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'Fall Training' with eye on Jupiter

Tournaments : : Story
Jeff Dahn        
Published: Saturday, August 30, 2014

STORY CITY, Iowa – The annual exercise of “Fall Training” officially got under way for the Milwaukee-based Reds Midwest Scout Team Saturday morning on a bucolic playing field that the Norsemen from Roland-Story High School call their home during Iowa’s summer prep season.

This year’s Fall Training for the 2014 version of Reds Midwest got its start at the inaugural Perfect Game Central Labor Day Classic, a 10-team affair being played on high school fields around the Des Moines metropolitan area in Central Iowa. The tournament champion will receive a paid invitation to the PG WWBA Kernels Foundation Championship held in late September in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

The Reds Midwest Scout Team is no stranger to the Kernels Foundation tournament – it won that championship in 2009 and 2011 and finished as runner-up in 2010 and 2012 – and doesn’t need a paid invitation to the event. The Reds do, however, need to get some games under their belt as they head for the ultimate destination: the 2014 PG WWBA World Championship Oct. 23-27 in Jupiter, Fla.

“We’re just looking to fine-tune our team because when we go down to Jupiter we want to be ready and not just show up and play,” top 2015 outfielder and Louisville commit Joshua Stowers told PG Saturday. “The team I was on last year, we didn’t really have any team practices and we just showed up and we kind of struggled in the first couple of games.

“These kinds of tournaments are team chemistry-builders so we can get the kinks out and learn how to play as a team overall.”

The Reds Midwest Scout Team is the brainchild of Andy Stack, an area scouting supervisor for the Cincinnati Reds. He assembles the squad of elite prospects in the fall and tries to enter it into tournaments each of the seven weekends – beginning with Labor Day – that lead up to the PG WWBA World Championship the last weekend in October. This year is no exception.

“Anytime I can do a Perfect Game event, I like to,” Stack said Saturday. “This tournament was a good, natural fit for us this year.”

Scouting for the Reds, Stack’s territory covers six states: Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota and North and South Dakota. Through the years, he’s found Illinois to be the most productive in terms of draft-ready high school prospects and as a result his Reds Midwest Scout Team roster has traditionally been filled with top Illinois prep prospects.

There are 19 Illinois prep players on this year’s roster, which also includes players from Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Texas. “Illinois is a big state with lots of players and it just ends up that that’s where most of my guys come from,” Stack said.

Everything is done with the PG WWBA World Championship (re: Jupiter) in mind. The PG WWBA Kernels Foundation Championship is also a top prize – the champion is awarded a paid invitation to Jupiter – and Stack plans-out the entire fall season in incremental steps.

“These first weekends are always fun and exciting and a little nerve-wracking for me, getting everybody uniformed-up and learning everybody’s name and number, and figuring out where everybody needs to bat in the lineup to make us successful,” he said. “We have a couple of guys who are back from out team last year … so there is a little familiarity on my part but a lot of these guys are new and hopefully they’ll play like I think they will.”

The Reds started their PG Central Labor Day Classic Upper experience with a bang, overwhelming the MN Barnstormers out of St. Paul, Minn., by an 11-3 count Saturday morning.

Ethan Skender, a 2015 middle-infielder/outfielder and a Kansas State recruit from Metamora, Ill., doubled, tripled and drove in five runs; Chris Botsoe, a 2015 outfielder and Louisville commit from Hinsdale, Ill., was 2-for-3 with two RBI; 2015 catcher Scott Kapers from Schererville, Ill., and a Valparaiso recruit, doubled and drove in two, and Homewood, Ill., 2015 right-hander and Kentucky commit Jeremy Orbik threw four shutout innings before giving up three runs in the fifth.

Botsoe is ranked 225th nationally; Skender 232nd; Kapers 324th and Orbik is a top-500 prospect. Stowers is at No. 134 in the class of 2015 and third baseman/shortstop/right-hander Cal Coughlin from Lake Forest, Ill., is No. 133 in the class of 2016.

Another highly regarded prospect on the Reds Midwest Scout Team roster is middle-infielder Cole Daily, a Notre Dame commit from Springfield, Ill., who is ranked No. 168 nationally.

Several of the top players on the Reds’ roster weren’t able to be here this weekend, including Perfect Game All-American third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes – ranked No. 52 nationally – and 2015 Michigan outfielder Nick Plummer, a top-500 prospect who was a hitting sensation at both the East Coast Professional Showcase and the Area Code Games this summer.

 “I’ve seen a lot of these guys in showcase events and on other teams and on paper I think we’re really a good team. You don’t play the game on paper so we’ll see how they come together,” Stack said. “If you look at our college commits it’s a pretty impressive list of guys and where they’re going, so we should compete right alongside with teams we’ve had in the past.”

Stack pointed out that with so many players from Illinois, many of them have played with or against one another over the last two or three years so there is a sense of familiarity. Stack treats the players as professionally as possible and holds them accountable, and tries to do it without raising his voice.

“I’m not a big yeller or screamer and hopefully I can just throw them out there and their talent will take over, and they have fun playing together,” he said.

“I definitely want to get to know the team, playing in this first tournament together,” Coughlin, the versatile 2016 from Lake Forest said. “The (final) tournament will be Jupiter and we have to get ready for that. I know that they did real well last year and in past years, so with this team we just have to get to know each other and I’m excited to get to know them and play with them.”

It’s interesting that all these outstanding athletes, most of them just starting their senior year in high school, chose to come to Central Iowa to play in a baseball tournament on the same weekend – a holiday weekend, no less – when their school’s football teams back home were kicking off their seasons.

While the Midwest might not quite be Texas with the whole allure of “Friday Night Lights” a football Friday night remains a big part of the whole high school experience from coast to coast in these United States.

“I just love baseball and I just wanted to start pitching again; I haven’t pitched in about a month,” the right-hander Orbik from Homewood, Ill., said. “I just love pitching and I’m glad to be back; I love this sport a lot. I like going to the football games and stuff, but this is my main priority. I would rather come to this over staying home for the football game, for sure; this is my main priority.”

Coughlin was a varsity football player last year as a sophomore but chose not to go out for the sport this fall. He admitted that it was difficult not being at his school’s football opener Friday night but he’s smart enough to recognize that baseball has already opened doors for him and will continue to in the future. He is one of only two 2016s on the roster and one of a very few who hasn’t committed to a college.

“This is a great opportunity and this is the game I love, so this is a good decision,” he said.

Added Stack: “I know that missing out the Friday nights is a sacrifice but most of our guys are D-I commits and a lot of them are pro prospects in some fashion, and they realize that sacrifices are necessary to get to where they want to get; they buy into the idea that this is something to do to get to their ultimate goal. I think that you find once they get into it they’re more excited about it than they realize.”

For a prospect like Stowers, the Louisville recruit, it is the desire to compete – and not be a spectator – that provides the motivation for being here. “We want to build chemistry but we also want to win the entire thing. Our goal here is to go undefeated; we’re not looking to lose,” he said.

And, of course, the Reds Midwest Scout Team wants to make sure it does everything it possibly can to be prepared for the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., in about seven weeks – Jupiter is, after all, the driving force behind “Fall Training.”

The Reds have proved they more than belong at the prestigious tournament held near the Atlantic Ocean beaches, with top-four finishes in both 2011 and 2013. Team member Evan Skoug from Libertyville, Ill., was named last year’s Most Valuable Player at the PG WWBA World Championship.

“That’s kind of the goal and why we do this,” Stack said of the team’s participation here this weekend. “Teams that go down there as individuals are just put together for the Jupiter situation; I think it takes them a few games in Jupiter just to kind of get to know each other. But, there are no byes in Jupiter; you’ve got to be ready to go from pitch one right into Monday.

“We might not be as talented as some of those teams from Texas and Florida but we can play with those teams because of what we do beforehand,” he concluded. “It can be done; you get a couple of guys hot and you pitch like we have in the last couple of years and good things happen. It’s always a fun experience to see how we do.”

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