KOKOMO JACKRABBITS ANNOUNCE DEPARTURE FROM THE PROSPECT LEAGUE TO JOIN THE NORTHWOODS LEAGUE IN 2019

BY DEAN HOCKNEY

KOKOMO, Ind. – Four years after forming as a team and joining the Prospect League, the Kokomo Jackrabbits have announced that they will depart the league for the Northwoods League. While the Prospect League was a good launching point for the team, ROC Ventures, the teams ownership group in Milwaukee, considers the Northwoods League a better fit with better talent and more stability.

“We are definitely looking forward to facing a whole new spectrum of teams and talent,” said ROC Ventures CEO Mike Zimmerman in a written statement. “We’re grateful to the Prospect League for giving the Jackrabbits a great start, and the fantastic support we enjoy from the fans. This enthusiastic community has been integral to the success and growth of the team.”

The Northwoods League has been in existence since 1994 and will have 22 teams when the Jackrabbits and St. Croix (Wisconsin) River Hounds join next summer. The wood bat league utilizes players who must have NCAA eligibility remaining. The league’s mission statement is: Provide the finest environment for the development of collegiate baseball players; leverage technology to maximize the operational effectiveness of its affiliated teams; and enrich the quality of life in its member communities.

“It may well be one of the great success stories of American (and Canadian) baseball,” said Digitalballparks.com in a quote on the league website.

Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight, who was instrumental in bringing the Jackrabbits and Prospect League to Kokomo Municipal Stadium, said the move will be good for the local baseball market. The Northwoods League has nine teams in Wisconsin, five in Minnesota, two in Michigan and one each in Iowa, Illinois, North Dakota and Ontario, Canada.

“We are excited that the Northwoods League picked Kokomo as the latest expansion team,” said Goodnight in a press release. “The Jackrabbits have made a home here while playing exciting baseball. The opportunity to move up to a stronger league will give local fans a front row seat to a high caliber of play.”

Both the Prospect League and Northwoods League boast about the number of Major League Players they have produced – but the numbers show the Northwoods League may be the more significant of the two. Since 1963, the Prospect League has had more than 175 players make a Big League roster while the Northwoods League has had 185-plus players promoted to The Show in the last 24 seasons – including 91 since 2013.

When it comes to marquee players, the Northwoods League can call two of the current biggest names in baseball as alumnus: Washington Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer and Boston Rex Sox hurler Chris Sale. Scherzer has earned three Cy Young Awards and is the reigning National League winner. Sale was the American League Cy Young runner-up.  Sale and Scherzer faced each other as the starting pitchers in the 2017 Major League Baseball All-Star Game.

“For me, it was a time where I really got to break out and shine,” Scherzer says of his time with the LaCrosse Loggers in a quote on the league website.

Other current MLB stars who once called the Northwoods Leauge home include World Series champions Ben Zobrist of the Chicago Cubs and Brandon Crawford of the San Francisco Giants, along with All-Stars Jordan Zimmermann (Detroit Tigers) and Curtis Granderson (Toronto Blue Jays).

The Northwoods League also draws more fans than most summer leagues, with four consecutive years of attendance topping one million. While the Prospect League drew an average of 1,132 per game last year, the Northwoods League averaged 1,657 – the Madison Mallards led the way with an average of 6,308 while the Thunder Bay Border Cats were last in the league at 762 per game. Last year, the Jackrabbits averaged 1,638 fans per game, which was third in the 10-team Prospect League and would have been fifth in the 20-team Northwoods League. The NL also has an All-Star Game, something the PL has eliminated in the last two seasons after Kokomo hosted the event in 2016.

Along with more teams, the Northwoods League plays 12 more games than the Jackrabbits currently play – 72 compared to 60. That means the 2018 NL regular season runs from May 29 through August 12, with an additional week of play for the postseason.

The Jackrabbits plan to take the field, presumably in the South Division of the Northwoods League, next summer. The squad is currently battling for a playoff position in its final year of play in the Prospect League after missing the playoffs a year ago.

Northwoods League North Division: Duluth Huskies, Bismarck Larks, Mankato MoonDogs, Willmar Stingers, St. Cloud Rox, Rochester Honkers, La Crosse Loggers, Eau Claire Express, Thunder Bay Border Cats, Waterloo Bucks.

Northwoods League South Division: Madison Mallards, Kalamazoo Growlers, Fond du Lac Dock Spiders, Rockford Rivets, Battle Creek Bombers, Wisconsin Rapids Rafters, Lakeshore Chinooks, Kenosha Kingfish, Green Bay Bullfrogs, Wisconsin Woodchucks.

For more on the Jackrabbits move to the Northwoods League, see the July 3 edition of the Sports Journal of Central Indiana. Request your free weekly digital subscription today at www.indianasportsjournal.com.

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KOKOMO GRAINS WINS FIRST KASEY TOURNEY TITLE

Players for Kokomo Grain of Northwestern are all smiles after winning the David A. Kasey Memorial Youth Baseball Tournament. (SJ Photo/provided)

BY DEAN HOCKNEY

KOKOMO, Ind. – With the skies finally cleared after a rainy week, the David A. Kasey Memorial Youth Baseball Tournament finally climaxed at Eastside Youth Baseball League. For the second consecutive season, it was a Northwestern squad that carried home the championship trophy – this time, Kokomo Grain captured its first tourney title with a thrilling come-from-behind 5-4 win over Southside’s Quality Plumbing and Heating.

QPH (19-8) jumped to a 4-1 lead in the third thanks in part to a Jerome Konopa RBI double and a Ryan Catt two-run single. Grayson Keufner added an RBI when he walked with the bases loaded.

But Kokomo Grain scored four of its own in the bottom half of the inning to take a 5-4 lead – a lead that would hold through the final out of the game. Lincoln Cardwell’s single trimmed the lead to 4-3, then Cardwell scored his second run of the games, this one to tie the contest on a Graham Bagwell one-bagger. Bagwell then scored the eventual game-winning run on a QPH throwing error.

While the bats came to life in the third, it was the Kokomo Grain (23-2) bullpen that sealed the deal. And it was done in an unlikely fashion as the squad brought in No. 4 pitcher Maddox Hunley. The young hurler got Grain out of the third inning jam by entering the game with the bases loaded and getting the much-needed out. Then, over the next three innings, Maddox shut down the QPH attack by retiring 10 of the 12 batters he faced to earn the victory.

Andrew Guerre, Hunley and Sammy Shotwell added base hits for the champions, who were managed by Mark Cothern. The win was the seventh Kasey Tourney championship for Northwestern as a league.

For QPH, managed by Jim Griggs, Konopa and Logan Dockemeyer had two hits each and J.J. Gillespie had a single.

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1972 INDIANA MR. BASKETBALL AND KOKOMO COACH PHIL COX PASSES AWAY AT THE AGE OF 64

Phil Cox sings the National Anthem prior to an IHSAA Kokomo Baseball Sectional contest at Municipal Stadium last month. Cox passed away on June 19 at the age of 64. (SJ photo/William Gibson)

BY DEAN HOCKNEY

KOKOMO, Ind. – News did not take long to spread, and as it did, it brought a city to tears. Phil Cox, an adopted son in the City of Firsts, unexpectedly passed away on June 19 at the age of 64 following an illness.

Cox arrived in Kokomo in 1986 as an assistant coach on Basil Mawbey’s Wildkats basketball staff, and for 32 years, he molded young men into boys while leaving a legacy that is as big as his smile and as deep as his booming voice.

“(After 32 years) Phil was still at Kokomo Schools helping kids,” explained Mawbey in a written statement. “That tells you a lot about the person. Everywhere Phil went, a smile was on his face; and anyone he spoke to, felt good after being around Phil.”

Cox gained fame across the state as the 1972 Indiana Mr. Basketball – a title he earned after leading Connersville to the boys basketball state championship. The title bout, played at Indiana University’s Assembly Hall, was also noteworthy because Cox, dressed in his game uniform, sang the National Anthem minutes before winning the opening tip and scoring the first basket of the game. While at Connersville, his singing voice earned him gold medals in choir while his athletic abilities took him to a third-place performance at the IHSAA state track meet in the high jump.

But with all of the accolades he received at Connersville, he found a home in Kokomo with his wife Darlene. The impression he left was immense – from the halls of Kokomo High School where he was an attendance officer to Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church where he was an associate minister.

“Phil Cox’s impact in the hallways, the classrooms, and the basketball courts at Kokomo High School was measured in the positive relationships Phil forged with our students and his colleagues,” said KHS Principal Angela Blessing. “A true Wildkat!”

His influence in the halls of Kokomo High School helped shape the lives of hundreds, maybe thousands of students, many of whom returned to Kokomo – including current Assistant Superintendent Mike Sargent and Wallace Elementary School principal and outgoing Athletic Director Jason Snyder.

“As a football player at the downtown campus, I remember nothing but positivity coming my way from Coach Cox,” said Dr. Sargent. “When I became a Kokomo coach, I remembered to treat all players equally, and to be positive. Then as an educator, and even now as an administrator, I am reminded how important it is to help our students be active in their school. Phil Cox truly understood what an impact an adult could make on students through athletics, extra-curricular, and co-curricular participation.”

“I remember those basketball camps in the 80’s… Coach Cox would line us up as groups and then lead the way. We would follow Coach Cox anywhere,” recalled Snyder. “Coach Cox had an infectious energy and anyone walking past Memorial Gym any summer day could hear Coach Cox and his campers yell together: ‘I LOVE THIS GAME!’”

Current girls basketball coach Troy White recalls his relationship with Cox.

“Phil always wanted student-athletes to have the opportunity to go to college and grow into strong women and men,” White said. “I remember how pleased Phil was when Kokomo High School started taking our young football players to the Indiana University games so our players could experience what it took to play at the collegiate level. ‘PC’ touched many lives with his kind heart. I hope the way Phil Cox treated other people will continue spreading forever throughout our community.”

Two newcomers to the Kokomo community asked Cox to join their boys basketball staffs following the departures of previous coaches.

“I loved Phil Cox… Godspeed to Phil’s family and his friends,” said former coach and current Kokomo Schools Director of Operations Mike Wade. “Three things are for sure … Heaven received a quality addition to its choir; some athletic angels are getting dunked on; and heaven’s buffet table is getting slammed.”

“Phil never had a bad day,” said current boys basketball head coach Bob Wonnell. “His love for the game of basketball was unmatched. I learned a ton from Phil Cox. What made Coach Cox’s life so impressive were the number of lives Phil touched. Whether you knew Phil Cox for 10 years, one year or 20 minutes; you would have to be blind to not see his impact on this community’s youth.”

Many turned to social media to talk about what Cox meant to them. Tributes and condolences poured in from across the state and around the nation.

“Thinking of the Kokomo community today as they mourn a basketball legend and all around great man,” tweeted the Rossville Lady Hornets basketball program. “I didn’t know Phil Cox personally, but my mom (a Kokomo grad) spoke highly of him as did so many others. When someone like that passes on it effects many.”

“We are very saddened to hear of the passing of Phil Cox. He was a great athlete and coach, but more importantly a great man, mentor, and friend to so many in Howard County,” tweeted the Eastern athletic department.

“So sad to hear about the passing of Coach Phil Cox,” former Kokomo head coach Brian McCauley said on social media. “He was a rock within the KHS Bball Program & Community. His energy 4 life & his relationship w/ Jesus Christ impacted thousands! Thanks for all you did for me and so many others.”

Northwestern head coach Jim Gish tweeted, “Northwestern basketball would like to send our most sincere condolences to the family of Coach Phil Cox. I truly enjoyed each Saturday at the radio show sharing stories w Coach Cox. You all are in our prayers. #heavenissmiling.”

From the Zionsville boys basketball program: “The Zionsville Eagles send their thoughts and prayers to Kokomo Basketball and the family and friends of Coach Phil Cox, Indiana’s Mr. Basketball 1972. Coach Cox was a tremendous man of faith who demonstrated selflessness in all he did.”

Mary Stewart simply posted, “We need more men like Phil Cox in our lives.”

Amen.

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