Illinois top five in high school baseball prospects

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Illinois top five in high school baseball prospects

You might have a prior commitment on Super Bowl Sunday but Sean Duncan, executive director and publisher of Lake Forest-based Prep Baseball Report magazine and PrepBaseballReport.com, has invited 60 of the best high school baseball prospects in the Midwest to attend a Super 60 Pro Showcase at the Max in suburban McCook.

This is the 10th year for the event. A year ago, 70 major league scouts showed up for the pre-draft combine that attracted invitation-only players from Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin.

Illinois is acknowledged as a basketball state--it has sent more players to the NBA than any region outside southern California--and it also is the leading producer of football talent outside of Texas, Florida, California, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Georgia.

But Illinois youngsters play baseball, too.

"Look at the statistics," Duncan said. "Aside from the baseball hotbeds of Georgia, Texas, California and Florida, Illinois has the highest number of players drafted and is one of the leading producers of players in the major leagues.

"It is one of the most heavily recruited areas in the country. The state's top players always go to powerhouse college programs or they are drafted. The perception is that Illinois is a cold-weather state and doesn't produce baseball talent. But that isn't true."

Duncan said that people in the baseball business recognize that Chicago players rank in the upper echelon of all players in the country despite their limitation of not being able to play on a year-round basis. In fact, Duncan pointed out, Chicago is over-recruited. Over 100 Illinois products annually enroll at Division I schools.

The class of 2012, for example, is deep but not extraordinarily top-heavy with big-time talent. "There are a lot of good but not great players. But some have the ability to be great. No one is slotted as a high draft choice," Duncan said.

He rates left-handed pitcher Brett Lilek of Marian Catholic at the top of the class. Lilek, who is committed to Arizona State, has a high ceiling, according to Duncan. He is 6-foot-3 and has a 92 mph fastball. "He can be electric and could go in the first five rounds of the draft," Duncan said.

Duncan also is high on catcher Jason Goldstein of Highland Park, who is committed to Illinois, and right-handed pitcher Kyle Funkhouser of Oak Forest, who is committed to Louisville.

The class of 2012 doesn't compare to the classes of 2005 and 2007, which Duncan rates as the best he has seen since he began evaluating players in 2005. The class of 2005 featured Michael Bowden of Waubonsie Valley, one of the leading pitching prospects in major league baseball who still is trying to earn a spot on the Boston Red Sox' starting rotation.

Bowden is "the best player I ever covered," Duncan said. He was on the cover of the first issue of Prep Baseball Report.

His top 16 list includes Bowden, pitchershortstop Jake Odorizzi (2009) of Highland, outfielder Joe Benson (2006) of Joliet Catholic, pitcher John Ely (2005) of Homewood-Flossmoor, pitcher Ian Krol (2009) of Neuqua Valley, pitcher Mike Foltynewicz (2010) of Minooka, pitcher Zach McAllister (2006) of Illinois Valley Central, first baseballthird baseball Connor Powers (2006) of Benet, pitcher Jake Smolinski (2007) of Rockford Boylan, pitcher Derek Thompson (2011) of Teutopolis, pitcher Casey Crosby (2007) of Kaneland, catcher Jake DePew (2010) of Granite City, pitcheroutfielder Kenny Smalley (2005) of St. Charles North, designated hitter Tim Barry (2011) of Oak Forest, outfielder Casey McMurray (2007) of Lyons and shortstop Dan Brewer (2005) of Lyons.

What about the future? Who is the next Michael Bowden? Or who could be the next Illinois product to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, joining the likes of Lou Boudreau, Freddie Lindstrom, Kirby Puckett, Robin Roberts, Red Ruffing, Ray Schalk, Jim Bottomley and Red Schoendienst?

"Simeon has a string of players who are highly touted, the best group since the 1990s with Wes Chamberlain, Jeff Jackson and Shawn Livesay," Duncan said.

The blue chippers are senior catcher Blake Hickman, a 6-foot-4, 190-pounder who is committed to Iowa; left-handed hitting junior outfielder Corey Ray, who is committed to Louisville; and the top-rated prospect in the class of 2014, left-handed hitting outfielder Darius Day.

Duncan, 37, a Deerfield graduate of 1992, played basketball and baseball in high school, majored in English at Pittsburgh, then obtained a masters degree in creative writing at Northwestern. "I wanted to write the great American novel," he said.

He covered high school sports for newspapers in Florida and California, then returned to Chicago in 2001 and covered high school sports for the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times.

From 2001 to 2005, Duncan and his best friend Todd Fine got together to organize Full Package Athletics, a basketball and baseball training company based in Lake Forest. Duncan started Prep Baseball Report in 2005 under the same umbrella. In 2008, baseball went its way and basketball went its way.

Duncan started in basketball in 2001. He thought he was a basketball guy who wanted a basketball scouting service. He started with the late Mac Irvin and had 150 schools subscribing in the first six months to "The Truth: The Complete Recruiters' Guide To Illinois Basketball."

"I became disenchanted with basketball," he said. "As I went to events, I became acquainted with shoe wards, summer camps, posses of great players, street agents, the scummy world of recruiting. I wondered if all of this wouldn't work in baseball. No one else was doing it at our level. There was such a need for publicity for high school baseball players. There was so little coverage in newspapers but so many kids who want to play at the next level."

So he founded Prep Baseball Report in 2005, then founded the website in 2009. Its mission is to promote high school players to play at the next level and give them a platform through its multimedia avenues. From November to November, 1.4 million viewers visit the website. Over 400 colleges subscribe to the service, online or print. At its major events, 100 or more colleges will attend.

"Baseball is my passion, the sport I love," Duncan said. "I find it cerebral. There is a lot of stuff that more than meets the eye. I am fascinated by the game. Some people think it is slow. But I think there is a lot of stuff that is involved, like a giant chess game from pitch to pitch and batter to batter. I appreciate it.

"You think you know a lot about the game but there is more and more to it, from draft to farm system, like the whole infrastructure of baseball. At Prep Baseball Report, we try to be the authoritative voice at the state level.

"There are other companies out there that are national who cater to the top 4 percent, the high draft choices, but they are few and far between. Look at Illinois. There are 400 to 500 kids who will go on to play at the next level. There are so many Division II and III schools and junior colleges that don't have recruiting budgets of Division I schools and are looking for players.

"If you have a modicum of skill and a desire to play, you can find a place to play at the next level. They should use their athletic gifts to get into a school that they might not normally be able to afford to get into.

"We try to link players to schools, give them a platform to be seen and publicize them. We create a carrot. Even during a recruiting dead period, a college can go online and see a kid at any time."

Duncan recalled in 2010, at a Prep Baseball Report-sponsored indoor junior event during a recruiting dead period in December, an unknown player whom nobody had ever heard of walked in and threw a fastball at 88-90 mph. Within a month, he committed to Kentucky. Amazingly, Kentucky wasn't even at the event. They had seen the youngster on the website.

What about the future?

"We want to have someone in every state representing our brand and serving as an expert at that state level," Duncan said. "Our goal is to have someone in every relevant state--Illinois, Ohio, Missouri, Indiana and Wisconsin.

"The hardest part of growth is finding the right people to grow with you. We want to continue to provide a service for kids and help them to achieve their dreams of playing baseball at the next level."

Wintrust Athlete of the Week: Jack Aho

Wintrust Athlete of the Week: Jack Aho

Jack Aho is the reigning state champion in Class 2A and recently shattered a course record at Warren High School. 

But beyond posting some of the area's fastest times, cross country is also a family affair for Aho.

See why he was named this week's Wintrust Athlete of the Week in the video above.

Football takes a back seat as Griffins honor PFC Aaron Toppen on Salute to Troops night

Football takes a back seat as Griffins honor PFC Aaron Toppen on Salute to Troops night

“Football is life. Until it’s not.”

That message Lincoln-Way East head coach Rob Zvonar relayed to his team in the week leading up to the Griffins’ Week 5 tilt against Thornton was an important one. For the 115 student-athletes who make up a team with legitimate state-title aspirations, high school football can feel like a life-and-death situation. Until it’s not.

Private First Class Aaron Toppen, a 2013 Lincoln-Way East graduate, was 19 when he was killed in Afghanistan two years ago. And on that June 9, 2014, a country lost a hero, a family lost a son, a brother and an uncle, and a community lost a friend who had walked through the halls of Lincoln-Way East High School and drove his famous pick-up truck through town just a year earlier.

So when the Griffins held their annual Salute the Troops night last Friday night, before blowing out the Wildcats 42-6, Aaron’s surviving family was an easy choice to join the team as honorary captains. Aaron’s mother, two sisters, uncle, grandmother and niece were recognized before the game, all in loving memory of a fellow Griffin graduate who gave the ultimate sacrifice to his country.

“Aaron’s passing was a big deal to our community,” athletic director Mark Vander Kooi said. “And we wanted to embrace his family and let them know that we cared about them, loved them and appreciated the sacrifice they made.”

When Lincoln-Way East principal Dr. Sharon Michalak contacted Aaron’s sister, Amy, about honoring her brother last week’s football game, the family jumped at the opportunity. Aaron and his family had been honored at a game in 2014, just months after Aaron’s death. And with the Griffins hosting “Salute to Troops” night, and that coinciding with the annual 5k run held in Aaron’s name the following day, the family accepted the invitation with open arms.

“It’s just amazing. The support never stops, and to hear that they want to keep Aaron’s name alive and honor him, it just really makes us feel wonderful,” Aaron’s mother, Pam, said. “It’s a way we’re getting through it, is through the support of everybody.

Many of the Griffins know the Toppen family – Amy and Amanda are also graduates – but for those unfamiliar with Aaron’s story – like the student-athletes who transferred from North – head coach Rob Zvonar made it a point to relay that message during practice week. Before the team dressed Friday night, all 115 players watched a pair of video tributes to Toppen in one of the school’s classrooms.

“It’s awesome playing in his honor,” senior Sam Diehl said. “We understand football’s just a game and that (Aaron) made the ultimate sacrifice, giving his life for our country, that we have more to give than just football to our community, that there are people out there we need to be more thankful of.”

Once the pregame festivities ended the Griffins put on a worthy performance. They scored touchdowns on their first six drives of the game into the third quarter. Jake Arthur threw three more touchdown passes, wide receiver Nick Zelenika topped 100 yards and the Griffins’ offense averaged better than 4.5 yards per carry.

Devin O’Rourke tallied five tackles for loss and two more sacks – he has five in the last two weeks – and the Griffins defense limited the Wildcats to only a late touchdown in the final minute. The Griffins first team defense has allowed zero points in its last six quarters and appears to be putting its early-season struggles behind them.

But the night belonged to the Toppen family and Aaron’s legacy. The night coincided with homecoming weekend, and it brought back more than a handful of Aaron’s old classmates. One of them, current Illinois offensive lineman Nick Allegretti, spoke highly of Aaron and the impact he left on the school and community.

“I always enjoyed talking in class sitting with him,” he said. “Any person that’s going to go out and fight for our country and fight for our freedom, I have unlimited respect for. So obviously it’s a sad thing to remember, but I think it’s awesome seeing the support we have out here, from the community to the school to the administration.”

The following day each member of the Griffins and the coaching staff traveled to Mokena to participate in the third annual Our Fallen Hero 5k run in Aaron’s memory. Zvonar and the seniors joked about the aches and pains they’d feel running the 3.1 miles less than 12 hours after a football game, but they also understood the importance of showing up, honoring a fellow Griffin and raising money for the Pat Tillman Foundation.

“We’re able to run if we have to, walk if we have to, do what we have to to get it done,” running back Nigel Muhammad said. “Because it’s not about us.”

Added the 285-pound Diehl: “We’re more than happy to run the 3.1 miles. Even us offensive linemen don’t mind.”

More than 600 people were expected to show up for the fundraiser run, which had raised nearly $50,000 in its first two years.

“Aaron would probably say, ‘Mom I don’t like attention, what’s going on here?’ Because he was never that type,” Pam said. “But such a tragedy has brought together a community, and like Amanda said we’re blessed to be a part of this community…We just love seeing everybody.”

Football is life. Until it’s not.

It would have been enough for Zvonar and the coaching staff to speak about who Aaron Toppen was, and the impact he left on a school, a community and a country. The Toppen family could have simply been honored at halftime. Attending the 5k could have been optional for the team to attend.

Instead, football took a back seat for a night in Frankfort. The Toppens were gracious enough to be placed front-and-center to remember a young man who gave his life to protect the freedoms of each one of the thousands in attendance that evening.

“You think back to Aaron Toppen, who a few years ago was walking the hallways of this school and in the same classroom as these guys, and going to the same homecoming dance, and this was just a little bit ago,” Zvonar said. “A young man that’s barely older than these guys and then he goes off and serves his country and fights for the rights for all of us, and pays the ultimate sacrifice. You certainly don’t let that go by unnoticed.

“You want to really make sure that that’s pointed out, that freedom doesn’t come free. And these young men have an opportunity to come out and play this great game tonight. And all these things they’re allowed to do because of the bravery of young men like Aaron Toppen. One of those situations where I know as long as Coach Vander Kooi and myself are here we’ll do everything we can to stop and talk about him.”