Tag Archives: University of Louisville

Northwest Indiana Oilmen strike it rich in baseball fun, development

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

After another season of diamond progress, the Northwest Indiana Oilmen are again in the Midwest Collegiate League title hunt.

The summer collegiate wood bat baseball club that calls Whiting’s Oil City Stadium home has qualified for the playoffs in each of its six seasons.

The Oilmen went into the playoffs as the No. 1 seed (Bloomington, Ill., beat Northwest Indiana 3-1 Tuesday, Aug. 1 in Game 1 of a best-of-3 semifinals series). Game 2 was slated for Wednesday, Aug. 2 at Bloomington with Game 3 (if necessary) Thursday, Aug. 3 at Oil City. Home games have been broadcast live on the team’s Facebook page.

Don Popravak and Adam Enright have been with the Oilmen for each campaign. Popravak is president and owner while Enright is in his third season as head coach after three summers as an assistant.

A veteran of more than three decades in marketing, Popravak conceived the idea of the team, negotiated with the City of Whiting for the use of the stadium and has built the Oilmen brand.

Enright is a Munster High School graduate who played at South Suburban College and then helped the University of Southern Indiana to an NCAA Division II national championship (2010). After one year each at Chicago State University and the University of Arkansas-Little Rock, he is entering his fifth season as an assistant at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Ill.

TCC Trolls head coach Justin Huisman is a former Oilmen head coach. Huisman played at the University of Mississippi and pitched briefly with the 2004 Kansas City Royals.

Popravak, a Chicago native who grew up minutes from Whiting and played baseball and football at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., has watched the Midwest Collegiate League (founded in 2010) grow and greatly improve its ability to attract top-notch talent. Dozens of former MCL players have been drafted by Major League Baseball clubs, including six in 2017. Others have gone on to independent professional baseball.

Left-handed pitcher Tony Cingrani, recently traded from the Cincinnati Reds to the Los Angeles Dodgers, played for the Illinois Jayhawks in the MCL’s first season.

Third baseman Paul DeJong played in the MCL with the Will County CrackerJacks (2012) and DuPage County Hounds (2013).

Former Oilmen player and Munster High graduate Craig Dedelow played at Indiana University and is now an outfielder the minors with the Chicago White Sox.

Hammond Bishop Noll Institute graduate Matt Pobereyko was a player and pitching coach with the Oilmen before going to independent baseball. He was with the Arizona Diamondbacks organization and, after another indy stint, is now a New York Mets farmhand.

John Ely, who pitched for the Dodgers in 2010, 2011 and 2012, managed the Southland Vikings and is now a coach in the White Sox system.

“He credits his experience of coaching at this level,” says Popravak. “We have quality guys working with players and developing their careers.”

Former big league pitcher Marvin Freeman has been a pitching coach for Southland, where former Oilmen player Kevin Franchetti is now manager. Franchetti played for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Dave Pishkur at Andrean High School and then at Ball State University.

Popravak said the teams in the MCL — Oilmen in Indiana and Bloomington Bobcats, Crestwood Panthers, DuPage County Hounds, Joliet Admirals and Southland Vikings in Illinois  — are “all on the same page with finding and developing the best talent.”

“We want them go back to their colleges and be an impact player,” says Popravak.

Unique to summer collegiate baseball, the MCL has some players that play in the league before they ever step on a university campus.

“That’s a real advantage for a college coach,” says Popravak. “That young players who’s hungry can get 250 at-bats against college pitching and work their mistakes out early so they can go to a college campus and compete for a job.”

Corey Ray played for Southland before going to the University of Louisville and is now in the Brewers system.

Donivan Williams impressed the Cardinals enough after playing with the Oilmen that they signed him and he by-passed college. The 18-year-old third baseman from Oak Lawn, Ill., is now playing in the Gulf Coast League.

The MCL roster limit is 35 and many are in the mound mix. There are several college underclassmen who have had a low number of innings in the spring.

“The summer gives them an opportunity to shine,” says Popravak. “We don’t want to overuse pitchers.

“Our goal is to always send the player back to college healthy.”

Enright and assistant coach Patrick Antone (who played for IHSBCA Hall of Famer Jack Campbell at Chesterton High School, coached with Pishkur at Andrean and was recently named head coach at Boone Grove High School) have watched the Oilmen consistently perform on the bump in 2017.

“The reason we’ve done so well this year is our pitching,” says Enright. “I don’t think we’ve been deeper. It’s a good mix of guys with a lot of talent.

“We have overall depth with our position players. We mix and match lineups a lot. I make sure each of our guys have at least 100 at-bats if they are with us all season. It’s more about development than winning.”

The six MCL teams play each other 10 times during a 50-game regular season leading into a four-team, two-tier playoff format (both best-of-3).

Using his connections, Enright built the Oilmen roster with most of the players commuting from a radius of about 90 minutes from Whiting.

“I’m starting to build up some pretty good relationships with schools throughout the Midwest at all levels,” says Enright. “We like the local flavor that people in the community and the region are familiar with.”

The longest road trip for the Oilmen is about two hours to Bloomington.

Enright played for two respected baseball men in Munster’s Bob Shinkan and USI’s Tracy Archuleta and took from both in developing his own leadership style.

“Those two guys shaped who I am as a coach,” says Enright. “I bring my own flavor to the game and coaching. But I make sure guys have positive experiences. Happy players are productive players. I want guys getting the most out of each other and play together to win baseball teams.”

Enright says neither Shinkan or Archuleta do much yelling, but are “the type of coach you don’t want to let down.”

Shinkan is also an IHSBCA Hall of Famer.

“He makes you enjoy the process and being out there everyday,” says Enright of his high school coach. “It’s about having fun while doing what you need to do to be the best player you can be.”

Enright appreciates the cerebral side of Archuleta’s coaching.

“He will put the game straight into your brain and make you think of it all levels you’ve never done before,” says Enright.

The fans, who turned out for MCL games and a series this summer against the Serbian National Team, get a chance to enjoy baseball played in a park plotted on 119th Street near homes, oil rigs and not far from the water.

“It’s a special place,” says Enright. “The community really loves it. It’s a premier facility. You can’t ask much more for a summer collegiate team. Good product on the field and really nice atmosphere to watch a game in. When the wind blows you can hear the waves off Lake Michigan.”

NWINDIANAOILMEN

Payne’s doing big things at tiny Lanesville

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Tiny Lanesville is making a name for itself in Indiana high school baseball thanks in large part to Zach Payne.

In Payne’s second season as head coach at the Class 1A school (about 250 students) in 2016, the Eagles were state runners-up.

Many from the Harrison County town of around 600 folks found their way to Victory Field in Indianapolis to see a 4-0 loss to Daleville.

In 2017, Payne has Lanesville (18-6) back in the 1A semistate. The Eagles’ opponent Saturday, June 10 (following the 1 p.m. 3A game) at Jasper will be Indianapolis Lutheran (18-7). The winner advances to the state championship game.

Payne, 27, explains how he has gotten Lanesville to excel on the diamond.

“The main thing is putting kids in their best positions to succeed,” says Payne. “At a 1A school, we have limited numbers. We have to make the most out of what we’ve got. We try not to waste guys on the roster.”

There are 30 players in the program — the most Payne has had in his short time at the school. There are 20 on the tournament roster. He gets all of them — the starters and the bench players — to embrace their role.

“We will have them all contribute at some time during the season,” says Payne. “There’s a special group of guys who have been the leaders of the team. Other guys have been happy to help out in any way they can.”

The Eagles made it back to semistate in ’17 by topping New Washington and Borden to win the South Central (Elizabeth) Sectional and Loogootee and Northeast Dubois to take the Loogootee Regional.

It was the fourth sectional crown in program history (1975, 2010, 2016, 2017) and third regional (1975, 2016, 2017).

Lanesville is in the Southern Athletic Conference with Borden, Crothersville, Henryville, New Washington and South Central.

With just five conference games (generally played one per week), Payne was free to have a challenging non-conference slate, full of larger opponents, including his alma mater and defending 2A state champion Providence.

“I like to schedule whoever,” says Payne. “This is probably the toughest schedule Lanesville has ever played.”

Lanesville, which plays its home games on Ed Jaegers Memorial Field at Heritage Park, is one of three teams in its sectional group with lights (South Central and Christian Academy of Indiana in New Albany, which did not field a team this spring, are the others) and those schools rotate as sectional hosts.

Zach Payne grew up playing baseball with his father Pat as a his youth coach.

“I wanted to be like dad,” says Payne. “I wanted to coach.”

Zach also counts older brother Sean (head softball coach at Floyd Central) and Providence coaches Scott Hornung, Scott Hutchins and Ben Hornung as mentors.

The 2017 Eagles coaching staff includes Josh Smith, Kyle Erwin, Christian Ensley at the varsity level with Jim Smith and Garrett Sherell guiding the junior varsity.

Payne, a computer programmer at Zirmed in Louisville by day, sees similarities in the community feel at Lanesville and Providence (he graduated from the school in Clarksville in 2008 and the University of Louisville in 2014).

“The biggest difference is the depth,” says Payne.

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Zach Payne, 27, is in his third season as head baseball coach at Lanesville High School in southern Indiana. He took the Eagles to an IHSAA Class 1A state runner-up finish in 2016 and has the program back in the semistate in 2017.

Reel helps turn IU Southeast into respected NAIA baseball program

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Indiana University Southeast’s baseball team will play in the NAIA Opening Round for the second straight season and the fourth time since 2010.

The 21st-ranked Grenadiers are in Kingsport, Tenn., for a five-team double-elimination event Monday through Thursday, May 15-18.

The winner out of No. 1 seed Keiser (Fla.) (39-18), No. 2 Tennessee Wesleyan (39-18), No. 3 Indiana University Southeast (45-13), No. 4 Talladega (Ala.) (36-22) and No. 5 Marian (Ind.) (29-21) advances to the 10-team NAIA World Series May 26-June 2 in Lewiston, Idaho.

The Grenadiers are slated to play Tennessee Wesleyan in Game 2 Monday afternoon. Kingsport is where IUS used to go for their conference tournament. Upon arriving Saturday night, they learned that former Grenadier Shane Weedman had pitched a no-hitter for the Evansville Otters of the independent professional Frontier League.

Other Indiana schools in the Opening Round are Huntington and Indiana Tech.

After losing seven starters from 2016, IU Southeast reloaded in 2017.

“It’s definitely been a year to remember,” says IUS head coach Ben Reel. “This team has been very competitive. When they show up everyday, they work.”

With Opening Round appearances in 2010 and 2011 as Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference conference champions and at-large berths in the KIAC and new River States Conference the past two springs, the Grenadiers have established a respected program.

It’s been a progression that’s taken time to achieve.

When Reel took over as head coach for the 2009 season at age 24 (he followed Joe Decker, who decided to go back to Silver Creek High School), the coaching staff was paid with stipends.

“We were like starving artists,” says Reel. “And nobody knew where we were.”

For the record, the school is in New Albany, just across the Ohio River from downtown Louisville.

“We had to crawl before we could walk and walk before we could jog,” says Reel, now 33 and still one of the younger head coaches in college baseball. “We’re starting to run a little bit. We’re starting to get some momentum and it’s taken a decade.”

Reel, who played at South Dearborn High School in Aurora and Cleveland (Tenn.) State Community College before transferring to IU Southeast, led his first team to a 32-24 mark and saw the Grenadiers turn the corner in 2010.

That’s the year IUS went 39-20 (setting a school record for wins), NAIA second team All-American Kyle Lenn smacked 24 home runs and the program produced its first Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft selection — Cameron Conner to the Kansas City Royals in the 20th round.

“Once that happened, everything started rolling,” says Reel. “That’s what put us on the map in our region.”

With IU Southeast, the University of Louisville (NCAA Division I), Bellarmine University (D-II) and Spalding University (D-III) all within 10 miles of each other, teams are competing for talent.

“You have to be very competitive,” says Reel, who looks at a roster with 15 players with Indiana hometowns and five from Kentucky. “But once prove you can mentor and develop players, you’ll start getting some better athletes.”

That’s not easy when you only have one scholarship to offer (11 below the NAIA limit).

“That puts us in bottom 10 percent out of the 198 (NAIA) teams in the country,” says Reel. “We take a lot of kids who are raw and help them find a niche.

“We get a lot of guys here who want to be coached. Myself and my staff do a lot of player development. We coach the heck out of them.”

Andrew Stanley, a high school teammate of Reel’s, has been with him since the beginning. The young coaching staff also features Jarret Young (second season), Brian Coffman (first season) and student assistants Justin Franz (fourth season) and Logan Coughlin (first season).

“We roll up our sleeves and get in (the batting cage) with them,” says Reel, who considers his communication skills (he’s talk to just about anyone for hours) and practicality as strengths. “That’s how I was raised. I’m not going to tell you what to do. I’m going to show you what to do. That’s what we believe as a staff.

“We go the extra mile. Our biggest selling point is these kids will be coached.”

Reel grew up on a farm near Prairie Creek in Vigo County, spent his middle school years in West Virginia then came back to Indiana and landed at South Dearborn.

With the Knights, he was a catcher for head coach Jay Malott.

“He was a fierce competitor,” says Reel of the former Indiana Purdue-Indianapolis coach. “He was a perfectionist. Nothing was ever good enough. We were never done practicing. We were just relentless. I learned that sense of dedication in high school.”

At Cleveland State, Reel played for Mike Policastro.

“Coach Poli taught me a sense of professional,” says Reel. “He was very calm and very businesslike. He was organized and concise. He would be very honest and open with you about what you needed to do to get to the next level and be a man.”

Reel saw coaching in his future and behind the plate — where he did not make a an error as a sophomore (matching the feat of his senior high school season) — helped prepare him for the profession.

“As a catcher, you’ve got to get to know all these pitchers,” says Reel. “You get to know a bunch of strangers at the collegiate level.”

Relationships have always been important to Reel. One of his best friends — who he met through coaching — is Tennessee Wesleyan assistant Brad Neffendorf (they were in each other’s weddings).

“This game has some of the best people that Planet Earth has to offer,” says Reel. “They just truly love the sport and the people in it.

“That’s the most memorable part of doing this, it’s the people that you meet.”

Reel notes three major things IUS has going for its in community support, education and location.

“We fundraise $50,000 a year,” says Reel. “I takes $70,000 year to run a college baseball program. Our budget is $33,000. You have to have synergy to do that.

“We’re offering an IU degree. We have a tutor on the bus. It’s a big time education.”

Being so close to Louisville is very helpful. There’s so much to do there and there is easy access to an international airport.

BENREEL

At 33, Ben Reel is in his ninth season as head baseball coach at Indiana University Southeast. He has the Grenadiers in the NAIA Opening Round for the fourth time in 2017. (IU Southeast Photo)

Sakosits emphasizes aggressiveness at Earlham

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

They are thinking big at a little school in Richmond.

Head baseball coach Steve Sakosits came to Earlham College (enrollment around 1,200) from the world of NCAA Division I baseball and he looks to bring that experience with his Division III squad.

“We want to be Division I-esque,” says Sakosits, a 2006 Xavier University graduate who is in his seventh season at Earlham. “I’m trying to recruit Division I type guys.”

Taking things he learned from all three of his college head coaches — John Morey, Dan Simonds and Scott Googins — Sakosits has formed his own philosophy while adopting it to D-III where scholarship money is given based on academics and need.

“It’s fit and finance,” says Sakosits, who notes that D-I baseball has to split up 11.7 baseball scholarships and that Earlham recruits can often get more money when all factors are considered. “We want to recruit students first who have the ability to work hard in the classroom and on the baseball field.”

Pushing the pace in 2017, the Quakers (22-12, 17-6) just clinched a third-straight berth in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference tournament and have a chance to be regular-season champions and tournament hosts.

Four HCAC home games remain — one against Mt. St. Joseph today (May 2) then a three-game series against Hanover (one Thursday, May 4 and two Friday, May 5).

“We’re excited about that opportunity,” says Sakosits of a chance to host four-team postseason play on the turf at Randal R. Sadler Stadium. The HCAC tournament winner is an automatic qualifier for NCAA D-III regional play.

Excitement is what the Quakers bring between the white lines.

Earlham lead all of D-III baseball in stolen bases per game with 3.85 per game and 131 total swipes.

Nate Lynch (41) and Brennan Laird (28) holds down the top two individual stolen base spots while Matt Barger (20) was fourth.

“We’re aggressive in everything we do,” says Sakosits. “We want to dictate the game. We don’t let the game come to us.

“(Our pitchers are) going to give up the free base.”

Sakosits, a 6-foot-5 right-hander as a New Jersey high schooler and at XU (where he made 68 mound appearances from 2004-06), insists his hurlers go after hitters and dictate counts  and the Quakers had 198 strikeouts and 98 walks through their first 297 innings.

Sakosits and his assistant coaches — Brandon Coduto, Beau Smith, Brandon Pennington, Garrett York and Kevin McGee — even time EC players getting on and off the field in practice.

The Quakers are expected to go hard in everything they do — academically and athletically.

“Baseball’s the fun part,” says Sakosits. “It’s just about teaching them how we’re going to go hard and what that means.”

When recruiting, Sakosits looks for hard workers. But he understands that those players may have been the “big fish in a small pond” and got by more on their athletic ability than work ethic.

“Hard work beats talent everyday,” says Sakosits.

That mentality becomes a priority once the player is on the Earlham campus.

One of the other D-I head coaches that Sakosits admires in Louisville’s Dan McDonnell and one of his quotes: “If you emphasize it, you’ll be great at it.”

Earlham’s 26-man 2017 roster features 14 who have hometowns in Indiana with eight in Ohio, two in Michigan and two in Kentucky.

Lynch (Wright State) and Laird (Cincinnati) are transfers from D-I schools. Howie Smith came to EC from D-III Marietta (Ohio).

When Sakosits arrived at Earlham he started an alumni club and the school began taking donations from alums.

“They’ve bought into the vision of the program,” says Sakosits.

Randy Sadler’s generosity led to the stadium with its turf, video scoreboard and locker rooms and a move away from sharing Don McBride Stadium (built in 1936) with Richmond and Seton Catholic high schools.

The first season at Sadler (2014) brought at 21-18 record — the program’s first above .500 since 1971. The Quakers went 26-14 in 2015 and 29-14 in 2016, qualifying for the HCAC tournament for the first two times in school history (Earlham moved from the North Coast Athletic Conference to the HCAC in the 2011).

Last spring, Earlham set school records for victories, at-bats, home runs, runs scored, runs batted in, stolen bases, wins, strikeouts, and innings pitched. In addition, the Quakers led the HCAC in home runs, walks, stolen bases, slugging percentage, walks allowed, and earned run average.

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Steve Sakosits is in his seventh season as head coach at Earlham College in Richmond. The Quakers won 21, 26 and a school-record 29 games the past three seasons and were 22-12 going into play May 2. (Earlham Photo)

Relationships the most memorable thing for Ball State’s Eppers

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Matt Eppers can point to some memorable moments during his college diamond days.

The Ball State University senior baseball player is coming off a “career weekend” in which he went 10-of-13 at the plate with his third career home run plus a double, stolen base, sacrifice, four runs scored and three runs batted in.

The Cardinals stopped a nine-game losing skid with a three-game sweep at Western Michigan. BSU outscored the Broncos 46-17. Eppers went 5-for-5 in Game 2 of the series — the first five-hit game of his career.

“We had been pressing a little bit,” says Eppers, speaking for the team as a whole. “We started relaxing and having fun.”

On Tuesday, April 11, Eppers stayed hot with three more hits in an 11-2 win against visiting Valparaiso. In his last four games, he is 13-of-17, raising his average to a team-pacing .311.

Earlier in the 2017 season, Eppers was named Mid-American Conference West Division Player of the Week.

The 6-foot-4 outfielder strung together hits in eight consecutive plate appearances in his junior season of 2016, spanning two games against Dayton and one against Purdue.

The 2013 Elkhart Central High School graduate (he played center field and was the L.V. Phillips Mental Attitude Award winner as the Steve Stutsman-coached Blue Blazers beat Indianapolis Cathedral 1-0 for the ’13 Class 4A state title) also counts a victory against powerhouse Louisiana State in 2016 as a highlight.

As a sophomore in 2015, Eppers scored three runs against Akron and helped the Cardinals to the MAC tournament championship game.

But as outstanding as those achievements are, it’s the relationships that Eppers has made in his four BSU seasons that he cherishes most.

“I came on to this team not knowing anybody,” says Eppers. “My roommate, Sean Kennedy, had a monster weekend himself (at Western Michigan). He hit a grand slam and another home run and had a whole bunch of hits (Kennedy was 7-of-9 with nine RBI in three games). He and I are best friends. I’m going to be the best man in his wedding.

“The relationships that I’ve built, that’s what’s made college baseball worth it. Through the highs and the lows, the guys you’re around and that sense of brotherhood is heightened to a new level in college.”

Eppers roomed with right-handed pitcher B.J. Butler as a freshman and later shared a place with Kennedy and Alex Call (selected in the third round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Chicago White Sox  after earning MAC Player of the Year honors in 2016) before Call moved on.

“(Sean) has been very versatile. He’s played every infield position this year. He’s kind of the anchor of our defense. Anywhere we need him, he’s there. With his bat, too. In the middle of the lineup, he’s been a heavy hitter … It was a good weekend for him and I in our apartment.”

Besides Eppers, Kennedy and Butler, the other BSU seniors are right-hander David Current, third baseman Alex Maloney (son of Ball State head coach Rich Maloney), first baseman Caleb Stayton and left-handers Evan Korson (a transfer from Northern Kentucky) and Kevin Marnon (a transfer from Akron).

Rich Maloney has enjoyed watching Eppers perform for the Cards.

“He’s very athletic,” says Maloney. “He covers a lot of ground in center field. He has really good speed. He competes really, really well.

“With the other guys we’ve been able to surround him with in his class, he’s been a really nice piece of the puzzle.

“He’s been a joy to coach.”

The past three seasons, that recruiting class has aided in an overall MAC title, two West division crowns and a tournament runner-up finish while averaging 34 wins.

“They’ve all gotten a taste of winning and enjoyed it and they certainly want to pass it on,” says Maloney. “They are leaders and they’re all going to end up graduating. It’s all good and Matt is certainly a big part of it.”

How does Eppers prefer to do his leading?

“Day-to-day, I just try to lead by example,” says Eppers, who has played in 188 career games with 147 starts. “I’m not really one of the hoorah guys.

“I don’t speak just to speak. When I have to be a vocal leader, I pick my times. I feel like that’s not only benefitted me here but my whole life. When you can do that it makes your word go a little bit farther.”

Maloney coached Ball State 1996-2002 then at Michigan 2003-12 before returning to BSU for the 2013 season. A staple as he took over a program that had not been winning was “Gotta Believe” rally cry (#GottaBelieve).

“The first thing in building a program is you’ve got to get everybody to believe,” says Maloney, whose 2017 assistants are Scott French, Dustin Glant and Ray Skjold. “They’ve got to believe in the coaches. They’ve got to believe in the vision. They’ve got to believe in the system. They’ve got to believe in themselves. They’ve got to believe in their teammates. If you get that going then you have a chance to be successful.”

Facing the toughest schedule of Maloney’s BSU coaching career (win vs. Maryland, four losses to both Oregon State and Kent State and defeats to defending national champion Coastal Carolina plus setbacks against Louisville and West Virgina), Ball State got off to an 11-9 start in 2017 then hit a slide once the MAC part of the slate began.

“We came close in several or them, but couldn’t get over the top,” says Maloney. “(Against Western Michigan), we were able to break through.

Eppers has bought in to Maloney’s belief system.

“You gotta believe that you can get the job done,” says Eppers. “That’s something he’s instilled in all of us.”

“The whole reason I came to Ball State was the vision that he sold. To his credit, he did it. He promised us a new field, improved schedules and improved skills and we got it.

“No matter who we’re playing, you can see it in his eyes. He truly believes Ball State is going to win … Coach has taught us not to ever take a back seat to anybody.”

Since Eppers’ sophomore year, Ball Diamond has been covered with artificial turf. This is a growing trend in the northern U.S., where the maintenance is lower and teams are able to play more games even in cold and wet weather.

Another major difference been grass and turf is the speed of the game.

“On turf, everything is a lot faster,” says Eppers. “A single may turn into a double; a double may turn into a triple. Especially at our field, it plays very fast … It’s probably given me a few more triples, too, so I appreciate it.”

Of 33 starts for a 15-18 squad, Eppers has been in center field for 29 games and right field for four.

“Center has always been my favorite position, where I feel most comfortable,” says Eppers. “You’re the shortstop of the outfield in a way. You’re supposed to be the best all-around defensive player in the outfield. Something I’ve always taken pride in is tracking down balls and trying to make catches other people can’t make.”

Eppers, who hits from the right side, was in the No. 8 slot in the batting order during his recent hot weekend in Kalamazoo, but has appeared in every hole but Nos. 3 and 4 this spring and has led off eight times.

“Everyday I have to check, but it’s not that big of a deal,” says Eppers. “I know my job is to get on base. I’m not a guy who’s going to hit a lot of home runs. I do have a few extra base hits. That’s where I hit the gaps and I’m able to run.”

While he’s taken hundreds of fly balls in the outfield to improve his defense and bulked up to 202 pounds with work in the weight room, Eppers has also adjusted his approach at the plate. He has become more knowledgeable about situational hitting and what pitches he can connect with the best.

“Early in my career I was very vulnerable to the slider and pitcher-advantage counts,” says Eppers. “Now, I’m a tougher out. When the slider is in the dirt, I’m able to lay off that pitch.

“This year I’ve really worked at hitting pitches in the (strike) zone I know I can barrel up. I’m not chasing as many pitches.”

Eppers, 22, is scheduled to graduate in May with a “high stakes” degree in entrepreneurial management.

“It’s basically a pass-fail major,” says Eppers, who was on the MAC all-academic team in 2016 and carried 3.555 grade-point average in the fall. “For a year, you write a business plan, fine tune it and then Wednesday (April 12) we present it in a room with a panel of judges. If they like what you have to say, they pass you. If they don’t, they fail you. If you fail, you have to opportunity to come back next year and re-try or take a couple some classes and (graduate with a different major).

“It puts some stress on you.”

Eppers and his business partner will present a plan on a not-for-profit gym and counseling service for veterans, military members and first responders in the Indianapolis area.

While he is exploring his post-graduation options, Eppers says he is leaning toward staying on the diamond.

“I want to keep playing baseball as long as I can,” says Eppers. “When I’m not allowed to play anymore I’ll have to re-evaluate my professional life.

“For right now I’m just focused on playing baseball and having fun. I’m trying to play every game like it’s my last.”

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Matt Eppers contributes speed to the Ball State University baseball team. The Elkhart Central High School graduate is in his senior season. (Ball State Photo)

MATTEPPERS

Matt Eppers has played in 188 baseball games as a Ball State Cardinal through Tuesday, April 11. (Ball State Photo)

HSE, Henson looking to play the best to prepare for the postseason

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Take a look at the 2017 Hamilton Southeastern High School baseball schedule.

With 18 games in the always ultra-competitive Hoosier Crossroads Conference (three-game series vs. Avon, Brownsburg, Fishers, Noblesville, Westfield and Zionsville), non-conference games against perennial powers like Brebeuf, Carmel and Roncalli and out-of-state encounters against Louisville (Ky.) Ballard, Louisville (Ky.) Trinity and Metamora Township (Ill.), there are no breathers for the Royals.

And that’s the way fifth-year head coach Scott Henson and the HSE diamond community want it. A stacked regular season can only help come postseason.

“(Our players) truly believe they’re more prepared for the sectional than any other team in the state,” says Henson. “You have to be prepared or else you’re going to be taking an early exit.”

As is Henson’s habit, he is taking his Fishers-based team for an early-season test when the Royals play April 6-8 in the Super Prep Series in the Louisville area (HSE was there two years ago and was rained out at Cincinnati Moeller in 2016 when both teams were atop their respective state polls).

Ballard features All-American outfielder/right-hander pitcher Jordon Adell who may be drafted this spring before ever stepping on the field for the University of Louisville. HSE junior left-hander Carter Lohman has committed to U of L.

“This gives us a measuring stick early in the season,” says Henson. “We also get to stay in a hotel and have some team bonding.”

Henson says he wishes the IHSAA would back off its travel rules which limit teams from going more than 300 miles from the border or playing any teams outside that radius.

“We’ve talked to the Louisville organizers,” says Henson. “We can’t play certain teams.”

This spring will mark the third season of a conference format that more closely reflects a college-like schedule and many HSE players do have aspirations of playing college baseball.

“That three-game series is pushing us to the next level,” says Henson, noting that the HCC has been represented in the Class 4A IHSAA State Finals two of the last three seasons (Noblesville winning in 2014 and Zionsville finishing as runner-up in 2016). “We think we’re the best baseball conference in the state.”

While they want to beat each other between the lines, the coaches in the HCC are also friendly and are known to get together for gatherings or seek each other out at clinics.

Henson says the three-game series forces teams to develop pitching (there were 17 NCAA Division I pitchers in the conference in 2016) and really think about strategy.

“You’re getting a better sense who is the best overall team,” says Henson. “That’s the nature of baseball. You’ve got to do it more than just one night. That’s why the World Series is seven games. They want to see who the best team is over time.”

Entering his 15th season as a high school baseball coach, Henson spent two seasons as head JV coach at HSE before taking over the top spot. Before that, he was the hitting coach for four years at Northern Nash High School in Rocky Mount, N.C., after leaving coaching and going into the business world.

Henson was an assistant for four seasons (1995-98) at his alma mater, Pendleton Heights, where he worked for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Bill Stoudt.

“Coach Stoudt had a pretty big influence on my life,” says Henson, who played baseball and football for the man at Pendleton and graduated in 1991 before going on to play college baseball at the University of Indianapolis and IUPUI and one season of pro ball with the independent Frontier League’s Richmond Roosters. “It seems he was always in my ear.”

Henson just went through cuts at HSE and usually gets a call every year from Stoudt telling him how this time of the year is both the greatest and the worst.

“I’ve got to tell these kids they don’t get to come and play ball anymore,” says Henson. “It’s tough sometimes.”

At a school of 3,200 students, Henson had 97 try out for 50 spots his first season. Since then, he’s had to cut 25 to 30 players each spring.

“I start preparing the guys for this back in October or November,” says Henson. “I tell them, I’d like to keep all of you. You have a passion for the game.’”

The reality is there are only so many spots.

Henson has seen some players cut once or twice and come back and make the squad.

Through it all, there’s a lesson.

“You are going to go through life with things that are tough,” says Henson. “If you get knocked down, you’ve got to get back up and make the best of situations. You rely on your teammates and buddies to put you in a good spot.”

The emphasis at HSE is daily improvement. A coaching staff that includes Kory Seitz, Ken Seitz, Curry Harden, Jeff Mendenhall, Tyler Underwood, Seth Story, Jake Straub, Seth Paladin and Matt Nash reinforces that mantra with varsity, junior varsity and freshmen squads.

“We want to get better everyday,” says Henson. “Work to be your best when you need to be your best.”

The Royals have won 14 sectionals and all of them are represented on the current staff. In their tenures as HSE head coach, IHSBCA Hall of Famer Ken Seitz claimed nine sectionals, Harden took three and Henson has two (2013, 2015).

Henson has a few other ideas about how to make Indiana high school baseball better.

“I’d love to see us have access to the kids a little more,” says Henson. “Right now, there are periods when we can only work with two kids at a time per coach. There’s a reason travel baseball is becoming more and more important. (Those coaches) have unlimited access.

“I understand the idea behind the rule, but it’s antiquated. We’re missing opportunities.

Henson says the experience could be a little bit better.

“Seeding the tournament would go a long ways,” says Henson. “And we get too caught up in making things geographically feasible.”

If getting the best competition means traveling a few hours, so be it. That’s what it was like in North Carolina, where they do not have an all-comers postseason like Indiana and play a best-of-three championship series.

It’s all about making baseball better.

SCOTTHENSON

Scott Henson is entering his fifth season as head baseball coach at Hamilton Southeastern High School in 2017.