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April 5, 2013

BASEBALL SEASON PREVIEW: New Jeff coach Ellis familiar with current Red Devils

Coach a stabilizing force for Jeffersonville


New Jeff coach Ellis familiar with current Red Devils


JEFFERSONVILLE — The head coaching post for the Jeffersonville High School baseball team has been experiencing a revolving-door process the past two seasons.

The Red Devils have had three field managers during that span. Longtime Jeff coach Al Rabe resigned shortly after the 2011 season. Rabe’s successor, Matthew Rigsby, coached the team for the majority of the 2012 campaign before unexpectedly resigning last May because of health issues.

Jeff football coach Lonnie Oldham replaced Rigsby as the interim baseball coach for the remainder of the season, guiding the Red Devils to a Class 4A sectional championship.

Last summer, Oldham got the interim tag taken off and was named the full-time baseball coach. But in late August, Oldham resigned for undisclosed reasons.

Derek Ellis, the Red Devils’ new skipper, hopes to bring some stability to the Jeff coaching job.

Ellis, who has been a Jeff assistant coach since 2008, was named the Devils’ head coach in November. He is best known for being the manager of the Jeff/GRC Little League 11-12-year-old team that played in the 2008 Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.

Ellis has known and coached most of his current players — who includes his son, junior shortstop and pitcher Drew Ellis — since they played in Little League.

“My big fear was they were going to hire someone from the outside who was not familiar with the program, and these kids were going to have to deal with a complete overhaul again and start over from scratch,” Derek Ellis said. “Instead by letting me come in, everybody can stay status quo and keep rocking and rolling.”

The Jeff boss says his players were thankful that he stayed on the coaching staff when Oldham took over on an interim basis in 2012. That helped the Red Devils settle down and focus on making their state tournament run, which ended in a heartbreaking 11-9 loss to New Palestine in the Class 4A Evansville Reitz Regional final last June.

“When they knew I was going to continue on the staff with Coach Oldham, there was a big sigh of relief,” Derek Ellis said. “I’ve coached these seniors since they were freshmen, so I’ve been around them. And the guys that are coming in, they know me and they know what I expect. There was no unfamiliarity, I guess I should say, with me. They knew all they had to do is go out and play the game.

“I think it was an extremely easy transition for me, and I think the best move for this program was to hire me as the head coach.”

Ellis takes over a team that has nearly everybody back from last season’s 19-8 squad.

Along with Drew Ellis, who has made a verbal commitment to play baseball at the University of Louisville, the Red Devils’ manager welcomes back two NCAA Division I signees in seniors Trent Astle and Isaac Crafton.

Astle, who has signed with Xavier, will be the Red Devils’ No. 1 starting pitcher and will play first base on the days he is not pitching. Astle had a 7-3 record last season with a 1.27 earned-run average and 86 strikeouts.

Crafton, who will play college baseball at Liberty, has had a rocky start to his season. The Red Devils’ standout catcher has been battling arm problems so far in 2013, which has limited his playing time. Crafton was named the News and Tribune Area Player of the Year last season after compiling an amazing .575 batting average, six home runs and 24 RBIs.

Three other key seniors return in Nick Gallagher, who will pitch and play first base and right field, pitcher Mark Meyer and second baseman Dallas Bott. The key returning juniors other than Drew Ellis are pitcher and utility player Chandler Dale, third baseman Josh Burke, center fielder Hayden Robb and left fielder Damin Smith.

With so many key components back, expectations are high for the Red Devils. They were ranked second in the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Class 4A preseason poll, and are considered one of the favorites to win the Class 4A state title.

“The outlook is extremely positive for us. We’re excited — without question,” said Coach Ellis, whose team had a 3-1 mark entering Friday’s game at Castle. “The kids have been through a tremendous amount over the last four years with some instability.

“They have high expectations. The great thing about these kids is all they’ve ever done is win. When they lose, they take it personal, which is pretty good to a fault maybe.”

A challenging regular-season schedule should prepare the Red Devils for the postseason.

Derek Ellis expects a tough road for Jeff in trying to defend its Hoosier Hills Conference Tournament title. New Albany, Floyd Central, Jennings County and Seymour are considered conference title contenders along with the Red Devils. Jeff lost to the experienced Highlanders on Wednesday at Highlander Field, 6-5.

The Devils’ nonconference slate includes several formidable opponents like Jasper, North Bullitt (Ky.), Providence and Bloomington South. Jeff defeated Kentucky perennial power Louisville Trinity last Monday, 9-2.

“You’re going to be challenged every single game that you play,” Coach Ellis said about his team’s schedule. “This is why we play these games early in the year like this because we want to be tested come sectional time.

“We preach to them constantly that it’s one day at a time, one inning at a time, one pitch at a time. Let’s stay in the present. Let’s not focus on what’s going on down the road. Let’s focus on what we’ve got right here.”

Derek Ellis is a 1984 Jeff graduate and earned two varsity letters in the Red Devils’ baseball program in 1983 and 1984 as a pitcher and a shortstop. He set the single-season wins record at Jeff in 1984 with a 14-3 record.

Coach Ellis then played at Vincennes University for two years, followed by two seasons at Indiana State. He coached Little League for Jeff/GRC for 12 years.

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