Wildcats boasted talented '92 squadAugust 30, 2021
By GREG ECKERLE
Because of the precarious nature of Indiana’s high school baseball tournament, sometimes the most talented team doesn’t win.
Take the case of the 1992 Jasper Wildcats, who posted an impressive 32-2 record. They had it all — pitching, defense, hitting, bunting, running, and depth.
“That team was loaded,” said Terry Gobert, Jasper’s head coach since 1988. As far as talent, Gobert noted “it would be hard to beat them.”
In 1991, Jasper won 17 consecutive games before losing to Marion, 5-4, in the Final Four. The top four pitchers returned in 1992, as well as five position regulars. Six of the eight 1992 seniors played college baseball — catcher Chris Himsel, pitcher/left fielder Cory Luebbehusen, first baseman/pitcher Scott Kunkel, pitcher Andy Noblitt, shortstop Jason Taber, and pitcher/second baseman Kevin Werner. Right fielder Jody Friedman could have, but opted to study dentistry at IU, while center fielder Jason Wibbels played college football. The two junior starters were third baseman Dustin Bradley, who also played college baseball, and the multi-position Scott Rolen, a future seven-time Major League All-Star.
Jasper began 1992 ranked number three in the state’s single class system, vaulted to number one after a couple of weeks, and remained there for a month in the midst of winning its first 17 games. It didn’t lose again until the semi-state championship.
Opponents naturally wanted to beat the Wildcats more than anyone, routinely saving their ace pitcher to face Jasper. In early April, Jasper won 5-1 over Bedford North Lawrence’s Jeremy Buck, who later pitched at the University of North Carolina and Purdue. Then came a 1-0 victory over Princeton, thanks to a Himsel home run off of Clemson-bound Cabott Woods. Number eight Northview and its Indiana State-bound pitcher, Micah Workman, fell 6-0 in early May. The Cats beat Forest Park, 11-3, and Brian Partenheimer, who later starred at Indiana University.
Jasper’s lone regular season loss came at Gibson Southern, 3-1, as Luebbehusen had his 25-inning scoreless pitching streak snapped. The winning blow was a highly unusual two-run homer.
“I remember Coach Gobert coming out, it was their last batter, and saying they were probably going to bunt,” said Luebbehusen, who had a miniscule .67 ERA that year. “He said to just make the play. So I rear back, the kid squares to bunt, I was trying to throw a strike, he pulls it back and hits a home run. Wow. Then Rolen later hits one about 420 feet foul.”
Gobert recalled going out to the mound after the home run and hearing umpire Fred Cooper say, “’Be nice, Terry, he didn’t mean to serve that up.’ ”
Noblitt thinks Rolen flew out to the warning track three times with players on base. Rolen, Indiana’s Mr. Baseball in 1993, was battling Allen Stunkel, who was Indiana’s Mr. Baseball in 1994.
“It was a crazy game,” said Noblitt. “The funny part, everybody on our team was nervous that we were going to run because we lost. But we really just talked about what had happened. I thought Coach Gobert won the team over that day by treating us very well and talking about our mistakes and just moving on to the next game.”
Jasper went on to beat Boonville, 5-2, and Ryan McKinney, who later pitched for Purdue. Then came a big win against South Spencer, 13-2.
“We were really excited to play those guys,” said Noblitt. “We maybe surprised some people that we played really well, especially against a team we knew was pretty good.”
Jasper clobbered another tough team, number seven Heritage Hills, 10-2, and its ace, Justin Crews, who later played at Ball State. Werner then twirled a perfect game against Pike Central, 5-0.
But the next game against Pike Central in the sectional championship about a week later was much different, a nail-biting, 5-2 twelve-inning win. The big scare came in the bottom of the seventh, when left fielder Luebbehusen caught a deep fly ball that initially looked like it had home run, walk-off win distance.
“I went back, touched the fence, and came in maybe a step or so to make the catch,” said Luebbehusen. “When I came in the dugout, I learned assistant coach Jerald Roberts had said, ‘It’s gone!’ when the ball was hit, and Coach Gobert is like, ‘Shut up, Jerald!’ So everybody in the dugout was just as nervous as we were out there.”
Jasper, then ranked number two in the state, won the regional, as did rival Evansville Memorial, then ranked number one and featuring eight future collegiate players. Both won their first game of the semi-state, setting up a much-anticipated clash in Jasper of number one versus number two for the semi-state championship. An estimated 5,000 fans swamped the Jasper facility. Some temporary bleachers were installed around the outfield fence. Fans brought lawn chairs to sit in other areas behind the fence, while some stood in three-deep rows.
“I’ve never seen the place packed like that night,” said Gobert. “Every pitch was such a big deal.”
The throng was already in place when Steve Fisher, the home plate umpire, came out of the school building beyond center field to walk to the game after getting dressed. Upon seeing the crowd, Fisher, who was rated the number one umpire in the state that year by coaches, said, “I about peed down my leg. It was unbelievable. It was the largest crowd I ever umpired in front of, and the biggest game of my life. Early in the game, Scott Rolen was at bat, and I thought the count was two and two, when it was really two and one. A curve ball came in, Scott took it, and I rung him up like it was strike three. Scott looked at me, and said, without raising his voice and politely as he could, ‘Steve, that’s only two strikes.’ I looked at my counter and said, ‘Scott, you’re right, I didn’t mean to embarrass you.’ He got a hit on the next pitch. I don’t ever remember him complaining about a call, even if we missed it. He was always a gentleman and a true professional.”
Knowing the importance of the game, and the talent of Rolen, Fisher kept a baseball from his umpiring bag, hoping to have Rolen autograph it someday. He carried the ball in his car for 26 years, before finally meeting Rolen again at the 2018 Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame banquet, where Rolen gladly signed the ball.
Jasper led Memorial, 6-3, after three innings, and 6-4 after four innings, when disaster struck in the bottom of the fifth. Third baseman Dustin Bradley, who was voted Jasper’s Most Valuable Defensive Player the next year, was hit by a pitch above the elbow and had to leave the game.
First base umpire Dave Kavanaugh said, “I thought that was the turning point. We really felt for Terry.”
Assistant coach Dan Scherry noted, “It messed up the chemistry, because Dustin was a rock of that team. That was probably deflating.”
Jasper’s stellar defense had committed only 30 errors in the prior 33 games. But the Cats made three errors in the top of the sixth, part of five for the game, and Memorial scored five runs to take the final lead of 9-6. John Ambrose, a future Triple-A pitcher, shut the Cats down the last four innings.
As painful as the loss was, Gobert was proud of his players’ reaction. “I have never forgotten the way they handled it. No team I’ve had wanted to win more than them, but they picked themselves up, shook hands, and not one kid did anything disappointing, nobody making a scene or throwing anything.
“I didn’t cry after that loss until about six months later. I was in the shower and a song came on (with the lyrics) ‘what’s going on?’ That’s what it felt like when our wheels came off, I remember yelling something like that (during the game), and I finally started bawling. I just felt if ever a team’s going to win it, it would be that group. They policed themselves, they played hard, they pulled for each other, they were just a fun group, I enjoyed going to practice. At the time, I thought if I can’t help them win, I’m never going to help anybody win, because we were strong everywhere. I’m sure I did some stupid things.”
But Gobert admittedly grew as a coach because of the experience. Six state championships have followed, and four runner-up teams.
Besides talent, the 1992 team had some characters. Werner earned the nickname “Chainsaw” on field improvement day when teammates spotted him beyond the third base line, hanging with one arm from a tree branch while using the other arm to wield a chainsaw to cut off a limb above the fence.
In the 1991 state finals, Himsel took a foul ball off his catcher’s cup. “I was obviously jarred, I needed a minute to sit there,” he said. “I saw Doctor Bernie Nonte, our trainer, in the dugout. I waved him out. He said, ‘what do you want me to do?’ I said, ‘Nothing, but this will give you free advertising on WITZ.’ ”
The team often bowled and fished together, and Kunkel, an avid fisherman, often urged opposing batters to “put your spinner back in the tackle box.” Himsel also noted, “Werner batted lead off and Kunkel batted second a lot. Kunkel joked that those two set the table for Rolen to make the Major Leagues, because Rolen kept knocking them in for RBIs.” Rolen had an incredibly efficient 58 RBIs on 56 hits in 34 games, while batting .500. Noblitt thought it really helped that Rolen started pitching some, too. “That kept everybody fresh, and his 91 mile an hour fastball got outs. And as a hitter he was very patient and unselfish.”
The team hit .335 and scored 307 runs, tied for second in Jasper’s history. The lineup was so potent that the last batter, Himsel, had five home runs. Their defensive average of .964 is Jasper’s third-best. The pitchers hurled 13 shutouts, tied with the 1939 15-0 team. Himsel said of the staff’s ace, Noblitt, “When Andy took the mound, you could see in his eyes he wasn’t going to lose. That rubs off on everybody else.” Umpire Fisher termed Noblitt “a real bulldog.” Noblitt credits his father, Don, and former coach Ray Howard for “making sure I was not throwing the ball straight, and trying to get movement, it was key to me to move the ball around.” Noblitt also liked Himsel’s “presence behind the plate, his grittiness, his fist-pumping, his enthusiasm for playing was contagious.”
Himsel remembered Wibbels having a “rocket arm” in center, and Gobert hitting extra balls to Wibbels in warm-ups just to watch him throw. Opponents took note, too, rarely trying to take an extra base on Wibbels.
Gobert noted Taber as being “as good a shortstop as we’ve had,” and that it was “huge” how Friedman moved to the outfield after losing the catcher’s job.
Kavanaugh, who umpired 38 years, said, “I don’t think a Jasper player ever disrespected Steve (Fisher) or me as an umpire. I attribute that to the coaches.”
Noblitt remembered, “If kids were going to play for Coach Gobert, they were going to learn to do things the right way. He started a family culture but also a work culture. His culture of having fun but also being disciplined has paid great dividends.” Scherry, who assisted Gobert for ten years, said, “Terry turned baseball into a more aggressive, energetic sport. And he read a lot about self-improvement, constantly trying to improve.”
Himsel looked back at how hard they trained and acknowledged he’d do it again. “I cherish what it meant to be part of that team. Coach Gobert taught us not only to respect the game, but respect yourselves. Baseball teaches you not only how not to lose, but how not to lose in life. Coach Gobert taught you how to be a winner.”
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