RAPIDS, IOWA – The Perfect Game sponsored Iowa Select Black team
feels as though they have something to prove at this year's WWBA
Kernels Foundation Championship.
off of a third-place finish at last weekend's Perfect Game/Evoshield
Upperclass National Championship, the Iowa Select Black team returned
home to Cedar Rapids hungry for more. With a team compiled of the
best players in a talented 2013 Iowa class, the Kernels Foundation
Championship serves as somewhat of a home turf battle for the team.
'13 class in Iowa is a special group,” Perfect Game Director of
Instruction Ron Benich said when asked about his team. “We have
six D-I commits with more to come, hopefully very soon. We have guys
drawing interest from Division I programs that just haven't gotten
the offers yet.”
Rapids Washington High School left handed pitcher and first baseman
A.J. Puk may not be available to pitch this weekend as he did at the
2012 Perfect Game All-American Classic, but he serves as the first
baseman and three-hole hitter for the talented Iowa Select Black
squad looking to make a statement.
definitely,” Puk said when asked if this tournament meant a little
more, particularly since his teams plays all of its games at his
school's field. “We definitely have to represent our hometown and
get as far as we can.”
has become acclimated to traveling across the country to play with
and against the best players in the nation, and has more than proven
that his skills belong among the elite. Not only did he participate
in the Classic, but he also has played at a high level at numerous,
fall he played with the Reds Midwest Scout Team, the organization
that won the 2011 WWBA Kernels Foundation Championship, at the WWBA
World Championship that advanced to the semifinals in Jupiter. He
also participated at the Perfect Game National Showcase in mid-June,
the 17u WWBA National Championship in Marietta, Ga. in mid-July and
the inaugural 17u PG World Series held in Phoenix, Ariz. in late July
latter two tournaments he played with the Evoshield Canes travel ball
program and was named to the All-Tournament Team at both events; as a
pitcher at the 17u WWBA and as both a pitcher and as a hitter at the
addition to his inclusion to the All-Tournament Team at the 17u PG
World Series, Puk was also added as an exclusive member of the
Louisville Slugger Prime Nine squad.
he didn't pitch, Puk also was named to the All-Tournament Team last
weekend by hitting .429 with a .600 on-base percentage and .714
slugging, helping his team to its third-place finish.
we go down South no one thinks mid-westerners can play,” Puk said
of his team's performance in Arizona. “So there's definitely some
pride taken in to represent Iowa and be the best we can be.”
team has been assembled by Benich and Iowa Leagues Director Steve
James. The Iowa Spring and Fall Leagues serve as somewhat of a
developmental league for the select teams, of which three, the Black,
Blue and Red squads, are taking part of this weekend's tournament.
good, you get to see these kids early in high school, freshmen,
sophomore years in the spring and fall leagues,” Benich said.
“When they begin to compete at the next level for us then we have
the opportunity to get them in here in the winter time and get our
hands on them a little bit sooner.
have two goals. Number one is we want to get these kids to the next
level. That's the ultimate goal. But before that, the shorter-term
goal is just to send them back to their high school as better
baseball players. If we send them back better than they came
hopefully they will continue to develop and then they'll be even
better when we get them back the next year.
from the West Coast, so I'm used to seeing a different level of
baseball. It's tough for these kids out here, they play high school
baseball in the summer and there's snow on the ground for five months
of the year. They're in a tough spot, but there are athletes (here),
and they want to be on the same level and there's no reason they
can't be on the same level as everyone else. I want to prove that
these kids from Cedar Rapids, Iowa can play with anybody. I'm in a
fortunate spot where I get to travel with Perfect Game and see the
other top teams in the country, and I can tell these guys if you put
up your best night out there I don't have any problems putting it up
there against anybody.”
has been working with Puk since he was 12-years old, and the two have
formed a bond as they work tirelessly together to improve Puk's
skills as both a pitcher and as a hitter.
has been key for a tall, lanky lefty who only now is starting to fill
out as he continued to add inches to his 6-foot-6 frame.
was tough because physically he developed much later, later than
other people in his class,” Benich said of Puk's growth. “It was
tough to have to deal with the fact that he was still going (up).
It's tough to go up and out at the same time, so until going (up)
slowed down a little it was hard to get him in the weight room. It
was kind of a waiting game and being patient.
always knew it was going to come, from the time he was 12 years old.
It was just a matter of when.”
patience has paid off, as Puk has seen his fastball velocity spike
over the last year and a half.
years ago Puk stood at 6-foot-2 and was throwing in the low-80s. It
was easy to see that dramatic improvement was on the horizon, and
that improvement took form at the 2011 Perfect Game Junior National
Showcase when Puk started to approach the upper-80s.
of the funniest moments was at the Junior National, second pitch, and
All-American John Sternagel, a (fellow) Florida recruit, hits a ball that I don't
know if it's landed yet in left centerfield,” Benich recalled.
“I'm in the dugout and (A.J.) takes a look and I just started
laughing. He starts laughing on the mound, comes back out and boom,
boom, boom, he got through his inning. That was the first time we
had seen 86 (mph).”
Puk throws his fastball regularly in the upper-80s, peaking at 92 at
the Area Code Games in Long Beach, Calif., and 91 a week later at the
Perfect Game All-American Classic.
days a week long toss,” Benich said of the hard work Puk has put in
to improve his fastball velocity. “A full bucket, 90 balls at a
it may seem like a given that a 6-foot-6 lefty with the ability to
throw in the low-90s is destined for the mound, Puk's prowess as a
hitter still gives him plenty of promise as a hitter. It also gives
him exciting two-way potential at the college level, where Puk could
excel as a member of the Florida Gators.
like them both a lot right now,” Puk said when asked of his
preference between hitting and pitching. “I thought when I was
younger (that I would always hit). I've been hitting with Ron since
I was 12. Pitching just kind of picked up the last couple of years.
I'd like to see which one could take me the farthest.
basically done everything from helping me with my swing, helping me
getting ready for games and just getting the mental side of my game
going. That's really helped my career a lot.”
how does a young man from Cedar Rapids, Iowa get noticed to the point
where he accepts a scholarship offer for one of the most dominant
Division-I programs in college baseball?
played a lot on the East Coast with the Canes and did a lot of
Perfect Game events,” Puk said. “I was down in the Florida at
the Perfect Game Underclass when I first started to talk to (Florida
Head Coach Kevin O'Sulllivan).”
is currently shut down from pitching on a precautionary level, but is
expected to return to the mound soon.
for this weekend's tournament, Benich doesn't put any added stock in
the fact that it's being played in Cedar Rapids.
no difference from last week to this week. We go out and we expect
to win. I expect to come back with nothing less than the first place
trophy. That was our goal going out to Arizona, and that's our
intention this week.”
winning continued for the Iowa Select Black squad, taking the first
game of the Kernels Foundation Championship, claiming an 11-2 victory
over the Howell PAL Elite Baseball club on the first day of the
of the team's 11 runs came in the top of the third inning, fueled by
two-run triples by Brennan Hammer and Anthony Denkinger, a two-run
double by Matthew Johnson and a two-run single by Sam Mrstik. That outburst proved that the team has a lot more firepower beyond the All-American, Puk.
commit Derek Burkamper took the start for the Black squad, striking
out five in the first three innings, and could be turned to pitch again for the team in the playoffs later this weekend.
isn't shy to share his feelings about his team's chances if Puk was
available to pitch, noting that a championship this weekend and last
may have been wrapped up if the talented left-hander were able to
take the mound.
plays bigger when the light's go on. He really elevates his game to
a whole new level.”