BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Inheriting a program that has won just nine games in the past four years combined screams you have nowhere to go but up.
Fort Madison’s Ron Walker, who helped put together the Southeast Iowa Baseball Training Academy, was announced Monday as the new Fort Madison High School head baseball coach. He replaces Ken Steeples who was let go after this spring’s season.
Walker said he’s got a roster of players from last year and every one of the players is as good as the other at this point.
“I think we’ll be in fine shape. Moving forward, the kids have to believe in what they’re doing and trust the system,” Walker said. “The big thing is the kids trust in me and I trust in them. But when the kids start trusting their teammates, that’s when this will go a long ways.”
Walker comes from a steeped background in baseball including volunteering with several area high schools and then spent many years with Justin Schulte, the current head baseball coach at Southeastern Community College. Schulte and Walker organized the baseball academy. He played high school, college, and semi-pro levels baseball during his playing days.
“Coach Schulte was the pitching coach at SCC when I was there in 1997-98. He came back to be the head coach in 2006 and we’ve stayed in touch since then. I was around the SCC program a day here and a day there and then I started being there for drills and part of the recruiting process and made calls on behalf of the program to potential recruits,” Walker said.
He then modeled a traveling youth baseball squad off the SCC program called the Junior Blackhawks. Walker enjoyed working with the younger players and passed on a couple offers to coach at the high school level, because his job and family requirements made the timing poor. Walker is the general manager for Great River Plumbing in Fort Madison and said the flexibility in his schedule now allows him the time to devote to a high school team.
He said, despite the last few years’ struggles, people in Fort Madison need to remember that the team will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Bloodhounds’ state championship in 2000.
“We need to put baseball back on the map in Fort Madison,” Walker said. “Not just three months of the year, but 12 months of the year. We’ve got a lot of great athletes that can bring people back out to the ballpark.”
He said his first goal out of the gate is to spruce up the school’s facilities. He wants to schedule a fall clean up at the park where students, parents, and volunteers can help brighten up the field and create a sense of pride in the team again. He said he doesn’t have a date set, but will try to work that out with school officials once school is back in session.
Walker said that not being a teacher-coach will present some hurdles that some other coaches don’t have to deal with and he won’t have the five-day-a-week access to players and potential players that teacher-coaches have.
“I want to start talking to the kids early and getting them to think about baseball and buying into the program,” he said. “We need to take pride in wearing that Bloodhound jersey. It’s an honor in wearing it and not just not going through the motions.”
He said baseball is a game of pitches and the team needs to learn that they should win one pitch at a time.
“You can win that pitch as a pitcher or a hitter. You focus on the first pitch and then you start to win some at bats as a pitcher and a hitter,” Walker said. “Before you know it you’ve won a game and then you start stringing games together. But at this point, with only seeing a roster, we’re gonna focus on winning that pitch.”
He said he brings a full team concept to the field and wants to handle the duties between the lines and have a good support team to take care of the dugout.
“We’re only as good as our last player in the dugout,” Walker said. “Team chemistry is very important and baseball isn’t an individual sport by any means. They need to trust in each other.”
Over the past four years the Hounds have one nine of 129 games and with Burlington looking to join the Southeast Conference next year, Fort Madison will have a greater chance of putting up more wins without as much travel.
Walker said he isn’t coming to the team with any preconceived notions about what the program will look like.
“I want to develop my own opinion, based on kids and their desire to play the game. We’re starting fresh here and every kid is on an even playing field as far as I’m concerned,” Walker said.
He said the community just needs to look about 90 miles down the road to Centerville, which just won a state championship.
“They won with young kids. The program is what’s solid.”
Walker is joining a group of new coaches in the 2018 season including Todd McGhghy taking over the girls high school basketball program from Charlie Knipe, who resigned last year but will coach middle school girls this year. Mike Schneider and Chad Hannum are splitting the head coaching duties for the boys high school track program after Erin Brenner resigned last fall.
He said one of the other things he wants to do out of the gate is meet with the other coaches about programming.
“The last thing I want to do is step on other programs,” Walker said. “I want to work with them all. I definitely want to get with Derek (Doherty) and talk about the athletic enhancement program and how the baseball program can benefit from what they are doing.”
He said the first time he can practice with the team isn’t until April 29, 2019, but he said he wants to set up some meetings and get with the kids and new FMHS Activities Director Jeremy Swink and start building relationships. He also welcomed parents and other interested parties to reach out to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Swink said four candidates applied for the position.
“We had four candidates,” Swink said. “It was a very tough choice as all four candidates were quality and brought a great level of energy and passion to the baseball program and its future. Ron comes to us with tremendous knowledge and experience with baseball at a variety of levels.