Tournaments | Story | 12/3/2020

Kilen keeps pushing, chasing a dream

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Gavin Kilen (Perfect Game)

They gathered with much anticipation at the Hoover (Ala.) Met Sports Complex the third week in June, five top national prospects from the class of 2022, all from Wisconsin and all eager to finally get their 2020 summer season started after months of inactivity brought on by COVID-19 lockdowns.

It was the 16th annual Perfect Game Junior National Showcase that had brought the quintet of talented ballplayers to the Birmingham suburb of Hoover June 21-25. They were ready to get after it ahead of a summer and early fall that eventually would find them competing at a championship level while playing for the Racine-based Hitters 2022 Navy squad.

There was outfielder Michael Lippe, the No. 86-ranked Louisville commit from Whitefish Bay; right-hander Mitch Voit (No. 345, Michigan), also from Whitefish Bay; right-hander Hunter Schmitt (No. 454, Oklahoma) out of Grafton; left-hander/outfielder Michael Mulhollon (top-500, Wichita State) from Burlington.

And there also was shortstop Gavin Kilen from Milton, Wisconsin’s No. 1-ranked prospect from the 2022 class and a Louisville commit who is ranked as the No. 13 overall and No. 4 shortstop prospect nationally.

Just having four of his Hitters 2022 Navy teammates there with him among the hills that surround the Hoover Met, Kilen knew he would be able to find a familiarity and a comfort level that would enable him to perform at a high level. Another teammate, catcher/first baseman Will Vierling (No. 405, Louisville), joined Kilen at the PG Underclass All-American Games later in the summer.

“Ever since freshman year we all kind of came together as a new team,” Kilen told PG during a recent telephone conversation when asked about his Hitters teammates. “Over time we’ve built really good bonds and relationships. It’s really good to feel with one through nine in the lineup that if somebody starts it it’s just going to build, like a snowball effect. Everything just keeps going together and coming in place and everything works, everything clicks.”

Kilen – a 5-foot-11, 175 pound 16½-year old and a junior at Milton HS – and the others are chasing dreams that former Hitters players and PG All-Americans Ben Rortvedt (2016 PGAA), Gavin Lux (2016), Jarred Kelenic (2018) and AJ Vukovich (2019) – along with Owen Miller – have already achieved in recent years. And that’s to not only secure D-I college offers but to also get drafted and enter professional baseball; Lux even made his MLB debut with the Dodgers in September 2019.

“He’s an intelligent kid that is driven to be the best that he can make himself to be; he works hard,” Hitters Baseball owner/instructor/coach RJ Fergus told PG this week when asked about Kilen. “With all of these kids, we’ve been lucky that their passion is to be a really good person and be the best at their craft that they’re allowed to be. There’s no hurdles that they can’t overcome. …

“When Gavin first started with us three years ago, we started our winter workouts and through the door walked  Gavin Lux; Gavin and Gavin kind of hit it off at the beginning.”

Gavin Kilen is coming off a 2020 summer and fall campaign in which he grabbed the attention of the scouting community by earning PG all-tournament recognition at four events while also being named the MV Player at the WWBA Underclass Labor Day Classic at Prospect Meadows in Marion, Iowa. He has been named all-tournament eight times since 2018, including at this year’s WWBA World Championship while playing for the Chicago Scouts Association 2021.

In 26 games played in 2020, Kilen hit .421 (32-for-76) with 10 doubles, a home run, a .506 OBP, 24 runs scored and 18 RBI. In 40 games played during his PG career, he’s hit .384 and boasts a .485 OBP with 15 extra-base hits to go along with 28 singles.

He was also a Top Prospect Team performer at both the PG Jr. National Showcase and the PG Underclass All-American Games showcase after equally impressive showings at the 14u National and 14u Midwest showcases in 2018.

“The summer was a lot different because of COVID and all that but I just tried to stay focused on what I wanted to do and what I had to do to get things done,” Kilen said. “I had a lot more time, actually, to get my training in, I had a lot more time to get weight-lifting in; I could spend more time on that kind of stuff. So when the season came around I felt really prepared and ready to go.”

Gavin is the son of Chris and Kristina Kilen of Milton and has both a younger sister and younger brother at home. Chris Kilen was selected in the 58th round of the 1993 MLB June Amateur Draft out of Janesville (Wis.) Parker High School by the Twins as a draft-and-follow and but made his way to Madison (Wis.) College where he performed well enough to be inducted into the school’s hall of fame in 2006.

From there, Chris moved on to Northeast Louisiana State University where he became part of a pitching staff that eventually included future Milwaukee Brewers all-star Ben Sheets. Chris coached his son during Gavin’s youth baseball days and he could tell that playing baseball was something Gavin really enjoyed doing.

“We played catch quite a bit; that turned into a little bit more baseball here and there and that’s how Gavin kind of got into it,” Chris told PG this week. “He worked really hard. He was always a kid who needed to achieve more by working hard and by the time he got to be about 12 he started to turn into a ballplayer (as a result) of practicing every day.”

“He’s been there with me since I was a little two-year-old kid, since I was hitting balls in the backyard,” Gavin said of his dad. “He’s been there since the beginning and he’s taught me everything that I know up to this point; I wouldn’t be here without him.”

At age 14, Chris got his son hooked-up with RJ Fergus and Hitters Baseball, feeling like that would be the best place for Gavin to grow and get to those “next level” places every kid wants to reach.

Gavin, who has a batting cage in a heated garage at home, called the instruction and information he’s received from the staff at Hitters “amazing” and feels fortunate to have been given the opportunity to surround himself with people who’ll work with him to become a better version of himself.

“They really try to push you to be the best that you can be and they really do a great job of preparing guys for college; that shows with what they’ve had there,” he said.

Chris Kilen acknowledged that Fergus’ coaching style may not be for everyone but it’s a tough-love style that produces championship-caliber players who perform on championship teams. Fergus holds every player in his program accountable for putting in the required work and treats everyone the same, Chris said, while pushing them toward what they hope to become one day.

“That’s kind of how I coached, so Gavin knew that going in and that’s the kind of guy that he wanted to play for,” Chris added, speaking of Fergus. “Between having great teams and great players going through there … getting him to where he wants to go was kind of the idea.”

Fergus explained that the Hitters program doesn’t do any recruiting but instead puts players through an intensive tryout process. One of the first things the program directors and coaches looks for is if a prospect passes the eye-test in terms of body type and, secondly, they consider the player’s athletic ability.

“And No. 3,” Fergus told PG, “is how they look at me and shake my hand; are they good kids? During our tryout process we always try to teach a little bit as (it’s) going on … and look at how receptive they are to instruction. Do they have an aptitude to be able to make this adjustment after a few years?”

A left-handed hitter, Gavin Kilen obviously has a knack for getting on base as his 37 runs scored in 40 games testifies. He also drove in 26 runs in those 40 games, so he can come through with a timely hit when needed as well.

He’s a solid defender with “good bounce around the infield” according to his PG Underclass A-A Games scouting report, who threw 89 mph across the infield at both of his 2020 showcase appearances; he’s run a 6.89-second 60.

Kilen told PG that while he’s happy with the progression of his game he’s far from satisfied:

“I’m still believing in the process and going through it and trying to get to the end-point wherever that might be,” Gavin said. “Right now I’m just focusing on trying to keep getting better a little bit day-by-day. My biggest thing is that I’ve got to get faster. I know speed will kind of come with age and everything and I feel like getting stronger is a very big part of what I need to work on this year.”

Gavin Kilen, who carries a 3.77 GPA at Milton HS, committed to Louisville in October 2018 as a high school freshman months before he played in his first high school game. He had attended a camp there and immediately gained a respect and an appreciation for head coach Dan McDonald and entire staff, not to mention the campus and baseball facilities; he trusted them with his future, and so did his parents.

“It was nothing that we were trying to work towards at that point,” Chris said. “It was more or less, ‘Gavin, get better; this is why you’re here.’ Get better and hopefully good things happen your junior or senior year or whenever that may happen. For that to happen as early as it did … it was very emotional; Gavin was very excited. When that all happened I think that put more drive into him.”

The drive is definitely there because Gavin Kilen has seen the embodiment of exactly where he wants to be. The Gavin Lux’s and Jarred Kelenic’s and others like them continue to return to their roots where they’ll interact and workout with the high school prospects.

They’ll offer valuable insights into both the physical and mental aspects of the game that must be developed in order to assure success. They’ll talk about the importance of the weight room and the importance of just putting in the time required to meet lofty expectations.

It’s easy for a young prospect like Kilen to look up to those guys simply because they’re from the same area of the country and they went through many of the same experiences when they were Gavin’s age. He takes note of what they were able to accomplish after going through the Hitters program and is confident that his work ethic will someday lead him to that same rung on the ladder.

“They’re big-leaguers now, they’re minor-leaguers, they’re professionals – they get to play baseball for a living and that’s what I want to do when I get older,” Kilen said. “And so, yeah, I do look up to them quite a bit.”

Fergus believes his 2022s are on the right track because they’re not taking any time off from this game they’re so passionate about: “They wake up five, six, seven days a week and it’s school, their family, their church and baseball, and that’s what they do,” he said. “That’s what they enjoy doing and then their friendships are with guys that are doing the same things.”

Added Chris Kilen: “It’s been an emotional rollercoaster. To watch (Gavin) perform at something that he trains at so hard, it’s very satisfying to watch him play; he gets it, he loves it. It’s a dream that he had as a kid and he might as well chase it because you only get one shot at it.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is still causing havoc in Wisconsin – as it is nationwide – and schools like Milton HS, which is near Madison, are not offering varsity sports competition at this time. With a spring baseball season at home looking iffy at best, Gavin Kilen has committed to playing with Hitters Navy in the 2021 PG Iowa Spring League, a wood bat league in which teams play other top-level opponents in four games every weekend in March and April.

What that means is Kilen may have the opportunity to play with his Hitters Navy 2022 teammates during the spring in 2021 if their high school seasons are also put on hold. It’s almost certain they’ll be back together for a full summer season in 2021 if the pandemic is finally brought under control by then.

“The experiences and the memories that I’m going to get from all of these situations that I get to go through is amazing,” Gavin Kilen said. “A lot of kids don’t really get to experience this so being able to go through it I just really try to enjoy every moment of it; enjoy the process and enjoy everything that comes with it.”

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