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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)

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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)

 

 

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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.