The eighth baseball coach in school history, Billy Gernon enters his fourth season at the helm of Bronco baseball and 13th overall as a head coach with a club that features both experienced players and a talented group of newcomers. Known as one of the most energetic coaches in the country, Gernon has left his mark on the Bronco baseball program in a short period of time.
Gernon has led the Broncos to the Mid-American Conference Tournament in two of his first three years after inheriting a team that broke the school record for losses in 2009 and 2010 as well as no trips to the post season tournament since 2008. With clearly stated goals and a vision, Gernon wasted little time in getting Bronco baseball back on track. In 2011, the Broncos secured their first postseason victory in 12 years despite being picked to finish 12th. Under Gernon’s direction, the Broncos made it to the conference tournament as the No. 7 seed and defeated the No. 2 seed and in state rival Central Michigan, 9-7. Western Michigan made a return visit to post season play in 2012 and won its first game as the No. 5 seed, over No. 4 seed Ohio, 4-2, in spite of being selected 11th overall preseason. It was the first time since the MAC instituted the postseason tournament in 1981 that Western Michigan had made back-to-back appearances recording victories in each trip.
Since arriving in 2011, Gernon has had 10 players selected as MAC Player of the Week, an accolade that did not happen in 2010 and happened only once in 2009. Under Gernon, Ryan McMillin and Andrew Sohn have been named First Team All-MAC and Brian Stroud was named Second Team All-MAC, honors that had been elusive since 2008.
With Gernon at the controls his impact was felt immediately as the Broncos were ranked 10th in the nation in 2011 for winning percentage improvement of 14 games by the NCAA for posting 26 victories in just his first season. In 2011 under Gernon, the Broncos swept arch rival Ohio for the first time since 1985 and tied the school history mark by successfully sweeping MAC opponents on four occasions. Western Michigan also swept two games from Michigan State in 2011 going 3-5 against Big Ten opponents. The 2011 season culminated with Brian Stroud (31st) and Eric Heckaman (33rd) being selected in the MLB amateur draft by the Detroit Tigers. Bronco pitchers recorded the most saves in school history with 16 led by Heckaman who recorded the second most in a season with 10. Senior second baseman Zach Thoma led the nation in sacrifice bunts. This was only the second time in school history that a Bronco has led the nation in a statistical category since southpaw Greg Brake led the nation in ERA with a 0.95 in 1984. Senior Tim Cross was named First Team Academic All-MAC in 2011.
Behind Gernon’s leadership, the 2012 season was another successful campaign for the Broncos as they won 26 games for the second straight year and raised their conference record to 14-12. It was the first winning record in conference play since 2006. Offensively, the Broncos posted the highest team batting average since 2002 hitting .292. Senior third baseman Ryan McMillin garnered First Team All-MAC honors along with posting 19 doubles (third most in a season) and 52 RBIs (sixth most in a season). McMillin also enjoyed a 25-game hitting streak, tying for the longest in school history with Chris Lewis. Lewis enjoyed his hitting streak over two separate seasons (2008-09) and McMillin accomplished his during the 2012 season. Western Michigan defeated Michigan in 2012 recording the first victory over the Wolverines in the previous 10 meetings. The Broncos went 3-3 against Big Ten opponents in 2012, as well as recorded an impressive 6-5 victory over Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. It was only the second time the Broncos had beaten the Irish since 2001 and first time since 2008. The Bronco pitching staff recorded 14 saves, just missing the mark set in 2011, making them second all-time in school history for saves in a season. The Broncos also enjoyed a seven-game winning streak which was the longest since 2005.
The Broncos would struggle in 2013, narrowly missing the MAC Tournament, but reached milestones nevertheless. Sophomore shortstop Andrew Sohn was selected First Team All-MAC, marking the first time a Bronco shortstop has garnered this particular award since Adam Rosales in 2005. Rosales was a 12th round selection by the Cincinnati Reds in 2005 and is currently with the Texas Rangers. Sohn was selected as team Most Valuable Player and went 17-19 stolen bases putting him sixth all time for stolen base percentage in a season, just behind former Bronco All-American and 10-year major leaguer Matt Mieske. Sohn also led the team with a .337 batting average and he would continue his outstanding play in the summer playing in the prestigious Northwoods League. While playing for Alexandria, the Northwoods League honored Sohn with the Rawlings Big Stick Award, given to the most offensive shortstop in the league. The Bronco pitching staff etched themselves into the record books again recording 10 saves putting them sixth all time. Sohn was named to the Academic All-MAC team as well.
Through 17 years of coaching experience, including 12 years as a head coach (1999-2008, 2011-present) and two as an assistant at Michigan State (2009-10), Gernon knew the importance of a coaching staff carrying out the daily process of a winning program. Upon his hire at Western Michigan, Gernon immediately hired pitching coach Blaine McFerrin. McFerrin, who was elevated to associate head coach in 2013, left his mark immediately as his pitching staff posted a 4.03 ERA which was the lowest since 1993. McFerrin and his pitchers recorded 16 saves which is the most in school history. Eric Heckaman led the staff with 10 saves putting him second all time for saves in a season behind All-American Ken Raines with 13. Heckaman was 0-9 with an 8.91 ERA in 2010 before meeting McFerrin, and recorded 10 saves and a 1.61 ERA in 2011 under McFerrin as well as being a 33rd round draft selection by the Detroit Tigers. Senior RHP Brian Stroud went 8-4 with a 3.20 ERA and was a Second Team All-MAC selection marking the first time a Bronco had received MAC recognition since 2008. In 2012, the Broncos made a return trip to the MAC Tournament and improved their overall conference record going 14-12. Bronco pitchers recorded 14 saves which is second only to the 16 saves in 2011 and the offense posted the second highest batting average since 2002 with a .292 mark.
Known for his strong commitment to academics and discipline on and off the field, the Broncos have not only excelled in the class, but in the community as well. Gernon’s teams have posted a 3.0 grade point average or better in 24 consecutive semesters. In the fall of 2012, the Broncos posted a 3.25 grade point average which is the highest on record at Western Michigan. As the head coach at IPFW, Gernon is not only the winningest coach in school history but his teams were recognized for the highest grade point average for all male sports three different semesters.
A mirror of their coach, the Bronco baseball team has been very apparent in the community as well since hiring Gernon. The Broncos have been involved with the United Way Big Brothers Big Sisters program where members of the baseball team go to elementary schools in Kalamazoo and mentor young kids to let them know the importance of academics and striving to be the best version of themselves. Gernon has been a spokesperson for the program since 1992 and he was nominated by the Southern Indiana Rotary Club for Volunteer of the Year in 1994 for his work as a mentor. Gernon was the introductory speaker prior to keynote speaker Tom Izzo at the 35th Annual Benefit Dinner for United Way in 2012. Gernon is known for his public speaking and has made several appearances since being hired at Western Michigan and in his career in general. The Broncos are also involved with Special Olympics and have recently begun working with the Veterans Hospital in Battle Creek. The coaching staff and team members have visited with recovering troops to share words of appreciation and encouragement while playing pool and cards with our beloved troops.
In the fall of 2013, Gernon teamed up with Tampa Bay Ray outfielder David DeJesus to help find a cure for ALS, commonly known as Lou Gherig’s disease. Gernon and his wife Annie are working together to raise awareness and funds to alleviate the many challenges these particular families face on a daily basis. At the 2014 Leadoff Dinner, the Gernons launched the “Strike Out ALS” campaign in conjunction with the David DeJesus Family Foundation. Gernon and his family are close friends with Brian Schnurstein and his family and Brian was diagnosed with ALS in 2011. Brian has a wife Lindsay and young daughter Kylie. Brian just so happened to go to high school with David DeJesus’ wife Kim and they have remained friends since graduation. Kim and David are both very passionate about their foundation and Coach Gernon and Annie are excited to be able to partner up with them to help in the fight for a cure for ALS.
Hired in June of 2010, Gernon immediately launched his plan to elevate Bronco baseball by intensifying recruiting efforts, clearly defining the culture of expectation on and off the field, as well as continuing fundraising to improve historical Hyames Field. Having been hired late in the summer, Gernon was only able to add Theo Piccirilli to the team he had inherited. Piccirilli’s .323 batting average in 2013 was third best. Gernon’s first recruiting class landed in the fall of 2012 that included junior shortstop sensation Andrew Sohn. He is the preseason pick for player of the year in MAC for the 2014 season by Baseball America and a First Team All-MAC preseason selection by College Sports Madness. Sohn is listed as one of the top draft selections from the MAC. Gernon’s second recruiting class included catcher Brett Sunde who was selected ESPN Gatorade Player of the Year in the state of Michigan in 2012. Sunde was also a 35th round selection in 2012 by the Oakland A’s. Four recruits from the 2012 class were ranked in the top 10 in Michigan by Prep Baseball Report that included Brett Sunde (4th), Hunter Prince (8th), Brandon Cable (9th) and Kurt Hoekstra (10th). Consequently, all four led their high school teams to a state championship and Sunde led Bishop Foley to its first ever state title. The 2012 class also included RHP Pat Haynes who was rated the 18th best player in the state of Illinois by Prep Baseball Report and RHP Gabe Berman. Berman picked up five seasons during his freshman season and in his first summer ball season picked up 10 saves for the Battle Creek Bombers in the Northwoods league.
Gernon’s second full recruiting class arrived to campus in the fall of 2013 ranked as the 58th best recruiting class, and second best in the MAC, by Collegiate Baseball. The class includes first team junior college First Team All-American right-handed pitcher Chad Mayle. After his sophomore season at Kellogg Community College, Mayle was selected player of the year in the MCCAA, a conference comprised of 19 teams. Mayle was a junior college First Team All-American as well. Daniel Ayers was also in the 2013 recruiting class with Mayle but signed with the Baltimore Orioles. Ayers was rated top 175 prospects in the nation by Baseball America and a top ten round projection. Ayers ended up being drafted in the 25th round and signed with the Orioles for $200,000 and his education. The big lefty whose fastball topped out at 94 coupled with a devastating breaking ball, led the state of Indiana in strikeouts as a junior in 2011 and was the second highest ranked player in the state of Indiana in his senior campaign by Prep Baseball Report only behind Trey Ball who was a first round draft selection. In his career, Gernon has tutored over 20 players that have gone on to sign professional contracts, none of which were drafted in high school, which speaks to the development that takes place in his program.
Understanding and respecting the great history at Western Michigan, Gernon has put in place some of his own programs that have not only created excitement for the program, but also brought back many distinguished Bronco alumni. Upon his hire, Gernon implemented the Bronco of the Week Series where former Bronco standouts return to campus and speak to the current members of the baseball team sharing their experiences and offering advice. To date, over 20 former players have spoken to the team in a three-year period.
The second program put in place by Gernon was the Leadoff Dinner which takes place typically three to four weeks prior to the beginning of the baseball season. The inaugural event in 2011 featured CEO/GM of the Detroit Tigers and Western Michigan alumnus Dave Dombrowski. Former iconic Bronco and major leaguer Matt Mieske and former World Series champion and Detroit Tiger Dan Petry have also made appearances as keynote speakers. The 2014 dinner took on a different flavor that featured a “hot stove” panel of former players that included NFL tight end Tony Scheffler and former draft picks R.C. Dickerson, Ethan Hollingsworth and Brian Stroud. All four played baseball for the Broncos and Scheffler was a two sport athlete. The Leadoff Dinner creates great enthusiasm and energy for the upcoming season and has been a spectacular event since implementation in 2011.
Gernon is no stranger to fundraising and most recently secured nearly $200,000 to renovate underneath the stadium at Hyames Field for the construction of the Brett Freed Player’s Lounge. The lounge has a keypad entry system, lockers for each player, 60-inch flat screen, along with a kitchenette area and a training room. The Broncos have also enjoyed upgrades to their current locker room in the Seelye Center as well as some additional cosmetic improvements to Robert J. Bobb Stadium at Hyames Field.
Gernon is a 1991 graduate of Indiana University where he played his senior season for the Hoosiers under head coach Bob Morgan. Gernon helped lead the Hoosiers to a fifth place finish, just one game short of making the Big Ten Tournament after being selected 10th preseason. Gernon picked up Big Ten saves against Iowa and Purdue as well as wins against Michigan and Illinois, who at that time were coached by legendary coach Augie Garrido. Gernon also played with shortstop Mike Smith who ended up being the only college baseball player to receive the Triple Crown Award. Prior to his transfer to Bloomington, Gernon was selected the Most Valuable Player at Indiana University Southeast where he started his collegiate career. Gernon was the ace of the staff at Southeast and converted to a closer after becoming a Hoosier. Gernon received a second bachelor’s degree from Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne in 1998 in education.
Upon graduation in 1991, Gernon shortly thereafter served as a high school coach for four years before returning to IU in 1995 as a student assistant coach. The 1995-96 Hoosiers won the Big Ten title and advanced to the NCAA Tournament, with head coach Bob Morgan being selected Mid-East Region Coach of the Year. Gernon then joined the staff at IPFW as the pitching coach in 1997 and would be named the head coach in the fall of 1999 when IPFW declared it was transitioning from a Division II to a Division I institution. Gernon helped IPFW during a challenging transition period where they spent the first seven years without conference affiliation, paid assistant coaches and only half of the scholarships the NCAA permits. This obstacle allowed Gernon’s teams to only enjoy an average of 10 home games per season. IPFW eventually became a member of the Summit League in 2008 and Brandon Knowling was selected First Team All-Summit League under Gernon in their first season with conference affiliation. Gernon’s team also won the first ever Summit League baseball game over Southern Utah. In 2005, IPFW stole 113 bases which was ninth best in the nation and still remains a school record. His 2005 squad hit .316 for the season ranking the Mastodons 28th in the nation. After serving as the head coach for nine seasons, Gernon left as the winningest coach in school history to join Jake Boss and the staff at Michigan State. While a Spartan, Gernon oversaw the hitters, outfielders and base running. The results were immediate as the Spartans made a trip back to the Big 10 Tournament with a solid offense ignited by stolen bases that ended up ranked sixth in school history. In Gernon’s second year the Spartans swiped 87 bags which still remains second most in Spartan history.
Gernon and his wife Annie have been married for 15 years and Annie was a standout athlete herself. Having played basketball in college, the former Annie Recker is also the single-season record holder for three pointers in a season at her high school. Her brother, Luke Recker, was Mr. Basketball in the state of Indiana in 1997 and played basketball at Indiana University, eventually finishing his career as an Iowa Hawkeye. Luke had a brief stint in the NBA and recently retired from professional basketball after an illustrious six-year career overseas. Annie’s oldest sister, Wendy, was recently inducted into the IPFW Athletics Hall of Fame while another sister, Maria, enjoyed four years playing basketball for Michigan State. Her youngest sister Jackie graduated from DeKalb High School as the only female athlete to garner 12 varsity letters. Annie’s father, Clair, is ranked second in school history in points scored in a career at Bluffton College and is a member of the Bluffton Athletic Hall of Fame. Annie and Billy have two children, Jacob (13) and Abby (10).