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Sean Smith does have a place in the evolving landscape of high-school baseball in Wisconsin, and he may unwittingly play a role in the demise of summer baseball as a concept altogether. That wasn't the Oconomowoc native's intent.
"I played high school baseball at Oconomowoc," said Smith, who operates Stiks Academy in Oconomowoc. "I went to two state championships in a row. High school baseball is the greatest time I remember. The guys I played with are still my best friends today. I don't want to take any kids away from their high school. But I also have a job to do to develop these kids and get them the opportunities. I don't feel like I'm part of that movement; I just see myself as providing the opportunity for those guys to advance their game."
Smith, part of two state runner-up teams at OHS before getting drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the fifth round of the 1992 Major League Baseball Draft, knows what it takes to get scouts to notice area talent, and it requires travel outside of the state. With that in mind, a handful of players have elected to skip playing summer baseball with their high schools and play instead with Smith's Stiks teams, which travel the country to showcases and top-talent events.
"For our younger ages, we want to develop them, teach our kids the right way to play," Smith said. "That's our goal with the younger teams. We want them to climb the ladder to the high-school grade teams, and that's where they're going to start getting the exposure and getting out in front of the right scouts. We're close enough to Chicago where some of them come up, but you need to be very special for those guys to come up to Wisconsin. USC and Stanford aren't coming to Wisconsin very often to see a high-school baseball player unless you're throwing 95 miles an hour or you're a 6-7 lefty. So we get out there and we want to get these kids in front of the right people, because Wisconsin does have some phenomenal athletes and players, and we want to get them out there and get them the exposure they deserve."
Included in that batch are a handful of Arrowhead High School players on the U17 team, including sophomore pitchers Nate Brown and Ryan Schmitt and junior pitcher/first baseman Chris Bernatz. The volume of players choosing this route over high-school ball was one of the specific reasons Arrowhead athletics director Kevin Flegner cited when explaining the school's reasons to convert to the spring baseball season in 2015.
"We were losing way too many kids to these up-andcoming travel teams," Flegner said. "Not just numbers, but some of our very best kids. When you start losing your top three and four pitchers and some of your top hitters, it's pretty hard to compete at a Division 1 level. We have anywhere from four to nine really good players that don't even play baseball for us. They want to play 50 or 60 or 70 games (in the summer); they want to get noticed by the summer scouts. If we did not move, I'd be faced with a situation where our program was diminished." In other words, the reaction hasn't been to escalate the awkward tension that sometimes exists between club and varsity programs. Instead, Arrowhead and Waukesha Catholic Memorial chose to become two of the biggest dominoes to fall in the gradual exodus from summer baseball to spring.
That's in part because the WIAA baseball format is so strange to begin with, at least from a regional perspective.
"Wisconsin is the only state that has a spring high-school season and summer high-school season," Smith said. "It's hard for those kids to go out and get the exposure they need because the college coaches aren't coming up to Wisconsin in droves to watch kids. So we get them on college campuses around the country and we get them the attention they need.
"People don't look at Wisconsin as a baseball state because of the cold weather. They don't get the number of games they do in the south, but the northern kids have just as much talent as the southern kids do. They just haven't reached their potential yet. And that's why a lot of coaches will like the northern kids, because there's still a large ceiling there for those guys to get. They can catch up pretty quickly, and they might even go past some of those southern kids."
The death of summer baseball as an institution has seemed like a long time coming, though even with a reduction to 53 teams competing for the championship in 2015, the final obituary hasn't been written. But the Classic 8 Conference, down to six teams, will now be looking for a way to address its diminished ranks, and it's easy to suggest a league-wide jump to spring ball. Multiple players from Hamilton and Pewaukee also compete with Stiks teams, so several other schools are likely to investigate the same path taken by AHS and CMH. And at some point, seeing schools with the tradition of Arrowhead jump to spring has to convince others that it's at least an avenue worth exploring.
Especially because Stiks (and eventually, more programs like it) seems to be gaining popularity. The multi-purpose Oconomowoc facility has blossomed in numerous areas, and the traveling baseball circuit is no exception.
"We started with three teams in our first year and wanted to limit it and really set the guidelines and boundaries for what we're doing," Smith said. "There was a need for something at a higher level than just what rec ball or select ball provided. There were a couple other organizations out there at the time that were offering really high-caliber baseball and we wanted to jump into it as well. There was nothing in the Waukesha and Milwaukee area; it was down in Kenosha and Madison. We wanted to try something in this area as well, and it's been very good."
Consider how the process has necessitated a push in that direction.
"A lot of these kids are working with - not technically agents - advisers and things like that. There's an elite showcase or camp every weekend. You have to go to those things to get the recognition. Before, I didn't have to do that. I would go to a couple camps or a tryout camp. The Cincinnati Reds used to run a tryout camp at Roosevelt Field every year, and that's how you got your exposure. Now it's these showcases. You have to go and pay 250 dollars to go and throw eight pitches for these guys to see you. It's kind of ridiculous."
With the June MLB Draft slated for June 7, a handful of local players could be on the radar, including Grrendale's Zack Henderson and Mukwonago's Noah Sadler. Smith is working to make sure that number get seven higher. Summer baseball, for better or worse, looks like it could be collateral damage.
Listen to Sean Smith's full interview on the Initial Reaction podcast at LivingLakeCountry-.com.
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