Column: Amateur baseball is good for young players

Published 9:08 pm Monday, June 15, 2009

It always helps an athlete improve by playing against better competition and there’s no better sport with the opportunity for improvement than baseball in Austin.

Not only does Riverland Community College offer a great place for players to hone their skills, but many of those players stay over the summer and play for either the Austin Blue Sox or Austin Greyhounds to keep getting better.

For the Blue Sox — whose roster is packed with six RCC players from the team that went to the National Tournament this spring on their squad — the older players have been very willing to help out all of their younger teammates.

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“If they see a way for a younger guy to improve, they’re going to help him out and it’s always nice to see the younger guys grow,” Blue Sox manager Josh Kunze said. “(The young players) also serve as a shot in the arm for us older guys. When it’s a hot day and we’re down, they have no quit and they don’t give up. The mix of older and younger players has been a good thing for this team.”

The Riverland-Blue Sox connection has grown over the last two years as the Blue Sox have looked to stock up their roster.

Last summer Riverland hurler Brady Banse took some major steps when he played for the Blue Sox over the summer. After a successful freshman season at RCC, he struggled in his early appearances with the Blue Sox. But as the summer went on, he got a little better and a little more experienced with every start. By the end of the season, he was much more polished and he ended up getting a scholarship to pitch at Nebraska-Omaha.

“A lot of times I see where talent carries a player through high school and junior college and guys are just throwers,” Kunze said. “Amateur ball is no joke. When you start to play guys who have played semi-pro or even pro ball, if you just try to throw hard over the plate they’re going to hit you. Brady stopped throwing and started pitching last year, in part, because he hung out with guys like Sean Breslin and Joe Huffman who had thrown at a higher level.”

This summer, there are a few more players looking to make the leap by playing summer ball. The Blue Sox have six players from Riverland’s team that went to the National Tournament this past Spring

Pitchers Brian Voigt, Zach Vleitstra and Mitch Jaeger could all do big things for the Blue Sox.

“The Riverland guys we have now may be even more talented than any other guys we’ve had. The sky is the limit,” Kunze said. “Those pitchers have a chance to be real good.”

The only drawback for the Blue Sox is a lot of their players are only there for a one- or two-year stint.

“We know a lot of the Riverland guys are from other towns and it’s kind of a recycling process,” Kunze said. “But we work close with RCC coach Scott Koenigs and set pitch limits and play them at certain positions so we can keep getting more players and help them grow over the summer.”

While the Blue Sox are keeping up their roster with youngsters, the Greyhounds are thinking about the future. The Hounds have three Riverland players in Andy Behnke, Mitch Kaplan and Nate Steenblock, but they have a bunch of Austin High School players signed for the future.

“We’d like the Greyhounds to live for a long time and getting young kids here keeps the team alive,” Greyhounds manager John Frein said. “The kids are a good fit and sometimes when the older guys can’t make it, they get a chance to get out there.”

Frein said Hounds’ ace Dave Meyer works with a lot of the younger pitchers to help them out and the team is always looking to teach the basics of the game. Frein said the youngsters fit in quite well with his squad.

“We all played at that age and at least in our minds, we all still feel that same age,” he said.

Frein said that Legion baseball takes priority for all kids who are also playing for Post 91 over the summer.

“We don’t want to take away from kids playing against their peers,” he said.

One thing’s for sure, if the ‘old guys’ on the Blue Sox and Greyhounds ever get tired this season. They shouldn’t have to look to far to see a youthful spirit to motivate them.