By KEVIN HARRIS
New Jeff coach Ellis familiar with current Red Devils
BY KEVIN HARRIS
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.
REST OF THE AREA TEAMS
Coach Ricky Romans will rely on senior Tyler Willinger (CF/P) and juniors Daniel Sprinkle (C) and Jordan Hensley-Cole (2B) for leadership this season, as the Pirates try to follow up last year’s 20-10 campaign. Three sophomores are expected to play key roles for Charlestown in pitcher and third baseman Drew Reich and utility players Ryan Jones and Colin Martin.
“We should be very competitive,” Romans said. “We return some key components. We’ve got some work to do, but we should be competitive in the [Mid-Southern] conference and sectional.”
The Pirates are excited that they are playing home games on their new on-campus field this year after competing at Charlestown Little League for the last few seasons.
After not fielding a team last year, the Warriors are back in the varsity ranks this season. But Christian Academy might find its return to the varsity level rough as it has lots of freshmen and sophomores. The Warriors’ coach is Zach Prichard.
“This season is all about rebuilding our program and development for the coming years,” said Christian Academy assistant coach Danny Castleman, who mentioned CAI has built a solid middle-school program. “Although we have fielded a high school team this season, we are mostly freshmen and a few sophomores so we are an extremely young team.”
The Generals (12-16 last year) have some experience with four seniors and one junior. The seniors are catcher Nathaniel Jones, pitcher and infielder Zach Mikel, pitcher and infielder Brandon Hardin and center fielder Alec Hauber. Junior Will Copas (IF/P) also should contribute to the Clarksville cause.
Coach Chris Kane expects production from sophomores Wyatt Kissel (P/IF) and Nick Jones (CF).
“We’ve got some guys who’ve played a lot, but we are inexperienced in some positions,” Kane said.
The Musketeers (15-13 last year) bring back lots of veterans from their Class 2A sectional championship squad. Those veterans include seniors Shane Williams (P/SS), Jason Allen (2B), Kaleb Nicholson (P/CF) and Jacob Hornung (1B) and juniors Dustyn Miller (P/SS), Cody Shepherd (C) and Brayton Brading (3B/P).
Coach Mike McBride thinks this year’s team can contend for the MSC and 2A sectional crowns. But he expects the conference race to be tough, with Silver Creek, Corydon Central, North Harrison and Brownstown Central as serious title contenders.
“Pitching and defense will be strengths this year. Hitting is an area of concern. We must hit for average and move runners,” McBride said. “We hope to compete for a conference title and are pursuing another sectional title.”
With a veteran lineup, the Highlanders (15-12 in 2012) have their sights on capturing both the Hoosier Hills Conference Tournament and Class 4A sectional titles this season.
Six seniors are Floyd Central’s foundation in Jacob Snodgrass (2B), Connor Curry (SS), Cody Sunderhaus (OF/P), Derek DeSpain (OF), Kyle Neafus (OF) and Kyle Sipes (P). Sophomore Colton Kimm (3B/P) is expected to play a key role for the Highlanders as well.
“We have high hopes for this team. We look forward to competing for a conference and sectional title,” Floyd Central coach Casey LaDuke said. “Our sectional will be loaded with talent. I feel that New Albany and Jeffersonville will be the top teams to compete against. But ourselves and Seymour will have very good teams also.”
Coach Jeff Schroeder says his seniors must perform at a high level if the Hornets (14-13 last year) are to have a successful season. Those seniors are Cody Reister (P/C/SS), Dakota Harrell (3B/P), Bailey Hall (1B/P) and Dylan Collins (OF).
Schroeder also is looking for contributions from junior Tyler Pace (OF), sophomores Dylan Cissell (1B/DH) and Austin Bowles (OF) and freshmen Cody McAfee (C) and Elijah Weeks (IF).
“My expectations are always pretty high,” Schroeder said. “We should approach every game as if it is winnable. Saying that and getting the players to do it are two different things. I don’t like to lose. More of our players need to develop that attitude, because right now many of our guys are soft. In order for us to win our conference and play well in the state tournament, we have to get mentally tougher as a team.”
The Bulldogs (25-5 last season) suffered a big blow last weekend when they lost No. 1 pitcher and senior Josh Rogers for the season with a torn ligament in his left elbow.
But New Albany still has some solid pitchers in junior Brandon Johnson and seniors Shane Robison (C/IF), Garrett Sherrell (C/OF) and Zach Worrall (1B/OF). Coach Chris McIntyre also expects big things from junior second baseman Tucker Marcum and senior center fielder Logan Striegel.
“Last year, we did not have a lot of question marks. This year, we have a lot of question marks,” McIntyre said. “The lineup will look a lot different from the beginning of the year to the end of the year. We lost two really good hitters [Jordan Striegel and Eric Burnett] from last year’s team and we were average on offense. We won last year with good pitching and tremendous defense. Early on, that’s going to have to be our recipe again.”
McIntyre, who has been the Bulldogs’ manager since 1995, says this is the most talent he has possibly ever seen in the HHC. He looks for Jeff, Seymour, Floyd Central, Bedford North Lawrence and Jennings County to be very competitive.
“Our conference is absolutely loaded,” McIntyre said. “There are 19 of 20 players overall who have committed to play college baseball and nine of them are [NCAA] Division I players. There are going to be some good teams who are not going to advance far in the state tournament.”
The Mustangs hope to build off of last year’s 10-11 record. Leading New Washington will be seniors Dustin Cooper (2B), Jake Harbin (3B), Josh Harbin (1B) and Cory Snider (SS). Juniors Danny Nix (OF/P) and Dalton Wingham (OF) and sophomores Joe Kehrwald (C), Lane Johnson (P/OF) and James Clemons (RF/P/SS) are expected to play key roles.
“I expect us to be in the right place defensively when the ball is hit,” Mustangs’ coach Scott Matthews said. “We want to stay away from mental mistakes. As far as batting, we want to be aggressive and to not get behind in the count.”
The Pioneers (14-13 in 2012) are looking to improve from last season as well with a veteran roster.
Coach Scott Hornung’s key returning players are seniors Justin Starr (OF), Andrew Hunt (OF) and Nick Campbell (C) and junior Ben Shahroudi (SS). Also expected to be key players for Providence are seniors Cristian Ensley (2B), George Knott (1B), Ben Katchur (3B), Jon Davis (P), Aaron Patterson (OF).
“Our expectations are to improve from last year when most of these players were playing their first year of varsity ball,” Hornung said. “They should feel much more comfortable in their roles this year, which in turn should produce a successful season. We were not a very good hitting team last year. But early on in spring training, it looks as if that should be an improved part of our game.”
The Pioneers’ schedule will test them with games against Jeff, New Albany, Floyd Central, Silver Creek, Louisville St. Xavier, Muncie Central and Columbus East.
ROCK CREEK ACADEMY
The Lions will rely on senior Evan White and juniors Jeremiah Wilkinson and Jake Cundiff to lead them this season. White will play at shortstop and third base, Wilkinson will be an infielder, and Cundiff will be a catcher, shortstop and third baseman. All three will pitch.
“Last year, even though we didn’t the jumps we want to make, we saw some improvement,” Rock Creek coach Brady Chitwood said. “We scored more runs. But our pitching killed us.”
The Dragons (24-10 last year) welcome back several players from last year’s Class 3A sectional title squad. Those players include seniors Jamie Valvano (1B), Lucas Barnett (P/SS) and Layne Taylor (CF) and juniors Shae Durham (SS) and Brooks Howell (P/OF).
Coach Joe Decker also is looking for production from juniors Brayden Ware (2B) and Zach Spaulding (C), sophomore Cameron Cook (3B/P) and freshman Cody Razer (OF).
Silver Creek faces a tough schedule that includes Jeff, New Albany, Jasper and Madison.
“If we can gel together, we could be very good by the end of the season,” Decker said. “We need some guys to gain some varsity experience.”
Note: Information on Borden could not be obtained at press time. Borden coach Brian Agnew could not be reached for comment for this story.