KNIGHTSTOWN — The last time Knightstown baseball visited Greenfield-Central, on April 26, 2012, it took an 11-1 loss. It was an ordinary defeat in a putrid season for the Panthers, who finished the 2012 campaign at 1-24.
The Panthers will return to Greenfield’s Molinder Field today as the state’s Class 2A No. 8-ranked team, sporting a 10-1 record. And the man in charge of the Knightstown dugout was on the Cougars’ side of the field two years ago.
Daren Hardesty is in his first season as head coach of the resurgent Knightstown baseball program.
“I think from that point (in 2012), the kids knew things couldn’t get any worse,” said Hardesty, a 2003 Pendleton Heights grad who was the pitching coach at Greenfield-Central for five seasons from 2008 through 2012. “And it really hardened a lot of those kids. We have a lot of players on our team now who went through that one-win season.
“And nothing fazes them. That’s what I’ve been impressed with the most. Nothing gets them off their game.”
Hardesty worked at G-C under head coach Travis Keesling, a fellow Pendleton Heights alum, then followed Keesling to Madison County when Keesling took over the Arabians’ program last season.
Keesling began his coaching career as an assistant at PH in 2003 under the legendary Bill Stoudt before heading to Greenfield, and it was in 2003 that Hardesty went 8-0 on the mound as a senior for Pendleton’s 32-2 team.
“He was a really good player,” Keesling recalled. “And he’s an awesome coach. I’m absolutely not surprised by his success.
“For my own selfish reasons, I hated to see him go, but you know what, you can’t keep the good ones as assistants very long. I knew at some point in time he was going to take over a program and being extremely successful doing it.”
After playing for the Arabians (who fell in the 2003 regional final to New Palestine), Hardesty went on to pitch for Indiana Wesleyan, where he earned a teaching license. He’s currently a teacher at Knightstown Intermediate by day, and the head coach of a hungry baseball team the remaining hours.
Although the Panthers haven’t always been as bad that 2012 season might indicate, the program hasn’t claimed a sectional title since 1981.
“That’s been the No. 1 goal from day one,” Hardesty said. “Conference isn’t a goal. Winning games, yeah that’s important, but sectional is the focus.
“It’s been 33 years. A lot of the guys from that (1981) team are still around, and I’ve talked to them. They’re really excited. So I’ve reminded our players, ‘Hey, we’re not only doing this for ourselves, this is about the community and everyone who came before you.’”
Hardesty is quick not to take credit for the Panthers’ rise. His coaching staff includes Joe Haase – a 2008 Knightstown grad and the 2012 Big Ten Pitcher of the Year for Purdue.
And Hardesty is one of two coaches with Hancock County connections that had been part of Panthers’ impressive turnaround.
In his one and only season at Mt. Vernon in 2011, Eric Nielsen coached the Marauders to their first sectional title since 1995. School budget cuts forced the layoffs of Nielsen and other MV teachers, and he took a coaching and teaching and position at Knightstown.
It was Nielsen’s first team in 2012 that produced the 1-24 record. Last season, before Nielsen and his wife relocated closer to their hometowns in northern Indiana, the former MV coach (and former Purdue catcher) guided the Panthers to a 15-9 mark.
Veteran Eastern Hancock coach Chad Coughenour, whose Royals count Knightstown as its primary rival, has witnessed what he termed the Panthers’ “complete overhaul.”
“The last couple of years … with coach Nielsen and now coach Hardesty, they have progressed from a small-school mentality to a big-school mentality,” Coughenour said. “Two years ago they won one game in a season that was all about getting back to fundamentals and doing things the correct way.
“Coach Nielsen set that groundwork from his days at Purdue and Mt. Vernon. Last year they continued to improve. Coach Hardesty has not only continued that focus, but taken it to another level.”
The Panthers, whose only loss so far this spring was an 11-10 setback to common sectional foe Northeastern, are led by a lineup that includes six fulltime players hitting over .400.
Isaac McRoberts is batting .500 with a team-best 16 RBI. Drake Peggs (.462), Spencer Mattix (.436), Kaleb Kinnaman (.436), Tyler Richardson (.406) and Jake Bearhope (.406) have also been key at the plate, while Jake Kwisz (4-0, 2.10 ERA) has been an ace on the mound.
“The kids deserve all the credit, it hasn’t been anything due to me,” Hardesty said. “It’s a talented lineup. I trust them at the plate.
“All I’ve done is try to give them plenty of time and opportunities to hit in the offseason, and tried to preach being disciplined on defense.”
Two of the Panthers’ wins this spring were in a doubleheader sweep of Eastern Hancock, 9-2 and 5-4. McRoberts had a home run and four RBI in Game 1, while Max Rinehart pitched three innings of scoreless relief to close out Game 2.
Coughenour was impressed.
“They are committed to each other and it shows in the way that they play,” said the EH coach, who added that Hardesty’s task was made more difficult by taking over for a popular coach in Nielsen.
“He was replacing a coach that had helped the boys become a good team and set high expectations. It is not always easy to keep that chemistry or even improve upon it, which I think Daren has done.”
Hardesty and the 10-1 Panthers will visit 7-4 Greenfield-Central today. Just two years removed from the G-C dugout, Hardesty is excited to see his former players, as well as the challenge of facing a quality 4A team.
“I guarantee this is nothing like the team that came into Greenfield two years ago,” Hardesty said of the one-win Panthers squad. “I remember that game. Nielsen had no pitchers at all. They were having to throw freshmen and sophomores out there.
“They were about as low as a varsity program could get. You felt bad for them. So, it’s pretty awesome to see how far the program has come. A lot of people, especially these players, have worked very hard. And now they’re enjoying the fruits of their labor.”