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Tournaments | Story | 10/19/2018

CSA cruising along in Jupiter

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: AJ Vukovich (Perfect Game)

JUPITER, Fla. – The Chicago Scouts Association with general manager John Sarna have a history of bringing talented teams to the Perfect Game WWBA World Championship through the years, so it should surprise no one that this year’s rendition of the CSA squad is offering just more of the same.

The roster that Sarna put together for the 20th annual Jupiter event being held at the Roger Dean Stadium Complex, is typical in many ways but perhaps even atypical in terms of the highly ranked talent that fills its slots.

Thirteen of the class of 2019 prospects are ranked in the top-500 nationally, and a total of 14 have committed to D-I school; both 2020s are ranked in the top-81 and have made their commitments to D-I programs.

This group plays together in the fall and come from some of the finest travel ball and training programs in the two-state area, including Hitters, Longshots, Chicago ACE, Sticks and Athletic Barn, among others, according to head coach Tom Barnard.

“The team is constructed of players from Illinois and Wisconsin, each of whom live about 50 miles from each other,” he told PG late Friday morning. “I’ve been with these guys for the last three years, and the families are credited because of the make-up of the kids and their character. And ability-wise, they’re all young and still learning but they have a tool or two or three that maybe are at a little bit of a higher level.”

The most highly regarded 2019s include catcher Matt McCormick (No. 85-ranked, a West Virginia commit) from Orland Park, Ill.; outfielder Jason Hodges (No. 100, Arkansas) from Park Forest, Ill.; shortstop Damon “DJ” Gladney (No. 152, Eastern Kentucky) and left-hander Michael Prosecky (No. 186, Louisville) out of Westchester, Ill.). McCormick, Hodges and Gladney were all at the PG National Showcase at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., in June.

Corner-infielder AJ Vukovich (No. 64, Louisville) from Mukwaonago, Wis., and shortstop Ed Howard (No. 81, Oklahoma) out of Lynnwood, Ill., are the two very highly regarded 2020s.

“We’re all from the Midwest and we all play together with each other a lot, so it’s pretty easy to click with these guys,” Vukovich told PG on Friday. “We’ve been practicing for a couple of months now getting ready for this so we’re clicking as a team right now. It definitely helps that we’ve played with each other before – we have a great group of guys – and we all love playing with each other.”

The Chicago Scouts won their first two games down here in completely different fashions, escaping Texas-based Team Warstic 2-1, before pouncing on the Florida-based Padres Scout Team/Chandler World, 10-5.

In those first two games, Hodges was 4-for-6 (.667) with a double, home run and four RBI; Howard and Vukovich were both 3-for-6 (.500) – Howard doubled, tripled and drove in two, Vukovich homered and knocked in three – Kendall Ewell (No. 235, E. Kentucky) doubled, tripled and had three RBI and Kendall Pettis (No. 321, Oklahoma) was 3-for-5 (.600) with a double.

Barnard used nine pitchers in those first two games; Prosecky threw five innings of two-hit shutout ball, striking out eight and walking two in the win over Team Warstic.

“They all have talent so we’re just trying to teach them how to win,” Barnard said, “ and they’re getting the hang of it. With the character that these guys have got, they understand and I’m old-school. They’ve really responded well and you can tell by the excitement and the way we play.”

This Chicago Scouts Association squad does offer a contrast to many of the other “scout teams” in attendance at the WWBA World in that it make no pretense about being a “national” team. There are a couple of prospects from Chicago, but mostly they come from smaller Illinois and Wisconsin burgs like Elburn (Ill.), Richton Park (Ill.), Burlington (Wis.) and Mukwonago (Wis.).

Even though most of this roster consists of high school seniors, this is the first time most have experienced Jupiter and the sensory explosion – sights, sounds, smells – it provides. It has to be the only place anywhere the constant crack of a wood bat can be heard simultaneously with the drawn-out “beeeeeeeep!” of a golf cart being driven in reverse.

Hodges, 6-foot-3, 210-pound right-handed slugger and an alumnus of the PG National Showcase, was in Jupiter last year with the Chicago Scouts Association; he was named to the all-tournament team after hitting .500 (6-for-12) with three RBI and two stolen bases.

“This is my favorite tournament of all them; there’s just so many scouts and it’s a great environment,” he said. “Everybody’s playing at their top level and you see everybody’s top pitching. You get to see where you stack up against everybody else in the U.S.”

That first Jupiter experience provided Hodges with perspective and helped to calm his nerves for the second go-around. The sight of those hundreds of scouts ringing the field “kind of got to me,” he said, but this year he’s able to settle-in and stay relaxed, much like his teammates have been able to do  two games in.

“It seems like it’s a lot easier for me to kind of focus on the field and focus on winning so much more than showcasing,” he said. “You focus more on the team and you can kind of block (the scouts) out and you can just look at the field and play.”

The 6-foot-5,205-pound right-handed hitting Vukovich is at the PG WWBA World Championship for the first time although sizeable PG stages are not foreign to him.

He’s played in the WWBA Kernels Foundation Championship – a Jupiter qualifier tournament – the last three years, at the PG WWBA Underclass World Championship and the PG WWBA 16u National Championship the last two years and at the PG WWBA 17u National Championship this past summer. Still, this is different.

“I’ve never seen baseball before like this; the competition is crazy,” Vukovich said. “With all the scouts, I’ve never seen anything like this – there had to be 200-plus scouts here watching us play – and I’ve never been in an environment like this before; it’s the best baseball experience I’ve had, by far.”

Before the players and coaches left their homes in Illinois and Wisconsin to come to Florida’s Atlantic Coast, they sat down and talked expectations without setting any goals. Mostly, according to Hodges, they talked about what it was they were going to have to do that would enable them to win some ballgames

“We came down here with the thoughts of winning the whole thing,” he said. “We weren’t coming down here to showcase or anything, we were coming down here to win and show the rest of the world what the Midwest can actually do.”

The Chicago Scouts complete pool-play mid-morning on Saturday with a game against the winless Tri-State Arsenal FC, but thanks to the two wins they already have in the bank, they have clinched the pool championship and a berth in the 32-team playoffs that begin Sunday.

Barnard said he knows that every player on his roster desires to play in the major leagues someday and he is quick to tell them – having worked for the Pittsburgh Pirates for more than two decades – when a player reaches that level it’s about playing for the guy next to you; it’s about playing to win.

“Scouts and (colleges) like to tell kids to have a bat to win rather than to have a bat to show off,” he said. “These guys have really adapted to have bats to win. I think that’s why they get the exposure that they do and they’ve really responded and they relish it; it’s really cool.

“Let’s put it this way, I’m 60 years old and I was in professional baseball for a long time with the Pirates, and this probably the most fun I’ve had in baseball. They make feel young; I don’t feel 60 at all.”

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