BY STEVE KRAH
Jake Burton has not changed the way he coaches much in more than four decades of leading high school baseball programs in Indiana.
“We’re demanding,” says Burton, who is in his 41st season of doing things his way — third at Twin Lakes High School in Monticello in 2019 after 37 at McCutcheon (1979-2015) in Lafayette and one at North Newton (2016) in Morocco. “The kid has to make sacrifices. We don’t allow long hair. It has to be an inch above the collar and off the ear.
“If they miss a practice unexcused, it’s a 20-mile run. You don’t play again until you get done.”
Burton hasn’t wavered from that approach since his first game in 1979.
“People say that’s crazy, but we’ve eliminated problems because kids don’t take a chance,” says Burton. “They don’t test you on those things. They know we mean business. We’ve not changed that.
“Not that these things make the program, but they establish a culture for the program.”
With 849 career wins coming into this week, Burton is second among active high school baseball coaches in Indiana (behind Andrean’s Dave Pishkur). He was inducted into the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1998 and became just the fourth Indiana prep baseball coach to do into the National High School Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2016.
Twin Lakes (enrollment around 820) is a member of the Hoosier Athletic Conference (with Twin Lakes, Benton Central, Lafayette Central Catholic, Rensselaer Central and West Lafayette in the West Division and Hamilton Heights, Lewis Cass, Northwestern, Tipton and Western in the East Division).
A two-game home-and-home series on consecutive nights is played within the division. Crossover games are then played with corresponding seeds in each division — 1 vs. 1, 2 vs. 2 and son on.
The Indians opened the 2019 season with a trip to Tennessee, where they met Halls, West Carroll and Tipton-Rosemark Academy (2018 Tennessee state runner-up among private schools).
“It was a good experience for us,” says Burton.
A year ago, a team rule was made that players could be away at the beginning of spring break through Tuesday and had to be back on Wednesday in order to travel to Tennessee and be ready to open the conference season against Lafayette Central Catholic.
Twin Lakes was off to an 11-5 start in 2019, including 5-1 in the HAC.
“I think we’ve turned the corner a little bit,” says Burton. “We are winning games that we should win and competing well in all our games except for a couple.
“The kids seem to be confident that they can win. When I first got here that didn’t exist.”
Burton started out with 32 players in the program his first year and had 18 in the second season after some weeding out.
“They weren’t here for the real reason you play baseball,” says Burton. “You play sports to get better at it and enjoy the camaraderie, but also enjoy the competition.
“They were doing it as if it was just something to do rather than something they wanted to do.”
Retired as a school administrator, when he’s not serving as a substitute at Twin Lakes, Burton likes to play golf or pickleball before coming to the school.
Pickleball is a paddle-and-ball game similar to tennis played to 11. When he and his partner got down 10-1, the partner started talking about asking their opponent for a rematch. Burton wasn’t willing to concede defeat. He knew the game wasn’t over until one team got to 11.
Burton recalls a day in1984 at McCutcheon when his team was down 10-2 in the first game of a doubleheader.
The coach began pulling out his starters and telling them to get something to eat and be back for the second game.
Meanwhile, the subs started hitting doubles and singles and — all of a sudden — in was 10-10. The Mavericks went on to win.
“Baseball is a unique game,” says Burton. “There is no clock and that’s the neatest thing about it.”
There are 22 players for varsity and junior varsity in 2019 and the number is expected to rise.
“We’re building it back up,” says Burton, who had five seniors in 2017, three in 2018 and has four in 2019 (Zion Cosgray, Brock Deno, Graham Howe and Ethan Luzadder). The Indians have nine freshmen.
Burton is assisted by Brian Driver, Mike Hirt, Sam McVady, Jeremy Stinson and Trent Wright.
Pitching coach Driver played for Burton at McCutcheon in the early 1990’s and has coached with Burton at McCutcheon, North Newton and Twin Lakes. Wright serves as the first base coach. Hirt, McVady and Stinson are JV coaches. McVady played for Burton at Twin Lakes.
Since arriving, Burton has watched the Indians’ home field get a new drainage system. A new outfield was installed and leveled.
“We really take care of the field,” says Burton. “We make sure it’s immaculate and things are put away each night.
“We just take a little pride. You can play on a good field and get nice, new uniforms and kids start to feel a little bit better about themselves. It’s something that’s contagious and it spreads and we play a little bit better.”
Monticello Youth Baseball League — a part of the Town & Country system — develops players that will eventually get a chance to wear Twin Lakes uniforms.
Burton says the change from a single class to class sports is the biggest change he’s witnessed in his time coaching baseball in Indiana.
“I never was in favor of class baseball,” says Burton. “I liked it when you had one true champion.”
When McCutcheon was a state runner-up during the one-class system in 1994 it meant as much to Burton as when the Mavericks won 4A state titles in 1999 and 2003.
The 1994 state championship game was won 4-3 by Penn, coached by IHSBCA Hall of Famer Greg Dikos.
“That game hinged on one play in the top of the seventh,” says Burton. “We got our 2-hole and or 3-hole hitter on and our clean-up guy, Preny Rodgriguez had just hit one off the wall the last time up.
“We were down 4-2. Do we bunt here? I let him swing away and he hits into a double play. The next batter get a base hit to make it one run but we don’t get two.
“That’s just a decision a coach makes. It happens all the time.”
Burton was a Purdue University student at a time when Indiana coaching legends were still on the scene.
“Things have changed. Ken Schreiber, Jim Reinebold, Bill Jones, Paul “Spider” Fields — they set the tone on how baseball should be coached and played. I was lucky enough to be young enough to be going through college and seeing that.
“You don’t see that anymore. You don’t see people putting in the time like that.”
Burton’s teams have held the No. 1 statewide ranking four times and knocked off No. 1 on 10 occasions. His squads have been state ranked in 33 of his first 40 seasons.
Six former players were selected in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, including big leaguers Richard in 2005 and Nick Wittgren in 2009.
Burton has had 84 players play college baseball (10 are still active) with 10 first-team all-staters and 150 all-conference selections.
He’s sent former assistants/players have gone on to become high school coaches in Indiana.
Burton was chosen Indiana Coach of the Year in 1999 and 2003 and was runner-up in the balloting in 1994. He has been a conference coach of the year 13 times and a regional coach of the year eight times.
He has amassed 15 conference championships, 11 sectional title, five regional crowns and twice claimed semistate hardware.
In Burton’s one season at North Newton, the Spartans went 20-9 and won the program’s first conference championship in 26 years.
Jake and Brenda Burton have been married 47 years and have three children — Mike, R.J. and Beth — and seven grandchildren. Teacher Mike (Class of 1993) and project engineer R.J. (1995) played baseball at McCutcheon for their father. Teacher Beth in a 1999 McCutcheon graduate. Jake is currently a Tippecanoe School Corporation board member.
Jake Burton is in his third season as a high school baseball head coach in Indiana in 2019. It’s his third season at Twin Lakes High School in Monticello.