There isn’t a high school in the state of Indiana that doesn’t at least try to achieve the success that Shakamak High School’s baseball team has been able to sustain for the better part of a decade at the state tournament level and long before that when it comes to wins.
Every city or town does it differently. Some programs close ranks and essentially make their sport a private club, cut off from their community at-large. Others take community spirit to long lengths, putting kids through the wringer of a feeder system from the time they can carry a bat or wear a glove.
At Shakamak, they do it their own way. The community is engaged, and a long tradition of Shakamak success has created a generation of former Lakers who want to make sure it continues.
The torch was passed anew after Shakamak won the Jasper Semistate last Saturday. Shakamak (27-6) faces Lafayette Central Catholic (30-4) in the IHSAA Class A state baseball championship game at 1 p.m. this Saturday at Victory Field in Indianapolis. It is Shakamak’s sixth state tournament appearance; all have occurred since 2002.
Since football hasn’t been part of the local scene since 1960 at old Jasonville High School — just before consolidation created Shakamak — baseball is the marquee outdoor high school sport for the Lakers. Home games are played at 7 p.m. Akin to that of a town team, baseball is a part of life at Shakamak.
“It’s a tradition for us. It’s a ritual. Everyone who lives here wants to come back and watch us play,” Shakamak senior second baseman Robert Fowler said.
But if you pry into what makes Shakamak baseball tick, it’s pretty simple. There’s not a distinct feeder system and there’s no regimen to follow, at least one that runs counter to that of one person, longtime coach Chip Sweet.
His humble way of running the Shakamak program is the feeder system.
Sweet disavows any involvement with a youth program at Shakamak. He said he does “nothing” at the younger ages and leaves it to parents and former players.
But those former players played for someone, so if you hear the players talk, Sweet’s presence, even when they were youngsters, was omnipresent.
“When we were little, we played Little League and the coaches are a big part of it. We don’t have any principles other than knowing we’re going to go out and give it our all. We want to be class acts. Coach sets us right. We know what he expects of us. We go out there and do it for him,” Shakamak senior outfielder and pitcher Brock Dowell added.
Continuity is the glue that keeps Shakamak together. Though Sweet retired after the 2006 season, only to return in 2010, the principles he’s had in place for his 19 years in charge never went away.
“We do everything the right way, no matter what. No matter what you’re doing, do it right and do it right the first time,” said Fowler, repeating part of the mantra that’s been instilled in him as part of the Lakers’ program.
Continuity is something Sweet believes in. If a standard is set, and a program maintains it, those standards become self-fulfilling as the years go by and players move through the program, especially if that program is successful.
When Sweet returned to Shakamak in 2010, the group of Lakers who thought they wouldn’t get a chance to play for Sweet were overjoyed.
“It meant the world to us. I had him in fifth grade — his last year coaching before he retired — and I was upset. I wanted to play for him. I begged him to stay with it. When he came back? I was excited, I was ready to go, it was a great feeling,” Dowell said.
Continuity at Shakamak is translated into the standards that Sweet sets as well as the parents and community members who buy into it.
“[Continuity] really helps. It takes care of a lot of the disciplinary problems you might have in other programs because the kids know what is expected of them. When they see the success of the teams [that came before them], they know we must be doing something right,” Sweet said.
So what is expected of Shakamak’s players? It really comes down to common sense, but just because a coach preaches common sense doesn’t always mean the horse can be led to water. Sweet, 55, has a way of making sure Shakamak’s kids follow his standards.
“The kids here know me well enough — I had many of them as a fifth-grade teacher. They know what I expect of them on the classroom and the field. I preach about treating people the right way and to only be worried about the job they have to do. Don’t worry about the umpires, don’t worry about the opposing players,” said Sweet, who credited former Shakamak coach Herschell Allen for instilling in him the principles he preaches to his Lakers.
Sweet practiced what he preached in a post-practice talk with his Lakers on Tuesday at Shakamak’s baseball field.
The Lakers’ opponent — Lafayette Central Catholic — is a school oft-criticized by high school fans for the unfair advantages it has as a private school without district boundaries and the alleged recruiting it does to stack its team.
For many small public schools, the private schools are despised because they are perceived to be winning championships without going about it fair-and-square.
Sweet told his players to ignore that kind of talk. He told the Lakers that regardless of how a state tournament team was built, it’s going to be good whether its public or private. He told the Lakers that to worry about the make-up of LCC — something beyond the Lakers’ control — was counter-productive and would create “negative karma”.
It’s that kind of common-sense approach that wins people over. It wins games too. Sweet takes a career record of 328-162 into Saturday’s game.
Sweet’s never personally won a state championship — Matt Fougerousse coached the 2008 state titleists — so it would mean the world for this Shakamak group to bring the trophy back to Jasonville, a town that loves its baseball.
“Brock and I [Shakamak’s two seniors] felt we had to do it this time. We want to go out big,” Fowler said.