Russell Co. H.S. Long Toss Program
This article first appeared in the Oct. 1, 2005 issue of Collegiate Baseball
By LOU PAVLOVICH JR
SEALE, Ala. — One of the key reasons why Russell County High School (Seale, Ala.) rolled to a 38-1 record last season and won the Easton Sports National High School championship was pitching.
The staff posted a microscopic 0.77 team ERA and fanned 429 batters, both Alabama state records. But what went unreported was the fact that six players had the arm strength to throw over 90 mph – something extremely rare in high school baseball.
A big reason for the success of the pitching staff and its velocity improvement has been an innovative long toss program initiated by Head Coach Tony Rasmus, the 17th annual winner of the Easton Sports Master Coach award. It has paid huge dividends for his athletes in the way of velocity gains as well as arm and shoulder health.
In addition, a year round weight training program is a staple of the program which has allowed baseball players to grow bigger and stronger.
Capturing the Class 5A state championship in Alabama and the national championship was only a pipe dream five years ago.
“People will find it hard to believe our program only had 15 kids in our entire baseball program five years ago,” chuckled Rasmus.
“At the time, our entire athletics program here at Russell County struggled. Our football team might have won one game at that time as well as our basketball team. Teams here used to lose quite a bit.”
His first season at Russell County produced a 13-16 record in 2001. The next season, the Warriors improved to 24-17. Then in 2003, the ball club produced a 28-5 record which was followed by a 30-15 record in 2004.
Now, Russell County baseball is the envy of the nation with its progressive approach to weight training and velocity improvement which has taken their players to a new level.
“Coach Ronnie Powell of the University of South Alabama has been a great inspiration to me. When he was a high school coach at Davidson H.S. in Mobile, Ala. he won two state championships. Then he moved on to the University of South Alabama and has coached there for the past 20 years. He really works his players hard in the weight room and on the field.
“When I took the job here at Russell County, I wanted my kids to have the same level of commitment that those kids at Davidson High School had when Coach Powell was there. The first thing we had to do was break kids away from the losing mentality. Frankly, we had to run a few kids off in the beginning because they did not want to commit themselves to getting better on the field and in the weight room. In Alabama, you can’t coach your kids or contact them much out of the school baseball season.
“But we wanted a year-round throwing program as well as a 12-month weight training program. We simply refused to allow kids in our program who would not work hard. The kids we now have in our program do this.”
The beginning of Russell County’s success in baseball actually took place when the majority of his current players were involved in Little League baseball.
“Several of our key players on the 2005 team played for the 1999 Phenix City, Ala. Little League team that won the United States national title in Williamsport, Penn. before losing the international championship game to Japan (5-0). Two years later, this team won the 14-year-old Dixie Baseball world championship.
Rasmus said that his ball club that won the Little League U.S. championship sometimes practiced 4 ˝ to 5 hours.
“The dedication that all these kids had allowed them to be outstanding ball players. We took that same philosophy to Russell County High School. Our system had already been proven to be successful. Whatever we asked of the kids, there were no questions asked. Kids who wanted to transfer in were asked if they were willing to lift weights for 12 months a year and commit themselves to baseball. We want our players to be the strongest high school ball players in the nation.
“Some incoming players were not willing to sacrifice like this, and were ultimately not a part of this program. Our strength and conditioning program is specifically geared to the baseball player who works out five days a week all year long.”
Rasmus said that the hallmark of his program is long tossing by his players, which was initiated after the 2002 season.
“Our long toss program is strenuous and involves throwing for seven days a week all year long. Our players rarely have sore arms because of this system.”
Rasmus said the procedure is fairly simple.
“We line our players up on one end of the football field on the zero yard line. After they are thoroughly warmed up, throwing partners move back gradually to the 30 yard line where we start getting serious as each player performs eight firm throws. Then throwing partners go to the 40 yard line. Eight throws are performed once again. Then they move back to the 50 yard line and continue going back 10 yards at a time until they are at the zero yard line on the other side of the field if they can throw that far keeping in mind they throw eight times at each distance.
“In the beginning, the maximum distance kids can throw is about 70 yards (210 feet). I am not too concerned with the trajectory of throws. Some tend to rainbow the ball more than others. I realize different coaches will argue that all balls should be thrown on a line to work on the proper release point. But over time, these kids get stronger and stronger. My son Cory can stand under the goal posts and throw balls through the goal posts on the other side of the field.
“I really enjoy watching kids increase their velocity with this program. But possibly even more important, the throwing arms of my kids have stayed healthy by utilizing long toss on a routine basis. I have seen this program work wonders and allow kids to hit velocities they never would have reached. One of our pitchers could not get past 78 mph. He had been at that velocity for three years. He went on our long toss program, and within a year he was throwing 84 mph.
Rasmus was asked what the typical velocity gains are in his program.
“Every kid is different, and there are a lot of variables that go into an increase in velocity. Each person is limited by his genetics, how hard he has worked in the past leading up to the point where he actually starts the program. The age he starts also will determine how much of an increase you will see because kids will gain velocity naturally as they grow. Most of our kids will gain 4-5 mph.
“We actually had a transfer gain 8 mph over a 6-month span. But this was a kid who had never worked out in the weight room or in a throwing program.”
Rasmus said when kids have gone back as far as they can with eight throws at that distance; they move closer with 50 yards separating each other and fire the ball on a line to each other eight times. Then the throwing partner moves in 25 yards (75 feet) from the other and each throws his hat down in front of their feet which serves as home plate when they throw.
“Then kids throw to their partner’s left hip with one pitch. The next is to their left knee followed by throws to their partner’s right hip and right knee. The catching partner does not squat down. He is simply standing and catches the ball at these spots.
“At this distance, it is a perfect opportunity to work on the spin of curve balls. We want 12/6 rotation and have our pitchers throw eight balls at this distance looking for the proper spin. They are not snapping the ball off like a hard biter. We are only concerned with proper spin.”
Teaching Change Up Through Long Toss
Rasmus said long toss is an ideal vehicle for pitchers to work on their changeups as well.
“That pitch is one of the keys to our success,” said Rasmus.
“For each of the eight throws that pitchers hurl form the different distances, we want two of them to be changeups. By having them throw long toss with a changeup grip, they are trained to have fastball arm speed when throwing the changeup which is essential to pitchers fooling batters. We start our pitchers off by having them grip the ball with a circle change until they can control it and then let them play with the fingers to refine the pitch.
“Lefthander Kasey Kiker (12-1, 0.52 ERA with 173 strikeouts in 94 innings last season) is expected to be a first round draft pick next season for us. He has an amazing changeup. He has refined it so much that the ring finger of this left hand is on top of the ball while the thumb, index finger and middle finger are on one side of the ball and the pinky finger on the other. He throws the pitch with fastball arm speed, and this pitch totally fools many hitters.
“I have found that long toss is the key to a great changeup. So many pitchers today throw a changeup by slowing the arm down. By slowing the arm down, hitters know a changeup is coming and usually hit the pitch very hard. With our long toss system in place, pitchers throw changeups with fastball arm speed. And that is the key.”
Rasmus said weight training has been highly beneficial to his players as well.
“We utilize a number of exercises. But my favorite is the pullover. Here is how it is performed. A player lays down with his back on a weight bench. His head hangs over the back of the bench. Then he reaches (palms up) for a curl bar on the ground with weight on it just behind his head. At his point, the elbows are near the ears as the weight is pulled toward the chest. It is important to keep the arms bent.
“When I was in the Minor Leagues, I did a lot of pullovers. It really helped build me up. Kids can start out with 25 pounds on this exercise and build themselves up. It is essential to perform this exercise properly or else the shoulder could be hurt.”
Rasmus said his son Colby can perform pullovers with 275 pounds.
“But the weight is not as important as performing the exercise with proper form so that the athlete doesn’t get hurt.”
Rasmus has come a long way since his days in pro baseball when weight training was considered taboo.
“I never believed in it at that time. But I have become a believer over the years that weight training is absolutely essential for baseball players.
“And this is especially true of high school players. I tell my kids that I was a lazy player, and I regret that to this day. I never really worked hard with anybody until I got to college, and it was almost too late then.”
More Work Better
Rasmus said that he has tried to be a student of the games and learn quite a bit from other coaches in the game.
“You never have enough knowledge with this game. But a few years ago, I was listening to a coach talk about giving his players a rest from August to November so they didn’t throw at all. I decided to try this for my team. The entire season which followed resulted in numerous arm problems with elbow tendonitis.
“During the past year, my kids threw year round and not one kid had an arm problem. Maybe I was just lucky. But you see some coaches in Major Leagues baseball like Leo Mazzone of the Atlanta Braves who has his pitchers throw and throw and throw. Some guys will break no matter what you do. But Coach Mazzone has had great success with keeping pitchers healthy over the years. I feel out system works well also.”
The success that Russell County H.S. had last year with a 38-1 record and Easton national championship has caused another unique situation.
Numerous top players are trying to enroll at Russell County to be a part of this program.
“We had a kid from Memphis, Tenn. drive down and ask us a lot of questions. Another from Georgia was interested. A lot of local kids have tried to transfer into our program.”