Tournaments : : Story
Friday, September 21, 2012

Puk, IA Black open Kernels with W

Patrick Ebert        
Photo: Perfect Game

CEDAR RAPIDS, IOWA – The Perfect Game sponsored Iowa Select Black team feels as though they have something to prove at this year's WWBA Kernels Foundation Championship.

Coming off of a third-place finish at last weekend's Perfect Game/Evoshield Upperclass National Championship, the Iowa Select Black team returned home to Cedar Rapids hungry for more. With a team compiled of the best players in a talented 2013 Iowa class, the Kernels Foundation Championship serves as somewhat of a home turf battle for the team.

The '13 class in Iowa is a special group,” Perfect Game Director of Instruction Ron Benich said when asked about his team. “We have six D-I commits with more to come, hopefully very soon. We have guys drawing interest from Division I programs that just haven't gotten the offers yet.”

Cedar Rapids Washington High School left handed pitcher and first baseman A.J. Puk may not be available to pitch this weekend as he did at the 2012 Perfect Game All-American Classic, but he serves as the first baseman and three-hole hitter for the talented Iowa Select Black squad looking to make a statement.

Yeah, definitely,” Puk said when asked if this tournament meant a little more, particularly since his teams plays all of its games at his school's field. “We definitely have to represent our hometown and get as far as we can.”

Puk has become acclimated to traveling across the country to play with and against the best players in the nation, and has more than proven that his skills belong among the elite. Not only did he participate in the Classic, but he also has played at a high level at numerous, national events.

Last fall he played with the Reds Midwest Scout Team, the organization that won the 2011 WWBA Kernels Foundation Championship, at the WWBA World Championship that advanced to the semifinals in Jupiter. He also participated at the Perfect Game National Showcase in mid-June, the 17u WWBA National Championship in Marietta, Ga. in mid-July and the inaugural 17u PG World Series held in Phoenix, Ariz. in late July

The latter two tournaments he played with the Evoshield Canes travel ball program and was named to the All-Tournament Team at both events; as a pitcher at the 17u WWBA and as both a pitcher and as a hitter at the World Series.

In addition to his inclusion to the All-Tournament Team at the 17u PG World Series, Puk was also added as an exclusive member of the Louisville Slugger Prime Nine squad.

While he didn't pitch, Puk also was named to the All-Tournament Team last weekend by hitting .429 with a .600 on-base percentage and .714 slugging, helping his team to its third-place finish.

When we go down South no one thinks mid-westerners can play,” Puk said of his team's performance in Arizona. “So there's definitely some pride taken in to represent Iowa and be the best we can be.”

His team has been assembled by Benich and Iowa Leagues Director Steve James. The Iowa Spring and Fall Leagues serve as somewhat of a developmental league for the select teams, of which three, the Black, Blue and Red squads, are taking part of this weekend's tournament.

It's good, you get to see these kids early in high school, freshmen, sophomore years in the spring and fall leagues,” Benich said. “When they begin to compete at the next level for us then we have the opportunity to get them in here in the winter time and get our hands on them a little bit sooner.

We have two goals. Number one is we want to get these kids to the next level. That's the ultimate goal. But before that, the shorter-term goal is just to send them back to their high school as better baseball players. If we send them back better than they came hopefully they will continue to develop and then they'll be even better when we get them back the next year.

I'm from the West Coast, so I'm used to seeing a different level of baseball. It's tough for these kids out here, they play high school baseball in the summer and there's snow on the ground for five months of the year. They're in a tough spot, but there are athletes (here), and they want to be on the same level and there's no reason they can't be on the same level as everyone else. I want to prove that these kids from Cedar Rapids, Iowa can play with anybody. I'm in a fortunate spot where I get to travel with Perfect Game and see the other top teams in the country, and I can tell these guys if you put up your best night out there I don't have any problems putting it up there against anybody.”

Benich has been working with Puk since he was 12-years old, and the two have formed a bond as they work tirelessly together to improve Puk's skills as both a pitcher and as a hitter.

Patience has been key for a tall, lanky lefty who only now is starting to fill out as he continued to add inches to his 6-foot-6 frame.

It was tough because physically he developed much later, later than other people in his class,” Benich said of Puk's growth. “It was tough to have to deal with the fact that he was still going (up). It's tough to go up and out at the same time, so until going (up) slowed down a little it was hard to get him in the weight room. It was kind of a waiting game and being patient.

I always knew it was going to come, from the time he was 12 years old. It was just a matter of when.”

That patience has paid off, as Puk has seen his fastball velocity spike over the last year and a half.

Two years ago Puk stood at 6-foot-2 and was throwing in the low-80s. It was easy to see that dramatic improvement was on the horizon, and that improvement took form at the 2011 Perfect Game Junior National Showcase when Puk started to approach the upper-80s.

One of the funniest moments was at the Junior National, second pitch, and All-American John Sternagel, a (fellow) Florida recruit, hits a ball that I don't know if it's landed yet in left centerfield,” Benich recalled. “I'm in the dugout and (A.J.) takes a look and I just started laughing. He starts laughing on the mound, comes back out and boom, boom, boom, he got through his inning. That was the first time we had seen 86 (mph).”

Now Puk throws his fastball regularly in the upper-80s, peaking at 92 at the Area Code Games in Long Beach, Calif., and 91 a week later at the Perfect Game All-American Classic.

Two days a week long toss,” Benich said of the hard work Puk has put in to improve his fastball velocity. “A full bucket, 90 balls at a time.”

While it may seem like a given that a 6-foot-6 lefty with the ability to throw in the low-90s is destined for the mound, Puk's prowess as a hitter still gives him plenty of promise as a hitter. It also gives him exciting two-way potential at the college level, where Puk could excel as a member of the Florida Gators.

I like them both a lot right now,” Puk said when asked of his preference between hitting and pitching. “I thought when I was younger (that I would always hit). I've been hitting with Ron since I was 12. Pitching just kind of picked up the last couple of years. I'd like to see which one could take me the farthest.

He's basically done everything from helping me with my swing, helping me getting ready for games and just getting the mental side of my game going. That's really helped my career a lot.”

And how does a young man from Cedar Rapids, Iowa get noticed to the point where he accepts a scholarship offer for one of the most dominant Division-I programs in college baseball?

I played a lot on the East Coast with the Canes and did a lot of Perfect Game events,” Puk said. “I was down in the Florida at the Perfect Game Underclass when I first started to talk to (Florida Head Coach Kevin O'Sulllivan).”

Puk is currently shut down from pitching on a precautionary level, but is expected to return to the mound soon.

As for this weekend's tournament, Benich doesn't put any added stock in the fact that it's being played in Cedar Rapids.

There's no difference from last week to this week. We go out and we expect to win. I expect to come back with nothing less than the first place trophy. That was our goal going out to Arizona, and that's our intention this week.”

The winning continued for the Iowa Select Black squad, taking the first game of the Kernels Foundation Championship, claiming an 11-2 victory over the Howell PAL Elite Baseball club on the first day of the tournament.

Ten of the team's 11 runs came in the top of the third inning, fueled by two-run triples by Brennan Hammer and Anthony Denkinger, a two-run double by Matthew Johnson and a two-run single by Sam Mrstik.  That outburst proved that the team has a lot more firepower beyond the All-American, Puk.

Nebraska commit Derek Burkamper took the start for the Black squad, striking out five in the first three innings, and could be turned to pitch again for the team in the playoffs later this weekend.

Benich isn't shy to share his feelings about his team's chances if Puk was available to pitch, noting that a championship this weekend and last may have been wrapped up if the talented left-hander were able to take the mound.

He plays bigger when the light's go on. He really elevates his game to a whole new level.”

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