and the second to crown Gold, Silver and Bronze division champions.

“That way it creates competitive baseball,” says Hibler.

Hibler notes that when the Indiana Bulls were started in the early 1990s to give the state’s best the chance to play top competition and receive exposure, they were the only organization out there. There are now many options and the talent is more evenly divided.

There are those who think that team chemistry is easier to build with a high school program than travel baseball, where players are coming from many different directions.

“Travel baseball is figuring that out and trying to combat it,” says Hibler. “They’re starting to put the development piece back into it a little bit.”

There is a misconception on the part of some players (and their parents) about travel ball and high school ball. They are putting more emphasis on travel.

“Some of these kids believe that travel baseball is more important to their future than high school is,” says Hibler. “A lot of college coaches still call the high school coach first after that initial talk with the travel coach.

“High school simulates a little bit of what college life could be — academics, girls, scouting reports, being a student and an athlete.

“A high school coach has to deal with the player and his girl friend got in a fight during seventh period and this kid has to be on the field in 15 minutes to play a game. The summer ball coach doesn’t have to deal with that as much.”

Then there are the trouble makers and malcontents.

“If you’re a bad kid and live in a community, everyone in that community knows you’re a bad kid,” says Hibler. “You can hide that in travel ball and travel sports in general.”

Hibler has seen players go out of there way to make high school coaches mad for no reason.

“They think it works like travel baseball,” says Hibler. “They can do whatever they want and pack up and leave. Some administrations allow that. But there’s a lot of good programs that don’t.”

Outside of loyalty, there is nothing binding that keeps a player with a travel organization. For various reasons, many players have jumped from team to team. Some players have skipped high school and played only travel baseball.

“Kids get handled with such care during the summer because the penalty is you lose them,” says Hibler. “Coaches don’t know if you handle them like they’re supposed to be handled — with discipline and holding them accountable.

“Some (coaches) take that approach. For others, it’s the Wild, Wild West. Do what you want.”

Hibler says players need both travel and high school and they need to respect the differences.

Travel players show up, play and leave. They pitch from pristine mounds. Maintenance at million-dollar fields is handled by someone else.

High schoolers must take on more responsibility. At many schools, they have to pick up trash in the dugout, sweep and rake to make the fields ready for play.

A few years ago, the coach of a team of 8-year-olds asked to change fields because one was too bumpy.

Hibler’s response: “You don’t live in the real world. We practiced in parking lots.”

BULLPENTOURNAMENTS

Bullpen Tournaments runs baseball and softball events out of Grand Park in Westfield, Ind.

 

Creating opportunities, building character among goals of Michiana Scrappers

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

With its focus on competition, instruction and development, the Michiana Scrappers travel organization is in its 14th season in 2017.

Began in 2004 with one 15/16 squad — the School of Hard Knocks Scrappers — the Michiana Scrappers now have 17 baseball teams in age groups 9U through 17U (the organization is also involved in softball, basketball and hockey).

There are 260 baseball players and 38 softball players currently playing in tournaments around the Midwest — put on by Baseball Player’s Association, Pastime, United States Speciality Sports Association, Bullpen and others — and training out of The Scrap Yard in Elkhart.

Teams practice twice a week January to April and one to two times a week during the season, which concludes in late July or early August. Tryouts for 2018 are slated for July 29-30 and Aug. 5-6.

Players 9U to 14U are often invited back for the next season. All players 15U and above are asked to try out.

Scrappers founder Brian Blondell reports a low turnover rate of 8 percent.

“Most kids in our organization are not leaving,” says Blondell. “We’re usually filling 1-2 spot max per team.”

Once players try out, coaching staffs will have a chance to offer their sales pitch to the families of players they want. Trying to find the best fit is a priority.

About the time the Scrappers came along, summer high school programs were decreasing and travel ball was growing so then-South Bend St. Joseph assistant Blondell found a place for Indians head coach John Gumpf to send his players in the summer.

“We learned a lot,” says Blondell, who is also director of player operation and a 14U head coach in 2017. In 2005, the organization had swelled seven teams and with interest the growth continued.

Softball was added to the mix in 2014.

While Blondell and his coaches, including Greg Fozo and Buddy Tupper with the current 14U squad, are just as competitive as anyone and the Scrappers have won their share of tournaments, win-at-all-costs is not the driving force.

“Nobody is gaining anything by winning a trophy,” says Blondell. “We’re trying to be as competitive as we possibly can be. The era we’re in — with a lot of parents — everything is driven by awards, placement and trophies.

“We focus on development. If we develop correctly, we’re going to win a lot of championships.”

With a few exceptions, Scrappers players come from the counties surrounding South Bend and Elkhart.

While players are working to make themselves better and — for the older players — get college exposure for themselves, the Scrappers emphasize that baseball is a team game.

“It’s not an individual sport,” says Blondell, the pitching coach at Elkhart Memorial High School (Crimson Chargers head coach Scott Rost and assistant Bruce Baer are Scrappers head coaches) and former head coach at Indiana University South Bend, Holy Cross College and South Bend Riley High School. “We’re about growing and developing a team environment.”

The implied daily question to players: How are you helping our team get better?

After all, high school and college coaches want good teammates and not selfish players.

Distinguished Scrapper alums include Evan Miller (LaPorte H.S.; IPFW; San Diego Padres system), Chad Whitmer (Penn H.S.; Southern Illinois U.; New York Yankees system), Nathan Thomas (Mishawaka Marian H.S.; Northern Illinois U.), Brock Logan (Northrdge H.S.; IPFW), Blake Cleveland (NorthWood H.S.; Central Michigan U.), Shannon Baker (Northridge H.S.; IPFW), Brett Carlson (South Bend Riley H.S.; Austin Peay U.; Purdue U.) and Pat Borlik (South Bend Washington H.S.; Western Michigan U.).

Just like Sam Riggleman — his coach at Bethel College — said to Blondell, Scrappers are expected to “check their ego at the door.”

“We do everything as a team,” says Blondell, whose son Bryce Blondell plays on his squad. “I also want it to feel like family. We allow them to be kids and really enjoy it.”

Mike Logan, head coach of a 16U team in 2017, is in his 11th season with the Scrappers.

The former Northridge High School head coach sees his job as getting college exposure, building up their baseball skills and teaching them life lessons.

Logan tells players and their parents about college opportunities and stresses the academic side of the equation.

“A lot of times schools might not have much athletic money to give,” says Logan. But there is bound to be funds for good students.

Logan points players toward showcases and sends out weekly emails to college coaches giving them the Scrappers schedules, roster, contact numbers and more.

With players coming from so many different backgrounds, Logan and his assistants — Brian Bishop and Chad Sherwood — stay with the fundamentals and build on their foundation of skills.

Most importantly to Logan is developing “young men of character.”

“This game can teach you about failure,” says Logan. “You get to learn to handle adversity at a young aage. When they become adults, it’s for real.”

Logan, which coached older son Brock with the Scrappers and now is with younger son Nick, sees a group of players that it is talented enough to be successful on the diamond and is also tight off the field.

One group text message and the boys are off the movies together.

It’s this kind of philosophy which drew the former Indiana Dirt Devils from the Fremont area to join the organization in 2017 as the 13U Black Scrappers.

“The kids in that organization are amazing,” says 13U pitching coach Geoff Gilbert. “They support each other. (Younger players) know who the better older kids in our organization are they talk about them all the time. They look up to them.

“I brag on my team all the time and they are pretty good, but our kids are even better young men than they are baseball players.”

The Dirt Devils won two BPA World Series titles, finished second in another and high in yet another before hooking up with Blondell and company.

“The Scrappers have a great reputation,” says Gilbert, who counts son and left-hander Carter Gilbert among his pitchers. “They have big-name recognition. We were a little tiny team in a little tiny pond and couldn’t get kids to try out with us. We’ll be drawing from a much bigger talent pool.”

As a single-team organization, the Dirt Devils dictated everything. With the Scrappers, where Blondell handles all the administrative matters, Gilbert, head coach Brian Jordan and assistant Michael Hogan retain control over their roster and some say in their schedule while also benefitting from the bulk buying power of a larger organization which is sponsored by DeMarini and Wilson.

“With everything they had to offer in the winter, it was a great opportunity,” says Gilbert, who works a few nights a week at the Scrap Yard and has daughter Ava Gilbert playing for the 10U Lady Scrappers team. “We decided to make the switch.”

With players spread out, 13U Black practices one day a week in Ashley (near Fremont and Kendallville) and once at either Pierre Moran or Riverview parks in Elkhart or Newton Park in Lakeville. The older teams practice at Elkhart Memorial, Elkhart Central or South Bend Washington high schools. Scrappers softball practices are conducted at Penn High School.

While players 15U and above tend to play after the high school season is over, the younger teams like 13U Black play 10 to 12 tournaments in the spring and summer.

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The Michiana Scrappers 13U Black players and families celebrate the Fourth of July. in 2017 (Michiana Scrappers Photo)

 

Indiana Land Sharks travel organization enjoys great growth

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Can’t you see them circling … the bases?

The Indiana Land Sharks are coming to a diamond near you.

The travel organization based in northern Indiana and southern Indiana is fielding 26 teams — 22 baseball and four softball — with 290 players in 2017.

Ages are 8U to 17U for baseball and 10U to 16U for softball. The only baseball division that does not have more than one team in 17U. There is one team each for the four softball age groups. Teams are distinguished by the colors blue, gray and black.

The first Land Sharks team was run by Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer and South Bend resident Jim Reinebold in 2003 at the invitation of Clint Emberton (father of Chad Emberton), Dr. Karl Schultz (father of Kyle Schultz) and Russ Stines (father of Brenden Stines).

The Land Sharks were a top-10 finisher in a big tournament at Wide World of Sports in Florida.

A later team featured future major leaguer Ryan Strausborger.

The program was re-birthed with one one in 2009 and expanded to five in 2012.

In 2015, a new indoor training facility was added in Niles, Mich., and the Land Sharks began fielding girls softball teams.

A second indoor facility (Niles Sports Warehouse) is managed by the Land Sharks.

“We just grew so quickly,” says Jim Robinson, Land Sharks athletic director and an owner along with Marc Waite, John Baxter and Joel Reinebold. “We’re offering a product people want.”

Based on training space, teams were actually turned away.

All coaches are volunteers and many are associated with high schools.

“We are advocates of the high school game,” says Robinson.

8U players typically play three to six tournaments per season. These families are exploring travel baseball to see if it’s for them.

“We encourage (players on) 8U teams to play rec ball and experience travel ball,” says Robinson. “9U also plays at limited travel schedule.”

By the time they reach 10U, they are usually playing a full travel schedule. From that age until high school, they might play up to 50 games from early April until Aug. 1 (when high school sports practices start).

Needing more pitching, high school teams may carry 14 or 15 players on a roster. The younger ones usually go with 11.

High school players cease off-season training with the Land Sharks once their school teams fill their rosters and they don’t begin their travel season until they are released from their school teams, making for a shorter season of four or five tournaments.

Tryouts are usually held the second weekend of August.

While there is natural attrition as families move or players gravitate to another sport or activity, Robinson says retention is pretty high from season to season, meaning many teams may be only looking to fill a few spots.

“People follow good organization and good coaching,” says Robinson. “The chemistry of the parents is also very important. (Travel ball) is your summer family. Kids travel and room together (on road trips). So many families have multiple kids playing. They depend on people they trust.”

Some teams stay together year after year. Take the current 17U baseball team. This team — coached by Tom Washburn, John Kehoe and Dennis Ryans — has been together since 10U.

This familiarity has been a key to development.

“We’re different from a lot of the teams we play,” says Washburn, who coaches older son Andrew (lead-off hitter on the 2017 IHSAA Class 3A state champion South Bend St. Joseph Indians) on the 17U team and also younger son Joseph on a 10U team. “Each year we can teach these guys a little bit more. Many travel teams don’t have time to practice and it becomes knowledge vs. talent.”

New Prairie High School graduate Washburn played for Tony Robichaux at McNeese State. South Bend Washington graduate Kehoe was in the Toronto Blue Jays system. South Bend LaSalle product Ryans the New York Yankees organization.

Washburn calls the 10U team a hybrid with travel and Chet Waggoner Little League games on its schedule.

In either scenario, it’s all about learning how to play.

“At 10, I’m more concerned with their development than winning a bunch of trophies,” says Washburn. “We learn to run pick-offs at second, the hit-and-run and proper bunt. We learn about running a first and third defense and cut-offs. It’s amazing to me. These 10 year-old kids pick it up quick.”

Washburn, a longtime Jim Reinebold Fall Baseball Camp instructor who took his sons to former Land Shark Strausborger for tips at the South Bend Cubs Performance Center during the winter, says the reason so many people gravitate to travel ball and away from Little League and the like is because it offers more traditional rules at younger ages.

“It’s just different baseball,” says Washburn. “The younger boys learn to lead off, hold runners on as pitchers and catchers learn to give signs.”

Washburn also sees the appeal of summer travel ball tournaments with a concentrated group of talented player to college coaches who are busy coaching their own players during the spring.

Each Land Sharks team typically makes at least one big trip. Robinson had a team in Omaha, Neb., tournament last weekend, where they got to take in College World Series games.

Land Sharks teams play in Baseball Player’s Association, Gameday USA, Bomb Squad, Bullpen, Pastime, United States Specialty Sports Association and National Softball Association events.

Some popular game sites include Grand Park, Newton Park, City-County Athletic Complex in Warsaw, some Michigan City parks and Belleville Softball Complex in South Bend.

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The Indiana Land Sharks travel baseball and softball organization traces its origins back to the 2003 Michiana Land Sharks. In 2017, the outfit has 26 teams — 22 baseball and four softball. (Steve Krah Photo)