When you’re in the event business you had better be flexible. Whether you’re planning a wedding or a baseball tournament with hundreds of people in attendance you know Mother Nature can wreak havoc on any and all outdoor plans.
Hitters Baseball founder and long-time Wisconsin resident RJ Fergus knows this well. Of course in 2020 “COVID-19” and “pandemic” were added to the punch list of things Fergus and other event owner/operators had to consider. After all, there were a lot of games lost in the spring and travel ball at least created opportunities for some of those missed reps to be made up.
It wasn’t the weather or pandemic-related concerns that threatened the 2020 Hitters Invite, however, an event originally scheduled to be played at the four fields of Nash Park in Kenosha, Wis. Civil unrest and a subsequent curfew were ultimately the culprits in seeing this anticipated event potentially postponed, or worst yet, canceled.
But Fergus, with the help of GRB owner Greg Reinhard, had an ace up his sleeve.
The Woodside Sports Complex, located just north of the Wisconsin Dells area in Mauston, was wide open making for a more than solid Plan B. With four all-turf fields, and lights to play into the evening hours, 16 games were played on the first day (Saturday) with the same amount played on Sunday. Add in six total games from the teams competing at the 15u age level at the site’s other location closer to the Wisconsin Dells, and you had five upper Midwest powerhouses playing against one another spanning four age divisions in 38 total contests.
With plenty of brilliant sunshine and barely a cloud to be found, a steady and comfortable breeze made for a perfect late summer weekend.
With the Hitters – who call Caledonia, Wisconsin, their home – serving as the host the Woodside complex welcomed two other teams based in Wisconsin (GRB Rays and Stiks Baseball Academy) and two from the Chicago area (Cangelosi Sparks and Rake City) in neighboring Illinois.
If you’ve been paying attention to college baseball and the draft in recent years you know that the state of Wisconsin has been developing more and more impact talent to go along with the steady stream of talent coming out of the Chicago area in Illinois. In 2016 long-time Hitters shortstop Gavin Lux went 20th overall in the first round to the Los Angeles Dodgers. One round later catcher Ben Rortvedt watch selected by the Twins.
Two years later outfielder Jarred Kelenic went sixth overall to the Mets. Kelenic’s Hitters’ teammate Alex Binelas was a Freshman All-American the next year, enjoying a huge season that helped guide Louisville to the 2019 College World Series.
You could spend a lot more time chronicling Hitters alumni and their accomplishments. The bottom line is that what some believed was a one-hit wonder in the state of Wisconsin has turned into a trend. And that’s not by accident.
Fergus’ Hitters indoor academy has allowed players to practice and play live games with a full-size infield 12 months a year. Several academies have followed suit, mostly notably the GRB Academy just outside of Madison and the Stiks Academy just west of Milwaukee.
“I think there’s a really great pocket of talent,” said Greg Reinhard, a sixth round pick of the Tampa Bay Rays out of the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater and GRB’s founder. “You have Hitters and GRB in Wisconsin, who line up on the national stage, and you have Sparks, Top Tier and Rake City (from Illinois) and those five between two states are really good. So the fact that we can meet up to play is better for everyone.”
GRB has expanded rapidly, with teams/leagues being playing in Milwaukee and Eau Claire in addition to its original setting in Wisconsin’s capitol city.
One of the rising programs in the state of Wisconsin is the Stiks Academy based out of Waukesha, just 20 minutes west of Milwaukee. Guiding the Stiks is Sean Smith, another Wisconsin native who enjoyed a professional career after he was drafted in the fifth round of the 1992 MLB Draft by the Atlanta Braves. Smith, like Reinhard and Fergus, recognizes the importance of offseason training and also knows for half the year that needs to be done indoors.
“We can play games 12 months a year in Wisconsin,” Smith said. “That’s why you’re starting to see guys catch up and take off. And that’s why Wisconsin is a hidden gem in the recruiting world.”
For as important as it is to train year round, to hone your skills and perfect the finer nuances of the game, particularly defense, the importance of live at-bats, against higher-end velocity, is of utmost importance. Without those reps, which can’t be simulated, hitters have a more difficult time making those adjustments as their careers advance.
And that effectively is the importance of the HItters Invite. To gather the best teams, with the best talent, in a smaller, regional area, to play in a round robin format to allow high school-aged players to get those important reps against the best the area can provide.
Jared Koutnik, owner of Rake City located outside of Chicago, is another former athlete that hails from Wisconsin. After starring at Nathan Hale High School in West Allis he attended Michigan State and was selected by the Yankees in the 16th round of the 2002 draft. Koutnik well knows the importance of not just getting games in but playing against the right opponents.
“RJ said ‘we’re doing this, this and this.’ He tells me what teams are coming and I said ‘we’ll be there.’ When it changed from Kenosha to Wisconsin Dells it was (an easy decision),” Koutnik said of his team’s involvement. “It’s worth it when you get this group of talent on these fields playing against each other. We just don’t get it enough.”
When Koutnik, Smith and Reinhard played high school baseball the game was much different. Many players only played the sport during the actual season, with some teams in Wisconsin playing in the spring and others in the summer, which was followed by the American Legion tournament. In addition to the length of play there wasn’t the emphasis on technology, nor was there the importance of physical training.
Getting bigger, faster and stronger has been the age-old adage in baseball, and while that remains true to this day, the methods in doing so have drastically changed.
“The game speed, velocity and ability to put the bat on the ball needs to be worked on every day,” Koutnik said. “Once these facilities started popping up it gave them the ability to take actual ground balls on a field, actual live at-bats, that you just can’t duplicate, where they now can get them year-round.
“Wisconsin has had a great run of first-rounders the last couple of years … and that’s no accident. That’s work, that’s punching the clock every day, getting them good reps. At this age we need to be seeing velocity, velocity at-bats, good breaking balls. At the pro level it’s ‘how many 90 mile-per-hour at-bats can you get?’ Up here we just weren’t getting a lot. That’s now changed.”
It’s changed because all of these programs sees what the others are doing. They respect the amount of work being put in and they strive to do things better than the rest. For this group of teams it just happens to be Fergus who has been doing it the longest, and if the idea is to form more local tournaments with an emphasis on quality over quantity, others will follow.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for RJ and what he’s done,” Reinhard said. “He lives it everyday, which is hard. What he’s done – he was here long before everyone – and he stayed relevant and he’s been good for a really long time.
“We’ve been good pretty much every year and that was one of our (priorities) when we started: we have to be the best, going off of (RJ’s) model. That’s why when we play them it’s so competitive because we have kids that want to compete and he always makes sure his kids compete.”
In creating an environment with high-level talent scouts and recruiters will follow. Division I coaches remain in a dark period as determined by the NCAA and travel for scouts is difficult due to the pandemic. Many scouts, of which there was a handful at the Hitters Invite, need to receive permission from their clubs before they travel, especially if they intend to spend the night. Otherwise, more local events that places an emphasis on gathering more high-level players while allowing more personnel to spend the night in their own beds during these unprecedented times is a win-win.
Thankfully for the players the owners and coaches recognize what is best for their development as they aspire to extend their baseball careers.
“It’s huge for Wisconsin kids,” said Smith said referring to his decision to participate at the Hitters Invite. “If we can stay home and (play at competitive events) near home and compete in the state with Wisconsin and Illinois, it’s big. Cangelosi Sparks, Hitters, GRB – that’s what we’re trying to get to, that’s our competition. We all want bragging rights, we’re all competitive, we all want to be the best.”