Kirchoff won titles at Heritage Hills, Dubois

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Northeast Dubois coach Brian Kirchoff raised his arms in celebration after the Jeeps upset No. 5-ranked Orleans on June 3, 2005, with a two-out grand slam home run in the eighth inning at the Class 1A sectional tournament at Springs Valley.

BY COREY STOLZENBACH
sports@dcherald.com 

If there is such a thing as being born to be a coach, Brian Kirchoff might fit the bill as well as anybody.

The 1984 Bloomfield graduate played baseball under his father, Rex. Brian’s uncle, Guy Glover, became a Bloomfield coaching legend with 10 sectional championships and two regional championships, and gained enshrinement into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 1979. John Heaton, another of Brian’s uncles, took Shelbyville to the Final Four in 1986 and joined Glover in the Hall of Fame in 2018.

Coaching, as Brian put it, is in his blood.

“I’ve been around it since I was little,” Brian said. “I was raised at the ball diamond, and, as far as getting into coaching, I think it was one of those things that was kind of inevitable. I didn’t go to college to actually start into education. I started doing radio and TV, and decided I didn’t like that as much as I thought I would, and then it was kind of a no-brainer from there.”

Brian played baseball at Indiana State University-Evansville, now known as the University of Southern Indiana. However, he was more basketball-oriented when he got out of college. So, he briefly coached junior varsity basketball at North Newton, spending one year there before he decided to look elsewhere.

That’s when an old connection came up. One of Brian’s college teammates with the Screaming Eagles was Keith Ayres, whose father, Henry, was the longtime baseball coach and athletic director at Heritage Hills. Brian caught word that the Patriots were seeking a JV hoops coach, and he came on board.

He also served as Henry’s baseball assistant for the final three seasons of the career for the Indiana Baseball Hall of Famer. The two helped guide the Pats to a sectional championship in 1992, and Brian himself took the reins when Henry stepped down from coaching the team after 1993.

“The thing I learned from Henry, more than anything, is it’s different than basketball,” he said. “There’s no play clock. There’s no time limit in practice, right? You worked until you got it right.”

Brian also learned from Henry that he can be demanding of his players and still care about them, earning their respect all the while. He thought Henry showed him there’s more than one way to coach baseball, and that he can be caring and demanding at the same time.

Being a new head coach, though, meant a learning curve, and Brian was no different. He learned as he went along while coaching the Pats. They went 7-16 in his second year of 1995. His third season, 1996, did not end with a sectional championship — they lost in 11 innings in the Princeton sectional against Gibson Southern, 3-2, but they finished 16-8, and it did end with him believing the program was going where he wanted it to be.

“I can remember, specifically, I believe it was the summer after we lost in the sectional, and I remember talking to [players] Beau Pund and Mark Wahl, and there may have been someone else,” Brian said. “We had just finished at the gym, and I said, ‘Let’s go get something to eat,’ and we went somewhere, I couldn’t tell you where, but we went to go get something to eat.

“I told those kids, I said I really felt like we have the people, we have the possibilities to make some noise in the tournament,” he continued. “I’m not sure they believed me right away, but I really felt like we had some talented kids and we had gained a lot of experience with those younger kids in that ’96 year. I told them I really felt like we could get to semistate.”

He thought his players took it and ran with it. If success breeds success, Heritage Hills athletics throughout the 1996-97 school year is an example of that. The Pats made it to semistate in football, losing by one point. They won a basketball sectional, where Brian was an assistant and had multiple baseball players on the team, and it was no different when the Pats took the field that spring.

The Pats went 17-7 during the regular season — winning the Pocket Athletic Conference — and a deep pitching staff led the way. Andy Fischer, who is the current baseball coach at Heritage Hills, anchored the rotation that year. Fischer notched nine complete games and a shutout to go along with a 5-1 record in the regular season. He logged 55.2 innings, posting a 2.14 ERA. Fischer fanned 47 batters in the regular season against only five walks.

“When you look at the ratio, he didn’t throw particularly hard,” Brian said of Fischer. “He threw hard enough, but he was not overpowering. He just was really good at locating pitches and mixing pitches, but when he did, he absolutely came after hitters, which is a great lesson even today for pitchers is just challenge, challenge, challenge and make them prove they can do it.”

Pund complemented him, going 5-2 in 46.2 frames with a 3.15 ERA heading into the sectional. He fanned 43 batters and walked 24. Pund totaled eight complete games with three shutouts himself. Brian hailed what a competitor Pund was.

Less prolific pitchers, though still capable of getting the job done that year, were Jason Brown and Adam Greulich, who both logged at least 26 innings when the Fischer-Pund tandem did not take the hill.

The bats came out of the woodwork for the Pats in their first sectional game. They thumped Tecumseh, 16-2, and advanced to the championship game. Waiting for them were the Titans, who were in position to stamp their season out again in the sectional championship. Gibson Southern held a 4-3 lead in the sixth inning, when Fischer came to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs.

Brian walked Fischer through everything, but the latter assured him he was going to come through, and sure enough, his two-run single up the middle put his team on top for good. Pats 9, Titans 4. Vengeance was theirs for the sectional championship.

“Andy — and I think if you talked to Andy, he would really admit this — he was not a great hitter, but he did put the bat on the ball,” Brian said. “He didn’t strike out a whole lot at the plate.”

The hardware didn’t stop there. Sometimes breaks are needed to go far in the tournament, regardless of what sport it is. Evansville Central had runners at the corners in the bottom of the 10th in the regional semifinals, with the Pats clinging to a 5-4 lead.

However, Heritage Hills caught a break when Central’s Anthony Turi was caught stealing second, and a pop-up thrust Brian and the Pats into the South Spencer regional championship game.

Going far in the tournament also means having to be an underdog at times, and the Pats certainly were when they met No. 12 Vincennes Lincoln, the defending regional champions, in the championship that year. However, Heritage Hills claimed revenge against Gibson Southern in the sectional, and now it was out to do the same against the Alices in the regional.

“Vincennes was the team that knocked us out in the basketball regional, and so we had a little history with them,” Brian said.

Brian knew the Pats were already motivated. He wanted them to embrace their underdog role by being loose and having fun. Pund was eligible to pitch this game because he closed the semifinal game out in relief. He showed the Alices what he was all about that day, recording five strikeouts and willing Heritage Hills to a 4-3 regional championship win. Brian’s prophecy had been fulfilled.

The Pats’ season came to an end at semistate, though. A 1-0 lead against No. 5 Martinsville did not suffice, as they could not respond to Martinsville’s five unanswered runs. Brian thought Heritage Hills could’ve applied pressure had it capitalized on scoring opportunities.

Sectional championships in baseball have become a premium in Lincoln City, though. The 1997 season was the only one Brian would ever win coaching the Pats, leaving after the 2002 season. Heritage Hills did not win another sectional until 2011, and hasn’t won one since.

“It’s tough to win a sectional,” he said. “You just don’t get to roll out there and play the, ‘We’re the better team’ card all the time. Sectionals are tough. I’ve even heard coaches talk about how regionals may be a little easier than winning the sectional. I don’t know about that, but sectionals are tough.”

Brian only got one sectional at Heritage Hills, but when he arrived to be the new coach at Northeast Dubois in 2003, it became more of a habit than a rarity. The Jeeps only won two sectionals, and one regional in baseball before Brian arrived. By the time he was finished in 2017 after 15 seasons, they had more sectional championship-winning seasons (eight) with him at the helm than seasons they didn’t (seven).

The Jeeps’ record hovered around .500 during Brian’s first two years. They went 13-12 his first season in 2003 and finished 11-11 his second year in 2004.

“I just wanted to make sure that they worked as hard as they can work, and putting as much effort into baseball as they did in some of their other sports, and we tried to come with a fresh attitude,” he said. “We instituted more of a weight program, and I just really wanted them to understand that they weren’t that far off.”

That time came in 2005, when the Jeeps had only four seniors, but an underclass bunch that helped take the program to new heights. Brian thought his sophomore group pushed those seniors harder, with senior Brandon Hulsman being the glue that held that team together given the hard work he put in. The seniors showed the sophomores that the team can be successful if the sophomore group does certain things. The 2005 Jeeps didn’t have many seniors, but Brian valued their contributions.

Northeast Dubois met Orleans in the 2005 sectional semifinal, looking to avenge a 6-4 loss from earlier in the season, but Orleans was ranked No. 5 in Class 1A. The Bulldogs sent Blake Compton to the hill that evening. Compton’s 11 strikeouts and flirting with a no-no might have eliminated a lot of other teams, but not the 2005 Jeeps.

They had their own stud up their sleeve: Theo Heeke. Heeke’s 2-5 regular season record may not impress upon first view, but some of those losses came against ranked opponents in higher classes. His size was atypical for a pitcher, and he didn’t throw hard. But on this night, Heeke went toe to toe with Compton, striking out six and not blinking when the Jeeps offense couldn’t get anything going.

Until they finally did.

Compton finally cracked in the bottom of the eighth inning when Hulsman stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and a 0-0 deadlock. Hulsman took Compton deep for a grand slam — sending Brian into a state of euphoria with his hands in the air as Hulsman trotted home, and sending the Jeeps into the sectional championship.

“I knew we were winning that game as soon as it left the bat just because of the situation — it was bases loaded,” Brian said. “I thought he hit it off the wall, actually, because that’s a short right field there, but he got it high enough and it just carried on out.”

The Jeeps also found themselves in a 1-0 hole going into the bottom of the sixth of the sectional championship against Springs Valley, but a three-run rally, along with limiting the Blackhawks to one run in the top of the seventh, made the Jeeps sectional champions.

Northeast Dubois got more mileage of Heeke again in the regional championship when he shut down No. 10 South Central for a 3-1 victory to send the Jeeps to semistate. Northeast Dubois built a 3-0 lead after five innings against North Daviess, but errors led to the Jeeps faltering, and a 7-3 loss prevented them from going to the championship game.

Brian lamented the youth and the lack of experience the Jeeps had in that game, and how to handle that situation when North Daviess came back and tied the game.

“I think that’s when it really started to show,” he said. “We got impatient at the plate, started to swing at bad pitches, trying to hit the proverbial eight-run homer, just kind of lost our heads a little bit once the game got that tight.”

The Jeeps’ youth ascended to upperclassmen in 2006, but the nature of the beast that is the sectional tournament means upsets are going to happen, that good teams aren’t going to make it to the regional. Such was the case for Northeast Dubois the year after a trip to semistate.

Orleans exacted revenge in the sectional championship with Compton on the mound. The Jeeps could’ve tied the game in the seventh inning while trailing, 6-3, but it wasn’t meant to be. Compton fanned 10, and Northeast Dubois ended 2006 at 20-9.

Those who returned the next year wanted 2007 to be more like 2005, and not like 2006.

“I really think the success in ’05 and the disappointment in ’06 had to happen for ’07 to happen with this group,” Brian said. “They were a different group in ’07. Still to this day, that ’07 team that I had at Dubois was the best team that I ever coached.”

The 2007 Jeeps team had pitching, had speed and had some power. Players such as Cody Fischer and Jordan Jones showcased that power. Brian loved the team’s work ethic, lauding its talent and ability to compete in all phases of the game.

“Jordan Jones was 6’3”, a great athlete, played shortstop, pitched a little bit for us and he could swing it,” he said.

The 2007 Jeeps team did one thing the 2005 team didn’t — get to the semistate championship after a 7-0 win against Hauser earlier in the day. No. 7 Shakamak, however, batted around in the fourth inning, scoring six runs and capitalizing off of two Jeeps errors. No. 4 Northeast Dubois lost, 7-3, ending its season with a 23-7 record.

Subsequent sectional championships followed in 2008, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2016 and 2017, but that 2007 team remains the most recent to win a regional championship.

Brian can say, though, that he got one last sectional championship in as a coach, stepping down after the 2017 sectional title season.

“I’m like anybody else,” Brian said. “I miss the fun stuff. I miss the good stuff. I miss celebrating sectionals and things like that. I miss those kids on the field. I don’t miss the extra hours working on the field. I don’t miss some of the other stuff that comes with being a head coach that don’t involve coaching baseball, which I think you’d get that answer from anybody.”

One of the reasons he stepped down was he wanted to see his daughter A.J., a 2019 graduate, in her softball games more. Brian took a year off, but found himself without something to do after A.J. decided not to play softball her senior year.

So, what else was he going to do except be around the game of baseball?

Brian continues to be a social studies teacher at Dubois these days, but his coaching is currently at another school. He is a volunteer assistant coach at Jasper, and Brian is very thankful to Wildcats coach Terry Gobert for giving him the opportunity.

“I enjoy my family a little more, and it’s really been a good thing for me,” he said.




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