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Tournaments | Story | 8/23/2019

US Elite, A Family Affair

Blake Dowson        
Photo: Christian Helsel (Perfect Game)
US Elite started with an honest conversation between father and son in Altoona, Pa.

Christian Helsel told his dad that he wanted to play SEC baseball. Mark Helsel told his son that honestly, there was going to be a lot of work to be done if he wanted that to happen.

But he was more than happy to help him get there.

“I had to laugh almost because he didn’t look anything like a kid that would one day play in the SEC,” Mark said. “He was a short, chubby, not super-athletic kid. Great kid, but not one you look at and say he’s playing in the SEC. But I’m his dad and I’m not going to squelch his dream, so I said, ‘If that’s your dream, I’ll help you put a plan together.’”

Helsel started recruiting players from around Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware to put a team together. He surrounded Christian with a bunch of players that were Division I-bound in hopes that it would raise his son’s level of play.

It worked. Christian ended up at Ole Miss after high school. He was one of 21 players from that original group to get a Division I scholarship.

Helsel continued on with US Elite after Christian graduated. His younger son, Zack Helsel, made his way through the program and earned a scholarship to Liberty and is currently a part of the UCF pitching rotation.

After Zack graduated, Helsel decided he didn’t want to be done. He didn’t have any sons left, but plenty of other kids that had the same goals as his sons were still out there.

“I’ve been self-employed since I was 26, so I’m very comfortable writing a business plan and executing a plan. So when both my sons were through, I said, ‘You know what? I do want to make this my profession,’” Helsel said. “I talked to my wife and said I like what we’re doing. Uncommon standards is our brand. That is the big play here. Personal development of people is the big play, we just get to use baseball…as our conduit. That’s why we get to talk to young kids, because they’re playing sports.”

That brand is something he’s taken from his friend Tim Corbin, the head coach at Vanderbilt University.

In fact, Helsel was just in Nashville meeting with Corbin.

“[Corbin] is a long-time friend of mine,” Helsel said. “We love the Vanderbilt program and what they’ve done. Not just because they win, but how they run their program is an inspiration to how we want to run our program.

“We have a player there, Troy LaNeve. I had an opportunity to walk around the campus with Troy and we just talked. He’s getting his first taste of Corbin, and he said they had a two-and-a-half-hour meeting, and they never mentioned baseball. It was just about life. That’s awesome.”

That’s US Elite’s goal, as well. It’s not about championships, although they have earned plenty of those (27, in fact, in Perfect Game events).

Helsel doesn’t want US Elite to be one of those programs that wins at all costs. Those costs add up. Baseball is fun. The entire experience should be fun, from practice to play to recruiting and beyond.

He wants to learn what each kid’s goal is, and then do what he can do help those kids reach those goals.

“Every kid in our program wants to play at the next level. Whether that’s Division III, Division II, Division I or NAIA,” he said. “So the way we look at is that it’s going to come down to your skillset…We have to identify your skillset and work on that harder than anything else. And specifically, we have to find out what your worst tool is. We call it a ‘Yeah, but.’ So I talk to a kid and say, ‘Hey, the NC State coach really likes you, but he doesn’t think your physical enough to play in the ACC.’ Guess what? We got to go and work on your physicality.”

So far, those plans (Helsel calls them Individual Development Plans, or IDPs) have resulted in 329 college commitments and 25 drafted players who have gone through US Elite.

The IDPs are important, because the teams US Elite puts together are made up of kids from different states. They don’t get together for practices, so the IDPs are the most instruction he gives the players.

What started in central Pennsylvania as a way to get Christian to the SEC has turned into quite the production and is now expanding across the country.

Christian, who recently moved to Atlanta, has been dubbed the State Director for US Elite in Georgia.

With expansion on their mind, it only made sense to set up shop in Georgia, one of the most baseball-rich areas in the country.

And it means Mark and Christian are working together to get scholarships again. It’s just that now it’s for other kids.

“It’s an incredible blessing. We went through this journey all the way from 10u to college ball to pro ball, and I was heavily involved in that journey with him,” Mark said of working with Christian. “I try to tell parents to not make this something bad. This can be something great, and what Christian and I had was great. There wasn’t that dad-son animosity. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be working for me now…We had so much fun and now he’s firmly committed to expanding US Elite.”

And while Zack is still in the middle of his playing career, Mark has hopes to bring his younger son into the family business one day, too.

After all, that’s how this all started.

“Hopefully Zach plays 10 years in the Big Leagues, but when he’s done, he already told me he wants to join me,” Helsel said. “Getting to work with both of my sons would be one of the greatest things of my life.”
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