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November 13, 2005

Diamonds shine in winter with U.S. Baseball Academy

SPORTS & RECREATION: COMMUNITY

By JACOB SANDOCK
Tribune Staff Writer

Riley's Mike Fisher dives for a ground ball during practice Monday night at Riley High School.

Tribune Photos/MARCUS MARTER





Riley's Adam Schultz wings a ball to first base.



Mike Fisher fields a ground ball.



Riley's Billy Pacheco zeroes in on a fly ball during a drill.

When winter arrives, baseball diamonds will be completely covered with snow and the air outside will be cold enough to freeze your ear lobes and anything else exposed to the elements. But there is some good news for young fans of America's pastime...despite the frigid temperatures sure to come, there will still be baseball.

The U.S. Baseball Academy will provide a six-week indoor program at Riley High School, Feb. 14 through March 19, for players grades one through 12. Players can attend hitting sessions, pitching sessions or both, and have the chance to continue working on the skills they picked up over the summer.

"With all the travel leagues and everything, baseball has become somewhat of a year-round sport for some people," said Marc Hoffman, President of the Louisville-based company. "Therefore, a kid who really wants to be good at it almost falls behind if they don't go get some advanced instruction. If you look at our, website, we don't have locations in Florida or Texas. Our program is really designed to get kids in the Midwest ready for the upcoming season."

The academy will offer sessions in over 90 locations throughout the Midwest this year, a strategy specifically designed to give players in cold regions the opportunity to develop consistency and to progress during the off-season. Brian Blondell, head coach at Riley, will be the program director and will be assisted in instruction by several other area high school coaches, including Washington High School head coach John Kehoe and Riley assistant head coach Bo Hundt.

"Our program is good for the coaches because they know they can just concentrate on coaching and that all the administrative tasks and the itinerary will be taken care of," said Hoffman of his company's strategy. Any city to host a U.S. Baseball Academy program is responsible for providing its own local, qualified high school and college coaches. "All of our instructors are qualified adults, there are no high school players teaching drills. From the parents' standpoint, they can look at our website and see all of the locations across the country for Midwest Baseball Academy. They know what they're going to get."

Although the sessions are open to anyone interested, Hoffman said that the program is geared towards and has been especially popular with kids whose skills are somewhat more advanced than others their age.

"What tends to happen in a little league program is that 'Billy's dad' is the coach and there are three kids who are really good and then a bunch of kids who are not so good," Hoffman said. "When you have a practice, the kids who are very good get their eight or 10 swings and the coach says, 'Hey, nice job, get out of here.' so they can work with other kids who need a lot more attention. This is a chance for the advanced kids to get six weeks of work with a varsity high school coach who really knows what he's doing."

The pitching sessions will focus primarily on mechanics. The chief goal is to safely prepare young arms for a future of hurling 90 MPH fastballs and heralding 'great stuff.'

"For the younger kids, in grades one through three, we'll just teach basic techniques and how to hold a baseball properly," said Blondell. "We'll also teach some mechanics, where your arm should be and when and where your elbow should be."

For the hitting sessions, players will go through a series of 36 drills aimed at teaching correct methods and basic fundamentals.

"Coaches tell kids that to get more power you need to drive through the ball on contact," Hoffman said. "But a kid doesn't know what that feels like. When they hit the ball, they don't know if they are stopping their hands or slowing their swing. What we do is to ask, how can we teach that? So, we give the kid a wooden bat and have them hit deflated volleyballs and soccer balls. When you hit something heavy like that, it forces you to drive your hands through it at contact in order to make the ball go anywhere."

In another drill, players are pitched badminton birdies so that they can learn how to hit a change-up. The players have to wait for the fluttering birdie to arrive and, according to Hoffman, this teaches them how to avoid lunging -- which results in the loss of swing power.

"With the combination of these drills, you can see their swings develop," Hoffman added. "And then, when they go into their season, or tryouts for travel leagues or high school, on the first day of practice the kids from our program have just finished six weeks of intensive hitting while 90 percent of the rest of the kids are picking up a bat for the first time in nine months."

Although an intensive program, Hoffman stressed that none of the drills are revolutionary to the sport.

"We don't try to reinvent the game of baseball," he said. "You have to be in balance, you have to generate bat speed and you have to work on pitch recognition. With the older kids, we work a lot on learning to recognize and hit off-speed pitches and pitches in different parts of the strike zone. The kids come out of camp with a much better understanding of the mechanics required, hitting and pitching. They also come away with, hopefully, more advanced concepts that they have not been exposed to."

According to Blondell, there has been a good response already. Four the hitting sessions and three of the pitching sessions are half full.

"It's going to be a great thing," Blondell said of the winter skills camp. "Baseball is all about hand-eye coordination and the more time you can spend on it, the better you get and the more consistency you get."

Deadline for registration is Nov. 30 and there are still spots available for all sessions. For more information, visit the U.S. Baseball Academy website.