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Evansville Razorbacks promote accountability, communication, commitment

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

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

The 2017 team went 40-0.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s way more than baseball.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First baseman Jon Hedges played at Indiana State.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Fort Wayne native Glant’s baseball odyssey lands back in Muskegon

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Nate Glant’s personal and baseball odyssey has taken him far and wide.

The 2002 Fort Wayne (Ind.) Wayne High School graduate pitched at Muskegon (Mich.) Community College and Aurora (Ill.) University.

After his playing career, Glant was a commercial fisherman and a rancher and spent time in Alaska, Wyoming and Oklahoma.

Drawn back to baseball, Glant became a coach. He owned and operated Trident Baseball Academy in Ardmore, Okla.

He served as pitching coach at Dawson Community College in Glendive, Mont. Catcher Reynoso Pichardo, who is now in the Texas Rangers system, was at Dawson when Glant was there.

One summer, Glant was associate head coach/pitching coach for the Cortland (N.Y.) Crush of the New York Collegiate Baseball League, where he coached Philadelphia Phillies draftee and 6-foot-7 right-hander Jake Kinney.

The 2018 and 2019 seasons saw him work as pitching coach/recruiting coordinator at Lincoln Trail College in Robinson, Ill. Before he shined at the university of Michigan and was drafted by the Houston Astros, outfielder Jordan Brewer played at Lincoln Trail.

The 2020 season marks his first as head coach at Muskegon CC. The Jayhawks are NJCAA Region XII members and in the Michigan Community College Athletic Association Western Conference.

Gaskill played for Dave Fireoved then two years for Tim Gaskill (with assistants Adam Swinford and Timon Pruitt) as a Wayne General.

“(Coach Gaskill) is one of my biggest influences,” says Glant. “His practices were individualized and focused on results. He was ahead of his time. He showed that each player is different. It was not a cookie cutter system.

“You also don’t have to do fire and brimstone to get results.”

As a Muskegon player, Glant spent two seasons with head coach Carl “Cap” Pohlman, who played in the Milwaukee Brewers organization.

“Coach Pohlman taught me a ton about doing things the right way,” says Glant. “We would work work on mental side of things. You don’t worry about things you can’t control.”

Aurora coach Shaun Neitzel took a combination of players from differing background — junior college transfers and NCAA Division I kick-backs — and got them to jell.

“They would buy into the culture pretty quickly to have success,” says Glant. “It was knowing the recipe to cook things up.”

Glant learned the think outside the box in Montana.

“Weather changes tremendously,” says Glant. “You had to make sure guys were still doing something to get better. It was quality over quantity.”

He cites Marc Rardin at Iowa Western College for showing the way to success in a cold weather state.

“It’s more of a mindset and practice planning and having your guys doing something productive,” says Glant. “Midwest teams must have a little more of a chip on their shoulder and a blue collar work ethic.”

At Lincoln Trail, Statesman head coach Kevin Bowers gave Glant much latitude while finding and developing players to compete in the Great Rivers Athletic Conference.

“It’s the toughest Division I JUCO conference in the Midwest,” says Glant, who sent Lincoln Trail against Wabash Valley, John A. Logan, Olney Central, Rend Lake, Kakaskia, Southwestern Illinois, Southeastern Illinois, Shawnee and Lake Land. “We would shake the trees and find the diamond in the rough.

“With the pitching staff, Coach Bowers let me sink or swim,” says Glant. “Fortunately, we had success. It set me up for where I am now, being a head coach.”

At Muskegon, Glant is a one-man band.

“We do not a big recruiting budget,” says Glant. “It’s good to have friends int he coaching industry and to bounce ideas off of them.

One resource for Nate is older brother Dustin Glant, who was pitching coach at Ball State University before taking a job in the New York Yankees organization after the 2019 season.

“Having Dustin as a brother is nice,” says Nate. “I can pick his brain and thoughts on things. He had a heck of a year at Ball State (the Cardinals went 38-19 and Drey Jameson was selected in the first round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks).”

When recruiting, Glant prefers to see players in-person.

“I want that eye test,” says Glant. “I can see the intangibles and how they interact with teammates.

Most players come from Michigan and many hails from the Grand Rapids and Traverse City areas.

“To me, it’s all about a fit,” says Glant. “I don’t like people writing off divisions because of the perception.”

He likes to have recruits work out for him and learn what makes them tick.

“I like the JC level,” says Glant. “I like the developmental side of it.”

Going to a junior college allows a player to grow athletically and academically.

While the NCAA has to abide by care hours, junior college players can work on their craft throughout the school year. They can play 20 games in the fall and 56 in the spring.

“They get a lot of game experience right away, which I think is big,” says Glant. “They are facing some of the best 17, 18, 19 year olds in the country.”

All his outposts have led Glant to be the coach he is.

“I’ve kind of been all over the place,” says Glant. “Getting into the coaching game so late has shaped my perception of connecting with a person regardless of age and working at a common goal.

“There’s no hierarchy here.”

Glant currently has 14 pitchers on his roster and would like to have 16 or 17 since he will take his arms into MCCAA doubleheaders on Fridays and Saturdays and mid-week non-conference games.

He is focused on arm care and keeping his hurlers healthy so they can go on to pitch at four-year schools and, perhaps, beyond.

“We don’t burn them up here,” says Glant. “We now know how the human body functions. Some guys are flexible. Some guys are not.”

Glant says he wants his players to understand the “why.”

“We want to execute,” says Glant. “Do not give an at-bat away. Control the running game. You’re trying to win games and get better. Throwing strikes and getting guys out is the name of the game

“How you do that shouldn’t matter.”

But it’s not all about the game for Glant.

“I want to mold these kids to be a good husbands, fathers, people down the road,” says Glant. “I want them be respectful and say ‘yes sir’ and ‘no mam’ and be productive members of society.”

It’s like the late University of Louisana-Lafayette head baseball coach Tony Robichaux often said: “Baseball is what they do. It’s not who they are.”

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Nate Glant began his college baseball career at Muskegon (Mich.) Community College and he is now heading into his first season as the Jayhawks head coach.

 

Twins right-hander Gibson keeps on dodging bats at a high rate

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Mixing a power slider, curve and fastball, Minnesota Twins right-hander Kyle Gibson pitched seven shutout innings Tuesday, May 29 in Kansas City.

The 6-foot-6 native of Greenfield, Ind., recorded a no-decision while lowering his 2018 season earned run average to 3.57.

According to Mike Berardino of the Pioneer Press, Gibson went to a three-ball count on just three of 27 batters faced with getting a first-pitch strike on 16 of them on his way to eight strikeouts and one walk. He surrendered five hits (three singles).

The former University of Missouri hurler was making his 16th career start against the KC Royals.

He has been one of the best swing-and-miss men in baseball. Some call it the “whiff” factor.

One source says he has Major League Baseball’s No. 1 slider and No. 3 curve.

Harold Gibson, Kyle’s father, made the trek from Greenfield to Kauffman Stadium see his son pitch.

That’s not far from where Harold took a brand-new Indiana Bandits 10U select team back in the mid-90’s.

“Kansas City is kind of where it started,” says Harold Gibson. “We started our first team when Kyle was 8 and his cousin (Austin Gibson) was 7. Little did we know what were were getting into.”

The Bandits went to a tournament at the Mid-America Sports Complex in Shawnee, Kan., essentially a suburb of KC.

Even though they lost every game by the 10-run rule, Harold and Sharon Gibson and the other adults were impressed with how they were treated and the passion for the game and knew they would come back.

They were also were sure they had made the right decision in breaking away from the local youth league.

“What an experience,” says Harold. “Our kids loved it.”

Not that the bold move was easy.

Little League had strict boundaries back then. Select teams were not allowed to use their their players, facilities and or play against any of their teams.

At that time, Gibson and company knew of no select teams in Indiana younger than age 13.

“We were taking a chance,” says Harold, who took the knowledge he learned from former Greenfield-Central High School coach Terry Fox (now athletic director at Indianapolis Cathedral) while serving on his coaching staff in the late ’80s and early ’90s and applied it to younger players, including his son and nephew. “God has a huge hand in all of this, but I also give a lot of credit to Terry. I learned so much about coaching from him. I can’t thank him enough.”

That first year, the Bandits played almost 50 games. The next year, they got into the Southwest Ohio League — the third-biggest select circuit in the country. The Indiana boys traveled to Cincinnati and league teams came to Greenfield.

Along the way, the Bandits went about building a training facility and held mandatory workouts up to five nights a week.

Practice was the priority and not playing games.

“It’s not the kids’ fault, but they’re just not learning,” says Harold. “Kids need to learn to pitch and catch. They need to learn the mental part of the game.

“We (must) have coaches that know how to teach it. Playing it the right way is the most fun for everyone.”

By the time Harold stepped away from the organization a decade ago, there were around 18 teams.

Fast forward to the present day, where Kyle Gibson is 30 and has 138 games of big league experience — all as a starter.

Harold has seen his son continue to hone his craft and gain confidence against major league batters.

“It’s all that maturation process, learning what it takes to set up hitters,” says Harold. “It’s making adjustments in games.

“They’ve told him all along to trust his stuff. I don’t think you know the full meaning of that until you throw it up there and guys miss it.

“Last year, he figured out that his fastball is good enough to get guys out. A player has to figure out if his stuff will play (in the majors).”

Kyle Gibson figured out that if he could command his fastball, it would make his breaking pitches more effective.

The big righty was throwing almost every pitch down in the zone. But has started enjoying success using the upper part and having his slider stay in the zone longer.

“Last year, Kyle had one of the best rates of swinging at balls out of the zone,” says Harold. “Consequently, hitters were going up there and just taking.”

Having Lance Lynn (who is slated to start Saturday, June 2) as a rotation mate has also helped.

The former Brownsburg High School standout throws about four different fastballs with differing speeds.

“Throwing a 93 mph fastball all the time, that’s the wrong thing to do,” says Harold.

After coaching Greenfield-Central’s junior varsity and helping establish off-season pitching workouts and in-season practice planning, Harold decided to step away at the end of the 2018 season.

Harold tries to attend Kyle’s starts when it’s within a drive of 10 or so hours (his son’s next turn is Sunday against Cleveland in Minneapolis and there’s a chance to see Kyle’s wife Elizabeth and daughter Hayden).

But with work and also having grandchildren in Louisville (Kyle’s older sister Holly lives there), it’s not always possible for Harold or his wife to be there in-person.

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Kyle Gibson (left) and father Harold Gibson meet up in Baltimore early in the 2018 season. Kyle is a pitcher in Minnesota’s staring rotation. Harold traveled from his home in Greenfield, Ind.