BENNETT'S MINUTES: Where do we go from here?
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final installment of a three-part series on high school baseball in Putnam County. The first two installments can be found at www.bannergraphic.com in the “high school sports” section.
I love high school baseball.
As much as I like many of the traditional and long-standing sports, and as I gain a better admiration for some of the newer ones, most of my favorite athletic memories involve high school baseball.
I was at Loeb Stadium in Lafayette in 1974 when Terre Haute North won the state championship. I was at Victory Field when West Vigo played for the Class 3A state title in 2009, and I was at Bush Stadium in Indianapolis (the predecessor of Victory Field) in 1983 when Terre Haute North was the state runnerup. I was also at Victory Field when the Patriots (my alma mater) finished second in both 2014 and 2015.
Terre Haute South has never reached the state championship game, but I was at Plainfield in 2011 when the Braves lost a heartbreaker to Indianapolis Cathedral in the semistate.
I wasn’t able to be at Victory Field two years ago when many of my former Northview students won a 3A state title, but I was at Jasper’s Ruxer Field last year when they lost to the host team in the semistate.
I’m not a baseball snob; I just like good high school baseball. Height and weight don’t matter, and thinking and reacting are two of the most valuable skills to have. It’s definitely the sport where the best team doesn’t win nearly as often as in other sports, and that fact helps set it apart.
In writing this series of columns, I just wish Putnam County baseball were better and wanted to see if anything could be jumpstarted to help make that happen.
It’s not the head coaches
Putnam County is blessed to have four good men, and four good baseball men, in charge of its varsity programs.
I think back to my teaching days, and regardless of which grade I was in charge of I had a certain expectation for what they should know when they came through my door on the first day. Sadly, that expectation and reality were often two very different things.
Our coaches have little or no practice time outdoors before the first game, and the “little things” that separate good teams from bad ones often don’t get addressed.
As one coach said, “Then we have a bunch of rainouts and we have to play five or six games a week to get them all in. Nobody has that many pitchers.”
Not whining, just the reality of it.
One coach suggested moving the season back to May-June instead of April-May to have better weather and practice conditions, but he quickly realized that the sport would lost out to the off-season workouts in all the other sports. Currently Wisconsin and Iowa have such a format, but Wisconsin is going back to the traditional format.
I watch and listen to what they say during the games, and they all know what they are doing. If it takes a village to raise a child, an unpopular politician once said, the same is also required to properly train a baseball player.
Youth leagues do their best
I spoke to parents of kids who either currently have kids in youth leagues, or previously did.
Their comments were similar, for the most part.
“The coaches that volunteer have been doing a decent job developing some remedial fundamentals, but I don’t think they get any help from the high school program. When I was coaching in the youth league, the varsity and JV coaches would give me input on drills and let me have access to training equipment. They were also involved in attending games which for young kids is a huge confidence booster,” one said.
“I have found the league leadership to truly care about the future of our baseball players, and do the best they can to teach fundamentals and a love for the game. It is an unfortunate reality that some of the best talent do decide to leave the local program and pursue youth travel sports. I have always found that our local program does the best they can to provide opportunities for the young players, without requiring additional financial burdens and excessive travel.”
A third said:
“In our league, the people in charge say they are having a hard time finding qualified people to coach the teams. Every time a good player is taken away to a travel team, a good parent who taught him how to play goes with him. I think they do the best they can, but they know they need better quality in coaching.”
I get the ‘talent cycle’ thing
Small schools obviously have up and down cycles in terms of athletic talent. I relate completely. I taught at schools that won a Class 1A state championship in one sport and had several winless teams in other sports. Then five years later, the roles were reversed.
One year, a school where I taught was the football homecoming opponent for every team we played on the road – even in the second week of the season. One of the football players I had in class realized that fact toward the end of the season, and pointed out what an amazing coincidence that was. As nicely as I could, I pointed out that it was no accident. Everybody likes to win the homecoming game.
Perhaps more than most people, I have a pretty firm grip on the current state of Putnam County athletics after my 26 months here. We have unquestionably had some of the most successful athletes in their sports in the state’s history, with people like Cooper Neese, Jalen Moore and Emma Wilson.
We also have a lot of programs that struggle, and sadly have more teams every season with losing records than winning ones. One of our schools may have even just gone through an entire school year with no teams posting a winning record; won-loss records aren’t always available for all sports. Other than some unwarranted “head coach blaming” in other sports, people seem to handle it well. Students can learn and benefit from sports even if they don’t win a championship, and that’s OK. Everybody can’t win the title.
Time will tell if the next few years will bring an increase in the overall talent level, and with those increases will come better teams and better performances.
Greencastle (the county champs) and South Putnam (the only team to win a sectional game) each had three seniors on its roster this year. North Putnam had eight seniors, many of whom also played other sports but were obviously needed when available, while Cloverdale had five seniors – including the No. 2-5 hitters in the batting order at the sectional.
Greencastle and South Putnam have several of their top performers back, and many of those were just freshmen and sophomores this year. North Putnam, from what I understand, has a strong group of eighth-graders in baseball that includes the son of head coach Brian Jeter.
Cloverdale only had 11 healthy players at season’s end, and losing almost half that amount to graduation gives the Clovers the most unknown future. However, there were several young players on the field for the Clovers in the sectional, as well.
Multi-sport necessity doesn’t help
I understand the necessity for multi-sport athletes at schools the size of the ones in Putnam County. Part of me wishes some of them would focus on one sport in particular to improve their skills and be a leader of that team, but the numbers don’t play out that way. Tyce Jackson may have said it best in his “featured athlete” interview this year, when he said that people at schools of Cloverdale’s size “feel obligated” to play more than one sport.
This is the exact reason for class sports, although there are several strong nearby Class 2A programs (such as Cascade and South Vermillion) who overcome the numbers deficit with much stronger traditions historically.
A previous column touched on the inability of many kids having time to play summer baseball when they have so many other obligations in other sports.
One baseball coach agreed, without a solution available.
“We have some kids who are three-sport athletes who pursue two others in the summer. That makes them a five-sport athlete. Trying to stretch them through all those sports is tough. It’s something where we can’t put together a team in the summer because of all their different obligations.”
An attempt was made for this summer to form an American Legion team in Putnam County, with players from more than one county school, but problems with funding caused that to be shelved for the time being. Such teams are crucial to extending player development.
To me, an even more important factor would be to increase offerings at the most important developmental level in my eyes – that of the 10-12 age group. All four Putnam County schools have teams in the West Central Youth League.
The league offers divisions for six-and-under, eight-and-under, 10-and-under and 12-and-under. Other communities involved are Cascade, Monrovia and Eminence. According to the schedule on the league website, the season lasts for about six weeks. From all appearances, this is a well-organized league that operates well.
For kids in the middle school range, three of the four Putnam County schools offer teams as a “club sport,” allowing access to facilities but not paying a coach or considering the team an “official” school team. The fourth school had offered the sport as a school-sanctioned team this year, but is scaling back to “club sport” status because it affected numbers in other school sports in the spring.
Every kid may not want to play all summer, but my hope would be that some of the more advanced players would join together and play in a few tournaments throughout the summer – with the hope of being the “franchise” player for their high school teams someday.
If I were king...
After all this analysis, how many of these factors can be realistically changed? There is still a lot I don’t know, but here’s what I recommend:
• Everybody but Greencastle get out of the WIC – As discussed in another column, the Western Indiana Conference is very strong in baseball, and for our teams to compete with long-standing powerhouses such as Northview, West Vigo and Sullivan seems unlikely – at least in the near future.
There are many sports for which North Putnam, South Putnam and Cloverdale are just outmanned in the WIC, but none more than baseball.
For Greencastle, the only option is to get better. Staying in the WIC is a no-brainer for them, and they’re just going to have to work extremely hard up and down the line to make improvements.
• Youth leagues need to be creative – It would be impossible for any DePauw baseball player to be of much help during their spring season. I hope the county’s youth leagues have at least approached the school at some point to see if any players would want to help out in some form.
College coaches like for their players to instruct the sport. Getting as many people involved as possible with good baseball knowledge is crucial.
• Kids need to work harder – However much work you all currently put into your game, increase it. Taking grounders and fly balls and practicing throws may not be as fun as going to the water park or Holiday World, but you can find the time. Think back to your thoughts on some of those bus rides home after a 10-run rule loss, and decide if you want to be in that state of mind again.
Go to a camp or two. Form a local travel team and play in a few tournaments, if you can get the money together. Go to a professional game. If not a major-league game, the Indianapolis Indians provide a great experience for a much lower cost.
• Make your program better, and maybe others will join – If I were to make a list of the top athletes at each school, in terms of physical and mental gifts, not as many of them play baseball as at other schools our size. If the programs continue to get better, as this spring showed, maybe you can attract more players to provide more competition for jobs.
Improve your program to the point where all of your games get to last seven innings, and you get those extra at-bats you miss out on now due to games shortened by the 10-run rule.
One coach offered that “small towns are great if you are winning, but have some losing seasons and the crowds are down and fewer kids play. Some are in when you win, but let me tell you when things are good and you are winning you go to games and the smallest schools in the state will have bigger crowds than the biggest schools in the state. Smaller schools play for their team, school and TOWN.”
One parent offered that “baseball is not looked at as a major sport in the county, and the schools don’t have any funds to help with getting new equipment for the teams. I know for a fact that [his son’s varsity team] didn’t have any practice baseballs at the beginning of the season.”
I don’t really have an answer for that one, but I hope any such inequities can be remedied. Baseball is too great of a sport to see it struggle as it did this year.