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Tournaments  | Story  | 9/28/2013

Elite class in Illinois

Patrick Ebert     
Photo: Perfect Game

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – While most of the focus for scouts at this moment is on the class of 2014, there is growing sentiment that the graduating class of 2015 in and around the Chicago area could be pretty special.

With nine Division I recruits, and five more expected to be secured in the next four weeks, as well as 11 players ranked among the top 500 prospects on Perfect Game's ranking of the high school class of 2015, Elite Baseball Training 2015's roster boasts much of that talent at the 2013 WWBA Kernels Foundation Championship.

Elite Baseball Training founder Justin Stone, a former two-sport (football and baseball) athlete in college at Eastern Illinois, has a broad baseball career and has been around the area long enough to know just how good the 2015 class is. In addition to serving as an assistant coach at Indiana State, he was the co-founder of the Chicago White Sox ACE program and served as a special assistant for the White Sox.

I've been in Chicago for 10 years, and this is the strongest in Illinois and Indiana that I've seen the last 10, 15 years,” Stone said in a recent phone interview with Perfect Game.

Stone made the most of his experiences to open his own private facility, Elite Baseball Training, serving as the lead hitting instructor with Travis Kerber overseeing the pitching instruction. In addition to the instruction they provide, Elite Baseball also embraces new technology, using high-speed video analysis, or Digital Motion Analysis (DMA) as a way to slow-down baseball athletes in action to breakdown mechanics.

With our background we've been able to combine our baseball experiences with the biomechanical side, and with that we use high-speed digital motion analysis that gives us something a little different than what a lot of people do,” Stone said. “When you're talking about complex movements of the pitching motion or the swing, which are extremely complex movements in a short amount of time, if you're not big into the technology end of at this time you're a dinosaur.

We want to take the guess-work out of it. At one time or another we've had seven guys in the 2015 class throw 90-plus. And that's not by chance, that's the work they're putting in and also the efficiency of the movements that they're learning that comes from our pitching coach and our technology team.”

Technology is a big part of what Stone and his staff at Elite Baseball do, and he's quick to recognize that baseball, which more often than not adheres to old-time adages and methods, can benefit by embracing new-age ideas.

When I worked on the pro side for the White Sox that was kind of my niche, digital consulting for the motion analysis,” Stone said. “Even there, and not necessarily with the White Sox but around baseball, it frightened some people. (For) a lot of the coaches at the highest level they certainly had the playing background, but they may not have educational background to break something down like that.

Now teams like the Milwaukee Brewers are bringing in consultants on the biomechanics side to try and identify what players are at risk for injury, or getting (better) efficiency in the swing or the throw, and I think you'll see more pro clubs doing that moving forward.”

The travel teams that Stone and his staff assemble are a smaller part of the business model, but still a very important aspect of what they're trying to achieve. In a short time they have had great success making an impression on young players looking to take their game to another level.

It's the background of our coaches and their player development background,” Stone said of his staff. “We do consider ourselves a national program. We provide exposure and we compete on the national scene. We do it 12 months out of the year. We shut down our arms after the Perfect Game Underclass (World Championship) and then at Thanksgiving we basically start back up again.

To get kids scholarships is always part of what we do, (but) our goal as a program is to (prepare the player) when they step on campus their freshman year they're ready to compete and they're ready to line up as a freshman and give something back to that school.”

For the most part, the players on the roster are the same ones that have competed together over the last two years. They finished the 2012 15u BCS Finals in Fort Myers, Fla. as the tournament runner-up, and they are using this weekend's event as a tune-up for the WWBA Underclass World Championship to be played two weeks from now, again in Fort Myers.

Elite Baseball 2015 Head Coach Phil Wright is one of the many talented coaches and instructors that Stone has surrounded himself with as part of his fast-growing venture. Wright, who played at the University of Arizona, served as the Head Coach at Canyon Del Oro High School in Arizona, where he won two state titles and coached six eventual big-leaguers, including Ian Kinsler as well as both Shelly and Chris Duncan. He also served as the assistant coach for the USA Baseball 18u National Team in 2000, where he coached future MLB stars J.J. Hardy, Jeremy Bonderman and Joe Mauer.

Now an assistant principal at Lake Park High School, Wright serves as the Field Manager for the Elite Baseball Training 2015 team. His son, Cory, a first baseman and lefthanded pitcher that is also one of the talented members of the 2015 class, also plays an integral role for the team.

We've been able to keep them together from the development piece of it,” Wright said of the squad he's managing at the WWBA Kernels Foundation Championship. “That's a big thing, when they get older sometimes kids start moving around.

The difference is that we don't feel that we're just an all-star team, we're really big in the offseason trying to make sure these kids are getting better. They're at a variety of high schools, and obviously some programs are better than others, so they're not necessarily getting that high level of training. And even just being around other good players is so important. Now, they're not just the best guy on the team. There's a standard. Everyone on our team is focused to go to that next level.”

Although not all of the players listed on the roster for the Kernels Foundation Championship have travelled to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for a variety of reasons, the roster still stands plenty strong.

One of the players who didn't make the trip is Trent Johnson, the highest ranked player on the roster in the 2015 class (78), who has been shut down for the fall after pitching for 12 straight months to prepare himself for the next level of his baseball career. He most recently pitched at the PG Underclass All-American Games in San Diego, Calif., where he peaked at 90 mph with his fastball, and it's easy to see that there's much more to come given his 6-foot-4, 235-pound frame.

Johnson has used the instruction and exposure provided by Elite Baseball to secure a commitment to the University of Arizona.

Righthander Noah Burkholder and lefthander Kyle Ostrowski, currently ranked 167 and 279 respectively in the 2015 class, are two others players Stone is quick to mention among those that stand to make the biggest impact at the next level.

Our pitching staff is unbelievable if you look at the commits,” added Wright. “That part is really unique.”

For as good as the 2015 class is in Illinois and Northwest Indiana, the highest ranked player on the Elite Baseball 2015 roster hails from the 2016 class.

Shortstop Nick Derr, who debuted at No. 25 on Perfect Game's initial ranking of the class of 2016, is a dynamic athlete and former three-sport star that doesn't look, or play, like a high school sophomore. Before playing a single game for Geneva Community (Ill.) High School Derr had already committed to play for Florida State, and also served as his team's starting quarterback during his freshman year.

I keep myself humble about it,” Derr said of his early commitment. “I don't really think about the commitment. Obviously I have to get better. But it was pretty exciting and it made me want to work harder because I want to start there as a freshman. It was a good feeling though, I don't really have to think about it, it just naturally comes to me sometimes.”

He's physically advanced for a kid his age,” Stone said of his star shortstop. “If you look at him (you see) broad shoulders and biceps like a 21-year old and you're like 'my god, this kid turned 16 two days ago.'”

Wright is also quick to share praise for Derr, comparing him to Baltimore Orioles star shortstop J.J. Hardy at a similar point in their respective careers.

His skill-set, his upside is so big,” Wright said. “He can really run, he's a 6.7 runner. He's got great, great bat speed. For his age group as a sophomore in high school he swings his bat as well as anyone in the country. And he can throw. He's still growing as a shortstop. He's that northern kid that's been an athlete all of his life. He's still growing and evolving as an infielder. He's not close to where he's going to end up being.

The beauty of him, and I think he can play shortstop if he puts the time in, but he's such an elite hitter that he can hit at Florida State as a freshman.”

He's an incredible athlete,” Stone added of Derr. “One of the things you've seen at Perfect Game (events) is that he's never played at his own grade level. He had an outstanding WWBA (2013 16u National Championship) last year. Every ball he hit he hit hard. On the defensive side he has a lot of room for growth, which is exciting, because of how good of a player he is now, he has the potential to get a lot better, and he knows that.”

Derr recognizes that performing at a high level at national events is important not only for exposure, but also for him to gauge his overall abilities. It's translated well on the field as well, as he's been named to two All-Tournament teams while playing at PG events.

It's a lot of fun,” said Derr. “I love Perfect Game stuff, and the competition here is even better. It's just a fun experience with my team, it's another chance to get better in these tournaments.”

Derr has since given up both football and basketball to focus on baseball in an effort to make sure that he is indeed ready to take the next step when his time comes, whether that be at Florida State or at the professional level. For as good as he is playing baseball, the decision wasn't an easy one.

It was really tough, especially telling the coach that,” Derr said of his decision to focus on baseball. “It took a lot out of me the first couple of days, but I just knew that it was the right decision to get better in baseball, and just be the best I can as a baseball player.

Moving forward, the plan is simple.

(Baseball) every day, not one day off.”