Baseball: New travel team takes players out of high school ball

Story Image Ako Thomas, member of the Gravel Baseball 15U team and Mount Carmel student, turns a double play during a recent tournament game at Eastern Michigan University.
Story Image

Updated: July 25, 2012 7:06PM

The Major League Baseball season runs from April into October.

Next year, a local travel squad intends to launch a similar calendar for a team of 16-and-under players — a plan that has rankled some in the high school baseball community who think the well-heeled Gravel Baseball organizers could drastically alter the prep landscape.

“They’re selling kids and families on (college) exposure and (elite) competition,” Mount Carmel coach Brian Hurry said. “They don’t care if they win. All they’re going to do is play a bunch of games in front of college coaches. It’s all about the scholarship, not about competing, developing and playing as a team. High school baseball prepares kids to be a part of a team.”

Joliet Slammers owner Al Oremus, whose son, Jack, is on Gravel’s 15U squad, is footing the bill for a schedule unique among Illinois travel teams, which beginning in 2013 will preclude Gravel players from participating in high school baseball.

While most travel teams with high school age players refrain from scheduling games during the March-June prep season, Gravel will play an April-October schedule, with only a three-week break in August. During April and May, when the high school season is in full swing, Gravel will play mostly teams from out of state, including Wisconsin, whose official high school season, like Iowa’s, is played during the summer.

Along the way, Gravel will compete in tournaments in Florida, California, Louisiana and Georgia, among other out-of-state destinations. Yes, the players will fly to some of those sites.

Home games will be played at multiple sites, including Silver Cross Field and South Suburban College. And, Gravel players will be outfitted with uniforms, a travel bag, helmet and coat.

“It’s year-round if you mean spring, summer and fall,” Gravel 15U coach Sam Sorce said. “We’re going to schedule 50 to 60 games and, depending on how well we do in tournaments, it could reach 75 or 80 games. You do well and the games start piling up.”

What won’t start piling up for players and their families is the cost of participating in such an elite level of travel ball.

Oremus, whose grandfather founded Prairie Materials in Bridgeview before serving as that village’s mayor for more than 40 years, is picking up the tab. The cost of such generosity, according to sources involved in travel programs who asked to remain anonymous, is in excess of $100,000.

“It would not have happened without somebody of Sam’s ability to run the ship,” said Oremus, who disputed the six-figure estimated price tag. “I’m just an enabler.”

Free, at what cost?

While the price is right for players and families, the commitment could prove costly in other ways.

Players on Gravel’s 15U roster had to make what could amount to a life-altering decision. By committing to Gravel, players will not be eligible for their high school baseball teams.

Gravel’s 14-player roster is made up of hand-picked top talent. Eight of the players have direct ties to Southland schools. Jack Oremus, Matt Barajas, Justin Rodriguez and Chris Botsoe attended St. Laurence their freshman years. This summer, each transferred from St. Laurence to the respective public high schools in their community for their sophomore years.

In a few instances, though, it’s not just about giving up the experience of playing high school baseball. By scheduling games into October, the opportunity to play high school football also is dashed.

Oremus and Rodriguez both played football at St. Laurence last season. Barring a change of heart, their prep pigskin careers are over.

“It was a very painful decision,” said Al Oremus, whose son transferred to Lyons. “(Lyons) is near us. I put my son’s interest ahead of everyone else’s interest.”

Also potentially impacted by Gravel is Mount Carmel. Malik Carpenter, Ako Thomas, Josh Stowers and Nelson Munoz also play for Gravel. Both Carpenter and Munoz played football for the Caravan.

“I’ve talked to some of the kids and their families and as of now not one has officially withdrawn from school,” Hurry said. “We’ll see what happens.”

The Gravel path

Al Oremus founded Prairie Gravel, a semipro team, in the 1970s, turning it into a national power in the ’90s, when the roster featured such future major leaguers as Curtis Granderson and Tom Gorzelanny. Prairie Gravel won the National Baseball Congress World Series title in 2005 and an American Amateur Baseball Congress title in 1996.

Sorce, a La Grange native, ex-minor leaguer and University of Miami Hall of Famer, came aboard in the ’90s, guiding as many as four youth teams at a time. Now, he said, Gravel takes one team at a time, from 10U to 17U.

The current Gravel squad won the 2011 14U Continental Amateur Baseball Association World Series, and this year captured the 15U Best of the Midwest Challenge championship.

With that record of success, why do Oremus and Sorce feel the need to offer a year-round travel team?

“No. 1, we want to play better competition, which allows each player to get better,” Sorce said. “No. 2, it’s a chance to play in front of college coaches who don’t have the money to travel. We want to give the kids exposure to as many college coaches as possible.”

According to Sorce and Oremus, this conflict could have been avoided if high school coaches would be willing to give up their summer seasons.

“If they would eliminate high school ball in the summer we wouldn’t have to do this,” Sorce said. “There are high school coaches who are making it mandatory for players to play high school in the summer. That causes conflicts. We have tournaments and showcases, where there are 300 college coaches, we can’t go to because of high school summer ball. The kids are missing out on getting exposure.”

But are they?

Dozens of local high school players earn college baseball scholarships every year, including to major Division I programs.

Since 2002, Hurry has had 60 players play college baseball, including 16 to the D-I level. St. Laurence coach Pete Lotus has had 47 players go on to play college ball, including 15 to D-I, in the past seven seasons.

St. Rita coach Mike Zunica has had 131 players play college ball, 30 of them D-I, during his 16-year career.

There are dozens of more examples of local high school players earning college scholarships.

So is exposure, or a lack thereof, really an issue for local players? And is it worth depriving kids the opportunity to play high school baseball and, in some cases, experience the excitement of being a two-sport athlete?

“I think having travel and high school ball is having the best of both worlds,” said Lotus, who graduated from St. Laurence. “The kids get plenty of exposure to college and pro scouts. If one of our kids wants to play college ball, we do everything in our power to make that happen and we have been successful doing it.

“I know I wouldn’t trade my high school experience for anything. There are some rivalries at the high school level that have been going on for over 100 years. Those are irreplaceable memories.”

Hurry was adamant that high school summer ball fills an important role in the development as a player and as a person.

“We need the summer season for continued player development and evaluating the kids coming up,” Hurry said. “In high school, it’s not just about playing baseball. We’re trying to develop leaders in life. We stress team and you have to be a team player in life. We’re playing the primary role in the development of young men and ballplayers and I think we do it well.

“These kids are getting cheated out of an experience that they’re going to treasure the rest of their lives playing high school sports.”

No guarantees

Sorce makes no assurances to his players of future D-I grandeur.

In fact, he couldn’t promise these 14 players would remain on Gravel’s team the next three years.

“We’ve had this group of kids since they were 10,” he said. “We’re not making any promises. Things change. Kids plateau and they have a ceiling of how much they’ll develop. Sometimes we may have to pick up better kids to compete. Out of the 14 kids, all will play college ball, depending on the kids who will get Division III offers accepting them.”

By committing to baseball, though, two-sport athletes such as Carpenter, Munoz, Oremus and Rodriguez may have limited their scholarship potential. Who’s to say they wouldn’t develop into more polished football players? And what about the potential burnout factor of playing one sport year-round? And this may come as a shock to parents, but some college baseball coaches, such as the University of Iowa’s Jack Dahm, prefer prospects who play multiple sports in high school.

“The biggest thing now is finding kids who want to compete,” said Dahm, who played football and baseball at Niles West. “Playing high school football and basketball builds up a toughness in a kid. I hate to see the opportunity of playing two sports taken away from kids. In terms of exposure, there are so many opportunities for kids to be seen nowadays. Kids should enjoy high school and enjoy being a student-athlete in high school.”

Chris Sujka, who starred on the football and baseball field at Mount Carmel, fondly reflected on his days as a two-sport athlete. However, there was a time when the 2011 graduate was going to quit baseball and concentrate on football; that is, until Hurry had a little talk with him. Sujka continued to play both sports at Mount Carmel, earning All-Area honors in both. He just completed his freshman season at Indiana, playing baseball.

“Playing both sports helped me grow into the competitor I am today,” Sujka said. “I had more college options because I played both sports. I met different people and made different friends playing both sports. I played in a state championship in football and the Catholic League Blue games in baseball I’ll never forget. I miss high school sports every day. It made me who I am today.”

Wave of the future?

If the Gravel model were imitated, logic dictates high school baseball’s talent pool would be impacted, along with the high school experience of any participant in a Gravel-like program.

Travel ball organizations have proved to be consistent mimics, at least in terms of quantity if not quality. What began as an option for elite talent became watered down, often as parents launched travel teams to soften the blow for children unable to earn spots on existing squads.

But is it reasonable to expect Gravel will spawn similar programs?

“I don’t think it’s something that is going to open the floodgates,” Sorce said. “For no reason other than I can’t see many other teams being able to do this financially and that a lot of teams rely on high school fields to play games. But it’s really up to the high schools if they want to be like hockey and soccer, where the better talent plays travel or club ball.

“If they keep making it mandatory to play high school ball in the summer, I think families are going to be fed up. You have to look at your kid as a car. If you want to sell your car, do you put a for sale sign in the back of the window and park it in the driveway? Or do you place an ad in the paper where you’ll get more nibbles?”

Hurry insists there are more than enough nibbles for players yearning to play college baseball.

“If I thought this was the best route, playing year-round travel, I would totally support it,” Hurry said. “High school baseball is a great game. It’s crucial to a young man being successful in college. Giving that up for more exposure is an unnecessary risk.”

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