By STEVE KRAH
Baseball is a big deal at a small school in Fulton County, Ind.
The Comets of Caston Junior/Senior High School (an IHSAA Class 1A member with an enrollment of about 215 in the top four grades) take pride in their facility — known as the “The Crater” — and the ball that is played there near the town of Fulton.
The man in charge of program since the 2006 season is Blake Mollenkopf.
Since he arrived on-campus, Caston has overhauled its field, adding lights and a new press box, refurbishing the dugouts and upgrading the playing surface.
“It’s one of the better fields in this part of the state,” says Mollenkopf. “Our kids, school and community are very proud of it.”
The Comets hosted sectional and regional tournaments in 2018.
Caston is part of a sectional grouping with North Miami, North White, Northfield, South Newton, Southwood and West Central. The Comets won the first sectional crown in school history when Mollenkopf’s squad hoisted the trophy at Tri-County in 2012.
Caston is a member of the Hoosier North Athletic Conference (with Culver Community, Knox, LaVille, North Judson-San Pierre, Pioneer, Triton and Winamac). Each team plays the other twice to determine the champion. LaVille won the crown in 2018.
“It’s a very balanced conference,” says Mollenkopf.
HNAC’s 14 conference games are played with home-and-home series either on Monday or Tuesday or Thursday and Friday and a Saturday doubleheader, depending on the week.
Mollenkopf says participation numbers tend to hover from 16 to 24 at the high school for varsity and junior varsity squads.
“It’s important to have a JV, especially at the 1A level to develop kids,” says Mollenkopf. “We try to play up (in class), especially at the JV level. We want to challenge them and prepare them for varsity baseball.”
The 2019 season will be the third for the IHSAA pitch count rule. This year, the parameters will be the same for varsity and JV (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 stressed arm care here,” says Mollenkopf. “We do a lot in the fall and in January and February. At the varsity level, there’s very little influence. I’ve noticed it more on the JV level, where we’ve not had strike throwers all the way through.”
Mollenkopf says a focus on throwing strikes should be able to keep pitch counts down.
Assistant coaches are Adam Goller (14th year), Nick Stuber (ninth year), Matt Gibson (second year) and Brandon Kinser (first year). Stuber will run the JV team this spring.
Caston Athletic League (for ages 5-12) and a junior high club (for grades 7-8) are feeders for the high school program.
Though not affiliated with the school, the junior high team does play its games in the spring on the high school diamond.
In the summer, some Caston players take part in the Babe Ruth League in Logansport. There are others, including Gavin Mollenkopf (Blake’s oldest of two sons), who play travel ball for the Indiana Chargers.
There are some high school summer workouts and games and a team camp at Bethel College.
Caston graduate Seth Zartman is head baseball coach at Bethel. Ethan Zartman played at Caston for Mollenkopf, and then for big brother at Bethel.
Last summer, players from Plymouth and Rochester joined the Comets. In the past, South Adams and Tri-County have participated in the camp.
Mollenkopf is a graduate of Convoy Crestview High School, where he played for Jim Wharton, a member of the Ohio High School Baseball Coaches Association and ACME baseball halls of fame.
“He’s a great mentor,” says Mollenkopf of Wharton. “There’s so respect for him in that community. He’s still another ear to bend. He had a big impact on my life and my love for baseball.”
Mollenkopf played four seasons (2000-03) at Huntington University for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Mike Frame.
Frame was known for his attention to detail, practice preparation and communication skills.
“I remember the Friday morning devotions,” says Mollenkopf. “He met with small groups of players. He tried to make an impact as future husbands, fathers and people.
“I went there to play baseball, but came out as a better man because of him, too.”
Mollenkopf received an elementary education degree at Huntington. Before coaching at Caston, he spent two seasons as an assistant to IHSBCA Hall of Famer George Phares at Taylor High School.
“He’s a special individual,” says Mollenkopf of Phares. “I learned how to interact with players, handling parent meetings and working with the administration
driving an hour back and forth.”
At the time, Mollenkopf was making the commute from Fulton County to Kokomo.
“There were so many meals and more he and (his wife) Martha provided for me.”
Mollenkopf is married to a Caston graduate. Blake and Stephanie have four children — eighth grader Kinzie (13), fifth grader Gavin (11), third grader Logan (9) and kindergartener Remy (6). All of them attend Caston schools.
After a few years on the job, Blake Mollenkopf resigned last May as Caston athletic director. Besides coaching baseball, he is an elementary physical education teacher and is involved with youth football and eighth grade girls basketball.
The Mollenkopfs (clockwise from upper left): Blake, Stephanie, Kinzie, Gavin, Remy and Logan. Blake Mollenkopf is head baseball coach at Caston Junior/Senior High School in Fulton, Ind.
Blake Mollenkopf has been head baseball coach at Caston Junior/Senior High School in Fulton, Ind., since the 2006 season.