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Baseball Academics Midwest emphasizes the six-tool player

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Developing the six-tool player is the focus for Baseball Academics Midwest, an Indianapolis-based travel organization which will field 19 baseball and softball teams in 2019.

“We have the five physical skills of baseball (speed, arm strength, fielding, hitting for average, hitting for power), but the most overlooked part is the mental skill,” says BAM president and co-founder Jake Banwart. “We maximize physical performance through mental training.

“We do classwork as well as visualization. We take what they learn mentally and implement that into physical performance (through drills, done at the Extra Innings Indy South indoor training facility).”

Off-season training is broken into two semesters — positional training (middles, corners, outfielders, pitchers, catchers and base running) and team training.

“We do it in a way that keeps their attention, keeps it interesting and keeps them engaged,” says BAM vice president and co-founder Adam Gouker. “Practice plans are designed to take what we learn in the classroom and immediately take it out in the indoor facility.

“We’re still teaching the physical and making sure they’re getting all the training they need there,” says Banwart. “We’re just adding that sixth element to it to make sure they understand.

“We’re teaching physically how to do it, but also mentally how to approach it.”

BAM players are taught the concepts of baseball philosophy, how to be a good teammate, positive body language and self talk, offensive approach to hitting defensive relays and cut-offs, pitching and pitch calling and base running.

All those areas span six or seven weeks and build on each other throughout that winter.

BAM coaches have been trained so it’s consistent language from the time they’re 8 through 17.

“When we talk hitting approach, I can talk to anyone in our organization with that same language,” says Banwart.

There’s no need to re-start each season.

“We teach each age group one year ahead of where we should be teaching them,” says Banwart. “If our expectations are higher, their expectations for themselves will match that. We teach our 9’s like 10’s and so on.

“We’ve seen good results from that.”

Gouker sees players grasping more about baseball earlier in life.

“They’re learning at a lot younger age there’s a lot going on in the game,” says Gouker. “They’re focused on where they’re supposed to be without the baseball, where they’re supposed to back up, where they go with the ball in certain situations.”

Banwart is a graduate of McHenry High School in the Chicago suburbs. He played baseball through his junior year.

“I had decent (college) offers,” says Banwart. “But I was so fed up with travel ball and coaching, I hated baseball for about five years of my life and I stopped playing.”

Banwart attended Anderson (Ind.) University and played tennis for a few seasons. That’s where he met Gouker, who went to Alexandra-Monroe High School and then played one season of baseball at AU.

The two later found themselves coaching together in travel ball. They eventually decided to start their own organization and do things their way.

After a stint as assistant to Terry Turner at Daleville (Ind.) High School (the Broncos won an IHSAA Class 1A title in 2016) and head coach at Liberty Christian School in Anderson, Ind., Banwart is heading into his second season as head baseball coach at Perry Meridian High School in Indianapolis in 2019 with a staff of Gouker, Nathan Latimer and Cortez Hague (all of whom are also BAM coaches and utilize BAM concepts with the Falcons).

“It’s a culmination of what we’ve learned from other coaches, research and data collection,” says Gouker, who have talked about mental skills training with Diamyn Hall and hitting with Ryan Fuller among others. “We’re teaching kids a language.

“We’re pushing the academic portion a lot. We feel like we know the physical side as well as anybody.”

The idea is for players to understand the game. This is especially valuable for players who are being recruited by colleges. BAM had its first season in 2015 and has had 23 college commitments in two groups of graduating classes, including 2019.

“Coaches will get your 60 time, exit veto, throwing velocity and all those pieces but the one thing they don’t get to see very often is your baseball smarts or I.Q,” says Banwart. “If they’re there for one game, they might not see you make a play.

“If we’re able to win the 50/50 recruiting by providing opportunities for players to actually show off their mental skills and training, we’re giving those players an opportunity to be more successful or get to the highest level they’re capable of (attaining).”

There’s another piece to the puzzle.

“If you’re in a game and you’re over-prepared mentally then you’re able to transition what you’re doing to subconscious thought versus conscious action,” says Banwart. “We want players to know something well enough to feel like they’re just reacting.

“They’re not having to process and consciously think through those actions. It’s subconscious action that takes over.”

BAM, which operates with the help of several key partners, uses many of the same drills as high-level coaches.

“When we go into those we make sure players are aware of what the intent of that drill is,” says Banwart. “We’re not focused solely on result training. We break it down with intent so the mind can connect to the body.”

Banwart notes that professional athletes seem to rise to the occasion late in a game while some players sink to the level of their training.

“The better trained they are, the better they’re going to perform late in games or in tough situations which will give that visual appearance that they’re rising when, in reality, they’re playing with the same level they were earlier in the game,” says Banwart.

High school level players take into consideration things like the score, inning, number of outs, speed and direction of the ball and speed and position of the runners.

Banwart notes that the average time between pitches in Major League Baseball is 21.5 seconds.

“In those 21 1/2 seconds players are going to be thinking no matter what,” says Banwart. “They’re going to be thinking something. We just want to change their thinking and point it to what they should be thinking about.

“When they step in the (batter’s) box, they’re proactive with a plan instead reactive to a pitcher. We want to give our guys the feeling they’re in control of that at-bat versus they’re at the mercy of what the pitcher does.”

BAM players are encouraged to win the games within the game and things like swing count, average distance in the zone, max hand speed, max barrel speed and more are tracked on single-season and career leaderboards. Hits, stolen bases, saves etc. are also tracked.

BAM coaches are in the process of gathering baseline data and developing a Baseball Academics Rating (BAR) that can be used to show a player’s knowledge.

“It’s not catered to our program,” says Gouker. “It’s things anyone playing baseball or softball anywhere should know if  they want to be as successful as possible.

“We’re finding some pro guys are missing some things they should know.”

They have also developed a metric — WIN (Worth In Numbers) — to valuate players.

WIN takes out everything out of a players control and counts how many runs they create total or average per game. Each base is treated like a quarter of a run.

“Players with a third of a run per game or more are typically high level players,” says Banwart.

By running the numbers for the last three seasons, the MVP winners and Cy Young Award winners in the American League and National League were the ones that should have won based on WIN.

BAM coaches talk about metrics and more on their YouTube Channel.

Latimer, who played at Perry Meridian and one season at the University of Indianapolis and coached with Andy Gossel at Covenant Christian before joining the staff at his alma mater, has totally bought into the BAM way.

“We can’t have academic in our name if we don’t teach it,” says Latimer. “We want you to be baseball smart.

“If you have the sixth tool that makes you a more complete player.”

Banwart and Gouker says BAM teachings have spread across the Indianapolis area and the organization is exploring expansion possibilities.

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Representing Baseball Academic Midwest are (from left): vice president and co-founder Adam Gouker, president and co-founder Jake Banwart and Nathan Latimer. Banwart is also head coach at Perry Meridian High School in Indianapolis and Gouker and Latimer are among his assistants. (Steve Krah Photo)

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Abrell values life lessons while leading Plainfield Quakers baseball program

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

As a coach and educator, Shane Abrell looks for teachable moments.

Abrell and his coaching staff got the opportunity to teach their players about dealing with failure and about momentum during Abrell’s first season in charge of the Plainfield (Ind.) High School baseball program.

“Life lessons are really important in coaching,” says Abrell. “If we’re not teaching them about life, we’re failing them.”

Facing a formidable schedule, the 2018 Quakers got off to a 2-9 start then went on an 8-3 run on the way to 12-16-1. Right-hander Sam Tackett (an Indiana University Kokomo commit for 2019-20) hooked up in a pitchers’ duel with Braydon Tucker (now at Indiana University) as Plainfield bowed to Northview 1-0 in nine innings in the first round of the IHSAA Class 4A Avon Sectional.

“Now they know they can play with those teams,” says Abrell. “It gives us a lot of mental toughness as time goes on.”

Abrell and his assistants spent much time talking about the team.

“We have some really great conversations,” says Abrell, who welcomes back varsity assistants Josh Morris, Noah Lane and Jaylen Cushenberry, junior varsity coach Brian Holsclaw and freshmen coach Mike Harper for 2019. “We demand a lot of time and effort. But hese guys don’t skip a beat. They make my job easy.”

The coaches were honest with their athletes and admitted when they made mistakes in 2018.

The lines of communication are kept open through that sincerity.

“Baseball is so mentally tough on people,” says Abrell. It’s not for everybody.

“Kids are more willing to come to us when they’re struggling. We’re seeing more players are consoling each other.”

Abrell, who teaches computer science at PHS, was a Plainfield assistant to Jeff McKeon (now head coach at South Putnam High School) for one season before taking over the program.

Prior coming to Hendricks County, Abrell was an assistant to Kyle Kraemer at Terre Haute South Vigo High School from 2001-14 and helped coach youth teams around Terre Haute including the Junior Sycamores and with the John Hayes-managed Wayne Newton American Legion Post 346 program.

Abrell played for Kraemer at South Vigo, graduating in 1998.

“Kyle is probably one of the most organized people I’ve come across in coaching,” says Abrell of Kraemer. “He is very meticulous. There was very little down time in practice. You were always moving.”

South Vigo has enjoyed continuity on the coaching staff with assistants like Brian Pickens, T.C. Clary, Todd Miles and Chad Chrisman serving for decades.

“(Kraemer’s) been a great mentor and friend to me,” says Abrell, who will take his Plainfield team to the 2019 Braves Bash at South Vigo. The event also features Munster and New Haven.

Plainfield (enrollment around 1,700) is part of the Mid-State Conference (with Decatur Central, Franklin Community, Greenwood Community, Martinsville, Mooresville, Perry Meridian and Whiteland).

The MSC plays home-and-home series on Tuesdays and Wednesdays to crown its champion.

The Quakers are part of the IHSAA Class 4A sectional grouping with Avon, Brownsburg, Mooresville, Northview, Terre Haute North Vigo and Terre Haute South Vigo. Plainfield has won eight sectional titles — the last in 1997.

While in Terre Haute, Abrell had the opportunity to coach A.J. Reed and become close T.J. Collett and his family while coaching his brother Doug with the Post 346 junior squad and then as North Vigo athletic director.

Both A.J. and T.J. were Indiana Mr. Baseball honorees — Reed at South Vigo in 2011 and Collett at North Vigo in 2016.   

A walk-on at Indiana State University, Abrell’s coach with the Sycamores was Mitch Hannahs.

Abrell graduated from ISU in 2003 with a B.S. degree in Management Information Systems/Computer Science and worked various jobs, including web designer for Clabber Girl and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Reserve Deputy for the Vigo County Sheriff’s Department.

“That was an eye opener,” says Abrell of the issues he saw some students dealing with that have nothing to do with a baseball drill or home work assignment.

He makes a point of getting his players to give back by volunteering in the community at a food pantry or with Riley’s Children’s Hospital.

Gratitude is another life lesson Abrell teaches.

“We talk to the kids about thanking their parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents for all the time and money they spend,” Abrell.

He was a football, basketball and baseball coach at South Vigo. North Vigo, coached by Shawn Turner and Fay Spetter and featuring Collett, were 4A state runners-up in 2014 and 2015 with Abrell as AD.

Along the way, he attended Western Kentucky University (Master of Education & Kinesiology) and Indiana Wesleyan University (Education Administration).

Baseball has long been a big deal in the Abrell family.

Shane’s grandfather, the late John Abrell, was a long-time Connie Mack baseball coach and sponsor in Terre Haute.

Rick Abrell, Shane’s father, coached youth baseball at Prairie Creek, Prairieton and Riley and was president of Terre Haute Babe Ruth. He now tends to the baseball fields at both South Vigo and West Vigo.

The Abrells are close with Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famers Bob Warn and Steve DeGroote. Warn was head coach at Indiana State from 1975-2006. DeGroote assisted Warn at ISU and then led the West Vigo program.

Abrell says he took something from all the baseball men in his life.

“To be a good coach, you have to accept you’re not going to create something new in baseball,” says Abrell. “You take what you learn and you mold them all together.”

A love of tending the field was ingrained in Abrell. Kraemer had his team spend 30 minutes after each practice and game wielding shovels and rakes and Abrell does the same with his Quakers.

And there’s lots of time spent mowing and edging in the summer and fall.

“For every two hours practicing, probably another two hours working on the field,” says Abrell. “It’s therapy for me.

“We’re blessed at Plainfield. We have a beautiful complex and support from the administration.”

Principal Melvin Siefert and Assistant Principal of Athletics Torrey Rodkey are both former coaches.

The Quakers feeder system includes Plainfield Pee Wee Association, Plainfield Optimist Baseball League and Plainfield Teenage Baseball League (a Babe Ruth League) as well as a locally-based travel organization — the Plainfield Havoc.

“We’re trying to keep travel ball in the community,” says Abrell. “When they play together their whole life is when you have some of the better teams.”

When Abrell took over the program, he contacted Plainfield graduate Jeremy Kehrt. The right-handed pitcher was selected by the Boston Red Sox in the 47th round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft and pitched in independent ball in 2017.

“He stops by a lot,” says Abrell of Kehrt. “He works with our pitchers. When he shows up, their eyes get huge.”

Connor Mitchell, a left-hander who pitched in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization in 2018, also visits to work on arm maintenance. His younger brother, Jackson Mitchell, was the Plainfield’s shortstop in 2018 and is now at Earlham College.

“It means a lot to have alumni reaching out,” says Abrell.

Current Plainfield outfielder/first baseman Jacob Sims is drawing interest from college programs.

A wedding is planned for Shane Abrell and Shannon Bormann in the fall of 2019. Shannon is a nurse anesthetist at IU Health Arnett Hospital in Lafayette.

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T.C. Clary (left), Shannon Bormann, A.J. Reed and Shane Abrell meet at the 2018 Triple-A All-Star Game in Columbus, Ohio. Clary was a baseball teammate and coached with Abrell at Terre Haute South Vigo High School. Bormann is engaged to Abrell. Reed played at South Vigo and was a Pacific Coast League all-star. Abrell is now head baseball coach at Plainfield (Ind.) High School.

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Shane Abrell is heading into his second season as head baseball coach at Plainfield (Ind.) High School. He is also a computer science teacher at PHS.

Hall of Famer Webster now teaching baseball as Southport Cardinals head coach

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Phil Webster is proud to call himself a professional educator. A former law education teacher at Decatur Central High School on the southwest side of Indianapolis, he left the high school classroom in 2016 after more than five decades.

His baseball coaching career continues.

Following a few seasons as an assistant, he is the man in charge once again.

Webster, who was inducted into the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2015, is now head coach at Southport High School.

Last spring, Phil served as an assistant/pitching coach with son Todd Webster at Pike High School on Indy’s northwest side.

Before that, he was an assistant at Perry Meridian High School (which is in the same Marion County township — Perry — as Southport and parochial powerhouse Roncalli) after serving on the staff at Mooresville High School in Morgan County.

Webster was head coach at North Putnam High School in Roachdale in 2013. The 2012 season was spent as pitching coach at Franklin (Ind.) College.

Why take the Southport Cardinals job now?

“I enjoy being a head coach,” says Webster. “It allows me to be able to keep teaching the game. It was great coaching with my son. Todd gave me a great opportunity.

“Now, I get to be the guy in-charge.”

Webster ran the show at Decatur Central for 27 seasons, finishing his run in 2011. His Hawks went 558-254 with seven Marion County, 11 conference, 11 sectional, two regional and one semistate title to go with the 2008 IHSAA Class 4A state championship. Decatur bested Homestead 7-3 in that game.

Two of Webster’s former players — Jeff Scott (Brebeuf Jesuit) and Jason Combs (Decatur Central) — are now high school baseball coaches in Indiana.

Prep coaching stops have also come at Plainfield and North Salem. He’s also helped son Todd coach the Pony Express in travel ball.

Webster, who resides in Decatur Township, has been conducting fall workouts at Southport.

“We out here to get ourselves a little better,” says Webster. “I like this team. They’re learners. It’s fun when you’re a coach and educator when you’ve got players that want to learn.

“I look forward to every practice and workout.”

A new IHSAA rule allows coaches to work with an unlimited number of players for two hours two days a week. The access window will close Oct. 12 and open up again the first week of December.

“I don’t like it,” says Webster of a rule he sees as limiting. “If the coach is willing to take the time and if you want to play the game, you’re restricting their ability to grow.

“We we never tell kids to stop studying chemistry or math. But we tell them to stop studying (or practicing) baseball.

Webster points out that players who have the resources can go to the professional instructor, but are not allowed get free instruction from their high school coach during the blackout period.

“The rule is what it is and I’ll respect it,” says Webster. “But we’re holding them back.

“From Oct. 12 to Dec. 3, you can’t do anything (with players as an Indiana high school coach). Why?. What’s the rationale?. I guess the reason must be we don’t want to burn (players) out. (Rule makers) need to trust us a little more. We’re not out there to hurt kids. We’re out there to make them a little better.”

Southport plays its home games at Holder Field — a facility on the Mary Bryant Elementary campus it shares with Perry Township Schools mate Perry Meridian.

The Cardinals belong to Conference Indiana (along with Bloomington North, Bloomington South, Columbus North, Terre Haute North Vigo and Terre Haute South Vigo).

Each conference team plays each other once to determine a champion.

Like he was at many of his other coaching gigs, Webster will be a part of the Marion County Tournament.

“One-eighth of the teams in the county are coached by a Webster,” says Phil, noting that Todd’s Pike Red Devils are also in the field.

The elder Webster inherits a 10-9 team from Mike Klopfenstein, who is stepping away from coaching for now to be with his wife and 1-year-old twins.

One of the returning Southport players is Avery Short. The left-handed pitcher is the lone Indiana representative on the USA Baseball 18U Trials roster.

The University of Louisville commit earned an invitation to a USA Baseball event this summer in Cary, N.C., and was placed in the Trials roster.

During tryouts in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in mid-November, a roster of 26 will be cut to 20 on Nov. 20 and go through a series of workouts and exhibition games before playing in the COPABE U-18 Pan-American Championships Nov. 23-Dec. 2 in Panama City, Panama.

Short, an alumnus of Southport Little League, has been clocked at 92 mph with his four-seam fastball and also possesses a two-seam fastball, curveball, slider and “circle” change-up.

He is excited to have Webster leading the SHS program.

“I’m looking forward to working with him for my pitching ability and learning the game since he’s been around it so long,” says Short.

At 76, Webster has assembled a seasoned coaching staff. Mike Chapman was with him for 20 years and Steve Krizmanich (his statistician) 27 at Decatur Central.

“We’re the grey-haired guys,” says Webster. “We may be the oldest staff in the state.”

Dave Chamberlain rounds out the varsity crew. Ken Slaughter and Wendell Slaughter will run the junior varsity. Freshmen coaches have yet to be hired.

In an effort to bring the Southport baseball community together, Webster will keep communication open with coaches, players and parents at the Southport, Edgewood and Indiana Central youth leagues as well as Southport Middle School.

Knowing how important it is to have parent involvement, he is meeting with those who have players in high school and middle school.

“I’d say 90 to 95 percent of parents are very cooperative,” says Webster. “They’re helpful and supportive. The ones who are hostile are very rare.”

Webster has seen a direct correlation over the years to championship teams that have strong parent groups with happy coaches and players.

Noting that high school baseball is played during the “dog days” at the end of the school year, teams must contend with many obstacles.

“At the beginning of the year, you have no demerits and everyone is fresh. Then here comes baseball and the cold weather. It’s a battle. There’s no question about that.”

That’s why Webster appreciates backing from the administration. At Southport that includes Pete Hubert.

“I’ve never had a more cooperative and supportive athletic director,” says Webster of Hubert.

Born six days before the attack on Pearl Harbor — Dec 1, 1941 — Webster grew up in the in the borough of Forest Hills just outside Pittsburgh, Pa.

To this day, he is a diehard rooter for Steel City teams — the Pirates, Steelers and Penguins.

His favorite baseball player is Roberto Clemente. Among his favorite memories are Bill Mazeroski’s walk-off home run in the 1960 World Series and the 1979 “We Are Fam-il-y!” Pirates.

“I bleed black and gold,” says Webster, who stayed with that color scheme when he picked up his masters degree at Purdue University.

Webster graduated from the now-defunct Wilkinsburg High School and pitched at Milligan College in Tennessee. He wound up in Indiana in the mid-1960s and has been here ever since.

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Phil Webster, an Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer who led Decatur Central to an IHSAA Class 4A state championship in 2008, is now head baseball coach at Southport High School in Indianapolis.

 

Combs brings intensity, love for the game to Decatur Central baseball

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Jason Combs brought passion to the Decatur Central High School Hawks as a player and he’s still bringing it as he goes into his seventh season as head baseball coach in 2018.

Combs earned eight letters at DC in football, basketball and baseball. His head baseball coach was Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Phil Webster.

“I loved him from the get-go,” says Combs of the fiery leader. “Webby is the best one I’ve been around as far as taking a player and developing him. I matched him beat for beat in intensity.

“He had this attention to detail and got me understanding the game.”

Combs was part of a 2000 squad that won Conference Indiana, sectional and Marion County championships.

Webster, who would see his Hawks win an IHSAA Class 4A state championship in 2008, put Combs in center field and used the right-hander as a No. 3 pitcher behind 2001 IHSBCA All-Star John Tolson and Matt Elder.

“In all the years I played and have coached, Tolson’s still the nastiest curve ball I’ve ever seen,” says Combs.

A decade after playing for him, Combs joined Webster as his varsity assistant and followed him as DC head coach in 2012. The two still talk regularly and Combs leads his program at Phil Webster Baseball Complex — aka “The Web.”

Combs graduated from Decatur Central in 2001 and played four seasons for head coach Steve Farley at Butler University, receiving a secondary education degree in 2005.

Farley used Combs in the outfield with a few games on the mound and taught many off-field lessons.

“There’s more to being a baseball player than playing baseball,” says Combs. “There being a good human being and a good student.”

Farley pointed his players toward community service opportunities and got them to work youth camps.

Combs also learned to curb his on-field temper.

“I learned to control my emotions, which was always a problem with me,” says Combs. “If I slam down my helmet, I’ll find someone else standing at my position.

“I saw that it’s not all about me. It’s about the team.”

Not that he figured out all his coach was telling him right away.

“When I was playing for him, I was not smart enough to realize how good of a coach he was,” says Combs. “A couple years later, when I became a coach, I figured out Coach Farley was right.”

Combs and Farley stay in touch and he had his former Butler boss address his DC team last season.

Doing his student teaching at Westfield High School, Combs was invited by Shamrocks head baseball coach Ryan Bunnell to join his staff and he wound up serving three seasons as junior varsity head coach and two as varsity assistant. He was there when Westfield, featuring current MLB catcher Kevin Plawecki, finished as 2009 IHSAA state runners-up.

“(Bunnell) taught me the ins and outs and logistics of being a head coach,” says Combs.

If it were possible, Combs would like to see every player get a chance to be a coach. By explaining the game to others, it will help their own understanding of baseball.

Jason’s baseball passion was first stoked by his father, Steve Combs. The retired fireman was a fixture at Carnine Little League in Rhodius Park on the near west side of Indianapolis and did everything from coaching to cutting grass.

It’s in that atmosphere that Combs developed into a fierce competitor.

“We had people who taught us how to compete,” says Combs. “It was grown-men baseball at 10 and 11 years old. You had to fight and not give up no matter what.

“I still embrace that today.”

Donna Combs was also supportive of Jason’s athletic exploits.

“She was a loving, caring, awesome woman,” says Jason of the mother who passed away in February 2017.

Jason’s older brother Josh graduated from Washington High School in Indianapolis in 1995. When Jason was in the eighth grade, the family moved into the Decatur Central district.

Along the way, the youngest Combs gained an affinity for the history of the game.

“You respect what happened before you,” says Combs, who teaches social studies at DCHS. “You know it, learn it and love it.”

He received baseball books as gifts while growing up.

He came home from school and watched Chicago Cubs games on TV and heard famed announcer Harry Caray telling stories about the game’s past.

Combs has watched Ken Burn’s Baseball documentary series numerous times.

His favorite player was a tall shortstop named Cal Ripken Jr.

Decatur Central is part of the Mid-State Conference (along with Franklin Community, Greenwood, Martinsville, Mooresville, Plainfield and Whiteland). Next year, Perry Meridian is to join the circuit.

“It’s a really good baseball conference,” says Combs. “It’s always been pretty even. It’s competitive and it will be again this year.”

MSC games are played in a Tuesday and Wednesday home-and-home series.

“You’ve got to prove it,” says Combs. “You can’t have one guy who can (pitch every conference game). You’ve got to have a team.”

There has been discussion in going to Friday night doubleheaders like the Hoosier Heritage Conference.

“I like the way we do it,” says Combs.

There are 35 players in the program this spring for varsity and junior varsity games. The coaching staff features Alan Curry (pitching coach), Ben Ferrell and Jeff McKeon with the varsity and Brandon Curry (Alan’s son) and Brayton Lake with the JV. Curry joined Combs in his second season as DC head coach and Ferrell in his third. McKeon was head coach at Plainfield High School and head coach of the South squad at the IHSBCA North/South All-Stars in Muncie last summer.

Recent Decatur Central graduate Jack Wohlert is a pitcher for Indiana University Southeast. Current seniors Bradley Brehmer (Wright State University) and Alex Mitchell (Indiana Tech) have made commitments and Austin Mitchell (twin brother of Alex) and Devin Gross are among those Combs expects to play college baseball.

The Hawks are scheduled to open the season with three games at historic Bosse Field in Evansville against Evansville Reitz, Evansville North and Indian Creek. Other 2018 non-conference opponents include Beech Grove, Ben Davis, Franklin Central, Homestead, Perry Meridian, Roncalli, Southport, Speedway and Warren Central.

Decatur Central plays in a Class 4A sectional group with Ben Davis, Perry Meridian, Pike, Roncalli and Southport. The host rotation lands on Ben Davis this year.

Phil Webster is helping son and Pike head coach Todd Webster  this spring.

The Hawks last won the sectional in 2015 and the games were played at Decatur Central.

“I like to play a tough schedule,” says Combs. “You’ve got to get ready (for the IHSAA tournament) somehow. You’ve got to see what you’ve got.”

Located less than 10 miles apart, Decatur Central and Mooresville are backyard rivals.

Thanks to Webster and current Pioneers head coach Eric McGaha, the two baseball programs play each spring for the “Battle of 67” trophy.

The school that holds the trophy — currently Decatur Central — must be beaten on their own field to have it taken away. That means the “trophy” game in 2018 will come when Mooresville visits DC.

Mooresville is heading into its second season with artificial turf, causing many in the Decatur Central community to ask, “Are we next?”

Combs knows of no immediate plans for that kind of investment.

The coach is thankful for the assistance of Hawks athletic director and close friend Justin Dixson. They went to Decatur Central and Butler together and were in each other’s weddings.

“Within reason, he does just about anything I want,” says Combs.

Helping to feed the high school program are seventh grade and eighth grade teams at Decatur Middle School.

“I’m going to do that as long as we can,” says Combs. “There’s something to playing middle school baseball. We try to teach them our system. Plus they have to act right in school and stay eligible.”

Add Decatur Central Little League at Southeastway Park and travel baseball and some seventh graders are playing games with 60 feet between bases then 70 then 90 — sometimes in the same week.

“But the more you play, the more chances you have to get better,” says Combs. “We let the kids play where they feel comfortable.”

Jason and Jamie Combs reside in Decatur Township with daughters Amelia (5) and Josie (2).

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Decatur Central High School head baseball coach Jason Combs (left) embraces with oldest daughter Amelia following a game against Whiteland in 2017. DC graduate Combs heads into his seventh season as Hawks head coach in 2018.

 

It’s all about being positive for Webster, Pike Red Devils baseball

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

With a coaching staff always looking for the silver lining in every cloud, Pike High School faces the challenges of playing in baseball-rich Indianapolis.

Pike — one of the biggest schools in Indiana with an enrollment of around 3,300 — belongs to the Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference (along with Ben Davis, Carmel, Center Grove, Lawrence Central, Lawrence North, North Central of Indianapolis and Warren Central) and is in an IHSAA Class 4A grouping with Ben Davis, Decatur Central, Perry Meridian, Roncalli and Southport.

“The MIC is the toughest conference in Indiana in my opinion,” says fourth-year Pike head baseball coach Todd Webster. “Our out-of-conference schedule is fairly tough, too.

“We we think it’s important that we stay positive. We have to tell the kids that they’re getting better.”

It’s about building them up and not beating them down.

Before landing at Pike, Webster was an assistant to Aaron Kroll at Ben Davis — a school fed by Little League programs like Ben Davis, Eagledale and Speedway.

“They had a treasure trove of kids who had skill and were real gutsy and scrappy,” says Webster. “At Pike High School, it’s a little different. Our kids come from a very small Little League (Eagle Creek) and need a lot of development.”

Webster, a 1982 North Central graduate, served several years as a coach and on the executive board at Westlane Delaware Trails Little League — the largest Little League in Washington Township. His board tenure includes time as president.

Something Webster witnessed many times was the formation of travel teams, taking the best players in a given Little League division and putting them on one squad. The fathers of these players would follow and that would reduce the pool of knowledgeable coaches.

Several players come to Pike as freshmen with very little baseball training.

Pike High School & Freshman Center, Pike Career Center and Pike Preparatory Academy serves the Metropolitan School District of Pike Township, which also includes three middle schools (Guion Creek, Lincoln and New Augusta Public Academy North) and several elementary schools (Central, College Park, Deer Run, Eagle Creek, Eastbrook, Fishback Creek, Guion Creek, New Augusta South, Snacks Crossing and the Early Childhood Program).

Todd Webster, who saw the Red Devils win five games in 2017, has father Phil Webster, Mike Sloan and Andrew Lawrence on his coaching staff.

Phil Webster won more than 600 games as a high school head coach. His 27-year run at Decatur Central include a 4A state championship in 2008. He was inducted into the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2015.

“We just kind of let him do his thing,” says Todd Webster of his father, who began his coaching career in the late ‘60s and joined his son last spring. “It’s an unbelievable wealth of knowledge that he brings.

“It’s just nice having him around. He throws batting practice. My dad’s 77 going on 50. Baseball will keep you young.”

Sloan is a former North Central assistant. Lawrence is a social studies teacher at Pike.

The Pike staff keeps looking for things to complement to build up their players and they just keep plugging.

“We have some very good baseball players at Pike High School,” says Todd Webster.

That group includes junior left-handed pitcher Damon Cox (a verbal commit to Northern Kentucky University), senior left-hander Chase Hug (an Olney Central College commit) and uncommitted seniors in center fielder/right fielder Jordan Garrett and catcher Malachi Hamblin. As a junior, Garrett received all-state votes and was on the all-MHIC and all-Marion County teams.

To get seen and signed by colleges, exposures is key.

“Kids these days put a lot of stock in travel baseball,” says Webster. “Certain organizations get a lot of exposure and certain organizations don’t. It’s really important if you have an upper-level baseball athlete that they choose their travel teams and summer programs very wisely.

“Showcases are also very important.”

Pike is proud to call Hildebrand Field home. The complex has two lighted diamonds with new infields and banners and permanent wind slats and toppers on the outfield fences .

“It’s really a beautiful, beautiful field,” says Webster. “I’ve had some college guys say this high school field is better than ours. Our outside facilities are almost second to none.”

When the Devils are inside, they share gym space with many other groups at Pike and have sometimes access to one drop-down batting cage.

“That’s one of the obstacles we have to try to overcome,” says Webster.

One other way Pike players get in some indoor swings is by borrowing a lobster from Pike’s tennis program. Hitters are able to hit tennis balls in the gym and a net is not necessary.

“You have to be as creative as you can,” says Webster.

A Little League player while growing up, Webster got involved with construction trades classes in high school and did not play baseball at North Central.

“We were building our own houses,” says Webster. “I went into the field right out of high school. Back then the money was too good to pass up. He now a general contractor and owns Webster Commercial Contracting and Webster Home Improvement.

Between general contracting and coaching baseball, Webster considers himself as a man with two full-time jobs.

How does he pull it off?

“I own the business and know the boss really, really well,” says Todd, who is also the son of Carolyn Webster and sibling to brother Channing and sister Grey. “The key to coaching baseball and having your own business is you have to surround yourself with good people. If you get yourself into a pickle, you have people there you can trust.

“My assistant coaches on the baseball team are really good, knowledge and reliable. It is not necessary to micro-manage at all.”

In program history, Pike has won 10 sectionals — the last in 2010 — and one regional (1968).

No fewer than three former Red Devils outfielders have been selected in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft — Jim Watkins in the fifth round by the Boston Red Sox in 1979, Dallas Williams in the 42nd round by the Red Sox in 2003 and Jordan Cheatham in the 43rd round by the Chicago White Sox in 2006. All three had brief minor league careers.

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Todd Webster is heading into his fourth season as head baseball coach at Pike High School in Indianapolis in 2018. (Steve Krah Photo)

 

Nguyen teaching life, baseball at Lawrence Central

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Consistent message and accountability of ballplayers.

Those are concepts Harrison “Harry” Nguyen had reinforced during his assistant baseball coaching days at Indianapolis Cathedral High School and it helps form his foundation as a coach and educator at Lawrence Central High School.

“Players — teenagers — they need that,” says Nguyen of the benchmarks. “They don’t necessarily see the value in it when they’re going through that. It can really be tough in the day-to-day. It can be uncomfortable. But it’s what students need. It’s what baseball players need.”

It’s what Nguyen gained from spending 15 seasons (2002-16) on the Cathedral staff led by Rich Andriole, who goes into the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame Jan. 27 and is preparing for his first season as head coach at Guerin Catholic High School in 2018.

“Sometimes (athletes) need to be called out if they are not meeting certain standards,” says Nguyen, who speaks with Andriole on a weekly basis. “Rich is really good at that. We try to instill that in our kids here at Lawrence Central.

“We want to take care of our student-athletes. If we can teach them a little baseball along the way — great — but if we can teach them life, that’s better.”

Nguyen began his coaching career on the staff of Anthony Lowborn at his high school alma mater, Arsenal Tech. Lowhorn went on to coach at Triton Central and sent Luke Stephenson on to college baseball. The right-hander pitched in 2016 and 2017 at Indiana University.

As a youngster, Nguyen played at Lowell Little League in Warren Township and was coaching there when umpire Rick Wagner suggested he look into a coaching opportunity at Cathedral. He met Andriole in the summer of 2001 and began coaching Fighting Irish freshmen and later got to work with standout players like Tommy HunterDillon Peters and Ashe Russell.

“It was a really fun ride,” says Nguyen of his Cathedral tenure. “I coached a lot of good kids and met a lot of good people.

“The X’s and 0s get us into baseball, but what keeps us in it is the people.”

Nguyen, an Indiana University Purdue University-Indianapolis graduate who got his start in education with schooling at Butler University taught at Indiana Connections Academy, Cathedral and Franklin Central High School before that, is in his second year teaching math in the LC freshman academy. J.R. Shelt is his administrator. Shelt was his junior varsity baseball coach at Arsenal Tech.

After leaving Cathedral, he was not sure where he would land then got contacted by then Lawerence Central athletic director Jeff Irwin, who shared the vision of the school district.

“It all came together really, really fast,” says Nguyen.

The 2017 season was Nguyen’s first as head baseball coach at Lawrence Central. The Bears went 12-16, beating Columbus North and Zionsville and suffering five one-run losses along the way. LC lost to eventual IHSAA Class 4A state champion Cathedral in the semifinals of the Warren Central Sectional.

“We lost some heartbreakers,” says Nguyen. “But we were pretty competitive.”

The junior varsity went 16-4 in 2017 and several players from that squad are looking to make noise at the varsity level in 2018.

“We bring back a lot of seniors,” says Nguyen. “We have had a lot of spirited workouts this off-season.”

The 2017 Bears participated in the I-65 Classic at Purdue University and McCutcheon (along with host McCutcheon, Lake Central and Zionsville). This year, a similar event is planned with Lawrence Central, Brebeuf Jesuit, Hobart and Perry Meridian, perhaps at Grand Park in Westfield.

LC is also waiting to see if it qualifies for the late-season Victory Field Classic, held at the site of the IHSAA State Finals and home of the Indianapolis Indians.

Lawrence Central is a member of the Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference (along with corporation partner Lawrence North plus Ben Davis, Carmel, Center Grove, Pike, North Central of Indianapolis and Warren Central).

The Bears were Marion County champions in 2015. LC last won a sectional title in 2004, the same year they took a state title.

Nguyen expects Bryan Peters and Greg White to return to his LC coaching staff in 2018. A year ago, the Bears had three teams — varsity, JV and freshmen. It’s not likely the numbers will be high enough for a freshmen team this spring.

“Though I have no scientific evidence, it seems that 13 is where the numbers are getting lost,” says Nguyen. “That’s when many kids go from 46/60 fields to full-size diamonds. In New Palestine, where my son (Ryan) plays in an 11-12 league, it’s 50/70.

“Travel teams start a lot younger these days. It’s harder to know where your home Little League is. There are so many boundaries and choices for parents. Travel ball has become an arms race.”

Besides travel organizations, talent is fed to the high school through Belzer Middle School, where Orion Ogg, is the coach, as well as Lawrence Township youth leagues — Skiles Test, Fall Creek, Oaklandon and Lawrence Lions.

Lawrence Central plays on-campus at Challis-Pauszek Field. In recent years, the facility has added bleachers stretching from dugout to dugout, put in a new press box and did work on the sod. Plans for the spring include new bullpens.

The LC high school program does quite a bit of fundraising to keep participation prices reasonable (it was $73 in 2017 and much of that is township-mandated transportation).

“We have not had kids who could not play baseball here because of cost,” says Nguyen.

Former Lawrence Central players currently in college baseball include J.J. Montgomery (University of Central Florida), Kenny Ogg (Ohio University) and Matt Burleton (Marian University).

LC graduate Jared Ruxer pitched at the University of Louisville and is now in the Kansas City Royals organization.

Current Bears senior Allan Augustus has committed to play baseball and football at Marian. Others who hope to play on a college diamond include senior catcher Drew Prather, 6-foot-7 pitcher Zach McGee and sophomore outfielder Anthony Steinhart.

Besides Ryan, Harry and wife Heather have three other children. Morgan (17) and Tanner (16) are at Franklin Central High School and Hannah (14) is as Franklin Township Middle School-East.

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Lawrence Central head baseball coach Harry Nguyen (right) talks with Zach Rogers during the 2017 season — Nguyen’s first leading the Bears. (Black Rocket Photography, LLC Photo)

Alum Kluesner leading Bloomington South on diamond

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

It’s be said that people are the sum of their added experiences and influences.

Phil Kluesner picked up some things from his high school coach and others from his college coach and others along the way and it has brought him to where he is — heading into his 10th season as head baseball coach at his alma mater, Bloomington High School South.

Kluesner, a 1990 Bloomington South graduate, was an outfielder and left-handed pitcher in a Panthers program led by Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Grier Werner and later spent three seasons (1998-2000) on Werner’s coaching staff.

“I learned a lot from him,” says Kluesner of Werner. “He was very demanding but also very caring.”

From Werner, Kluesner saw a consistency of work ethic and the importance of building relationships.

He uses the latter not only as a coach but as an educator. He is currently a U.S. History teacher at BHSS.

Kluesner’s college baseball experience was a couple of seasons at the University of Southern Indiana, where Mike Goedde (now head coach at Evansville Central High School) was leading the Screaming Eagles.

Listing the qualities instilled by Goedde, Kluesner lists intensity, work ethic and competitive drive.

“We had a lot of talent on that team,” says Kluesner, who was with the baseball team for two years. He would earn a mass communications degree from USI and a secondary education degree from Indiana University-Bloomington.

Kluesner’s first coaching go-round came in Babe Ruth League baseball in Bloomington.

“I really liked it,” says Kluesner. “Rex Grossman was on my team. He was a phenomenal baseball player. He was just a better football player.”

Grossman would later be Indiana’s Mr. Football and quarterback at the University of Florida and in the National Football League.

After Kluesner’s stint as a South assistant, he served two seasons as a Shelbyville High School assistant to Mike Hobbs and Scott Hughes and then was head coach at Columbus North High School 2003-08 before coming back to wear the purple and white.

Kluesner coached a travel team made up mostly of South players known as the Bloomington Wizards and is considering bringing it back just to keep his players together.

“We’ve got some pretty good young talent coming through,” says Kluesner. “Travel teams are like mushrooms when you get too much rain. So many of them pop up. It’s almost overwhelming.

“The big thing I’ve noticed chemistry is difficult with them playing all over the place. They don’t know each other. It makes it difficult with our high school team. Chemistry is the thing teams are lacking. It’s become highly individualistic. It’s a team sport.”

With control of his own high school players, Kluesner will have a say in development.

“In the summer, it’s about showcasing yourself,” says Kluesner. “You get your hacks and sit down. I’m not going to discourage all kids from doing that. Some need (higher-profile travel baseball). But we could offer that with our Wizards and do it for less money. It’s not right or wrong, it’s just my opinion.”

Kluesner has produced Class 4A sectional championship teams in 2010, 2015 and 2016 and sent a number of players on to NCAA Division I college baseball.

There’s Joe Forney (Class of 2011) to Xavier (and is now director of baseball operations at Miami of Ohio), John Robertson (Class of 2011) to Miami of Ohio, Jake Kelzer (Class of 2012) to Indiana (and is now in the Philadelphia Phillies organization), Nolan Rogers (Class of 2013) to Vanderbilt, Gage Rogers (Class of 2014) to High Point in North Carolina (and is now at Indiana University Southeast) and Tyler Van Pelt (2017) to Indiana.

Alex Franklin (Class of 2018) made a verbal commit to Indiana as a sophomore and signed in early November.

Franklin has been a shortstop and a center fielder. With his BHSS head coach valuing versatility, he’s also in the pitching mix.

“The more pitchers the better,” says Kluesner. “I don’t have a lot of pitcher-onlys.”

While on the subject of pitching, what about the pitch count rules (1 to 35 pitches requires 0 days rest; 36 to 60 requires 1 day; 61 to 80 requires 2 days; 81 to 100 requires 3 days; and 101 to 120 requires 4 days) adopted in 2017?

“I’m a pitching guy and I think it’s too lenient,” says Kluesner. “The pitch count should be a little more stringent. I’ve never pitched a guy 120 pitches in my life. We try to set our schedules week to week basis. My big arm will only throw once a week.”

It’s all about a lack of effectiveness.

“We need to teach kids to be efficient and not be so erratic,” says Kluesner, who has had hurlers throw complete games in 70 or fewer tosses. That’s the reason they pitch so many pitches.

“Kids are out of control. They’re over throwing. There’s so much emphasis on velocity nowadays. Kids can be effective if they’re competitive.”

Catchers are expected to rely on their own knowledge to help guide the pitcher.

“I’m big on teaching kids to call their own game behind the plate,” says Kluesner. “You know they get it when they cut you off and say, “I know, Coach. I know what to call.’

“Catchers are better ballplayers if they learn.”

Besides letting the players take ownership of the game, there’s a third dimension by being behind the dish that coaches don’t see clearly from the dugout. Catchers know if the pitch is in or out, up or down and can adjust the pitch selection accordingly.

Another teaching point for all players is not to argue with or complain to the umpire.

“It’s their job to adapt to the umpire,” says Kluesner. “They’re all different.”

Kluesner’s assistants for 2018 are Trevor McConnell (varsity), Eric Dodds (varsity), Mike Vaughn (junior varsity), A.J. Hartman (JV and freshmen) and Kevin Gross (freshmen).

South typically keeps 45 to 50 players for its three teams.

“We always seem to have some large freshmen classes,” says Kluesner. “The year we went to semistate (2015), we had 11 seniors. On average, we have six or seven.

“It’s hard to keep all those kids anymore,” says Kluesner. “The mentality has changed. It’s hard to teach them roles. Everyone wants to be the star.”

Kluesner says the ideal number of players for a single week-night game is around 14 or 15. That way he can get his bench players into the game as courtesy/pinch runners, defensive replacements, pinch-hitters or relief pitchers.

The varsity roster might swell near 20 for the weekend doubleheader as Kluesner and his assistants bring JV players to reward them for their performance.

The Panthers belong to Conference Indiana (along with Bloomington North, Columbus North, Franklin Central, Perry Meridian, Southport, Terre Haute North Vigo and Terre Haute South Vigo).

Panthers home games are played at Groh Memorial Field, which dates back to 1965.

“It’s the original field,” says Kluesner, referring to the split of Bloomington High School into South and North for the 1972-73 school year. “It’s hollowed ground to us.

“When you think you’re playing the same place as thousands of other players, it gives you goosebumps. I make sure the players know that and respect that.”

Kluesner is expecting a major overhaul of the facility soon and South could welcome lights for the 2018 season.

The Panthers belong to Conference Indiana (along with Bloomington North, Columbus North, Franklin Central, Perry Meridian, Southport, Terre Haute North Vigo and Terre Haute South Vigo).

In a format change for 2018, all conference teams will play each other once to determine the champion. Before, there were divisions with an end-of-season tournament.

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Phil Kluesner, a 1990 Bloomington High School South graduate, is entering his 10th season as Panthers head baseball coach in 2018.