They once were on select baseball teams sprinkled throughout the metro-east, youngsters in grade school dreaming of one day reaching the major leagues.
They’re not there yet, but many of the top Division I baseball prospects signing with major college programs this week are all quite familiar with each other.
Arkansas recruit Jordan McFarland (Waterloo) played for the Millstadt SLAM. Alabama recruit Camden Bauer (O’Fallon) and Southern Illinois University Carbondale recruit Bradley Harrison (O’Fallon) played for the O’Fallon Athletics along with Missouri State recruit Drew Millas (Belleville East).
The Edwardsville Tigers select team produced Oklahoma State recruit Trey Riley and John A. Logan recruit Collin Clayton, both now teammates at Edwardsville High. The Waterloo Diamond Dawgs and Waterloo Warriors produced a lot of talent as well, including junior Vanderbilt recruit Erik Kaiser, senior Missouri State recruit Tyler McAlister and senior Kaskaskia recruit Noah Thaggard.
“I don’t think we really talked about it that much,” Harrison said when asked whether the players ever discussed their college futures. “I would say there were definitely jokes and stuff about it. At that time you didn’t really have the right to say it seriously. You still had a lot of work to put in if you really wanted it.”
Those kids kind of all grew up playing against each other. We’d always get in the same tournaments, so we’d see the same players all the time.
McFarland (6-foot-3, 220 pounds) is a power hitter who transferred from Gibault to Waterloo for his senior season. Considered a potential high draft pick after competing well against top prospects in several elite national showcase and exposure events, the Arkansas recruit hasn’t forgotten his days with the SLAM.
“I remember Bauer and Harrison because they played against us on another club team when they were little,” said McFarland, a two-time All-Area pick who hit .427 with eight homers and 42 RBIs last spring as a junior. “It was a lot of fun.”
McFarland, Harrison and Bauer all got together again later as teammates on the St. Louis Pirates travel team, which also included Millas, Clayton and Kaiser.
“The dads talk about it all the time,” said Joe Bauer, Camden Bauer’s father who plaeyd baseball at Althoff and Bradley and now is an Althoff assistant coach. “There were two groups out of Waterloo, a group out of Millstadt, a group out of Edwardsville and then there was our group.
“Those kids kind of all grew up playing against each other. We’d always get in the same tournaments, so we’d see the same players all the time. “
It has been a banner year for metro-east baseball talent coming on the heels of Alton High left-hander Bryan Hudson being drafted in the third round of the Major League Draft last spring and signing with the Chicago Cubs.
It seems like you’re always playing against the best of the best, so in order to face the best you have to be the best.You have to work if you really want to be able to compete.
O’Fallon’s Bradley Harrison
The current senior group has seven Division I recruits, including Alton’s Northwestern pitching recruit Nick Cauley, and perhaps two or three potential draft picks.
“It’s a great year, no question, and you see it in the quality of baseball being played at our schools in Southern Illinois,” O’Fallon High baseball coach Jason Portz said. “I’d put it up there with any baseball in the Midwest, for sure.”
Harrison has been all over the Midwest and southern U.S. with the Pirates and said he never felt out of place or overmatched.
“I think there’s a lot of good coaching in the area and there’s a lot of ways to find good instruction,” said Harrison, about to begin his fourth year as a starter for O’Fallon. “That really helps out players in this area. It seems like you’re always playing against the best of the best, so in order to face the best you have to be the best.
“You have to work if you really want to be able to compete.”
Like many high school athletes, McFarland and Harrison both committed either right after or during their sophomore years. They waited a long time before finally being able to sign their names on a Division I letter of intent.
“I’ve been waiting for over a year and a half for this,” Harrison said. “I’m ready.”
“It wasn’t something I really stressed about, but it’s fun to sign because I know a lot of players over at Arkansas now and it’s going to be fun playing with them,” said McFarland, who has visited the Razorbacks’ campus several times for football, basketball and baseball games. “I think a lot of guys like to get it over with early. Each guy has a different reason, but the offer was good for me and there was no reason for me to wait or anything.”
Harrison hit .418 last spring with 15 doubles, four homers and 48 RBIs. He also was 11-2 as a left-handed pitcher with a 1.32 ERA and 79 strikeouts in 63 2/3 innings.
“They want me to try it both ways, to pitch and play first base or outfield,” he said. “As of now everything is wide open.”
Former Highland All-American Jake Odorizzi is a starting pitcher with the Tampa Bay Rays. Former Lebanon pitcher Neal Cotts won a World Series ring with the Chicago White Sox in 2005 and pitched with the Milwaukee Brewers and Minnesota Twins this season.
Mater Dei catcher Josh Thole plays for the Toronto Blue Jays and former Belleville East pitcher Randy Wells pitched for the Cubs before retiring after the 2012 season.
Kaiser, a junior pitcher at Waterloo, gained a scholarship to Vanderbilt after a strong summer that saw him consistently hitting 90-92 mph with his fastballs.
Why does the metro-east consistently pump out elite baseball talent?
“You’ re getting into an era of specialization,” Portz said. “You’re getting a lot of kids that are just concentrating on one sport and they’re able to do it year-round, trying to improve their games at a higher level.
“There are strong high school programs and people also have the option of paying thousands and thousands of dollars to travel the country and play the best competition as well as being seen by the best collegiate programs nationally.
“There’s just more opportunities and those kids and families are taking advantages of it.”