A smooth transition: Truman grad Clifton goes from player to coach

Cody Thorn
Special to The Examiner
Truman High School graduate and former NAIA All-American Kyle Clifton instructs his players prior to a game for his Creche Innovation Stars in a recent Ban Johnson League game. Clifton, who holds the career record for home runs at Park University, is the coach and general manager of the Ban Johnson team and also coaches a 14U team.

While baseball isn't a day-to-day job, Kyle Clifton finds a way to be at a ballpark almost every night of the week it seems.

The former Examiner Player of the Year from Truman High School is the general manager of the Creche Innovation Stars in the Ban Johnson League, while also coaching a 14U team from the Blue Springs/Lee’s Summit area this year.

“It is a great opportunity to be part of the game you love,” Clifton said. “Baseball is a passion. Any chance you have to help the next generation to get better is a blessing when you are out there. You see a kid get frustrated and you explain that and help them make sense of it and they go out and make the next play or attack the next pitch properly. You see the adjustment and you see the success in their faces, and that is the true fulfillment of coaching and mentorship that I enjoy.”

Clifton works for Blue Cross-Blue Shield of Kansas City during the day but most nights he is traveling between Missouri 3&2 or Creekside Baseball Park for the Ban Johnson League or practicing or traveling with the 14U Heat squad.

This journey from player to coach actually started while he was playing for Park University, a NAIA school in Parkville. He would work out at a local facility and younger players would come up and talk to him and seek advice.

Clifton had the credentials worthy enough. He was an NAIA All-American and the American Midwest Conference Player of the Year in 2012 and was a preseason All-American the next year, leaving with a career school record 23 home runs.

He started providing hitting lessons to area players, and eventually his name was passed onto Jeff Jolliffe with Yard Baseball Club. That was the start of a five-year run coaching for YBC. That led into Clifton coaching in the Ban Johnson League for the first YBC’s college-aged team, which was sponsored by Seaboard last year as YBC transitioned out of the league. This season, Clifton’s team is sponsored by Creche Innovation, a medical supply store in Stillwell, Kansas.

This marks the fourth year he has coached a Ban Johnson team, the same league he played in during college for UMB Bank, now the Legends squad.

This has been one of the more trying years for Clifton, as he not only had to find a sponsor to keep the team going, he also attended several meetings with the general managers in the league that ultimately decided to forge ahead with the schedule during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I remember at the GM meetings we were talking about if we want to hold the league, and if we do, when and how do we? Should we? Once it got approved I got to post a message and asked the players if they were ready to play. We are very appreciative to be on the field and have the opportunity to get out there and get back in the swing of things.”

Clifton brought back about a third of his Seaboard team from 2019, but he had to find others to fill the roster. His main focus was pitching and he has found that, adding Chandler Ashby (Park Hill) from Crowder College, Greg Norman (Stillwell, Kan.) from Austin Peay, and Jose Acosta, a Puerto Rican who plays at Highland (Kan.) Community College.

Norman’s father, Scott, is the CEO of Creche, the sponsor. Ashby’s brother, Aaron, is a top 10 prospect in the Brewers system and they are the nephews of former major league All-Star pitcher Andy Ashby.

With well-known leagues like the Cape Code, Sunbelt, Alaskan, MINK and Mid-Plains not playing this year, Ban Johnson has provided ample opportunity for players to fill the roster with local talent.

“There is an influx of players because other leagues canceled,” Clifton said. “We see good players and we see good names. We don’t usually face many D-I guys, but we faced three the other day against Building Champions.”

Clifton’s roster features many local players: Dylan Lankford (Lee’s Summit North/Maryville University); Hayden Ludwig (Blue Springs/Columbia College); Mathis Mauldin (Blue Springs/Kansas City Kansas Community College); Avery Miller (Grain Valley/Highland Community College); Peyton Smith (Blue Springs/Rockhurst) and Jesse Scholtz (Grain Valley/Metropolitan Community College).

Only one other team in Ban Johnson has more players from Eastern Jackson County than the Stars – the North Kansas City Apartment Giants with nine.

Last week was an up-and-down one for the Stars, who beat first-place Building Champions only to lose the next night to last-place North Kansas City.

“That is how baseball goes,” said Clifton, who is assisted with the Stars by Beau Franklin, with a chuckle.

Franklin, a Park University and YBC assistant coach, guided the Stars one night last week when Clifton had a practice conflict with the Heat. The night prior, Clifton coached by himself as Franklin was coaching his YBC team. With most of the Ban Johnson League games being held at the new Creekside facility, it became easy for Franklin to help Clifton when games are in Parkville.

The 14U team gets help from Neal Seyfert who schedules practices and tournaments for the Heat. Clifton said if it wasn’t for those “keystone” individuals, he wouldn’t be able to juggle both duties.

Clifton enjoys coaching the younger players, giving them a preview of what high school baseball will be like and getting them stronger and faster for that level.

Clifton goes into each practice with a goal in mind on what he wants to accomplish. A recent Heat practice focused on a better approach at the plate after a tough weekend tournament, which led to an increase in batting practice work.

He knows a thing or two about hitting.

Clifton’s name appears 22 different times in the record book at Park. His 13 home runs in 2012 is tied for second most in a single season. He had 15 doubles that year and 54 RBIs, both tied for fourth all-time in a single season.

He played three years at Park, transferring there after a year at Crowder College in Neosho. He hit .321 during the 2010 season for the Roughriders, who reached the Junior College World Series for the first time in school history. Clifton provided a key RBI double in an elimination game that sparked a three-run rally in a 19-18 win against Faulkner State that June in Grand Junction, Colorado. The Roughriders were eliminated by eventual national champion Iowa Western Community College – which then eliminated a College of Southern Nevada team featuring Bryce Harper on the way to the crown.

Crowder, though, wasn’t the right fit and Clifton came back to Kansas City to play in the Ban Johnson League. He was playing for UMB Bank when he found his next landing spot.

Park coach Cary Lundy knew of Clifton from his time at Truman and told Clifton they’d love to have him. Michael Younghanz, an assistant coach at Park at the time and now the owner of Prodigy Baseball Academy in Parkville, kept after Clifton.

“He asked me every single day, ‘Are you coming or not?’” Clifton said. “I finally caved and said ‘I’ll come.’”

Clifton said he gained confidence going to Park, which in turn led to the accolades and achievements that are still populated in a record book seven years after he left school.

That wouldn’t have been possible without playing in the Ban Johnson League in 2010, looking for a new school. His good friend, Nick Doughty, a Raytown High School graduate who was playing at Division I Northwestern (La.) State at the time, helped bring Clifton into the league.

Now years later, Clifton is seeing the same kind of culture not only build his roster, but the rosters of other teams in the now 93-year-old league.

“That is Ban Johnson to a T,” Clifton said. “Everybody has a buddy they brought in to play with them. That shows how you get players in the Ban Johnson. We aren’t a super recruited league. We are more for kids that want to stay home and work a little and play baseball to stay sharp. That is what our league is about.”