Three decades ago, the Whiteland baseball team was the talk of the town.
Most Johnson County towns, actually.
Butch Zike, coach of the Whiteland Community High School baseball team for most of the 1980s and from 1993-1997, remembers the spring of 1985 clearly and fondly.
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“It all absolutely seems like yesterday,” said Zike, 65, who recently wrapped up his third season as softball coach at Franklin College. “To think that was 30 years ago. … No way. It seems like four or five.”
The only team state finalist in Whiteland’s athletics history will be honored before the Warriors’ home baseball game against Franklin on May 5. The ceremony begins at 5:15 p.m., with the first pitch against the Grizzly Cubs scheduled for 5:30.
Zike will be there. So, too, will many of his former players, now all in their late 40s, to take part in the 30th anniversary of one of the school’s most treasured sports accomplishments.
Achievers, at last
Whiteland fielded a solid squad in 1984, although in Zike’s opinion the six seniors returning to form the team’s nucleus the following spring had underachieved to that point in their careers.
At some point during the course of the offseason, third baseman Tom Denney, pitcher Scott Miller, left fielder Daryl Crouch, center fielder Gary Workman, catcher Billy Margason and outfielder Brent Maudlin received the memo.
“I think they were hungry,” Zike said.
It wasn’t evident at the outset of the 1985 regular season. The Warriors dropped the opener at Martinsville in rather decisive fashion.
“We got home after that game, and I told my wife it was going to be a long year,” Zike said. “But what I remember most about that group is they were just battlers.”
Whiteland responded with 15 consecutive victories then lost two of its next three games. The Warriors quickly regained their footing to win 16 of 17 — losing to Center Grove in the second game of a doubleheader — and entered Indiana high school baseball’s premier showcase with a 32-4 record.
Other baseball programs converging on Bush Stadium in Indianapolis for the 1985 state finals were Kokomo, Jennings County and South Bend Washington.
Never mind the Whiteland high school of that era included roughly 650 to 700 students — less than half of today’s 1,779 — or that the Warriors’ morning semifinal foe, Kokomo, had basically doubled in size the previous fall, having merged with former rival Haworth High School.
Whiteland believed, and the bandwagon was barely big enough to hold the blue- and orange-clad Warriors backers filing into the then-54-year-old stadium.
“The way the town was, it was like the last one out turn the lights out because everyone was at the game,” remembers Chad Warweg, the Warriors’ junior shortstop that season. “It’s not that way anymore.”
Kokomo pitcher Troy Salinas and Whiteland’s Miller were both voted first-team All-State that season, making a low-scoring semifinal a distinct possibility.
However, in the bottom of the opening frame a Wildkats player blooped a two-out, bases-loaded hit into shallow left that glanced off the mitt of Denney and onto the grass.
Also charging in on the play were Crouch from left and the shortstop Warweg. According to Zike, it was Denney’s tremendous athleticism that allowed him to get a portion of his glove on the ball in the first place.
Just like that, the Warriors trailed 3-0. Kokomo would go on to defeat Whiteland 8-2 then bounce South Bend Washington 6-2 that evening in the championship game.
“I think that was the play that sort of turned things. Salinas probably had as good of stuff as he’s ever had,” said David Wilkerson, the Warriors’ starting second baseman and leadoff hitter.
“On that play, I was at second base watching it happen, and I don’t think anyone makes that catch. It’s just how baseball goes sometimes.”
The Warriors didn’t capture the state championship they coveted, but the team’s spirited run deep into the postseason is a sliver of time longtime Whiteland residents cherish.
Not only was Miller superb as Zike’s ace pitcher (he finished the season 20-3 with a 1.65 earned run average), both Margason and sophomore first baseman/right fielder Mike Helton blasted 10 home runs, with Miller chipping in five.
Miller and Workman swatted 10 doubles each, with Helton’s 11 leading the way. Six Whiteland players finished the season with a batting average above .300 — Helton (.392), Wilkerson (.364), sophomore pitcher Sean Seyferth (.342), Crouch (.320), Miller (.317) and Margason (.314).
Wilkerson, Crouch, Denney and Workman all stole at least 20 bases.
“Everyone contributed, and what pops into my mind is how well we hit the ball. We had some pretty good power,” Helton said. “It didn’t really hit me until we won the first game of the (Jasper) Semistate (over Madison) and were only one win away.”
Helton, Wilkerson and curveball specialist Seyferth as 10th-graders played major roles for the 1985 Whiteland baseball team.
Helton remains the program’s career home-run king with 26.
“My opinion is that it was a complete team. Scott Miller was an All-State pitcher, but it was probably the most chemistry of any team I’ve ever been on. I’m kind of surprised we did what we did, but anyone on that team would do anything for anyone,” Warweg said.
“We had a good mix of some older kids and three sophomores that started that season,” Wilkerson added. “Obviously, you have to have a good pitcher to get you through the postseason, but it just seemed it was always someone different stepping up every game.”
Often to Zike’s amazement.
“Anytime a player made a mistake in the field they would make up for it at the plate,” Zike said. “It was the oddest thing. The stars were aligned.”
Zike stepped away from coaching Whiteland baseball following the 1997 season with 215 career victories. Those who played for him realize their coach’s impact can’t be measured in numbers.
“Butch is one of the best teachers I ever had, and that carried over into baseball,” Wilkerson said. “There were people who loved Butch and people who didn’t love Butch, but he always had his players’ best interest in mind.”
Warweg said there were times when Zike’s practices were so tough that the games themselves seemed easy by comparison.
“He’s very knowledgeable about the game and knew how to get the best out of all of us. I just remember the motivation,” Helton said. “I never worried about who we were playing; I worried about coach and what he wanted me to do.”
1985 WHITELAND BASEBALL ROSTER