Dave Griffin is heading into his 10th season of coaching college baseball in northwest Indiana in 2023. After six seasons in charge at Bishop Noll Institute in Hammond (the Warriors won an IHSAA Class 2A state title in 2004 and were 2A state runner-up in 2006), Griffin established the Purdue Calumet program and coached the Peregrines for three seasons (2014-16). Purdue Calumet and Purdue North Central merged to form Purdue Northwest and Griffin has led the Pride since the 2017 season. The first alumni game was played in October 2022. “Overall it’s gone pretty well,” says Griffin of the merger. “The big challenge was you had a couple of coaching staffs and a lot of players you had to mold into one. “Taking the program to (NCAA) Division II was another challenge.” The 2018 campaign marked PNW’s first in D-II after starting out as an NAIA member. The Pride are part of the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. “If you’re an established program it won’t take as long, but we hadn’t been that long so it took a little time,” says Griffin of the level change. “It’s been a journey to say the least.” The 2017 team went 30-18. PNW posted a 18-25 mark in 2018, 21-24 in 2019, 4-5 in 2020 (a season shortened by COVID-19), 11-22 in 2021 and 21-23 in 2022. For 31 years, the coach has operated Dave Griffin Baseball School. The past 25 years it has been located in Griffith. The organization will field 11 travel ball squads — the Indiana Playmakers — in 2023. Griffin coaches the 17U/18U squad, which helps him with recruiting. “I get to go out and see kids play,” says Griffin. “That’s always been a good formula for me.” Griffin says when it comes to recruiting, there’s more to it than the numbers hyped on social media. “When you say velocity that doesn’t equate to being a good pitcher,” says Griffin. “When you say exit velocity that doesn’t equate to being a good hitter. At some point you’ve got to be able to play. “It think they tried the same thing in football at the (NFL) Combine. If he ran real well or lifted real well they drafted him high. A lot of times those didn’t work out too well. “Nobody cares about how they perform. What are their metrics? Don’t get me wrong. Metrics are good, but you’ve got to be able to perform. The challenge we all encounter is finding kids that have metrics that match the ability on the field.” Griffin notes that even professional scouts often get player evaluations wrong. “You try to do your homework on a kid as much as you can. We’re talking about scholarship kids,” says Griffin. “On walk-on kids you might take a flier. He might not be fully-mature physically. He might be a late bloomer. Those kids come along, too.” More 1,500 DGB alums have gone on to college baseball and over 70 have been selected in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, including Sean Manaea, Kody Hoese, Ryan Basham and Nick Podkul. Chad Patrick pitched for PNW and is now in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization. “I’ve put a lot of time into both jobs,” says Griffin. “I wake up early and I come home late. “It’s fun. I like watching the development of players.” Because of the talent in The Region and the low cost of education at the school where most student takes classes on the Hammond campus (there is a Westville site), PNW gets some bounce-backs from other institutions. “Kids see that we are starting to build a solid program here,” says Griffin. “It checks a lot of boxes for them.” The bulk of the current roster comes from Indiana and Illinois. There are players from Michigan, California, Iowa and Texas. D-II teams are allowed to give up to nine scholarships. PNW is short of that number. “We’re working our way up,” says Griffin, who currently has 47 players on his roster. Of that number, 35 will be on the travel squad. As well as overseeing the whole team, Griffin works primarily with hitters and defense. Hobart (Ind.) High School graduate and former University of South Carolina hurler Brandon Murray is the pitching coach. Former PNW player Anthony Agne is in charge of infielders and former Robert Morris University (Lansing, Ill.) assistant Adam Pasko outfielders. PNW plays its home games at Laborers’ Local 41 Field in Hammond’s Dowling Park. “I like the turf and the ambiance of it, being in a neighborhood,” says Griffin. “It’s a good place to play. The sight lines are tremendous.”
Chase Dawson was an elementary school student the last time he was a regular in the outfield. At that time he was with the Zuni’s House of Pizza, a travel team that went 44-4 during Dawson’s 8U and 9U travel ball seasons and played in the Continental Amateur Baseball Association World Series. Now 24, Dawson is back in the outfield for the independent Frontier League’s Schaumburg (Ill.) Boomers in his second professional baseball season. He’s been mostly in center field or left field during the team’s first 35 games in 2021. “It’s been a fun little transition,” says Dawson, a 5-foot-9, 185-pounder. “Going into the 2020 season (Boomers manager) Jamie (Bennett) said to be ready for it so I trained my arm a little more. “I did well the first couple of days of spring training and we brought in some pretty good infielders. Jamie trusted me that I’m athletic enough to make the switch. “It might sound goofy but one of my best qualities as an athlete is my athleticism. I can do just about anything in any sport.” Dawson played four years of baseball (two varsity), three years as a soccer midfielder and one as a football defensive back and kicker at Andean High School in Merrillville, Ind., where he graduated in 2015. A lefty batter and righty thrower, Dawson was the starting second baseman for the Dave Pishkur-coached 59ers’ back-to-back IHSAA Class 3A state champions in 2014 and 2015 (he batted second and scored a run in a 6-0 win against Gibson Southern in ’14 and led off and went 2-of-3 with a triple and tallied the first run in a 2-1 triumph against Jasper in ’15) and was a second sacker the majority of the time in his four seasons at Valparaiso (Ind.) University (2016-19), playing for head coach Brian Schmack. Dawson says Pishkur has a knack of teaching the fundamentals and getting talented to players to reach their potential. “It seemed like he out-coached any team we ever played,” says Dawson of Pishkur. “He was definitely hard on us and it stunk at the time, but it’s starting to add up for him.” Pishkur has more than 1,000 career victories, seven state titles and currently has former players Sean Manaea and Mike Brousseau in the big leagues. Schmack’s lessons about leadership and tenacity stuck with Dawson, who earned a Business Management degree at Valpo U., in 2019. “He’s such a good role model,” says Dawson of Schmack. “He brought a lot out of me in my four years. “He made mentally-tougher player.” Dawson played in 199 games (152 starts) at VU, hitting .276 (199-of-722) with seven home runs, 13 triples, 30 doubles, 88 runs batted in, 145 runs scored and 28 stolen bases in 37 attempts. He was named to the Horizon League all-tournament and all-freshman team in 2016 and was all-Missouri Valley Conference second team in 2019. The summer of 2018 was spent with the Coastal Plain League’s Martinsville (Va.) Mustangs, where he hit .395 and was all named all-CPL first team and the CPL select team that competed against the USA Collegiate National Team in a midseason all-star game. In 13 contests with the 2019 Gary (Ind.) SouthShore RailCats, Dawson’s primary position again was second base. The COVID-19 pandemic shut down the RailCats in 2019 and Dawson did not play. “I shut down baseball activities for five or six months,” says Dawson. “It was a good decision. I came back twice as eager. “I’ve tried to find positives out of the situation.” Pat and Lindy Salvi own both the Gary and Schaumburg franchises and RailCats manager Greg Tagert and Schaumburg skipper Bennett are good friends (Bennett pitched for Tagert with the Dubois County Dragons and the RailCats and was Tagert’s pitching coach at Gary). Dawson landed with the Boomers. “It’s been a very good fit,” says Dawson, who has come to appreciate Bennett’s approach. “He’s very easy to play for because of how relaxed he is. “He’s very positive and a go-get-the-next-one type of guy.” Dawson was born in Munster, Ind., and moved to Chesterton, Ind., at a young age. He attended St. Thomas More School in Munster for Grades K-8 then entered Andrean. Dave Griffin’s Indiana Playmakers were Dawson’s travel team from 10U until high school when he went to Shane Brogan’s Midwest Irish. Chase is the son of Rick Dawson and Tonia Michalski. “My dad’s my biggest idol,” says Dawson. “He works his butt off so I can play baseball. “My little brothers (Kingston, 10, and Maverick, 6) mean more than anything to me. It’s fun to hang out and teach them baseball and basketball.”
For the Dubois County Bombers of Huntingburg, Ind., it’s about serving the community and providing opportunities for college baseball players in the summer. A member of the summer collegiate wood bat Ohio Valley League, the Bombers play at League Stadium, where the movies “A League Of Their Own” (1992) and “Soul Of The Game” (1996) were filmed and where Southridge High School plays its home games in the spring. For the first film, the stadium was expanded from a capacity of 800 to 2,783 and given an antique look (the original grandstand dates back to 1894). In 2019, the Bombers drew 998 fans per game — among the highest attendance figures in the team OVL, which had nine teams at the time and now sports 10 (besides Dubois County, there’s Kentucky’s Hoptown Hoppers, Owensboro RiverDawgs, Madisonville Miners, Fulton Railroaders, Paducah Chiefs, Muhlenberg County Stallions, Henderson Flash, Franklin Duelers and Full County Rhythm). “We’re fortunate because Columbia Pictures left us a stadium that we can put that many fans into it,” says Mike Uebelhor, a Huntingburg native who is a principal owner and managing partner for a group that purchased the team in 2012. “We just wanted to make sure that the team stayed here in Dubois County.” The Bluff City Bombers of the Central Illinois Collegiate League moved to Huntingburg in 2005 and were renamed the Dubois County Bombers. The CICL then merged with the Prospect League. As the Prospect League has a larger geographical footprint, the Bombers moved to the Ohio Valley League as of the 2013 season. According to Uebelhor, the previous owner was planning on moving the team to another venue. “We just wanted to make sure this this stadium was not going to sit here and rot,” says Uebelhor. “And so that’s why we kept it here.” There are 33 season employees. Mike’s wife and daughter — Mary and Ashley — put the whole package together. Mick Uebelhor, a sophomore on Southridge’s IHSAA Class 3A state champions in 2021 is Mike and Mary’s son and a Bombers intern. “We all have our second separate job opportunities and job descriptions and it all works,” says Mike Uebelhor. There’s both an electronic and manual scoreboard. Bombers players where throwback-style uniforms and Peaches — a nod to the All-American Girls Baseball League’s Rockford Peaches — greet fans, help run on-field contests. There are “Musical Chairs” for kids and adults. The opposing teams participates in the “Dizzy Bat Spin.” Peaches and fans dance to “Cotton-Eyed Joe” in the fifth inning. Many little girls at the park don the same pink outfits as the Peaches. Girls can get eye pink and boys eye black. One youngster was heard to say after his blacking, “I’m a professional baseball player.” There’s a vintage bus parked in front of the stadium with Rockford Peaches on one side and Bombers on the other. Promotional dates include ’60s Night, Shark Night and Faith & Family Night. The regular season of fun began began June 4 and runs through July 24. “We’ve always promoted this as 50 percent baseball and 50 percent entertainment,” says Uebelhor. “Most folks would not remember tomorrow what the score was, but they remember they had a good time and they come back. And that’s how we grew up being able to grow our attendance along with a lot of corporate sponsors.” There is an outfield sign for set designer Harold Collins, who customarily destroys sets after use but agreed with Connie Kay Nass (Huntingburg mayor 1988-96) to keep the improvements to League Stadium. According to Uebelhor, Budweiser paid $1 million for its permanent sign. Coca-Cola paid $500,000.
Eight former major league players have played at League Stadium — Buddy Blemker, Jim Rushford, Bob Coleman, Steve Cishek, Mitch Stetter, Scott Rolen, Alex Graman, Sean Manaea and Daniel Johnson. Blemker, a 1955 Huntingburg High School graduate, Huntingburg native Coleman and Rolen (Jasper Class of 1993) are in the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. A pitcher, Blemker played for the Kansas City Chiefs. Coleman played for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cleveland Indians and managed the Detroit Tigers and Boston Braves. Third baseman Rolen played for the Philadelphia Phillies, St. Louis Cardinals, Toronto Blue Jays and Cincinnati Reds. Catcher Rushford played for the Dubois County Dragons in 1996 and later with the Milwaukee Brewers. Pitcher Cishek was with the Bombers in 2006. He has played for the Florida/Miami Marlins, Cardinals, Seattle Mariners, Tampa Bay Rays, Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Angels. Southridge graduates Stetter (Brewers) and Graman (New York Yankees) pitched in the bigs. Oakland Athletics hurler Manaea was with the Bombers in 2011. An outfield with DC in 2015, Johnson was drafted by the Washington Nationals and has played for the MLB Indians. The 2021 Bombers roster features seven local players — pitcher Weston Allen (Asbury University), first baseman Connor Oxley (Oakland City University), outfielder/second baseman Tucker Schank (Indiana University) and catcher Chase Taylor (University of Evansville commit) of Huntingburg, outfielder Jared Sermersheim (West Virginia Tech) and pitcher Carter Stamm (University of Southern Indiana) of Jasper and infielder Simon Scherry (Heritage Hills High School of U. of Evansville) of Santa Claus — and the rest reside with 17 host families. There’s usually a waiting list to host players. Many in town have taken players in — Bombers or the independent Dubois County Dragons (1996-2002) — for years. Taylor, who helped Southridge to the 3A state title on Tuesday, June 22 (the same night that Jasper gave the county a second champion by reigning in Class 4A), was the starting catcher for the Bombers on June 24. In his debut, Taylor caught former Southridge teammate Allen and stroked a double and scored a run in his first at-bat. He threw out a would-be Franklin base-stealer in the fourth inning. Travis LaMar, an assistant coach for Southridge who played for the Bombers in 2007-09, has been on the DC coaching staff since 2017 and head coach since 2019. “It’s great for the community,” says LaMar of the Bombers experience. “The community really gets involved and really supports us. “You bring in these college kids and it gives them an opportunity to develop their skills and play the game every day and have a little bit of fun while they’re doing it.” LaMar is an Evansville Harrison High School graduate who was selected by the Baltimore Orioles in the 44th round of the 2006 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. The 6-foot-6 right-hander opted to pitch for Olney (Ill.) Central College and then Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. He then played independent pro ball for the Lake Erie Crushers and Evansville Otters and was an assistant coach at Harrison. Travis and Kate LaMar have been married since 2018 and have nine-month old son named Drake. The LaMars reside in Holland, Ind. Travis also teaches physical education at Caze Elementary in Evansville. LaMar pulled double-duty during Southridge’s state run, going with the Raiders at practices and games and letting his Bombers assistants run the show when there was an overlap. “I was stretched pretty thin but, you know, it kind of all worked out and it just kind of goes back to the kind of the family atmosphere that we have,” says LaMar. “A lot of these players are from around here and they they understand the league or they’ve been in the league before. “So you know I can kind of put a lot of trust in that I can put the trust to my coaches.” Willie Poe, who played for the Bombers’ 2015 and 2017 OVL championship teams, is in his first season on the DC coaching staff. The Lexington, Ky., native pitched at Bellarmine University. He coached at Iowa Wesleyan University and Indian Hills Community College before joining former Bombers head coach Andy Lasher’s staff at Oakland City U. Bryce Wilz returns as a DC assistant after pitching for the Bombers in 2013. He played at Southeastern Illinois College and Brescia University. He is currently the pitching coach at SIC. He has coached in the OVL with Muhlenberg County (2018) and was to be with Madisonville in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic took the season away. Mark Peters is in charge of player recruitment for the Bombers. The Huntingburg native has been connected to high school and college baseball for more than two decades as both a coach and recruiter. Bombers home games air of WITZ 104.7 FM with Hall of Famer Walt Ferber on play-by-play and Roger Stuckey on color commentary.
Connecting baseball players who wish to play at the next level with coaches seeking talent is something that the Crossroads Baseball Series has been doing for more than a decade.
Started in 2008 by former Indiana University and professional infielder Eric Blakeley as an outgrowth of his Diamond Kings training business in northwest Indiana, CBS has grown to include showcases, tournaments and fall leagues in numerous states.
Blakeley ran Diamond Kings — former Griffith (Ind.) High School and Tulane University standout and current Los Angeles Dodgers minor leaguer Kody Hoese was one of his early pupils — for about a decade.
Crossroads Baseball Series began as a way for “Region” area players to have exposure events without traveling to Indianapolis or Chicago.
The first CBS event held at Gary’s U.S. Steel Yard include future big league pitcher Sean Manaea. Blakeley notes that 85 of the 87 players involved went on to play college baseball.
At Crossroads Baseball Series showcases, players work out in front of college coaches and play in prospect games against top recommended players.
There are 17 tournaments on the 2021 calendar with events in Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio. Many of these are for 14U to 18U players.
“We’re on the verge of growing our tournament space,” says Blakeley, CEO/President of Baseball Operations for Crossroads Baseball Series. “There’s a high demand for quality tournaments that don’t cost $2,000. We try to stay around $1,000 price point.”
Blakeley says college coaches can get on an RSVP list and attend events and receive information from them.
Rosters are collected and each player fills out an information form. Coaches have full access to this for free.
CBS provides social media coverage for recruiters and players’ families to share.
“We pride ourselves on educating the families,” says Blakeley. “We can get your names out there.
“The players have to do their research and count the schools that match (their choices).”
What Crossroads Baseball Series does, according to Blakeley, makes it easier for players to communicate with college coaches and do their research.
Blakeley emphasizes that college coaches will know if a player has done his homework on his program.
It is even more important now that the competition for roster spots has become even more fierce with many players staying in college baseball longer thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and the smaller MLB Draft.
“It’s become a lot more competitive to get into these schools — academically and athletically,” says Blakeley.
The words of former Indiana University and current Arizona State University head coach Tracy Smith ring true with Blakeley.
“If you want to play college baseball, there’s a place for you,” says Blakeley. “You just need to do your research and go to camps.”
Travis Keesling, former head coach at Pendleton Heights High School, is Vice President of Baseball Operations for CBS after starting out as a coach selecting players for a showcase.
“Travis has a very good baseball background,” says Blakeley. “He knows the game very well.”
Keesling deals with finding on-field personnel, RSVPing college coaches and the overall vision of the company. He and Blakeley talk on a daily basis.
Nelson Gord, a former minor league opponent to Blakeley who resides in Illinois and is Director of Baseball for NCSA (Next College Student Athlete), is also Director of Recruiting Education for Crossroads Baseball Series.
“He’ll come to events and speak to parents about the recruiting process,” says Blakeley of Gord.
NCSA had purchased a platform called Coach Packet and CBS now has its own app that incorporates video, social media and results to the same player profile. College coaches are given access to this information.
“I was fortunate to have good coaches for high school and summer ball,” says Blakeley. “I got hit by pitch and broke my arm and did not play junior year of high school.”
The righty-swinging infielder wound up at Indiana through a relationship his coach had with Hoosiers head coach Bob Morgan.
“He taught you some things about life,” says Blakeley. “There’s nothing easy about getting through a practice with Bob Morgan.
“He taught you accountability and taking care of yourself.”
As much as the process has changed over the year, one things has remained constant.
“It was word-of-mouth then and it’s still that way today,” says Blakeley. Coaches want to hear from coaches who they consider trustworthy and whose opinion they respect. “What has changed is technology. There is accessibility and instant updates now.”
Another change is the age of those being seriously pursued by recruiters.
“Recruiting has gotten a lot earlier,” says Blakeley. “When we started Crossroads in 2008, every single of the players had not made their college choice yet and were juniors going into their senior year. Ten years later, eighth graders were (verbally) committing going into their freshmen year.”
Manaea pitched in 11 regular-season games for the 2020 Oakland Athletics.
Petricka has pitched in the big leagues with the Chicago White Sox, Toronto Blue Jays and Milwaukee Brewers.
Bacus took the mound in 11 games for the 2020 Washington Nationals.
Rae pitched in nine regular-season contests with the 2020 Chicago Cubs.
Outfielder Strausborger played 31 games in the big leagues with the 2015 Texas Rangers.
Smiley has been on ISU staffs helmed by three different men. He was hired by former head coach Lindsay Meggs in the summer of 2009.
After Meggs left to become head coach at the University of Washington, Smiley served four years on the staff of Rick Heller.
When Heller took the head coaching position at University Iowa, Smiley followed him to Iowa City in the summer of 2013 and came back to Indiana State upon the hiring Mitch Hannahs, whose first season as the Sycamores boss was 2014.
As assistant in his first eight seasons at Indiana State, Smiley was named associate head coach in August 2017. He’s done about everything a coach can be asked to do in his time in Terre Haute.
“I’ve done everything from laundry to you name it,” says Smiley.
His current duties include defensive responsibilities and coaching third base on game days.
Smiley is also ISU’s recruiting coordinator — a job that has been made more difficult by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Players being recruited can not meet on-campus with coaches — though there have been times where they could tour the school through the admissions office — and coaches have not been able to see players in-person at summer tournaments because of the dead period imposed by the NCAA by Division I baseball since March.
“We’re having to make decisions based on video and a coach’s word,” says Smiley. “You don’t get a good feel of how they play the game. You’re just grading out their tools on video.”
Under ideal circumstances, Indiana State would like to see a player at least two or three times and get the assessment of multiple coaches.
“(Recruits) can’t watch us practice. They can’t eat with us. They get to know us as coaches. We can’t sell them on things we normally would. There are guys that haven’t really been here that are committed to us.”
On a positive note, fall practice went pretty smoothly for the Sycamores though the window was moved up from the original plan of ending around Thanksgiving (ISU started in September and ended in the middle October).
“It was the right decision, says Smiley. “We feel like we were pretty fortunate. We got through team segment pretty healthy. We missed a few quarantined freshmen.
“With all our instrasquads, 90 to 95 percent of the team could participate. We could have been missing main players. You have that and it’s difficult putting in anything (as far as plays or schemes).”
Indiana State experienced good weather and went from individual practice to team and back to individuals.
The university has gone to virtual classes for the rest of the semester and most of the team has already returned to their homes with a plan of coming back to Terre Haute in January.
“I did pitching at Danville and helped with everything,” says Smiley. “I learned a lot from Tim. I’m very grateful for my year at Danville.
“He was very good with cuts and relays and being in the right place at the right time.”
Brian and wife Katie Smiley have three children — Isaac (5), Christian (4) and Vivian (2). Katie, whose maiden name is Grossman, is a 2004 Evansville Memorial High School graduate who played soccer at the University of Southern Indiana.
With the lifting of some COVID-19 restrictions, players at Morris Baseball in northwest Indiana can finally practice again and founder/president Bobby Morris couldn’t be happier.
“It’s as much fun as I’ve had on a baseball field in ages,” says Morris of a workout earlier this week. “The big reason is quarantine and the chaos going on around us.
“I feel a sense of gratitude. Our players feel a sense of gratitude — more so than in January or February.”
Morris says he hopes his organization with around 200 clients, including Chiefs travel teams, will help bring a sense of community and unity as the 2020 season moves forward.
“if we can spread a little positivity and a little gratitude, I’m all for it,” says Morris, who started his training business in 2011 and merged five years ago with the Hammond Chiefs, which mark their 30th season this year.
The first clients Morris had were 9-year-olds.
“Those kids are just now graduating and going on to play college baseball,” says Morris.
“It’s mutually a good fit together,” says Morris. “Dave has been pleasure to work with. We got some Chiefs coaches when we merged. They’ve been great mentors with our kids.”
The Morris Baseball mission statement: To recruit excellent talent and provide them with disciplined, well-organized, focused practices with superior instruction and place them in highly competitive opportunities to achieve principle-based success.
“If we produce great players, everything will take care of itself,” says Morris. “We make sure we have great practice facilities and plenty of practice time.
“We try to produce well-rounded baseball players. I think we’re doing a pretty good job of it.”
Until recently, Morris Baseball and the Chiefs were housed at Franciscan Physician Network Schererville Family Health Center (formerly Omni Health & Fitness).
The organization just moved to a training facility at 1075 Breuckman Drive in Crown Point. Morris says the name for the new place will be revealed soon.
The new centrally-located home includes plenty of workout space plus classrooms, player’s lounge, kitchen and coach’s offices.
“For our kids it will be great,” says Morris. “We have internet at player desks. They can hang out there all day if they want.
“We prefer that they study and take batting practice.”
“It’s an extremely gifted group,” says Morris of the 2021 team. “(Pettit and Sutkowski) are two phenomenal sports minds.”
Assistants for Morris with the 2022 Chiefs are Morris Baseball general manager Mike Small plus Tim Horneman.
Bobby’s youngest son, Gavin (10), plays for the 9U Chiefs. Bobby also helps coach the 8U team.
Nick Amatulli has more than 40 years of coaching experience and helps with both of Trevor Howard’s squads.
Some other Chiefs coaches are John Adams, Tom Blair, Brad Fedak, Brian Fernandez, Trent Howard, Dale Meyer, Kevin Peller, Brad Rohde, Kenny Siegal and Eric Spain.
“We don’t differentiate ‘A’ team and ‘B’ team,” says Morris. “It’s more geared toward the name of the coach. We don’t want the potential for the stigma there. It also incentivizes our coaches to play the game hard and represent themselves well.
“We want Chiefs teams to play hard and be smart players. Any given day, anyone can beat anyone.”
Three Chiefs alums are currently playing pro baseball — third baseman Mike Brosseau (Tampa Bay Rays) and left-handed pitcher Sean Manaea (Oakland Athletics) in the majors and second baseman Nick Podkul (Toronto Blue Jays) in the minors.
“Bob is an extremely decent man,” says Morris of Shinkan. “He has such a genuine, caring nature.”
Shinkan can also be strict and he expects his players to be disciplined.
“I had a great experience there with Bob,” says Morris.
After high school, lefty-swinging infielder Morris spent three seasons at the University of Iowa playing for long-time Hawkeyes head coach Duane Banks.
“Duane was just a smart baseball guy,” says Morris. “At Iowa, they really believed in self starters. They threw you out there and expected you to compete for a position.
“That culture helped me a lot in professional baseball.”
Morris was selected as a third baseman in the ninth round of the 1993 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Chicago Cubs and played nine minor league seasons (1993-2001), logging 636 games and hitting .290 with 36 home runs and 326 RBIs. He reached Double-A in the Cubs, Cleveland Indians, Texas Rangers and Cincinnati Reds systems. By hitting .354 with seven homers and 64 RBIs, he was chosen as MVP of the 1994 Peoria (Ill.) Chiefs of the Low Class-A Midwest League. That team was managed by Steve Roadcap.
While Trembley never played pro baseball, he managed (Orioles) and coached (Houston Astros) in the big leagues.
“Dave had a great habit for excellence,” says Morris, who won a High Class-A Florida State League championship with Trembley on the 1995 Daytona Cubs. “He expected a lot out of himself and a lot out of us and how we carried ourselves.”
Morris, who turns 48 in November, grew watching Piersall and Harry Caray call Chicago White Sox games on TV. When he learned Morris was from Chicagoland, Piersall became close to Morris as a minor league hitting/outfield coach.
“Jimmy took on a second grandfather role for me,” says Morris.
It was in the Cubs organization that Morris encountered Alomar.
“He’s as smart a baseball person as I’ve ever met,” says Morris. “He’s an absolute genius.”
Tanner was Morris’ first full-season hitting instructor and the inventor of Tanner Tees — a product used by Bobby and brother Hal Morris (a left-handed first baseman/outfielder who played 14 seasons in the big leagues).
“Joe was a was a renaissance man for baseball,” says Bobby Morris. “I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of great influences.”
His earliest diamond influences came from brother Hal.
Hal is seven years older than Bobby.
“We were constantly competing with one another,” says Bobby. “I was challenged a lot. We were always very close. As I matured and got into high school, Hal brought back stuff from his (college and pro) coaches and we worked on it.
“That helped in fine-tuning my ability to hit at an early age.”
As youngsters, the brothers spent hours taking batting practice with father Bill pitching and mother Margaret chasing baseballs.
Bill Morris was a four-year baseball letterman Davidson (N.C.) College, went to medical school, did his residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, entered the U.S. Army and was at Fort Rucker in Alabama when daughter Beth (who went on to be a state swim champion at Munster High) and son Hal (who shined in baseball for the Mustangs) were born.
The family later came to northwest Indiana, where Bill was a pediatrician working at the Hammond Clinic, St. Margaret’s Hospital in Hammond and Community Hospital in Munster. He died at 82 in 2017.
“He taught us how to compete and how to be gentlemen,” says Bobby Morris of his father. “He was a class southern gentleman.
“My mom is still with us. She has probably shagged as many baseballs in her life as any big league pitcher.”
Bobby and Gloria Morris have three children. Besides Gavin, there’s recent Arizona State University graduate Gina (22) and Indiana University Purdue University-Indianapolis student John (19). Gloria Morris is a Hobart (Ind.) High School graduate.
“We’re Region rats,” says Bobby Morris. “I love northwest Indiana.”
Confidence and self-assurance was valued by Jason Van Skike as a baseball player and are traits emphasized by him as a coach.
“Baseball is a great teacher of things that happen in your life,” says Van Skike, the second-year pitching coach at Westfield (Ind.) High School. “You focus on the things you can control. There are three things we talk about everyday — work ethic, attitude and confidence.
“You can’t make up for a lost day,” says Van Skike. “You want to always go to bed at night knowing you put in your best effort.”
That’s work ethic.
“You have a choice to have a good attitude or a bad attitude,” says Van Skike. “It’s a mindset. It’s an opportunity to get better.
“If you believe good things are going to happen, good things tend to happen. If you believe bad things are going to happen, bad things tend to happen.”
“My job is to make sure (Westfield pitchers) feel that they are the absolute man,” says Van Skike. “That’s all do-able if they’ve done the things they need to do on the days leading to (the game appearance).”
Rick Heller, who is now head coach at the University of Iowa, was ISU head coach when Van Skike was in Terre Haute. Heller had him join the Sycamores after seeing the righty at a sophomore showcase while he was at Treasure Valley.
“(Heller) would preach ‘chest out; a lot of confidence,’” says Van Skike. “I would hear that all the time. I found out that body language plays into the game. If you can trick yourself into thinking you’re the man, you might be the man.
“(Heller) was always talking about body language and confidence.”
Van Skike says it was not until the end of his college career that this lesson really began to sink in.
“I was an excuse maker,” says Van Skike. “If I walked a guy, it wasn’t my fault.”
“(Herbst) made me feel comfortable,” says Van Skike. “He didn’t try to change too much of what I was.”
Herbst went on to help steer Sean Manaea, who is now in the majors.
“He was a baby giraffe at Indiana State and didn’t know how to pitch,” says Van Skike of Manaea.
Van Skike had come a long way by the time he pitched for the Sycamores.
He entered Gig Harbor, he was 5-foot-5 and maybe 135 pounds. He didn’t make the varsity squad until he was a senior.
“They kept me around since I had a sense of urgency,” says Van Skike, who played for Washington State Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Pete Jansen. “I ran on and off the field. I needed to in order to stand out.”
By the time he was a senior, he had began to fill out and stood 6-3.
He went to Treasure Valley, where Rick Baumann was head coach, with a fastball clocked at 78-82 mph. That’s when he began showing up an hour early for practice every day to do a towel drill. By the end of the fall, he was up to 84 mph. During indoor workouts, he was sitting at 83-86. On a nice day, the team went outside and he was at 88-91 and he was able to sustain that speed.
“I made a 10 mph jump in a four- to five-month span,” says Van Skike. “I needed those extra reps.”
Extra reps is what Van Skike got in junior college, where there is less restriction on the amount of times players and coaches can spend working on the game.
“I loved every moment of it,” says Van Skike of the juco diamond life. “You spend so many hours with your teammates and coaches. You build that brotherhood. Reflecting back, junior college baseball was the most fun for me.”
Van Skike sings the praises of junior college because it also offers a chance to develop. A juco player might get 60 at-bats in the fall between games and scrimmages and around 200 more in the spring. By the end of their sophomore year, they’ve gotten almost 500 at-bats and that doesn’t count summer ball.
Van Skike says a D-I player who does not crack the lineup as a freshman and sophomore — which is often the case — might go into their junior year with less than 100 career at-bats.
“You’ve got to play,” says Van Skike. “You’ve got to get game experience.”
Van Skike left college in 2011 unsure of his baseball future. Scout Mike Shirley (now amateur scouting director) brought him to Madison County for a workout and signed him to a White Sox contract as an undrafted free agent. He hustled to Bristol, Va., of the Appalachian League and picked up an extra-inning victory in his first outing.
His pitching coach at Bristol was Larry Owens, now head baseball coach at Bellarmine University in Louisville.
“(Owens) simplified the game for me,” says Van Skike.
Through 2013, Van Skike appeared in 73 games (64 as a reliever) and went 10-8 with a 3.18 earned run average in 150 2/3 innings. He was 3-5 with a 2.80 ERA in 74 innings at Advanced Class-A Winston-Salem in 2013.
“(Winston-Salem pitching coach) J.R. Perdew was a tremendous help,” says Van Skike. “He told me things I had never thought about before.
“The more simple you can keep baseball the better off you’re going to be.”
Perdew is now the White Sox assistant pitching coordinator.
Van Skike learned to use a cut fastball to be effective against left-handed hitters.
He had a six-month lease on an apartment in St. Louis and expected to be in spring training in 2014 when he was released by the White Sox. He went to live with his parents — Ike and Cathy Van Skike — in Arizona and got a job delivering pizzas. Not having a steady catch partner, he threw into a chain link fence. Occasionally, he would work out with a high school team and they had no trouble hitting his deliveries.
Still, an invitation was extended in Wichita. Even though he did not have a stellar spring training with the Wingnuts, he had enough of a resume on affiliated ball to keep him. The 2014 season saw him start 26 games and got 12-5 with a 3.35 ERA in 110 innings. He started the American Association All-Star Game and helped Wichita win the league title.
It tended to be very breezy out to left field in Wichita. Van Skike used it to his advantage.
“A lot of hitters get big egos when the wind blows,” says Van Skike. “I made my living down and away (to right-handed hitters) and got roll-overs to the shortstop.”
The 2015 campaign was not as successful (7-8, 4.89 in 116 innings) and Van Skike retired as a player.
“Getting into college coaching is extremely difficult,” says Van Skike. He went with friend Arlo Evasick, the head coach at Federal Way and the Eagles qualified for the 2016 state tournament.
That summer, Van Skike ended up back in Indiana on the coaching staff of Jackrabbits manager Matt Howard, who is now head baseball coach at Indiana University Kokomo.
Van Skike was starting to prepare for a chance to play pro ball in Australia when Heller let him know about an opportunity in Des Moines.
“I got extremely lucky,” says Van Skike.
David Pearson was hired as DMACC head coach and soon hired Van Skike as an assistant. The two had to dismantle the roster after the first season and went into the second year (2018) with mostly freshmen.
Near the end of that season, Van Skike began to examine his relationship with baseball.
“It consumed my life and I missed a lot of family events (as a player),” says Van Skike. “I began missing those again as a college coach.
“I need more of a balance. I didn’t know what that was at the time.”
Through a fortunate sequence of events, Van Skike moved to central Indiana and wound up taking a job as an Edward Jones financial advisor in Westfield.
He was at the right place at the right time since Westfield High School head coach Ryan Bunnell was also looking to fill a slot for a pitching coach.
“I’m still heavily involved with baseball and I can still be around my family and friends,” says Van Skike. “That’s what I was searching for.
“I’m extremely lucky I’m at Westfield.”
The COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic took away the 2020 season.
“We had an extremely talented group,” says Van Skike of a Shamrocks team that received votes in the Class 4A preseason poll. “We could’ve won state. But there’s nothing we can do to control it.
“It’s an awkward time for these seniors,” says Van Skike. “They almost don’t want to hear about baseball.
“It’s still a little tender.
“We’ve been talking with juniors and saying let’s do it next year for these seniors (in 2021). They shouldn’t complain one day. Don’t ever take things for granted.”
Jason Van Skike is a financial advisor at Edwards Jones and the pitching coach at Westfield High School, both in Westfield, Ind. The graduate of Gig Harbor High School in Washington pitched at Treasure Valley Community College Oregon and Indiana State University as well as in the Chicago White Sox organization and in independent professional baseball. (Edwards Jones Photo)
Westfield (Ind.) High School varsity baseball coaches in 2020 include (from left): assistant Bill Lindley, head coach Ryan Bunnell and assistant Jason Van Skike. Shamrocks pitchers are led by Van Skike, who played collegiately at Treasure Valley Community College in Oregon and Indiana State University and professionally in the Chicago White Sox system and with the independent Wichita (Kan.) Wingnuts. (Westfield High School Photo)
The northwest Indiana-based baseball baseball organization is celebrating its 30th season in 2020.
Founder/coach Dave Sutkowski wants all former players to come to a get-together this some summer (time and place to be determined).
When Sutkowski fielded his first Hammond Chiefs team in 1991.
“At that time there was no travel ball,” says Sutkowski. “There was a lot of baseball for kids until 15 in their local leagues and organizations.
“When they would hit 16, the only thing out there for them was (American Legion) ball. Most Legion teams were affiliated with a high school. Some high schools had no affiliations with Legion teams. We wanted to extend the playing time for kids in the summer once they turned 16.”
Sutkowski coached players at ages 14 and 15 in Babe Ruth League that was a basis for the first 16U Hammond Chiefs team.
The next few years, there were 16U and 17U/18U squads.
The Chiefs won a Senior Babe Ruth World Series championship in 2003.
Five years ago, the Hammond Chiefs merged with Morris Baseball. The Morris Chiefs now field teams from 10U to 17U.
High school age kids play a summer and fall season.
“We’re always teaching,” says Sutkowski. “We are in it to teach the game of baseball and help kids with their skills no matter how young or how old.”
There is year-round training opportunities at Morris Baseball based in the Franciscan Health Fitness Center in Schererville, Ind.
As players become older, exposure for college becomes part of the equation and contacts are made with those coaches.
“When we started, college coaches were always at high school games,” said Sutkowski. “College coaches rarely come to high school games (these days) because of the nature of the season.
“Come summertime, they’re all over the place. We try to go to venues where these kids going to have an opportunity to be seen and recruited.”
There were more than 400 teams in the 17U division in 2019 at a Perfect Game tournament.
“Not all kids are (NCAA) D-I players and some kids understand that sooner than others. We as coaches have to put a kid in a position where we think he might have the most success.
“We tell kids that there’s nothing wrong with going to play baseball at a Division II, Division III or NAIA school. In Indiana, there are a lot of good programs that are not Division I. We have to find venues that meet the needs of those kids, too.”
Many events are played on college campuses. Sutkowski notes that the Cincy Flames host an event with games played at schools of various levels.
“Someone from that program is out there running event on their field,” says Sutkowski. “That helps out when you’re able to do that.”
The Chiefs have two alums currently in Major League Baseball — Sean Manaea (Oakland Athletics) and Mike Brosseau (Tampa Bay Rays).
Manaea and Brosseau both spoke at a Chiefs banquet during the recent holiday break held at Bridges’ Scoreboard Restaurant & Sports Bar in Griffith.
At 14, Manaea’s parents brought him from Wanatah to play in a fall league in Hammond and he was with the Chiefs through high school.
After playing at Hammond Edison Little League, Sutkowski graduated from Hammond Gavit High School in 1978. He is in his 33rd year as a teacher in School City of Hammond. He leads physical education classes for about 600 K-5 students at Lincoln Elementary School.
He stayed involved with baseball after high school as an umpire and a youth coach.
His baseball coaching career at the high school level began as an assistant to George Malis at Hammond. He was also football assistant to Marty Jamrose and Bob Hansen at Hammond Gavit.
Sutkowski then became head baseball coach at Hammond Morton in 1996. The first team was a veteran squad and the second team had only one returning senior and very little varsity experience.
Sutkowski and his players talked about expectations talked about expectations before the season.
“No matter what happens, we never quit at what we do — whether it’s something we’re working on at practice or something during the game,” says Sutkowski. “No matter how frustrating things may become for us, we never lay down and quit. That was our motto.”
At the beginning of the season, the young Governors took their lumps.
“But our kids were getting better,” says Sutkowski. “They never quit. They worked as hard as they could in practice and games.”
One day against Hammond Bishop Noll, Morton got into an early hole.
“I could look at my kids and see they’re done,” says Sutkowski. “We got 10-runned in five (innings).”
Sutkowski did not address his team at the field. They got on the bus and went home.
“I figured I’ve got to do something to remind these kids that we’re not quitters,” says Sutkowski. “I painted our bench pink.
“The players saw it and all understood it.”
Players were responsible for carrying equipment and his lone senior — Justin Hornsby — was made to carry a can of red paint and a brush.
“When we prove that we are no longer going to quit at what we’re doing, you will be the first guy to paint that bench back to red,” says Sutkowski of his remarks to his senior. “That was it.
“The kids all bought into it.”
While the players understood the motivational tactic, it was picked up in the press.
“Since we were using the color pink they thought we were discriminating against females and softball,” says Sutkowski, “It had nothing to do with it — Nothing.”
Sutkowski says former head coach Greg Jancich supported the idea of reinforcing the no-quit rule with the players.
Though he was given no specific reason, the administration opted not to bring Sutkowski back for a third season.
Dave Sutkowski is the founder of the Hammond/Morris Chiefs travel baseball organization. The 2020 season will be the 30th for the group based in northwest Indiana. (Steve Krah Photo)
Undrafted after four seasons at Oakland (2013-16), Brosseau made it to the Double-A level in his third professional season in 2018.
Playing mostly third base, the righty swinger hit .262 with 13 home runs, three triples, 24 doubles and 61 runs batted in over 104 games for the Montgomery (Ala.) Biscuits. Montgomery went 79-61 and made the Southern League playoffs.
Using advice from former Oakland head coach John Musachio, Brosseau did his best to “slow the game down” while doing what he could to contribute.
“(Musachio) talked about playing the specific game you have and getting in the lineup and helping the team out,” says Brosseau, 24. “People let the moment and pressure get to them too much. I want to just be able to stay within my game and not let the outside factors effect it.
“It’s about letting my abilities do the best for me. I’m a guy that’s going compete for you. I’m going to find a way to do what I can to help the team win.”
A shortstop for Musachio at Oakland, where he made 183 starts, Brosseau hit .308 with 19 homers, three triples, 39 doubles and 104 RBIs for his Golden Grizzlies days. He was a first-team all-Horizon League selection in 2014 and 2016.
“I got close to him really fast in my career,” says Brosseau of Musachio. “He’s a genuine, good human being. He cares for his family, team and university.
“It was a blessing to play for him for four years.”
At Andrean, Brosseau was a contributor for 59er teams coached by Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Dave Pishkur.
“Coach Pishkur is one of those guys who connects to his players,” says Brosseau. “He was instrumental in my development process — both in baseball and as a human.”
Mike Brosseau, a graduate of Andrean High School in Merrillville, Ind., and Oakland University in Auburn Hills, Mich., played for the Double-A Montgomery (Ala.) Biscuits in the Tampa Bay Rays organization in 2018. (Montgomery Biscuits Photo)
Mike Brosseau, who graduated from Andrean High School and Oakland University, is an infielder in the Tampa Bay Rays system. (Donten Photography)
Hired to his first head-coaching position on June 1, a few days later the former Franklin (Ind.) College assistant was already recruiting at an event in Cincinnati and spent the next few weeks looking for student-athletes.
Bellak says he expects to have 32 players in the fall and have recruiting classes of 10 to 12 players the next few seasons.
“I felt comfortable with the recruiting area,” says Bellak, who was the recruiting coordinator at Franklin. “Recruiting is the lifeblood of any college program.
“I want athletes who are big and strong. Power bats and power arms play. Power bats can change the game with one swing. Power arms give you more room for error. You don’t have to be perfect.”
Bella, 32, prides himself in finding value where others miss it.
“I plan on bringing that to Hanover and developing that over four years,” says Bellak. “We want mid-major Division I’s calling asking us to play.”
As a D-III school, Hanover (enrollment 1,100) does not give athletic scholarships. The liberal arts institution places a premium on academics.
“The thing I’ve been preaching on the recruiting trail is that fit matters,” says Bellak. “This is not for you if you are not 100 percent Panthers. You have to fit the academic profile, campus profile and athletic profile.”
Almost all of the seniors in his last three recruiting classes at Franklin had job offers prior to graduation.
Bellak is looking for young men coming to Hanover who want to be more than ballplayers. They have aspirations of pursuing careers as CEOs, lawyers, politicians etc.
“Here at Hanover, our focus is wanting guys who want more,” says Bellak. “What is your ‘why’?’
“We want difference makers.”
The Shayne Stock-coached Hanover Panthers went 8-25 overall and 5-12 in the HCAC.
“You can win a lot here,” says Bellak. “The rest of athletic department, that’s what they’re doing.
“It’s one of those opportunities I felt I couldn’t pass up.”
Hanover got Bellak’s attention the first time he arrived on the southern Indiana campus as a Franklin assistant.
“It’s got that ‘wow factor,’” says Bellak. “It’s the way it is back in the woods overlooking the Ohio River and the architecture. There’s lots of green space.
In 2009, Bellak graduated from Webster with a bachelor’s degree in secondary education. He earned a masters degree in leadership and management from Liberty University’s online program in 2013. The latter is a precursor to a Masters of Business Administration.
“(The leadership and management masters) helped me take a different perspective to coaching,” says Bellak. “The business world isn’t that different than a team.
“The way a CEO motivates someone in the office is not much different than how a coach motivates someone on the field.”
Grant and wife Natasha Bellak have a daughter — Bexley (2).
Grant Bellak is now the head baseball coach at Hanover (Ind.) College after seven seasons as an assistant at Franklin (Ind.) College. (Hanover College Photo)