Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Prep baseball players endure heat for shot at college ball

It's hot. Almost too hot to do anything.

With the sun blaring down on a baseball field, even at 5:30 in the late afternoon, Clarksville High's field is almost unbearable.

The trees that line up just behind the first base dugout block out the late afternoon sun, but it can't decrease the heat.

It's 95 degrees and the Clarksville Orioles' 18-and-under travel team is in the midst of its first game of a doubleheader against the Brentwood Bulldogs.

"This is what we do every day," Orioles outfielder Will Thomas said. "If you can't take it you shouldn't be out here."

This is life for high school seniors on their way to college baseball. For those who have yet to ink their names on the dotted scholarship line, the summer heat and ball is a chance to get noticed.

Summer baseball teams are the norm around the country. It's what gets you noticed by the bid dogs. It's the parade in front of college and sometimes pro scouts.

In basketball, they call it AAU.

In baseball, they could call it a heatstroke.

"It takes commitment," Orioles coach Jared Hill said. "You have to want to play. You have to have the passion for it or else you're not going to last. It's too grueling for someone who's just kind of into it."

Travel teams dot the landscape these days and it's growing in the midstate. The Orioles used to travel to Memphis, Knoxville or Chattanooga to find opponents. Now they stay within reach of Clarksville, often traveling to Gallatin, Hendersonville and Nashville.

"We'll go there, play a couple of games and we're able to get back in a decent time," Hill said. "It's much better now. There's no more two-night stays in a hotel."

Hill has been coaching the Orioles for the past two years. The organization was reformed in 2007 after a three-year hiatus and it includes a 13U team coached by new Clarksville High baseball coach Brian Hetland.

Since the Orioles' return, games have been plentiful for the team. They play a 39-game schedule and play doubleheaders in 15 of those games.

"It's a lot of games," Thomas said. "Your legs get weary when you have to play three or four straight days of doubleheaders. By that fourth day in the second game of that day, you're pretty beat, but you have to dig deep because you never know who's out there watching."

Nine of the Orioles' 17-man roster will either play or attempt to play college ball next year. Thomas, who played for CHS, has already signed with Tennessee Tech. Motlow picked up Wildcats' catcher Tyler Wilson and Northeast star Johnny Newsom while Austin Peay will be getting CHS shortstop Reed Harper. This spring's District 10-AAA MVP, Cole McWhirter, will join Jackson State Community College this fall after pitching for district champs Clarksville High and teammate (third baseman) Paul Mittura is expected to walk-on at Middle Tennessee State.

But Thursday, the Orioles were upended by the Bulldogs, 2-1, in seven innings. A pair of singles led to a run in the top of the seventh, breaking a 1-1 tie for the Bulldogs and spoiling Justin Dailey's strong pitching performance.

The Orioles had six hits and tied the game 1-1 after two walks led to McWhirter's run-scoring single in the bottom of the fifth. But Brentwood crossed the plate in the seventh and held the Orioles' bats in check in the bottom of the final frame.

The game, however, won't diminish the team's desire to play again. They're scheduled to face the EWA Knights at noon and 2 p.m. Monday at Clarksville High.

Hill and his coaching staff, as well as team, relies on parents to often carry the financial load of this travel team. It's an expensive venture with a budget of $12,000 a year. Hill said the team spends every bit of it for a summer's worth of games.

"We're not looking to make a profit," he said. "We're looking to break straight even. It costs a lot. Some of these tournaments we go to cost $1,100 or $1,000. Some cost around $500, so it's not cheap by no means."

Yet the valuable tools gained from travel ball give players like Thomas an advantage.

"Maybe I don't get a chance to go to Tech if I'm not out here in the summer time," he said. "Yeah, it's hot out here, but a little sweat is worth it."

George Robinson is the prep writer for The Leaf-Chronicle. He can be reached by telephone at 245-0747 or by e-mail at georgerobinson@theleafchronicle.com


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