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Indiana baseball teams coping with COVID-19 separation

RBILOGOSMALL copy

BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

UPDATE: Since this story was published, the spring sports season has been canceled by the Indiana High School Athletic Association. The announcement came shortly after Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb announced that there would be no more in-person classes for the 2019-20 school year.

This was supposed to be the first week of the 2020 Indiana high school baseball regular season.

But the game is on hold while the world deals with the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic through social distancing.

In a landscape that is ever-changing, many states have already closed down for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year.

Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb has ruled that all Indiana schools be closed until May 1.

The Indiana High School Athletic Association has stated that there is hope for shortened regular season beginning with five required practices — rather than the usual 10 — after schools are allowed to re-open. The state tournament series would follow.

Right now, sectionals are slated for May 27-June 1 with regionals June 6, semistates June 13 and the State Finals June 19-20 at Victory Field in Indianapolis.

The Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Futures Game and North/South All-Star Series is to be the next week in Evansville.

Time will tell if any of that happens.

How are some coaches and teams dealing with the quarantine?

Crawfordsville coach John Froedge has his Athenians working together though they are physically apart.

“Our players have been strongly encouraged to follow all local, state and federal guidelines in helping to not spread the virus,” says Froedge, an IHSBCA Hall of Famer. “We are beginning to ramp back up this week with anticipation of a May 4 start.”

The Athenians, ranked No. 3 in the IHSBCA Class 3A preseason poll, have been communicating via calls, texts and Zoom video conferences and had a meeting scheduled to share team and position workouts through Google Sheets that includes links to instructional and motivational videos, articles etc.

“The workouts are all the things they can do by themselves or with a brother or dad,” says Froedge. “The idea is that we’re all working in the same things remotely. They then long each day what they’ve done and share with teammates in various ways, short videos included.

“Our hope for the players — especially seniors in all spring sports — is that they will get some kind of season, however brief it might be. But even if we don’t have a season, we still have a team and are creating memories and imparting life lessons.”

Jon Gratz coached Columbus East to a 4A state runner-up finish in 2019.

He has communicated with his Olympians, ranked No. 3 IHSBCA 4A preseason poll, through texting. He suggests things players can do as individuals since school and other facilities are now off limits.

“It’s about getting creative,” says Gratz. “It’s tough to know what guys are doing.

The biggest concern is that if we have five days of practice and play games to know that guys are in shape to throw and do all that stuff.”

A math teacher, Gratz has been using a platform called It’s Learning three days a week to lead AP and lower level classes. He has made some videos and shared them with his students.

Remind is a platform that is used for group messages.

Gratz says he is taking advantage of the extra time at home to spend with his family and learn things about baseball that he normally would not have time to learn.

At 4A Lake Central, fourth-year head coach Mike Swartzentruber was a few days from beginning tryouts at a school of 3,300 when the shutdown came.

The Indians were return seven starters from regional finalist squad and is ranked No. 2 in the preseason 4A poll.

“You feel for the kids, especially the seniors who have put in so much time and done what you’ve asked them to do for four years,” says Swartzentruber. “It’s hard trying to find the words to say to kids.

“But, in the grand scheme of things, people’s health is greater than playing a game. The trend is not very good right now. But we’re trying to stay positive.”

Swartzentruber has shared workouts that players can do in their basement, garage or driveway. He asks them all to find regular cardiovascular exercise.

“It’s all up to them,” says Swartzentruber. “We say whatever you do, make sure you do don’t put yourself in jeopardy from a health standpoint.”

Swartzentruber teaches seven classes and is now doing that from home since Lake Central adopted eLearning. Assignments are given through the Canvas platform.

“Its a little tricky,” says Swartzentruber. “I know there’s going to be some things lost in translation when you’re not face-to-face.”

Shane Edwards, head coach at 3A Oak Hill and a member of the IHSBCA executive council, has kept plenty busy fielding questions from other coaches from around the state.

“Coaches are nervous,” says Edwards. “They’re concerned and want to be informed.

“We’re kind of in the dark about where this is going.”

Edwards has stayed connected to his players with weekly emails to suggest workouts they can do on their own or with a parent or sibling. The Golden Eagles coaching staff uses group texts to stay on the same page.

“We still hold out hope that we’re going to play,” says Edwards.

With a late start and an abbreviated season, Edwards says many teams will be doing in May what they normally do in March and April.

“Usually by May, you feel comfortable with your lineup and pitching staff,” says Edwards. “So now do you try to get a lot of games in or make progress for when the tournament comes? It’s a delicate balance we’re all going to have to play.”

Oak Hill typically has in-season hitting sessions a couple of times a week during the season. Edwards says that time might be used to bring his young players up to speed on varsity baseball.

“You can’t replace game situations,” says Edwards. “I would want as much coaching time as I could have in those practice situations.”

Also an assistant high school principal, Edwards says Oak Hill is looking to supply some district students with laptops will begin online learning next week.

IHSBCA Hall of Famer Dave Gandolph is just three career wins shy of 800.

When he’s not home tending to projects ordering puzzles or watching TV with his wife, Gandolph has been going to Indianapolis Scecina Memorial High School two or three times a week to work on the Crusaders’ facility.

“I’m just by my lonesome,” says Gandolph, who has mowed grass and done work on Scecina’s new hitting building in the block house where the old weight room was located.

March 16 was supposed to be the first official day of IHSAA practice. During the Limited Contact Period, the Crusaders got a chance to work out on the grass.

2A No. 3-ranked Scecina’s first game was slated for this Saturday at the end of spring break.

Should the season begin in early May, Gandolph foresees his team hosting a Saturday doubleheader against Providence and then getting in one round of Indiana Crossroads Conference games before the postseason.

“I don’t get too hung up on planning,” says Gandolph. “It’s a day-by-day type thing anyway.”

He takes that same attitude about the milestone victory in his future.

“(No. 800) will come whenever it comes,” says Gandolph, who has been a his alma mater since the 2014 season after years at Center Grove, where he also taught for 40 years.

Gandolph says he has kept in-touch with players through texts and Twitter posts.

“I give suggestions to keep them busy and healthy and, hopefully, keep them positive,” says Gandolph.

While the team has not yet done any Zoom conferences, the Gandolph family has used the technology and is planning to do so this week to celebrate the seventh birthday of one of Dave’s grandsons.

Washington Township was 1A state runner-ups in 2019 with Randy Roberts as coach. The Senators are No. 1 in the IHSBCA preseason rankings.

Like many, Roberts has seen the levels of coronavirus restriction increase. Until the latest constraints were put in place, some players were going to the homes of teammates with batting cages at their homes and conducting their own practices.

“Parents are now following the guidelines that have been set down and keeping their kids at home,” says Roberts. “They’re in that better safe-than-sorry mode.”

Roberts says he has witnessed two extremes on social media regarding COVID-19.

“It’s not that big a deal and no more than flu and older people with prior health issues (are at risk) or on the other side, it’s serious, don’t mess with it,” says Roberts. “We’re expecting the worse and hoping for the best.”

Roberts says many of his players put in plenty of off-season work before the interruption.

“I keep hoping that this thing will level off and we can get back to school,” says Roberts. “Our boys and their parents were pretty devastated when they got sent home from school.

“If theres a glimmer of hope, the boys will start hooking up and getting in their time before I can be with them.”

Roberts has been home with two baseball-playing sons. Max Roberts is a pitcher in the Seattle Mariners organization. William Roberts is a 2019 Washington Township graduate who sat out a year while getting ready to go the junior college route.

Randy and William went to see Max, who was attending a Mariners “gas” camp in Arizona, when they began to shut things down and send players home as minor league spring training was about to start.

Roberts says some in his area have talked about playing two or three games a week prior to the sectional. If possible, he can see the Senators playing just about everyday leading into the postseason.

A teacher at Washington Township Elementary, Roberts has been instructing via laptop.

Having taken online classes himself, he is convinced of one thing: “Kids need to be in school.”

“You find yourself doing assignments just to get them done,” says Roberts. “Without the interaction, I never thought there was a whole lot of learning getting done.”

Daleville, with Terry Turner at the helm, is ranked No. 2 in the IHSBCA 1A poll.

“My heart goes out to all these high school seniors in all spring sports if they don’t have an opportunity to participate,” says Turner. “It’s just an awful feeling.

“I guess I’m being selfish here, but in the last four years I’ve won two (1A) state titles (in 2016 and 2018). We have the possibility of a third one (with six players, including five starters, from the 2018 team). I was really excited about it. We have right group of kids with the right mentality.

“I have my doubts we’ll even get to see what would happen.”

Turner has had little contact with his players since the lockdown began and has been doing his best to teach online to his pupils at Anderson High School.

“I’m bored out of mind,” says Turner. “I can’t get out to talk to these kids. That’s the worst part.

“Some of the kids have texted me. I have great senior leadership. They’ve gotten together a few times to go throw and stuff. I tell them to do the best they can to stay in baseball shape.”

Daleville was fundraising to pay for its overnight trip to Jasper, but for safety-sake, Turner put an end to that.

Turner had beefed up the Broncos schedule to get them ready for the state tournament.

“I wouldn’t have done that unless I felt like I had a team that could compete,” says Turner. “I said, ‘let’s have a challenge.’”

Regardless of what happens this year, Turner says he has decided that 2021 is going to be his last spring as a coach and teacher.

“I have grandkids I want to spend some time with,” says Turner. “I have a bucket list I want to do.”

At 4A Terre Haute South Vigo, the Braves were hoping to dedicate a full season to Brian Pickens, a 25-year assistant coach who died of throat cancer Jan. 28.

“I still think about him everyday,” says South Vigo head coach Kyle Kraemer. “It’s all perspective.

“The biggest thing is the fear of the unknown. There are so many what-ifs and unknowns. It’s just crazy.

“We are living through history. You’re talking about fighting something you can’t see.”

The Braves spent to winter building up a library of Hudl videos of themselves hitting and pitching that can now be used as references for at-home workouts.

“I’m trying to be prepared,” says Kraemer, who is hopeful that South Vigo might be able to play Conference Indiana opponents and some others prior to the postseason — if there is one.

When the IHSAA ruled this past winter that teams can have 10 summer practices with four contest dates, Kraemer says he didn’t think much about it.

“Now I think a lot of coaches are going to take advantage of that if possible,” says Kraemer.

Also a teacher, Kraemer says eLearning is to kick in Vigo County on April 6. This is spring break. There were eight waiver days prior to that.

Mark Schellinger, head coach at 3A New Prairie, has spent part of his days tending to eLearning — either from home or at the school — and has joined with his assistants in working on Harry “Bear” Tolmen Field.

“It was weird, knowing (players) could not be out there with us,” says Schellinger, whose Cougars are No. 10 in the 3A preseason rankings. (It’s tough for everybody, but it’s really tough for the kids.

“But we have to take a step back and see there is a bigger picture.”

Schellinger says safety and health are the first priority for players, followed by staying on top of their eLearning and then staying in shape, especially with throwing.

“We’re hoping to be proactive so we have a plan in place,” says Schellinger. “But it’s hard to make those decisions or make those plans.

“There’s just so much unknown right now.”

Should the season get started in early May, Schellinger says he favors playing as many regular-season games as possible.

“The kids want to play, especially in a short time span,” says Schellinger. “Hopefully our pitchers are ready for that.”

New Prairie does have pitching depth, though Schellinger hardly expects 100 from anyone out of the gate.

IHSBCA RANKINGS

(2020 Preseason)

4A

1. Penn

2. Lake Central

3. Columbus East

4. Crown Point

5. Hamilton Southeastern

6. Andrean

7. Columbus North

8. Center Grove

9. Carmel

10. Noblesville

Receiving votes: Avon, Carroll (Fort Wayne), Fishers, Homestead, Jasper, Jeffersonville, Munster, New Albany, Northridge, Westfield.

3A

1. Edgewood

2. South Bend St. Joseph

3. Crawfordsville

4. Western

5. Silver Creek

6. Brebeuf Jesuit

7. West Vigo

7. Yorktown

9. Lebanon

10. New Prairie

Receiving votes: Danville, Evansville Memorial, Griffith, Guerin Catholic, Hanover Central, Heritage Hills, Indian Creek, Indianapolis Bishop Chatard, Kankakee Valley, NorthWood, Norwell, Providence, South Dearborn, South Vermillion, Southridge.

2A

1. Alexandria-Monroe

2. Lafayette Central Catholic

3. Indianapolis Scecina Memorial

4. Lewis Cass

4. North Posey

4. Speedway

7. Wapahani

8. Delphi

9. University

10. Linton-Stockton

Receiving votes: Blackford, Boone Grove, Covenant Christian, LaVille, Monroe Central, South Adams, Wheeler.

1A

1. Washington Township

2. Daleville

3. Tecumseh

4. Lanesville

5. North Miami

6. Shakamak

7. Rossville

8. Riverton Parke

9. Barr-Reeve

10. Kouts

Receiving votes: Clinton Central, Fort Wayne Blackhawk Christian, Fremont, Hauser, Loogootee, North Daviesss, North White, Rising Sun, South Central (Union Mills), Trinity Lutheran, Wes-Del.

IHSAABASEBALL

Drosche, ‘coachable’ Avon Orioles enjoying the game

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Troy Drosche has been coaching baseball for 17 seasons at Avon (Ind.) High School — the last 11 as head coach.

The Orioles are one victory away from competing in the IHSAA State Finals for the first time. Avon (20-13-1) plays Columbus East (24-4) Saturday, June 8 in the Class 4A south semistate game, which follows the 1 p.m. 3A game (Silver Creek vs. Edgewood) at Mooresville High School.

Drosche and his O’s have gotten to this point by getting his players to “be coachable.”

“We do our best as coaches to create an environment where players enjoy coming to the field everyday,” says Drosche. “It all starts from there — enjoy the GAME.”

Avon (enrollment around 3,200) is a member of the Hoosier Crossroads Conference (with Brownsburg, Fishers, Franklin Central, Hamilton Southeastern, Noblesville, Westfield, and Zionsville).

The Orioles are part of a sectional grouping with Brownsburg, Mooresville, Northview, Plainfield, Terre Haute North Vigo and Terre Haute South Vigo. With 2019’s titles, Avon has won five sectionals and two regionals (the previous one in 1994).

“We’ve got this thing rolling pretty good, winning three of last four sectionals,” says Drosche.

Avon reigned at the Terre Haute North Vigo Sectional and Decatur Central Regional.

“In the postseason, pitching and defense has carried us,” says Drosche. “We have done enough offensively and executed at the right times to score enough to survive and advance.

“We like to play situational baseball. Bunting/moving runners/setting ourselves up to get a big hit. We try to get the best matchups and execute our game plan.”

In the sectional semifinals against Northview with the game scoreless and two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, Avon won in walk-off fashion by scoring a run from third base with a bunt single.

“Our players have bought into their roles and believe that the coaches are going to put them in the best position to win,” says Drosche. “This mindset didn’t come overnight though — it took a lot of time over the years.  

“This group has a unique mix of grit and toughness. Honestly, they just come and play ball — trying not to make things too big or too small.”

Senior right-hander Austin Baugh (Kentucky Wesleyan College commit) and junior left-hander Kyren Power have been the Orioles’ go-to pitchers during the IHSAA tournament. They combined for a two-hit shutout in the sectional championship against Mooresville.

“We didn’t over-work them during the year, so they have been pretty fresh for the postseason and have been outstanding,” says Drosche.

Junior left-handed middle reliever Jake Hoffman and senior lefty closer Lucas Carrillo have shined out of the bullpen during the regular season and postseason. Hoffman has five wins in relief. Carrillo has three victories and seven saves. Both have earned run averages under 2.50.

Junior center fielder Cam Melvin has been Avon’s best hitter with four home runs, three triples, 14 doubles and an average that’s been around .400 most of the season. Baugh, junior second baseman Mason Miller, senior designated hitter Mark Gemmer and junior first baseman Tyce Ferrell have all hit around .300.

Sophomore third baseman Henry Hesson slugged two home runs and Power one during the regional. Senior right fielder Parker Sutton is committed to Prairie State College in Chicago Heights, Ill.

Drosche, a 1992 graduate of Fern Creek High School in Louisville, Ky., and 1996 graduate of Marian College (now Marian University in Indianapolis), is assisted by Ryan East, Nick Spence, Tasker Strobel, Ryan McPike, Bob McPike and Matt Kinney.

East has been with Drosche for 10 years. Spence is the pitching coach. Strobel and Ryan McPike played for Drosche at Avon. Kinney runs the C-team. This year, Avon had 49 players on its varsity, junior varsity and C-teams.

Recent Avon graduates who played college baseball include Spencer Strobel at Purdue Fort Wayne, Noah Navarro at Ball State and Kahi’au Quartero at Marian.

Former Orioles pitchers Jared Miller and Chandler Sanburn competed in the minors in 2018.

Drosche calls Avon’s on-campus home field “one of the best in the state.”

“Matt Dudley is our field maintenance manager and he is flat-out the best in the state,” says Drosche. “And the field is getting better and better since his arrival two years ago.”

The Avon Baseball Club serves is a feeder system for the high school. It is up to 16 teams. The travel program is under the Avon Junior Athletic Association umbrella.

“The high school staff has been heavily involved with the program for a number of years now,” says Drosche.

The Indiana Bulls travel organization has had Drosche as a summer coach.

After coming to central Indiana from Kentucky, Drosche was a four-year starter at shortstop at Marian and helped the Knights win two conference championships. He was an All-American honorable mention and the team’s and conference’s MVP as a senior and was inducted into M-Club Wall of Fame in 2008.

Prior to Avon, he was an assistant at Marian and Ben Davis High School.

Drosche was an assistant at Avon for Clark Reeves for six years before taking over the program. He considers his father Glenn Drosche, Marian coaches Kurt Guldner and Bret Shambaugh, Reeves and fellow business teacher and former Reeves assistant Ralph Hartnagel as mentors.

“(Reeves) was one of the most knowledgeable baseball guys I’ve ever been around,” says Drosche. “He definitely had a certain way of coaching. He held kids to a high standard and expected nothing less from them.

“(Guldner) was a great leader that allowed his teams to play. Sometimes less is more. He allowed us to be baseball players and enjoy the game. That’s something we’re definitely doing this year (at Avon).

“(Hartnagel) is extremely knowledgable. He has great innovative ideas about drills and practices.”

Drosche, who holds a masters degree from the University of Indianapolis, teaches Careers and is a DECA advisor at AHS. He and Hartnagel run the O-Zone school store.

Troy and Jenn Drosche have three children — Olivia (11), Trevor (9) and Kendra (7). All three play travel basketball. Olivia also plays travel softball, Trevor travel baseball and Kendra travel soccer.

IHSAA SEMISTATES

Saturday, June 8

North

At Plymouth
Class 1A

Rossville (25-7) vs. Washington Township (22-6), 1 p.m. ET/noon CT

Class 4A
Hamilton Southeastern (21-8) vs. Mishawaka (25-6), following

At Kokomo (Municipal Stadium)
Class 3A

Yorktown (18-14) vs. Andrean (34-1), 1 p.m. ET/noon CT
Class 2A

Alexandria Monroe (27-6) vs. Whiting (15-11), following

South

At Mooresville
Class 3A

Silver Creek (23-6) vs. Edgewood (23-3), 1 p.m. ET/noon CT
Class 4A

Columbus East (24-4) vs. Avon (20-13-1), following

At Jasper (Ruxer Field)
Class 1A

Tecumseh (21-7) vs. University (20-10-1), 1 p.m. ET/noon CT
Class 2A

Southridge (16-8) vs. South Vermillion (24-5), following

AVONORIOLES

DROSCHEFAMILY

The Drosche family (clockwise from upper right) — Troy, Trevor, Kendra, Olivia and Jenn — celebrate a regional baseball championship for Avon (Ind.) High School. Troy Drosche is in his 11th season as head baseball coach for the Orioles. Avon plays Silver Creek in the IHSAA Class 4A Mooresville Semistate on Saturday, June 8.

 

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

RBILOGOSMALL copy

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.

1200px-Purdue_Fort_Wayne_Mastodons_logo.svg

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)

Grant_Birely

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)

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

 

 

RoundTripper, Indiana Mustangs founder Estep emphasizes work ethic, grades, playing with fire not anger

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Providing instruction and tools for players to get better and helping them get to the next level.

Chris Estep has been doing that for more than two decades. He founded RoundTripper Sports Academy in 1993 in Hamilton County, Ind. In 2001, RoundTripper and the Indiana Mustangs travel organization has been housed in a 40,000-square feet facility in Westfield.

Estep, an Indianapolis native, was an All-American at the University of Kentucky and was selected in the 12th round of the 1988 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates.

He began has career as an instructor and coach after retiring from minor league baseball in 1992.

When he’s not traveling with a team, Estep is at RoundTripper giving up to 12 lessons a day or conducting classes with players with ties to many different organizations.

“When I’m here, it’s contact teaching,” says Estep. “On the road, it’s constantly marketing the players and working to try to get them signed.”

Estep is proud to see long list of RoundTripper and Indiana Mustangs alumni going on to higher levels of baseball and giving back to the game as coaches, scouts, instructors and tournament directors.

Among those are current or former big leaguers Micah Johnson, Dillon Peters, Kevin Plawecki, Drew Storen, Jeremy Hazelbaker, Tommy Hunter, Lance Lynn and Cory Wade.

Former Mustang and RoundTripper employee Blake Hibler is now program director/event manager for Bullpen Tournaments at Grand Park in Westfield.

“This is a place they grew up and it’s pretty awesome,” says Estep. “You’ve got guys out their teaching and coaching the game the right way.”

The Mustangs field 17 baseball and four softball travel teams in 2018.

Much of Estep’s focus right now revolves around the 17U baseball team. Former pro player and current scout Mike Farrell manages the team, Chase Estep is an assistant coach and Chris Estep does his part to help athletes through the college recruiting process.

“Our biggest thing is making sure we’re getting all the kids signed,” says the elder Estep. “We’ve had up to 20 colleges in every game we played in. They’re evaluating these guys.

“The process moves very quickly when they identify the kid they want. We have kids who are not committed that have interest from 15 to 20 schools. They still have choices.”

Estep, 51, notes that verbal commitments can be made at any time, but players can’t sign a letter of intent until they begin their senior year.

He sees the current trend of early commits and shakes his head.

“Slow down a little bit,” says Estep. “Nobody knows what this kid is going to be in eighth grade or their freshman year. Nobody has any idea.

“You may think he has this trajectory. But he may be what he is in that freshman year. Conversely, you may have a pipsqueak that grows to become this unbelievable dude.”

Estep says it’s too early to knowing what a player at 12, 13 or 14 will be at 16, 17 or 18.

“If anybody can tell you what they’re going to be, they’re lying to you,” says Estep. “You don’t know that until he turns 16.

“You may have a fully-developed kid at 13 and 14. All he’s going to do is get hairier. He’s a big, strong kid. But all he’s got is what he’s got.

“Now it’s going to be up to his work ethic.”

That player may not be getting any bigger, so they need to continue developing their skills, learning how to hit for power and to all fields, getting in the weight room to increase their strength and doing what they can to enhance their speed by a tick or two.

“If the skill sets are good, it all comes down to work ethic,” says Estep. “Every kid that comes (to RoundTripper) for a reason. They want to play at the next level — whatever that level may be. The thing they’ll get from us is how hard they need to work.

“You don’t have to take 25,000 lessons. You take a lesson and you have your marching orders of what I need to work on that week.”

Players are asked to answers a series of questions.

How many swings are you going to take?

How many throws are you going to make?

How balls are you going to block?

How many ground balls are you going to take?

How many fly balls?

Are you going to work on your angles?

“The game is just not hitting or defense, it’s all of those things,” says Estep, who has built a reputation in the baseball world and relationships with college coaches and pro scouts.

“When you’ve been in the business for 25 years, they start to trust that you might know what you’re doing,” says Estep. “So they listen to what you might have to say and what your evaluation is.

“As long as your honest about what the kid can do and how he projects, they’ll watch them play and say ‘you’re dead on.’

“You cannot be used car salesman.”

Shooting straight with players and parents also helps the process.

“When you get to this level, parents have to pretty good idea of what their kids are,” says Estep.

Estep says it all comes down to the 16U and 17U summers.

“That’s where (college recruiters) are putting their real (player) boards together,” says Estep. “They call the 16U year ‘The Arms Race.’ Everybody’s looking at arms. They’re seeing position players. They all want to gobble up catchers, shortstops and center fielders.

“They’re the ones making the big bucks so they should know what they’re doing.”

Many times, college coaching jobs are dependent upon winning and claiming championships.

But priorities can change prior to a player signing on the dotted line.

“(Players) can get a commitment, but come November they can get a phone call (from the college) saying, ‘listen, we went in another direction,’” says Estep. “Now the kids out there flopping in the wind.”

Estep and his staff also emphasize the importance of good grades.

“They must understand what the ACT and SAT can provide for you,” says Estep. “The academic money is a big deal.”

Only 11.7 baseball scholarships are offered yearly at the NCAA Division I level. It’s 9 at NCAA D-II, 0 at NCAA D-III and 12 for the NAIA. For the National Junior College Athletic Association, it’s 24 for Division I and II and 0 for D-III.

In the past week, Estep talked with one school and learned that an 1150 SAT will bring a player $20,000. The Mustangs have a half dozen players who have the baseball skills and SAT scores high enough to get interest from Ivy League schools.

Learning to stay cool when the heat is on is another important lesson taught by Estep.

“Baseball is a massive game of failure,” says Estep. “You have to control your emotions. We tell kids, ‘anger is not your friend.’”

In other words: The sport can’t be played in a blind rage.

“We see them turning corners and getting a little better every year,” says Estep. “It’s fun to watch.

“Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong in playing with fire. There’s a very thin line between playing with fire and playing with anger. Anger sets you up for failure. Playing with fire allows you to succeed.”

Estep has watched Indiana baseball enjoy growth in recent years. He submits the 2018 IHSAA State Finals as one piece of evidence of the high level.  Fishers edged Indianapolis Cathedral 4-3 in Class 4A. Andrean bested Silver Creek 6-1 in 3A. Boone Grove shaded Southridge 5-4 in 2A. Daleville defeated University 4-2 in nine innings in 1A.

“It was phenomenal,” says Estep, who completed his 10th season as University head coach in 2018. Guys played great. Everyone is extremely well-prepared.

“I was so impressed with how the Indianapolis Indians and IHSAA ran things (at Victory Field).”

Then there’s the explosion of travel baseball and player development.

“At facilities like ours, you’re seeing them preparing themselves and honing skill sets,” says Estep. “They’re trying to reach their fullest potential.”

The game has also grown with the help of talent identifiers like Perfect Game and Prep Baseball Report.

“(PBR Indiana owner/director) Phil Wade is doing a phenomenal job,” says Estep.

The 17th annual RoundTripper Showcase is scheduled for Sunday, Aug. 26. Coaches from 50 or more college programs are expected to attend.

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RoundTripper Sports Academy and the Indiana Mustangs travel organization were both founded by Chris Estep in Hamilton County, Ind.

 

Boone Grove’s Antone takes lessons from Andrean’s Pishkur, adds his own twist

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Pat Antone has learned plenty of baseball from Dave Pishkur.

The first-year head coach and the veteran will both have their teams in the IHSAA State Finals Saturday, June 16 at Victory Field in Indianapolis.

Antone takes his Boone Grove Wolves into the Class 2A title game against Southridge. It will be the day’s second contest (Game 1 pits Daleville against University for the 1A crown at 11 a.m.).

Pishkur, an Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer with more than 900 career wins and five state championships to his credit, leads his 2018 Andrean 59ers into the the 3A final against Silver Creek in the nightcap.

The two have already chatted on the phone.

“It’ll be nice for us to communicate during the week,” says Pishkur.

“I talked to him (Sunday) night and asked him what to expect,” says Antone. “I’m sure we’ll talk more as the week goes on.

“One thing I’ve learned from (Pishkur) is to be a life-long learner. I also like doing my own research.”

A 2009 Chesterton High School graduate, Antone played his first two high school seasons for Pishkur at Andrean and his last two for IHSBCA Hall of Famer Jack Campbell at Chesterton.

Antone was an assistant coach for Campbell’s Trojans in 2015 and Pishkur’s 59ers in 2016 and 2017. He was also a teacher at Andrean those two years.

Pishkur has his program in the state championship game for the seventh time by improving at the most-important time of the season.

“They weren’t a very good team at the two-thirds mark,” says Pishkur, whose club won the Kankakee Valley Sectional, Griffith Regional and Kokomo Semistate. “They bought into what I asked them to do. They’ve gotten better.

“We’ll see what we do on the big stage.”

Boone Grove will be making its first state championship game appearance.

But finishing the year at Victory Field comes does not come as a shock to Antone and his team.

“That was a our goal from Day 1 when we set our team goals last fall,” says Antone. “We’ve done everything we possibly could to get there. We’re not totally surprised by it.”

A team-first mentality and modern training techniques have helped BG have a strong regular season then take Hebron Sectional, Whiting Regional and Plymouth Semistate titles.

“Our guys have bought into the concept of ‘the team, the team, the team,’” says Antone. “They work at being good teammates.”

The Wolves put in off-season work in the weight room and at Saint Anthony Sports Medicine Institute in Crown Point, where trainer Kevin Devine took them through agility, endurance, flexibility, speed and strength workouts.

Antone also introduced the HitTrax Baseball hitting simulator at Boone Grove. He says they are the second high school in Indiana to get one (Andrean is the other).

The technology allows for measurement of exit velocity, launch angle and studying the swing.

The Wolves also started doing Driveline Baseball throwing and hitting programs. The throwing program is individualized for ages and positions and there are an in-season and off-season routines.

The hitting program involves a series of different-sized bats for overload/underload training.

“(These tools) allow us to measure everything and that’s huge,” says Antone. “If it’s important, we measure it. We want to see what progress is being made.

“We’ve been working hard and competing.”

Antone models his program on some of the things Pishkur does at Andrean, including practice plans, and also adds his own twist.

The Wolves and 59ers both employ the number system for signs.

Pishkur has been using it at least as far back as a his first state championship team in 2005. The coach has a list of numbered plays and players wear a wristband with the same information.

“It might say HR for hit-and-run or S1 for a sacrifice down the first base line,” says Pishkur, who picked up the sign system at a clinic from the Texas A&M staff. “There must be 30 things we can do. We are able to expand our offense.

“I couldn’t remember all the signs the other way.”

Some of the numbers mean nothing. Some of the plays may lie dormant until just the right moment.

“If we need them, they’re there for us,” says Pishkur.

Antone favors the system because it makes thing simpler for himself and his players and is more efficient.

“Besides, I like doing things a little differently than everybody else,” says Antone.

Certified as a physical education and health teacher, Antone was hired to coach at Boone Grove with no openings in that area. Instead, he taught in the alternative school in 2017-18.

“It was a challenge,” says Antone. “But I grew a lot as an educator and as a person, too.”

Another link between Andrean and Boone Grove is a family one.

Joe Plesac Sr., brother of former big league pitcher Dan Plesac, is Pishkur’s pitching coach at Andrean and his brother-in-law.

Joey Plesac Jr., Joe’s son and Dave’s nephew, is Antone’s pitching coach at BG.

Joey Plesac played at Andrean and then DePauw University.

“I’m really glad to have him on staff,” says Antone of Plesac. “He’s done a good job calling the games for us this year.”

Andrean beat Jay County for the Kokomo Semistate crown by frequently using a familiar postseason strategy — the bunt.

“I couldn’t manage in the major leagues because they don’t allow that,” says Pishkur. “But in high school, it’s a pretty good weapon. And at the college level, it’s a pretty good weapon.

“It’s a weapon for us and we have to take advantage of it.”

Gordie Gillespie, who won more than 2,400 games in four sports including baseball, was a big proponent of the bunt.

“He said, in the tournament, the team that executes the bunt and defends the bunt is going to win,” Pishkur says of Gillespie, who died in 2015 in Joliet, Ill. “We’ve taken that to heart and we’ve done a really good job in the tournament with that.”

IHSAA STATE FINALS

At Victory Field, Indianapolis

Friday, June 15

Class 4A: Fishers (28-7) vs. Indianapolis Cathedral (23-8-1), 7:30 p.m.

Saturday, June 16

Class 1A: Daleville (21-9) vs. University (28-6), 11 a.m.

Class 2A: Boone Grove (21-5) vs. Southridge (25-6), 2 p.m.

Class 3A: Andrean (30-6) vs. Silver Creek (26-3), 5 p.m.

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In his first year as a head coach, Pat Antone has Boone Grove High School in the IHSAA Class 2A State Finals. The 2009 Chesterton graduate was on the Andrean staff in 2016 and 2017. The 59ers will be going for a 3A state crown Saturday, June 9 in Indianapolis.