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Crossroads Baseball Series helps talent connect with next level programs

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Connecting baseball players who wish to play at the next level with coaches seeking talent is something that the Crossroads Baseball Series has been doing for more than a decade.

Started in 2008 by former Indiana University and professional infielder Eric Blakeley as an outgrowth of his Diamond Kings training business in northwest Indiana, CBS has grown to include showcases, tournaments and fall leagues in numerous states.

Blakeley ran Diamond Kings — former Griffith (Ind.) High School and Tulane University standout and current Los Angeles Dodgers minor leaguer Kody Hoese was one of his early pupils — for about a decade. 

Crossroads Baseball Series began as a way for “Region” area players to have exposure events without traveling to Indianapolis or Chicago. 

The first CBS event held at Gary’s U.S. Steel Yard include future big league pitcher Sean Manaea. Blakeley notes that 85 of the 87 players involved went on to play college baseball.

At Crossroads Baseball Series showcases, players work out in front of college coaches and play in prospect games against top recommended players.

There are 17 tournaments on the 2021 calendar with events in Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio. Many of these are for 14U to 18U players.

“We’re on the verge of growing our tournament space,” says Blakeley, CEO/President of Baseball Operations for Crossroads Baseball Series. “There’s a high demand for quality tournaments that don’t cost $2,000. We try to stay around $1,000 price point.”

Blakeley says college coaches can get on an RSVP list and attend events and receive information from them.

Rosters are collected and each player fills out an information form. Coaches have full access to this for free.

CBS provides social media coverage for recruiters and players’ families to share.

“We pride ourselves on educating the families,” says Blakeley. “We can get your names out there.

“The players have to do their research and count the schools that match (their choices).”

What Crossroads Baseball Series does, according to Blakeley, makes it easier for players to communicate with college coaches and do their research.

Blakeley emphasizes that college coaches will know if a player has done his homework on his program. 

It is even more important now that the competition for roster spots has become even more fierce with many players staying in college baseball longer thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and the smaller MLB Draft.

“It’s become a lot more competitive to get into these schools — academically and athletically,” says Blakeley.

The words of former Indiana University and current Arizona State University head coach Tracy Smith ring true with Blakeley.

“If you want to play college baseball, there’s a place for you,” says Blakeley. “You just need to do your research and go to camps.”

Travis Keesling, former head coach at Pendleton Heights High School, is Vice President of Baseball Operations for CBS after starting out as a coach selecting players for a showcase.

“Travis has a very good baseball background,” says Blakeley. “He knows the game very well.”

Keesling deals with finding on-field personnel, RSVPing college coaches and the overall vision of the company. He and Blakeley talk on a daily basis.

Nelson Gord, a former minor league opponent to Blakeley who resides in Illinois and is Director of Baseball for NCSA (Next College Student Athlete), is also Director of Recruiting Education for Crossroads Baseball Series.

“He’ll come to events and speak to parents about the recruiting process,” says Blakeley of Gord.

NCSA had purchased a platform called Coach Packet and CBS now has its own app that incorporates video, social media and results to the same player profile. College coaches are given access to this information.

The Crossroads Baseball Series staff also features field coordinators include Rob Fay, Craig Cotter and Austin Green.

Blakeley was a four-sport athlete at Greenville (Ohio) Senior High School.

“I was fortunate to have good coaches for high school and summer ball,” says Blakeley. “I got hit by pitch and broke my arm and did not play junior year of high school.”

The righty-swinging infielder wound up at Indiana through a relationship his coach had with Hoosiers head coach Bob Morgan.

“He taught you some things about life,” says Blakeley. “There’s nothing easy about getting through a practice with Bob Morgan.

“He taught you accountability and taking care of yourself.”

As much as the process has changed over the year, one things has remained constant.

“It was word-of-mouth then and it’s still that way today,” says Blakeley. Coaches want to hear from coaches who they consider trustworthy and whose opinion they respect. “What has changed is technology. There is accessibility and instant updates now.”

Another change is the age of those being seriously pursued by recruiters.

“Recruiting has gotten a lot earlier,” says Blakeley. “When we started Crossroads in 2008, every single of the players had not made their college choice yet and were juniors going into their senior year. Ten years later, eighth graders were (verbally) committing going into their freshmen year.”

A shortstop for much of his four seasons at IU (1999-02), Blakeley was selected in the 21st round of the 2002 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Seattle Mariners as a second baseman.

After his first pro season, Blakeley had Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery. He was in Class-A ball in 2003 and 2004 and made it up to Triple-A in 2005.

Released by the Mariners in 2005, Blakeley played for the independent Joliet (Ill.)JackHammers and Gary (Ind.) SouthShore RailCats before retiring as a player after the 2008 season. 

“I wasn’t trying to go back into affiliated ball,” says Blakeley. “I had my business and had gotten married (to Lake Central High School graduate Laura).”

Gary won the Northern League title in 2007 and were runners-up in 2008.

RailCats manager Greg Tagert invited him back for 2009, but Blakeley decided to focus on his business and having a family. 

Eric and Laura Blakeley now resides in Fishers, Ind., with daughters Isabella (10) and Gianna (8). Eric coaches both girls on the Fishers Cats.

“Sports can teach kids for the future — about adversity and how to overcome it,” says Blakeley. “Don’t think what might happen bad. Think what might happen good. 

“Failure is going to help you where you want to be. They just don’t understand that yet.”

Eric Blakeley, CEO/President of Baseball Operations for Crossroads Baseball Series

No steady home field, no problem for Freije, Indianapolis Cathedral

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Some might see the IHSAA Class 4A baseball state championship showdown against Penn (27-6) as a home game for Indianapolis Cathedral (28-0).

After all, it’s only 12 or so miles from the Cathedral campus on 56th Street to the downtown stadium and the Irish did beat Heritage Christian for the city championship at “The Vic” this spring.

On the other hand, Cathedral is the designated road team against the Kingsmen in a game slated for 5 p.m. Saturday, June 17, and that may make sense to some since the Fighting Irish did not have one “home” field during the 2017 season.

Irish varsity games had been played for years at Hair Field near Fort Benjamin Harrison, but when the lease to that facility was not renewed the Irish went looking for places to play.

“We had a month or two not knowing what we were going to do,” says Cathedral head baseball coach Ed Freije.

The independent Irish wound up with home contests at Marian University on the northwest side of Indianapolis and Grand Park in Westfield.

Meanwhile, the school purchased the former Little League International Central Region headquarters at 44th and Mitthoeffer and used that for practices and all junior varsity and freshmen games while construction began on a high school diamond and other athletic fields at what is now called Brunette Park.

But a nomadic season with a new coaching staff did not stop Cathedral from winning each and every time it took the diamond — wherever it was.

The 2017 Irish will be vying to be the fourth unbeaten team during the IHSAA state tournament era (1967-2017), joining Evansville Memorial (30-0 in single class in 1978), Brownsburg (35-0 in 4A in 2005) and Norwell (35-0 in 3A in 2007).

Cathedral’s record was spotless going into the 2013 4A championship game before falling 1-0 to left-hander Tanner Tully and Elkhart Central. The ’13 Irish wound up 28-1.

Freije, a 1999 Cathedral graduate and three-sport athlete for the Irish, returned to the baseball coaching staff after a hiatus when he spent five seasons as the school’s head girls basketball coach (winning 70 games from 2012-13 to 2016-17).

The ’17 Irish returned nine seniors from 2016 and plenty of capable arms.

“Depth of pitching has really helped us this year,” says Freije. “(Pitching coach) Brad Pearson did a a phenomenal job with that staff. We knew that pitching and defense would keep us in games and give us a chance day in and day out.

“(Pitchers have) been around the strike zone and let their defense work. That strong defense behind them gives them a ton of confidence. We like our chances if we’re not giving up more than two or three runs.”

Opponents have scored more than three runs in only three games out of 28 with 15 times have tallied one or no runs.

Senior left-hander Nick Eaton has emerged as Cathedral’s ace. He took the ball in the sectional final, regional semifinal and semistate game and is expected to start against Penn.

Senior right-hander Tommy Kafka, Cathedral’s starting second baseman, has been used effectively in relief.

The Irish also have starting right fielder and senior right-hander Jack Myers, senior right-hander Jack Phillips and starting first baseman and junior left-hander Jake Andriole at the ready for mound duty.

Freije said he did not see the new IHSAA pitch count rules (1 to 35 pitches requires 0 days rest; 36 to 60 requires 1 day; 61 to 80 requires 2 days; 81 to 100 requires 3 days; and 101 to 120 requires 4 days) dictating how Cathedral handled its pitchers this season, though it did come into a play with a few opponents.

Besides Pearson (cousin of Cardinal Ritter head coach Dave Scott), Jeremy Sinsabaugh (varsity), Austin Green (JV), Will Hunker (JV) and Keith Yost (freshmen) are also part of the 2017 Cathedral coaching staff.

The Irish are making a seventh State Finals appearance (Cathedral won state championships in 2001 and 2007 and finished as state runner-up in 2006, 2010, 2011 and 2013) after beating Mt. Vernon (Fortville), Lawrence Central and Lawrence North to win the Warren Central Sectional, Greenfield-Central and Roncalli in the Decatur Central Regional and Columbus North in the Plainfield Semistate.

Ed Freije is not the first Indianapolis area coach with that name. His father — also named Ed — is a former baseball and basketball coach at Broad Ripple and basketball coach at New Palestine.

The younger Freije learned about coaching from his father and from Ken Kaufman, Rich Andriole, Tony Vittorio and Linda Bamrick among others.

Freije played baseball at Cathedral for Kaufman and then Andriole (then served as an assistant on his staff for a decade, 2004-13). As a head coach, Andriole won more than 500 games and the two state titles.

Vittorio was Freije’s baseball coach at the University of Dayton, where Freije graduated in 2003.

A Southport High School graduate, Vittorio played at Hanover College and later coached at then NCAA Division II Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne before taking over the D-I Dayton Flyers.

Before taking over as Lady Irish head coach, Freije was an assistant to Linda Bamrick. She won 186 games with a state championship (2000-01) in 12 seasons at Cathedral.

The Irish, which have also gathered 21 sectional, 13 regional and six semistate crowns, has sent many players on to college and professional baseball. Catcher Jake Fox made his Major League Baseball debut in 2007 and right-handed pitcher Tommy Hunter followed in 2008. Left-hander Dillon Peters was drafted in 2014 and right-hander Ashe Russell in 2015.

EDFREJE

Indianapolis Cathedral baseball coaches for 2017 (left to right): Keith Yost, Austin Green, Jeremy Sinsabaugh, head coach Ed Freije, Brad Pearson and Will Hunker. (Cathedral Photo)

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