By KEVIN HARRIS
It was a common sight when Jeffersonville High School let out its students each day during the spring.
Once the final bell rang, players on the Red Devils’ baseball team would rush over to Don Poole Field to get in line at the park’s newest feature: The program’s new indoor hitting facility, which is located adjacent to Poole Field.
The facility was completed in January.
“It’s been really beneficial. We have taken so many cuts this year,“ Red Devil senior Trent Astle said. “We came out of the gate in our first couple of games scoring a lot of runs compared to last year when we started off with slow bats.”
Jeff coach Derek Ellis says that the “L” screens, which are the screens the pitchers throw behind to the hitters during batting practice, in the facility took a beating during the early parts of the season.
“It’s gotten a tremendous amount of use. When you look at our ‘L’ screens, we have just completely destroyed the ‘L’ screens so much,” Ellis said. “When the bell rings, they’re breaking their necks to get over here and get their cuts in.”
The facility has four batting tunnels along with a coaches’ office. Only a few baseball programs in Southern Indiana — like Seymour and North Harrison — have a indoor facility like Jeff has.
The hitting facility was primarily privately funded by the Jeff baseball booster club, which raised money the last few years for it to be constructed. Ellis is grateful to all of the effort the booster club put forth to make the facility possible.
“There is a tremendous amount of pride. But there is a tremendous amount of thanks and hard work to a lot of the folks that we’re behind the scenes to make this thing happen,” Ellis said. “It was just a big idea that we thought about four or five years ago. Then we finally just said, ‘Hey, let’s make it happen. How do we do it?’ These guys took the ball and ran with it. Now, we have a beautiful hitting facility that we can hit all year-round in any type of weather.”
Along with booster president Kyra McCormick and Ellis himself, former coach Al Rabe and Tom Lindley had great influence on the project coming to fruition. Perhaps no one had more influence — or put in more time and effort — in getting the facility completed for this season than did Kevin Burke.
“Kevin was a tremendous part of it,” Ellis said. “Kevin was on the initial group with myself and Al Rabe. He was very instrumental in regards to it coming to life.”
Red Devil shortstop Drew Ellis, Derek Ellis’ son, says the hitting facility has benefited his team a lot this season, as Jeff has advanced to today’s Class 4A semistate in Plainfield against Class 4A No. 2 and undefeated Cathedral.
“Earlier in the year, we were not being as aggressive [as we needed to be], but now as the year is progressing, we’re being more aggressive and we’re starting to hit the ball really well and the hitting facility has really helped us,” the younger Ellis said. “Every day, we’re in here hitting. During the first part of practice, we’ll go out and do our infield stuff, and then we’ll come in here and stay until 6 or 7 o’clock hitting. It’s been really good to us. It’s been a good thing to go into, so we can get some swings in after we get done fielding.”
Jeff senior Nick Gallagher noticed the time in the hitting facility paying off in the season opener on March 29 at Poole Field against Fort Wayne Carroll, which won Class 4A state championships in 2010 and 2011. The Red Devils needed only five innings to defeat the powerhouse Chargers, 10-0.
“In our first game against Fort Wayne Carroll, we only had been outside once, but we faced live pitching multiple times in our hitting cage and we came out and won [10-0] in five innings,“ Gallagher said. “It just goes to show how much work can be done.”
Not only has the facility helped Jeff hitters, it has assisted Red Devil pitchers as well. The facility has given the hurlers a place to warm up and work on their pitches indoors, especially when the weather is bad.
“The pitchers have a place to throw instead of going into a gym and throwing [on] flat ground. Obviously, it’s helped our pitching tremendously,” Derek Ellis said.
Coach Ellis says the indoor facility is crucial for his program to become a perennial baseball power in Indiana.
“When you are playing teams from Kentucky and up north and trying to be one of the best teams in the state, it’s difficult to compete at a high level when the teams that are coming to play you from like the Fort Wayne Carrolls of the world are inside in a hitting facility all winter long,” he said. “Having a facility where we can hit all year long and can get live pitching and where our pitchers can actually throw their bullpen work is critical for us to continue.
“That’s the brain child behind this — we have to have this if we want to compete.”
Astle thinks the facility displays Jeff baseball’s commitment to winning.
“I know we have a lot of supporters out here in the community, and we like to come out here and perform for those guys and keep those guys excited,” Astle said. “Having this facility shows our past success and everybody knows we care about winning. We want the best facilities possible to make winning our priority.”
The facility also shows how much baseball means to the city of Jeffersonville. The city has witnessed lots of success on the diamond over the years. For instance, the Jeff/GRC Little League All-Star team advanced to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., in 2008.
Derek Ellis coached the World Series team and several of his current Red Devils played on that squad.
“I think Jeffersonville has always been a baseball town. We’re rich in tradition with basketball and football, and baseball takes a little bit of a sidenote to that,” he said. “But I think the tide is turning a little bit in regards to that, especially with what’s going on down at our Little League. That’s our feeder system, that’s our life blood. I think that the pride of those guys and the guys that played in 2008 that are coming through the [Jeff High] system right now have taken us to another level.”
Drew Ellis agrees with his father that Jeff has become a solid baseball city, and the hitting facility is evidence of that.
“I think it says that we’re growing,” he said of the facility. “Basketball and football are not the only sports Jeff has. Baseball is definitely becoming one of those major sports for Jeffersonville.”
Derek Ellis thinks the hitting facility will help the Red Devils in the future and influence up-and-coming players to play their high school baseball at Jeff.
“It’s a big plus when they know that they are going to go to Jeffersonville High School, and they are going to be able to hone their craft year-round and not have to share a gym with somebody,” Coach Ellis said. “When you are competing to keep kids in Jeffersonville and keep them from going across the [Ohio] river to the great facilities that are over there. We want the better players to stay here - I need the better players to stay here.
“What the school has to offer educationally is second-to-none, and now we’re getting the athletic facilities to go along with that.”