If a new pair of softball spikes were purchased for the start of the start of high school season on Monday, one thing is clear: The footwear can stay in the shoebox for awhile.
And moms whose daughters play softball won't be able to tell the girls, "Stop playing ball in the house." Not this spring anyway.
The same goes for baseball spikes, golf clubs and tennis racquets.
"We need some sunshine," Crown Point athletic director Bill Dorulla said.
"We need some drying time," Chesterton athletic director Garry Nallenweg added.
Northwest Indiana has been through one if its snowiest and coldest winters in decades. And while it warmed up some on Monday, more cold and snow is predicted for Tuesday night, meaning that all of the area softball teams will prepare for the season inside.
The first day teams can play games is March 24. Baseball, boys golf and girls tennis starts practice on March 17 with games allowed to begin on March 31. It is doubtful that games in our area will begin when the IHSAA says they can, region athletic directors say.
"I don't see it happening," Dorulla said.
Nallenweg said his athletic programs are up against some challenges right now. With a state-ranked gymnastics program still competing and taking up half of the school's fieldhouse for practice, spring sports are drawing straws to for indoor practice time.
Trojans softball coach LouAnn Hopson will have her softball tryouts/practices at 6 p.m., when the fieldhouse thins out a little.
"She didn't want to have to contend with runners running around the track when she was practicing," Nallenweg said.
Both Chesterton and Crown Point have an option other schools don't. With a turf football field available, if the temperature warms up and the snow and ice melts, the baseball and softball teams will be able to use that facility for some kind of practice.
Last spring asphalt parking lots were actually used for baseball and softball practices. Class 3A semistate qualifying Hanover Central's softball team did not have one outdoor practice before the Wildcats' first game.
"And this winter was worst than last," Dorulla said.
His Bulldogs' softball team has a greater issue because the clay base was taken out for a new "ag-line" surface. But the cold, snow and moisture has not allowed the staff to finish the job.
Dorulla also said the conditions will slow C.P.'s boys golf team because area golf courses are facing the same conditions.
Crown Point's fieldhouse will be used from 5 a.m. through 9 p.m. this week and likely until the weather warms up.
"There's not a lot we can do," Dorulla said. "It was to warm up and we need some time without snow or rain. Everybody's dealing with it. We're just hoping we can these teams outside at the end of March."
GARY | For the 12th version of the RailCats McDonald's High School Challenge, the organization expanded its coverage area farther west into Illinois and south and east into Indiana.
The team is packing in 16 games with 31 teams during April, including double or triple headers on six days.
"It's built over the 12 years and it's been great, and with six new schools that have never been here before is wonderful," RailCats assistant general manager Brian Lyter said.
Though the teams traveling to the U.S. Steel Yard are coming from as far east as South Bend, as far south as Lafayette and as far west as Brother Rice in Chicago, missing from the schedule are large-school teams from the Duneland Athletic Conference.
Portage, the only DAC team represented, will play Clark at 4:30 p.,m. on April 11 as part of a Friday double header.
Part of enticing new teams into the Challenge, the RailCats restructured the costs to the teams. The recommendations for changing the costs came from area coaches who have played consistently at the RailCats' field.
"One of the things we had questions about was that they're always changing policies about things like the costs of the RailCats tickets and costs to get in and to their credit, they're willing to be receptive from area coaches," Hobart coach Bob Glover Jr. said. "I think some of the local teams that might have made a difference, but it also might have opened up the door for some of these teams that are also from out of the area, and I don't have a problem with that either."
Hobart will play Highland in a Northwest Crossroads Conference game at 6 p.m. on April 7. The season in Indiana kicks off with practices on March 17 and first games can be held March 31, weather permitting.
"It's a wide range of teams and I think that's good for everybody," Glover said. "I think it's too bad that some of the teams that have been here in the past decided not to be here, but we talked about it at our school is that we don't want to rob the kids of the opportunity to play."
Former RailCats outfielder John McCarthy helped the organization expand its footprint. McCarthy, in his third year at Brother Rice, heard about the Challenge for the first time in the offseason and immediately wanted to be a part.
"The RailCats had a real positive impact on me ... and I felt like this was a good way for our kids to see the Steel Yard first off, and play in this cool venue it's nice to have an organization give back like this," said McCarthy, who finished his pro career with the 'Cats in 2008.
He helped the franchise pick up the likes of Morgan Park, a high-powered team in the southwest suburbs of Illinois that asked if it could have three dates at the park.
The challenge kicks off with Calumet playing Hammond Academy at 4 p.m. on April 5 in the first game of a double header.
Mike Strabavy knows the importance of speed.
The former Bishop Noll and Indiana State two-sport athlete earned recognition on the track and baseball field for his swiftness.
It also paid off when he had both sports going on at the same time.
"My senior year, 1988, we had a baseball game at Clark and the (Lake Shore) Conference track meet at Clark," Strabavy said. "I left in the third inning of the baseball game, changed into my track uniform and headed over to the long jump pit."
Strabavy won the long jump, was second in the 300-meter low hurdles and was on the winning 400-meter relay team. That relay team of David Olivencia, Joe Cetwinski, Strabavy and Rusty Setzer eventually went on to win the 1988 Indiana state title with a time of 42.36 seconds.
Strabavy competed in track and field at Indiana State for two years, then walked on to the Sycamores baseball team and played for three years. He was primarily used as a pinch-runner and pinch-hitter his first season, and started 100 of 120 games his next two seasons. Strabavy will be inducted into the Hammond Sports Hall of Fame on March 11. He joins his brother Tom, who was inducted in 2005.
"To me, going into the hall, that is the defining moment," Mike Strabavy said. "You never think about this when you are competing in high school or college, but this is a great honor ... I can't describe it. To think I am following in the footsteps of my brother Tom is a great feeling."
He did not play baseball at Noll until his senior year when asked by then-coach Jack Gabor.
"He and my track coach, Jim Tarka, had to work it out and I was able to do both," Strabavy said. "We had a schedule that if there was a baseball game, that took precedence. If there was a track meet, I went to that. Of course, there was the time at Clark when I got to do both in the same day."
Another moment sticks out and it was the 1988 (Lake Shore) Conference indoor meet at Bishop Noll.
"I won the long jump, 60- and 200-meter dashes, and was on the winning six-lap relay," Strabavy said. "I got MVP of the meet. That was something that I will never forget."
Strabavy and his wife, Dawn, will be married 11 years this week.
He is a cardiac rehabilitation exercise physiologist at Community Hospital in Munster and said his career gives him a sense of fulfillment.
"You get someone who comes from a procedure, maybe open-heart surgery, and sometimes they can barely walk to the door when they start their rehab," Strabavy said. "They go through rehab in the hospital, then come down to us and to see them a month or so later walking on a treadmill and coming in three times a week just makes you feel good.”
"I love working with senior citizens, but we work with younger people too."
He said he works with inpatients and outpatients. He loves working with patients to get them to better health.
"It is the exercise and education that the patients need to help them lead a healthier lifestyle," Strabavy said. "I have a very rewarding job and I love it."
Pat Montalbano is a longtime supporter of the Hammond Sports Hall of Fame.
"I usually attend all the induction ceremonies," he said. "It's great to see some of the outstanding players I've coached and coached against get the recognition they deserve."
Montalbano also tries to keep the Hall of Fame up to date.
"I thought he was one of the best three-sport athletes we've had here," Montalbano said of a player he once coached at Clark, "so I sent in a nomination form with his name on it."
Some time later, Montalbano got a letter from the HOF.
"At first I thought he got in," Montalbano said, "but when I glanced at the letter, I saw his name wasn't listed with the 2014 class so I just put it away without paying much attention to it."
Later, a colleague contacted Montalbano and suggested he should read the letter again, this time more closely.
"I didn't think I was part of the conversation," said Montalbano, who was surprised -- to say the least -- that he was among the seven chosen to be enshrined March 11 during the induction ceremony/dinner at the Hammond Civic Center.
"It still hasn't hit me," said Montalbano, who was Clark's high school athletic director from 2006-2010 after serving as Clark's middle school athletic director for nearly 30 years. "It probably will when I step up to the podium."
Montalbano, 64, of Chicago, played football and participated in track at St. Francis de Sales.
"I never was a star athlete," said Montalbano, who was a second-teamer at both offensive line and linebacker, and threw discus and shot put for the Pioneers. "That likely helped me as a coach. Sitting on the bench forced me to learn more about the game. I always felt more of a connection with players who had hustle and work extra hard to make up for their lack of ability."
During his tenure at Clark, Montalbano coached baseball, football, basketball, track and cross country, compiling winning records and championships in most ventures.
From 1977 to 2000, Montalbano was head coach for the Pioneers middle school boys basketball team, which went 373-270 during that span. He received conference "Coach of the Year" awards twice during his three-year stint as Clark's varsity baseball head coach, which resulted in three conference titles, two sectional titles, and a school-first regional title in 2006.
Montalbano also served as an varsity assistant coach for Clark's football and baseball teams, and assisted Bob Navta with Clark's middle school cross country teams, which won 11 straight city championships.
Whatever sport Montalbano coached, getting kids to come out and stay out was never a problem.
"I believe if a kid makes the team and shows up for practice, he's going to play," Montalbano said. "Yeah, sometimes you might lose a game here or there if you make sure everyone on the bench is going to get in an inning or two, but I've found out that so many times it's the guy you least expect is the one who comes through for you in the end.
"All they needed was the chance."
Montalbano still teaches high school math at Clark, where he was named "Outstanding Teacher of the Year" in 1995.
"Being a math teacher requires a lot of prep time, and if you're athletic director who also coaches, it can really wear you down," Montalbano said of why he stepped away from athletic administration and coaching three years ago. "It was time for some new blood to take over. Now, after work I can come straight home and spend more time with my wife (Suzanne)."
Former Gavit star pitcher Rob Clark has a lot of sports memories in his career.
He played in a Little League World Series, an IHSAA semistate, college baseball at Southern Illinois and minor-league baseball. He won an Oklahoma Class 5A state baseball title as a coach, and is also in the Hammond Sports Hall of Fame.
The 1978 Gavit grad, who was known as Robbie Clark, has a more recent non-sports experience that sticks with the Moore, Okla., resident.
Clark is a teacher at Moore High School and recalls the afternoon of May 20, 2013 when an EF5 tornado devastated the community, killing 25 people and injuring 377 others.
Rob and his wife, Penny, had left Moore High School early because they had the last hour free and they wanted to make sure their dogs were safe and check on family.
"We all knew it was coming, in fact, the school had to decide whether or not to release (students)," Clark said. "Their concern was the latch-key kids. They would be home alone in this."
Clark, Penny, niece Savannah, who lives with the Clarks, and their four dogs were in a shelter under his garage. "Sort of like those old bomb shelters from the '50s and '60s," he said.
"We were in there with the radio on and according to reports, it was supposed to hit our neighborhood," Clark said. "Somehow, it just missed us. We were down there and you could hear things blowing around and we wondered if our house would still be there. We were just lucky."
He said everyone who could helped, including his family.
"That could have been us — we know people who lost everything. Their houses, all that was left was a slab," Clark said. "We could have been the ones needing bottled water, food."
He remembers driving his truck in what was left of the town with Penny and Savannah in the back of it passing out food and water to the families that were sifting through the rubble for their belongings.
"You had no idea where you were at because what were once landmarks, were gone," he said. "I drove to what was 'ground zero' and it was devastating. No street signs. A 7-Eleven, just a slab where some people were killed when they sought refuge in there during the tornado."
Clark is the computer and business department chair at Moore High School. He won a state title at rival Westmoore High School in 1994.
He was standout pitcher for Gavit, leading the Gladiators to a 1977 semistate berth before falling to LaPorte. The 1978 team lost to Morton at Block Stadium in a regional game. He said he had great coaches in Tom Kujawa (baseball), Bob Bradtke (basketball) and John Quinn (football). Plus Itch Jones in baseball at Southern Illinois.
"All pushed you to get better and they worked hard themselves in preparing us," Clark said. "Coach Kujawa, he really got the most out of me. I remember he always told us the batting cage was open if we wanted to come and hit during lunch hour. I am so happy he is going into the (Hammond sports) hall of fame."
Clark said the memories of the 1972 Hammond Edison Little League team are as if they happened yesterday. He pitched in the semifinals as Edison beat Puerto Rico 10-7. Taiwan beat Edison 6-0 for the title.
"I remember that was the first time I ever was on an airplane and fans asking us for our autographs," Clark said. "We were 12 years old and to play in front of that many people was great.
"I remember we came back and the Cubs had us up to Wrigley Field and we met Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Glenn Beckert and Don Kessinger. Talk about a neat experience."
He said he enjoyed his stints with the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros organizations.
"I knew it was time to call it quits because I knew I wasn't going to make it to the majors," Clark said. "It was a great time, but you know when it is time to move on."
One Hundred-and-Ten percent.
Some coaches demand it; some players claim to give it.
All Patti McCormack requests is 10 percent. She'd like 10 percent of what Paul Hofmann gave on a regular basis.
"Imagine how better the world would be if everyone contributed just 10 percent of what Paul did for the community and for the people around him," said McCormack, Lowell High School's athletic director. "His involvement. His passion. He understood the importance of developing the whole kid."
For the past two years, Hofmann coached Lowell's freshman boys basketball team. He also was a longtime youth football coach with Southlake Pop Warner, and founded the Outcast Thunder travel baseball program five years ago.
On Jan. 9, Hofmann collapsed and died from undisclosed causes. He was 48.
"We had grief counselors talk with the students the following day," McCormack said. "The (freshman) team's next game was Monday, and the team had a discussion about whether to play it.
"In the end they decided that Paul would want them to get right back at it and play the game. So in his honor, they did."
The problem was that Hofmann's funeral services were the same day at Sheets Funeral Home in Lowell. The Red Devils were to play at Gavit later that night.
"But Gavit was willing to come down here to play us," McCormack said. "We played it in our main gym instead of our auxiliary gym. It was an emotional night, and it was the biggest crowd we ever had for a freshman basketball game."
With Nathan Korth taking over as head coach, and behind the courageous play of Hofmann's son, Noah, who earned "Sportsmanship Award" honors after the game, Lowell won.
Hofmann was also survived by his wife, Bridget, son Zakariah, daughter Abby, and brother, Tim. His "family" extended much further.
"That's what we were, one big family," said Stacey Karras, whose son Kole played with the Outcast Thunder 14-and-under team. "At the wake, all the (OCT) players showed up in their uniforms, and the coaches and parents came with the same-colored shirts we wore at the games.
"No, I wasn't a coach, just one of those parents who puts their two-cents in more than they should. But when I would go up to Paul and, 'Why are you putting that guy in that position?' or 'Why are we doing this and not that?', Paul always took time to explain things to me when he had every reason to ignore me. Not only did he help teach the game to the players, he was willing to educate the parents as well. I'm a much more knowledgeable fan because of Paul."
Karras said the sudden loss of Hofmann will likely require a long recovery time.
"For many of our players, this was their first tragic loss," she said. "Sometimes you can prepare to lose a grand parent, but this was a total shock."
Hofmann coached many of the Outcast Thunder players since they were 9 years old.
"But last season was the final one for the (14-and-under) team," said Jake Cory, who was an assistant coach for the OC Thunder. "Many of the players are now freshmen, and high school rules make it harder to keep a travel team together once they reach that age."
Before his death, Hofmann accepted the head coach position for Lowell's freshman baseball team.
"He was the type of man willing to branch out to help as many people as possible," Cory said. "And it wasn't just about showing kids how to be better baseball players, but how to be better people.
"He stressed community involvement, through the blood drives and charitable fundraisers he got our team to participate in. He made sure our players knew how lucky they were for the opportunity to play travel ball, and the importance to give back to society."
Cory said he will continue to coach within the Outcast Thunder program, which recently started several younger teams.
"Paul started it, and we're going to keep it going," Cory said.
Lowell varsity boys basketball coach Nate Richie didn't know Hofmann before he hired him two years ago.
"But he came highly recommended from my assistant coach (Chris Jusevitch), who coached with Paul in Pop Warner," Richie said. "As a varsity coach, you can't be at every practice at every level to make sure players are learning what they are supposed to learning.
"Paul was able to implement everything we wanted him do to. He was excellent in keeping the players engaged and enthusiastic. This is a huge loss for everybody ... his family, his players, the coaches and the community."
GARY | To talk with former Roosevelt baseball coach Benny Dorsey, you could almost sense a beautiful spring day with green grass despite December temperatures barely in double digits.
Dorsey was an a student-athlete at Roosevelt High School in the 1950s. He still looks as if he could go out and hit a jumper or stretch a single into a double on the diamond.
"I have enjoyed every minute of my teaching and coaching career," Dorsey said. "I was very fortunate to teach in the Gary school system and to play for and coach with some great coaches at Roosevelt and to coach some great athletes."
Dorsey coached three major league players in the late Joe "Moose" Gates, Wallace Johnson and Lloyd McClendon during their prep careers.
Dorsey is paying close attention to the Seattle Mariners, where McClendon is the new manager.
"I think he will do well and their getting Robinson Cano, that is going to help," Dorsey said. " I know Seattle is not that good, but I think if Lloyd gets the support, he can do well.
"That first job (with Pittsburgh), he really didn't have have a chance. They had got rid of most of their good players."
Dorsey played basketball at Roosevelt for the legendary Louis "Bo" Mallard and was a 1954 graduate. He went on to play at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas and graduated in 1958.
Roosevelt did not have a baseball program at that time, but he played summer ball in what is the equivalent to Little League. Dorsey also played for various teams including the AFL-CIO Local 81.
"I graduated in 1954 and all the good stuff came next year," Dorsey said of the 1955 Dick Barnett-led Panthers falling to the Oscar Robertson-led Indianapolis Crispus Attucks team in the state basketball finals. "I was part of Roosevelt's first sectional championship team."
He returned to Gary to teach at the now-closed Garnett Elementary School and then at Jefferson Elementary.
His coaching career got started by accident.
"I would work coaching at the Campbell Friendship House and one of the coaches there was Ron Broome, who was later Ron Heflin's assistant (in basketball)," Dorsey said. "He got me to be the freshman basketball coach and I became the baseball coach in 1973."
Dorsey recalls his days of playing for Bo Mallard.
"If he called me a 'sap sucker,' I went home feeling like it was a compliment," Dorsey said. "Nowadays, kids get upset if you tell them something. Back then, you didn't speak out of line to your parents, elders, teachers or coaches.
"I learned a lot from Coach Mallard, (football coach Leonard) Douglas, (J.D.) Smith. They preached the family atmosphere. Coach Douglas would have us over to his house and those guys were like second fathers to us."
Dorsey and his wife of 51 years, Delores, have two children and four grandchildren.
"I loved working with the younger kids because you can still can make a difference in them," Dorsey said. "I was fortunate, especially at Jefferson, that I taught kids from various ethnic backgrounds.
"The one thing in common was their parents were involved and wanted them to get an education."
Now that he's a part of the training staff at Eastern Illinois, Brandon Platt can talk with professional and personal experience about the dangers of repetitive stress injuries.
The pain in Platt's elbow began around age 10. It flared up as he played baseball at Munster High School, and then went away with the chill of fall when he stepped onto the football field as a long snapper.
He was always involved in one activity or another growing up. As a teenager, it never occurred to him that the variety of muscles used participating in multiple sports was the reason his elbow pain disappeared.
When Platt graduated high school in 2005 and earned a spot on the Franklin College baseball team, he stopped playing other sports. It wasn't long before the repetitive motion of throwing the ball from behind the plate to the pitcher's mound or second base flared the pain in his elbow again.
He was playing in a summer league after his freshman year when he was asked to pitch.
"I had caught a nine-inning game before and someone asked me to come in to relief to pitch," Platt said. "Now I can say it, that a doctor has told me that everyone has X number of pitches in their arm. You can push that number backward and forward through strengthening, but eventually you're going to reach that number, whatever it is. That's when the powers that be tell you it's time to stop playing."
That summer was the first time Platt stopped playing. While pitching in relief, he tore the ulna collateral ligament in his elbow and needed Tommy John surgery. He was out of commission for 18 months. It was another year before he could play at 100 percent.
Then his junior year he tore his labrum. His baseball career over, Platt dedicated himself to his major: athletic training.
The era of specializing in a a single sport has shortened the careers of athletes, says a doctor at Loyola University whose research focuses on how concentrating on just one sport impacts young players.
In a paper presented to the American Academy of Pediatrics in October, Loyola medical director of primary care sports medicine Neeru Jayanthi said that lower back injuries are the third most common injury among young athletes, and it comes from overuse and specialization in sports.
Some of what helps athletes improve in college is playing multiple sports through high school, Jayanthi said.
"We did some of our research here at Loyola, and talked to our athletes about how much training they did 10 years prior to college, and found that most of them played two or more sports for most of their career," Jayanthi said. "There is a risk of sports specialization. It's healthy to be diversified, to unload the body of focusing on one group of muscles."
While football, soccer and cheerleading are blamed for concussions, baseball, volleyball and tennis are the culprits of repetitive stress to muscles in the shoulders, elbows and back, according to research.
"You're also seeing it more in soccer players, and a lot more lately of overuse problems in legs in soccer players where they'll get stress fractures because they never stop running," said John Doherty, an athletic trainer and physical therapist at Munster High School who writes a regular column for The Times. "Soccer players finish their high school season and go to indoor soccer then to spring league.
"As bad a rap as football is getting at the high school level, and some deservedly so with too much hitting ... but at least those guys get a break. Their body gets a break in the winter. Football players spend their winter and spring in the weight room and running, not the same motions as during the season.
"The day of the three-sport athlete is done and it's a shame."
Though head injuries have drawn more attention in the last five years as research continues into the long-term impact of concussions, the effects of sports specialization create different risks to athletes, Jayanthi found.
In a paper presented in May to the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, Jayanthi's research noted that the risk of stress fractures are higher in athletes who specialize in a single sport.
"If you do more than twice as much organized sports than fun play, you are at a higher risk," Jayanthi said.
"Unstructured play" can help combat this, Jayanthi said, because of the use of other muscle groups.
In the case of Platt, his pain at age 10 flared up in his late teens because it didn't have time to rest.
As a rule, Jayanthi recommends that athletes not participate in organized sports for more hours in a week than they are old. For instance, a 13-year-old should spend no more than 13 hours on a single sport, an 8-year-old, no more than eight hours.
"There will always be the examples of a Tiger Woods, who dedicated a lot of time to a sport and became famous," Jayanthi said, "but what you don't see are all of the players who burned out trying to do the same thing."
Sports specialization, however, has been cited to help athletes secure scholarships and professional contracts.
Keeping athletes healthy means working those muscles in other ways off the playing field.
"These are the kinds of things that athletic trainers can look at and assess when they see it in players," said Audric Warren, athletic trainer at IU Northwest and former athletic trainer with the Gary RailCats minor league baseball team. "What an athletic trainer would usually recommend is functional training, or working on multiple planes of motion. ... With the RailCats, I'd usually recommend for them yoga. You're using your postural muscles and it helps with overall general flexibility."
Seven years after his injury, Platt says that he is seeing the results of studies like Jayanthi's put to use.
"At the collegiate level, we're already seeing an influx of the importance of prevention," Platt said. "It limits the incidents of tendonitis and rotator cuff tears."
Fred Yates has received phone calls and text messages from people he doesn't even know.
"One said that my son spent a weekend at their cabin last year and helped with yard work," Yates said. "That's the kind of kid he was."
The condolences are pouring in about former Munster baseball player Ryan Yates, who collapsed and died Saturday afternoon while raking leaves. He was trying to make Christmas money, his father said, helping a buddy with a yard business.
Ryan Yates, who graduated from Munster High School in June, was 19.
The family has decided that no autopsy will be performed to determine cause of death.
A first baseman with the Mustangs last season, Ryan had a long history in Munster baseball.
He was 11 years old on a Little League team that won a district title, and has Babe Ruth state title trophies from ages 13 and 15. He was a catcher, pitcher and first baseman.
"Ryan wasn't interested in just playing travel ball," family friend Ted Poulos said. "It meant a lot to him to represent his community and to have 'Munster' on his chest."
Ryan was a freshman at Purdue Calumet, where he was hoping to work in forestry or law enforcement, his father said. This spring, he planned to rejoin the Mustangs as a volunteer coach.
"He wanted to stay in the program," coach Bob Shinkan said. "He was always smiling, always respectful and everyone loved having him around. The teachers respected him and all are grieving over him, that's what a quality young man he was."
Shinkan said that a memo was sent to Munster teachers that grief counselors were available at the school this week for students.
"He was a born leader, extremely charasmatic," said Jerry Wright, Ryan's Little League coach. "He's the guy we'd give the ball to in the critical situation, and he'd come up with two outs and the game on the line. That's when you wanted Ryan to have that opportunity. He led the kids not only on the field, but off the field."
Visitation is planned for 3-8 p.m. Thursday at the Anthony & Dziadowicz Funeral Home in Munster with a funeral mass at 10 a.m. Friday at St. James the Less Church in Highland.
"This is a guy, even at 10 years old, he came to the game and his spikes were polished," said coach and family friend Bob Korem. "That's old school.
"Ryan was a special kid, and I was a better person for knowing him as a child."
CHICAGO | It doesn’t get easier from here on for Angel Figueroa of Bishop Noll and Kevin Jones of Portage.
So when the two products of the White Sox’s ACE (Academy City Elite) baseball program signed their college letters of intent in a U.S. Cellular Field conference room last week, they couldn’t afford any stage fright.
No doubt the time management and discipline taught by the program that boosts urban players kept them cool in front of the cameras and microphones. The ACE program, which includes off-season training at the Ho-Chunk Sports and Expo Center in Lynwood, emphasizes education ahead of sports.
“I’m blessed that I’ve had people like (ACE director) Kevin Coe, Kenny (Williams) and everybody else in the organization,” said middle infielder Figueroa, headed for Blackhawk College in Moline, Ill. “They’ve made me the person I am today and they pushed on me to strive for excellence and focus on academics. That comes first.”
Starting out at Bishop Noll, Figueroa admitted he was “all about baseball.” Then came his ACE experiences.
“They broke me down to the reality that grades are important,” he said. “They’d check on our progress reports.”
Figueroa has a 2.89 grade point average. He plans to major in sports medicine.
Pitcher Jones picked Northern Illinois University over Purdue and Michigan State. Projecting a communications major with a minor in sports management, he’ll get to play regularly faster at NIU in the Mid-American Conference compared to the Big Ten.
“I wouldn’t be where I’m at today without them,” Jones said of ACE. “They really helped me grow as a person."
Jones cited communicating as the best skill set he has picked up through ACE.
Figueroa and Jones were joined by 10 other ACE players, mostly from inner-city schools, who signed college letters Tuesday. They rubbed shoulders with Sox general manager Rick Hahn, pitcher Hector Santiago and Del Matthews, assistant director of player development and scouting, and son of 1984 Cubs stalwart Gary Matthews.
A total of 72 ACE alums have gone to college. Eleven have been drafted into pro baseball.
High school-level players ages 13 to 18 participated in ACE, which exposes the players to varied levels of competition through a traveling team while emphasizing the educational and character aspects of daily life.
Rich Rust can recall as if it were yesterday when the Hebron boys basketball team traveled to Lafayette Jeff for the regional.
"It was (as if) the whole town of Hebron shut down," Rust said. "Both in 1974 and 1976 we played Jeff in the championship and we had a big following."
He said it was kind of special as the Hawks won the Kankakee Valley Sectional and were playing in a historic gym.
"Once we got used to the big crowd, we made the adjustment and we were fine," Rust said. "It was a thrill to play in that gym and against Jeff. We played hard, but we just didn't have enough."
In the morning regional game in 1974, the Hawks beat North White and in 1976, it was Frontier. Twice they faced the Bronchos in the regional championship and lost.
Rust went on to play one year at Alaska-Anchorage, then he transferred to Fort Hays State in Kansas. Now, he is the concrete superintendent for Empire Contractors, Inc. in Evansville.
Before leaving for college, Rust was one of the best athletes to come out of Hebron. The 1976 graduate starred in basketball, baseball, cross country and track.
He was a two-time Porter County Conference basketball player of the year (1974-75 and 1975-76), all-conference in track and field in 1974 (high jump), '75 (800, high jump) and '76 (440, 880 relay), and all-PCC in cross country in 1974 and 1975.
In basketball, he averaged 19.1 points-per-game his junior year and 16.8 his senior year as he was named first-team all-state for small schools by the Bloomington Herald. In his three-year varsity career, he had 875 total rebounds.
"That was a lot of fun and being at a small school, I was able to play all four sports," Rust said. "The PCC was good basketball, and we had a tough one every Friday. We knew each other, played against each other in the summer and loved the competition."
The Hawks won the South County Tournament all four years he was at Hebron.
"The South County Tournament was really special," Rust said. "Back then, you didn't have a lot do. There was no Internet, cellphones, so a lot of kids showed up to the games. It was like a postseason atmosphere. It was really special for the small schools to have our own tourney."
Larry Crisler doesn't want the next step in his baseball career to be handed to him.
So when Indiana University offered him a scholarship, but told him he'd have to work for every opportunity, it sounded like exactly the right fit.
"I just liked the challenge that came with it," the Bishop Noll senior said. "When I started with Dave (Griffin) at Playmakers, I wasn't going to be the best and that's why I wanted to play there.
"I just liked that (the Hoosiers) said I'd have to work for everything. That will make me work harder. Nothing is given me."
The outfielder hit .467 for the Warriors last season, with 15 doubles, 50 runs and 35 stolen bases. He spends his winter months on the basketball team, where he averaged 19.1 points and 8.7 rebounds as a junior.
Indiana's baseball team is coming off of its first appearance in the College World Series, a perk that Crisler called "just a bonus."
Crisler, who wants to major in a subject that will keep him hands-on in sports, said he had narrowed his choices to Wright State, Purdue and Indiana. The early signing period for baseball begins Nov. 13.
"I wanted to make sure to get (the commitment) out of the way now," Crisler said. "From the first time I went there, I felt very comfortable."
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