BY STEVE KRAH
A border town will play more baseball in 2019 on the side of the state line where it plays its home games.
South Newton High School, located in rural Newton County, Ind., between the incorporated towns of Kentland, Brook and Goodland, went 17-10 in 2018 and played 15 games against Illinois high schools.
After three seasons in the Illinois-based Sangamon Valley Conference (current members are Cissna Park, Clifton Central, Dwight, Iroquois West, Momence, Paxton-Buckey-Loda and Watseka), South Newton (enrollment around 190) is a member of the Midwest Conference (with Indiana schools Frontier, North Newton, North White, Tri-County and West Central).
Jim Kiifner, a 1984 graduate of Sheldon (Ill.) High School (now consulted into Milford Township), is entering his 10th season on the South Newton coaching staff — his third as head coach.
The 2019 Rebels — led by Kiifner and assistants Jason Krug (third season), Ricky Montemayer (fourth season) and Conner Ulmer (first season) — are scheduled to play 23 varsity and 13 junior varsity contests. Ulmer, a 2013 South Newton graduate, is a teacher while the others are lay coaches. Kiifner works in a warehouse for DuPont Corporation.
“My boss allows me to be a little flexible,” says Kiifner. “It also helps that I work in the Eastern Time Zone and coach in the Central Time Zone.
“I gain an hour.”
South Newon’s non-conference varsity opponents include Attica, Benton Central, Fountain Central, Frontier, Kankakee Valley and Seeger in Indiana and Cissna Park, Milford Township, Momence and Watseka in Illinois.
The Rebels are part of an IHSAA Class 1A sectional grouping with Caston, North Miami, North White, Northfield, Southwood and West Central. South Newton has won eight sectional titles — the last in 2017. That year, the Rebels advanced to the semistate for the first time, losing to eventual state runner-up Rossville at Plymouth.
“We’ve been pretty successful the last four years,” says Kiifner, 52. “We get a lot of fan support.”
Athletic budgets at the small school are supplemented through community fundraisers.
Kiifner was coaching in the Travelers Babe Ruth League when then-South Newton head coach Ron Benakovich invited him to join his staff. Benakovich led the Rebels from 2009-12 and Glenn Donahue from 2013-16 before Kiifner took over the as leader of the program in 2017.
“I want the kids to have the most fun as possible,” says Kiifner. “Discipline is a big thing. But I don’t like to be a brow beater.”
Program numbers are up to 23 with 11 newcomers.
“We’re working to get them up to speed on what we expect and do,” says Kiifner, who had a veteran team the past two seasons. The 2018 squad had six seniors and three juniors in the starting lineup.
Kiifner says he wants his teams to be strong up the middle on defense.
“Defend the middle first and work your way out,” says Kiifner. “(Pitchers are asked to) throw strikes and let the defense do the work behind them.”
With that in mind, South Newton has junior Austin Miller and sophomore Brandon Gilliam in the mix at catcher, senior Levi Sample and freshman Kayden Cruz at shortstop and Cruz and junior Terron Welsh in center field.
Senior left-hander Riley Patterson is the top returning pitcher who also plays first base. Senior Tyler Martell is at second base and freshman Kellen Krug at third base. Senior Ben Bryant is a candidate to play a corner outfield spot.
Offensive approach depends on personnel. Kiifner says the Rebels are transitioning from a power team to more of a small-ball squad.
The Hammel brothers have taken their pitching talents from South Newton to the college level.
Freshman Jay Hammel was an all-state third baseman as junior, all-state first baseman as a senior and became the school’s second Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association North/South All-Star Series player (Trent Smith was the first in 1990) and is now a freshman right-hander at Quincy (Ill.) University.
Trent Smith is the brother of Tracy Smith, a South Newton graduate who played at Miami University in Ohio and in the Chicago Cubs system before head coaching assignments at Miami University-Hamilton, Indiana University and Arizona State University. Smith’s 2019 Sun Devils were off to a 22-1 start.
Rebel Field, located on the South Newton campus, is a small non-lighted diamond with the distance down the foul lines at 272 feet to right field and 300 to left. Kiifner says there is talk about moving the fences back in the future.
With the school and field sitting in the midst of farm land, it is a breezy place.
“The are winds always blowing,” says Kiifner. “And it’s either too hot or too cold.”
Sheldon was a school of less than 100 students and baseball was a fall sport where there was no football team. Kiifner’s baseball coach was John Spezia, who has gone on to win more than 500 games as a basketball coach.
“He broke down fundamentals really well and brought it to your level,” says Kiifner of Spezia. “He tried not to overwhelm (his players).”
Jim and Madonna Kiifner have been married for 26 years. They have two sons who both played baseball at South Newton — William (24) and Luke (22).
This is the 2019 South Newton High School Rebels baseball team.
South Newton won a sectional and regional baseball title in 2017.
Jim Kiifner is the head baseball coach at South Newton High School in rural Newton County, Ind., between the incorporated towns of Kentland, Brook and Goodland.