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Purdue Fort Wayne’s Birely helps pitchers navigate a world of knowledge

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Blending various talents into a cohesive unit, helping them navigate a world of knowledge and encouraging a flow of ideas.

This is what Grant Birely gets to do as pitching coach at NCAA Division I Purdue Fort Wayne (formerly Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne).

Birely, 36, has been on the job since the 2009 season. The Mastodons are scheduled to open the 2019 campaign Feb. 15-17 with four games at Alabama A&M.

The Purdue Fort Wayne roster features 14 active pitchers with two who will likely be medical redshirts.

“I make an individual plan with each of them to become the best they can,” says Birely. “As they get older and go through the program, they take a lot of ownership of their own development and I become a consultant for them. With the young guys, it’s about teaching them what it takes to pitch at this level.”

Birely says the cornerstone of Mastodons pitching is throwing and learning to spin pitches.

“In some form or fashion, there is throwing each day,” says Birely. “It might be 60 feet one day just to get loose. It might be 350 feet if they’re going to long toss that day. I don’t put a distance restriction on them. We tell them to listen to their arm and see how it feels each day.”

The point is, collegiate pitchers are asked to throw a lot.

“There’s no better way to learn to throw than to throw,” says Birely. “We’re working on their craft every single day.”

Playing baseball at the college level, especially Division I, is a major commitment between school work and hours spend getting ready for and playing games.

“We spend everyday with them and they spend so much time on it, they have to love baseball and showing up everyday and working on it,” says Birely. “One thing they’ll leave with is time management when they head into the real world.”

Purdue Fort Wayne pitchers do a hybrid training program that includes band work, stretching and some weighted-ball movements.

“We don’t dive straight into a full weight-ball program because these guys are competing the minute they get on-campus,” says Birely. “They never really have that down time to solely focus on velocity or anything like that. We’re always trying to work on command (of the strike zone) and commanding a second pitch.”

When the weather keeps the Mastodons off the frozen tundra, they do their throwing in a spacious fieldhouse large enough to make tosses of up to 250 or 260 feet.

“We’re very lucky to have that,” says Birely. “It’s just high enough so they can get a little bit of air under the baseball.”

The top two pitchers from 2018 in terms of innings pitched and victories are gone. Right-hander Brandon Phelps, a Fort Wayne Snider High School graduate, pitched 83 innings and won five games as a redshirt senior. Left-hander Damian Helm worked 73 1/3 innings with four victories in his senior season.

As the Mastodons head into the only four-game series of 2019, Birely says junior right-hander Chase Phelps (Brandon’s brother and also a Fort Wayne Snider graduate), junior right-hander Cameron Boyd (Fishers) and redshirt senior right-hander Shane Odzark will get the first opportunity to be starting pitchers.

The bullpen is being built with establishing strength in the late innings as a priority.

“We’ve got a lot of guys who are excited to try to go and finish games,” says Birely, who counts freshman left-hander Justin Miller (Homestead), sophomore right-hander Sean Ferguson (New Haven) and freshman right-hander Jarrett Miller in the closer mix.

Other right-handers include sophomore Trevor Armstrong (Fort Wayne Snider), sophomore Nathan Hefle, freshman Garrett Hill (University), junior Tyler Kissinger, junior Duane Miller, sophomore Brian Skelton (Westfield) and redshirt freshman Cade Willard (Eastside).

Another lefty is sophomore Spencer Strobel (Avon).

Birely says two freshmen right-hander — Grant Johnston (Hamilton Southeastern) and Drew Pyle (Hagerstown) — have had injuries that will likely make them redshirts.

The pitching coach has learned that he is dealing with players who have different ways of learning. They might be visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners.

“We have some guys who like to see themselves on video and they can make adjustments based off that,” says Birely. “Some guys I have to put in a position kind of in a kinesthetic way so they can feel it.

“It’s definitely a challenge to figure out each guy.”

And figuring it out is key.

“Anyone who is teaching might be the smartest person in the world but if they can’t get that information to the players, it doesn’t really work and it doesn’t help,” says Birely. “It’s been fun finding different ways to teach and different ways to convey information that I have to them.”

Birely notes that the current generation — Generation Z — gets a bad rap for asking so many questions.

“They have all this information at their finger tips,” says Birely. “Some of it is good and some of it is not good.

“I’d rather have them ask me a question or to try to figure something out than to just go and do it on their own.”

Group chats are a way that information is exchanged.

A pitcher will see a video in social media and ask, “what do you think of this, Coach?.”

Birely asks his hurlers to identify their favorite major league pitcher.

“That gives me some insight of who they’re going to watch,” says Birely. “My favorite pitcher to watch growing up was Greg Maddux. I was never the big velocity guy. Watching him throw a baseball looked like watching a wiffleball.”

He also followed the fortunes of another future Hall of Famer. Roy Halladay went to high school just a few years before Birely in nearby Denver suburb of Arvada.

Birley is a graduate of Chatfield Senior High School in Littleton, Colo. He played for current Purdue Fort Wayne head coach Bobby Pierce at Central Arizona College (the Vaqueros won the 2002 National Junior College Division I World Series) then finished his collegiate career at the University of New Orleans. That’s where he met his future wife, Bonnie. The two were living in the Big Easy when Hurricane Katrina hit and they moved closer to Grant’s family in Denver.

Retired as a player after one season of independent baseball with the Mesa Miners, Birley went into the business world when a friend asked him to help with freshmen tryouts at Regis Jesuit High School, figuring it would just be for a few hours on a Saturday.

“From the moment I walked out there, I was hooked,” says Birely, who spent two seasons at Regis Jesuit in Aurora, Colo. When Pierce became head coach at Metropolitan State University of Denver, he invited Birely to become Roadrunners pitching coach. When Pierce moved to Indiana to lead the IPFW Mastodons, he asked Birely to come with him.

“I wouldn’t have this opportunity without him,” says Birely of Pierce. “He’s been a mentor and a great person to learn from.

“The best thing about him is that he lets everybody in the organization from players to staff go do their job

he gives them the freedom and creativity to make the program better.”

Pierce promotes a spirit of working together for a common goal.

“He’s very positive,” says Birley. “He’s great to work for. He’s awesome to play for. He allows the players the freedom to exchange ideas.

“Let’s figure it out together.”

Grant and Bonnie Birely have figured out how to balance baseball and family life. The couple has two children — Fort Wayne Bishop Dwenger High School senior Tyler (who is active in theater and show choir) and sixth grader Kaylee.

“Like everyday says you’ve got to have a very understand wife,” says Grant. “She’s on this journey with me. Otherwise, I couldn’t do this.

“She keeps the fort going at home.”

Purdue Fort Wayne plays in the Summit League (with North Dakota State, Omaha, Oral Roberts, South Dakota State and Western Illinois). That makes for a good deal of travel. When the Mastodons go to the Dakotas, they often leave campus on Wednesday night and return at noon Monday.

“(Players) do a great job of doing their schoolwork on the road,” says Birely. “It’s not uncommon to walk through a hotel lobby and there’s 25 or 30 guys doing their homework.

It’s not uncommon for players to ask for the movies to be turned off on the bus to study for an upcoming test.

“We’ve had guys who understand what it means to be a true student-athlete,” says Birely. “It goes back to time management. They have to rely on themselves a lot to make sure they’re getting their work done.”

Coaches will proctor tests for professors, who email the exam and set the time limit and have the coaches sent it back. Other take online classes to allow flexibility and no requirement to be in a classroom.

Christine Kuznar is Senior Associate Athletic Director for Academics and meets with players each semester to them on-track toward getting their degree as quickly and efficiently as possible.

“She’s the rock star behind the whole thing,” says Birely.

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Purdue Fort Wayne was formerly known as Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne. In its new branding, the Mastodons have adopted black and gold as school colors with a hint of blue as homage to the IPFW brand. (Purdue Fort Wayne Image)

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Grant Birely, the baseball pitching coach at Purdue Fort Wayne, is a native of Colorado who played and coached for Mastodons head coach Bobby Pierce before following him to Indiana. (Purdue Fort Wayne Photo)

GRANTBIRELY

Grant Birely has been baseball pitching coach at Purdue Fort Wayne (formerly Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne) since the 2009 season. (Purdue Fort Wayne Photo)

 

 

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Talent, character key for Trine baseball’s Perschke

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

A coach assembles a team and he expects that all of his athletes will be there for practice.

At Trine University in Angola where Greg Perschke is entering his 16th season as head baseball coach, it’s rare indeed when all of his players are in one place.

Class and laboratory schedules are bound to keep someone away at a school renowned for math, science and engineering.

“That’s just the way it is,” says Perschke. “As long as I can get the majority of them out there, we can be productive and get a lot of stuff done.”

Thunder baseball players get things done both on the diamond and in an academic setting.

“Forty percent of the kids that join my team are in engineering and they are graduating in four years,” says Perschke. “That’s very impressive.”

Since Trine (known as Tri-State through 2008) transitioned from NAIA to NCAA Division III (no athletic scholarships) prior for 2005 season, Perschke has had 25 players on the all-Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association team with 11 first-teamers. His 2012 squad tied for second in the MIAA and the 2013 team won a school-record 25 games.

On Perschke’s watch, the Thunder have appeared in the MIAA tournament three times.

With two wins, Perschke will reach the 250 mark for his Trine coaching career.

Perschke, who counts Jeremy Campbell and Jon Lies as assistant coaches, handles pitchers, catchers and recruiting for the Thunder. The base is a radius of 2 1/3 to 3 hours from campus.

Like the general student body, many players come from Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. All but four on the 51-man roster for 2017 (33 varsity, 28 junior varsity) are from the Hoosier, Wolverine or Buckeye states. There’s two from Illinois and one each from Wisconsin and Connecticut.

Campbell and Lies do some scouting. Perschke, who is also an assistant athletic director, makes the final call on players.

“Recruiting is the biggest part of the program,” says Perschke. “Hit that hard and early or you’re going to struggle.”

When building his team, Perschke seeks baseball talent.

But that’s not all.

“Character is a big one,” says Perschke. “I get to know that recruit throughout the year. Family also goes a long way.

“Baseball is kind of the easy part. If that clicks, you can move forward.”

Of course, getting players who are an academic fit is essential. With Trine’s focus, most athletes come to the school certain of their scholastic path.

Perschke does find it challenging to keep so many players heading in the right direction. Not an issue when he played or when he began his coaching career, he now must account for how his athletes use social media.

“It’s how they represent themselves, the school and the program. That’s the big thing,” says Perschke. “It’s not a problem. A lot of it’s common sense. But you do have to talk about it more.”

Every other year, Trine players attend a session on the use of Twitter, Instagram etc.

“He’ll talk with them and wake them up,” says Perschke of the speaker’s message. “It’s not just friends, everybody can find (social media posts).”

Perschke is a 1985 graduate of LaPorte High School, where he pitched for coaching legend Ken Schreiber.

“You have to let a lot of stuff roll off your back, that’s for sure,” says Perschke in the book, A Cut Above: The history of LaPorte baseball (published in 2016 by Prime Time Publications LLC, dba Indiana Football Digest). “It made you stronger and a better player. The game’s a mental game and you’ve got to fight through that.”

After LaPorte, Perschke pitched for Southwestern Michigan College, a two-year school in Dowagiac, Mich.

In 1989, Perschke was selected in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft for the third straight year. After being chosen by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 32nd round in 1987 and the Atlanta Braves in the 23rd round in 1988 and not signing either time, the 6-foot-3 right-handed pitcher was picked by the Chicago White Sox in the 24th round out of the University of New Orleans, where he had played for Tom Schwaner, and did sign a professional contract.

He went 45-35 in eight minor league seasons with the White Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians organizations, including five at Triple-A.

“Schreib, all the managers and  coaches I’ve played for set the tone for everything I’ve done in baseball,” says Perschke. “It’s the foundation of what I’m doing now.”

Perschke received a bachelor’s degree in communications from UNO in 1998.

TRINETHUNDER

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Greg Perschke is entering his 16th season as head baseball coach at Trine University in 2017.