Tag Archives: Western Kentucky University

Career path comes with adversity for Valparaiso U. assistant Winter

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Getting established as a college baseball coach can be a tough gig.

Just ask Kory Winter.

The Valparaiso (Ind.) University assistant is in his fifth season and the second as a full-time staffer. He was a volunteer his first three campaigns with the Crusaders.

“I did not collect a paycheck or have health insurance my first six or seven years of college baseball,” says Winter, who was on the staffs at Muskingum University (New Concord, Ohio) in 2013 and 2014 and Shippensburg (Pa.) University in 2015 before landing at Valpo. “You have to be willing to ride out the storm.”

While at Shippensburg and with his girl friend Dana in Cleveland, Winter stocked shelves 9 p.m. to 6 p.m. at Lowe’s before beginning his coaching day.

“I was working to coach,” says Winter.

In the summer of 2015, he moved to Cleveland and cleaned at chemical plants while sending out his baseball coaching resume.

Valpo head coach Brian Schmack posted a need for a volunteer with outfield knowledge. Winter was an outfielder and pitcher at Scioto High School in Dublin, Ohio, and at NCAA Division III Wittenberg University (Springfield, Ohio) and had experience instructing them as a head coach with the Ohio Elite travel organization as well as at D-III Muskingum and D-II Shippensburg and high school assistant stops at Dublin Coffman and Dublin Jerome.

“I didn’t think I’d have a chance to move into the Division I game,” says Winter. “I thank Coach Schmack for his willingness to open the resume and look at the cover letter.

“It’s been a life changer for me.”

Kory and Dana Winter have been married a little over two years and have house and a 14-month-old son named Kal.

Winter is now the recruiting coordinator and is in charge of hitters and outfielders.

“The head coach has so much on their plate with administrative stuff,” says Winter. “(Assistant) Casey Fletcher and I map out the game plan (for recruiting). What do we need to two or three years? How do they fit into our culture? We take Schmack’s vision and try to put that into practice.”

They are on the lookout for the under-recruited and tend to go after Midwestern players who understand what it means to play and practice in the cold and can relate to the coaches, who all hail from this part of the country.

Winter goes to see the recruits play and them stays in-contact by phone. It’s also his job to keep track of scholarships and determine what kind of value a student-athlete will bring to the private school.

“To make Valpo financially viable, they give athletic aid,” says Winter. “It’s much more affordable if you have good grades or test scores.

“It makes us more competitive in the recruiting process and more appealing to those families.”

That means a minimum 3.5 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale and and ACT of 23 or better. Winter says the average on the baseball team is between 26 and 28, putting them above the 90 percentile.

“It’s nice about having smart kids,” says Winter. “They ask questions and process the game differently.”

As hitting coach, Winter works to get players to understand their strengths and weaknesses in the strike zone.

“We cater their approach to what they’re good at,” says Winter. “We use HitTrax data to build a case for why a guy should be looking middle-out or middle-in.”

For many, there is an adjustment in hitting at the college level.

“In high school, they might get multiple pitches to hit (per at-bat),” says Winter. “We want to get them to understand how they’re being pitched and when to be aggressive and when not to be. What is your plan?”

With the velocity at the D-I level, hitters must often anticipate the pitch out of the pitcher’s hand.

Hitters learn how to sit on pitches in certain counts. Winter says 2-0 should be a fastball, but they may see a 2-1 change-up or 3-2 curve ball.

Winter takes a very conservative approach to outfield play.

“We want to make the right play vs. the great one,” says Winter. “We want to hit every cut-off man. I don’t care if we have zero assists on the season.”

By missing the cut-off, the defense surrenders extra bases.

“Get the ball to the infielders as quickly and accurately as possible,” says Winter. “The right play makes the different to winning and losing ball games.”

To get outfielders reps, the Crusaders have braved the northwest Indiana cold and taken to the Brown Field football turf.

“We get outside whenever we possibly can,” says Winter. “We were out there in the snow. It’s not ideal.

“We don’t complain about it. That’s just the way it is.”

Valpo (1-2) opened the season Saturday, Feb. 15 at Western Kentucky. That was the first time the Crusaders saw live pitching outside. The Crusaders are at Louisville Friday through Sunday, Feb. 21-23. The first scheduled home game at Emory G. Bauer Field March 24 against Ball State. The first Missouri Valley Conference series is March 27-29 against Dallas Baptist at VU.

Winter graduated from Scioto in 2006. He played for Irish head coach Phil Callaghan, an Ohio High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame inductee in 2008.

“He ran an extremely tight ship,” says Winter of Callaghan. “There was a certain standard that every player was held to. We had to sprint on and off the field. We’d even sprint from the bus to the dugout.

“They were small things that may sound crazy. But we’d really buy into the identity of the team and playing ‘the right way.’ That was the mentality and culture. I’m trying to implement that myself (as a coach).”

Winter played four seasons at Wittenberg, where Jay Lewis was the Tigers head coach and Rick White was the pitching coach.

“(Lewis) was an extremely good guy,” says Winter. “Now that I’m coaching college baseball, I look back and remember he was always at the field, mowing the lawn or throwing batting practice. It was total immersion. I really appreciated his work ethic and sweat equity.”

After receiving a degree in English and education from Wittenberg in 2010, Winter taught for a year at Groveport Madison High School and coached with 2004 OHSBCA Hall of Fame inductee Tim Saunders at Dublin Coffman in 2011 and Chris Huesman at Dublin Jerome in 2012. In the summers of 2011, 2012 and 2013, Winter coached high schoolers for the Ohio Elite.

By this point, he decided he wanted to be college baseball coach rather than a teacher and hooked on as a graduate assistant at Muskingum on the staff of Muskies head coach Gregg Thompson.

“Coach T was very intense in a good way,” says Winter. “I had never coached under a guy who was just so passionate about winning.”

If Muskingum had a game at noon, Thompson was at the field several hours before that, getting things ready.

“It was a great learning experience for me,” says Winter, who is often on the job by 7 a.m. “You give 100 percent to whatever you’re doing.”

Matt Jones was the head coach at Shippensburg when Winter was with the Raiders and really paying his dues.

“I had to work my way trudging through the mud,” says Winter. “It’s the necessary evil of it.

“It builds some character when you work though some personal adversity.”

Valparaiso Crusaders @ Oklahoma Sooners
February 25, 2018 
Oklahoma defeated Valparaiso 3-2 (10)

Valparaiso (Ind.) University baseball assistant coach Kory Winter (right) talks with head coach Brian Schmack and other Crusaders coaches during the 2019 season. Winter is in his fifth season with Valpo in 2020. (Valparaiso University Photo)

Valparaiso Crusaders @ Oklahoma Sooners
February 25, 2018 
Oklahoma defeated Valparaiso 3-2 (10)Valparaiso (Ind.) University baseball assistant coach Kory Winter was an volunteer his first three seasons and is now in his fifth with the Crusaders overall. The Ohio native is the recruiting coordinator and leads hitters and outfielders. (Valparaiso University Photo)

Lefty Thurston competing with independent Gary SouthShore RailCats

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

For the third straight game, Ryan Thurston took the mound for the Gary (Ind.) SouthShore RailCats and for the second time, he nailed down a victory.

The left-hander pitched in his 24th contest for the independent professional baseball team Tuesday, July 30 and set down the Winnipeg Goldeyes in the ninth inning at U.S. Steel Yard.

During his scoreless frame, Thurston yielded a single and ended it with a caught-looking strikeout in helping the RailCats to a 2019 season-high tying fourth straight win.

On Monday in Franklin, Wis., Thurston picked up his first pro save by recording the final two outs with no hits and two walks in a triumph against the Milwaukee Milkmen.

The Sunday game saw Thurston pitch an inning and give up two runs and three hits as visiting Gary topped Milwaukee.

These are situations that Thurston lives for. He’s been drawn to them since he was a kid playing baseball and basketball in southern Indiana.

“I love to compete,” says Thurston. “I may not have the best stuff.”

Thurston has two kinds of fastballs — a four-seamer and two-seamer — plus a change-up, curveball and slider.

“I’d like to think my ball moves,” says Thurston, a 6-foot-2, 190-pounder. “(My fastball is) 85-89 (mph), depending what I want to do with the ball — sink it or go up in the zone.

“I’ve tried to develop more as I’ve gotten older. You have to have fastball command. You’ve got to be ready everyday. You need to throw every pitch in every count.

“If it’s 2-0 and it’s their best hitter, you may not still throw fastball. It might be a change-up or curveball away. It’s more of a thinking game.

“I have the same fastball and same slider I had in college, I just think a little more. I adapt a little more as the game goes on.”

Dan Thurston, Ryan’s father and the former Madison (Ind.) Consolidated High School head coach, has long been emphasizing mental toughness to his youngest son (Former Madison police chief Dan and Madison Middle School math teacher Jackie Thurston have Trey, Ryan and Trisha).

“You’ve got to keep a level head,” says Ryan. “Baseball’s a game of failure and you have to deal with failure.

“It’s about being mentally-prepared and mentally-ready.”

Ryan Thurston played his earliest organized baseball at the youth league in Madison and then travel baseball with the Greenfield-based Indiana Bandits, coached by Jeff Montgomery. In his 16U and 17U summers, he played for the Cincy Flames.

Thurston’s coach at Western Kentucky University was John Pawlowski.

“He pitched in the big leagues (with the 1987 and 1988 Chicago White Sox),” says Thurston of Pawlowski. “He really knew his stuff.

“He taught me a lot about different pitches and when to throw them and being the the best I can be.”

Thurston graduated from Madison Consolidated in 2014 and Western Kentucky in 2017 with a graduate school year at WKU in 2018 (he played for the Hilltoppers in parts of five seasons and earned a financial management degree).

At Madison, he won four baseball letters at Madison, earning all-state honorable mention as a senior. He was all-conference and team MVP three times. He also garnered three letters in basketball.

At Western Kentucky, he pitched in 66 games (52 as a starter — 14 in each of his final three seasons) with 13 wins, 299 strikeouts (second in program history) and 174 walks in 306 2/3 innings (third in WKU annals).

As a senior, the lefty pitched a career-high 80 2/3 innings while allowing a career-low 15 extra-base hits. He finished the season with a 4.24 ERA, although that mark stood at 3.08 prior to his final two starts. He was the only pitcher in Conference USA to secure wins over both Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech.

Thurston signed as a free agent with the Toronto Blue Jays organization and pitched in 13 games (nine in relief) in 2018 before being released.

The 24-year-old southpaw signed with the American Association’s Chicago Dogs and pitched two games with that franchise before Gary claimed him off waivers.

With the RailCats, a team he joined May 26, Thurston is 2-0 with a 2.58 earned run average. In 35 1/3 innings, he has 33 strikeouts and 16 walks.

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Ryan Thurston, a 2013 Madison (Ind.) Consolidated High School graduate who pitched at Western Kentucky University from 2014-18 and holds a financial management degree from that school, is now a relief pitcher for the independent Gary (Ind.) SouthShore RailCats. (Steve Krah Photo)

 

Mercer makes relationships, mental skills priority for Wright State Baseball

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Embracing the importance of personal relationships and the process, Indiana native Jeff Mercer continues to enjoy baseball accomplishment in Ohio.

Mercer, a 2004 Franklin County High School graduate, is in his second season as head coach at NCAA Division I Wright State University in Dayton.

After leading WSU to a 38-21 mark in 2017, Mercer had the Raiders at 29-13 heading into a May 4-6 Horizon League series against the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Mercer served as an assistant to Rich Maloney at the University of Michigan (2011), Matt Myers at Western Kentucky University (2012-13) and Greg Lovelady at Wright State (2014-16) before taking over the reigns of the RaiderGang when Lovelady took the heading coaching job at the University of Central Florida.

As a power-hitting first baseman, Mercer played two seasons at the University of Dayton (2005, 2007) for head coach Tony Vittorio then two at Wright State (2008-09) for head coach Rob Cooper.

While playing for WSU, Mercer was a two-time all-Horizon League first-team selection at first base. In 2009, he was HL Player of the Year and a Collegiate Baseball Newspaper third-team All-American as he hit .357 with 26 doubles and 74 runs batted in.

As a Franklin Community Grizzly Cub, he learned from three coaches — Mark Pieper, father Jeff Mercer and Brian Luse.

Mercer, 32, credits Pieper for instilling an appreciation for relationships.

“That’s one thing I’ve tried to make a core value and staple of my coaching staff,” says Mercer, who counts Nate Metzger, Matt Talarico, Alex Sogard, mental skills development coordinator Diamyn Hall, director of operations Denton Sagerman and volunteer Jacob Burk among his Wright State assistants. “We have to have personal relationships with our players.

“If you want to bring out the best in them — physically, emotionally, academically and all those things — the core of that is the relationship where you can help them build and grow.”

Mercer, who earned an organizational leadership degree from Wright State in 2009, does not buy into the generation gap excuse.

“I am young — one of the younger (D-I) head coaches in the country,” says Mercer. “I take it a little bit personally when people talk about ‘kids these days.’ You take the time to develop a relationship, the generation of the kid you’re dealing with is no different.

“They need to know that you care. They need to know you’re invested.”

This trust allows Mercer and his staff to drive the Raiders.

“We’re hard on players,” says Mercer. “We push them. We have really high expectation levels.

“But if they knew you have their best interests at heart then they have no problem with that kind of tough love.”

The elder Jeff Mercer, who helped start the Indiana Bulls travel baseball organization and is now assistant superintendent of Franklin Community Schools, passed along his affinity for structure and discipline to his son.

“Everything was always very methodical,” says Mercer. “There was always an organizational plan. I took from that the confidence you have in preparation.

“We recruit a very confident kind of kid. First and foremost that comes from him. There’s only so much confidence we can give somebody. The confidence that comes from preparation can only be earned. It can’t be bought. You can’t pay for it.

“It just comes with time. It made me more confident as a player and as a coach knowing how much time and work we put into it.”

Mercer notes that Wright State has enjoyed much success against highly-ranked opponents and in hostile environments.

“Guys are confident because they know they are prepared to play at that level,” says Mercer, whose team earned two 2018 road wins against No. 20 Louisiana and one triumph against vote-getter Sam Houston State. The Raiders play at No. 29 Louisville Tuesday, May 8.

Mercer says Luse blend qualities from Pieper and his father.

“We played loose and free for him,” says Mercer. “But he also had a feel for the structure and discipline of it. Consequently, we had a lot of success. We were a very good team.

“You learn something from everybody you come in contact with and I certainly learned a lot during my high school time.”

Vittorio, who grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from Southport High School in 1984, brought toughness and discipline to his coaching.

“I knew that he cared,” says Mercer, who was a walk-on for the Flyers. “The relationship that I have with him now is really nice. He’s around a lot.”

While Mercer was at Dayton, another coach had a lasting impact on him.

“My relationship with hitting coach Cory Allen really shaped the way I view hitting from a mechanical aspect that I’ve carried forth to this day,” says Mercer. “It was the first time that anyone had discussed biomechanics, centrifugal force and different movements.

“It was an eye-opening experience and it drove me to be a much better player. I wasn’t a very talented player. Understanding a lot of those basics allowed me to have an advantage.”

After transferring to Wright State he formed a personal relationship with Cooper.

“At that point, there was nobody better in my career at making us all feel valued,” says Mercer. “I learned so much about that from him.

“He was the first person that introduced me to the mental game aspect.”

In the years since he played, Mercer has seen the field of mental skills training take off.

“It’s become an industry in and of itself,” says Mercer. “At the time, there was nobody talking about ‘don’t worry about the outcome, it’s the quality of the at-bat. It’s the process over the outcome.’ At the time it was very cutting edge and it was new information for me.

“I was a much better baseball player at Wright State than I was at Dayton

“It was directly attributed to the mental game and understanding that I couldn’t just play with reckless abandon when it came to my emotions. Physically, I could play very hard. But emotionally, there has to be some constraint.”

One of the keys is to know where place the emphasis.

“If I go through the process the right way and I work on things I’m supposed to work on and invest in things I’m supposed to invest in and I have the at-bat I’m supposed to have and putting a good swing on a good pitch, whatever happens from there is completely out of my hands,” says Mercer. “Once I did that I became a much better player.”

Mercer recruits plenty of football and wrestling athletes.

“Their mentality is I can work harder and harder,” says Mercer. “That’s not always effective in baseball.”

In his first season as head coach, he found the mental game to be a bit lacking and he thinks he knows the reason.

“When it comes from the head coach it can become a bit stale because I’m always talking and communicating with players,” says Mercer. “My voice is always heard.

“I like having a big coaching staff and having them deal with each player individually because it keeps things fresh. We need to have multi-faceted relationships.”

Then opportunity knocked.

Hall, who is from nearby Centerville, Ohio, had just ended his collegiate playing career and was looking to find his way in the mental skills field.

The decision was made to bring him on-board as the very first full-time mental skills coordinator in D-I baseball.

“We had a mutual need,” says Mercer of Hall. “He needed a place to begin his career. We needed someone who was a fresh face and had an ability to communicate with young people in an electric way, in an impassioned way. He has a magnetic personality.

“It’s been a beautiful union.”

Hall meets with players as a group and one-on-one, providing his knowledge and helping athletes reach their potential.

“We’re providing the players with the resources to be the best they can,” says Mercer. “It’s really about knowing yourself and what you need to be successful.”

Jeff and is one four boys born to Jeff and Pam Mercer. His mother teaches math at Whiteland Community High School.

Stephanie Mercer, Jeff’s wife, teaches sixth grade at Ankeney Middle School. The former Ohio Northern University athlete is also an assistant boys volleyball coach at Beavercreek (Ohio) High School.

Jeff and Stephanie are expecting their first child — a boy — in the fall.

12725 Matt Zircher, Baseball Portraits 11-26-13

Jeff Mercer, a 2004 Franklin Community High School graduate, is in his second season as head baseball coach at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. At 32, he is one of the youngest head coaches in NCAA Division I baseball. (Wright State Photo)