Tag Archives: Upland

Portland (Ind.) Rockets baseball a 60-year tradition

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

“Way to get off the bus, Gus. Scoring runs is fun!”

After the Portland (Ind.) Rockets plated three in the first inning at the National Baseball Federation major division (unlimited age) wood bat regional in Fort Wayne, manager Randy Miller shouted his approval from the third base coach’s box.

Miller has brought enthusiasm to the diamond for much of the organization’s long history.

The Rockets — started in 1959 by Dick Runkle and continued by Ray Miller (Randy’s father) — celebrated 60 years of diamond fun and memories in 2019. That makes it one of the longest-running continuous teams in amateur baseball.

“We go back to our 1960’s roots,” says Portland manager Randy Miller, who has seen the Rockets square off against squads from Albany, Geneva, Dunkirk, Elwood, New Castle, Upland, Yorktown and beyond. A rivalry with the Gas City-based Twin City Bankers is well-chronicled in Bill Lightle’s book “My Mother’s Dream.”

When the Rockets began, they were comprised of players from Portland and later fanned out from Jay County.

“We’re still townball,” says Miller”. We just come from a lot of towns.”

The ’19 Rockets (10-13) had four players who claim Portland as their hometown — Peyton Heniser, Chandler Jacks, Max Moser and captain Mitch Waters. They also came from Auburn, Bluffton, Carmel, Ellettsville, Frankton, Indianapolis, LaPorte, Marion, Pendleton, St. Joseph and Thorntown in Indiana and Coldwater, St. Mary’s and Vandalia in Ohio.

The oldest players were Waters (35), Chris Gaines (33), Zeth Tanner (29), Codey Harrison (28) and Craig Martin (28). The rest were under 25 with seven teenagers. Waters is the director of operations at the Jay County Community Center.

A graduate of Jay County High School and Manchester College, Waters played for the Kalamazoo (Mich.) Kings of the independent Frontier League.

“Our guys are some of the best athletes their high schools have ever had,” says Randy Miller. “They’re gamers.

“I’m just so proud of them.”

Miller, 65, began playing for the Rockets in 1972 and caught a doubleheader at 51. By the 1990’s, he was sharing manager duties with his father and has continued helped continue the tradition.

“I’ve got a motorcycle and a boat,” says Miller, a former teacher at Adams Central High School in Monroe, Ind. “I’m not on them very much in the summer.”

Runkle had the Rockets competing in the old Eastern Indiana Baseball League. Local talent included Steve Takats. His Ball State University teammate, Merv Rettenmund, played for Portland in 1966 and made his big league debut as a player with the Baltimore Orioles in 1968 and was an MLB hitting coach for many years.

The Rockets went 18-1 and won the EIBL in 1968.

With the team in financial trouble, Ray Miller took over in 1972. He doubled the schedule and included games with Fort Wayne teams.

With the support of wife Betty, Ray helped secure a playing facility in Portland that is now known as Runkle-Miller Field.

“Mom was always there with a sandwich and a cold beverage,” says Randy Miller of his mother, who served 16 years as city clerk.

In 1984, the Rockets merged with the Bank of Berne Lancers and went 34-20. The ’85 season was the best to date at 41-14 with Portland’s first-ever American Amateur Baseball Congress state title.

Miller became AABC state secretary in 1991 and the Rockets won AABC state crowns in 1991, 1994, 1996, 1997, 2001, 2004, and 2006 and in more than 30 years as manager Portland won more than 900 games.

Ray Miller died in 2017 and was inducted into the National Semi-Pro Baseball Hall of Fame in 2008. Randy Miller was enshrined in 2011.

With Randy Miller, siblings Brad Miller and Mickey Scott and many community members pitching in, the Rockets have survived. Mickey, who was city clerk for 12 years, used to run Runkle-Miller’s “Rocket Lunching Pad” concession stand and now Brad does it.

All three Miller offspring have taken turns watering the field. The baselines are seeded to help with all the excess rain.

For years, the Rockets were purely a family-funded operation.

Since the mid-1990s, the Rockets have swung wood bats. At first, Randy provided those. But that got too expensive and now the players provide their own clubs.

For $100, the team picks up the cost of caps, uniforms and handles insurance.

Randy Miller carries on a tradition by giving the “Rocket Report” on WPGW 100.9 FM on afternoons following games. Samantha Thomas, who once worked for the Fort Wayne TinCaps, is involved with keeping score and other team functions.

Randy Miller schedules games, recruits players, pays bills and generally keeps the Rockets going.

“That’s my legacy,” says Miller. “I carry the torch.”

The Rockets coaching tree spreads far and wide, especially along the U.S. 27 corridor.

“They want to give back to the game,” says Miller. “We are a baseball town. I really believe that.”

Among former Rockets are Jay County High School head coach Lea Selvey, Adams Central head coach Dave Neuenschwander and Bethel University head coach Seth Zartman.

Portland won 35 or more games a season throughout the 2000’s and went to the NABF World Series in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2012. A few years ago, the Rockets posted a 35-12 mark.

In 2018, an $28,000 scoreboard was installed at Runkle-Miller Field.

A 60-foot “Wall of Dreams” mural on the side of Portland’s Ritz Theatre was painted by Pamela Bliss and dedicated July 28 and many alums and Rocket backers came to celebrate.

Wearing the gold and black, fans were in Fort Wayne to see the Rockets’ latest season come to a close.

But the fun is not over yet for 2019. The annual Rocket Rally golf outing is scheduled for Sept. 22 at Portland Golf Club. For more information, email Randy Miller at ramiller15@embarqmail.com.

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Randy Miller and Mitch Waters share in the spoils of victory for the Portland (Ind.) Rockets baseball team. (Portland Rockets Photo)

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Dalton Tinsley hits for the Portland (Ind.) Rockets baseball team. (Portland Rockets Photo)

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Former players and fans gathered July 28, 2019 for the dedication of a 60-foot “Wall of Dreams” mural and celebration of 60 years of Portland (Ind.) Rockets baseball. (Portland Rockets Photo)

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Artist Pamela Bliss created the 60-foot “Wall of Dreams” mural on the side of the Ritz Theatre in Portland, Ind. On Aug. 28, 2019, there was a

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Siblings Brad Miller (left), Randy Miller and Mickey Scott stand in front of a “Wall of Dreams” mural in Portland, Ind., celebrating 60 years of Portland (Ind.) Rockets baseball. The mural behind them depicts Randy and their father, Ray Miller, who were co-managers for years.

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The story of the Portland (Ind.) Rockets baseball team and the “Wall of Dreams.” (Portland Rockets Photo)

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Runkle-Miller Field received a $28,000 scoreboard in 2018. The field is home to the Portland (Ind.) Rockets baseball team, which has been around since 1959. (Portland Rockets Photo)

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Gould finds baseball players who fit Taylor Trojans program, keeps on winning

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Put a player in position to succeed and let him do it.

It’s long been a winning formula for Taylor University baseball.

“I try to look at what they do best and figure out how that can impact the game,” says Trojans head coach Kyle Gould. “I don’t care how a guy’s good. I just want to know that they are and they can play to their strengths.”

If a player can run or is exceptional on defense, how can his speed or defensive ability impact the game?

If a pitcher throws hard or a has a mean slider, how can he use those pitches to get hitters out?

“We want to get the best players we can,” says Gould. “As a coach, it’s my job to manage the talent we have.

“If a guy can really bunt for a hit, let him bunt. If he can drive a ball to the gap, let him drive the ball to the gap.”

Over the years, the Trojans have won with dominant pitching and with a deep, talented offensive lineup.

“It’s part of what makes baseball fun,” says Gould. “You can win a lot of different ways.”

Taylor (currently 24-9 overall, 4-4 in the Crossroads League and receiving votes in the NAIA national rankings) has enjoyed sustained excellence since Gould’s first season in 2005, winning just under 60 percent of its games.

In his 14th season, Gould’s career mark is 457-266-1 with 10 campaigns of 32 or more victories. The 2016 squad went 40-18-1 and set a single-season record for wins. Early in March, he surpassed Taylor Sports Hall of Famer Larry Winterholter (444 victories) to sit atop the baseball coaching win list at the school.

Gould, a 2002 Taylor graduate, has coached seven squads to league titles and produced six CL Players of the Year. Jared Adkins, who is a junior in 2018, was the honoree in 2017.

“Everything we do here is about development,” says Gould. “We’ve had a long run of success because our guys get better every year.”

Following an individualized program, Taylor players work in the weight room and on the practice field so they can contribute to the team.

When recruiting players, Gould and his assistants look for character first.

This is in line with the NAIA Champions of Character initiative, which places emphasis on respect, responsibility, integrity, servant leadership and sportsmanship.

“You ask our players what their No. 1 job is and they’d say, ‘be a good teammate,’” says Gould. “If you’re not a high-character person, you’re not going to value other people more than yourself.

“You’re going to be a great teammate here or you’re not going to fit in and it’s not going to work.”

Taylor coaches watch how potential recruits interact with their teammates and the way they respond to success and failure.

Gould and company often seek out the familiar.

“You want to find references who know the kid and know you and can evaluate whether it is the right fit or not,” says Gould. “Taylor is a great school. Baseball isn’t the only reason our guys are picking Taylor. They want to grow their faith. They want to get a great education. We sell all of that.”

Taylor, located in the Grant County town of Upland, Ind., has had all 18 of its intercollegiate athletic teams post grade-point averages over 3.0 in each of the past five years and led all NAIA schools in 2016-17 with 17 teams boasting GPA’s over 3.30.

Players work with advisors to get morning classes in the spring, so they’re academic life is interrupted as little as possible.

“We tell our guys that baseball is what you do, it’s not who you are,” says Gould. “We want guys who are passionate about the game. But if they are not interested in an actual education, this isn’t the right fit for them.

“We want our guys to graduate and go on and do things with their lives that matter.”

About 40 percent of the Taylor student body of around 1,900 are Indiana residents.

“We try to be open to the right kids,” says Gould. “We know what we want and we know when we find it.

“Whether that’s a kid from 10 miles down the road or 10 states away, it doesn’t matter.

“We try to do what we do as well as we can. It’s worked for us. I’m proud of the success we’ve had. I’m more proud of the people we’ve had.”

Outside of southern trips and league games, Taylor plays most of its games on the artificial turf at Winterholter Field, using the lights when necessary.

The Trojans played 32 games there in 2017 — far more home contests than any other league squad and likely more than most schools in the upper Midwest.

The 2018 Trojans are currently 17-1 on their home turf and also has three road wins against teams that were in the NAIA Top 25 when the game was played — No. 10 Keiser in West Palm Beach, Fla., No. 20 Campbellsville in Campbellsville, Ky., and No. 22 Indiana Tech in Columbia, Ky. The season opened with games in Florida against Florida Memorial, Keiser and Ave Maria.

“When we travel early, we don’t travel south to play northern teams,” says Gould. “We travel south to play southern teams. It’s one of our rules.

“We want to play good teams and we want to prepare ourselves to play well in the national tournament. We’ve never made it to the (NAIA) World Series. We’re going to continue to chip away until we make it.”

Taylor’s 30-game varsity roster features players with hometowns in nine different states, including Indiana (18), Ohio (3), Florida (2), Kentucky (2), Georgia (1), Illinois (1), Iowa (1) and Texas (1). There are also 15 junior varsity players, representing Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota Ohio and Wisconsin.

Through team’s first 33 games, junior Nathan Targgart (.400), senior Tanner Watson (.370), junior Cody Tait (.321) and sophomore Andrew Kennedy (.319) were the leaders in batting average. Targgart (24), Kennedy (20), Watson (20) and junior Wyatt Whitman (19) were the pacesetters in runs batted in. Adkins (19) led the way in stolen bases, followed by Whitman (15) and junior Josh Lane (15).

With Monday’s two-hit, 4-0 shutout of visiting Bethel, senior right-hander Matt Patton moved to 8-2 with a 1.72 earned run average. He struck out 13 and walked none against the Pilots, sending his season totals to 76 K’s and three walks (one intentional) in 62 2/3 innings (11 starts).

Nine other Taylor pitchers — all right-handers — had appeared in at least eight games.

Senior Rob Fox (0-1, 1 save, 3.65 ERA) has been called upon 19 times, followed by Patton and sophomore Mitch Ubelhor (2-0, 1 save, 0.48) with 12 apiece.

Freshman Luke Shively (4-0, 1 save, 2.49), junior Clay Riggins (3-0, 1 save, 2.36), freshman Drake Gongwer (0-0, 1 save, 2.57), freshman Kole Barkhaus (0-1, 1 save, 9.19 and sophomore eight-game starter Tucker Waddups (3-3, 2.91) have all taken the mound on nine occasions.

Kennedy (1-1, 1 save, 5.40) and senior Trevor Booth (1-0, 1 save, 5.68) have each toed the rubber in eight games.

Targgart played high school baseball at Fort Wayne Blackhawk Christian. Watson (Elkhart Christian Academy), Kennedy (Northridge), Adkins (Whiteland), Patton (East Noble), Fox (Delta), Ubelhor (Avon), Riggins (Bloomington South), Gongwer (NorthWood), Barkhaus (Blackhawk Christian) and Waddups (Logansport) are also Indiana products.

Gould, who this year works with hitters and infielder, works with a coaching staff of Devin Wilburn (third season; pitching), Chad Newhard (second season; baserunners and catchers) Rick Atkinson (15th season; outfielders) and Lincoln Reed (second season). Atkinson is in both the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association and Grant County halls of fame.

Before playing at Taylor, Gould was an IHSAA Class 1A all-state catcher at Triton High School, where he graduated in 1998. His high school head coach was Jim Shively, father of current Trojan freshman Luke Shively.

“He was a really good coach and we did a lot of things offensively that were a little different at the time,” says Gould of Jim Shively. “We were really aggressive. We ran a lot. We hit for some power. We scored a lot of runs. We were difficult to defend and we won a lot of games doing it.

“He was really good at using the best athletes to maximize that.”

Shively coached Triton to a 1A state championship in 2001.

Gould is in his second year as athletic director at Taylor. Jess Fankhauser, a former softball pitching standout at Taylor, is the assistant AD.

“It’s mostly about managing time,” says Gould of juggling his administrative and coaching duties. “We have great group of people in the athletic department.

“It’s a team effort.”

Kyle and Kate Gould have a daughter — Penelope (2). On the day she was born — March 17, 2016 — Taylor won a pair of games in Indianapolis against Marian University with last at-bat home runs by Watson in Game 1 and Reed in Game 2.

“It’s a cool memory,” says Gould. “It’s also a great reminder that there is not one person that makes it all go. No one person is indespensible. The assistant coaches did a great job with the guys and they played really well.

“It’s true in all areas of life. None of us are as important as we think we are.”

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Kyle Gould, who graduated from Triton High School in 1998 and Taylor University in 2002, is in his 14th season as head baseball coach at Taylor. This spring, he surpassed Larry Winterholter for the top spot on the school’s baseball coaching win list. (Steve Krah Photo)

 

Swinson returns to high school dugout for Eastbrook Panthers

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

A man who’s been coaching since the late 1980’s has returned to a head high school baseball post after six seasons away.

Steve Swinson is now in charge at Eastbrook High School near Arcana in Grant County.

Swinson, who is both a football defensive coordinator and head wrestling coach at Northwestern High School near Kokomo as well as a supervisor for the Howard County Highway Department, served as head baseball coach at Eastern High School in Greentown from 2006-11, leaving after he wife Stacey’s son Saxon’s senior season to help coach daughter Shayden’s youth softball teams.

Saxon is now 25 and Shayden is an Eastern freshman.

Prior to his stint at Eastern, Swinson was a baseball assistant at Northwestern from 1998-2005. With Ryan Berryman (now head coach at Western High School in Russiaville) as head coach, the Tigers were IHSAA Class 2A state runners-up in ’05.

Swinson is a 1987 graduate of Kokomo High School, where he played baseball for coach Mike Smith.

“He was very competitive,” Swinson says of Smith. “He was a black-and-white coach. It was yes or no. There was no gray area. That’s how I try to coach myself. It’s either right or wrong. It’s what works for me and my system.”

After high school graduation, Swinson coached for South Side Youth Baseball based in Kokomo’s Highland Park. His 1995 team was runner-up in the 12U Bambino Baseball World Series in Abbeville, La.

Swinson is proud of his long career of leading athletes.

“Every year I coach, I feel blessed in being around the kids and building relationships with coaches,” says Swinson.

The Eastbrook Panthers have enjoyed plenty of success in football, going 37-4 the past three falls with 2A state runner-up finish in the fall of 2016 and a regional title in 2017.

“I see no reason they can’t be successful in the spring,” says Swinson, who takes over a baseball program that sent all-state catcher Andrew Lawvere to the 2017 Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association North/South All-Star Series and then on to NCAA Division I baseball at Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne and also graduated pitcher Ross DeBonis.

Returnees for the Panthers include senior third baseman/right-handed pitcher Matt Hollars, senior middle infielder Wyatt Jackson and senior left-hander/outfielder Ryan Mansbarger (who recently surpassed 1975 graduate Rick Harness to become Eastbrook’s all-time leading basketball scorer), junior first baseman/right-hander Joshua Pluimer, junior outfielder Mason Hale (a football quarterback), junior catcher Joe Hayes and sophomore shortstop/right-hander Dylan Bragg.

“We have a strong junior class,” says Swinson, who counts former Madison-Grant High School and Indiana Wesleyan University pitcher Ryne Brown and former Madison-Grant Mike Brown as well as Steven Shelby and Hoyt Young as assistant coaches. “They are really good athletes. They like baseball. They just don’t have the fundamentals yet. We are going to work fundamentals hard.”

Swinson also plans to have all his players — including the seventh and eighth graders at Eastbrook Junior High School — working a rake or an edger on the school’s diamond.

“It’s a big thing at all levels for kids to take ownership of the baseball field and make it look nice,” says Swinson. “It’s not my field, it’s their field.

“It’s about accountability and what it takes to be part of a good program.”

There has been excitement on the campus with the talk of building new baseball and softball fields along with concession stand, restrooms and fieldhouse that is located closer to the football field.

“I’m excited about the future,” says Swinson.

Besides the junior high team which offers a local alternative to travel ball, EHS baseball is fed by Van Buren and Upland youth leagues. Swinson says they may merge into single league for baseball and softball.

The Panthers last won a sectional championship in 2004 and are currently in a 2A sectional grouping with Alexandria-Monroe, Eastern (Greentown), Elwood, Madison-Grant, Taylor and Tipton.

Eastbrook belongs to the Central Indiana Conference (along with Alexandria-Monroe, Blackford, Elwood, Frankton, Madison-Grant, Mississinewa and Oak Hill).

The CIC has each team play the other once with conference games often being played on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Swinson says playing them like this means one team will likely dodge another’s No. 1 pitcher.

Speaking of pitching, 2017 marked the introduction of new IHSAA pitch count rules (1 to 35 pitches requires 0 days rest; 36 to 60 requires 1 day; 61 to 80 requires 2 days; 81 to 100 requires 3 days; and 101 to 120 requires 4 days).

“I like it,” says Swinson of the idea of limits. “I’ve seen too many kids over the years have to stop playing because they’ve been taught the wrong fundamentals.”

There’s also all the wear and tear that happens with all the throws that happen during or before the game that don’t get recorded as part of the pitch count.

“It’s for the safety of kids,” says Swinson. “As a football coach, we have the helmet-to-helmet rule. We have a set of shoulder pads. We say ‘let’s tackle the right way.’”

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Steve Swinson, a football defensive coordinator and head wrestling coach at Northwestern High School, is now also head baseball coach at Eastbrook High School.

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Steve and Stacey Swinson have two children — Saxon and Shayden. He has added head baseball coach at Eastbrook High School to a list of jobs which also includes football defensive coordinator and head wrestling coach at Northwestern High School. He has been a baseball head coach at Eastern (Greentown) High School and a baseball assistant at Northwestern.