Pardon the pun, but Brayden Risedorph is on the rise on the national baseball showcase scene. A fireballing right-handed pitcher from Kendallville, Ind., Risedorph took part Saturday, Sept. 25 at the Baseball Factory All-America Game at Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium. The event featured 40 invitees from around the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico. Taking the mound for the National team in the eighth inning, Risedorph produced a 1-2-3 frame with two groundouts sandwiched around a strikeout. On Aug. 2-5, Risedorph was a part of the East Coast Pro in Hoover, Ala. He was assigned to the Reds for that showcase. Risedorph, who is in the East Noble High School Class of 2022, was at the invitation-only Prep Baseball Report Pro-Case Midwest July 6 at Triton College in River Grove, Ill., where his fastball was clocked at 95 mph and sat at 93 to 95 during his simulated inning. This fall, the 6-foot-3, 230-pounder is playing for the Cincinnati Reds Scout Team with tournaments in central Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin and the Perfect Game World Wood Bat Association World Championship slated for Oct. 7-11 in Jupiter, Fla. Risedorph drew some notice before, but really began turning heads in recent months. “I was always pretty decent, but this summer is where I took my biggest step,” says Risedorph, 18. “I just kept making a lot of little jumps and kept getting invited to bigger and bigger things.” After one of the games of the East Coast Pro, Risedorph was approached by Ben Simon, an advisor/agent based in the Cleveland suburb of Moreland Hills, Ohio. Knowing the reputation of developing pitchers by head coach Jon Goebel, Risedorph committed last fall to play at National Junior College Athletic Association Division II Parkland College in Champaign, Ill., beginning in 2022-23, but has been getting interest from larger schools. Risedorph is a two-way player at East Noble, manning one of the infield corners when not pitching. In 2021, he hit .329 (24-of-73) five home runs, one triple, six doubles, 25 runs batted in and 19 runs scored in 26 games for Knights head coach Aaron Desmonds. In eight mound appearances, Risedorph was 3-3 with 2.00 earned run average, 60 strikeouts and 18 walks in 35 innings. As a pitcher-only with 5 Star Midwest National. Risedorph went to PBR tournaments at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind., and LakePoint Baseball Complex in Emerson, Ga., and racked up five shutouts. Throwing from a low three-quarter overhand arm slot, which gives him much natural run, Risedorph throws a four-seam fastball which has maxed out at 96 mph. He also uses a slider, change-up and, sometimes, a curve or splitter. “It goes straight left with a lot of horizontal break,” says Risedorph of his slider. “It ooks like a fastball then at the last second it dives to the left.” It’s a “circle” change that Risedorph throws when taking something off his hard stuff. His curve is of the “11-to-5” variety. He uses his middle and index fingers and throws his splitter like his fastball and it dives at the plate. Born and raised in Kendallville, Brayden is the youngest of Randy and Iolet Risedorph’s four sons, behind A.J., Ryan and Eric. Former Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne pitcher A.J. Risedorph is the head baseball coach, assistant boys basketball coach and dean of athletics at NorthWood High School in Nappanee, Ind.
It’s a team-first concept that Connor Wilkins is emphasizing as the new head baseball coach at Ivy Tech Northeast in Fort Wayne, Ind. In June, Wilkins took over the Titans program started by Indiana Baseball Hall of Famer Lance Hershberger. “Be a selfless player and put your team ahead yourself,” says Wilkins, who turns 29 in October. “It’s a team approach. It’s never individual goals. Are you willing to do what is necessary for your team to succeed even if you fail?” Wilkins has this in mind when looking for players to compete in the National Junior College Athletic Association Division II program. “We are very strict about how we recruit,” says Wilkins. “We see how they interact with their parents and their teammates. We coach the entire person. The results on the ball field take care of themselves.” With games and practices at Shoaff Park, Ivy Tech is currently engaged in fall ball. They have had six scrimmages and could wind up having as many as 28 — most of them on the road at such four-year schools as the University of Northwestern Ohio, Indiana Tech, Indiana Wesleyan University and Taylor University. The Titans went 1-0-1 in the recent Puma JUCO Classic — a Prep Baseball Report showcase at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind. There are nearly 40 players honing fundamentals and getting down the details of Ivy Tech’s offensive and defensive systems. “We start working on things now so that come spring time their mechanics and bodies are locked in,” says Wilkins, who is working toward a Masters in Exercise Science and Wellness with a concentration in Fitness and Performance through Liberty University. Wilkins’ assistant coaches are Scott Bickel, Drew Buffenbarger, Javier DeJesus and Mark Flueckiger. Buffenbarger was Ivy Tech’s first baseball captain. DeJesus, who played for the Fort Wayne Wizards, is the Titans pitching coach. Flueckiger, who played at Huntington College (now Huntington University), has high school and college coaching experience. A 2011 graduate of Concordia Lutheran High School, catcher Wilkins played for Steve Kleinschmidt as Cadets freshman and his last three seasons for Hershberger. Wilkins went to Rick Smith-coached NJCAA member Jackson (Mich.) College then transferred to Indiana Tech in Fort Wayne, where an L5 (fifth Lumbar Vertabra) injury on top of a preexisting back issue ended his playing days in the fall of 2013. His original career path was to follow grandfather Harry Wallace’s footsteps and become a chiropractor before he got the teaching and coaching bug. Wallace (who died in 2006) practiced for 60 years around Ligonier and Fort Wayne. Wilkins transferred from Indiana Tech to Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne and changed his major to Secondary Education through Indiana University. In the spring of 2014, he was on the baseball staff of Fort Wayne Northrop High School head coach Matt Brumbaugh. Before becoming head coach and an advisor at Ivy Tech, Wilkinson spent three years at Bishop Luers High School in Fort Wayne, where he taught History, Health Sciences and Strength & Conditioning. Connor is the youngest of Dan and Beth Wilkins’ four children after Danielle Molter (36), Matthew Wilkins (34) and Brianna Kompara (32). Dan Wilkins is a retired IT specialist at GTE (now Verizon) and Beth Wilkins is in customer service at Parkview Hospital Randallia. Connor and wife Alana will celebrate three years of marriage in October. Alana Wilkins is a Fort Wayne Bishop Dwenger High School graduate and an insurance underwriter. The couple have a daughter — Rey (2).
Arsenal Indiana is expanding for the 2021-22 travel baseball season. The affiliate of Arsenal USA Baseball is to go with 12U, 13U, 14U and 15U squads in its third season. “Within two or three years I want to have teams from 12U through 17U,” says Arsenal Indiana director Jeff Cleckner. “I want to have one team at each age group and be very competitive. “I don’t want to water down the brand with seven 15U teams.” Cleckner, a graduate of Fremont (Ind.) High School (1989) and Purdue University living in Fishers, Ind., says the focus is on skill development at the younger levels and that the older ones grow their mental approach to the game as they prepare for college baseball. But first the current campaign where Arsenal is fielding a 17U team with Cleckner as head coach and Arsenal Indiana director and a 14U squad guided by Steve Smitherman. In 2020, 16U and 13U teams took the field for the organization. Playing six weekends of seven — starting with the first one in June — the 17U team has competed or will take part in events sponsored by Prep Baseball Report, Perfect Game and Bullpen Tournaments. The team placed second during the holiday weekend at the PBR Indiana State Games at Championship Park in Kokomo. The 17U’s were 22-9-1 through 30 games. The season wraps with the Perfect Game 17U BCS National Championship July 21-26 at Major League Baseball spring training fields in Fort Myers, Fla. All the other tournaments have been staged at Grand Park in Westfield. “It’s nice with Grand Park,” says Cleckner of the large complex in central Indiana. “Everyone comes to us.” High schools represented on the 17U roster include Avon, Fishers, Harrison (West Lafayette), Heritage Christian, Huntington North, Indianapolis Cathedral, Indianapolis North Central, Noblesville, Penn, Plainfield, South Adams, Wapahani, Wawasee, Westfield and Zionsville in Indiana and Edwardsburg in Michigan. Since the older teams can play as many as seven games in five days, there are often a number of pitcher-only players (aka P.O.’s). “It’s nice to have P.O.’s,” says Cleckner. “We can supplement as needed with position players. “We’re mindful of arm care and arm health.” The 14U Arsenal Indiana team began in early April and will play until mid-July and could easily get in 60 games in 3 1/2 months. The 14U team plays in same types of tournaments that the 17U teams plays at Grand Park in Westfield. Arsenal Indiana tryouts are planned for late July or early August, likely at Grand Park. A fall season of four or five weekends features a trip to the Perfect Game WWBA 2022/2023 National Championship Oct. 7-11 in Jupiter, Fla., for the upperclassmen. “The goal of the fall season is getting a little more work going into the winter,” says Cleckner. “You have new kids who’ve joined your team and you’re creating some chemistry and camaraderie.” The fall also provides more college looks for older players. Arsenal Indiana trains in the off-season at Finch Creek Fieldhouse in Noblesville. What is now Arsenal USA Baseball was began in 1995 by Joe Barth Jr. and son Bob Barth as the Tri-State Arsenal with players from southern New Jersey, Delaware and eastern Pennsylvania. Besides USA National in New Jersey, there are affiliate locations in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia. Many professionals and college players have come through the Arsenal program.
With giving players opportunities to develop and compete at a high level a priority, Indiana Elite Baseball is preparing for the spring and summer travel season.
Started as part of the Center Grove Little League in Greenwood, Ind., Indiana Elite Baseball had one team in 2011 then four teams in 2013 and was up to 10 squads in 2014 and has stayed in that range ever since. IEB will field 10 squads ages 12U through 17U in 2021. Younger players are typically come from central Indiana, but talent comes around the state.
“We started to grow it slowly,” says Indiana Elite Baseball founder and president Mike Chitwood, a former all-city player and 1989 graduate of Emmerich Manual High School in Indianapolis. “We wanted to do something bigger than a community-based team.
“I have a big passion for doing what I do. I love educating players and families on the process. I tell them to play the game for as long as you can.”
IEB has been a not-for-profit organization since 2013.
“I try to keep cost as low as possible for our families,” says Chitwood. “You have to do certain things to afford the families and players an opportunity to develop.”
In 2016, the organization got its own indoor training facility on the southeast side of Indianapolis. It’s open year-round only to IEB teams, coaches and instructors.
“It’s been a great addition for the last five years,” says Chitwood.
Indiana Elite Baseball offers a full winter training program led by director of baseball operations Brian Simmons.
Players train four hours a week November to March.
“I’m a big advocate of multi-sport athletes,” says Chitwood. “But get to as many (baseball workouts) as you can.”
Younger teams tend to play in 12 events a year, beginning in early to mid-April. Older teams play seven or eight tournaments after Memorial Day.
Simmons is a graduate of Roncalli High School in Indianapolis who played at Xavier University and Ball State University and in independent pro ball. He was an assistant at Roncalli to Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer John Wirtz and aided Eric McGaha at Mooresville (Ind.) High School and was head coach at Roncalli and Indianapolis Arlington.
Deron Spink is the other IEB instructor. A California native, Spink coached future big leaguers Ryan Howard and David Freese in the St. Louis area and was head coach at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky., and director of baseball operations at Villanova University in Philadelphia before moving to Indiana.
Spink was a volunteer assistant to Steve Farley at Butler University and is a former director of baseball operations and recruiting for Indiana Elite Baseball who now resides in Evansville while still coming to Indianapolis to give private lessons.
Chitwood, Simmons and vice president Jeff Amodeo make up IEB’s board. Amodeo coaches and does much of the behind-the-scenes work.
Through a relationship with Franklin College the past four years, Chitwood has gotten Grizzlies assistants to coach for Indiana Elite Baseball in the summer. Tim Miller has gone on to become head coach at Davis & Elkins College in Elkins, W.Va. Former Franklin and IEB coach Tyler Rubasky is Miller’s assistant.
Current Franklin assistants Jake Sprinkle, who played at Franklin Central and the University of Indianapolis, and Trevor Tunison, who played at Lewis University in Romeoville, Ill., also lend their talents to IEB.
Chitwood used to have a rule that after 15U, there could be no coaches who had sons on the team.
“As long as a dad is in it for the right reason and they’re not in it to take care of their son, I will let a dad continue as long as they want to continue for multiple reasons,” says Chitwood. “These days, it’s harder and harder to get a guy to spend his entire summer at the baseball field.”
“There’s a misconception that you had to play collegiately or at a higher level professionally to be a coach,” says Chitwood. “(16U Black head coach) Steve Sawa didn’t play past high school. But he’s a student of the game. He’s a great coach.”
John Curl, a Logansport (Ind.) High School graduate who played at Texas A&M and in the Toronto Blue Jays organization and is a Kokomo (Ind.) High School assistant, helps Sawa.
Paul Godsey (Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes, Ky.), Dan Sullivan (Indiana University Purdue University-Indianapolis) and Scott Gilliam (UIndy) and Brian Maryan (Rose-Hulman) are former college players who also have sons on their respective teams. Gilliam is assisted by former Eastern Illinois University pitcher and IEB father/coach Kyle Widegren.
Fortified with knowledge that he gained playing in Indiana and lessons learned since a Kentucky native is passing along baseball wisdom in the Commonwealth as owner/pitching coordinator at Pitching Performance Lab.
Opened in October 2019 by Chad Martin, the Lexington business has trained more than 300 players and currently works with about 200. PPL shares space and partners with Watts Performance Systems, owned by Drew Watts.
According to the WPS website: “The collaborative approach to baseball training offered by Watts Performance Systems and the Pitching Performance Lab is like nothing else available in central Kentucky. Throwing athletes who train at our facility receive training guidance that addresses their specific needs both from a skill standpoint and a movement/strength standpoint.”
Says Martin, “We’re integrating strength and skill together to make sure every athlete’s individual needs are met.”
The plan is not rigid. It is adaptable so adjustments can be made depending on the player’s needs.
One size does not fit all.
“We talk to our athletes and see what are goals are,” says Martin. “We don’t emphasize velocity alone.”
Martin and his instructors utilize motion-capture technology such as TrackMan and Rapsodo, which gives feedback on vertical and horizontal break, release angle and height, spin rate and efficiency and tilt and helps in the process of creating a separation in various pitches.
While those these things are helpful, the idea is not to get too caught up in technical jargon.
“It’s a lot of information even for me,” says Martin. “It can be something as simple as a grip adjustment or a visual cue.
“We always go simple first. Our goal is not to overcomplicate pitching. We try to stay away from really big words because it doesn’t really matter.”
Of all the players trained by PPL, 25 to 30 have been strictly position players who don’t pitch. There have been many two-way players and pitcher-onlys.
With non-pitchers, the goal is to make them a better overall thrower with their arm speed and path.
Martin is a board member and coach with Commonwealth Baseball Club travel organization and is to coach the 17U Xpress team this summer with trips planned to Grand Park in Westfield, Ind. CBC teams begin at 13U with some designated Xpress and others Grays. Depending on the level, some teams will compete in events at Prep Baseball Report events at LakePoint Sports campus in Emerson, Ga.
Travel ball is about college exposure. There are opportunities at many levels.
“We are definitely not D-I or bust,” says Martin. “We look for programs where we feel comfortable sending kids.”
Martin, 30, grew up in Lexington, where he graduated from Dunbar High School in 2008. He was recruited to Vincennes by Ted Thompson (now head coach at Tecumseh, Ind., High School) and played two seasons (2009 and 2010) for Trailblazers head coach Chris Barney and pitching coaches Scott Steinbrecher and Jeremy Yoder.
After two seasons at the junior college, 6-foot-7 right-hander Martin took the mound at IU for head coach Tracy Smith and pitching coach Ty Neal in 2011 and 2012.
“I wouldn’t be able to do what I do if it wasn’t for (my coaches),” says Martin. “I’m tickled to death to be able to coach and do it as my job.”
Martin made 36 mound appearances for the Hoosiers (17 starts) and went 4-8 with a 4.08 earned run average. He struck out 81 batters in 139 innings.
Selected by the Chicago Cubs in the 10th round of the 2012 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, Martin relieved in 14 games with the Arizona Cubs in 2012 and played a few games with the independent Florence (Ky.) Freedom in 2013.
Martin remembers Barney’s approach.
“He was always real supportive and real,” says Martin. “He didn’t lie about how he thought we were performing. That was a good thing.
“I thought I was really good and I wasn’t. I decided to work harder.”
Martin thrived in the junior college culture.
“We had some long days in the fall,” says Martin. “Juco is synonymous for doubleheaders all the time.
“It’s a good opportunity to get reps.”
As younger coaches, Steinbrecher (who played at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn.) and Yoder (who had been a graduate assistant at Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City, Tenn.) introduced new wave concepts.
Smith (who is now head coach at Arizona State University) was a straight shooter like Barney.
“He had a real good ability to be able to kick you in the butt and pat you on the back,” says Martin. “He was able to give players the right source of motivation. He got into my rear end a bunch of times. Having expectations is something I needed — some guard rails to keep me in-check and focused.
“I really enjoyed playing for him.”
Martin appreciated Neal’s way of explaining pitching concepts.
“We’d talk about what location worked better for setting up certain pitches,” says Martin. “It was more about getting outs and not so much mechanics.”
In pro ball, Martin had to adjust from starter to reliever.
“I’d long toss like I did as a starter then sit for seven innings,” says Martin. “I got hurt my first outing.”
In the minors, Martin saw the importance of routines and taking care of the body.
But the biggest takeaway was the anxiety component. Players can care too much about what people think and implode.
“It can be extremely stressful,” says Martin. “You can be around some of the best players on Planet Earth and wonder if you belong.
“It helped from a mental standpoint.”
He passes that know-how along to his PPL and travel ball players.
“We put a big emphasis on the mental side,” says Martin. “We want them to be prepared for what they’re going to encounter during a game. It’s not all rainbows and unicorns.
“There are coping strategies when things go wrong so there are not as many peaks and valleys.”
Martin says younger players tend to be very emotional and there’s no shame in getting upset or embarrassed.
“You’ve just got to learn to process it and let it go,” says Martin. “It seems to help.
“Some players are better at it than others.”
When Indiana was recruiting Martin they wanted to see how he would handle hard times.
Neal (who is now coaching at Loveland High School in Ohio) attended four or five games where Martin pitched well and sent short messages afterward.
When Martin had it rough in a fall outing the conversation got a little more intense.
“They wanted to see how I would handle adversity,” says Martin. “It’s damage control.
Growing up playing sports in Zionsville, Ind., Michael Tucker knew what it was to be a teammate.
A center in basketball and catcher in baseball, Tulsa, Okla.-born Tucker played at Zionsville Community High School and graduated in 2008. Some of his closest friends to this day played on those squads.
“We had some great teams,” says Tucker, who played for head coaches Dave Ferrell and Shaun Busick in basketball and Darrell Osborne and Adam Metzler in baseball and counted Matt Miller as a mate on the court and the diamond. Miller went on to pitch at the University of Michigan and in the Milwaukee Brewers organization.
Tucker was a standout hitter while playing catcher and first base for the Ravens and the Hall of Famer they called “Bama” for his first two college seasons followed by two with David Pressley.
Brandon impressed Tucker with his memory.
“He can tell you the situation — who was on the mound and the count — (from most any game),” says Tucker. “He was really fun to learn from.”
Pressley was a first-time head coach at Anderson. Tucker credits him with lessons on and off the field.
“I learned how to be a man,” says Tucker. “(Pressley) is a huge man of faith.
“He taught a tremendous amount of life lessons.”
Tucker also gained knowledge from Brad Lantz, who was an AU senior receiver when he was a freshman and went on to be a high school head coach at Guerin Catholic and Lapel and is now coaching in the Indy Sharks travel organization.
“I learned so much about catching, counts and what to look for,” says Tucker. “I learned more from (Lantz) than anyone else.”
Ground was recently broken for Championship Park in Kokomo, Ind., and that complex will also be used by Bullpen and PBR.
The 2021 summer will mark Tucker’s seventh with Bullpen Tournaments.
Hired by BT president Blake Hibler, whom he knew from working Prep Baseball Report showcases, Tucker started at Bullpen in time to experience Grand Park’s first full summer.
“I did everything,” says Tucker. “I tried to be a sponge. Being in baseball your whole life is completely different from the tournament industry.
“There’s learning the business side and scheduling.”
While at the Incrediplex near Lawrence, Tucker had done scheduling on a smaller scale and had become comfortable with software.
Tucker appreciates that Hibler lets him seek out processes.
“If I can find a better mousetrap, he lets me run with it,” says Tucker.
Bullpen is a very large operation.
“We’re a different beast in a lot of ways,” says Tucker, who notes that on any given weekend the company may have as many as 45 fields under its control, including those on and off the Grand Park campus.
Tucker says the key is getting the word out to teams, families and recruiters.
“You have to be able to communicate,” says Tucker. “Half of scheduling is the communicating of the schedule.”
With Hibler having a large part in brainstorming and development, Bullpen first used the Tourney Machine app and now works with Playbook 365 while also helping develop PitchAware and ScoreHQ.
Bullpen hires scorekeepers for every high school tournament game (15U to 18U) at Grand Park. In 2020, there was also video on six fields.
“It’s huge to have accurate data,” says Tucker. “We can overlay video with stats.
“(A college) coach can recruit from his office.”
But even though Bullpen is dealing with many moving parts, there are only a half dozen full-time employees.
“Guys are tasked to learn a lot of different things,” says Tucker. “But we never feel like this is something I can’t do. Our mentality is we’re going bust our butts and how do we solve this problem?
“Our guys do a tremendous job of being flexible.”
An example of teamwork and flexibility is the creation of the College Summer League at Grand Park, which came about when so many other leagues were canceling the 2020 summer season during the COVID-19 pandemic.
With many players reaching out, Bullpen saw the need and went to work to put together what became a 12-team league with most games played at Grand Park with a few at Kokomo Municipal Stadium and Victory Field in downtown Indianapolis.
The league was constructed with safety, NCAA and recruiting regulations in mind. Players were placed, umpires were lined up and jerseys were distributed in a very short time frame.
“We had about seven days to do it,” says Tucker. “We’re excited for it to come back (in 2021).”
As a D-III alum, Tucker was especially pleased that the CSL allowed top-flight players like Joe Moran (who pitched for Anderson and has transferred to Taylor University) was able to compete against D-I talent.
While the pandemic slowed the start of the 2020 Bullpen season, Tucker estimates that there were upwards of 80 percent in games played as compared to a normal year.
The fall included more contests than ever.
“Teams couldn’t play in the spring and that baseball hunger was still there,” says Tucker. “They wanted to play a little longer.
“We had a great fall.”
Weather plays a part, but the first games each year at Grand Park with all its turf fields are collegiate in February.
“If we get a warm-weather day our phone blows up,” says Tucker.
Activity starts to ramp up in March with the first 8U to 14U contests the last weekend of that month.
Of course, the pandemic will have a say in what happens in 2021.
“With all the uncertainty it’s tough,” says Tucker. “It’s going to be an interesting spring.”
A perk of Tucker’s position and location is the relationships he gets to build with high school coaches.
After one season as an assistant at Valley City (N.D.) State University (NAIA), Keeran became head coach at Bismarck (N.D.) State College (National Junior College Athletic Association Division II) for the 2020 season. The Mystics had played two games and were in Arizona to play 10 or 11 more when the COVID-19 pandemic caused the season to be halted.
“We were on a bus for 60 or 70 hours,” says Keeran. “It was awful.
“It’s tough to tell a bunch of young men that their season is over and it has nothing to do with wins or losses.”
While they could have taken an extra year of eligibility because of COVID-19, Keeran encouraged his second-year players from 2020 to take their associate degrees and go to a four-year school.
“It’s not ethically right to hold on to those sophomores,” says Keeran. “I didn’t see the point. You’ve got your degree, now move on.
“We have a very new group (in 2020-21) and we’re very talented.”
With players taking a hybrid class schedule (some in-person and some online), Bismarck State played few games this fall against four-year schools.
“We treated it like a test for what it’s going to be like in the spring with temperature checks and protocols,” says Keeran.
As a outfielder and pitcher, Keeran played four seasons at Waldorf while also beginning his coaching career.
Since high school baseball in Iowa is a summer sport, Keeran was able to play college ball and be on the Clear Lake coaching staff for four seasons (2013-16) and helped the Lions win three state titles (2013 in 3A, 2015 in 2A and 2016 in 2A).
“It was pretty cool to be coach at a young age and be mentored,” says Keeran. “Baseball should be played in the summer when it’s warm. That’s why I like coaching in the summer.
“It feels so authentic.”
Keeran says a typical high school gameday would involve batting practice and field preparation around 1 p.m. and the players would come back for a 5:30 p.m. junior varsity game, followed by the varsity.
“It gives kids a chance to work morning jobs in the summer and they don’t have to worry about the stress of class,” says Keeran. “It gives athletes a chance to do other sports. One of my best friends was a four-sport athlete (football in the fall, basketball in the winter, track in the spring and baseball in the summer).”
While the pandemic wiped out high school baseball last spring in Indiana, there was season in Iowa. Four 2020 state champions were crowned Aug. 1 in Des Moines.
In 2021, the Iowa High School Athletic Association has set the first practice date for May 3 with first of 40 allowed contest dates May 24 and state tournament concluding July 31. Showcase leagues ran by Prep Baseball Report and Perfect Game are typically conducted in the spring.
Looking to provide opportunities for development and exposure in elite travel baseball tournaments while keeping area players in the area, a group of coaches established a Rawlings Tigers outlet in South Bend, Ind.
Coached by Scott Quinn, Kevin Putz and Jason Robbins, the Rawlings Tigers 16U South Bend team participated in five tournaments in its initial season of 2020. The team won the Perfect Game Baseball Association Mid-American Classic. The squad plays mostly in Perfect Game and Prep Baseball Report events, many of which are invitation-only.
Quinn, who once owned the South Bend Bandits travel organization, decided to affiliate with the Rawlings Tigers — a group with teams in Fort Wayne, Indianapolis, Southern Indiana and 27 other states — for name recognition and a commitment to top-flight training and competition, which is part of the Rawlings Tigers culture.
“We were tired of seeing players head to Indianapolis to play in bigger tournaments,” says Quinn, who played at South Bend Riley High School, graduating in 1995, and Spoon River College in Canton, Ill. “We all believe in the practice aspect instead of just show up-and-play the games.
“We wanted the same experience the kids in the Indy area have.”
That means off-season training and the opportunity to build team chemistry since the ideal Rawlings Tigers South Bend roster has no more than 14 and no pitch-only players on the roster and players have multiple responsibilities.
“We’re looking for kids who can play both ways,” says Quinn. “You don’t get better at playing this game by watching it. You get better by playing it
“(Players) need to be on the field and participating in every aspect of the game.”
The Rawlings Tigers South Bend’s roster consists of northern Indiana players.
“Most of our kids know each other off the baseball field,” says Quinn. “We have an abundance of high schools in a small area.
“It all seems to mesh really well.”
There is an emphasis on hustle and unity as well as workouts.
“Effort and team can beat talent any day of the week,” says Quinn. “We tend to practice more than most (travel) teams.
“We’re looking for players that are really committed and want to take that next step. We expect a lot of our players. They must maintain at least a 3.3 GPA. The amount of work we put it is second to none.”
A group tryout for next season was already held at Mishawaka (Ind.) High School. Quinn says individual tryouts can be scheduled.
With many multi-sport athletes, Rawlings Tigers South Bend preseason baseball and strength workouts begin in December at RBIs Unlimited in Mishawaka.
“We have a lot of practices and do a lot of running to get ready for the next season and to prepare players to make the varsity at their high schools,” says Quinn.
The hope is that the 2021 Rawlings Tigers South Bend season will include up to eight tournaments at either the 16U or 17U level.
There will be a PBR National Championships qualifier at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind. Qualifiers will compete in the nationals at LakePoint in Georgia. There will also be Perfect Game events in the Toledo, Ohio, area as well as PG’s World Wood Bat Association tournaments.
“I’m a big believer in doing training with a wood bat,” says Quinn. “The sound (crack vs. ping) tells you whether you hit the ball correctly or not.”
Putz (Class of 1991) and Robbins (Class of 1990) are both graduates of South Bend Washington High School, where they played for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Ric Tomaszewski.
Putz played at Triton College in River Grove, Ill., and New Mexico State U.
Robbins, who is Quinn’s brother-in-law, was a right-handed pitcher at Wake Forest University and in the Cincinnati Reds and Arizona Diamondbacks systems, including the 1997 South Bend Silver Hawks for manager Dick Scott.
Quinn considers it a privilege to now be coaching with Putz and Robbins.
“I grew up watching them play,” says Quinn.
In seventh grade, Quinn began a long relationship with John Nadolny. He would play for him at Riley and his son — Konner Quinn (Class of 2023) — plays for Nadolny at John Glenn High School in Walkerton, Ind.
“He’s a big influence on my career as a player and coach,” says Quinn of the man they call Nud.
Konnor Putz is also on the Rawlings Tigers South Bend.
In order to build relationships and develop players, coaching staffs tend to stay with the same group of players from their 14U through 17U seasons.
“If I’ve only been around these kids for eight weeks in summer, I don’t really get to know the kid and the family,” says Jay Hundley, Canes Midwest Baseball president and 17U head coach. “The cycle — I believe in that.”
Hundley recalls an emotional goodbye by himself and his assistant coaches to the Canes 17U team when they played their last game of 2019.
“We cried like babies for 25 minutes straight,” says Hundley. “(The players and their parents) became our second family.”
That bond happens through years of training (off-season workouts are done at Pro X Athlete Development in Westfield, Ind.), traveling and playing together.
McGaha (Mooresville), Honaker (Martinsville), McIntyre (Indianapolis North Central), Bear (Ben Davis), Webb (Western Boone) and McDaniel (Columbus North) are all high school head coaches. Sensenbaugh (Indianapolis Cathedral), Koning (Zionsville) and McIntosh (Columbus North) are also high school assistants. Bertram played at Purdue University and just graduated.
Hundley says there will be teams at each age from 10U to 17U when new squads are formed for 2020-21.
“We’ll only only ever have only one team per age group,” says Hundley. “We want to have the best kids and coaches. We’re trying to grow it the right way — slowly and surely.
“We’ve had the same coaches for almost 10 years.”
Hundley founded the Indiana Outlaws around 2012. A few years ago, that organization merged with Canes Baseball.
With President and CEO and 18U National head coach Jeff Petty and general manager and 14U National head coach Dan Gitzen based in the Virginia/Maryland/North Carolina area, Canes Baseball is one of the biggest travel programs in the country with thousands of players and a very large social media presence.
“The Outlaws were known in Indiana and surrounding areas,” says Hundley.
While Canes Midwest Baseball is locally owned and operated, Hundley says the national Canes brand helps with outreach in getting better players and with exposure to college programs.
Canes Midwest Baseball does not have a huge board of directors.
“It’s like a mom-and-pop operation,” says Hundley. “It’s myself and our coaches. It’s about baseball at the end of the day.
“We’re getting guys into college and developing our younger players. We build great relationships with families. We do it for the right reasons.”
Hundley says 21 of the 23 players on the 17U team in 2019 (members of the Class of 2020) made college baseball commitments.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 college season was cut short and players were given an extra year of eligibility. High school seniors missed the entire spring campaign.
The Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft was sliced from 40 to five rounds.
On top of that, the recruiting calendar for NCAA Divisions I and II was changed so coaches can’t see players in-person until after July 31. The travel season is essentially over by then.
To deal with that, Hundley says Canes Midwest Baseball will continue to provide those college coaches with video and use the equity built built over the years between the travel group and the college recruiters.
“We have to vouch for our player’s character, but we can’t oversell a player who’s not a fit for the school or we lose credibility,” says Hundley. “(Recruiters) can see a guy’s talent, but can’t see what’s in his heart or between his ears.”
It’s typical that close to 90 percent of players are committed by the end of the 17U summer.
Hundley says that it used to be that the 17U summer was the most important for players bound for Division I Power 5 programs.
That has changed to 16U and some players have even made verbal commitments as 15U players. At 17U, there are still D-I commitments made as well as at other collegiate levels.
“The landscape has changed so much,” says Hundley. “There may be a chain reaction for three or four years. There are a lot of guys that didn’t leave college because of not being drafted.
“The waters have gotten very muddy. I don’t think it’s going to get clear for awhile.”
Depending on participation by college recruiters, Hundley says the 17U Canes Midwest team might also play in the next Bullpen Midwest Prospect League event at Grand Park.
With their bright gold attire, it’s usually not difficult to spot the Canes at a tournament.
Hundley is a 1997 graduate of Ben Davis High School and played for head coach Dave Brown. Later on, Hundley was a Ben Davis assistant for six years and followed Aaron Kroll to staff Roncalli High School in Indianapolis and was on his staff 2015-19.
A self-described “rec league” player most of his diamond life, Besecker has in the New Castle Babe Ruth League and toed the rubber of the all-star team in last summer’s Indiana state tournament in Crown Point. That team was coached by Bret Mann, who had also coached New Castle’s entry in the 2012 Little League World Series.
Besecker, a right-handed pitcher, had his velocity clocked just three times during his prep days. He maxed out at 78 mph at an Earlham College camp as a freshman.
He got into the weight room and took a few lessons from pitching coach Jay Lehr and his velo went up.
“He’s been a big part of it,” says Besecker of Lehr, who is based in central Indiana. “We haven’t gotten to him enough. I’ve had only five true lessons with him, but he taught me something every time. He me how to use my lower half and get into my legs.”
Following his junior year at New Castle, he attended a Prep Baseball Report showcase and went as high as 85. In the early part of 2020, he was at another PBR event and got up to 89.
Besecker isn’t the biggest kid on the field either. Rosters list him at 5-11 and 155 pounds. He says he might be closer to 5-9 and 150.
He gets the most out of what he got. That’s why Besecker has been enamored with major league pitcher Tim Lincecum and what he did with his small frame.
“He’s been my idol since I’ve been little,” says Besecker. “What made me fall in love with him is that when he was good, he was the best pitcher in the world. He was so different from everyone else.”
Besecker has prided himself in exceeding expectations.
“Who’s this little squirt?” says Besecker imitating batters facing him for the first time. Then comes the first delivery.
Usually pretty swift.
But it’s not just about the heat.
“I’ve always prided myself in being a pitcher,” says Besecker. “I always knew how to locate.
“I wasn’t just a hurler.”
Besecker’s passion impresses first-year New Castle head coach Brad Pearson, who didn’t get to see the pitcher perform in a senior season that was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Nic is one of those kids who seems to be all about baseball,” says Pearson. “He wants to learn. He wants to get better. He just loves the sport.”
Pearson also appreciates Besecker’s mound approach.
“He’s not worried about lightning up the radar gun,” says Pearson. “He just wants to get outs.
Funny thing is when Keydets head coach Jonathan Hadra and pitching coach Sam Roberts welcome their new recruit to the Lexington, Va., campus it will represent a few firsts.
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, it will be the first time for Besecker and his coaches will seeing each other in-person when the player makes his first appearance in Virginia.
“I had options,” says ays Besecker, who will step into a program that has sent right-handers Zak Kent, Josh Winder and Matt Eagle into pro baseball in recent seasons. “Coach Hadra and Coach Roberts has something special going on over there.”
Besecker says he does not owe four years of military service after he graduates from VMI.
“I’m going there to play baseball and etch out some kind of career in baseball,” says Besecker. “That’s been my dream.”
Like all first-year VMI students, Besecker will start on the “Rat Line.” He is hopefully that this basic training program that usually lasts from August through January will help him pack on 20 to 30 pounds.
“I would not get that anywhere else,” says Besecker. “I’ve always been a guy to accept that kind of challenge.”
The majority of new cadets begin around Aug. 15, but they have had summer conditioning programs in the past. If those are available and his coaches want him to attend, Besecker might leave for VMI early.
It’s not yet certain when or if New Castle will have a graduation ceremony.
VMI is a member of the Southern Conference. The Keydets went to Virginia and North Carolina before the 2020 season was halted and was to play home-and-home series with Virginia Tech.
The SoCon tournament was to be staged at Fluor Field in Greenville, S.C. The park has its own “Green Monster.” The Greenville Drive are Low Class-A affiliates of the Boston Red Sox.
Besecker played junior varsity baseball as a New Castle freshman and enjoyed his best varsity campaign as a Trojans sophomore.
“I played against guys who were able to hit the ball regardless of velocity,” says Besecker. “You have to be creative (with breaking pitches).”
In two varsity seasons, Besecker went 8-6 with a 2.96 earned run average. He struck out 80 in 71 innings.
The oldest of Kevin and Lauren Besecker’s two sons, Nic was born in Centerville, Ohio and was raised in Greenville, Ohio.
“I’ve been in a small town my whole life,” says Besecker.
When he was 9, his father brought the family to New Castle. That’s where he was a mechanic/crew chief for the racing Armstrong family, including Dakoda and Caleb, and Nic could get into the Focus program for gifted kids.
“It was a no-brainer for us,” says Nic of the move. “It was a perfect storm.”
He went to be inducted into the National Honor Society and participate in speech and debate while posting a 3.6 grade-point average (on a 4.0) scale at New Castle High.
Nic has logged around 200 service hours at New Castle Babe Ruth’s Denny Bolden Field and has been an assistant coach for teams featuring his little brother Drake (the 13-year-old left-hander is already as tall as big brother and finishing seventh grade).
Lauren Besecker holds a sports marketing degree from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and has what Nic calls a “love/hate relationship” with the Cincinnati Reds. She is waiting management to make the moves to again make the team make a consistent contender.
Before focusing on baseball his senior year, Besecker played football from fourth grade through junior year. The former quarterback was encouraged by Jaymen Nicholson, who coached in fifth and sixth grade and was part of the highs school staff.
“He’s always believed in me,” says Besecker. “Guys like him and Bret Mann have told me, ‘If you want to do it, you can do it.’ They bought in
“That’s catapulted me as far as I’ve gotten so far.”
New Castle (Ind.) High School senior Nic Besecker (center) celebrates his signing to play NCAA Division I baseball at Virginia Military Institute. He is flanked by Babe Ruth coach Bret Mann (left) and high school head coach Brad Pearson. (New Castle High School Photo)