By STEVE KRAH
When Dustin Butcher took over as head baseball coach at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, Ind., following the 2018 season, the former Cougar player and assistant coach (2008-17) had high hopes.
“Committed to make history” was the motto.
USF went 13-40 in his first season in charge (2019). The was followed by 10-11 in a campaign shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic (2020).
Then came the 2021 season and a mark of 34-22 overall (a school record for single-season victories) and a 23-13 ledger in the NAIA-affiliated Crossroads League.
“We’ve opened some eyes about Saint Francis baseball,” says Butcher, who an attendee at the 2022 American Baseball Coaches Association Convention in Chicago. “We’ve increased our talent pool a lot (from the best player on down). We’ve taken off and narrowed the gap.
“There’s competition across the board. I believe competition is vital.”
Butcher likes it when his No. 1 and No. 2 player at any given position are challenging each other at practice.
“Every rep matters,” says Butcher. “A guy doesn’t go get to a ball and the guy competing against you got that ball. You’re not in the weight room as much as you should be. The guy that’s beating you is in the weight room consistently.
“It’s fun to watch these guys compete their rear end off. We are going to put the guy out there that performs and we back up what we say.”
Butcher has also watched his players achieve as students.
“We had a GPA of 3.4 (as a team) this past semester and it’s consistently gone up,” says Butcher, who earned a psychology degree from USF and Masters in Psychology from Ball State University. “What’s crazy is that when you get smart kids you throw things at them a little bit different and can challenge them a little more about the game.”
Butcher has not only seen the talent pool gap shrink, but another facet has improved.
“We’ve increased our athleticism tenfold,” says Butcher. “Athletes just find ways. They move their body in different ways.”
Many Cougars were multi-sport athletes in high school.
“When they come to us and they’re just focusing on baseball and lifting like a baseball player their talent ceiling gets pushed higher and higher because it’s like they’re only focusing on one thing,” says Butcher. “I think that’s helped. I really do.”
In 2021, Butcher had Connor Lawhead and Kristian Gayday as assistant coaches and Dylan Farwell (a scout school graduate) as a student assistant who helps with strength and conditioning.
Lawhead has since gone Whitman College in Walla, Walla, Wash., and Tanner Gaff has taken his place on the staff.
“Coach Lawhead helped out tremendously with the culture as had KG,” says Butcher. “I trust them coaching my son (Nolan) and that’s the highest compliment you can pay any coach.”
Gaff has made the transition from a Saint Francis pitcher in 2021 to leading USF pitchers.
“I love the energy he has,” says Butcher. “He has done as well as I’ve ever seen to going from a player relationship with his buddies to now being their coach and there is no gray area.
“He is Coach Gaff. He does a great job of relating with the guys, but also having a plan like Coach Lawhead had.”
Other former Cougar players helping out including Kyle Baker with catcher, Brady Harris with infielders and Noah Freimuth with outfielders.
Butcher also credits the impact of assistant athletic trainer Lindsey Foust.
“She does a really good job in terms of flexibility, movement patterns and being effiicent,” says Foust. “It’s about keeping them healthy and getting them back on the field (after an injury) as soon as possible.”
Saint Francis — with 17 freshmen — is scheduled to open the 2022 season Feb. 4 at Bethel (Tenn.). The first game at Cougar Field is slated for March 4 against Crossroads League rival Huntington.