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Saturday, August 23, 2014

'Iowa Kid' hopes to help Hawkeyes

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – When veteran college baseball coach Rick Heller was hired to resurrect the moribund University of Iowa baseball program at the conclusion of the 2013 season, he made clear what type of kid he was going after to get the job done.

During an appearance at the Davenport (Iowa) Grid Club last October, Heller, who had coached previously with much success at Upper Iowa University and the University of Northern Iowa, laid out his plan.

“We have to do a better job of getting the right kids in-state and getting those right kids to stay at home,” Heller said, according to a report in the Quad City Times. “It’s always been attractive for Iowa kids to either go South (and play at warm-weather schools) or to sign professionally, but for us to compete in the Big Ten we need the right kids to want to stay home and want to be a part of our program.”

Heller didn’t name names, of course, but he might has well have put the name “Luke Farley” on a banner and pulled it behind one of those small airplanes that fill the sky over Kinnick Stadium on a Big Ten football Saturday afternoon.

Farley, a standout 2015 outfielder and first baseman from the small town of Denver in Northeast Iowa, might as well have “Iowa Kid” and the all the positive connotations that label carries with it tattooed on his forehead. He is the top-ranked prospect from the state in the class of 2015 (No. 210 nationally) and like three of the other top-six ranked 2015 prospects in the state, he’s committed to Heller and the Hawkeyes.

“I just had a real good fall last year and I played really well, especially in front of the Iowa (coaches),” Farley said while taking part this weekend at the Perfect Game Midwest Top Prospect Showcase at PG Field-Veterans Memorial Stadium.

“When they offered me this fall I just said yes right then and there,” he said of his commitment. “The coaching staff is really great – Coach Heller is a really good guy and he’s really going to turn that program around – and I just feel like they’re headed in the right direction.”

It’s no wonder Farley jumped on the Hawkeyes’ train because he, too, seems headed in the right direction. An alumnus of June’s Perfect Game National Showcase in Fort Myers, Fla., and 19 other PG events, Farley has earned a reputation as one of the nation’s top hitters in the 2015 class.

The PG Midwest Underclass Showcase runs simultaneously with the Midwest Top, and Farley was named to both the Top Prospect List and Top Prospect Team at the 2012 and 2013 Midwest Underclass. This is his first go-around at the Midwest Top and he felt it was important he came back for one more dip in the long-running PG Midwest Showcase water.

“I felt it was important to be here to really get the velos up this weekend in front of the pro scouts,” Farley said. “I want to have another good showcase and get some looks before the draft. It’s nice to be able to see some more live pitching because I haven’t seen that much since (the) high school (summer season) and then really get ready for the fall season with Perfect Game Iowa Select.”

Luke Farley, listed at 6-foot-1, 190-pounds, and his father Larry Farley made the hour or so drive south from Denver to Perfect Game Field together, adding another entry on Luke’s impressive PG resume.

“He enjoys coming to them; he has a lot of fun,” Larry Farley said, adding that PG Field could realistically be called Farley’s home field, second only to the one he plays on at Columbus Catholic High School in Waterloo, Iowa.

“He likes playing with all the different kids, and we were talking on the way down (Friday) that he’s played with a lot of good ballplayers over the years. He just enjoys being here, playing ball,” Larry continued. “There’s nothing like it; playing ball, that’s the name of the game. He likes coming and we like watching.”

At the beginning of his sophomore season at Columbus Catholic in the summer of 2013, Farley was swinging a metal bat like just about every other high school player in the country but it just wasn’t feeling right. His mom, Robin Farley, suggested that he break out his wood bat which is legal under Iowa high school rules.

In his first game swinging wood he hit for the cycle, and he kept swinging throughout the season. He hit .438 with 56 hits as a sophomore, including 12 doubles, four triples and four home runs, and drove in 52 runs, helping the Sailors to the Iowa Class 2A state tournament.

At the start of his junior season this summer, his dad suggested he return to the BBCOR bat, which he did, and the results were no less spectacular. Farley earned Class 2A first-team all-state recognition from the Iowa Newspaper Association after hitting .481 (52-for-108), with 16 doubles, five triples, six home runs, 43 RBI, 45 runs scored, 15 stolen bases and only 12 strikeouts against 28 walks (and 4 HBPs).

Farley takes a lot of pride in his ability to hit a baseball and works extremely hard at his craft.

“We have a little cage down in our basement and I hit down there every night during the offseason,” he said. “(Hitting) is the one thing that has been steady for me and keeps on getting better, and that’s obviously my top tool; that’s what I like to do.”

He has done it quite well, that’s for sure – it was his ability to hit that earned him spots on five PG Top Prospect Lists and PG Top Prospect Teams following showcase appearances. He was also named to the all-tournament teams at the 2013 PG WWBA Kernels Foundation Championship and the 2013 PG WWBA Underclass World Championship.

One of the Top Prospect teams Farley was named to is the crème de la crème of Top Prospect teams: the Perfect Game National Showcase, staged this year at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Fla. JetBlue is the spring training home of the Boston Red Sox and its playing field is a to-scale replica of the one at Fenway Park, complete with its own version of the Green Monster.

“I really had a lot of fun there,” Farley said. “The talent was unbelievable and I got to face a lot of really good pitchers; I just had a fun time down there. I hit a couple of home runs in BP and that was obviously really fun – that big Green Monster and I was hitting it over that as a high-schooler; not a lot of people get to experience that.

“It was just a real fun time and it was really fun to just be around that competition and really see how you stack up against the top guys in the country.”

Farley is about to begin his fourth season of play in the PG Iowa Fall League and also played three seasons in the Iowa Spring Wood Bat League. The Iowa High School Athletic Association offers only a summer baseball season so the PG Spring and Fall leagues are highly anticipated by the state’s baseball-only players (although Farley continues to participate in track and field in the spring).

“I think that really helps me because you really get to see and play with a lot of really high-talent guys, guys that have been drafted,” he said of the fall and spring leagues. “You get to face them and it just really elevates your game that much more and it really helps you see what those guys are doing and how you stack up against them.”

Larry Farley had nothing but praise for the work of Steve James, the director of PG’s Spring and Fall leagues: “Steve James, he’s been an excellent resource. He’s always there to answer your questions and help you out whenever you have something that you need to know.

 “This is great exposure for these (Iowa) kids,” he said as he looked around Perfect Game Field. “There’s no question that they’d never be seen just playing for their high schools and most of the scouts and colleges that are coming to the Perfect Game events to check these kids out would never come out (to the high schools).”

Luke Farley recalled that as a freshman he wasn’t the biggest guy out on the field and for that reason he is proud of how much he has developed both physically and mentally. “Through the Perfect Game events I’ve really learned a lot and faced a lot of good pitching, and that’s really helped me get a lot better and really motivated me to keep on getting better, especially in the offseason,” he said.

“I don’t think I’d change any of it at all because I’ve just had fun at each event. Each one of them is a little bit different … and it’s always like a new, great experience every single event that I go to.”

As all of his post-tournament and post-showcase accolades and honors attest, Farley thrives on playing on the biggest stages and in front of as many sets of eyes as possible. There is a basic satisfaction the top prospects derive from showing the decision-makers of the world exactly what they’re capable of.

Farley came to Cedar Rapids this weekend intent on proving his worth to MLB scouts. He wanted to improve the velocities on his throws from the outfield and from first base and came through with an 86 mph throw across the infield from first base – the top effort at the showcase – and an 87 mph throw from the outfield – tied for third at the event.

He will continue to play this fall for PG’s James and elite Iowa Select teams, play his senior season at Columbus Catholic in the spring of 2015 and then keep an eye on the 2015 June Amateur First-Year Player Draft. If that has nothing to offer, Farley will head to Iowa City in the fall to become a valuable member of the Iowa Hawkeyes’ baseball program.

It’s the scenario Rick Heller envisioned when he became Iowa head coach before the 2014 season when the Hawkeyes went on to win 30 games. It’s also exactly what Larry Farley had in mind.

 “He’s an Iowa kid and he needs to stay in the state and go to a state school,” Luke’s dad said. “Rick is getting it turned around real fast down there. I look at Rick kind of like when (Iowa) brought in (former coach) Hayden Fry for the football team, he’s going to do the same thing – build it from the ground up and the foundation is going to be based on Iowa kids. It’s going to be fun to watch them the next few years.”

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