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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Family, friends come full circle

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – Families and friendships are important components in the community of baseball, and have certainly been guiding forces throughout the early stages of the career of Cedar Falls (Iowa) High School senior J.T. Sole.

A 5-foot-8, 180-pound, 18-year-old catcher, Jack Thomas Sole was at the 12th annual Perfect Game Spring Top Prospect Showcase this past weekend, the 24th Perfect Game event he’s attended since he first arrived at the PG Pitcher/Catcher Indoor Showcase at PG’s facility here in February 2011. And the friendships he’s made in baseball over the past four years has made him an important part of the Perfect Game family.

“I’ve made plenty of friendships, from guys who go on to the biggest colleges in the country to guys who are Division III,” Sole told PG after playing in a 12-inning game at the Spring Top on Saturday. “It doesn’t matter who you are, I’m going to be friends with you and it’s a great experience just meeting everybody and seeing what they know about the game.”

The friendships aren’t the only thing that has kept Sole coming back to these events. He possesses an intense competitive drive that he’s used to become a top-1,000 national prospect while also rising to No. 11 among the top Iowa prospects in the class of 2014.

“You keep getting better every day so why not see how much you can ‘up’ yourself every time you go out there?” Sole said. “I’ve always been a part of Perfect Game and I’ve always enjoyed myself at these events. I’m working my butt off every day to get better so why not just come out and show what you can do; every day you’re going to find something that you can do better.”

Through it all his parents, Jack and Colleen, have been right there with him. They attend the PG showcases and tournaments and Jack has been actively involved in watching J.T.’s steady progression with the game. Jack Sole hasn’t missed any of J.T.’s games at CFHS either – Jack is the Tigers’ head coach.

“It’s been a great experience as a parent to be able to watch your kid do what they love to do,” Jack told PG on Sunday while watching J.T. play a second game at the Spring Top. “We didn’t go into this for J.T. to turn out to be one of the better players or a top prospect or anything like that, he just loves this game. It’s a great opportunity that he has had just being able to play so much more baseball. It’s fun as a parent to be able to watch your kid enjoy himself.”

At 5-8 and 180 pounds, Sole is not the biggest kid on the field but he can hold his own physically with just about everyone out there. He played some football through eighth-grade and also competed in Olympic weight-lifting competitions, which contributed to his solid frame.

Jack Sole first noticed J.T. had a knack for catching when as an eighth-grader he was called upon to catch former Northern Iowa baseball and basketball standout Lucas O’Rear during a pitching session in front of a large group of MLB scouts at an indoor facility in Cedar Falls. UNI had eliminated its baseball program a year earlier and scouts had not had the opportunity to see O’Rear pitch for several months.

(O’Rear was eventually drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the 13th round of the 2011 MLB amateur draft but is now out of baseball after spending three seasons in the minor leagues.)

“They brought J.T. in and here’s O’Rear throwing 93 to 96 (mph) and you have an eighth-grader catching him,” Jack said. “That’s kind of where it all started. Somebody got word at Perfect Game that J.T. could catch it a little bit, but I didn’t know what his abilities were going to be. I think the first thing he did was the (2011) Pitcher/Catcher Indoor just to help (PG) out a little bit.”

That was an early theme. J.T. Sole was more than willing to attend PG showcases with much older players when he was a freshman and sophomore, often because catchers were needed. By playing “up” at so many events, Sole not only was the beneficiary of added exposure but was also able to quantify his development in his own mind.

“I think I’ve done well progressing over the years and Perfect Game really helps you show that, especially with how many (PG events) I’ve done you have plenty to see how well you’ve progressed,” he said. “There are plenty of spots you can always get better at and I have plenty of areas that I continue to work on, but I definitely think I’ve done well going through the years.”

After that initial appearance at the 2011 PG Pitcher/Catcher Indoor, Sole attended the first of his four Spring Top showcases in April 2011, and in 2012 added the PG National Pre-Draft Showcase and PG Midwest Top Prospect Showcase (he has been named to a showcase’s Top Prospect List four times, including this past weekend at the Spring Top). He also played in his first Perfect Game Spring League season in 2011.

“When I was in ninth-grade and playing Spring League, it was just amazing how good the baseball was and how it was played with some of the best players in the state,” Sole said. “As I went through the years it just made you a better player; it’s not every day you get to see 90 mile-an-hour fastballs coming right at you.”

He enjoyed his experiences in the fall even more playing in the Iowa Fall League and as a member of the PG Iowa Select Black team. With Iowa Select Black, Sole made trips to the Phoenix area in 2011, 2012 and 2013 to play at the Perfect Game/EvoShield National Championship and played at the PG WWBA Kernels Foundation Championship here in Cedar Rapids those same three years.

Playing for Iowa Select Black gave J.T. Sole the opportunity to catch the most talented high school pitchers the state has produced over the past two years, including Perfect Game All-Americans A.J. Puk and Keaton McKinney. Also on that list are standouts like Nick Belzer, Derek Burkamper, Benjamin Miller, Mitch Keller and Brock Neuhaus.

The 2014 Spring Top Prospect Showcase was the 24th PG event J.T. Sole has attended

The PG/EvoShield and Kernels Foundation tournaments also brought him face-to-face with some of the top talent from outside of Iowa’s borders.

“Being in Iowa you don’t get to see as much just as much just because we don’t have the opportunities that others do,” Sole said, “but when you get out to Arizona and places like that you really see what you’re up against and how you compare to other people. At first it’s a little intimidating but once you get there you kind of realize, ‘You know what, I can play with these guys.’”

Keeping with the family theme, Sole decided to stay close to home and has verbally committed to the University of Iowa and first-year Hawkeyes head coach Rick Heller. It’s a case of life truly coming full-circle: Jack Sole played for Heller at Upper Iowa University and served as an assistant coach to Heller at both UIU and the University of Northern Iowa.

“When they talked to me I felt kind of wanted and appreciated there,” J.T. Sole said of his decision to join the Hawkeye family. “I really like what they’re doing … and they’re really putting a lot of effort into baseball. I’d love to be a part of that effort and I’d love to help make that program get a lot better. I considered plenty of other schools, but I’ve always liked Heller as a coach. I think he’s one of the best in the country and I’ve always wanted to play for him.”

Jack Sole not only played for and coached with Heller at UIU and UNI, but the two developed a great friendship – Heller was in Jack and Colleen’s wedding. J.T. had committed to Indiana State as a sophomore when Heller was coaching in Terre Haute before he made the move to Iowa City after the 2013 season. At that time Jack Sole and Heller already began talking about how their friendship would in no way interfere with J.T.’s collegiate career.

“If J.T. sits and never plays an inning for him, (Heller) still understands what type of kid he’s getting,” Jack said. “(He’s getting) a guy that’s going to play hard, a guy that’s going to sweat and bleed for him, and (playing time) is never going to come in the way of Rick and my relationship.

“J.T.’s relationship with Rick is a lot different than a lot of other players but at the same time the respect that he has for Rick is incredible. … (Heller) is bringing J.T. in expecting him to work hard and be a member of their team and do whatever it takes to best represent Iowa.”

Jack Sole is originally from Southern California but came to Iowa to play for Heller at Upper Iowa, which at the time was a Division III school (it is now D-II). He then served as an assistant to Heller for four years at UIU before heading back to California where he was an assistant head coach for another four years at Yuba Community College in Marysville.

He made the move to Cedar Falls and UNI in 1997 as an assistant to then-head coach Dave Schrage and coached for one season alongside Heller when Heller took over the program in 2000. Jack Sole took over the Cedar Falls High School program shortly thereafter, and has coached J.T. throughout his entire high school career.

“It’s very fun – it’s awesome to be able to watch him every day – but it’s very strenuous,” Jack said of coaching his son. “Especially when he’s turned into the type of player that he is – he’s a very good player – I think as a dad I expect him sometimes to carry a little bit more. I’m not going to lie, it’s strenuous at times, and I’m sure going to enjoy sitting in the stands at Iowa and watching him enjoy the game without me having to wear him out.”

J.T. Sole enjoyed a terrific junior season at CFHS, hitting .354 (34-for-96) with five doubles, one home run and team-highs of 31 RBI and 32 runs scored; he also drew 19 walks against 12 strikeouts and stole four bases. At season’s end, he was named Iowa Class 4A (big school) First Team All-State by the Des Moines Register.

Making the jump from Iowa high school baseball to NCAA Division I baseball will be a challenge, but Sole has the advantage of his extensive Perfect Game experiences to help him with the transition. And besides, J.T. Sole has overcome some long odds before.

When he was 3 years old he suffered from meningitis and at one point during the illness doctors told Jack and Colleen they didn’t expect the toddler to survive through the night. J.T. battled through that and is now coming in to his own on the baseball field.

“He’s definitely a late bloomer; his body is just now starting to take shape,” Jack Sole said. “He’s only going to be 5-8, 5-9, and that’s it, that’s as far as it goes. … But where he sits right now with his mental makeup of the game and what he knows just from being around the game his whole life, you take that alone into a college dugout and he’s going to be ahead of the game there.”

And J.T. Sole will once again find himself surrounded by familiar faces, family and friends.

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