High school baseball fans watching the recent Michigan East-West All-Star Baseball Game at Comerica Park might have wondered how well that team might do if it stayed together and played all summer.
Bill Blakely doesn’t have to wonder, because basically, that’s the kind of team he gets to coach each time his Connie Mack team takes the diamond.
Blakely, the former Gull Lake baseball coach, has brought the Midwest Athletics to the AABC Connie Mack North Central Championship this week in Battle Creek, looking for a chance to advance to the Connie Mack World Series in New Mexico later in the month. Midwest Athletics advanced out of pool play on Wednesday and started bracket play on Thursday. The Connie Mack Regional championship game is Friday.
This star-studded Midwest Athletics team includes 10 players who played in that East-West All-Star Game, which invites the top high school seniors in the state every year for the showcase event. This local 18-under team also includes two other players that were in the All-Star Game last year as seniors, and two more juniors who might be in the game next year.
Overall, Midwest Athletics has brought a team to Battle Creek to compete in this Connie Mack regional that has 14 players who have signed, or verbally committed, to play at the Division I college level. That would be 14 out of the 14 players on the roster.
“I would say it’s probably the most talented Battle Creek-area team on paper we’ve seen come to this tournament since we’ve been running it,” said Terry Newton, tournament director.
One player, Drew Blakely, son of the head coach and a signee for the University of Virginia, says the team gets a lot of questions about exactly that when they come to a tournament like this.
“It’s amazing to have this much talent on one team,” Drew Blakely said. “The other teams are kind of astonished. They ask, ‘are any of you guys planning on playing college baseball anywhere?’ And we say, ‘… actually all of us are going to play Division I college as a matter of fact.’ But yeah, not every team is like this.
“I love the way we have pushed each other over the years. Each of us, as one guy would commit to a Division I school, we would push the next guy to make it there and reach their goals. I really love how we have all pushed each other to achieve our dreams of playing Division I ball.”
But this isn’t some squad Blakely recruited, when he was at Comerica Park for that All-Star Game, to take around the state and gather trophies. Most of this group has been playing together since they were 8 or 9 years old and they grew into the team they are today.
“Most of these guys have been with us the whole time, all from around this area really,” Bill Blakely said. “Eight or nine of them have been playing together since they were kids. They are good players, but they are best friends, too, and that’s because they have known each other forever.”
The roster reads like a recruiting magazine for college baseball prospects.
Nick Jones and Nate Jones were both recently named to the state’s Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association Dream Team, playing at Lakeview last spring. Nick Jones has graduated and will play at Eastern Michigan University in the fall, and Nate Jones just finished his junior season and has verbally committed to play at EMU with his brother.
Drew Blakely, another Dream Team honoree, just graduated from Gull Lake and will play at the University of Virginia. His teammate at Gull Lake and on Midwest Athletics is Caleb Scoles, who is also a recent high school graduate and has signed with the University of Toledo.
There are also several players from the Kalamazoo area. Joe Stewart is a graduate of Portage Central and has signed with Michigan State University. Tommy Henry is a graduate of Portage Northern and has signed with the University of Michigan. Two players who graduated from Portage Northern last year also are playing at the next level as Ben Keizer is on the Michigan roster and Matt Schuemann is with Eastern Michigan. Logan Hudson from Caledonia will play at Western Michigan University next year.
Blakely only has a few players from outside the immediate area with Birmingham Brother Rice’s Karl Kauffman, North Farmington’s Alex Darden and Haslett’s Luke Sleeper. Kauffman is going to Michigan, Darden to Cincinnati and Sleeper will attend Stanford.
“For us, it’s kind of normal to have all these guys going to play at the Division I level because we have been together so long and they are all like my kids, but I guess overall, it’s kind of rare,” Bill Blakely said. “I like to think we tried to help them develop as both players and people. Playing with good-caliber players brought out the best in all of them.
“And I think it helped that they are all so close. They all wanted the next guy to get that scholarship and then the next guy, they were all rooting for each other.”
And how does he get playing time for all of them?
“We have about 10 guys who play in the field and the rest are pitchers, who really would rather not hit, so it works out,” Bill Blakely said.
Nick Jones, a three-time All-Stater for Lakeview, said there can be some pressure in tournaments like the regional at Bailey Park, when your roster includes so much talent, but he says this team is used to that.
“We always have a target on our back, but in a friendly way, because of all of us going to play in college,” Nick Jones said. “But it helps us focus and play our game. It pushes us a bit because we have those high expectations.
“Plus, we are used to it because we have been together since we were kids. At that time, we couldn’t have known we’d all eventually get to play college ball, but it’s been an awesome ride.”
As one of the younger players on the team, Nate Jones adds a lot as a Division I college prospect himself while also being a witness to this squad with some of the best seniors in the state from last spring.
“It was really cool to see nearly my entire travel ball team playing in that All-Star game at Comerica Park a few weeks back and knowing if I keep working hard I might be able to get to that spot next year,” Nate Jones said. “That really shows what kind of players we have on this team and playing with them, I’ve learned a lot about how to play baseball the right way.”
This might be the last summer together for much of this team in terms of travel ball, and coming to Battle Creek brings things a bit full-circle for them.
“We are hoping to get to the World Series in New Mexico, but we still have some work to do and we know that,” Bill Blakely said. “But playing here in our backyard is great, the guys are sleeping in their own beds and that has to help. We actually won a 13-under World Series right here at Bailey back when they were younger. We were taking batting practice on those same fields the other day and the guys were all talking about those days when we took the championship when they were kids. Hopefully, we can have that kind of success again here.”