Tag Archives: Philadelphia Phillies

Former Lawrence Central righty Montgomery goes pro in Orioles system

RBILOGOSMALL copy

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

J.J. Montgomery pitched in his first professional baseball game July 11, 2018 — a one-inning stint for the Gulf Coast League Orioles.

But the 6-foot right-hander has been preparing for pro ball since his sophomore year at Lawrence Central High School in Indianapolis.

That was 2013 and Montgomery was primarily a center fielder for then-Bears head coach Matt Buczowski.

Having played in the Philadelphia Phillies organization, South Bend, Ind., native Buczkowski saw potential in young Montgomery.

“Started teaching me what the lifestyle was like and started preparing me for it,” says Montgomery of Buczkowski, who is now head baseball coach at Carmel (Ind.) High School and regularly trades texts with his former player. “I love Coach Butch. He’s a really good friend of mine.”

Buczkowski told Montgomery he needed to put in the time and effort to reach his potential.

“You can’t let anybody out-work with you,” says Montgomery of Buczkowski’s advice.

In his junior year, right-hander Montgomery got more more opportunities and struck out 96 batters in 63 innings with a 1.63 earned run average.

Swinging a potent bat, Montgomery hit .456 with 10 home runs as an Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association all-stater in his senior year at LC (2015).

As a high school freshmen, Montgomery’s head coach was Dan Roman (now head coach at Brownsburg High School).

Staying loose and having fun were qualities Montgomery took from Roman.

Montgomery, who played football for four years at Lawrence Central, logged two junior college baseball seasons at Northwest Florida State College (2016-17) before landing in NCAA Division I baseball with the University of Central Florida (2018).

As a freshman at Northwest Florida, he made 16 appearances (12 in relief) and went 3-2 with two saves, two complete games and a 2.64 ERA. In 47 2/3 innings, he racked up 56 strikeouts with 10 walks.

Montgomery was selected in the 33rd round of the 2016 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the San Francisco Giants. He opted to stay in college and went back for his second season at Northwest Florida and pitched in 13 games (12 as a starter), going 8-2 with three complete games and a 1.87 ERA. In 82 innings, he fanned 82 and walked 20.

Raiders coach Doug Martin taught his players, including Montgomery, the meaning of work ethic and not getting to bring for one’s breeches.

“In Juco, everything is blue collar,” says Montgomery. “I was told to just stay humble and be the guy you are.”

In his one season at Central Florida, where Greg Lovelady was Knights head coach and Fort Wayne, Ind., native Justin Parker the pitching coach, Montgomery competed in 17 contests (eight as a starter) and was 6-4 with one save, one complete game and a 2.54 ERA. In 63 2/3 innings, he whiffed 74 and walked 21.

“(Lovelady) taught me about the mental game and dealing with failure,” says Montgomery. “Not everything is going to go your way. You deal with it

“You can only control what you can control. After you let go of the ball, you can’t control much unless it’s a come-backer.”

Montgomery credits Parker (who is now pitching coach at Indiana University) for helping him develop his off-speed stuff.

“I’ve always been able to throw hard,” says Montgomery. “(Parker) told me to find my grip and throw it with the same confidence as my fastball.”

Montgomery was chosen in the seventh round of the 2018 MLB draft by the Baltimore Orioles. After the one game in the GCL, he moved up to the Aberdeen (Md.) IronBirds of the Short Season Class-A New York-Penn League.

In his first nine games with Aberdeen (all in relief), Montgomery was 1-0 with one save and a 5.56 ERA. in 11 innings, he struck out 13 and walked eight.

Throwing from a high three-quarter arm slot, Montgomery has touched 97 mph with both his four-seam and two-seam fastballs. He usually sits between 92 and 95 mph.

“I attack with the fastball then work in the off-speed (which includes a “circle” change-up, “spike” curveball and slider,” says Montgomery. “I have more control with the four-seam (which tends to have more revolutions than the two-seam).”

In his brief time in pro baseball, Montgomery has witnessed the difference between college and the minors beyond the raised level of talent and athleticism.

“In college, the schedule is more structured,” says Montgomery. “(In pro ball), you do what you need to get ready. It’s on you. It’s your career. It’s up to you whether you succeed or fail.”

Jarrett James Montgomery was born in Indianapolis (his parents are Alan Montgomery and Crystal Walton) and played at Oaklandon Youth Organization and Skiles Test Baseball. He played travel ball from age 13 to 17 with the Indiana Prospects then spent a summer with the Houston (Texas) Banditos.

Older brother Christian Montgomery, who also graduated from Lawrence Central, pitched in the New York Mets system from 2012-16.

After Aberdeen, where Kyle Moore is the manager and Mark Hendrickson the pitching coach, the next links in the Orioles minor league chain are Delmarva (Low-A), Frederick,(High-A), Bowie (Double-A) and Norfolk (Triple-A).

JJMONTGOMERY

J.J. Montgomery, a graduate of Lawrence Central High School in Indianapolis who pitched at Northwest Florida State College and the University of Central Florida, is now with the Aberdeen (Md.) IronBirds in the Baltimore Orioles organization. (Aberdeen IronBirds Photo)

Advertisements

Indiana native Wagner enjoying the big league life in first season behind mic for Blue Jays

RBILOGOSMALL copy

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Ben Wagner is basking in the glow of his first full-time Major League Baseball escapades.

After a decade as play-by-play announcer for the Triple-A Buffalo (N.Y.) Bisons, Wagner got the call to the big leagues in March when the Toronto Blue Jays named the Indiana native as their radio voice. Jerry Howarth retired after holding the job for 36 years.

“I still roll out of bed everyday and double-check that this is my life,” says Wagner, who has already witnessed plenty of memorable on-field highlights and taken in MLB cities across the continent. He has had the pleasure of exploring Independence Hall in Philadelphia, eating crabs in Baltimore and signing the inside of the Green Monster in Boston. “I felt like a tourist when we were in Philly. You’ve got to take advantage of those things.”

The culture is different in the big leagues.

“These are higher-caliber athletes,” says Wagner. “But you conduct yourself professionally, so not much has changed there.

“But everything else has.”

In the International League, teams take buses from city to city — often in the wee hours — and try to get as many home games on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays as possible.

“It boils down to dollars and cents,” says Wagner. “At the minor league level, it’s a math problem.”

In the bigs, clubs take charter flights. The bus pulls right up to the jet and away they go!

“It was an oh-wow moment when I first stepped on that charger plane,” says Wagner, a graduate of Fairfield Junior/Senior High School, near Goshen, Ind., and Indiana State University. “There’s nothing like sport’s teams charter travel. Every little thing is taken care of by people behind the scenes. It’s really an incredible experience.”

MLB cities are bigger. The hotels are of the 5-star variety.

“We’re going to places that people make destinations,” says Wagner. “And this is my everyday life.”

During his 10 years in the bus leagues, Wagner welcomed the all-star break as a chance to heal and re-boot.

“By this time in the season, my body torn up, twisted and sore and I’m not playing everyday,” says Wagner, who is 95 games into the 162-game 2018 schedule. “My body feels so much better now because the travel has improved. We are experiencing the best travel out there.

‘The biggest change to my life is the ease of travel. They make it as convenient they can for players, coaches and support staff, including the broadcasters.

When the hotel is within walking distance of the ballpark, it gives Wagner a chance to soak in the flavor of the city.

“I don’t like to breathe too much hotel air so I get out and find a good coffee house,” says Wagner.

There, he can get a cup of joe and then do some exploring.”

He is living in the center of Toronto and can walk to Rogers Centre in 10 to 15 minutes so he has found his favorites spots along the route. Ben and wife Megan live in Lancaster, N.Y. — about a 25-minute drive to Coca-Cola Field in Buffalo.

Depending on whether the opponent that night has already appeared on the Jays schedule, early afternoon on the first day of a series is devoted to prep and research.

Home or away, Wagner get to the park between 2 or 3 p.m. (for a 7 p.m. game).

“I anxiously await lineups being posted,” says Wagner. “Then I plug in storylines on the scorecard.”

There are many media agencies cranking out individual and team trends and Wagner sorts through the mound of information to find precious nuggets.

“Sometimes it’s totally irrelevant,” says Wagner. “But it’s nice to have those resources.”

Wagner spends up to 45 minutes chatting with players and coaches in the clubhouse and then there’s the daily briefing with Toronto manager John Gibbons three hours before first pitch.

After that, Wagner often networks to get the latest news about the other team and baseball in general.

“As much as I try to keep my finger on the pulse of the Blue Jays, having a balanced broadcast is important,” says Wagner. “Consumers have changed. With all the online broadcasting and satellite services, I might not only being talking to Blue Jays fans or Canadians.

“I’m not doing my job if I’m leaving out the other half of the story.”

With an hour before game time, Wagner must be in the “air chair” to record introductions. Then, he grabs a cup of coffee or a bite to eat and is ready to share what he sees with the listeners on SportsNet 590 and the Blue Jays radio affiliates.

On the road, it’s a two-man booth with Wagner and Mike Wilner conversing and trading off the play-by-play innings.

Veteran broadcaster and Toronto resident Dan Shulman works 80 home games — 50 on TV and 30 selected radio dates. When that happens, Wagner and Schulman divide the play-by-play and Wilner also contributes to the broadcast. Jay Siddall is a radio analyst.

Wagner says the difference between the two- and three-man booth is the cadence. With the Bisons, his sidekick was Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer Duke McGuire.

“Duke was an incredible resource and he was fun to be with,” says Wagner. “Our broadcast was major league quality — home or on the road.”

BENWAGNERJAYS3

As a first-year full-time radio play-by-play announcer for the Toronto Blue Jays, Ben Wagner has gotten to enjoy crabs in Baltimore. (Photo Courtesy of Ben Wagner)

BENWAGNERJAYS2

On a recent trip to historic Fenway Park in Boston,  Toronto Blue Jays radio voice Ben Wagner got to sign the inside of the Green Monster. (Photo Courtesy of Ben Wagner)

BENWAGNERJAYS1

Ben Wagner, a graduate of Fairfield Junior/Senior High School near Goshen, Ind., and Indiana State University is in first full season as a radio play-by-play announcer for the Toronto Blue Jays. Here he is on the field at Rogers Centre doing some television work. (Photo Courtesy of Ben Wagner)

Ready emphasizes academics, development as UIndy head baseball coach

RBILOGOSMALL copy

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Al Ready has been part of University of Indianapolis baseball for a long time.

Ready played for the Greyhounds in 2000 and 2001 and after two-year playing stint in professional baseball with the London (Ont.) Werewolves and Evansville (Ind.) Otters and and two years as head coach at Sauk Valley Community College, he joined the coaching staff of veteran UIndy coach Gary Vaught.

When Vaught retired at the end of the 2018 season (he was 808-533-2 in 24 seasons at UIndy and 975-666-2 in 29 campaigns overall), Ready was elevated from associate head coach to Greyhounds head coach.

“If Coach Vaught had wanted to continue to coach, I would have stood by him every step of the way,” says Ready, who turns 41 on Aug. 5. “He’s just a phenomenal person. He treated me like his own son over the years. He’s done a lot for me and my family. I’m going to miss him.”

Ready launches into his new duties with a coaching staff featuring pitching coach Landon Hutchison plus Trevor Forde, Scott Lawley and graduate assistants Storm Joop and Adam Vasil. All but Hutchison are former UIndy players.

The Greyhounds were 31-23 overall and 10-14 in the Great Lakes Valley Conference in 2018.

Looking far and wide, Ready and his staff are currently recruiting a few players to fill out the 2018-19 signing class while also working on 2019-20.

“I look for very strong academic student-athletes,” says Ready. “You can really stretch your dollars our if you are recruiting student-athletes who are able to receive both academic and athletic aid.”

At UIndy, academics is No. 1.

“I hope all of our players make it to the big leagues and make a million dollars,” says Ready. “But their overall quality of life is going to be determined by their degree and not by their baseball career.

“You’re coming in here to get a degree from the University of Indianapolis. You’re not coming here because we are giving you an opportunity to play baseball.

“If we don’t have the degree you’re looking for, I’ll tell them not to come here.”

UIndy offers the full amount of athletic scholarships allowed for NCAA Division II baseball — nine (Division I is 11.7). UIndy is one of four D-II programs in Indiana. University of Southern Indiana, Purdue University Northwest and Oakland City University are the others.

Ready says the Greyhounds typically dress about 35 at home and 28 on the road.

“The full-ride in baseball is kind of non-existent if you’re just talking in terms of just athletic dollars,” says Ready, who notes that players that can meet the stacking criteria of the NCAA coming out of high school can accumulate quite a bit of academic, athletic and aid money.

Pitchers are a priority on UIndy’s wish list.

“You’re only as good as the guy you roll out there on the mound,” says Ready. “We like arms. We’re only as good as the guy we’re going to be pitching that particular day.”

Offensive players are improved through training.

“We do a really, really good job of developing our offense,” says Ready. “Development, especially at the Division II level, is vital to your survival.

“You don’t necessarily get the kind of kids it takes to win a national championship at the Division II level right out of high school.”

The Greyhounds roster is typically a mix.

“How do we get them?,” says Ready. “Either right out of high school, bounce-backs from Division I schools or transfers from junior colleges.”

NCAA Division II allows a 45-day window in the fall for team practices. The limit is 15 hours per week.

“Our practices in the fall are really systematic,” says Ready. “We teach them our bunt coverages, first-and-third plays, pick-off plays, double cuts and things like that.

Outside of that 45-day window, D-II teams get two hours a week of skill development with individual and small-group workouts.

“That’s the stage were guys will really start to get better,” says Ready, whose athletes play games at Greyhound Park and train in the 95,000-square foot Athletics & Recreation Center (The ARC was the NFC practice site for the 2012 Super Bowl) as well as have access to the turf of Key Stadium (football).

With the help of Will Carroll, UIndy is part of a study by Motus Baseball to track the biomechanics of baseball players.

“I really like the Motus technology,” says Ready. “It provides certain metrics that you just can’t see when you’re just watching a kid pitch. You can keep track of the number of pitches a kid throws. But it’s almost impossible to keep track of the number of throws that the kid makes over a certain period of time whether that’s a day, a week or whatever.

“Motus has allowed us to get a good grasp on how much throwing each player is actually doing. The first six weeks of throwing kind of establishes the baseline for each player. It’s really nice to have.”

The sensors can track workload and the amount of stress on the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL).

“Of course, Tommy John surgery is considered an epidemic in baseball,” says Ready. “Those are important numbers to know when you’re trying to figure out how to train each kid.”

Ready notes that training over the years has really shifted toward customization.

“When I got started in the early 2000’s, it was more of a ‘cookie-cutter’ type of approach,” says Ready. “We were teaching each player the same thing. But what’s right for this player may not necessarily be right for the guy beside him.”

Last season, the technology helped diagnose an issue with a UIndy starting pitcher.

While not decreasing in velocity after a few innings, Motus data indicated that the player was dropping his arm slot and losing some control. The pitcher was switched to a relief role and he excelled.

Knowing the numbers can determine training methods.

“A weighted ball will work to increase velocity but it also increases the risk of getting hurt,” says Ready. “Wouldn’t you like to know which of your guys have more stress on their UCL when they throw? Those are the guys who probably shouldn’t be working with weighted balls — at least as much as some of the other guys.”

On the offensive side of things, Ready likes to use Motus sensors when a hitter is going really well.

“You want to know what the swing length, attack angle, hand speed, and rotational speed is,” says Ready. “When the player’s scuffling a little bit, you can put the sensor back on him and see if there’s any difference.”

Ready, a London, Ont., native, attended Sir Frederick Banting Secondary School and learned much about the diamond at the National Baseball Institute of Canada in Vancouver, B.C. After a few years there, he played two seasons at Sauk Valley in Dixon, Ill., then transferred to UIndy.

The switch-hitting catcher batted .352 with 18 home runs and 74 runs batted in as he earned Second-Team All-American honors and UIndy (43-23) placed third in the 2000 NCAA Division II World Series.

In 2001, Ready was a Verizon First-Team Academic All-American while helping the Greyhounds to a school-record 51 wins and fourth straight NCAA D-II regional berth. He still holds the school records for most walks in a career (109) and a season (55 in 2000).

Ready graduated from UIndy in 2001 with a 3.44 cumulative grade-point average in Computer Information Systems. He posted a 3.74 GPA while earning his Masters of Business Administration from the school in 2008.

Al and Sarah Ready were married in 2003 and have four children — sons Jacob (10) and Camden (8) and twin daughters Alaina and Evelyn (who turn 3 in December). Sarah Ready is a former Sauk Valley multi-sport athlete who got her undergraduate degree in psychology and masters in counseling at Indianapolis in 2001 and 2003. She is now a guidance counselor at Franklin Township Middle School-East.

“To make it all work, you have to have great wife who supports what you do,” says Ready. “To be a college coach, you have to have people in your corner backing you up and helping you out. There’s no question about it.”

Al and younger sister Jennifer are the parents of Ken and Gayle Ready of Ontario.

One of the Ready’s managers at Evansville was Greg Jelks, who played in the majors with the Philadelphia Phillies and also played and coached in Australia. Two Aussies — Daniel Lee and Greg Johnston — have worn the Greyhounds uniform since Ready has been on the UIndy campus.

ALREADYUINDY1

Al Ready is now head baseball coach at the University of Indianapolis. The former Greyhounds player had spent several seasons as associate head coach to Gary Vaught, who retired at the end of the 2018 season. (UIndy Photo)

GARYVAUGHTALREADYUINDY

Gary Vaught (left) was head baseball coach at the University of Indianapolis for 24 seasons and won 808 games. His replacement is Al Ready (right). The former Greyhounds player was an assistant and then associate head coach for several seasons. (UIndy Photo)

 

Former Valpo U. catcher Kapers now receiving in Rangers organization

RBILOGOSMALL copy

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Scott Kapers has a reason to show his choppers and it’s not just because his father is a dentist.

The oldest child of Dr. Scott A. Kapers, DDS, and Melissa Kapers, who both work at Creating Smiles PC in St. John, Ind. (across the Lake Central High School), Scott T. Kapers is enjoying his first taste of professional baseball with the Spokane (Wash.) Indians of the Short Season Class-A Northwest League.

Kapers, right-handed-hitting catcher and Schererville, Ind., native, was selected in the 17th round of the 2018 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Texas Rangers after three seasons at Valparaiso University.

After attending Forest Ridge Academy and Grimmer Middle School in Scherville, Kapers crossed the nearby state line and went to Chicago’s Mount Carmel High School.

A middle infielder going into a high school, Kapers converted to catcher to get a chance at playing time on a Caravan team that featured a shortstop (Jerry Houston Jr.) two years ahead of him and a second baseman (Ako Thomas) in his class. Houston went on to the University of Oregon and Thomas to the University of Michigan.

During his sophomore year (2013), Kapers finally cracked the varsity lineup at playoff time and helped coach Brian Hurry’s Caravan to a Illinois High School Athletic Association Class 4A state title (Mount Carmel edged Libertyville 2-1 in Joliet).

Two other Mount Carmel seniors in 2013 — Jason Gasser (Northern Illinois University) and Jeremy Kravetz (University of Kansas) — also went on the NCAA Division I baseball.

Kapers, who played for numerous travel teams over the years (Region Redbirds, Futures Baseball, Northwest Indiana Shockers, Indiana Bulls, Team DeMarini, Grinders Baseball and Cincinnati Reds Fall Scout Team), emailed five college programs a week before being approached by Valpo at a Prep Baseball Report showcase.

He made a verbal commitment in the fall of his junior year and signed his letter of intent with the D-I Crusaders as a Mount Carmel senior.

The Redbirds were a team coached by Scott A. Kapers and other fathers.

John Mallee, who is now the hitting coach for the Philadelphia Phillies and formerly served in that role with the Florida Marlins, Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs, was a Shockers founder and talked to Kapers about attending Mount Carmel.

At VU, Kapers played head coach Brian Schmack and learned about “playing the game the right way” and following routines from him and assistant Ben Wolgamot.

As a catcher, he did much drill work with Nic Mishler. He credits Kory Winter with aiding in improving his physical and mental strength. Kapers played in 45 games as a freshman, 52 as a sophomore and 50 as a junior before being drafted. In 2018, he hit .263 with four home runs, nine doubles and 28 runs batted in.

He also played 92 summer collegiate baseball games for the Wisconsin Rapids Rafters of the Northwoods League in 2016 and 2017.

Through July 6, Kapers had played in seven pro games — two with the Arizona League Rangers and five with Spokane — and was hitting a combined .217 with no homers, two doubles and two RBIs.

Kapers’ approach in the batter’s box revolves around having competitive at-bats.

“It’s about being a smart hitter and not just a swinger,” says Kapers. “Quality at-bats are huge. You string quality at-bats to score runs and that’s how you win games.”

Rangers minor league stops above Spokane, where Kenny Holmberg is the manager, Jared Goedert the hitting coach and Jono Armold the pitching coach, are the Low Class-A Hickory (N.C.) Crawdads, High-A Down East (N.C.) Wood Ducks, Double-A Frisco (Texas) RoughRiders and Triple-A Round Rock (Texas) Express.

Following in his older brothers’ footsteps as a catcher at Mount Carmel and heading into his freshman year at Valpo U. is Jake Kapers (18). Sister Madison Kapers (20) will be a junior at VU. She played softball at Marian Catholic High School in Chicago Heights, Ill.

SCOTTKAPERSSPOKANE4

Scott Kapers gets ready to fire the baseball for the Spokane (Wash.) Indians. The former Mount Carmel (Chicago) High School and Valparaiso University player is now in the Texas Rangers organization. (Spokane Indians Photo)

SCOTTKAPERSSPOKANE3

Scott Kapers seeks “quality at-bat” for the Spokane (Wash.) Indians. The former Mount Carmel (Chicago) High School and Valparaiso University player is now in the Texas Rangers system. (Spokane Indians Photo)

SCOTTKAPERSSPOKANE1

Scott Kapers grew up in Northwest Indiana and played baseball in Indiana and Illinois. The former Mount Carmel (Chicago) High School and Valparaiso University player is now in the Pacific Northwest with the Spokane (Wash.) Indians in the Texas Rangers organization. (Spokane Indians Photo)

SCOTTKAPERSSPOKANE2

Scott T. Kapers, son of Dr. Scott A. Kapers, DDS, is all smiles as he gets set to take the baseball field for the Spokane (Wash.) Indians in the Texas Rangers organization. (Spokane Indians Photo)

Former Hanover Central, Nebraska catcher Wilkening now catcher in Phillies organization

RBILOGOSMALL copy

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Jesse Wilkening remembers well the advice given by Doug Nelson, his head baseball coach at Hanover Central High School in Cedar Lake, Ind.

“Have some fun,” says Wilkening, a 2015 Hanover Central graduate and first-year professional in the Philadelphia Phillies organization (he was selected in the 14th round the 2018 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft). “Let the game just be the game. Don’t let it get too big. Play for your school, the people around you and yourself.

“I love where I’m from. That was pretty easy for me to do.”

Wilkening had plenty of fun and success with the Hanover Central Wildcats, setting the Indiana prep record for career hits with 206.

“It is very cool to have that (record),” says Wilkening, who finished his HC career with a .516 average, 20 home runs and 156 runs batted in. “But they are meant to be broken. Hopefully, one day someone will go out and do it.”

Wilkening was by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 28th round of the 2015 MLB Draft, but decided to accept an offer to play at the University of Nebraska.

From the time he visited the Lincoln, Neb., campus, it just clicked for him.

Continuing his academic performance from high school, he was named to the Scholar-Athlete Honor Roll three times and Academic All-Big Ten twice as a criminal justice major and business minor. Three semesters short of graduating, he plans to keep working toward his degree in the off-season.

During his time with the Darin Erstad-coached Cornhuskers, he was also named to the Tom Osborne Citizenship Team three times for his part in community service.

“It’s very important,” says Wilkening of his helping at charity events, talking to school children and visiting hospitals. “They give so much to us, we have to give something back.”

On the field, the righty-swinging catcher performed well for Nebraska head coach Darin Erstad — particularly in his junior season of 2018.

Playing in 52 games, Wilkening hit .372 with nine home runs, 14 doubles and 56 RBI and was named ABCA/Rawlings First-Team All-Region and Second-Team All-Big Ten.

He was on the Johnny Bench Award Watch List in both 2017 and 2018. The award goes to the top catcher in NCAA Division I baseball.

What makes the 5-foot-10, 200-pounder a good catcher?

“I’m very good with leadership,” says Wilkening. “I’m a pretty personable guy. I work with the pitchers and can be one of them. That’s huge.

“I know their strengths and weaknesses and how to calm them down or pump them up. I know what to say to them in different situations throughout the game.”

In the batter’s box, Wilkening has learned to be disciplined.

“I’m swinging at good pitches and having quality at-bats,” says Wilkening. “I don’t worry about the outcome.

“Hard barrel contact is a win for me no matter where it goes.”

In his short time in pro ball with the Short Season Class-A New York-Penn League‘s Williamsport (Pa.) Crosscutters, Wilkening sees the biggest differences from college ball are wood bats vs. metal bats, the language barrier (many pro players are from Spanish-speaking countries) and the uncertainty of player movement.

Wilkening got his baseball start at Cedar Lake Little League and played for several travel teams through his high school years, including Playmakers, Region Rippers, The Future, Northwest Indiana Shockers, Indiana Bulls, Prairie Gravel and — for one tournament — Evoshield Seminoles. He played in Perfect Game’s World Wood Bat Association Underclass World Championships for Evoshield in 2013 and the WWBA 17U National Championships in 2014 for Prairie Gravel.

Based in Hinsdale, Ill., about 50 miles from Cedar Lake, Prairie Gravel is owned by Al Oremus. Wilkening’s coaches were Sam Sorce and Mike Casey.

Jesse is the son of Todd and Julie Wilkening. His father has been fire chief in Cedar Lake for about a decade.

What comes next in the Phillies system? The Lakewood (N.J.) BlueClaws, Clearwater (Fla.) Threshers, Reading (Pa.) Fightin Phils and Lehigh Valley (Pa.) IronPigs.

JESSEWILKENING

Jesse Wilkening, a former Hanover Central High School and University of Nebraska player, is now a catcher in the Philadelphia Phillies organization with the Williamsport (Pa.) Crosscutters. (Williamsport Crosscutters Photo)

 

Swartzentruber’s career and baseball path leads him to Lake Central

RBILOGOSMALL copy

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

A man from the lower left corner of the Indiana map has made it to the upper left.

And he’s enjoyed high school baseball coaching success in his new home at Lake Central.

Mike Swartzentruber graduated from Washington (Ind.) High School in 1990 then Oakland City University and began his teaching and coaching career at North Posey.

In 13 seasons in Poseyville — 12 as head coach — Swartzentruber experienced plenty of winning. The Vikings were an IHSAA Class 2A state semifinalist in 2000 and won back-to-back 2A state titles in 2005 and 2006.

The second championship came against Hammond Bishop Noll, then coached by Dave Griffin. Flash forward to the present and his son, David Griffin, is a junior pitcher for Swartzentruber at Lake Central.

Three LC players from the Class of 2018 — second baseman Justin Graves, first baseman Conner Hoffman and outfielder Ray Hilbrich (who is out for the rest of the season with an injury) — have committed to play college baseball for the elder Griffin, who is now head coach at Purdue Northwest.

From North Posey, Swartzentruber moved to Martinsville High School for a seven-season stint.

“I learned a lot there,” says Swartzentruber of his time with Artesians. “It humbled me a little. All coaches have egos.

“We had a couple decent years mixed in, but we struggled.”

He stepped away in his eighth year at the school and contemplated his future.

“I had a lot of time to reflect and realized how much I wanted to get back into it,” says Swartzentruber. He landed interviews at McCutcheon and Lake Central.

“My wife (Misty) was real supportive,” says Swartzentruber. “She told me to make sure it is a place you want to be at. To use a baseball term, make it was a ‘home run.’”

The Swartzentrubers (Mike, Misty, son Griffen and daughter Ryan) were on a Florida vacation in the summer of 2016 when Mike was called and offered the LC job. He accepted on the spot and soon packed up the crew again and headed to Lake County.

Mike Swartzentruber is now in his second season at the school of more than 3,000 students in St. John.

“We’ve enjoyed it up here,” says Swartzentruber. “It’s the hardest job I’ve had in terms of expectation and the number of kids in the program. We had about 100 kids at workouts in the off-season (and there are now 54 players for varsity, junior varsity and freshmen teams). “But I want to be in a situation where baseball is taken seriously and is a priority.”

Griffen Swartzentruber is a freshman who played for the Indians’ sectional champion boys tennis team in the fall.

Ryan Swartzentruber is a seventh grader who enjoys volleyball and tennis.

Mike was familiar with the LC program since the Indians had come south four years in a row when Todd Iwema was head coach.

“I knew the history,” says Swartzentruber. “I knew Coach (Jeff) Sandor had won a (Class 4A) state championship in 2012. I knew about all the 20-win seasons.”

Iwema put in words of recommendation for Swartzentruber. They now are colleagues in the business department at LC.

Iwema is an assistant to Brian Jennings at Griffith. Swartzentruber and Iwema share notes on common opponents.

After achieving a 23-9 mark and the latest of the program’s 18 sectional titles in 2017, Swartzentruber’s 2018 LC Indians are 22-5. On Wednesday, Lake Central beat Chesterton for the Duneland Athletic Conference championship. Other teams in the DAC are Crown Point, LaPorte, Merrillville, Michigan City, Portage and Valparaiso.

The Munster Sectional, which also features East Chicago Central, Hammond Morton, Highland and Lowell, is next week.

Lake Central just celebrated Senior Night and seven players from that class have committed to play college baseball. Besides Graves, Hoffman and Hilbrich, there’s shortstop Conner Tomasic (Purdue University), left-handed pitcher Marty Ewing (Indiana University South Bend), left fielder Giovanni Lopez (South Suburban College in South Holland, Ill.) and catcher Hunter Zahorsky (South Suburban College).

From Swartzentruber’s first LC team in 2017, Ben Nisle went on to Purdue, Joe Graziano to Butler University, Matt Litwicki to Indiana University, Kyle Freel to Purdue Northwest, Jarrett Lopez to Indiana Tech, Nick Bandura to Indiana Wesleyan, Chris Fundich to Danville Area Community College and Tyler Frank to play football at North Central College in Naperville, Ill.

With a number of P.O.’s (pitcher-onlys), injuries and early JV call-ups, Swartzentruber has a 23-man varsity squad.

“Everybody who coaches thinks I’m absolutely off my rocker,” says Swartzentruber. “It’s not easy to navigate. There are guys who wish they were playing more. Many times the first time they start are as seniors. With the depth we have, you don’t see a lot of two- or three-year varsity starters.

“I’m still learning. We’ve got good kids. They work hard and are coachable kids.

“We mix and match kids (in a kind of platoon system).”

Pitching has long been a plus at Lake Central. The 2016 team set a national record with 16 shutouts. The last two years, the team earned run average has been at over below 2.00.

“Our pitching staff has been off the charts,” says Swartzentruber. “Any guy we’ve thrown out there has thrown zero after zero.”

Grant Weinmann, who played at Lowell High School and went to the University of Louisville, is LC’s pitching coach.

“He’s a young pitching coach does a real good job,” says Swartzentruber of Weinmann. “I’m more old school and he’s more new school. The results are there.”

Jay Jones, who went through the ranks with John Mallee (former Chicago Cubs hitting coach who holds that title with the Philadelphia Phillies), instructs Lake Central hitters.

“Jay knows his stuff,” says Swartzentruber.

John Novosel, a baseball veteran who has helped at Griffith and coaches with the Morris Chiefs in the summer, rounds out the varsity staff. Brian McNamara is the junior varsity coach and Jeff Myzak leads the freshmen.

Lake Central plays on an all-turf field with generous dimensions, similar to those of Victory Field in Indianapolis. In Swartzentruber’s two seasons, only one LC player has hit a home run there and only one visitor has cleared the fence in four seasons and that was Chesterton senior Tommy Benson when he socked one to left field last Tuesday, May 15.

Growing up, Swartzentruber’s coach was father Dennis.

“I’ve always been a listen more than I talk guy,” says Mike Swartzentruber. “I’ve picked up stuff from everybody I’ve ever been in contact with.

“My biggest influence is my dad.”

Dennis and Patsy Swartzentruber have two children — daughter Michelle (Heacock) and son Mike.

Steve Walker was Mike Swartzentruber’s baseball coach with the Washington Hatchets.

“We enjoyed playing for him,” says Swartzentruber. “My class was always pretty successful in baseball.

“Jasper beat us in the regional in my senior year.”

At Oakland City, Swartzentruber played for Phil Glover and then Les Hayes and changed his major to education then set off on his teaching and coaching career.

MIKESWARTZENTRUBER

After stints at North Posey, where he won two IHSAA state championships, and Martinsville, Mike Swartzentruber is in his second season as head baseball coach at Lake Central High School in 2018.

 

Process among points of emphasis for Brabender, Northridge Raiders baseball

RBILOGOSMALL copy

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Seeing the value in the process, staying with trends and building relationships.

That’s what baseball coaching is all about for Andrew Brabender, who enters his 11th season in charge at Northridge High School in 2018.

“I believe in the little things, the process of things,” says Brabender. “It’s getting kids to buy into doing the things that need to happen for the end result to happen. We’re not not looking toward the end result, but the little wins that happen throughout the process to get us to the end.

“I believe in staying current. It’s a great time to coach baseball. At the tips of your fingers you have Twitter, YouTube videos, apps and other gadgets.

“The guys on my staff are eager to learn and they really want to be current. What is the best stuff out there? What are the elite hitters doing? What are the elite throwers doing? What are the elite infielders doing and how do we make our kids do that?”

One way Brabender and his assistants — James Greensides, Dyrk Miller, Mike Miller, Blake Fry and Arick Doberenz — get players to focus on the path itself and not its end is the Raider Process Index, a system modified from Justin Dehmer and his 1 Pitch Warrior teachings.

“If we do this, this and this, the end result is going to take care of itself,” says Brabender, who has helped the Raiders to an IHSAA Class 4A Elkhart Sectional championship (2015) and numerous conference titles.

The first section in the Raider Process Index is the Freebie War, which counts Northridge totals vs. opponents for errors, walks, hit-by-pitch, catcher’s interference, strikeouts, stolen bases and dead-ball reads.

The second section is Pressure (or Press). Point totals are given for:

• Producing a big inning (10 points).

• Rally scored. If Yes (2 points each time).

• Eliminated rally scores. If Yes (2 points each time).

• Scored first. If Yes (10 points).

• Scored with two outs. If Yes (5 points).

The game goal is 30 points.

The third section is Quality At-Bats. QAB points can be given for a hard-hit ball (fly ball), freebie (walk, hit-by-pitch, error, catcher’s interference), moving a runner with no outs, a base hit or extra base hit, a six-pitch at-bat not ending in a strikeout and an nine-pitch at-bat even ending in a strikeout.

The overall RPI target is 48 points.

“We want to put pressure on the other team,” says Brabender. “We want to score first. We always want to have a shutdown inning after a big inning.

“This Raider Process Index is way for our kids to stay with the process. If we do that, the winning will take care of itself.”

Brabender regularly posts the RPI and QAB in the dugout.

“We don’t show our kids batting average,” says Brabender. “We just show them Quality At-Bats.

“They may have went 0-for-3 hitting, but went 2-for-3 in Quality At-Bats. That’s a good day. We’ve got lots of things in place for kids to value the process. You can’t just say it. You have to have things that will show them that we all value the process.”

For years, the Raiders have employed the mental training methods of sports psychologist Brian Cain.

The past five years, all Northridge players have been on a Driveline weighted ball throwing program.

Brabender says there are many benefits but the top ones are that is that it force feeds good arm action as well as arm development and the ability to throw with intent.

This year marks the second year that the Raiders are using a weighted Axe Bat regimen and the first year they’re really “diving into head-first, full speed ahead.”

The Axe Bat features overloaded and underloaded bats, which teaches intent and body positioning.

“With every kid in our program, exit velocity is up from the first time that we tested,” says Brabender, who has seen gains in hitting and throwing.

Exit velocity is measured with radar guns and with Blast Vision motion capture technology, which keeps track of all the post-contact metrics (things like launch angle, exit velocity and the distance the ball traveled). Blast Motion is used for pre-contact measurements.

Brabender has employed Blast Motion for three years and this is his first using Blast Vision.

Video analysis is also done with a RightView Pro app.

The Raiders boss was not talking about Launch Angle a decade ago.

“Now that’s all we talk about,” says Brabender, who had his youth campers hit on an upward plane. They were competing Saturday to get as many balls above a line on the curtain in the NHS fieldhouse. Below that line of 20 degrees or so was a groundout. Too far above it was a fly ball out.

“That’s what we call result-oriented training,” says Brabender. “That’s straight from (former Miami Marlins, Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs and current Philadelphia Phillies hitting coach) John Mallee. He does a ton of that.

“It forces kids to put their bodies in the right position to make something happen. If it’s not happening, they’re not doing it correctly.”

Northridge (enrollment around 1,400) belongs to the Northern Lakes Conference (along with Concord, Elkhart Memorial, Goshen, NorthWood, Plymouth, Warsaw and Wawasee). It is a double-round robin 14-game slate. Except for the final week of the NLC season, conference games will be played on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

The Raiders are grouped at 4A sectional time with Concord, Elkhart Central, Elkhart Memorial, Goshen, Penn and Warsaw.

What about the pitch count rule (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)?

“We’ve always believed in it,” says Brabender. “One of the things that’s always made our program strong is the amount of depth we’ve created in our pitching. Most of the kids in our program are going to pitch.

“I don’t think you can have enough arms at this level. In my 11 years, we’ve only had a handful of kids go over 100 pitches.

“Unless you’ve got someone with plus velocity — I’m talking 85 mph plus — you’re just asking for trouble. Getting a new guy in there just gives (the opponent) a different look anyway.”

Andrew’s father talked about the “24-hour rule.” A pitcher’s rest would go an hour by number of pitches thrown. That makes 24 hours if he throws 24 pitches and so on.

It comes down to the welfare of the player.

“It’s important that if kids want to play at the collegiate level, they’re healthy enough to do that,” says Brabender

Former Northridge players currently on college rosters include Shannon Baker and Brock Logan at Fort Wayne, Sam Troyer at Evansville, Matt Miller and Andy Ross at Indiana University South Bend and Andrew Kennedy at Taylor.

So far, current Raiders seniors Cody Bible (Indiana University Kokomo) and Dylan Trick (Spring Arbor University) have made college commitments.

Many Northridge players are part of travel baseball organizations like the Indiana Chargers, Michiana Scrappers and Middlebury Mavericks. Brabender and company also conduct coach clinic and player camps for Middlebury Little League.

Andrew is the son of Tom and Dorothy Brabender. Tom, who died in 2015, played football at Western Illinois University for Lou Saban and was a baseball coach in central Illinois for 40-plus years.

“The biggest thing from my dad was the way he related to his players,” says Andrew. “For them to follow what you want to accomplish, there has to be some likability.”

Brabender sees it as his duty to figure out a way to relate to each athlete in some way. He saw his father do it. Tom Brabender coached American Legion baseball into his late 60’s and was still relating with teenage players.

“That’s not easy,” says Andrew. “I hope I’m doing that here. I feel like I am. I want them to value the relationship with me more than baseball and for them to know that I’ve always got their back no matter what.

“It’s not about me. It’s about the kids.”

Before becoming head coach at Northridge, Brabender served one season as an assistant to Troy Carson — a man he also coached with in the Raiders football program.

Before Northrdge, Brabender spent three seasons as a baseball assistant to Steve Stutsman at Elkhart Central High School.

Prior coming to Elkhart County, Brabender followed his last two seasons as a baseball player at Hannibal-LaGrange College in Missouri with two seasons on the Trojans coaching staff.

His coach and then his boss was Scott Ashton, who brought Brabender to the NAIA school after he played two seasons of junior college ball at Lake Land College in Mattoon, Ill., following his graduation in 1996 from St. Teresa High School in Decatur, Ill.

“He was a huge influence in my life — spiritually, baseball-wise,” says Brabender of Ashton, who is now Mid-Missouri director for Fellowship of Christian Athletes and team chaplain for University of Missouri baseball, football and softball. “He taught me how to be a man We’re still close. We talk as much as we can.

“He’s a mentor me not just with baseball but my walk with the Lord.”

Ashton came along at a rough time in Brabender’s life.

In 1998, Andrew was playing in a wood bat tournament in Evansville and his parents and girlfriend (later wife) Marcie were there to watch. When they got home, they learned that Jason Brabender — Andrew’s brother — had been killed in a car accident.

“It was devastating,” says Andrew. “It was a crossroads in a lot of different avenues in our lives.”

Marcie, who Andrew met at Lake Land, had committed to play basketball at the University of Southern Mississippi. Hannibal-LaGrange was one of the few schools that was recruiting both Andrew and Marcie.

“We just took that leap and that’s where we ended up,” says Brabender. “It worked out great. I met some dear lifelong friends there. Marcie was part of the national tournament team in 2000. Two of my buddies from Lake Land ended up transferring there. It was cool.”

Andrew and Marcie married in the summer of 2000. They have four children — Emma (16), Beau (12), Kate (8) and Luke (6). Andrew grew up with an older sister, Mindy, and months ago found out he has another sibling named Lisa.

During the school day, Brabender teaches physical education for Grades K-5 at two Middlebury Community Schools buildings — Jefferson Elementary and Heritage Intermediate.

ANDREWBRABENDER

Andrew Brabender is entering his his 11th season as head baseball at Northridge High School in 2018. (Steve Krah Photo)