See also: Hitters Invite Player Reports | Hitters Invite Assembles Midwest’s Best | GEICO City Series Recap
With a long list of hard-hitting alumni, Wisconsin’s Hitters Baseball travel team organization is aptly named. Throw in the state’s first-of-its-kind indoor facility with a full-size infield that allows the team and its players to practice year-round, and its not surprising that the Hitters rarely beat themselves defensively when games count the most.
Take a look at some of the more well-known players that have donned Hitters uniforms in recent years and you can get a taste for that success. Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman Gavin Lux is currently the second-ranked prospect in all of the minor leagues according to MLB Pipeline. Shortstop Owen Miller was recently traded to the Indians in a nine-player deal that netted the San Diego Padres Mike Clevinger.
Fellow shortstop Jack Blomgren was drafted in the fifth round of this year’s MLB Draft by the Rockies after guiding Michigan to a College World Series Finals appearance in 2019. Infielders Alex Binelas and Justin Lavey both helped guide Louisville to a CWS appearance the same season and corner infielder AJ Vukovich was a fourth-round pick in this year’s draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks.
And if prized Seattle Mariners prospect Jarred Kelenic wasn’t a left-left profiled athlete, there’s a good chance he too would be manning a spot on the infield.
For each of the past three years the Hitters 2021 team has been led by a pair of slick middle infielders, Noah Miller and Brady Counsell. Both are now high school seniors, and both have played an incredible amount of games the past six months, especially amidst a pandemic.
“Obviously we lost the whole spring season at our high schools, but we started with the Hitters back in April and we had practices, what, four days a week and then weekends, so like six days a week,” Noah Miller said from the Hitters Invite tournament held in the Wisconsin Dells area the last weekend in August. “So from April to June we had practices pretty much every day. Then we started our summer season, got that in, and usually we don’t play in August – we’ll have 2-3 weeks off – but then they scheduled all of these games which is perfect because we didn’t have spring to play.”
Getting games in has been much easier said than done, but thankfully travel ball has allowed those opportunities for young ballplayers. The summer circuit usually runs after the completion of high school ball and wraps up at the end of July, re-starting in early September for a 6-8 week run in the fall that typically wraps up in mid-October.
This year, the Hitters and other programs have played straight through.
“With Hitters and RJ he let us in when a lot of other stuff was locked down, so we were able to get a lot of work in to get a lot better, which obviously a lot of people weren’t doing,” Brady Counsell added. “That helped us have a lot of success this summer.”
Specifically “a lot of success” is a 44-22-1 record with a few high profile tournaments still on the horizon. When all is said and done, Hitters founder RJ Fergus has noted his teams will play over 80 games, providing valuable at-bats and overall innings for the players as they continue to develop their baseball skills looking to extend their careers to college and beyond.
Playing over 80 games is a considerable accomplishment considering Major League teams are playing COVID-19 shortened 60-game seasons.
“(My dad) told me that the other day because I saw RJ’s tweet about how we’re up to 82 games, and we’re playing 20 more games than they are, which never happens,” Counsell said. “So that’s a big credit to RJ and all of the summer programs that were able to play.”
Brady Counsell’s father, Craig Counsell, is the Manager of the Milwaukee Brewers. The elder Counsell is now the longest-tenured Manager in the National League, taking the reigns 25 games into the 2015 season and delivering three straight seasons (2017-19) in which his Brewers have played above .500, including two straight playoff appearances.
In the team’s 49-year history, the Brewers have only finished at or above .500 20 times with six total playoff appearances, meaning Counsell is off to an especially tremendous start.
Craig Counsell, a native of Whitefish Bay, Wis., also spent six years as a player in Milwaukee, which includes playoff appearances in 2008 and 2011. It’s clear Counsell knows what it takes to instill a winning culture onto a community, and it seems like a natural fit that his son plays for Wisconsin’s most proven baseball academy when it comes to player development.
When you watch Brady play baseball you see similarities to his father. You won’t see the unique stance in the left-handed batter’s box, but you see the line drive swing plane – as a right-handed hitter – that produces plenty of base hits and the steady, easy movements and soft hands on defense.
“Just being around all of the players is something that’s really meaningful, being able to learn from them, how they do it, their work ethic,” Brady Counsell said. “That’s pretty important and I can incorporate that into my game.”
Counsell joined the Hitters program going into his freshman year of high school. At that time Noah Miller – who started at the 12u level – was already well established, another gifted middle infielder with intriguing baseball bloodlines of his own.
Miller’s older brother, Owen, is now a member of the Indians organization. He was drafted in the third round by the Padres in the 2018 draft out of Illinois State, where he hit .345-17-127 in three seasons. Owen Miller nearly matched those numbers in two years of minor league baseball, batting .307-17-101 in 2018-19, spending the 2019 season at the Double-A level.
Owen, who was recently traded, is now on the Indians’ tax squad, just a phone call away from getting his chance in the big leagues.
The younger of the two Miller brothers is now working hard to achieve his own dreams, and he’s doing so with a flair for the dramatic. A gifted shortstop, Noah Miller is a human highlight reel, and the more you watch him play the more you believe he’s going to make an impact, at the very least defensively, at the highest level of the game.
“Special players,” Hitters 2021 head coach Tim Schultz said of his middle infield tandem. “Noah Miller’s the best defensive shortstop I’ve seen in the country. He can hit it, but defensively there’s nobody better. When the ball’s hit to him you know he’s going to make the play.
“And Brady’s just steady. He doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. He’s a high, high baseball IQ guy.”
Even though the two live 30 minutes apart from each other along Lake Michigan, Miller (from Fredonia, Wis.) and Counsell (from Whitefish Bay) have developed a friendship both on and off the field. They have attended quarantine drive-by birthday parties for each other and their own competitiveness fuels one another to out-do the other, a friendly battle they both use to raise their games.
“I think I’ve learned a lot from Noah defensively,” Counsell said of Miller. “He’s always the best defender on the field. So being able to see him practice a lot helped me incorporate some of the things he does into my game, which has (led to) a big jump for me.”
“I think Brady just brings a lot of competition. He always tries to take my spot and I don’t let him,” Miller replied with a laugh from both players. “He’s always making good plays in practice when we’re on separate teams. He plays short, I play short, he goes and makes a good play and then I’ve got to go make a good play. It brings a lot of good competition, which I like.”
After high school, if he isn’t drafted high enough to take his talents straight to the professional level, Miller plans on attending Alabama in the always-competitive SEC. The Crimson Tide has gone through a culture change of their own under the leadership of head coach Brad Bohannon.
Alabama got off to an exciting 16-1 start to the 2020 season before things were abruptly shut down. One of the headliners of that fast start was freshman left-hander Connor Prielipp, a Hitters alum and native of Tomah, Wis. who had yet to allow a run to score in his first 21 innings thrown at the college level.
“It’s always been a dream to play on the biggest stage and that’s what Alabama is,” Miller said of his recruiting decision. “I went to a camp and looked at all of the facilities they have and it’s just great, I love it. When they brought in Brad Bohannon they really changed, they turned it around. And this year they were really good. It’s going to be good when I get there.”
Counsell plans on staying closer to home, recently choosing Minnesota as his own college commitment, a program with a rich history of success in the Big Ten led by one of the game’s most successful head coaches, John Anderson.
Anderson has now led the Gophers baseball team since the 1982 season. During that time he has won 1,325 games, has seven regular season Big Ten championships, nine Big Ten Tournament championships and has been named the conference’s Coach of the Year eight times. With that kind of long-lasting success in the Upper Midwest, Counsell should fit right in.
“I kind of wanted to weigh all my options, Minnesota felt like the right fit for me,” Counsell said after waiting until a few weeks before his senior year to make his decision. “I’m really excited for it.”
Wherever Miller and Counsell – as well as all of their teammates and the other players in the Hitters program – end up playing they will continue a long tradition of success. From endless ground balls, batting practice, focus on body control, strength and conditioning, nutrition and all of the other aspects that lead to a player’s success, the next wave of players will be watching closely to see how they can be part of the next wave.
Most importantly the program is molding strong young men to better their futures, both on and off the field.
“There’s a certain way to play the game and they all do it that way,” Miller said of he and his organization-mates. “That’s what RJ and Tim teach. It’s how you’re supposed to play the game and we do that and it’s brought success to us.”