Tag Archives: Warsaw

Character is foundation of program for South Bend Riley’s Harris




Greg Harris learned about discipline, structure and staying on-task from an Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer and he’s incorporating those concepts and more in his coaching career.

Harris, who played for Ric Tomaszewski and graduated from South Bend Washington High School in 1992, is heading into his ninth season as head baseball coach at South Bend Riley High School in 2018.

“Coach 6 was very disciplined about how he went about his business,” says Harris of Tomazewski. “All of us understood the expectations he had for us — even from our field maintenance and making sure we did the right things in cleaning up and preparing the field.

“We go about our business and preparing the kids (at Riley) in the same way.”

A cornerstone of the Riley Wildcats program is character.

“We really look for high-character kids and great student-athletes,” says Harris. “Academics is a really big part of what we try to instill in our kids about life after high school.

“Our boys are all high achievers in the classroom and we tell them there’s always a place in college for them somewhere.”

Riley routinely carries a team grade-point average about 3.0 and has been at 3.8.

“From freshmen all the way through, the expectations are really high and the kids take that seriously and focus really hard,” says Harris. “It’s a testament to the kids and the parents.

“Grades come first. Academics are going to carry you a lot farther (than athletics).”

Riley currently has graduate Gabe Douglass on the baseball team at Grace College. Brett Carlson finished up at Purdue University a few years ago. Current Wildcats senior Zach Meert has committed to Indiana University South Bend, now led by former Riley assistant and Washington head coach Doug Buysse.

Harris and his assistant coaches — Mike Armey, Gavin Adams, Cameron Evans, Andrew Teall and Steve Fletcher — stress the importance of being good people all the time and not just on the baseball field.

“You represent South Bend; you represent Riley; you represent your family; you represent me as a coach; and we want to represent each other well,” says Harris, who is married to Sybil and has two boys — Riley sophomore baseball player Jackson Williams (16) and Gregory Harris (10). “I try to be a high-character person myself to make sure I’m representing my family, my baseball family, South Bend and my school well and those expectations stay high.”

Harris is passionate about baseball and the life lessons that can be taught through the sport.

“It helps them prepare for the world,” says Harris. “I love the relationships I’ve built with these kids.”

Adams, Evans and Teall all played for Harris at Riley and are now coaching with him.

Between the lines, Harris wants his hitters to have the ability to manufacture runs if power is not present, to make the routine defensive plays and for pitchers to throw strikes on their first delivery.

“First-pitch strike success will lead to success,” says Harris. “If we don’t throw a strike on that first pitch, the odds are a little bit different.”

Even before the IHSAA adopted 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), Riley coaches were keeping them low.

“We use a program when scoring the game that alerts me early where they’re at and we’ll begin to shut them down,” says Harris. “Mike Armey, my pitching coach, is really on top of that.

“Sixty-five pitches is a long day for us. We never try to over-use a kids arm no matter what.”

Competition among teammates means that players can’t get too comfortable with their position. Coupled with pitching moves, that means that there are many players who can play multiple places on the diamond.

Overall, it’s about the Wildcats giving it their all.

“We want to play the game the right way constantly,” says Harris. “If we put our best effort out there, we’ll take what we get with it. We’ve had some kids with quite a bit of talent and we’ve had some kids come a long way.”

All Riley players receive a defensive playbook that they must know and understand and are expecting to work toward increasing their Baseball I.Q.

“One day they may be parents and pass those lessons on just like I learned from Tomaszewski,” says Harris. “There are still things I believe in that I learned in high school.”

South Bend Community School Corporation has four IHSAA member high schools — Riley, Adams, Clay and Washington — plus Rise Up Academy. There are 10 intermediate centers (grades 5-8) and 18 primary centers (grades K-4).

With smaller freshmen classes than in recent years, overall athletic program numbers are down at Riley. The Wildcats will field a softball team for girls this spring, but did not in 2017.

Harris has 27 baseball players in 2018. Some will split time between varsity and junior varsity.

“We want to fill both and make sure the development is where it needs to be,” says Harris. “With the emergence of travel sports, the Little Leagues aren’t feeding into you the way they used to. With school of choice and magnet programs, kids go where they want.

“We’re trying to reach out in different areas to get kids interested in playing sports.”

New SBCSC athletic director Seabe Gavin and Riley AD Dan Kyle is encouraging high school varsity coaches to meet with intermediate school coaches and it’s likely the primary schools will also be contacted.

“We’re still trying to tap into the Little Leagues and see what they have,” says Harris, who counts South Side and South Bend South East as feeder parks for Riley. “We’re always trying have a place for kids to play baseball.”

While Little League participation is down, travel ball is up.

In the summer, Harris has coached travel baseball with the Michiana Scrappers. This year, he will coach the 16U squad for the Michiana Repetition. The program is directed by new South Bend Washington High School head baseball coach and Riley graduate Marcus LaSane.

Players are encouraged to find some kind of team.

“They need to keep playing ball,” says Harris.

Lessons are offered by Harris at Teddy Ballgames training facility in South Bend.

Harris, who is a product engineer at Dec-O-Art in Elkhart, began coaching baseball at South Bend South Side Little League and then migrated to assistant positions at Riley before following Dave Luczkowski as head coach.

The Wildcats play on-campus at Bob Rush Field. Through fundraising, baseball has found ways to upgrade dugouts and purchase new wind screens while maintaining mounds and playing surfaces.

Harris says getting a new warning track is a goal. A  big-ticket item on the wish list is a press box and lights are dream.

Riley belongs to the Northern Indiana Conference along with Bremen, Elkhart Central, Jimtown, John Glenn, Mishawaka, Mishawaka Marian, New Prairie, Penn, South Bend Adams, South Bend Clay, South Bend St. Joseph and South Bend Washington. The NIC produced an IHSAA Class 3A state champion (St. Joseph) and a 4A state runner-up (Penn) in 2017.

“You can’t take a day off (in the NIC),” says Harris.

Non-conference opponents on the Wildcats schedule include Concord, Elkhart Memorial, Kokomo, LaVille, Michigan City, Plymouth, Triton and Warsaw.

Riley is in a 4A sectional group with Adams, Clay, LaPorte, Michigan City, Mishawaka and Plymouth.

“We may take our lumps early,” says Harris. “We want to be better than ‘South Bend good’ and make a run in the tournament.”


Greg Harris is entering his ninth season as head baseball coach at South Bend Riley High School in 2018. (Steve Krah Photo)



Rost emphasizes respect, routines as he leads Elkhart Memorial Crimson Chargers baseball




Baseball coaches often talk about “playing the game the right way.”

The concept means different things to different coaches.

Scott Rost, who is going into his 16th season as head baseball coach of the Elkhart Memorial High School Crimson Chargers in 2018, emphasizes the importance of hustle, respect and routines that help with the mental approach.

“As coaches we get caught up with a lot of the mechanical things in the game — all the ins and outs of being a good hitter and a good pitcher etc.,” says Rost. “Sometimes we forget about how important it is to sprint on and off the field and play the game the way it is supposed to be played. Don’t show up umpires. Don’t show up your opponent. Those are things we’ve always tried to preach.”

Not only might there be a college scout in the stands, the way a player acts reflects not only on themselves but others.

“You represent yourself (and family),” says Rost. “You represent the school (and community).”

Rost, who graduated from Concord High School in 1989 and Manchester College (now known as Manchester University) in 1993 and holds a master’s degree from Indiana University, learned many lessons as a player for then-Concord head coach Larry “Jake” Jackowiak and assistant Mike Stout (who went on to be head coach at Jimtown High School for 25 seasons) and later as Jackowiak’s varsity assistant.

“They were just good guys and good baseball guys. I have a lot of good memories of playing at Concord,” says Rost. “I learned a lot about discipline and how to play the game the right way. That means hustling on and off the field.

“They taught us how to deal with adversity and the importance of reacting correctly to negative things that happen in the game.”

Rost reminds his players how baseball is a game of failure and how to best deal with that disappointment.

“In baseball, that’s a huge part of being successful,” says Rost. “You’re going to have a lot of times when things don’t go your way.

“You boot a ball, what do you do to get your mind right to go to the next pitch and make the play?”

When Rost was a player, he was a fiery competitor who got upset when thing went wrong for him on the field and saw some others do the same.

“It’s human nature with a lot of kids to slam the glove or toss the helmet,” says Rost. “Things like that, (Jackowiak and Stout) just didn’t allow and made us understand that you’ve got to find other ways to deal with that than to show your frustrations outwardly.”

Rost can recall two examples in summer ball where Jackowiak got his message across.

In one heated game, there was a play at the plate with Rost as the runner. He did not appreciate the tag to his head and got in the catcher’s face.

“Larry said, ‘it’s time for you to sit down,’” says Rost. “Some of it was respecting the game and some of it was keeping your cool and staying mentally sharp.

“There’s a difference in playing with intensity and getting out of control.”

In another contest, Concord was playing well and ahead by about eight runs when Rost decided to steal third base.

Jake gave him one of those looks and said, “don’t ever do that again.”

It’s about respecting the game and playing it “the right way.”

Over the years, Rost has presented his players with mental skills tools they can use to help them in various diamond situations.

“We talk a lot about breathing,” says Rost. “I’m always talking to them about routines.”

Posted in the Memorial dugout are the routines to be followed by each batter up to the fourth hitter in an inning. The Crimson Chargers are not penalized for not sticking to the script, but this is something that can help them.

“In this game, if you’re not mentally tough and have routines and a way to flush things, you’re not going to be very successful,” says Rost. “There’s going to come an end of the road for you at some point in time regardless of how talented you are.”

Rost has also introduced visualization and getting players to see themselves succeed before it actually happens.

“We don’t try to force it down their throat,” says Rost. “We provide it as a tool for them. Every player is a little bit different. Some guys really grab hold of that and really benefit.”

Rost, who applies some of the theories put forward by sports psychologists Dr. Tom Hanson and Dr. Ken Ravizza in their Heads Up Baseball books and in seminars, podcasts and videos, says there is not of lot of difference between players in minor league baseball in terms of physical tools. In many cases, the ones who end up being big leaguers are the ones who can handle the mental side of the game and use routines.

This applies at the high school level.

“If you have the same routine, there’s only minor adjustments that need to be made,” says Rost. “If kids get into situations where they’re not comfortable and don’t have a routine to fall back on, they have a tendency to get nervous, hurry things and make mistakes they normally wouldn’t make.”

Ravizza is famous for saying that players must learn to perform even when they are not at their peak.

“Every day you step on the field, you’re not going to have your ‘A’ game,” says Rost. “Very seldom are you going to feel like a million dollars and the best in the world. It’s just not reality.”

The best players figure out how to be successful with what you have that day.

Rost has saved notes from Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famers Dick Siler and Jim Reinebold commending Rost on the way his teams played the game.

“For me, that kind of stuff means a lot,” says Rost. “I can see we’re doing things the right way here.”

Siler was Memorial’s head coach in the first 25 years of the program. He is in his 21st season as an assistant at Bethel College in Mishawaka and his 61st year in coaching.

Reinebold, who died in 2017, coached 35 high school seasons and went into professional baseball as a manager, coach and scout. He established the Jim Reinebold Fall Baseball Camp in 1993.

Rost is assisted at the varsity level by Brian Blondell, Bruce Baer and Troy Carson. Brent Curry and Jay Bashore lead the junior varsity.

Blondell is a former head coach and assistant at both the college and high school levels and founder of the Michiana Scrappers travel ball organization.

Baer was head girls track coach at Memorial for years and has assisted in other sports and coached for the Scrappers.

Carson was a head high school baseball coach at Howe Military and Northridge  and assisted in football and basketball.

Curry was on the baseball staff at Concord.

“I feel blessed with the staff I have,” says Rost. “I have a lot of head coaching experience. I have some very good teachers and very knowledgable baseball guys.”

In the recent parents meeting, Rost spelled out expectations.

“We told them that we’re going to do everything we can to make the guys we have in our program as good as they can be on the baseball field and make them better people,” says Rost. “Everyone is going to have different views on playing time, lineups and all that kind of stuff. If we have a good rapport between our coaches — especially me — and our kids then the kids have a tendency to understand things a little bit more and take things a little bit better. Then, when they go home, the parents have a tendency to understand things a little bit better.

“We’re going to be honest with your kids. We’ll be honest with you. Communication is the key.”

Rost wants parents to know that if they have an issue or a problem, he has an open door and they can talk to him.

“There not always going to like the answer,” says Rost. “But I’m going to tell them the truth. For the most part, people respect that.”

Memorial belongs to the Northern Lakes Conference (along with Concord, Goshen, Northridge, NorthWood, Plymouth, Warsaw and Wawasse). There are 14 conference games.

Beginning with former Memorial athletic director Frank Kurth, Rost says he appreciates the flexibility he has had in his schedule over the years, depending on the program’s needs.

Non-conference opponents on the 2018 schedule include Bremen, Culver Military Academy, Edwardsburg (Mich.), Elkhart CentralJimtown, Mishawaka, Mishawaka Marian, New Prairie, Penn, Portage, South Bend Riley and Valparaiso. The Crimson Chargers are also in the Doc Mueller Classic at LaPorte.

“We jumped on the opportunity to play at LaPorte,” says Rost. “That’s where the regional has been played for a long time.”

Memorial is in an IHSAA Class 4A sectional group with Concord, Elkhart Central, Goshen, Penn and Warsaw.

Memorial generally go to games with 12 to 16 players. It depends upon factors like the number of pitcher-only players and who can play multiple positions.

If it will benefit the program and that player, juniors may be sent down to the JV to get playing playing time.

“Our philosophy is basically if any freshman or sophomore is up on the varsity level, they should be playing the majority of the time,” says Rost. “If not, they should be with the JV getting their reps.

“It can be hard for JV coaches to have kids coming and going. But I equate it to Triple-A and the major leagues. If a guy is really tearing it up (on the JV) or there is a need (on the varsity).”

Rost looks at his 2018 stable of Chargers and sees 11 juniors and seniors and up to seven sophomores and freshman who could contribute.

“There are certain years when we felt like we had a set varsity group and a set JV group,” says Rost. “For us this year, that’s not the case. We have some kids who are probably going to float back and forth. We’re going to see how things go.”

While current Memorial players are pondering college baseball opportunities, recent graduates Scottie Clark and Cameron Maxwell are on the team at Grace College and Justin Walter is in the mix at Purdue University Northwest.

Ryan Strausborger, a 2006 Memorial graduate, played in the Minnesota Twins organization in 2017.

Scott’s wife, Jacquie Rost, is Memorial’s athletic director and a longtime successful volleyball coach. The couple have two sons who play baseball — Dylan (15) is a EMHS freshman and Quinn (11) is a fifth grader. Both play for the Scrappers and Scott helps with coaching.

Rost has had players participate with many travel organizations, including the Indiana Chargers, Elkhart Titans, Indiana Land Sharks and Granger Cubs.

Before taking his current position, Rost was head softball coach at Memorial for four seasons. He has also served one season each as a baseball assistant to Brian Griman at Memorial and Steve Stutsman at Elkhart Central, coached football at various levels, including freshmen at Memorial the past few falls, and coached softball at Norwood High School in Cincinnati.

Rost made the team at Manchester and played in the fall of his freshman year then decided to stop playing.

“I don’t regret too many things in my life,” says Rost. “But that’s something I regret a little bit. I wish I would have done that for the experience. Obviously, I love the game.

“I started coaching in the summer, developed a love for it and it took off from there.”

Rost and friend Phil Eddy coached together at Concord Little League. Scott’s younger brother Nic was on his team a couple seasons and was later a Concord freshman with Scott on Jackowiak’s coaching staff.

Jackowiak turned over his summer program to Rost.

“High school baseball in the summer was still a big thing,” says Rost. “A lot of the schools played 20 or 25 games.

“That was a great experience for me. I learned a lot because a lot of times I was the only one there.”

With a merger of Memorial and Central into Elkhart High School scheduled for the fall of 2020, Rost is not sure about the baseball future.

But he knows about the past and present.

“I’ve enjoyed it here,” says Rost. “I’ve had a lot of support. The parents have been great. We’ve had some great kids. They do some amazing things when they leave here.

“That’s the stuff that means a lot to me.”


Scott Rost is going into his 16th season as head baseball coach of the Elkhart Memorial High School  in 2018. (Steve Krah Photo)


Keister has Goshen RedHawks playing baseball with a purpose




Josh Keister is entering his fifth season as head baseball coach at his alma mater — Goshen High School.

The 2000 GHS graduate has led the program to more victories in each season. The 2017 RedHawks went 21-9 overall and 9-5 in the Northern Lakes Conference.

Keister credits the success to a culture that insists players be engaged and intense and understand the thought process behind things.

“We want you to understand what you’re doing and why,” says Keister. “When guys engage and understand it, they are more likely to get it right and get it right for the right reasons as they encounter it again.

“It’s amazing to see the results you get from approaching things that way.”

Keister and his coaching staff want players to have positive energy.

“We look at things that take no talent — attitude, energy and hustle — and evaluate how we are with those before we do anything situational or mechanical,” says Keister.

The Elkhart County Sports Hall of Famer who earned eight varsity letters at GHS in soccer, basketball and baseball while receiving team MVP honors in each, says high school athletes don’t necessarily know all the different ways to play hard.

With that in mind, Goshen players must always run hard through first base every time; run hard all the way to second base on a fly ball to the outfield; sprint to the deepest part of their defensive position; have their stuff and be ready to get out of the dugout at the end of an inning; once the third out is made on defense, every player is to be across the foul line within eight seconds.

“The reason we do that is to maintain momentum or get it back when we don’t have it,” says Keister.

Goshen varsity assistant coaches are Clay Norris, Aaron Keister, Chad Collins and Tracy Farmwald. All have been with the program since Josh Keister took over and Farmwald was on GHS staffs before that.

Second-year assistant J.J. DuBois and first-year assistant Troy Pickard are coaching Goshen’s junior varsity.

“We are very fortunate to have an excellent staff,” says Josh Keister. “Continuity has been a key to our success. We have grown and gotten better together.”

GHS will field two teams in 2018 — varsity and JV.

Staff and players have worked hard to improve the playing surface at Phend Field, which turns 50 this spring.

RedHawks coaches want players to have a purpose and focus. That includes a great game of catch.

“We want you to hit a target every time you throw the baseball,” says Keister. “It’s not just pitchers. You should sell out to catch it. Not every throw is going to be a great throw and it’s not all on the thrower. Treat every throw as if the game-winning run is on third base and you can’t let it get past you.

“There’s so much cool stuff in baseball with all the analytics, it’s easy to lose sight of those easy, basic things. You do those things and it leads to success with everything else.”

Keister was a left-handed hitter who excelled in both high school and at Goshen College and later was head coach of the Maple Leafs (2006-10; 68-196).

In 2000, he hit .432 with just three strikeouts in 105 plate appearances and socked a walk-off home run to win the Elkhart Sectional.

At GC, Keister was a two-time all-Mid-Central Conference (now Crossroads League) selection and an honorable mention All-American. He established single-season records in batting average (.479), hits (65), runs batted in (50) and runs scored (42) and career marks for average (.412), runs (133) and doubles (44) and most of these GC marks still stand.

GHS coaches are very individualized in how they instruct hitters.

“We want them to all know their strengths and weaknesses and the role they need to excel at for us to be successful as a team,” says Keister. “What are you trying to do up there? We’re doing everything with a purpose.”

Much work has been put into players knowing their roles. One example from 2017 was Trenton Scott, who was often asked to be a pinch-hitter.

“We let him know how hard it is to mentally prepare yourself (for that role),” says Keister. “Against East Noble, he saw one pitch and hit a home run that helped us win the game.

“Everybody on our roster knew what their role was, knew it was important and embraced it. This led to an engaged dugout and team all year. Prior to last year, I took that for granted as a coach. I’m understanding the importance of that more and more.”

Keister says all the coaches he had in his prep and college days have helped him in some way. He played his first three GHS baseball seasons for Brian Eldridge (1989-99; 181-168-3) and the last for Matt Chupp (2000-05; 89-84). One of Chupp’s assistants was DeVon Hoffman (head coach at GHS 1972-87; 310-213; head coach at GC 1988-98; 189-215-1).

Keister’s college coach was Brent Hoober. Keister and Hoober now work for Yoder Insurance. Keister is a business risk advisor.

Feeding the GHS baseball program are Goshen Little League and various travel organizations, including the Indiana Chargers and Elkhart Titans.

“We encourage our kids to play somewhere (in the summer),” says Keister. “We don’t have anything here at Goshen High School. Our focus in the off-season is individual skill development. Once the season starts, we get into the team aspect of things.”

Besides Goshen, the Northern Lakes Conference includes Concord, Elkhart Memorial, Northridge, NorthWood, Plymouth, Warsaw and Wawasee. Teams play a 14-game double round robin schedule with games on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays until the last week.

“I like it like that,” says Keister. “That’s the way it was when I played. I like the idea of seeing a team early and late (instead of twice in the same week as some conferences do).”

Goshen has reigned as NLC champions four times (1986, 1987, 1988, 1998).

The RedHawks (Goshen teams were known as the Redskins from 1922 to 2015) are grouped at IHSAA Class 4A sectional time with Concord, Elkhart Central, Elkhart Memorial, Northridge, Penn and Warsaw.

Goshen has won 17 sectionals (1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1974, 1976, 1981, 1986, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2008) and two regionals (1969, 1981).

Coach Ken Mirer, who led the program 1966-71, had a career 14-0 record in sectional games with five sectional titles.

With a minimum of 120 at-bats, 1988 graduate Steve Cripe (.397) ranks No. 1 in career batting. Tied for second at .392 at 1989 graduate Rick Mirer and 2007 graduate Heath Taylor. The next two spots belong to 2006 graduate Jon Rolon (.391) and the Class of 2000’s Josh Keister (.383).

With 34, 1980 graduate Ed Swoveland tops the career pitching victory list.

Goshen graduates currently with college teams are Deric Haynes and Michael Pinarski at Manchester University. Current GHS seniors with college baseball commitments are Joey Peebles and Philip Wertz at Grace College and  Tyler Colpitts at Manchester.


Josh Keister, a 2000 Goshen High School graduate, is in his fifth season as head baseball coach at his alma mater in 2018. The 2017 RedHawks went 21-9.

Process among points of emphasis for Brabender, Northridge Raiders baseball




Seeing the value in the process, staying with trends and building relationships.

That’s what baseball coaching is all about for Andrew Brabender, who enters his 11th season in charge at Northridge High School in 2018.

“I believe in the little things, the process of things,” says Brabender. “It’s getting kids to buy into doing the things that need to happen for the end result to happen. We’re not not looking toward the end result, but the little wins that happen throughout the process to get us to the end.

“I believe in staying current. It’s a great time to coach baseball. At the tips of your fingers you have Twitter, YouTube videos, apps and other gadgets.

“The guys on my staff are eager to learn and they really want to be current. What is the best stuff out there? What are the elite hitters doing? What are the elite throwers doing? What are the elite infielders doing and how do we make our kids do that?”

One way Brabender and his assistants — James Greensides, Dyrk Miller, Mike Miller, Blake Fry and Arick Doberenz — get players to focus on the path itself and not its end is the Raider Process Index, a system modified from Justin Dehmer and his 1 Pitch Warrior teachings.

“If we do this, this and this, the end result is going to take care of itself,” says Brabender, who has helped the Raiders to an IHSAA Class 4A Elkhart Sectional championship (2015) and numerous conference titles.

The first section in the Raider Process Index is the Freebie War, which counts Northridge totals vs. opponents for errors, walks, hit-by-pitch, catcher’s interference, strikeouts, stolen bases and dead-ball reads.

The second section is Pressure (or Press). Point totals are given for:

• Producing a big inning (10 points).

• Rally scored. If Yes (2 points each time).

• Eliminated rally scores. If Yes (2 points each time).

• Scored first. If Yes (10 points).

• Scored with two outs. If Yes (5 points).

The game goal is 30 points.

The third section is Quality At-Bats. QAB points can be given for a hard-hit ball (fly ball), freebie (walk, hit-by-pitch, error, catcher’s interference), moving a runner with no outs, a base hit or extra base hit, a six-pitch at-bat not ending in a strikeout and an nine-pitch at-bat even ending in a strikeout.

The overall RPI target is 48 points.

“We want to put pressure on the other team,” says Brabender. “We want to score first. We always want to have a shutdown inning after a big inning.

“This Raider Process Index is way for our kids to stay with the process. If we do that, the winning will take care of itself.”

Brabender regularly posts the RPI and QAB in the dugout.

“We don’t show our kids batting average,” says Brabender. “We just show them Quality At-Bats.

“They may have went 0-for-3 hitting, but went 2-for-3 in Quality At-Bats. That’s a good day. We’ve got lots of things in place for kids to value the process. You can’t just say it. You have to have things that will show them that we all value the process.”

For years, the Raiders have employed the mental training methods of sports psychologist Brian Cain.

The past five years, all Northridge players have been on a Driveline weighted ball throwing program.

Brabender says there are many benefits but the top ones are that is that it force feeds good arm action as well as arm development and the ability to throw with intent.

This year marks the second year that the Raiders are using a weighted Axe Bat regimen and the first year they’re really “diving into head-first, full speed ahead.”

The Axe Bat features overloaded and underloaded bats, which teaches intent and body positioning.

“With every kid in our program, exit velocity is up from the first time that we tested,” says Brabender, who has seen gains in hitting and throwing.

Exit velocity is measured with radar guns and with Blast Vision motion capture technology, which keeps track of all the post-contact metrics (things like launch angle, exit velocity and the distance the ball traveled). Blast Motion is used for pre-contact measurements.

Brabender has employed Blast Motion for three years and this is his first using Blast Vision.

Video analysis is also done with a RightView Pro app.

The Raiders boss was not talking about Launch Angle a decade ago.

“Now that’s all we talk about,” says Brabender, who had his youth campers hit on an upward plane. They were competing Saturday to get as many balls above a line on the curtain in the NHS fieldhouse. Below that line of 20 degrees or so was a groundout. Too far above it was a fly ball out.

“That’s what we call result-oriented training,” says Brabender. “That’s straight from (former Miami Marlins, Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs and current Philadelphia Phillies hitting coach) John Mallee. He does a ton of that.

“It forces kids to put their bodies in the right position to make something happen. If it’s not happening, they’re not doing it correctly.”

Northridge (enrollment around 1,400) belongs to the Northern Lakes Conference (along with Concord, Elkhart Memorial, Goshen, NorthWood, Plymouth, Warsaw and Wawasee). It is a double-round robin 14-game slate. Except for the final week of the NLC season, conference games will be played on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

The Raiders are grouped at 4A sectional time with Concord, Elkhart Central, Elkhart Memorial, Goshen, Penn and Warsaw.

What about the pitch count rule (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)?

“We’ve always believed in it,” says Brabender. “One of the things that’s always made our program strong is the amount of depth we’ve created in our pitching. Most of the kids in our program are going to pitch.

“I don’t think you can have enough arms at this level. In my 11 years, we’ve only had a handful of kids go over 100 pitches.

“Unless you’ve got someone with plus velocity — I’m talking 85 mph plus — you’re just asking for trouble. Getting a new guy in there just gives (the opponent) a different look anyway.”

Andrew’s father talked about the “24-hour rule.” A pitcher’s rest would go an hour by number of pitches thrown. That makes 24 hours if he throws 24 pitches and so on.

It comes down to the welfare of the player.

“It’s important that if kids want to play at the collegiate level, they’re healthy enough to do that,” says Brabender

Former Northridge players currently on college rosters include Shannon Baker and Brock Logan at Fort Wayne, Sam Troyer at Evansville, Matt Miller and Andy Ross at Indiana University South Bend and Andrew Kennedy at Taylor.

So far, current Raiders seniors Cody Bible (Indiana University Kokomo) and Dylan Trick (Spring Arbor University) have made college commitments.

Many Northridge players are part of travel baseball organizations like the Indiana Chargers, Michiana Scrappers and Middlebury Mavericks. Brabender and company also conduct coach clinic and player camps for Middlebury Little League.

Andrew is the son of Tom and Dorothy Brabender. Tom, who died in 2015, played football at Western Illinois University for Lou Saban and was a baseball coach in central Illinois for 40-plus years.

“The biggest thing from my dad was the way he related to his players,” says Andrew. “For them to follow what you want to accomplish, there has to be some likability.”

Brabender sees it as his duty to figure out a way to relate to each athlete in some way. He saw his father do it. Tom Brabender coached American Legion baseball into his late 60’s and was still relating with teenage players.

“That’s not easy,” says Andrew. “I hope I’m doing that here. I feel like I am. I want them to value the relationship with me more than baseball and for them to know that I’ve always got their back no matter what.

“It’s not about me. It’s about the kids.”

Before becoming head coach at Northridge, Brabender served one season as an assistant to Troy Carson — a man he also coached with in the Raiders football program.

Before Northrdge, Brabender spent three seasons as a baseball assistant to Steve Stutsman at Elkhart Central High School.

Prior coming to Elkhart County, Brabender followed his last two seasons as a baseball player at Hannibal-LaGrange College in Missouri with two seasons on the Trojans coaching staff.

His coach and then his boss was Scott Ashton, who brought Brabender to the NAIA school after he played two seasons of junior college ball at Lake Land College in Mattoon, Ill., following his graduation in 1996 from St. Teresa High School in Decatur, Ill.

“He was a huge influence in my life — spiritually, baseball-wise,” says Brabender of Ashton, who is now Mid-Missouri director for Fellowship of Christian Athletes and team chaplain for University of Missouri baseball, football and softball. “He taught me how to be a man We’re still close. We talk as much as we can.

“He’s a mentor me not just with baseball but my walk with the Lord.”

Ashton came along at a rough time in Brabender’s life.

In 1998, Andrew was playing in a wood bat tournament in Evansville and his parents and girlfriend (later wife) Marcie were there to watch. When they got home, they learned that Jason Brabender — Andrew’s brother — had been killed in a car accident.

“It was devastating,” says Andrew. “It was a crossroads in a lot of different avenues in our lives.”

Marcie, who Andrew met at Lake Land, had committed to play basketball at the University of Southern Mississippi. Hannibal-LaGrange was one of the few schools that was recruiting both Andrew and Marcie.

“We just took that leap and that’s where we ended up,” says Brabender. “It worked out great. I met some dear lifelong friends there. Marcie was part of the national tournament team in 2000. Two of my buddies from Lake Land ended up transferring there. It was cool.”

Andrew and Marcie married in the summer of 2000. They have four children — Emma (16), Beau (12), Kate (8) and Luke (6). Andrew grew up with an older sister, Mindy, and months ago found out he has another sibling named Lisa.

During the school day, Brabender teaches physical education for Grades K-5 at two Middlebury Community Schools buildings — Jefferson Elementary and Heritage Intermediate.


Andrew Brabender is entering his his 11th season as head baseball at Northridge High School in 2018. (Steve Krah Photo)


Pirates approach attracts Hickerson back to coaching




Baseball is about pitching, hitting and fielding.

But it goes deeper than that for Bryan Hickerson.

When Hickerson finished his last assignment in an 18-year stint in baseball-related ministry, he went looking for a job in professional or college baseball.

Through his work with Unlimited Potential Inc. — based in Winona Lake, Ind. — Hickerson had gotten to know folks in the Pirates organization through former Personal Development Coordinator Anthony Telford and spent as much time as he could the Bucs at various levels.

Hickerson, a former University of Minnesota left-hander who pitched for nine pro seasons and went 21-21 with the San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs and Colorado Rockies from 1991-95, and moved to the Warsaw area in 2001 to begin his work with UPI, helped coach during the 2015 season at Winona Lake-based Grace College.

He last coached professionals in 1997 with Bakersfield and 1998 with San Jose in the Giants system.

“There are more analytics now then when I coached then,” says Hickerson, 54. “But the biggest difference is in me and not the game itself. In my perspective, it’s about people and developing trust and relationships with the people you work with. The Pirates are big on that. That’s what attracted me to the organization.

“Baseball is baseball. Who you get to do it with makes all the difference.”

Hickerson served the Pirates in 2017 as the pitching coach with the Double-A Eastern League champion Altoona (Pa.) Curve.

After the EL season, he spent time with players in the Florida Instructional League and Arizona Fall League. Three pitchers who were with Altoona — Mitch Keller, Brandon Waddell and J.T. Brubaker — were sent to the AFL’s Glendale Desert Dogs.

“I went there to touch base,” says Hickerson. “I went to see how they were doing mentally (after a season which began with spring training in Bradenton, Fla., in February) and to see if they were growing or just going through the motions.”

The Pirates’ purpose statement — Changing the world through baseball — appeals to Hickerson.

“It’s a process of developing men — the staff and the players,” says Hickerson. “We invest all this time. Are they going to be difference makers?”

That goes for those on a path toward the big leagues and those that will fall short — which is the vast majority.

“It’s not just about developing a baseball player,” says Hickerson. “It’s the heart, mind, soul and body. It’s refreshing to see in professional athletics.”

Players in the Pirates system are asked to take stock of themselves.

“We make them understand who they are,” says Hickerson. “We get them to answer the question: ‘Why do you play professional baseball?’ The answer is what motivates you day in and day out.

“We peel back the layers until they come to grips with why they’re there.”

For some it might be about being rich and famous. For others, the goal may be very different. Players fill out a comprehensive “blueprint.” The plan is likely to change as the player grows and matures.

“You have to commit to a process of growth and understand your strengths and weaknesses,” says Hickerson.

It is the duty of coaches to help players through the process toward reaching their maximum potential while also buying into the team culture. The latter is not always easy in a game where individual statistics are valued so highly.

“It’s easy for a player to care about their own stats and not the team,” says Hickerson. “We want them to care about the whole.

“Once sports becomes a business how do you compel men to pull together and do something special?”

Double-A baseball is unique.

By that point, many players have achieved a high level of on-field skill. While the 30 Major League Baseball organizations have multiple rookie level and Class-A teams, there is just one Double-A team for each. That means it is very competitive.

“Competing in baseball is non-stop,” says Hickerson. In each organization, there are 150 players competing for 25 big league jobs. The Indianapolis Indians are the Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate.

Even though the competition can be cut throat, it does no good to root for a teammates’ downfall.

“You still have to get better,” says Hickerson. “Hoping for someone else fails never makes you a better baseball player.”

By the time they reach Double-A, many players have wives or are engaged.

“We don’t disregard that,” says Hickerson. “We help them in that area. I could have the attitude that as long as you can compete on the field, I don’t care what your life is like. I don’t think that ever builds a team.”

It’s the idea of “people and process over program and product.”

This kind of people-first approach will only work if all adhere to it.

“I have to be all-in,” says Hickerson. “(Players) know if I’m just giving lip service. You have to get to know the person. What kind of man is he? That takes time.”

Hickerson expects to find out where the Pirates will send him 2018 sometime in December and then will start getting ready for spring training.

A native of Bemidji, Minn., Hickerson was drafted in the seventh round of the 1986 MLB First-Year Player Draft out of the University of Minnesota.

After his first full season (1987), he hurt his arm while lifting weights and underwent Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery and missed the entire 1988 campaign.

“I went from the prospect to a suspect real fast,” says Hickerson.

While at Minnesota, he met future wife Jo (a member of the Gophers track and field program). With her support, he and “shear stubborness” he kept working and got back on the field.

“I was not willing to give up when things got tough,” says Hickerson. “It seemed like it was a really, really long shot for me to make it at all.”

He stuck with it, made his MLB debut with San Francisco in the miiddle of the 1991 season and played for as long as he could.

Bryan and Jo have four children — Emily, Joey, Claire and Tommy. The youngest is a college sophomore. Essentially empty nesters, this gave him a push to re-join the world of baseball coaching.

And he is enjoying it — one relationship at a time.


Bryan Hickerson (left) and wife Jo share a moment during a break in his duties as a minor league coach with the Pittsburgh Pirates. After 18 years in ministry with Unlimited Potential Inc., former big leaguer Hickerson went back into coaching with the Pirates because he likes their relationship-based approach.


Bryan and Jo Hickerson on the field at an Altoona (Pa.) Curve game. Bryan served as pitching coach with the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Double-A affiliate in 2017.


Plymouth’s Wolfe looks for players who are competitive, confident, comfortable




Ryan Wolfe was fiery as a player. He got hot at the beginning of his coaching career.

The flame still flickers to the surface on occasion.

But the Plymouth High School head baseball coach has learned to control the flames a bit with time and experience.

Wolfe graduated from Hamilton High School in northeast Indiana in 2001. He was a four-year varsity player for the Marines, which won the IHSAA Class 1A Bethany Christian Sectional in 2000. He was an Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association all-star as senior.

Jim Sanxter was the coach.

A pitcher, Wolfe went on to Manchester College (now Manchester University) and played three seasons for Rick Espeset. The Spartans placed seventh in the 2004 NCAA Division III World Series.

“They had two totally different styles of coaching and both were effective,” says Wolfe of Sanxter and Espeset. “(Sanxter) had a huge influence on me. He was tough. He definitely didn’t go for excuses. He would challenge you and push you and he was very sincere. The more I coach, the more I understand some of the things he did.”

Wolfe came to see in Sanxter a passion and purpose for coaching. Not a teacher, the it was a selflessness that drove the man who coached 30 years, including 18 with Hamilton baseball and passed away in 2014.

“It was how he said things, when he said things and how he reacted to things,” says Wolfe. “I’m humbled to realize I learned from somebody like that.”

A calm demeanor is what Wolfe saw when he observed Espeset, who has led the Manchester program since the 1997 season.

“He had a way of staying even-keeled,” says Wolfe. “I never saw Coach Espeset really get upset.

“You knew he meant business, but he didn’t say it in a brash way. It’s not always what you say, but how you say it.”

Espeset helped his players understand the intricacies of the game and also gave them freedom.

“He let us learn from failure,” says Wolfe. “That’s what I try to do here. We’re not going to win every ball game.”

Wolfe’s post-game remarks after a Pilgrims loss is very minimal. He doesn’t want to harp on the negative.

“We want to get the kids to understand that baseball is much bigger than wins and losses,” says Wolfe, whose first season at Plymouth was 2013 (he was an assistant to Brian Hooker at Rochester High School in 2012 and head coach at West Central High School 2006-11). “We want competitors.”

Even Pilgrims practices — which generally include all 35 to 40 players in the program — have a competitive component. Players must earn a chance to take batting practice on Bill Nixon Field.

“It’s been phenomenal,” says Wolfe, who began combining squads for practice in 2015. “It brings a sense of unity. Our whole purpose is the same — to develop great young men through the game of baseball.”

Practices are broken into stations and one is devoted to work on routines. That’s how important it is to the Pilgrims.

Taking the teaches of mental conditioning and sports psychology expert Brian Cain, Wolfe and his assistant coaches (Brent Corbett, Kevin Garrity, Brian Schuler and Mitch Bowers) tell the players to “get back to green.”

There are green dots on the bats — a visual device that helps them relax and focus.

“We talk about breathing a lot and keeping our heart rate down,” says Wolfe. “We’re constantly talking about confidence.

“We want them to know their routine because a routine breeds confidence because it makes you comfortable.”

While his assistants hone in on hitting, pitching and fielding skills, Wolfe sees his role to develop his players’ mental sides.

“It’s an aspect of the game that’s left out,” says Wolfe. “We take time out of our day and do that.”

“It’s taken awhile for our kids to understand it’s a part of baseball. They’re high school kids. They don’t know how to handle failure. Are we perfect at it? No way.”

Wolfe and his staff are not trying to cram every player into the same mold.

“We are not cookie cutter,” says Wolfe. “We don’t have every kid hit the same or pitch the same. It’s about learning who you are as a player and what works for you.

“We’re trying to get the kids to take ownership.”

Like many coaches, Wolfe has taken concepts he has learned at clinics and American Baseball Coaches Association conventions and adopted them to the needs of his program.

Justin Dehmer has won multiple state titles in Iowa and has shared his knowledge through his line of 1 Pitch Warrior materials. Plymouth tracks B.A.S.E.2 (Big Inning, Answer Back, Score First, Extend the Lead, Score with 2 Outs, Quality At-Bat System). Wolfe knows that doing three of the five things on the chart often leads to victory.

The Pilgrims are looking for a K.O. — knocking the starting pitcher out by the fourth inning.

Other incentives are the Hit Stick (one each for varsity and junior varsity) and MVP jersey, which players can earn from game to game following a victory. Get the jersey the most times during the season — as voted on by the team — and that player is the season MVP.

“We’ve got to win to get anything,” says Wofle. “There’s nothing if we lose.”

Wolfe and his staff have crunched the numbers and witness enough success to be believers in their methods.

“This stuff does work,” says Wolfe.

Plymouth plays a double round robin in the Northern Lakes Conference (which also includes Concord, Elkhart Memorial, Goshen, Northridge, NorthWood, Warsaw and Wawasee) with games played Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

NorthWood went 14-0 in 2017, taking a pair of 1-0 wins against the Pilgrims. The game at Plymouth pitted NWHS senior Drake Gongwer against PHS sophomore Cam Dennie and was a classic.

“That’s one of the best high school baseball games I’ve ever seen,” says Wofle. “(The NLC) is very competitive. I like the format. In my five years, I have not seem the same pitcher start both games very often.”

Dennie is already verbally committed to Arizona State University, something he did before the 2017 season after showing well in Prep Baseball Report underclassmen games.

Wolfe sees it as his responsibility to engage in the recruiting process.

“I try to make as many connections as I can with college coaches around the area,” says Wolfe. “But I’m going to be honest with (players, parents and college coaches).

“I teach kids there’s a lot of levels of college baseball. You’ve got to show initiative and work hard in the class room also.”

Indiana alone has 38 programs — nine in NCAA Division I, three in NCAA Division II, nine in NCAA Division III, 14 in NAIA and three in junior college.

Wolfe, who also teaches social studies at PHS, lets his players and coaches know what is being sought by college coaches. He wants them to closely assess their situation and pay attention to the intangibles. On-base percentage and pitching velocity are easy to gauge.

But can they handle the grind of college baseball?

What kind if student are they?

What kind of teammate are they?

“These are the kinds of things we want here,” says Wolfe. “I have some of the longest parent meetings of all-time. But I try to be upfront.

“I don’t want to discourage kids from having those aspirations. I want them to reach their own potential and not compare themselves to other kids. You are who you are. It goes back to taking ownership of what you can do to reach that potential.”

Money has been raised to upgrade the playing surface at Bill Nixon Field, a facility named for the IHSBCA Hall of Fame coach. Wolfe says that project is to go forward after the 2018 season.

Tyler Wolfe — Ryan’s brother — really excelled at D-III Manchester and holds school pitching records for career wins, strikeouts, innings pitched and complete games.

Ryan and wife Tara Wolfe have two boys — fifth grader Preston and fourth grader Parker.


Ryan Wolfe, a graduate of Hamilton High School and Manchester University, is entering his sixth season as head baseball coach at Plymouth High School.


Sheets credits community support with role in NorthWood baseball success




Wa-Nee sports fans have a reputation for backing their teams.

The latest example comes with NorthWood High School winning its fifth straight baseball sectional championship.

The folks of Wakarusa and Nappanee would really have turned out in force if the weather had cooperated and the event was held at NorthWood as scheduled.

But rains forced all but a few innings of the first game to be played at Wawasee.

Plenty of Panthers fans went to Syracuse to see NorthWood top Wawasee and Lakeland for a berth in the Class 3A Bellmont Regional on Saturday, June 3. Yorktown meets Norwell in Game 1, followed by NorthWood against Fort Wayne Concordia with the championship that night.

It’s nearly 90 miles to Decatur. But that’s not likely to stop NorthWood fans.

“It’s like we’re a big family,” says Panthers third-year head coach Jay Sheets, who was part of a sectional baseball championship team and an Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association All-Star as a NorthWood senior in 2007 before playing at Manchester University for coach Rick Espeset. “People rally together. “Parents want to see all the kids do well. On Memorial Day — with other things going on — we had a big crowd (at the sectional championship game).”

NorthWood (24-1) lost 1-0 in its season opener against Westview and have won 19 times by allowing three runs or less.

“Our pitching and defense does not give up a lot of runs,” says Sheets. “Our hitting is coming around at the right time.”

The workhorse has been senior Drake Gongwer (a Taylor University commit), but the Panthers have a half dozen capable arms.

Sheets, 29, credits the Class of ’17 for leading the way this spring.

“We have five phenomenal seniors,” says Sheets of a group that includes Gongwer, Drew Minnich, Vincent Herschberger, Jaron Mullet and Travis Stephenson. “They’ve instilled work ethic in our younger guys.”

Gongwer, Minnich, Herschberger and Moore were all regulars as sophomores in Sheets’ first season as head coach after a few leading the junior varsity. “They’re all battle-tested. They know what (regional) is going to be like with the crowd sizes. They can tell the younger guys.”

Even so, the Panthers might have a few butterflies. That does not bother their head coach.

“Nerves are a good thing in my mind,” says Sheets. “They keep you on your toes.”

Sheets, a third grade teacher at Wakarusa Elementary, is helped in the dugout by Todd Cleveland (pitching coach), Matt Cox (hitting and outfielders coach), Greg Estepp (junior varsity head coach) and Aaron Arnold (JV assistant).

Success is a tradition for NorthWood baseball. With the latest hardware, the Panthers have won 11 sectionals.

The 2017 Panthers won the Northern Lakes Conference. Other NLC members are Concord, Elkhart Memorial, Goshen, Northridge, Plymouth, Warsaw and Wawasee.


Jay Sheets, a 2007 NorthWood High School graduate, is in his third season as head baseball coach at his alma mater. The Bellmont Regional-bound Panthers won their fifth straight sectional in 2017.