Tag Archives: Tony Vittorio

Mercer makes relationships, mental skills priority for Wright State Baseball

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Embracing the importance of personal relationships and the process, Indiana native Jeff Mercer continues to enjoy baseball accomplishment in Ohio.

Mercer, a 2004 Franklin County High School graduate, is in his second season as head coach at NCAA Division I Wright State University in Dayton.

After leading WSU to a 38-21 mark in 2017, Mercer had the Raiders at 29-13 heading into a May 4-6 Horizon League series against the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Mercer served as an assistant to Rich Maloney at the University of Michigan (2011), Matt Myers at Western Kentucky University (2012-13) and Greg Lovelady at Wright State (2014-16) before taking over the reigns of the RaiderGang when Lovelady took the heading coaching job at the University of Central Florida.

As a power-hitting first baseman, Mercer played two seasons at the University of Dayton (2005, 2007) for head coach Tony Vittorio then two at Wright State (2008-09) for head coach Rob Cooper.

While playing for WSU, Mercer was a two-time all-Horizon League first-team selection at first base. In 2009, he was HL Player of the Year and a Collegiate Baseball Newspaper third-team All-American as he hit .357 with 26 doubles and 74 runs batted in.

As a Franklin Community Grizzly Cub, he learned from three coaches — Mark Pieper, father Jeff Mercer and Brian Luse.

Mercer, 32, credits Pieper for instilling an appreciation for relationships.

“That’s one thing I’ve tried to make a core value and staple of my coaching staff,” says Mercer, who counts Nate Metzger, Matt Talarico, Alex Sogard, mental skills development coordinator Diamyn Hall, director of operations Denton Sagerman and volunteer Jacob Burk among his Wright State assistants. “We have to have personal relationships with our players.

“If you want to bring out the best in them — physically, emotionally, academically and all those things — the core of that is the relationship where you can help them build and grow.”

Mercer, who earned an organizational leadership degree from Wright State in 2009, does not buy into the generation gap excuse.

“I am young — one of the younger (D-I) head coaches in the country,” says Mercer. “I take it a little bit personally when people talk about ‘kids these days.’ You take the time to develop a relationship, the generation of the kid you’re dealing with is no different.

“They need to know that you care. They need to know you’re invested.”

This trust allows Mercer and his staff to drive the Raiders.

“We’re hard on players,” says Mercer. “We push them. We have really high expectation levels.

“But if they knew you have their best interests at heart then they have no problem with that kind of tough love.”

The elder Jeff Mercer, who helped start the Indiana Bulls travel baseball organization and is now assistant superintendent of Franklin Community Schools, passed along his affinity for structure and discipline to his son.

“Everything was always very methodical,” says Mercer. “There was always an organizational plan. I took from that the confidence you have in preparation.

“We recruit a very confident kind of kid. First and foremost that comes from him. There’s only so much confidence we can give somebody. The confidence that comes from preparation can only be earned. It can’t be bought. You can’t pay for it.

“It just comes with time. It made me more confident as a player and as a coach knowing how much time and work we put into it.”

Mercer notes that Wright State has enjoyed much success against highly-ranked opponents and in hostile environments.

“Guys are confident because they know they are prepared to play at that level,” says Mercer, whose team earned two 2018 road wins against No. 20 Louisiana and one triumph against vote-getter Sam Houston State. The Raiders play at No. 29 Louisville Tuesday, May 8.

Mercer says Luse blend qualities from Pieper and his father.

“We played loose and free for him,” says Mercer. “But he also had a feel for the structure and discipline of it. Consequently, we had a lot of success. We were a very good team.

“You learn something from everybody you come in contact with and I certainly learned a lot during my high school time.”

Vittorio, who grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from Southport High School in 1984, brought toughness and discipline to his coaching.

“I knew that he cared,” says Mercer, who was a walk-on for the Flyers. “The relationship that I have with him now is really nice. He’s around a lot.”

While Mercer was at Dayton, another coach had a lasting impact on him.

“My relationship with hitting coach Cory Allen really shaped the way I view hitting from a mechanical aspect that I’ve carried forth to this day,” says Mercer. “It was the first time that anyone had discussed biomechanics, centrifugal force and different movements.

“It was an eye-opening experience and it drove me to be a much better player. I wasn’t a very talented player. Understanding a lot of those basics allowed me to have an advantage.”

After transferring to Wright State he formed a personal relationship with Cooper.

“At that point, there was nobody better in my career at making us all feel valued,” says Mercer. “I learned so much about that from him.

“He was the first person that introduced me to the mental game aspect.”

In the years since he played, Mercer has seen the field of mental skills training take off.

“It’s become an industry in and of itself,” says Mercer. “At the time, there was nobody talking about ‘don’t worry about the outcome, it’s the quality of the at-bat. It’s the process over the outcome.’ At the time it was very cutting edge and it was new information for me.

“I was a much better baseball player at Wright State than I was at Dayton

“It was directly attributed to the mental game and understanding that I couldn’t just play with reckless abandon when it came to my emotions. Physically, I could play very hard. But emotionally, there has to be some constraint.”

One of the keys is to know where place the emphasis.

“If I go through the process the right way and I work on things I’m supposed to work on and invest in things I’m supposed to invest in and I have the at-bat I’m supposed to have and putting a good swing on a good pitch, whatever happens from there is completely out of my hands,” says Mercer. “Once I did that I became a much better player.”

Mercer recruits plenty of football and wrestling athletes.

“Their mentality is I can work harder and harder,” says Mercer. “That’s not always effective in baseball.”

In his first season as head coach, he found the mental game to be a bit lacking and he thinks he knows the reason.

“When it comes from the head coach it can become a bit stale because I’m always talking and communicating with players,” says Mercer. “My voice is always heard.

“I like having a big coaching staff and having them deal with each player individually because it keeps things fresh. We need to have multi-faceted relationships.”

Then opportunity knocked.

Hall, who is from nearby Centerville, Ohio, had just ended his collegiate playing career and was looking to find his way in the mental skills field.

The decision was made to bring him on-board as the very first full-time mental skills coordinator in D-I baseball.

“We had a mutual need,” says Mercer of Hall. “He needed a place to begin his career. We needed someone who was a fresh face and had an ability to communicate with young people in an electric way, in an impassioned way. He has a magnetic personality.

“It’s been a beautiful union.”

Hall meets with players as a group and one-on-one, providing his knowledge and helping athletes reach their potential.

“We’re providing the players with the resources to be the best they can,” says Mercer. “It’s really about knowing yourself and what you need to be successful.”

Jeff and is one four boys born to Jeff and Pam Mercer. His mother teaches math at Whiteland Community High School.

Stephanie Mercer, Jeff’s wife, teaches sixth grade at Ankeney Middle School. The former Ohio Northern University athlete is also an assistant boys volleyball coach at Beavercreek (Ohio) High School.

Jeff and Stephanie are expecting their first child — a boy — in the fall.

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Jeff Mercer, a 2004 Franklin Community High School graduate, is in his second season as head baseball coach at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. At 32, he is one of the youngest head coaches in NCAA Division I baseball. (Wright State Photo)

 

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No steady home field, no problem for Freije, Indianapolis Cathedral

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Some might see the IHSAA Class 4A baseball state championship showdown against Penn (27-6) as a home game for Indianapolis Cathedral (28-0).

After all, it’s only 12 or so miles from the Cathedral campus on 56th Street to the downtown stadium and the Irish did beat Heritage Christian for the city championship at “The Vic” this spring.

On the other hand, Cathedral is the designated road team against the Kingsmen in a game slated for 5 p.m. Saturday, June 17, and that may make sense to some since the Fighting Irish did not have one “home” field during the 2017 season.

Irish varsity games had been played for years at Hair Field near Fort Benjamin Harrison, but when the lease to that facility was not renewed the Irish went looking for places to play.

“We had a month or two not knowing what we were going to do,” says Cathedral head baseball coach Ed Freije.

The independent Irish wound up with home contests at Marian University on the northwest side of Indianapolis and Grand Park in Westfield.

Meanwhile, the school purchased the former Little League International Central Region headquarters at 44th and Mitthoeffer and used that for practices and all junior varsity and freshmen games while construction began on a high school diamond and other athletic fields at what is now called Brunette Park.

But a nomadic season with a new coaching staff did not stop Cathedral from winning each and every time it took the diamond — wherever it was.

The 2017 Irish will be vying to be the fourth unbeaten team during the IHSAA state tournament era (1967-2017), joining Evansville Memorial (30-0 in single class in 1978), Brownsburg (35-0 in 4A in 2005) and Norwell (35-0 in 3A in 2007).

Cathedral’s record was spotless going into the 2013 4A championship game before falling 1-0 to left-hander Tanner Tully and Elkhart Central. The ’13 Irish wound up 28-1.

Freije, a 1999 Cathedral graduate and three-sport athlete for the Irish, returned to the baseball coaching staff after a hiatus when he spent five seasons as the school’s head girls basketball coach (winning 70 games from 2012-13 to 2016-17).

The ’17 Irish returned nine seniors from 2016 and plenty of capable arms.

“Depth of pitching has really helped us this year,” says Freije. “(Pitching coach) Brad Pearson did a a phenomenal job with that staff. We knew that pitching and defense would keep us in games and give us a chance day in and day out.

“(Pitchers have) been around the strike zone and let their defense work. That strong defense behind them gives them a ton of confidence. We like our chances if we’re not giving up more than two or three runs.”

Opponents have scored more than three runs in only three games out of 28 with 15 times have tallied one or no runs.

Senior left-hander Nick Eaton has emerged as Cathedral’s ace. He took the ball in the sectional final, regional semifinal and semistate game and is expected to start against Penn.

Senior right-hander Tommy Kafka, Cathedral’s starting second baseman, has been used effectively in relief.

The Irish also have starting right fielder and senior right-hander Jack Myers, senior right-hander Jack Phillips and starting first baseman and junior left-hander Jake Andriole at the ready for mound duty.

Freije said he did not see the new IHSAA pitch count rules (1 to 35 pitches requires 0 days rest; 36 to 60 requires 1 day; 61 to 80 requires 2 days; 81 to 100 requires 3 days; and 101 to 120 requires 4 days) dictating how Cathedral handled its pitchers this season, though it did come into a play with a few opponents.

Besides Pearson (cousin of Cardinal Ritter head coach Dave Scott), Jeremy Sinsabaugh (varsity), Austin Green (JV), Will Hunker (JV) and Keith Yost (freshmen) are also part of the 2017 Cathedral coaching staff.

The Irish are making a seventh State Finals appearance (Cathedral won state championships in 2001 and 2007 and finished as state runner-up in 2006, 2010, 2011 and 2013) after beating Mt. Vernon (Fortville), Lawrence Central and Lawrence North to win the Warren Central Sectional, Greenfield-Central and Roncalli in the Decatur Central Regional and Columbus North in the Plainfield Semistate.

Ed Freije is not the first Indianapolis area coach with that name. His father — also named Ed — is a former baseball and basketball coach at Broad Ripple and basketball coach at New Palestine.

The younger Freije learned about coaching from his father and from Ken Kaufman, Rich Andriole, Tony Vittorio and Linda Bamrick among others.

Freije played baseball at Cathedral for Kaufman and then Andriole (then served as an assistant on his staff for a decade, 2004-13). As a head coach, Andriole won more than 500 games and the two state titles.

Vittorio was Freije’s baseball coach at the University of Dayton, where Freije graduated in 2003.

A Southport High School graduate, Vittorio played at Hanover College and later coached at then NCAA Division II Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne before taking over the D-I Dayton Flyers.

Before taking over as Lady Irish head coach, Freije was an assistant to Linda Bamrick. She won 186 games with a state championship (2000-01) in 12 seasons at Cathedral.

The Irish, which have also gathered 21 sectional, 13 regional and six semistate crowns, has sent many players on to college and professional baseball. Catcher Jake Fox made his Major League Baseball debut in 2007 and right-handed pitcher Tommy Hunter followed in 2008. Left-hander Dillon Peters was drafted in 2014 and right-hander Ashe Russell in 2015.

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Indianapolis Cathedral baseball coaches for 2017 (left to right): Keith Yost, Austin Green, Jeremy Sinsabaugh, head coach Ed Freije, Brad Pearson and Will Hunker. (Cathedral Photo)

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Lawrence North’s Winzenread wants Wildcats to play with ‘no regrets’

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

“No regrets.”

Lawrence North High School baseball coach Richard Winzenread expects nothing less than the best from his Wildcats.

There should be no sleepless nights because of lukewarm effort.

It’s been that way since Winzenread took over as leader of the LN program in 1992.

“If we work hard, good things will come,” says Winzenread. “We want to be the best team our talent level will allow. If we do that, we’ve had a successful season.

“At tournament time, we’re a pretty tough out. You have to bring your best game to beat us.”

Winzenread has gathered a wealth of baseball knowledge from coaches at the high school, college and professional level and he shares that with his LN players.

Then he lets them take over.

“We don’t clone them,” says Winzenread. “I don’t want to take away their natural ability. I tell them it’s their responsibility to get better.”

Players need to take the initiative to get extra swings in the batting cage or more ground balls on their own time.

“We’ve had quite a few kids over the years that have made themselves better,” says Winzenread. “Kids have to take ownership.

“Kids today don’t practice enough. You should practice more than you play. You need to be the best player you can be, so you have no regrets.”

The coach can be tough, but he has the student-athlete’s best interests at heart.

“What makes me the most proud is seeing how the kid grows through his four years of our program,” says Winzenread. “I think the kids know I care about them. I want them to be the best version of a person they can be — as a student and a player. We want them to be ready for college.”

Winzenread does his coaching and teaching on the northeast side of Indianapolis. He first learned baseball on the south side from his father Richard and then played at Southport High School, graduating in 1982 and moving on to play for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Dick Naylor at Hanover College.

Naylor is also in the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

A right-handed pitcher, Winzenread was drafted in the 21st round by the Baltimore Orioles in 1986. In the O’s system he learned much from then-roving pitching instructor Mark Wiley — things he still uses today at Lawrence North.

In his third pro season, Winzenread was injured and decided to come back to Indy. He worked for UPS and helped coach at Southport with Cardinals head coach John Carpenter (John Dwenger was head coach when Winzenread was a Southport player).

Winzenread stayed close to the game by giving lessons and found many of his clients were in the Lawrence area. He completed his education degree and took a middle school teaching job in the Lawrence Township district.

After teaching at various middle schools, Winzenread landed at the high school four years ago as a physical education and health teacher.

Seeing another chance to give back to the game that had been so good to him, Winzenread applied to replace Tim Fitzgerald as LN head coach when he stepped down right before the 1992 season. Fitzgerald is now the varsity assistant on a Wildcats coaching staff that also includes Chris Todd (junior varsity) and Kyle Green (freshmen).

Not knowing how to run a high school program back in ’92, Winzenread made a trip to Indiana University to pick the brain of head coach Bob Morgan.

“He did a lot for me early in my career,” says Winzenread. “He’s one of the best baseball minds around.”

In Winzenread’s first decade at Lawrence North, assistant coach Bob Kraft brought things to the program he had gained while being associated with Stanford University baseball.

Tony Vittorio, who was head coach at Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne and is now in his 18th season as head coach at the University of Dayton, followed a similar path to Winzenread in that he played at Southport and Hanover before going into coaching.

“He’s such got tremendous passion,” says Winzenread says of Vittorio. “He works those kids. He can be tough at times. But, in this business you have to be.”

Winzenread has a passion for developing pitchers. Ideally, the Wildcats will have seven or eight capable arms in a season. Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference games are played on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Winzenread uses his top two starters in those games with a third pitcher expected to handle to relief duties. Those pitchers have a bullpen session on Saturday and are ready to go again the following week.

“They build up arm strength to be a starter or build up arm strength to be a reliever and they work different,” says Winzenread.

LN hurlers are expected to throw strikes, but not necessarily rack up K’s.

“Strikeouts are fine, but they’re not something we strive for,” says Winzenread. “Our philosophy is to have (the batter) hit our pitch. Our pitch counts are usually not that high.”

Batters are kept off-balance by the mixing of speeds and location — up and down, in and out, back and forth.

One location in the strike zone is off limits.

“We don’t want to throw it over the middle of the plate,” says Winzenread. “When we warm up, the middle part is black and we have two white edges.

“We want to have a little bit of movement.”

Winzenread calls anything over 15 pitches a stressful inning.

If a pitcher strung together a couple of 26-pitch innings, he would be at 52 and might be done for the day, depending on the athlete.

If those same 52 pitches were spread over five innings, that would be a different story.

“I enjoy winning,” says Winzenread. “But I would never put a kid’s health in front of that — ever.”

With that in mind, he will always protect a pitcher’s arm. If they throw 85 pitches Tuesday, it’s a good bet they might be used as a designated hitter but will not take a field position Wednesday.

The 2016 Mt. Vernon (Fortville) Sectional — won by Lawrence North — was set up with pitching in mind. Games in the six-team format were played on Wednesday with semifinals and finals Monday.

“That’s the only thing that’s fair,” says Winzenread, who has seen LN take seven of its eight all-time sectional titles, both regionals, one semistate crown and one state runner-up finish (7-6 loss to McCutcheon in the 1999 Class 4A final) on his watch. “I wish we’d seed the draw and we don’t. Everyone says ‘pitching and defense (wins championships).’ You can hit all you want, but eventually good pitching is going to shut that down.”

With those factors in mind, LN changed its regular-season schedule and has as many three-game weeks as possible.

No matter where they play on the diamond, Winzenread expects his player to know their role. That might mean starting or coming off the bench.

“Everyone’s got a role to way and you’ve got to accept it,” says Winzenread. “(Reserves are) always constantly paying attention to the game so when you’re number is called, you’re ready.”

And with no regrets.

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Richard Winzenread is in his 26th season as head baseball coach at Lawrence North High School.

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Richard Winzenread took Lawrence North to the IHSAA State Finals in 1999. He has been head baseball coach for the Wildcats since 1992.