Jasper ’96 seniors wanted bounceback year

BY JONATHAN SAXON
jsaxon@dcherald.com

JASPER — Baseball has been ominously absent this spring. Mounds and dugouts have gone empty as the coronavirus pandemic causes cancellations and postponements at all levels of America’s pastime. The closest thing the country has experienced to a situation like this came in 1994 when Major League Baseball players went on strike for 232 days. While the present reasons for non-play are different, the effect is still the same.

It’s easy to be frustrated by the lack of homers and strikeouts, but a glance at local baseball history might help ease the feeling. The Jasper Wildcats won their first baseball state championship in 1996, but the wins and losses don’t tell the full story of that season. They don’t talk about the disappointment of the 1995 season that the Wildcats carried into ‘96. They don’t cover the great expectations placed on a team that had to replace almost half of its starting lineup. And they don’t capture what it meant to start a trend that produced four state titles in five seasons. With that said, let’s look back at the 1996 state champion baseball team.

The year 1996 was the one of blue blood success in the sporting world. The Dallas Cowboys won Super Bowl XXX, the New York Yankees took the World Series and the Chicago Bulls capped their 72-10 season with an NBA Finals championship. But Jasper, a long-time Indiana blue blood high school baseball program, was coming off a disappointing state semifinals appearance. The Wildcats were tied, 4-4, with the Ft. Wayne Concordia Cadets in the top of the seventh inning, but then-junior pitcher Phil Kendall got called for a balk that gave the Cadets a one-run, first-round win. It’s a widely shared belief that the ’95 unit was one of the best teams ever fielded by the Wildcats, which made the loss against the Cadets hurt that much more.

“I felt the weight on my shoulders and had given it away,” said Kendall, 42, who believed he let down his seniors in ’95. “I remember sitting in the dugout in tears feeling the brunt of that. Me personally, I felt the need to have to get back there again.”

“It was my fault,” Wildcats coach Terry Gobert said. “I was trying to be cute and pick a guy off. We threw over to first several times, and the guy ended up going to third and we lose on a walk-off balk. It was my fault. We were sitting in the dugout, Phil was upset. He was adamant, ‘We will win this thing next year.’ It hits you right then. You know it’s a moment right then.”

The Wildcats started the spring of ’96 ranked third in the preseason poll, but that obscured the reality of the team’s challenges. They had to replace seven seniors — five of them starters — and would be looking to unproven guys to keep the machine running smoothly. However, there was plenty of track laid in prior years to help guide the players.

“You kind of knew how to do it the right way,” said Adam Auffart, 42, who was a senior and split time between first base and designated hitter. “We had a bunch of talent, it just wasn’t experienced talent. Some of the guys had played with Scott Rolen. It was a good example to play with those (prior) guys. It was passed down.”

“There was going to be a lot of new faces,” added Shawn O’Connor, 42, who played catcher. “We had our work cut out for us, but we had a few good key pitchers. And with a coach like Gobert who really teaches the fundamentals, we were going to do our part to get back there.”

The Wildcats were anchored by their two-pronged pitching attack. Kendall was the ace with the ability to hurl pitches in the mid-90s and workhorse endurance. He went undefeated and set season records for wins (13), strikeouts (157) and innings pitched (95). The No. 2 was senior Vanis Bayer, who was called the Don Drysdale to Kendall’s Sandy Koufax. His off-speed stuff was a great counter to Kendall’s heater, and confused many opposing batters. He went 8-2 on the year.

The Wildcats weren’t slouches at the plate, but they weren’t overpowering either. They had games where they used bunts, singles and sharp base running to score, and there were outings where they shelled the park. They characterized themselves as always able to get what they needed at the right time.

“We had guys that were great at getting on base,” said Matt Mauck, 41, who was a junior third baseman and the third pitcher. He went on to play quarterback at LSU from 2001-03, and won a BCS National Championship. He also played in the NFL from 2004-06. “But then we had a lot of power between Phil, Scott Kluesner and myself.”

Kendall wound up leading the team in hits (45), batting average (.428), home runs (13) and RBIs (45) that year as well. Kendall, who was drafted in the fifth round by the Milwaukee Brewers in ’96, admits he had a lackluster junior season in the batting department, and thinks the pressure of college recruitment got to him. He believes a combination of putting on 25 pounds, settling on Indiana State University and simplifying his mental approach to hitting led to the dramatic turnaround in ’96.

“My junior year was a disappointment at the plate,” Kendall said. “I was getting a lot of college interest at the time, and I think that weighed on me a little bit and caused me to struggle. I tried to do too much. I went into my senior year with a let’s-not-worry-about-anything type of approach. It’s what I think led to my biggest success at the plate.”

But mastering baseball’s fundamentals set the foundation for the team. It’s a principle that defines Jasper’s program. The explosive multi-run hits and other flashy plays are great, but aren’t a sure thing, especially against good teams. Instead, it was continually succeeding at the routine plays that drove the Wildcats forward.

“Something we prided ourselves on was being a well-rounded team,” said Ryan Erny, 42, who was a senior outfielder back then. “We put the ball in play. We put bunts down. We took advantage of other people’s mistakes. All of those things [Gobert] preached all season long. I go to games now, and it’s the same philosophy we used back then.”

The Wildcats got off to a 3-0 start before drawing their first loss against the Evansville Central Bears. They experienced defeat only four more times during the season, but the winning never made them complacent. In fact, the team had a meeting after a string of games where they felt they weren’t achieving their expected performance standards. No one can pinpoint exactly when it happened or which games caused such a concern. But one thing was clear — there wasn’t going to be a return trip to state if the Wildcats didn’t clean up their act.

“We sat down and had a team meeting underneath the backstop and basically said, ‘What’s going on, why aren’t we better,” Gobert said. “It was an Oprah moment where you let anyone say anything.”

To that end, Gobert decided to shake things up a bit near the end of the regular season. The back half of May was filled with home games, and it was understood that particular period was for easing the team into sectional. But Gobert chose to keep pushing the Wildcats and further drill in the fundamentals and situational preparation.

“If you want to get back to Indianapolis and win, we have to get a hell of a lot better,” he recalled telling the team. “We practiced almost every day, even days of games. I thought that made all the difference in the world.”

The postseason results certainly bore that out. Jasper blanked Pike Central, Southridge and Forest Park in sectionals. The Wildcats followed that with dominant wins over Washington and Tell City in regionals. They then blew through Vincennes Lincoln in the semi-state semifinal, but encountered a stiff test against Floyd Central. Both teams went scoreless across the first two innings, but one swing from Kendall’s bat in the third put three Jasper runs on the board. The Highlanders fought back to make it a one-run game, but Kendall, who started the game at first base, took his place on the mound in the fifth, extinguishing Floyd Central’s lineup with six Ks. Add in a critical, late-game double-play throw from O’Connor to Mauck and the Wildcats were going back to state.

“Our season really took off once we won the sectional,” said Kendall. “There was nobody taking time off, everybody was pushing each other. Once that final out was made (against Floyd Central), we realized we accomplished what we set out to accomplish.”

But the championship march was not complete, and the next step brought Jasper face to face with the juggernaut known as Center Grove. The Trojans were 32-1 going into the state semifinals, and had a murderous collection of bats. Everyone in their lineup was hitting at least .330 for the season. A few were batting .400, and a few more were clipping pitchers at .500. Their best guy was senior first baseman A.J. Zapp, who was hitting .524 with 16 home runs. He was also named Indiana’s Mr. Baseball that year. The matchup between Zapp and Kendall was billed as the Suburban Slugger vs. the Rural Rocket.

“I knew they were an offensive powerhouse,” Kendall said. “Four of those guys were my teammates in the summer. Part of us felt we were overmatched, but we had the confidence of [realizing] we’re the team that’s been here before. And we realized we were playing them in a ballpark that was major league-sized. We just had to take their best shot and, hopefully, get some of our own.”

“If you read all the headlines going into that, Jasper really wasn’t supposed to have a chance,” O’Connor added. “They’re a bigger school. They play tougher competition throughout the year. They did not start their ace. They were saving their ace for the championship. We went into the game fairly loose. We were the underdog.”

Gobert compared his first couple of times at state to walking on eggshells. It was awkward, uncomfortable even. The nervous energy made him feel almost out of place in his own sport. But this time it would be different. It didn’t matter that a giant was in front of the Wildcats. They were in Indianapolis for a purpose.

“The first two times as a head coach I was like, ‘Yes sir, no sir,’” he said. “In ’96, we were polite, but we let nothing get in our way. We were that locked in. We got Phil, and we were going to put a saddle on him.”

“I wouldn’t say the physical aspect of pitching was any different, it was more the mental approach,” Kendall added. “I had to take the mentality that I can’t try to do this by myself. My goal was to use the ballpark to my advantage. If we were playing at Ruxer Field, I probably would have given up 15 runs. But the fact we were playing in the spacious ballpark of Bush Stadium allowed me to be more pitch-to-contact.”

The stage was set, and the Wildcats and Trojans met in the state semis on the morning of June 22. Many prognosticators predicted the game would be full of hits, but which team they came from was a different story. In a stunning reversal, the Wildcats beat the Trojans at their own game by outslugging them en route to a 12-7 win. Kendall threw 138 pitches across 61⁄3 innings for six hits, seven runs and seven strikeouts Sophomore designated hitter Scott Kluesner announced himself with a 2-for-4 outing with six RBIs. Zapp finished 1 for 2 with an RBI. The Wildcats also broke an 0-6 all-time record in state semifinals appearances.

“We were just destined to fulfill the dreams we had the year before,” Mauck said. “We knew what it felt like to lose, and we didn’t want to have that feeling again.”

Later that night, the Wildcats played the Merrillville Pirates in the final. The Wildcats didn’t know much about the Pirates going into their game, but that didn’t faze them. The Pirates were just another obstacle between them and a state championship.

“We didn’t really know Merrillville at all,” Auffart said. “We kind of felt like they’re here and we’re here. Let’s go out there and see if we can win.”

The Wildcats went up big on the Pirates early, building a six-run lead by the end of the third inning. But the Pirates weren’t willing to go quietly. They scored a run in the fourth and followed with three more in the fifth. The game became a one-run affair by the end of the sixth, and Jasper’s fans were certainly starting to squirm in their seats. So, late-game errors led to a bit of concern in the Wildcats’ dugout, but never enough to douse the hope and confidence of the Black and Gold.

“That’s where the preparation from back in February shows,” O’Connor said. “When you have the fundamentals down and you practice every possible situation throughout the whole year, you’re pretty ready for it.”

The Wildcats put all fears of choking to bed when they exploded for six runs in the seventh inning. The team sent 11 batters to the plate and went through three different Pirates pitchers. Mauck had the most emphatic hit when he blasted a two-run triple during the salvo. Bayer started the night game and gave everything he had to the Pirates, which included three strikeouts. But when he ran out of gas, it was Kendall who went back onto the mound to close it out. He said his arm was beat from the morning game, but he mustered what little he had left to strike out three in two innings to slam the door on the Pirates, 13-7. Kendall ended state with a balk in ’95, but he finished state with a save in ’96.

“That was a position I wanted to be in,” he said. “Being the guy that balked in the winning run that cost us a state championship, there was nothing I wanted more than to be the guy on the mound to try to be the one that won the state championship.”

The Wildcats piled onto the field after the final out was recorded. They finished 31-5 and completed a mission that started at the end of the ’95 season. They also made quite a bit of history. The state championship was the first ever for Jasper’s baseball program, and the second state title in any sport for the school, the first being the Wildcats’ state basketball championship in 1949. The Wildcats also set a record for the most runs in a championship game, and tied Evansville Memorial for most hits with 13. How much all that history mattered in the moment is anyone’s guess, but it probably didn’t top the feeling of being the last team standing that season.

“All that hard work was worth it,” Erny said. “We’d been so close the year before, and now got the job done. There was a big dog pile like when you’re watching the World Series. To get to experience that as a kid was a great feeling.”

The Wildcats went on to win two more consecutive state championships, plus another one in 2000 to make it four in five seasons. Gobert wondered if he would ever win a state title after failing to do so with the ’92 group that featured Scott Rolen, but the years have proved the words of Indiana Baseball Hall of Famer Ken Schreiber to be true.

“He said, ‘You’ll be surprised,’” Gobert said. “He said, ‘You’ll win one, and it’ll be with a team you probably least expect to.’ Then he goes, ‘After you win the first one, the door will be open.’ It gave me a lot of hope.”

The players from ’96 are all proud to have etched their names in the annals of Jasper baseball history with their state title, but they are also quick to credit the seniors from ’95 with handing them the baton to carry across the finish line. But what they cherish the most are the bonds of friendship that were forged from coming together and executing a shared mission almost 25 years ago.

“People don’t believe me when I say this, but I’ve always told people I would trade in that contract with the (Milwaukee) Brewers for that state championship any day,” Kendall said. “I played with a lot of teammates in the minor leagues, and I don’t have a friendship with any one of those guys. But I look at the guys that were on that (state) team, and I’m at least very good friends with four or five of them. And the other ones I see out in public, we sit around and talk and have a good time.”




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