College baseball players hone skills at sandlot series

Photos by Kayla Renie/The Herald
Southridge head coach Gene Mattingly runs drills with Craig Shepherd of Jasper, left, and Tucker Schank of Huntingburg at League Stadium in Huntingburg on Tuesday. With the cancellation of area summer leagues, Mattingly created a Collegiate Sandlot Series for current college baseball players and recent high school graduates to help them hone their skills over the summer.


HUNTINGBURG — The sound of baseball bats can be heard upon entering League Stadium on a bright and sunny Tuesday afternoon.

Balls are flying in cages, being scattered across the diamond for grounders and pitched in live reps after some familiar names are done playing catch in the shallow outfield. They’re not getting ready for any high school or college games, or any summer action. Rather, they’re trying to keep their skills sharp.

College baseball players are working on their skills in the Collegiate Sandlot Series at Huntingburg’s League Stadium after the COVID-19 outbreak canceled the college baseball season and limited player activity this summer. Players may utilize the stadium starting at 3 p.m. on Tuesdays and Sundays to work on various activities.

Not every college player on hand Tuesday was a local graduate, but there were some familiar names trying to better themselves for when they get into action again.

“I’ve actually been doing a lot of stuff at home,” said Craig Shepherd, a 2016 Jasper High School graduate and current baseball player for the University of Evansville. “I got a tee and I’ve been hitting it off that, and then I’ve been throwing into the net by myself. It’s a little bit different than actually throwing to someone. So, it’s good to get out here with some guys and get some work in.”

Shepherd brought along his UE teammate Kenton Crews, a 2016 Heritage Hills graduate. Crews stayed in Evansville, trying to get back into shape after suffering a hamstring injury a couple of years ago. Shepherd encouraged Crews to come out, and the latter was doing cage work and got some action on the mound for the first time in a while despite being an outfielder for the Purple Aces.

“I’ve been stuck in Evansville,” Crews said. “I work six days a week. It’s tough to come down here anytime and so Craig was saying, ‘Yeah, just come down.’ I get to visit my parents a little bit and play some baseball. So, I drive however far it takes to get to play some baseball.”

Tucker Schank of Huntingburg practices his batting at League Stadium in Huntingburg on Tuesday.

This year was supposed to be Shepherd’s senior year, while Crews was supposed to be a redshirt junior. But as the virus changed things, Shepherd is slated to return to the school and team in 2021, while Crews said, as of right now, he’ll be able to play in 2021 and 2022.

The two teammates were thankful for the opportunity to engage in the live action prior to taking the field Tuesday, as was Conner Oxley. The 2020 Southridge High School graduate didn’t get a senior season, and now he’s looking to fine-tune his skills as he gets ready to continue his baseball career at Oakland City University.

“I was in an unfortunate spot to not have our senior year, but for [former Southridge teammate and now Indiana University baseball player] Tucker [Schank] and [Southridge baseball coach] Gene [Mattingly] to set this up for us in order to come out here and get reps in two days a week and come out here to just better ourselves for our future, that’s what it’s all about, really,” Oxley said.

Mattingly said they had considered the sandlot series for before the Dubois County Bombers season, and after it was announced the Dubois County Bombers could not play in 2020 at all, they decided to go for it. Mattingly’s son, Payton, a player at Asbury University (Ky.), was the one who originally came up with the idea. Schank gave suggestions on how the sandlot series could run and gave input on who to invite and the kind of work to implement.

The elder Mattingly is thankful to the City of Huntingburg for allowing players to put in work at League Stadium, noting this will continue until the end of July.

“The returning guys, I hope they’re ready to go when they start competing in the fall, whatever rust that they need to knock off is gone,” he said. “And for the first-year guys, the freshmen, I hope they get to see these returning guys — how they work, how they go about preparing themselves — and so when they get to their college campus the first time, they’re not a deer in the headlights. They have some idea what it’s going to take on a day-in and day-out basis.”

Schank would have been redshirted at IU this year. He’ll see action this summer for the Jasper Reds, and he knows how crucial it is to get the rust off and stay on top of things with one fall ball period in his rearview.

The 2019 Southridge graduate has made an effort to do some bat work, lifting, throwing and sprints during the quarantine. He’s utilized places like the Southridge football field. He said he was doing everything except getting live reps, and this opportunity means the world to him.

“I feel like the guys that didn’t take it seriously and didn’t work hard during this time off, I think it’s really going to show in the fall, and I definitely don’t want to be one of those guys,” Schank said. “If anybody else wants to come out, if they catch wind of this, we’d really like for them to come out.”

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