LAKEWOOD RANCH — Zach Larson always wanted to be the best.
Since he was 4 years old, the former Lakewood Ranch High standout center fielder had aspirations of playing professional baseball.
Three years after playing his first Little League baseball game, Larson joined his first travel ball team, in his hometown in Virginia, in hopes of raising his game to the next level.
Shortly thereafter, Larson moved to Florida, where he joined the Braden River Hurricanes. Larson quickly solidified himself as one of the most talented players in the area for his age. Sure, Larson knew there were players better than him, but, at that point, he hadn’t faced many.
When he began playing for the All-American Prospects and the Florida Burn in high school, Larson began to face his toughest opponents day in and day out.
Although discouraging at times, the opportunity to play against the top players in the nation only pushed Larson closer to his ultimate goal. In June 2012, the Minnesota Twins drafted Larson as the 610th overall pick in the 20th round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.
Now, Larson is in his third year playing minor league baseball for the Gulf Coast League Twins — an opportunity he credits with hard work and the ability to face the nation’s top talent on a routine basis.
“Travel ball in high school definitely prepared me for pro ball,” Larson says. “I saw a lot of good talent. I would definitely encourage kids to play travel ball to upgrade their game to the next level.”
Raising the bar
Larson is just one of several players in the area who used travel ball as a means to fulfill his big-league dreams. Sarasota’s Scooter Gennett and Ian Desmond and Lakewood Ranch’s Lastings Milledge, John Griffin and Michael Ohlman, just to name a few, all worked their way up through the Little League and travel ball ranks on their way to fulfilling lifelong goals of playing professional baseball.
Although travel ball helped pave the way for these players to break into the professional ranks, for the majority of travel ball organizations, such as the Manatee River Dawgs, based out of Heritage Harbour, and the Sarasota-based Florida Burn Baseball Club, the main focus is on preparing players for high school and collegiate baseball, respectively.
Today, players as young as 7 and 8 years old are joining travel ball teams with the purpose of perfecting their game. They spend countless hours on the diamond and in the batting cages to improve every area of their game, from hitting to base running to fielding.
“Baseball is starting to get very competitive at a very young age,” Lakewood Ranch varsity head coach Ryan Kennedy said. “Players who are playing travel baseball are playing just about year-round, which, most of the time, gives them the edge.
“To be successful in baseball or anything you do, you have to put in the work and treat it like a job,” Kennedy said. “There are thousands and thousands of baseball players out there. The ones that work at their craft the most will be the ones who move on to the next level and continue to progress.”
Oftentimes in Little League it’s these players’ dads who are the ones filling out the lineup and giving the signals. But by the time the players reach high school, they will have traveled across the state and, in some cases, the country, in search of stiffer competition and, ultimately, the advice of former college and professional players. They hope to gain a competitive edge.
“Growing up, travel ball definitely prepared me for high school baseball because of the great competition I got to play against and the great players I got to play with,” says Florida Burn first baseman Alex Detweiler, who graduated from Pine View School in May.
“The players who have received great instruction come in understanding what you are asking of them and develop much more quickly than players who maybe have never heard of what you are asking them to do,” Braden River varsity head coach Craig Page says.
As players progress through the travel ball ranks and into high school, the focus often begins to shift. Most of the players have already seen success, albeit at an entirely different level, and are no longer worried about making their high school teams. Instead, their attention is now on the college ranks.
“The biggest thing I learned during travel ball is you will face really good guys, and you might struggle against them,” Larson says. “But you will only get better by playing against good, talented guys. So keep your head up (even) if you struggle a little bit.”
At that point, many of the elite travel ball organizations begin focusing more on player development and putting them in a position to showcase their talents on a national level.
“Our main emphasis is really heavy on developing kids and making them better players,” ODA varsity head coach and Florida Burn 2017 Pennant coach Tim Orlosky said. “We try to develop kids who want to put in the time and work to build their baseball IQ. That’s our main emphasis. You don’t just acquire baseball IQ. It starts when you are young.
“I hate to say it, but the better players play travel ball,” Orlosky says. “They get the extra reps and the (opportunity) to be seen.”
For the past three months, hundreds of high school baseball and softball players have shed their school colors for their respective travel-team uniforms in hopes of drawing the attention of college coaches.
They’ve traveled the country competing in college showcases, national championships and World Series tournaments. It’s through these experiences that the players have learned what it takes to compete at the next level.
“When you enter tournaments, it’s an easy way to face the best competition from around the country,” says ODA first baseman Desmond Lindsay, who verbally committed to the University of North Carolina as a junior and spent the summer playing for the Evoshield Canes 17U team. “You can’t do that just by playing kids in the area. Playing high school baseball, you are not used to playing a game every single day. In (college and the pros), it’s baseball 24/7.”
There was a time when college coaches used to travel to area high schools to scope out the local talent pool. But, over time, those visits have become few and far between. It’s more beneficial for college coaches and Major League Baseball scouts to travel to these showcase tournaments, where they can see hundreds of the nation’s top players in one location.
“The elite players are going to be recruited no matter what,” Orlosky says. “It’s the mid-tier kid who needs this experience. They need to be involved in an organization that’s willing to make a call for you. It’s too hard to do it on your own (now), and this definitely helps.”
For Braden River High sophomore Kinsey Goelz, playing travel softball for the Tampa Mustangs helped her secure a scholarship offer from the University of South Florida. The shortstop, who helped lead her team to back-to-back runner-up finishes at the AAU National Championship, verbally committed to play for the Bulls last season as a freshman.
“Travel ball is more competitive (than high school) and made me realize I really wanted to play in college,” Goelz says. “Seeing these girls play, I knew I had to work harder than everyone else.
“When you travel across the country, there are teams from everywhere, and they are the real deal when you are competing on a national level,” Goelz says. “It’s up to you to see where you fit in and if you can play.”
There was a time several years ago when there were only a handful of travel ball teams in the area, making the competition to play for those teams highly competitive. Players would spend the first five to seven years playing recreational and Little League baseball before eventually trying out for their high school teams.
But over the past couple of years, an increase in both participation and talent from a playing perspective has led to the creation of more travel teams. Recreational baseball has become almost a sole means of introduction into the sport.
“More kids are playing at a higher level and can’t get tested,” says Scott Kolbe, who coaches the 13U Florida River Dawgs travel baseball team as well as The Out-of-Door Academy’s JV baseball team.
The Florida Burn, one of the largest travel ball organizations in the area, has nine high school-aged travel teams, including four for the Class of 2016.
The abundance of travel ball teams has both positive and negative impacts, depending on perspective. More and more players are getting an opportunity to showcase their talents, but, at the same time, it can also skew the talent level to some degree.
“It is not nearly as difficult to make a travel ball team as it once was,” Page says. “Now, there are so many teams that it is no longer very competitive to make a team, and the talent and instruction is diluted.”
Taking a risk
Travel ball isn’t the answer for every player, but many local players have used it as an opportunity to fulfill their lifelong dreams.
But the opportunity for reward doesn’t come without risk.
Those players who play year-round don’t always get the breaks their bodies need to recover. As a result, players as young as 12 years old are throwing out their arms and having to have surgery, which can ultimately end their baseball careers.
“Obviously, baseball is year-round in Florida, but that does not mean you have to play on a team year-round,” Page says. “I feel there is a misconception in the community that if you don’t play for a certain team or don’t play year-round, you won’t make it on the high school level or beyond.
“Kids’ safety is the most important thing, and, unfortunately, I feel that is forgotten sometimes,” Page says. “I believe there are great travel ball coaches and teams out there. Parents and players just need to find them.”
Ultimately, it’s up to the players and their coaches to put themselves in a position to further their opportunities while maintaining their health at the same time.
“Travel ball has raised the level of my game immensely,” Detweiler says. “Part of that is due to the amazing coaches who I’ve had the privilege of working with at the Burn, but a lot of it has to do with the amount of talented kids on travel ball teams. On the really good teams, all of the players on the rosters are standout players for their high school team. Playing with and against these players has really raised my level of play.”
“I understand that I need to control my destiny,” Braden River pitcher Eric Kimsey said. “The decisions I make today drive where I go in the future. It’s up to me to put in more workout time than the next guy, to make sure I give 100% and listen to my coaches.”
Contact Jen Blanco at [email protected].
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