The Miami University Middletown baseball program has put itself on the map.
After not collecting a winning record since 2000 and not even fielding a team for the past three seasons, the ThunderHawks posted a 12-5 record this fall while competing in the United States Collegiate Athletic Association (USCAA) with the youngest roster in college baseball, including 20 first-years and one sophomore.
The team is led by head coach Mark Adams, who had no experience coaching baseball at the collegiate level before taking the position.
Adams coached college basketball for 17 years, 10 of which were at the NCAA Division I level, as an assistant at Idaho State University and Washington State University, and then as a head coach at Central Connecticut State University. He was born and raised in the Cincinnati area and returned in 1996 to start a private consulting business. He’s also been a college basketball analyst for ESPN since 1999.
“[After returning to the Cincinnati area], I got involved with baseball, mainly because my son played,” Adams said. “I got involved as a pitching coach as he progressed through.”
The Middletown baseball program shut down after the 2019 season. When the program started to reassemble in preparation for 2023, Adams was not supposed to be the head coach. In fact, he had no desire to take the role.
“The previous head coach had asked me to be his pitching coach,” Adams said. “He was going to be the head coach until June, when he announced that for personal reasons he would not be coaching the team. At that point, I was asked if I would become the head coach. When they asked me if I would be interested, I said emphatically, ‘No, I have no interest in that.’”
However, Adams had recruited the majority of the Middletown players, and they convinced him to reconsider.
“What I’ll remember most is telling the guys, ‘I don’t think you understand what you’re asking me to do. I will lose you games,’ and they said, ‘That’s okay coach, we’ll lose you games too,’” Adams said.
Going into an inaugural season with the youngest roster in college baseball and a basketball coach at the helm certainly didn’t look like a recipe for success on paper; the ThunderHawks shattered all expectations.
“As soon as we played that first game, I feel like all the pressure was just off us,” Jake Lange, a first-year outfielder, said. “And now I think being the youngest team in the nation has actually kind of helped us in a sense because all the pressure is off us, all the pressure is on them.”
The squad is known for playing “fast break” baseball, an approach that entails very aggressive base running and a rapid pace-of-play. Middletown averaged 3.3 stolen bases per game in the fall, succeeding on over 90% of their attempts. That approach powered their offense, with the team scoring nine or more runs in 10 of their 12 wins.
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The team plays an aggressive defensive style as well, throwing lots of strikes and forcing their opponents to put the ball into play.
“I want [the other team] to hit it. We recruited great defensive players,” Adams said. “I told our pitchers, ‘If they hit a homerun, that’s my fault, that’s not yours. I’m the guy telling you to throw strikes,’ and we threw over 70% first pitch strikes in the fall.”
In addition to their aggressive style, the ThunderHawks take an unconventional approach to many other aspects of the game. For example, while most baseball teams have an elaborate system of signs in place that allows the third base coach to tell a player when to steal a base, Middletown flips the script.
“I don’t give any steal signs,” Adams said. “I started thinking about it and thinking, ‘Why do I know better than my player if they have a pitcher timed up to steal?’ That seems stupid to me. Our baserunners give me a sign when they believe that they have the pitcher timed up and that they can steal … I want my guys to play. I want them to have fun. I trust them. I believe in them.”
The team got off to a 4-0 start, sweeping their first two series of the fall. They rode that high throughout most of the season, taking a few losses along the way but largely playing like a far more experienced club.
Then, the ThunderHawks had a huge series against Wright State University-Lake, one of the better teams in USCAA baseball. The first game of the doubleheader was a disaster, with the ThunderHawks scoring no runs.
“It was the first time we looked and acted like a bunch of freshmen,” Adams said.
Despite the rough start, the club bounced back in a big way. The team won the second game of the doubleheader 11-5, then beat the Lakers one more time later in the season, 14-9.
The wins were particularly sweet for second baseman Kaden Davidson, the lone sophomore on the squad, who played his first season at Wright State-Lake.
“That’s probably the best feeling, because I’ve never really had the opportunity to go against a team I had just played for,” Davidson said. “And I know they weren’t happy. They were all blowing my phone up texting about how their coach wasn’t happy, which always makes me glad.”
After such a successful fall, the ThunderHawks have substantial expectations moving forward.
“Our goal is to win a national championship,” Brock Vaughn, a first-year outfielder, said. “If we can progress toward that, then I think we will naturally become better. With the way we practice and the way we play and the way our leaders lead, I think that’s a very reasonable goal.”
With national championship aspirations and a team that now has top-to-bottom experience at the collegiate level, the ThunderHawks plan to keep making noise once they return to action this spring.