MARION, Iowa – In an act of nature that had yet to be seen, conditions during play at the Perfect Game Iowa Spring League this past weekend turned, well, very spring-like not a moment too soon for the hundreds of players on hand at the Prospect Meadows Sports Complex.
And who was it that seemed to be enjoying the sunshine and low-60s temperatures the most? Judging by the enthusiasm and outpouring of pure competitive joy they put on display both inside the dugout and out on the field Saturday afternoon, the blue ribbon could have easily been awarded to the Hitters 2022 Navy.
With a roster constructed around an enviable collection of many of the top prospects from the national class of 2022, the Wisconsin-based club is showing during what has been a cold April in Eastern Iowa it will be an outfit of high regard on the national PG WWBA tournament scene this summer.
The steady chatter, hoots and hollers, good-natured ribbing and outright laughter that persisted during a pair of games against a solid Iowa Select Evans team on this day, proved the Hitters 2022 Navy under the direction of program founder/manager RJ Fergus were right where they both wanted and needed to be.
“With the level of competition here, I take it all in at 100 percent; I don’t take anything lightly,” top 2022 infielder Logan Wagner from Aurora, Ill., told PG, a smile stretched across his face. “Good teams are playing so it’s important to get your quality reps in and get ready for a big summer; that’s what I’m really excited about.”
And he should be, given the opportunity he has to play with a team that can be considered a playoff contender even in the most high-profile PG WWBA national championship tournaments on the 2021 calendar.
Wagner, a switch-hitting Louisville commit ranked No. 107 overall nationally (No. 4 Illinois), is joined by 14 other 2022s ranked as top-500s or better nationally and 12 who have already secured commitments to NCAA D-I schools. Remarkably, three others in that latter group have also committed to head coach Dan McDonnell and the Louisville Cardinals.
It’s a talented trio of Wisconsinites led by Gavin Kilen out of Milton, a left-handed hitting shortstop ranked No. 13 nationally (No. 1 Wisconsin); he is already being mentioned in the same breath as prominent Hitters alumni, former PG All-Americans and first-round MLB Draft picks Gavin Lux (2015 PGAAC) and Jarred Kelenic (2017).
Next in line after Kilen is Whitefish Bay right-handed hitting outfielder Michael Lippe, an intriguing prospect ranked Nos. 91/2 who seems poised for a breakout summer, and Mequon left-handed hitting catcher/first baseman Will Vierling, ranked Nos. 491/10.
While the Louisville commits tend to jump off the written page and turn into moving, breathing elite prospects on the field, they’re not alone in a long list of attention-grabbers on the Hitters 2022 Navy roster.
Mitch Voit, a hard-throwing right-hander and a Michigan commit who is a classmate of Lippe’s at Whitefish Bay HS (along with t-500 outfielder Dj Kojis), is ranked Nos. 317/3 and threw six three-hit, seven-strikeout shutout innings in the 2022 Navy’s 5-0 win over Select Evans in Saturday’s opener; catcher/corner infielder Hayden Christiansen (Nos. 372/11) is a Xavier commit.
The rest of the roster is stocked with 2022 top-500 prospects with commitments to prominent college programs like Illinois (Brady Banker), Kansas State (Mason Buss), Wichita State (Michael Mulhollon), Oklahoma State (Hunter Schmitt), Butler (Ian Choi) and Illinois State (James Duncan), among others.
Uncommitted outfielder Jonathan Kim is ranked Nos. 379/5 and top-1,000 middle infielder Tristan Ellis has committed to Purdue; catcher/corner infielder TJ Schuyler from Antioch, Ill., (Nos. 372/8) is an Indiana commit and the only 2023 on the roster.
Kilen, featured here in this space in early December, has cherished the time he’s spent being a part of the Hitters program.
“I came over my freshman year and it’s just been great,” Kilen told PG Saturday. “Getting to build relationships with these guys and playing together and being with RJ (Fergus)…it really sets us up to go to big tournaments and be seen and everything else that goes on with all the baseball stuff.”
There is a mutual respect between Fergus and his players.
“He’s an intelligent kid that is driven to be the best that he can make himself to be; he works hard,” Fergus told PG in December when asked about Kilen. “With all of these kids, we’ve been lucky that their passion is to be a really good person and be the best at their craft that they’re allowed to be. There’s no hurdles that they can’t overcome.”
Lippe has been with Fergus and the Hitters program since his 10U season, good for a run of about seven years. The PGISL is even more of a big deal for the talented Lippe because he was unable to perform at all in 2020 while dealing with an injury, something that is no longer an issue.
His last PG action came at the 2019 WWBA Sophomore Midwest Labor Day Classic played in early September right here at Prospect Meadows.
“I’m all settled down with everything now; I’m feeling really good,” Lippe said. “I’m just trying to get back in the groove with everything and see some live pitching; get my A-Bs and get my repetitions so I can be ready for summer. I know I need to be 100 percent with everything this summer.”
And yes, it is going to be a busy summer for the Hitters 2022 Navy. Fergus has plans to take the team south to perform at many of the top PG national championship tournaments in Georgia where they will go chest-to-chest with the country’s best programs.
“A lot of the (summer) tournaments are really big for the guys getting recruited and wanting to be seen,” Kilen said. “It’s a really good option to get here to the Spring League and get some at-bats and play some good competition and everything like that...
“RJ understands how big some of these events are. He’s had guys in the past...that have ran through the system, so he’s seen it with them; he understands.”
Amongst the Louisville commits, Wagner and Vierling are also planning on a full summer of play, one that includes most of the biggest events offered to rising seniors-to-be in the never-ending quest for maximum exposure. This is Wagner’s first go-around with Hitters 2022 after having competed against a lot of these guys while playing for teams out of the Chicago area.
“There’s a winning culture here; we get it done every week,” he said. “We’re always pushing each other, pulling for each other and it’s really the best environment you could ask for, for sure...I’m excited for what the summer has to (bring) but you always have to keep working, though.”
And there’s more, a lot more, for the front-end guys. In addition to their appearance at the invitation-only PG National Showcase in St. Petersburg, Fla., in late July, and the tournament obligations with Hitters 2022 Navy, Kilen and Lippe have also been invited to take part in the Prospect Development Pipeline (PDP) League, a joint venture of MLB and USA Baseball.
Their performances at the PG National will go a long way towards determining if they receive an invitation to the PG All-American Classic in San Diego in late August, while the PDP League serves as the primary identification event for inclusion on the USA Baseball 18u National Team; they’re both pretty big deals.
With everything he’s already experienced, including Top Prospect List performances at both the 2020 PG Junior National Showcase and the 2020 PG Underclass All-American Games, Kilen is used to having all eyes on him all the time. This summer, those eyes will belong to MLB scouting directors and crosscheckers, and the glare can be intense.
“I’m not really going to be focused on that,” he said. “I’m just going to go day-by-day playing my game, doing my thing; just going as hard as I can and everything that goes with it. Just have fun and play baseball.”
Lippe told PG on Saturday that sitting out the 2020 season in its entirety made him realize just how important the game is to him and has fueled his drive to keep getting better and prove he belongs on the biggest stages, which is exactly where he’s heading. When hearing the resolve in Lippe’s voice it’s easy to be reminded of the old adage: “No pressure, no diamonds.”
“Of course there’s pressure but I don’t really see it as pressure,” he said. “I just kind of see it as motivation and because of everything that happened last year, it’s really pushed me hard to be even better than I was before I got injured.”
With so many of these Hitters players having already made their college commitments they at least have the weight of that decision lifted from their shoulder. It should allow them to play a little more relaxed while also performing with the same zeal that allowed them to reach this point in their careers.
And for four members of this Hitters 2022 Navy squad, they just could be getting an early look at who’ll be sitting next to them in the Louisville Cardinals dugout one day, the 2022 MLB Amateur Draft notwithstanding; the words “really cool” seemed to be tossed around a lot.
“I think it’s really cool, especially because...we’ve really gotten to know each other,” Lippe said. “To know that I could be playing with them (again) in college if we all end up there...it’s really cool because I know they’re just like my brothers. Playing with them in college would be a great thing and with a great program, too.”
Added Wagner: “I love it; it’s very cool. Especially during infield-outfield, it’s really cool just playing with your future teammates; it’s exciting, it really is.”
The Hitters 2022 Navy got a late jump on the PGISL season, but with two weekends in and one more to go, the players are already realizing the benefits while holding out hope that warm weather returns for the season finale.
Before taking on Iowa Select Evans last weekend, Gavin Kilen spoke about how much fun he was having and how much he was looking forward to facing the quality arms the Select would trot out to the mound, including St. Louis, Mo., 2021 right-hander Markell Dixon, a top-500 Southern University recruit.
He and his teammates need to see quality pitching and stout competition in April. They need to get a feeling for what the warm summer months will deliver to their door, if for no other reason than to see what adjustments are in order and really, bottom-line, just figure themselves out. Being part of the PG Iowa Spring League was really a no-brainer for these top prospects from the Upper Midwest.
“With everything being pushed back in our high school (season) it is going to interfere with our summer schedule,” Lippe said. “What RJ (Fergus) has put together is really nice because it’s gave us a lot of games and a lot of reps and everything and we can really understand everything. It will help us (perform) to the best of our abilities until summer comes...
“I decided a couple of months ago that I wanted to do the Spring League because I thought doing the Spring League was going to help me (the most).”