When it comes to travel baseball, tournaments are the measuring stick.
To that end, the Minooka Rivercats 10-U team measured up quite well recently, taking third – out of 35 teams – in the Brad Wallin Memorial Tournament held in Peoria. The only two games Minooka lost in the tournament were to eventual champion Chatham.
It's been a successful venture for the Rivercats, whose program ranges from 9-U to 13-U, and will be adding an 8-U program next season. The Rivercats try to focus on having only players from Minooka, Channahon and Shorewood that are in the Minooka school district. In fact, 90 percent of the 10-U team's players fit that bill.
The 10-U team is coached by Chris Norman, a 1987 graduate of Minooka High School. His assistants are Jay Dahlberg, Scott Crowther,l John Lizzio and Tom Kuhel.
"We play a lot of tournaments," Norman said. "Surprisingly, there are no limits on pitchers in some of these tournaments as far as pitch count or how much rest they need before pitching again. What we do, internally, is limit our kids to 50 or 60 pitches a game. Whether that takes them through two inning or four or five innings, that's what we keep them at. With only 10 kids on the team, we have had everyone pitch at least a little bit so far this year.
"Now that school's out, there is so much talent in the area southwest of Chicago that we don't have to travel too far. We had the 35-team tournament in Peoria, which is a big one, and we have them coming up in Romeoville, Mokena and West Chicago. So, we travel, but we don't go too far, generally. What we do is that the Rivercats program as a whole does fundraisers throughout the year so that the 12-U team can go play in Cooperstown, New York. It's a reward for those kids in their last year of the program."
With all those tournaments packing in a lot of games, it doesn't take long for the Rivercats' schedule to fill up. In fact, Norman estimates they will play 50 games or so in the six or seven tournaments they enter each year.
"We try to end by the Fourth of July," he said. "So the kids can spend some time with their families over the summer. Then, in the fall and winter, we encourage them to play other sports, whether it's football, basketball, soccer, wrestling. We feel like we want our kids to be well-rounded athletes and not get burnt out on baseball. I know that's a big concern for parents with travel teams.
"No matter what they decide to do, we tell our pitchers to not touch a ball from October until January. No throwing of anything. And, at this age, our kids are not throwing breaking balls. Just fastballs and change ups. We want to limit their chances of injury as much as we possibly can."
With feeder programs as organized and thoughtful as the Rivercats, it's no wonder that the Minooka Community High School baseball program has been one of the best year-in and year-out in the state the last 10 years or so.
"[Minooka varsity head coach Jeff] Petrovic has his son involved in our program," Norman said. "Plus, most of our kids will take part in the camps he puts on over the summer. That way, they get exposure to what to expect if and when they decide they want to play high school ball.
"For now, though, we just want the kids to have fun. Everyone plays at least three different positions on the field, so it's not like anyone is getting bored. You can't just put a kid in one spot and leave him there at this age. You have to let him try everything and see where he's most comfortable and most successful. That's another thing we want to stress is to try every position if you can. You never know what you might like or be good at until you try it."
MINOOKA RIVERCATS 10U ROSTER