CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – The Iowa High School Athletic Association conducted its final Spring Baseball State Tournament in 1972, a championship won by Mason City High School, which hosted the event.
The IHSAA then staged it final Fall Baseball State Tournament in 1985, when tiny and now-defunct Holy Cross Leo High School won the championship. Ever since the Leo and runner-up Bancroft Saint John players walked off that field in Boone in 1985, the IHSAA has offered its member schools only a summer season.
Being forced to play a summer high school season has worked against the standout Iowa prospects through the years. While the rest of the country’s top prospects were gaining valuable experience and exposure playing in front of the nation’s scouting community and college coaches on prominent summer travel teams, the Iowa prospects were playing in obscurity on their high school teams.
The Iowa kids needed to get in front of scouts and college coaches during the spring and fall.
“Iowa high school players were among the least exposed on a national level,” Perfect Game President Jerry Ford said. “Players from Iowa weren’t getting recruited by out-of-state schools, let alone the top programs nationally. That has all changed due to the exposure Iowa players are getting these days.”
What changed was the formation of the Perfect Game Iowa Spring and Fall Wood Bat Leagues in 1996. The leagues are celebrating their 16th seasons in 2011, and the Iowa players have benefitted greatly by the leagues’ staying power.
Since 1996, 54 Iowa prospects have been drafted by MLB clubs right out of high school, and 53 of them played in the PG Iowa Wood Bat Leagues – most participated in several during their high school years. Many more PG Iowa Wood Bat League alumni went on to play college or junior college baseball and were drafted later in their careers.
Former PG Iowa Wood Bat League standouts Jeff Clement, Ryan Sweeney, Joel Hanrahan, Jeremy Hellickson, Brad Nelson and Matt Macri have gone on to play in the Major Leagues.
Clement, from Marshalltown, played in eight different PG Iowa Wood Bat Leagues from 1998-2002, playing in the Fall League from 1998-2001 and in the Spring League from ’99-’02.
He was drafted by the Twins right out of high school in the 12th round of 2002 draft, opted to honor his commitment to Southern Cal instead of signing, had an All-American career at USC and was taken by the Mariners with the third overall pick of the 2005 draft. He is currently in the Pirates organization.
His father Brad Clement, now PG’s vice president of development, said the exposure the leagues provided proved helpful to Jeff in the early stages of the recruiting process.
“There are many benefits for Iowa high school players in the Perfect Game Spring and Fall Leagues,” Brad Clement said. “Often times, these two leagues allow prospects to play against better competition than the high school season provides.
“There is no question that many Iowa players have been drafted and/or received college scholarships in large part by playing in the PG spring and fall leagues.”
Norwalk’s Hanrahan played in the PG Iowa Fall League in 1999 and the Spring League in ’00 and was selected by Dodgers in the second round of the 2000 draft. He has become one of the National League’s top closers this season with the Pirates, with 20 saves and a 1.31 ERA, and 30 strikeouts in 34 1/3 innings (through June 23).
Sweeney, from Cedar Rapids, participated in the PG Iowa Fall League from 1999-01 and in the Spring League from 2000-02. The White Sox made Sweeney a second round pick in 2003 and he is a currently an outfielder with the Oakland A’s.
Des Moines native Hellickson is also a nice PG Iowa Wood Bat League success story. He played in the Spring League three seasons (2003-05) and the Fall League for two (2003-04) and was a fourth-round selection of the Rays in 2005. He is now an important part of the Rays’ starting rotation.
In 2007, Iowa City’s Jon Gilmore – a PG Iowa Spring League player from 2005-07 – became the first Iowa high school player ever selected in the first round when he went to the Braves with the 33rd overall pick of the 2007 draft.
Other high-round selections who are PG Iowa Wood Bat League alumni include Kellen Sweeney from Cedar Rapids (Ryan’s brother), who was as second round selection in 2010; Zach Hammes (Iowa City, second round, 2002); Brad Nelson (Algona, fourth round, 2001); Peter Blake (Indianola, fifth round, 1997); B.J. Hermsen (Manchester, sixth round, 2008), Zach Kenyon (Davenport, ninth round, 2007); twin brothers Nathan and Jason Cromer (Des Moines, 10th and 11th rounds, 1999); and Jon Keller (Cedar Rapids, 11th round, 2010).
Many, many more former PG Iowa Wood Bat League alumni have gone on to play college baseball at all levels. Keller, for instance, played at Nebraska this spring.
The exposure the leagues provide the top Iowa prospects is invaluable, and the spring and fall leagues provide nice bookends to the players’ summer high school seasons.
“First, the PG Spring League fills the void nicely in playing competitive baseball when most high schools in the country have their seasons,” Brad Clement said. “It creates opportunities for the best Iowa high school prospects to play with and against each other, often times in front of many professional scouts and college recruiters. The PG Fall League is a great way to continue playing competitively during the great fall weather in the Midwest, and the league is scouted significantly, too.
“… Most of all, it’s great fun for all the prospects and allows them to follow each others’ careers closely in the future since they build long-lasting relationships in the leagues.”