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Leagues | Story | 3/28/2019

Iowa League 'springs' into '19

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Carter Baumler (Perfect Game)

Week 1 PG Iowa Spring League Recap

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – Spring officially sprung in Eastern Iowa at the Mount Mercy University baseball field on this city’s near northeast side early last Friday evening, and it did so despite a prevalent and persistent chill in the air.

“I call it ‘breathing baseball’ right now,” former Cedar Falls (Iowa) High School head coach Jack Sole told Perfect Game while wearing a smile as wide as a catcher’s mitt. “It’s a beautiful setting here and it’s awesome that Mount Mercy lets us utilize this (field) so, yeah, it’s baseball time.”

Sole was part of a sizeable gathering of players, coaches, parents and onlookers on hand for the opener at this year’s new and improved PG Iowa Select Spring League, the latest rendition of the venerable Iowa wood bat spring league that founder and president Jerry Ford first introduced in 1996.

The PG Spring League was created to benefit the top prospects in the state of Iowa who don’t have the opportunity to play for their high school teams during the spring – the Iowa High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) sanctions only a summer season.

“Our main goal in starting Perfect Game nearly 25 years ago, was to give talented players in Iowa more opportunities,” PG’s Ford explained this week. “PG has since become a National/International organization, but one that has never lost track of its original vision.”

That vision has produced a rich history of success. Since its inception nearly 25 years ago, 90 prospects from Iowa have been selected in the annual MLB June Amateur Draft and 89 of them played in the Spring League.

Thirteen of those 89 drafted players went on to play in the big leagues, including notables like Jeff Clement, Joel Hanrahan, Jeremy Hellickson, Scott Schebler, Ryan Sweeney and Tony Watson.

“That’s not really something I think about but it doesn’t really come as a surprise to me; I feel like Iowa is kind of slept-on talent-wise in the whole spectrum of things,” Sticks’ outfielder/infielder Adam Brauch, a junior at West Des Moines Dowling Catholic HS and a Valparaiso University commit told PG when presented with those numbers.

“They all recognize the history,” Sole said. “We were talking about the guys that have played before them and we talked about playing Jarred Kelenic out here last year. They recognize it and they all have some talent and ability and who knows, and a lot of these guys are going to get the opportunity to recognize the state and themselves at the next level.”

The March 22 opener at Mount Mercy featured a matchup between two of the most prospect-laden rosters in this year’s 27-team lineup: the Iowa Sticks-Romanchuk, co-coached by Evan Romanchuk and Jason Pearson, and the Iowa Select 2019-Sole/Frazier, ran by Jack Sole and Leo Frazier. The Sticks have a more Central Iowa flavor and the Select more of an Eastern Iowa bent.

The rosters for both squads were somewhat depleted on Friday, a combination of other Iowa Sticks and Iowa Select teams playing games at TBK Bank Sports Complex in Bettendorf and some players still out of town on their respective spring breaks. But these teams, when they’re whole, are both interesting and intriguing from a talent standpoint.

“We’re all going to be very aggressive out here,” Brauch said. “It’s our first time taking live ground balls and seeing live pitching, but I think we’re all going to come swinging hard, playing hard. That’s what it’s all about, really, just playing hard, having fun and the wins are going to come. That’s obviously our goal at the end of the day, to get some wins.”

All of these Iowa guys were ready to get after it, especially after enduring brutally cold temperatures and what seemed like mountains of snow throughout February and into early March. In fact, some piles of snow left behind by street plows were still visible from the dugouts at Mount Mercy.

“Physically, for me, it’s just been working out and hitting inside as much as you possibly can,” said Iowa Select 2019 outfielder Josh Fitzgerald, an uncommitted senior at Mason City Newman Catholic HS who is ranked the No. 4 overall prospect in Iowa’s class of 2019..

“I think the main focus with the Spring League is just getting ready for your high school season, seeing live pitching and getting your time down, just getting used to playing the game.”

Sole has been involved with the PG Spring League ever since his son J.T. Sole counted elite prospects like AJ Puk, Keaton McKinney and Mitch Keller among his Iowa Select teammates. Casey Sole, a senior at Cedar Falls HS and a Southeast Missouri State signee, is on his dad’s team this spring.

“This is a great opportunity for these Iowa guys,” Jack Sole said. “One, it’s a great opportunity for anybody to just get themselves prepared for the next step they’re going to take and, two, we’re able to face some pretty good pitching in this and even in the spring we’ve always had that opportunity. …

“This is great for the kids to be able to take a few steps and get a little better and then jump into their high school season in another month or so; it’s always been awesome.”

When totally intact, the rosters of the Iowa Sticks-Romanchuk and Iowa Select 2019-Sole/Frazier can hold their own with many of the top travel ball clubs from across the country.

The Select feature senior middle-infielder Sam Link from Dubuque Senior HS, the No. 1-ranked overall 2019 prospect in Iowa (No. 476 nationally) and a U. of Iowa signee.

Other top-500 2019s include Fitzgerald (No. 4 Iowa); right-hander/first baseman Harrison Cook, Cedar Rapids Prairie (No. 6 Iowa, U. of Kentucky recruit); right-hander/middle-infielder Sam Goodman, Western Dubuque HS (No. 8, Iowa); catcher/corner-infielder Casey Sole (No. 12); catcher Garrett Ries, C.R. Xavier (No. 13, South Dakota St.); outfielder Drake Frazier, C.R. Jefferson (No. 14, South Dakota St.) and outfielder DJ Heck, Iowa City High (No. 19, Iowa).

Junior catcher/outfielder/right-hander Calvin Harris from Western Dubuque, an Ole Miss commit ranked Nos. 141/2 and the MVP at the 2016 PG 14u Select Baseball Festival, is the top 2020 on the roster. Outfielder/middle-infielder Coy Sarsfield from Marion Linn-Mar HS is an Iowa commit and the No. 4-ranked Iowa prospect in the 2021 class.

Sole said this Iowa Select 2019 Sole/Frazier team is really no different in its make-up from the teams that have played under the Iowa Select banner for the last seven or eight years.

“There are future pro prospects on all of these teams that we play in this league, and what a great opportunity for them to show it off a little bit,” he said.

The directors and coaches at the Iowa Sticks make a conscience effort to mix-and-match the rosters with players from high schools all over Central Iowa, making sure that the top guys are on the same teams in order to amplify the exposure.

“It’s a pretty successful program we’re running and it’s important to get them out here early before (the summer high school) season starts,” the Sticks’ Jason Pearson told PG on Friday. “Just get them some swings and some innings and come out and play the game the right way. …

“The parents are great in trusting their kids with us and say, hey, let’s get them better and try to move on and have them be successful in baseball.”

While the Iowa Sticks Romanchuk roster features some top senior talent like outfielder/left-hander Nathan Steenblock from WDM Catholic, it is the junior class that grabs the spotlight.

And that starts with another top WDM Dowling Catholic prospect in Carter Baumler. A top right-hander and do-everything utility player, Baumler is Iowa’s top-ranked prospect in the class of 2020 (No. 128 nationally) and a Texas Christian commit.

Other national top-500 and Iowa top-10 2020s on the Sticks’ roster include Alec Nigut, Des Moines Roosevelt (Iowa commit); Casey Young, Winterset Senior (Northwestern); Jackson Payne, Waukee HS (South Dakota St.); Jalen Martinez, Waukee, Logan Smith, Dallas Center-Grimes (South Dakota St.) and Dowling Catholic’s  Brauch (Valparaiso).

“It feels great to be out here and I think we’re all just excited to see some live pitching,” Brauch said. “We’ve all been inside for a while working our butts off during the winter. We’re just out here trying to get some good exposure and seeing some of the best arms from around the area; just kind of getting ready for the summer season.”

Getting ready for the summer season is what drives these players. Pearson pointed out that a typical position player may get only about 100 at-bats during his high school season, so it makes perfect sense to come out here and get anywhere from 50 to 100 addition at-bats – against high-end pitching – in front of the summer season.

“Coming out here and getting in the early (work) and getting looked at before May 1st and their (high school team) practice starts before their season,” is beneficial, he said. “Then they can come back to us in the fall and we run a good program and we travel a lot and they can get good exposure for that, too.”

Brauch acknowledged that playing a summer high school season makes it more difficult for the Iowa players to receive the kind of exposure in front of scouts and college recruiters that they’d receive if they were playing on the PG travel ball circuit.

He likes that by participating in the Iowa Spring League he can get his stats and other relevant numbers out on PG’s website, and those numbers can then complement what he’s able to do in the fall by playing with the Sticks in PG WWBA tournaments or in the Iowa Fall League.

The Select’s Fitzgerald agreed: “A lot of kids some into this and they’re committed or they’re getting a lot of looks,” he said. “The talent is good here, and it’s not just the league that you’ve signed-up to play in. The kids are high-level baseball players and there’s a lot of talent that comes into this league; that’s good for everyone because it makes every one of us better.”

Jack Sole described this Iowa spring season as a time when the players can get their legs back underneath them after a long and dormant winter. Josh Fitzgerald talked about how much he’s enjoyed getting to know and becoming friends with players from other Iowa high schools while playing in the Spring League. And it all stems from that original vision, continuing even as Perfect Game has grown well beyond its Iowa roots.

“The more we grow  nationally the better we can create opportunities for young players here in Iowa, whether it be college or professional baseball,” PG’s Ford concluded. “The results have been outstanding, both for the spring and the fall leagues.”

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