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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)


Prater now in charge of Tippecanoe Valley Vikings baseball




Greg Prater wants baseball success for his alma mater and is working toward that goal as he approaches his first season as head coach at Tippecanoe Valley High School in Kosciusko County.

Prater, a 1992 Valley graduate, spent the past three seasons as an assistant to Justin Branock (now an assistant coach at Huntington University).

As a Vikings athlete, Prater played baseball for Duane Burkhart (who is now TV athletic director) and Doug Heinold. His football coaches were Scott Bibler and Jeff Shriver.

“We had a very successful career in baseball,” says Prater, who was part of the program’s second sectional championship in 1990. “(Burkhart) wasn’t easy. He was a tough coach. He worked us hard in practice.

“I loved playing for him.”

Prater has fond memories of Bibler, who was killed along with Charlie Smith, Scott Smith and Tony Elliott in a plane accident in 2015.

“It still affects us daily around here,” says Prater. Tippecanoe Valley School Trustees voted last September to rename the school’s gridiron to Smith-Bibler Memorial Field — Home of Death Valley Football. The Bibler family helped make a new football press box a reality.

While Prater was playing at Valley, Bibler took a group to a run-and-shoot camp at Georgetown, Ky., and there was much team bonding.

“He was a Godly man, which was great,” says Prater of Bibler. “He was a great role model for all of us. I’ve tried to carry on myself like he did and be a friend when (athletes) need somebody.”

Valley’s 2018 assistant coaches include alums Clayton Adamson (pitching coach), Mike Bowers and Jarred Littlejohn (junior varsity). After a call-out, Prater expects the Vikings to field two teams this spring — varsity and JV.

A young varsity squad with four seniors and plenty of sophomores is expected to take the field this spring.

“We’ve got some good ballplayers,” says Prater. “They’ve played a lot of summer ball and played for some good coaches. That helps.”

Among the TV seniors is Trine University commit Drew Hartman.

Recent Valley players to head for college diamonds include Tanner Andrews (Purdue University), Gavin Bussard (Grace College), Alec Craig (Danville Area Community College), Eric Hammer (Northern Illinois University) and Luke Helton (Manchester University).

The Vikings are members of the Three Rivers Conference (along with Maconaquah, Manchester, North Miami, Northfield, Peru, Rochester, Southwood, Wabash and Whitko.).

Valley last won sectional crowns in 2009, 2010 and 2012. The Vikings are in a 2018 3A grouping with Angola, Fairfield, Lakeland, NorthWood, Wawasee and West Noble.

Prater, who runs a milk hauling service that allows him the freedom to coach baseball, has been involved with upgrades to the Valley baseball field. The infield has been raised, dugouts have been changed and new wind screens have been added.

“We make it sharp looking,” says Prater. “We’re getting there.”

Prater intends to get even more involved in community baseball, working with players who come up through Town & Country youth league programs in Akron and Mentone. He wants to re-establish middle school baseball, which will likely start as a club sport in the summer.

“We’re trying to catch them up,” says Prater. “They’ve just never had the opportunity (to play at the level some travel baseball teams do).”

Prater says there is talk of bringing American Legion baseball back in Rochester or Plymouth, which will also help his high school program.

This summer, Prater will help Brian Blondell, Scott Rost and Bruce Baer coach a Michiana Scrappers 15U team.

Greg and wife Amy (a daycare provider) have three children — Katie is a freshman softball player and nursing major at Bethel College, Kinzie is a junior at Valley and Layne is a freshman baseball player at Valley.

KINZIEGREGLAYNEAMYKATIEPRAGERThe Prater family (from left): Kinzie, Greg, Layne, Amy and Katie. Greg Prater is the head baseball coach at Tippecanoe Valley High School.


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.

Discipline, structure part of Nielsen’s Concord program




Regimented and respectful.

Those are concepts Eric Nielsen is establishing in his second season as Concord High School head baseball coach.

“I’m very structured,” says Nielsen, who followed the retiring Jim Treadway as leader of the Minutemen. “All our practices are planned out. We have times and we stick to those times. Guys hustle everywhere they go. We’re very disciplined and are going to play the game the right way. I teach them to respect the game. There’s no trash talking at all. I’m big on body language.”

It’s taken some time, but players are starting to come around to Nielsen’s way of doing things.

“You are starting to see people buying into that,” says Nielsen. “They know what’s expected. Seniors will get on guys if they are not doing things the right way. That’s less that I have to do because that expectation is there.”

Nielsen was an all-state catcher at Elkhart Memorial High School, graduating in 2004. He went to be a regular behind the plate at Purdue University. His first high school head coaching stops came at Mt. Vernon (Fortville) and Knightstown before he moved back to north central Indiana.

Along the way, he has learned how to read his young athletes.

“I’ve learned really well how to manage the players,” says Nielsen. “I think that’s why (Chicago Cubs manager) Joe Maddon is so good at what he does. He’s not managing baseball, he’s managing people. In the olden days with (LaPorte coach) Ken Schreiber, it was this is the way it is and if you don’t like it ‘see ya!’ It was hard-nosed and it was tough.”

And while Nielsen considers himself a traditional, hard-nosed guy, he knows he has to motivate in a different way and keep his players engaged.

“If you know the game of baseball and you can build relationships, you’re going to be very successful, pending you have the talent,” says Nielsen. “I’ve seen teams that have the talent but they never go anywhere because they are so done with the season by the time the state tournament comes around. They’re cashed out.”

A syndrome that baseball and other spring sports face is a loss of focus because it’s the end of the school year. For 12th graders, they call it “senioritis.” But other grades — and even coaches — can get it, too.

Nielsen insists on holding out a carrot for his players.

“You’ve got to have them chasing something,” says Nielsen. “If you don’t, they’re going let up.

“How do you intrinisically motivate the player to want to compete? I tell them to get caught up in the process, don’t get caught up in the results.

“If I can get the process important to them then the results will come. If the process is not important to them, they don’t want to compete and there’s no reason for them to put in everything they have, you’re going to get that apathy.”

Nielsen looks at his 2017 team and sees pitching depth. At least nine of 12 varsity players can take the mound.

“The hard part is finding out who is my No. 1 and No. 2, who’s my best reliever,” says Nielsen. “We’re still in the process of finding that out.”

Along with pitching coach Mike McGregor, Nielsen looks at pitchers not only in terms of physical talent but what’s happening between the ears.

“We’re trying to teach mental toughness on the mound,” says Nielsen. “If we can have guys that will compete, saying ‘I’m going to strike this guy out.’ Even if they don’t, they are going to distinguish themselves from the rest of the players.”

What about the new pitch count rule?

“I thought it was going to be a bigger issue than it has been,” says Nielsen. “I traditionally don’t have guys throw that much anyway. I don’t push the 120 spot. As long as they’re under 80, I know how many days they need off.

“I thought I’d be juggling a lot. It hasn’t been too bad.”

Nielsen said the pitch count rule will likely be more of an issue during the IHSAA tournament series than the regular season.

“People are going to watch that really close,” says Nielsen.

Concord spends plenty of time at its regimented practices on “small ball.” The Minutemen work on moving runners with the bunt.

“We don’t have anybody on the team we can rely on to hit the long ball yet,” says Nielsen.

Something that Nielsen established in his first season at Concord was an Armed Forces Day (Concord Baseball Armed Forces Day on Facebook). It was such a hit, the Minutemen will be pay tribute to those who have served Saturday, May 6 when South Bend Adams visits for a 10 a.m. game.

Father Scott Nielsen (Army during Vietnam era) and grandfather Bob Burns (Air Force during World War II) and assistant coach Jason Paulson (Marines) are all people close to Nielsen with military ties.

As a social studies teacher at CHS, he also gets a chance to tell students about the importance of the military.

“It’s good to show the kids what these guys are doing day in and day out for our country and show them appreciation for the sacrifices that they make and have made for our freedom,” says Nielsen, whose other assistants are Sean Sears and Nic Minder.

The Minutemen compete in the Northern Lakes Conference (along with Elkhart Memorial, Goshen, Northridge, NorthWood, Plymouth, Warsaw and Wawasee). The double round robin NLC race began this week.


Eric Nielsen, a 2004 Elkhart Memorial High School graduate, is in his second season as head baseball coach at Concord High School. He was a catcher at Purdue University.