vINCENNES, Ind. - Knox County has rarely lacked for high school baseball talent, but oftentimes, those capable of playing at the college level are drawn away by the allure of bigger schools or the desire to simply spend their college years away from the area, forgoing the opportunity to play at Vincennes University.
Several have suited up for the Trailblazers in recent years, but the 2019-20 school year will have more area players donning the blue and gold than coach Chris Barney has seen during his 11 years in charge.
Recent graduates Isaac Lane, Lincoln; Macaine Claycomb, Rivet; and Garrett Couchenour and Landon Onken, South Knox, are all committed to join the Blazers' baseball team when they begin their fall season later this month. Lane, Claycomb and Onken were all Sun-Commercial all-area picks this season, while Couchenour was selected as a junior, and Claycomb was the 2018 Player of the Year.
“The thing about all these kids is that they're all good-character kids. We're excited to have them, and it's nice to have that local flavor,” Barney said.
Lane had the best senior campaign among the group as he was a major offensive cog for the Alices' first sectional championship team since 2007. He hit .419 with 31 RBIs for Lincoln before putting together a stellar summer season for the Sullivan American Legion team. He came through in the clutch too. Across nine postseason games in the Lincoln and legion seasons, Lane batted an eye-popping .654 (17-for-26) with two homers, four doubles, two triples and 20 RBIs. He played third for Lincoln, but Lane has the versatility to play just about anywhere on the field.
“He's an outstanding athlete, and he swings the bat well,” Barney said. “He had a good high school season and a really good legion season. We'll see where he fits in. I always say, 'bats play,' and he's proven he can swing it. I think he might slot in at third base, but we just have to find the best nine guys and plug them in. I know he can play second base and in the outfield too, and we'll get a good idea in the fall where he may fit best.”
Claycomb has proven to be a terror with the bat as well. Though he didn't match the staggering .516 average he put together during his Player of the Year junior season for the Patriots, Claycomb shook off a slow start to his senior year and was scorching down the stretch to finish at .447. He was also Rivet's best pitcher through the bulk of his high school career, but he'll likely just focus on hitting as he shifts to a more natural position at first or third base.
“I know he didn't put up quite the numbers he wanted to his senior year, but he still had a good year,” Barney said. “He played some shortstop (at Rivet), but I think he's a first baseman by trade. He's got some nice versatility and nice size, and I think he'll continue to progress as he puts all of his time in baseball.”
Onken and Couchenour were late additions this summer, but they'll still have a chance to prove their worth in the fall. Onken was the Spartans' ace his senior year, fanning 47 in 46 2/3 innings with a 2.10 ERA. Couchenour struggled offensively his senior year while making a position switch from catcher to shortstop. But as a junior, he hit .386 with a team-high 19 RBIs and 14 stolen bases. Barney said Couchenour's speed could make him an outfield candidate.
“We feel like (Onken) is mechanically sound. He's just got to get bigger and stronger, and hopefully an increase of velocity comes with that,” Barney said. “(Couchenour) has great athleticism and mental make-up, but he needs to get better with the bat, and he knows that. They're both going to have their chances, and I hope they make the most of it.”
A handful of area players have played for Barney in the last decade-plus, but this year is his biggest single-season haul from the area. The coach gave multiple reasons for the local influx.
“It's partly a matter of me being around the area longer and being more comfortable,” he said. “It's cyclical, where you recruit from. We have guys from all over, Evansville, Terre Haute, Indianapolis, and we have a kid coming in from Barr-Reeve as well.
“Having Hank Lopez help with the local kids has been a positive as well.”
Lopez has spent nearly 40 years coaching baseball in Knox County, making assistant stops at all four county schools as well as assisting under long-time VU coach Jerry Blemker, the namesake of the Blazers' field, for over a decade. He even coached the Vincennes Post 73 legion team for five summers. More recently, Lopez assisted Bill Beard during Rivet's two trips to the State Finals, and he joined Barney's staff in 2018.
“He's made inroads with some high school kids, and it's been a huge positive. Knowing people here, where he's been coaching for over 30 years, that's decades of work, and it's a huge help knowing these local guys and their families,” Barney said.
Though purely coincidental, the uptick in area baseball players going to VU seems to happen about every 10 years. Most recently, a quartet of Lincoln grads played for coach Jon Adams, now the athletic director at Gibson Southern, in 2008. The 2000 season saw three Alices and two Warriors become Trailblazers. That group was also influenced by Lopez as he coached all five on the legion squad.
In 1989, VU had three from Rivet and one each from Lincoln and North Knox. The county boom from that season continued through the next several years and included Onken's father, Andy.
It's impossible to predict how this year's area freshmen can impact the Trailblazers, but they'll all have a chance to prove themselves over the next few months.
“That's exactly what the fall (season) is there for. We play 20 games against outside competition and 10 intersquad games. All the kids should get about 40 to 50 at-bats, and that's a good sample size for guys to showcase their skill set,” Barney said. “The fall also allows kids a chance to get used to the speed of the game and the competition level. Not only does it help them with baseball, but academically too. With one game during the week and multiple games every weekend, it gives them a chance to adjust to what our spring schedule will be like, balancing school and baseball. Lots of kids use the weekends to prepare for (classes) Monday. Our kids are playing baseball on the weekends, so they need to do a lot of (their homework) on Fridays.
“Come January, they're no longer freshmen. They know what's expected, on the field and in the classroom. The fall is pretty important to us.”
Barney said 40 are currently on the fall roster with 26 having freshman eligibility. Four of VU's top six starting pitchers return, but there are plenty of starting spots available in the field. The Blazers are coming off a 25-30 season, their third straight year with a losing record. But it was the first time the team reached 20 wins since 2016, which is impressive considering 2019 was VU's first season in a difficult Mid-West Athletic Conference. Four M-WAC teams appeared in the polls throughout this past season.