Tournaments : : Story
Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Force is with them

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

SLATER, Iowa – The players from Force Elite Baseball might have seemed at once out of place and right at home when they played their third pool-play game at the PG WWBA Central Labor Day Classic (Upperclass) Sunday morning at Nite Hawk Field in this rural Central Iowa town plopped about halfway between Des Moines to the south and Ames to the north.

Force Elite Baseball indentifies the city of West Chicago, Ill., as its base of operation and all of the prospects on the team come from Chicago’s western suburbs – well-populated cities like Aurora, Geneva, Batavia and Bartlett. The city of Chicago’s towering lakefront skyscrapers are about an hour’s drive to the east.

On Sunday morning, Force Elite arrived at Nite Hawk Field with a full view of an “Iowa Skyscraper” towering just beyond the centerfield fence. In these parts, the structure is more commonly known as a grain elevator.

It is an unusual skyline, to be sure, for the kids from the Chicago burbs. But rural Iowa on the Sunday before Labor Day was exactly where they wanted to be.

“I was really looking forward to this weekend,” said national 2015 “high follow” catcher and first baseman Nate Montgomery from Geneva, Ill., late Sunday morning. “Coach (Mark) Ramos and Coach (Andrew) Elke told us at practice last week that there was going to be a lot of great competition out here and so far they were right.

“I have grandparents that live about a half hour away and I’m staying with them, and we’re having a lot of fun out here. We’re playing baseball and that’s what everyone wants to do.”

Force Elite Baseball head coach Mark Ramos grew up in Moline, Ill., along the banks of the Mississippi River in the Quad Cities, and played collegiately at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill. He knows city and he knows rural, and he also knows his guys from the west Chicago suburbs were looking forward to being a big part of the inaugural PG Central Labor Day Classic (Upper).

“As soon as we got the invite to come over here, everybody cleared their calendars for it,” Ramos told PG Sunday morning from a dugout at Nite Hawk Field with that towering grain elevator as a backdrop. He said all of his players are top students both in terms of grade point average and college testing scores and that schoolwork was a priority on this trip to the heartland.

“But at the same time, these guys are having a blast here and these are the things they’re going to remember for the rest of their lives. … Baseball on the Labor Day weekend with beautiful weather and just a well-run tournament, it doesn’t get any better than this.”

Force Elite Baseball has been in the travel ball business for the last eight or nine years, according to Ramos, but the program has really taken off in just the last three or four years. The organization has a sound plan and is investing heavily in trying to find colleges for its young prospects, much like the elite programs in other parts of the country have done.

With the PG WWBA Central Labor Day Classic (Upper) being a Perfect Game event with the champion receiving an automatic, paid invitation to the 2014 PG WWBA Kernels Foundation Championship in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in late September – an event that Force Elite has asked for an invitation to for at least the last three years – it seemed to Ramos to be a no-brainer as far as being here this weekend.

The champion of the PG WWBA Kernels Foundation Championship earns an automatic paid invitation to the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., during the last weekend in October.

“The ultimate goal in the Midwest is to get to that Perfect Game Kernels tournament where you get to play teams just like this (Reds Midwest Scout Team) and plenty of other really good talent,” Ramos said before his team took the field against the RMWST. “One of the biggest things that (brought) us here is the organization of the Perfect Game (tournaments). We love it, we know that it’s a reputable company, we know that they’re going to take care of their business; the games are going to start on time.

“It’s those little things that we do this for a living and we understand the value we get coming here; that’s a big draw for us.”

An “Iowa Skyscraper” – better known around these parts as a grain elevator – towers over the centerfield fence at Nite Hawk Field in Slater, Iowa.

Force Elite Baseball leases a facility in West Chicago called Finish Strong SportsPlex which is an indoor turf facility devoted to both soccer and baseball. Force Elite runs youth and high school-age programs, along with camps and clinics, out of the Finish Strong SportsPlex building.

“Our core focus is the high school guys,” Ramos said. “You’ll see that during the games we’ll jump on them but they get it; they understand that we’re in it for the best interest of our program and we can tell college coaches that, ‘Hey, this kid is a program guy, he’s going to be there, he’s going to put the time and the effort in and he’s got the discipline; it’s going to go a long way.’ ”

Montgomery, a 2015 6-foot-1, 185-pound primary catcher and first baseman who Perfect Game ranks as a national “high follow and is uncommitted, is arguably Force Elite Baseball’s top prospect. He struggled at the plate in the Force’s four pool-play games, batting 2-for-10 (.200) with a pair of singles. The Force hit .302 as a team (29-for-96) with 28 singles and a double.

Force Elite Baseball won its first two pool-play games at the PG WWBA Central Labor Day Classic (Upperclass) on Saturday and split its two games on Saturday, losing to the powerful Reds Midwest Scout Team before rallying for a 5-2 win over the Illinois Dirtbags from Lake in the Hills, Ill.

While the bats did just enough during the four-game run to the final four, the Force also got some pretty fine pitching performances from 2015 right-handers Ryan Stumpf (Mokena, Ill.), Adam Tisdale (Batavia, Ill.) and Eric Huizinga (Batavia, Ill.) and 2016 lefty Carter Johnson (Elmhurst, Ill.).

Taken as a whole, it was good enough for the Force (3-1-0) to play into Monday where it will face PG Iowa Steel (3-0-1) out of Cedar Rapids in one semifinal at the Roland-Story High School field in Story City. The other semifinal pits Iowa Select Black (3-1-0) from Cedar Rapids against the Reds Midwest Scout Team (4-0-0) from Milwaukee; the CLDC Upper championship game is scheduled for 2 p.m. at Brookside Park in Ames.

“Ultimately on any tournament you want to play on Sunday,” Ramos said, “and in the case of this tournament it’s Monday. You want to set yourself up for that and we know, as a program, what our goal is when we come into a game. … This is a great learning experience for them to understand what it is to get to the next level … and playing on Monday is the ultimate goal.”

Back in his playing days, Ramos participated in the 2009 PG Pre-Draft Showcase in Cedar Rapids, and found it to be a very valuable experience. He’s tried to pass the word onto the 16- and 17-year-olds he now enjoys coaching.

 “A lot of our guys have seen my profile and they know … Perfect Game is a way to get their name out there,” Ramos said. “This is something where a lot of them have their own profiles now, and they’re trying to go off and play college ball.”

Montgomery has been among the most active Force Elite Baseball players’ when it comes to attending national Perfect Game events. Although he did nothing this past summer, he was at the 2013 PG Midwest Underclass Showcase in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, as well as the 2013 PG National Underclass Showcase-Main Event in Fort Myers, Fla., where he was named to the Top Prospect Team.

“It was a lot of fun and I met a lot of different kids, and I still follow a couple on Twitter,” he said. “When you a play a team from the South and they’re better than you are, and they’re good … it just gives you the motivation to get better and keep working hard. It gives us that motivation and it’s really fun to see what else is out there.”

Montgomery started working with Force Elite Baseball when he was 12 years old and feels like he has benefitted greatly from his association with the organization. He likes the fact that all of the coaches with the organization have played either at the collegiate level or the professional level – Ramos played at both – and they know what is required to get him to the level he wants to attain.

“I was cut from my 12u travel team and now I’m, hopefully, a college prospect,” he said. “I love playing with them; they’re great guys.”

Ramos emphasizes to his Force Elite Baseball players that one of the benefits of this program is what he calls the “unity aspect.” The players spend a lot of time together at the Finish Strong facility the year around and they become not only teammates but the best of friends, young guys who appreciate it other’s individuality from a team standpoint both on and off the field.

“We don’t have a ton of 5-tool athletes but what we do have are a lot of good teammates and we have a lot of good solid ballplayers that play fundamentally sound good baseball; they accept failure and try to learn from it,” he said. “It’s really that professional mind-set.

“All of our (instructors and coaches) at our facility have played either independent (professional league) ball or high-level college ball and we just try to instill the message that this is the best game in the world.”

The young guys from the western Chicago suburbs came to playing fields – and cornfields and soybean fields – of Central Iowa and did all right for themselves. That towering “Iowa Skyscraper” beyond centerfield at Nite Hawk Field will one day be just another fond memory that accompanied their experiences learning how to play the game of baseball.

“It’s not really wins and losses that you’re going to remember here,” Ramos said, “it’s really about the time in the hotel together, it’s the funny stuff that the team comedy guy does and they get that. Anytime we get to travel, play with a great establishment like Perfect Game and then get to spend time like this on the road, it’s just a great experience and it makes people want to come back to PG.”

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