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Wednesday, March 14, 2018

IA Select, Hitters ready to spar

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – 2017 Perfect Game All-American Jarred Kelenic from Waukesha, Wis., will be there, as will his PG All-American Classic West squad teammate, Levi Usher from Fairfax, Iowa.

And they won’t be alone. Kelenic and Usher will be surrounded by many of the other top prospects from Iowa and Wisconsin when they meet on playing fields in the two states on six of the next seven Sundays. Just as importantly, perhaps, it is expected they’ll be joined by pro scouts from every one of the 30 major league teams, each one taking notes with his eye on the 2018 MLB June Amateur Draft.

A collaborative effort by Perfect Game’s Steve James and Hitters Baseball’s RJ Fergus resulted in a scheduled weekly dream matchup between the two organizations’ top upperclass teams, Iowa Select Black 2018 and Hitters Baseball 2018. The first meeting takes place this Sunday, March 18, in Runnells, Iowa.

“This is going to be a great opportunity for these guys,” Fergus said. “If they go out there with the idea of wanting to win these games every Sunday, then there are going to be some great games with some great competition.”

James is the director of the PG Iowa Spring and Fall Leagues and the director of the Iowa PGBA, who also oversees the Iowa Select teams program. Fergus is the owner of Hitters Baseball Training Academy in Caledonia, Wis., and has fielded nationally competitive Hitters Baseball travel ball teams for nearly two decades; he also runs the Hitters High School League during the spring.

Both men see these powerhouse contests as nothing but a win-win for the elite prospects involved, most of whom (all the Iowans) are at high schools that don’t offer a spring baseball season. These games are ideal for pro scouts who want to see the players perform under the most competitive of circumstances, and the guys they will be evaluating are among the best of the best. A quick sampling:

The Hitters Baseball 2018 roster features 12 prospects who have either signed with or committed to NCAA Division I programs, including Kelenic, a Louisville signee. A left-handed hitting outfielder, Kelenic is slotted at No. 5 in the PG national class of 2018 prospect rankings and is projected as a first-round selection in the upcoming MLB Draft.

Other top 2018s on the Hitters roster include corner-infielder Alex Bineless (No. 179, Louisville) and right-hander/first baseman Max Alba (No. 247, North Carolina); middle-infielder Xavier Watson (No. 442, Illinois) is the top 2019 and 2020 third baseman/right-hander AJ Vukovich (No. 25, Louisville) and 2021 catcher Ian Moller (No. 11, Louisiana State) are also rostered. Ironically, Moller – an alumnus of the 2017 PG 14u Select Baseball Festival – is from Dubuque, Iowa.

The Iowa Select Black roster features six prospects that have either signed with or committed to D-I schools, including five 2018s: right-hander Connor Van Scoyoc (No. 228, Arizona State), right-hander Clayton Nettleton (No. 246, Iowa), middle-infielder Brayden Frazier (No. 482, Iowa) right-hander Nic McCay (top-500, South Dakota State) and right-hander Will Christoffersen (top-500, Michigan State). 2020 catcher Calvin Harris has committed to Mississippi.

Iowa Select does feature 14 2018 prospects that have signed with either junior colleges or smaller four-year schools. That number includes the outfielder Usher (No. 84, Kirkwood CC) and the right-hander Tyler Lewis (No. 356, Indian Hills CC); it’s been reported that Lewis recently had his fastball top-out at 95 mph. 2019 outfielder Josh Fitzgerald is ranked No. 405 nationally and is uncommitted.

So, here’s how this plan to have these two teams face-off a half-dozen times this spring came together, at least in the proverbial nutshell.

The top Iowa draft and college prospects have played together on the Iowa Select Black team during the fall for several years now. The setup was different during the PG Spring League season, when the top guys were split up and put on two or three separate teams in an effort to make each team more competitive.

Having experienced what it’s like to play together and duke it out with some of the country’s top travel ball teams in September and October, the Select Black players expressed an interest in somehow replicating that in the spring.

James had discussions with Fergus to see if something could be worked out and last spring they decided to play games on two weekends, one at a venue in Iowa and the other at one in Wisconsin.

Those two weekends proved to be successful, so the two men met again, put the pen to the pad, so to speak, and took the arrangement a step further. This spring, it was decided, they would pit their top upperclass and underclass squads against one another for seven consecutive weekends (the two top underclass teams will play on Saturdays; no upperclass game will be played on Easter Sunday, April 1).

It promises to be a high school-aged baseball bonanza, both for the Iowa and Wisconsin prep draft prospects who will be given the opportunity to compete at the highest level possible, but also for the nation’s scouting community.

There will not be a better high school game played in the Midwest all week – regardless of the day of the week – and since it’s played on a Sunday, the game will have the national stage to itself.

“With their league and our league, we’d both get some pro scouts to come out on Sundays for the games, but combined, we’re going to get everyone there at one time,” James said. “… Going about it this way, there’s going to be a much larger draw on a week-in, week-out basis. We’re combining the two groups and it’s just going to be insane.”

The two teams’ opener on Sunday should prove that out. James was able to secure the turf field at Southeast Polk High School in Runnells, which sits roughly 10 miles east of Des Moines in central Iowa.

The Omaha-Council Bluffs metropolitan area is about 150 miles southwest of Runnells and will be hosting two heavily scouted college/juco matchups this weekend: Wichita State is at Creighton in Omaha for games Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and North Iowa Area CC is at PG No. 22-ranked Iowa Western CC in Council Bluffs for double-headers on Saturday and Sunday.

“(The scouts) will be able to make that two-hour trip over to Southeast Polk,” James noted. “There’s going to be some crosscheckers there right out of the gate.”

Hitters will throw the right-handers Nathan Rintz (top-500, Arkansas), Sean O’Brien (t-1000, St. Louis) and Elliot Elm; Select Black counters with McCray, left-hander Austin Krob (t-1000, Kirkwood CC) and right-hander Hogan McIntosh (HF, Waubonsee CC).

And so it will continue, with the last game scheduled to be played on Sunday, May 6. There are indoor facilities in both Cedar Rapids and Caledonia, so if any weather issues arise, the teams will be moved indoors to play simulated games. Also, many of the fields available in both states feature artificial turf, which helps mitigate many of the weather woes.

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