Jeffersonville native Larry Owens was not going to jump at just any opportunity near his hometown to continue his baseball coaching career.
But when the head coaching job at Bellarmine opened up last year, Owens knew the school’s baseball program was the area baseball team for him because it had the potential to do one thing: reach the NCAA Division II World Series.
Bellarmine nearly got to the World Series last season, but it lost in the Midwest Regional final to Grand Valley State, 6-3 last May.
Owens — a 1986 Jeffersonville High School graduate — thinks it is possible for the Knights (16-26, 7-21 Great Lakes Valley Conference) to take another stab at reaching the ultimate postseason tournament in Division II.
“I want to win a national championship as often as I can. I want to win as many national championships as I can,” the first-year Bellarmine manager said. “I didn’t quit what I was doing to just come home and coach college baseball and to be .500 and be with my family and graduate players. All of those things are important — absolutely. But I want to win national championships. They proved it can be done here with the [men’s] basketball team [in 2011].
“This team was a game away from the Division II World Series last year. They got hot at the right time during the conference tournament and ended up playing in a regional championship game. There are eight regionals and six of those regional championship games last year had a five or six seed in them. There are only six teams in each regional. So if you get to that regional, you’ve got a chance.”
For the Knights to make another run at qualifying for the World Series, Owens said his players have got to scratch more runs across the plate. Bellarmine is 0-19 when it has scored three runs or less this season.
“You need to score runs to win games, and we weren’t scoring runs because we weren’t getting on base,” Owens said. “But they haven’t packed it in at all. They’ve played hard the entire season and every game we’ve played, we’ve been in. We’re a swing away in every game.”
The three players from Clark County high schools who are on Bellarmine’s roster — senior infielder and Jeff graduate Ryan Pierce, junior pitcher and Providence product Ryan Dixon and freshman pitcher and Providence alumnus Andrew Hunt — have liked playing for Owens this year.
“I enjoy playing for him. He understands the game really well and he understands his players,” Dixon said. “He’s laid back. But if he wants to, he can get in your face. I really like him. It’s a lot different atmosphere than it was last year. It’s a lot more fun.”
Hunt is familiar with Owens from attending a clinic conducted by the former Jeff High pitcher in the past.
“I love it,” Hunt said about playing for Owens. “Being a left-handed pitcher, he can relate a lot to me. He’s helped me with my delivery, my mechanics, my philosophy of pitching and my pick-off moves.”
Pierce says Owens has not only changed the culture within the Bellarmine baseball program on the diamond, but off it as well.
“Off the field, he’s taught us to be grown-ups and respect others such as holding the door open for someone and being polite. I think he’s changed it that way,” said Pierce, who stated that Owens used to throw batting practice to him when he was at Jeff. “Playing for Larry has been really relaxed. He offers a new perspective on the game of baseball. He’s taught us how to not just play the game, but also how to act [on the field]. He wants us to have a proper attitude like working hard every day and hustling to first base every time. It’s just the small things.”
Owens wants to recruit players to Bellarmine who love the game and are serious about getting their degrees.
“I want to find great students who love to play baseball,” he said. “I want baseball to be their passion. I don’t want it to be something they just like to do. We want to find a good mix of a kid that is a great student who is here to get a degree and loves baseball.
“I think we’ve done a good job of that so far. The early signing period was last November and we signed seven and we’re still going to add a few more for next year.”
Bellarmine hired Owens as its new skipper last November after he spent seven years as a minor-league pitching coach in the Chicago White Sox organization.
Even though he enjoyed his role with the White Sox, the Bellarmine job was too good to pass up for Owens. Along with the challenge of getting the Knights to the World Series, Owens wanted a chance to work closer to his home and his family. Owens has maintained a residence in Jeffersonville for several years while traveling down to Kannapolis, N.C., and Bristol, Tenn., to coach White Sox pitchers.
“I love it,” Owens said about working near home. “[During a recent] weekend, we played at home and I went home Saturday night and I grilled out. I get to see my kids and they get to come to the games. I get to mow the grass. I get to do things that I certainly was unable to do for the past seven years. But that goes along with that gig. That’s part of professional baseball.
“This was just the perfect fit. I’m familiar with the school, the athletic department and the Louisville area. But more importantly, I get to do something I love and I get to see my kids grow up and I get to be around my family.”
Owens, 45, was a varsity pitcher at Jeff in 1985 and 1986. His senior season was his best in a Red Devil uniform. In 1986, Owens collected 10 wins on the mound with a 1.07 ERA and 127 strikeouts, which ranks third for strikeouts in a season at Jeff. Also in ‘86, Owens had five shutouts and recorded the third-most strikeouts in a game in Red Devils’ history with 18 in a game against Charlestown.
That season Owens made the All-Hoosier Hills Conference team, was an Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association All-State honorable-mention selection and played in the IHSBCA North-South All-Star Series.
Owens had all of his high school success under the tutelage of Don Poole, Jeff’s all-time winningest coach and Indiana Baseball Hall of Fame inductee.
“I think the one thing that I learned from him was fundamentally playing the game the right way and the right way to go about your business when you’re playing the game,“ Owens said. “He also kind of opened my eyes that there was an opportunity out there, too. I had an opportunity to get my [college education] paid for and to continue playing. He kind of showed me that was possible.”
Owens played at three schools during his collegiate career. He played at Bellarmine his freshman year, as current Knights’ athletic director Scott Wiegandt was his teammate.
Owens transferred to Vincennes University his sophomore season to play for longtime coach Jerry Blemker. He played his final two years at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Ga., where he made the honorable-mention list for the Division II All-America team in 1990.
Later in ’90, Owens got selected in the 27th round of the Major League Baseball draft by the Atlanta Braves. Owens played rookie ball that season in Pulaski, Va.
Owens began his coaching career in 1992 as the freshman baseball coach at Jeff. He then proceeded to coach at four Division I programs — Louisville, Memphis, Austin Peay and Missouri State — before working for the White Sox. He also has served as a scout for the Boston Red Sox.
Owens says he loves the national pastime because of the game’s strategy.
“There is a lot more to it than three outs, change sides, nine innings, three strikes and you’re out and run to first, run to second and run to third,” Owens said. “There is a heck of a lot more to it than the average fan sees, and that’s what really interests me in it.
“I just loved to play it. It’s the best game there is.”
AREA BELLARMINE PLAYERS
• GRADE: Senior.
• POSITION: Infielder.
• HIGH SCHOOL: Jeffersonville.
• THIS YEAR’S STATS: .250 batting average (4-of-16) in 11 games.
• NOTES: Pierce has primarily came off the bench as a pinch hitter this season.
• PIERCE SAYS: “It’s been a good season. We started off a little rough at the beginning of the year. We were getting used to a new coach and a new staff. But we’ve adjusted. Now, we’ve kind of gotten our stuff together. We’re on the same page and playing some good ball. We’ve won a few games and we’re doing a lot better now. It’s been one of my favorite years.”
• GRADE: Junior.
• POSITION: Right-handed pitcher.
• HIGH SCHOOL: Providence.
• THIS YEAR’S STATS: 2-3 record, 3.44 ERA, 17 strikeouts.
• NOTES: Dixon has mainly been a relief pitcher throughout his Knights’ career. But he has started four games this season.
• DIXON SAYS: “I’ve had to throw a lot of innings this season, more than last year and the year before. There is more expected of me this year, being an upperclassmen. [New Bellarmine coach Larry Owens] is more positive. If you make an error, he doesn’t get mad at you. He likes to use the quote that we’re all human and we’re going to make mistakes.”
• GRADE: Freshman.
• POSITION: Left-handed pitcher.
• HIGH SCHOOL: Providence
• THIS YEAR’S STATS: 0-0 record, 9.00 ERA, five appearances.
• NOTES: Hunt has primarily been used as a relief pitcher this season.
• HUNT SAYS: “I just come in for a couple of innings, helping the guys out. As a freshman, I really didn’t expect much playing time. But I’ve gotten my share. As the season progresses, I think I’ve gotten better. [The college game is] a little more faster. You’ve got to pick it up a little bit. Up here, you’re facing a lot of good talent. Every person can hit and every person can throw.”