Herald Photos / Dean Hockney
ONWARD  — Taylor High School senior Cole Braun signs to play baseball at Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion this fall.
Herald Photos / Dean Hockney ONWARD — Taylor High School senior Cole Braun signs to play baseball at Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion this fall.
Howard County is known as a baseball mecca and regularly produces players ready for the next level of play – whether that is at the college or professional level. 

The county also is known for its solid team play on the diamond, as it has produced three IHSAA state champion squads, four state runners-up, and several Final Four teams.

This year is no exception to the quality of local teams, as the Western Panthers are ranked No. 2 in the preseason Class 3A coaches poll, and Taylor is No. 6 in Class 2A. 

The Taylor Titans are one of those champion programs, having won the Class 2A state title in 2000 and finishing in the Final Four two other times. Last season, they entered the Eastern Sectional ranked No. 6 but fell to Alexandria 9-1 in the championship game. That was an equalizer, as the Titans had defeated Alexandria the year before when the Tigers were ranked highly. This year, with several key players returning, the Titans are ready to make another run to a state title.

On a recent morning, senior Cole Braun talked about the upcoming season and how leadership will be one of the keys to success this spring.

“One of my favorite memories was my sophomore year when we made a run for regional,” said Braun. “We had great seniors on that team, and guys like (Noah) Poe and (Caleb) Murdock and I need to step up like that this year. If we do that, we should have a pretty good year.”

Braun loves baseball, and that was one of the reasons his family and teammates gathered in the Taylor library. His love of the game will not end when he plays his final varsity season with the Taylor Titans this spring. The all-conference infielder will take his skills to the next level and play baseball at nearby Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion starting this fall.

“To go to a place that is focused on Christ is a big thing for me,” said Braun. “And just to be able to get the chance to play baseball at a strong academic school is a plus. They have the number one accounting school in Indiana, and that is what I will major in.”

Braun is a career .327 hitter and a two-time all-conference honorable mention selection (2015 Mid-Indiana Conference and 2016 Hoosier Heartland Conference). But his numbers, especially last year, were good enough for first team honors after hitting .355 (27 for 76) with 26 runs scored, 26 walks (.538 on-base percentage), 17 RBIs, and 13 stolen bases.

“Baseball has always been a thing for me,” said Braun of his love of the game. “We are a baseball family. I love the relationships, and working with my teammates every day is something you will never forget.”

Braun plays for his uncle, Taylor head coach Brent Owens, so baseball is never far from a family reunion conversation.

“I have played for (Owens) since I was 7 or 8, and that turned into me getting to play for him in high school,” said Braun, a member of the National Honor Society. “It was nice to have that relationship. This has been a good fit.”

“Today is a big day for us as a family,” said Owens, whose brother-in-law Jason Braun is an assistant coach and married to Owens’ sister, Brigit. “It is also a big day for our program. Any time you have a kid get to the next level is a great thing. He will get a great education at IWU, and I am excited for him.”

Through three seasons, Braun has started 62 consecutive games and played in 73 dating to his freshman season where he had 11 appearances and one start. He has been an integral part of the 2016 Hoosier Heartland Conference champions (first conference title since 2003) and the 2015 sectional championship team that eventually fell in the Elite Eight. The Titans are 51-38 during Braun’s tenure, and – after finishing 2016 ranked No. 6 in Class 2A with a 23-7 record and its best pitcher returning – look to avenge a loss to Alexandria in last year’s sectional title game.

Owens said one of the strongest parts of Braun’s game is his glove.

“He is a super good middle-fielder,” said the Titans mentor. “I have had him at second base, but he can also play shortstop. He has very steady hands and is our two-hole hitter. He has great eye-hand coordination. He has been working in the weight-room, so I am hoping he has more doubles in the gap this year.”

Owens, who also played at IWU, said Braun should fit in with the Wildcats program.

“Being a 1992 grad and playing for them, it has a special place in my heart,” said Owens. “They have a good tradition of baseball at Indiana Wesleyan, and he should succeed on the field and in the classroom.”

Second year IWU head coach Rich Benjamin is excited to get Braun aboard as a player. 

“Part of our recruiting class was middle-infield play, and we go after guys who are wired to get improve and better – and he checks off every box,” said Benjamin. “We have a special atmosphere (at IWU), and every sport had above a 3.0 grade point average. So I know he will fit in.”

While Braun has been part of a traditionally winning Taylor program, Benjamin is turning heads with the Wildcats squad and setting team records. In his first year, they advanced to the NAIA National Championship opening round for the first time in history. The Wildcats went 1-2 at nationals, while recording its first winning season since 2007-2008 at 37-25-1. Indiana Wesleyan also won its first Crossroads League championship in 31 years.

But first, the Titans are looking for another deep run into the state tournament. And with Braun’s leadership and on-field skills, the sixth-ranked team in Class 2A could do just that.