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."

Penn State heading to Rose Bowl for matchup with equally hot USC

Penn State heading to Rose Bowl for matchup with equally hot USC

Penn State might not be heading to the College Football Playoff, but the Nittany Lions are going to the Granddaddy of Them All.

Hours after learning that it had been edged by Washington for the final spot in the four-team Playoff field, Penn State was officially given a spot in the Rose Bowl, where it will take on USC on Jan. 2 in a matchup of two red-hot teams.

The Lions nearly reached the Playoff after an instant-classic comeback win over Wisconsin in Saturday night's Big Ten Championship Game. Riding a nine-game winning streak and boasting a resume with two top-10 wins, Penn State was undoubtedly of Playoff caliber. But the committee opted to go with the also-deserving Huskies, sending the Lions to Pasadena.

Since earning the conference title Saturday night, James Franklin and his players have been totally fine with heading to the Rose Bowl if a Playoff spot wasn't offered. Franklin's gracious acceptance continued Sunday, and no gripes over a potentially perceived snub from the Playoff have been heard.

This is Penn State's first Rose Bowl trip since the 2008 season, before the Jerry Sandusky scandal rocked the program. That game also came against USC, a 38-24 win for the Trojans.

This will be the Lions' 10th all-time meeting with the Trojans and the third time the teams have gone head-to-head in the Rose Bowl.

These are two of the hottest teams in college football. Penn State, as mentioned, has won nine straight including victories over Ohio State and Wisconsin. USC is on an eight-game winning streak with wins over Colorado and Washington.

While a Big Ten championship will probably go down as the more prestigious accomplishment, Penn State can wrap this remarkable season with a third win over a top-10 team.

No one was robbed, but Penn State, Michigan were both deserving of Playoff spots

No one was robbed, but Penn State, Michigan were both deserving of Playoff spots

There was no right answer for the College Football Playoff selection committee on Sunday afternoon.

So does that mean every answer was a wrong one?

Certainly any outcome would've had its detractors, and so no matter which four-team field the committee chose, there would've been tears over which teams were excluded.

The Big Ten looked to have a real shot at becoming the first conference to land multiple teams in a single Playoff. Instead, only Ohio State was named to the final four. Big Ten champion Penn State and Michigan were left out, with Alabama, Clemson and Washington claiming the other three spots.

The truth is this: There were six teams of Playoff caliber this season. Unfortunately, the Playoff has just four spots.

Penn State and Michigan were the casualties this season, just like there were casualties in the first two seasons of the Playoff's existence. Don't let that make you believe for a minute, however, that the Nittany Lions and Wolverines weren't deserving of playing for a national championship because they most certainly were.

Penn State looked darn close to pulling the same trick Ohio State did just two years ago, when an epic performance in the Big Ten Championship Game propelled the Buckeyes into the four-team field, boxing out the champions of the Big 12. That proved the correct decision, as Ohio State won the national championship a month later. Could Penn State have done the same thing? We'll never know.

While James Franklin and his Lions did not utter a single gripe over being left out of the Playoff — and why would they, with a trip to the Rose Bowl a tremendous consolation for a team that wasn't supposed to be a contender this season — but boy did they have a strong case that they were one of the country's four best teams. Penn State is riding a nine-game winning streak that includes wins over two top teams, one coming against Playoff-bound Ohio State and the other an instant-classic comeback against Wisconsin to win the Big Ten championship. Those are two sterling wins on any resume. Add in two more wins over AP top-25 teams Iowa and Temple and the fact that both losses came against top-25 teams in Michigan and Pittsburgh, and that's a compelling case.

It seems, in the end, Penn State's loss to Pittsburgh cost it a spot in the Playoff. Washington, which played the second-easiest non-conference schedule in the entire FBS, edged Penn State for the final spot.

And then there's Michigan, which seemed to be held to a standard Ohio State was not. The Buckeyes benefited greatly from a dominant non-conference win over Oklahoma, while the Wolverines — who had their own non-conference win over a top-10 team in Colorado — dropped behind conference-champion Penn State despite a head-to-head win. Remember that Penn State beat Ohio State, though that didn't keep the Buckeyes out of the Playoff in favor of the Lions. Michigan earned three wins over top-10 opponents and took the No. 3 team in the country to double overtime on the road just a weekend ago.

An argument could be made that a list of the top four teams in the country should contain all three of the Big Ten teams in question. After all, Washington didn't earn its first top-10 win of the season until this past Friday night. Clemson is still without a top-10 win this season. Even Alabama, arguably, didn't have to go through the same rigors as all three of these teams who play in the same division. While a non-conference win over USC looks terrific now, the Tide's SEC schedule pales in comparison to the gauntlet it's been in years past.

But here's where the committee seemed to draw the line. Every team in the Playoff has one thing in common: one or zero losses. Winning the games on your schedule seemed to be the No. 1 factor when splitting hairs between these six elite teams. Penn State and Michigan didn't have winning percentages comparable to Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Washington. Is that the best way to determine the four best teams, as the committee so often repeats is its mission? That can be argued. But that's certainly what happened here, as 12-1 Washington was picked over 11-2 Penn State and 10-2 Michigan.

None of this is to bash the non-Big Ten teams that made the Playoff. Clemson and Washington have turned in terrific seasons and are most deserving of the opportunity they've received to play for a national championship.

But so too were Penn State and Michigan. You just can't fit six teams into a four-team Playoff.