Off -Season Training
Ballplayers take advantage of local training facilities and their expert staffs so they’ll be in top form come spring.
Locating your fastball in the later innings; going first to third on a softly-hit groundball into right field; throwing out a runner at first after backhanding a ball in the hole deep at short; cutting off a line drive before it falls, splitting the gap; consistently batting more than .300 – all these game-changing plays and stats are made by baseball players who have passion for the game. These moments are especially made by individuals who have the stamina to perform at a higher level after a long day of classes.
The drive to be the best starts in the off season. Winter training that is available to high school ballplayers is seized by those who want to not only go on to the next level, but those who want to win on this level. The ball can land any way it chooses, but luck is the residue of hard work and preparation. This is best achieved through offseason improvement of one’s game.
“I think it [training] really gets you ready for the season,” said Andy Kovarik, senior pitcher and third baseman for Prairie Ridge High School. “It gets me focused on what I need to work on and I get to progress as the winter goes on and get ready for the spring.”
At the training facility Pro Player Consultants in McHenry, baseball players like Kovarik physically and mentally prepare themselves for the long grind of the season. Many are committed to playing beyond high school, as well as looking to improve their current skills as varsity leaders on the diamond.
Through tireless work and lessons given at Pro Player, players become attuned to their needs; they grasp the physical requirements to accomplish their high level of performance. To keep one cleated step ahead of the competition, Kovarik is aware of what can be done specifically at the lessons for training in the offseason.
“I’ve been working on the little things on my [pitching] form that have changed year to year,” he said. “I have added a pitch that I’ve worked on through the years.”
A lot of the trainers at Pro Player are former baseball players, so knowledge they pass on to student athletes is firsthand.
“I think it’s really beneficial because they can tell you what they saw when they were playing,” Kovarik said. “You can understand [lessons and training] more because they know what you’re going through.”
There are many different training drills to improve the player’s game. A varied collection of exercises and lessons are offered at Pro Player.
Ken Raines is one of the owners and an expert trainer at the facility. He believes there isn’t just one drill that’s better for a player than any other drill. He and the trainers know high school athletes – such as Kovarik, who takes advantage of many baseball drills – are more advanced these days.
“I think from a pitching standpoint, one of the biggest keys to being a successful pitcher would be direction to home plate,” Raines said. “So we use a straight line between the pitcher’s mound and home plate to try to get our guys to stride from that line with as much consistency as possible.”
Finding a Style
Raines sees himself as a specialist when it comes to training pitchers at Pro Player. Baseball experts know there is a difference between throwing and pitching.
“[If] you bring your son to me and you want to teach him how to pitch, I’m going to teach him how to throw first,” he said. “Depending how he throws the ball, I’m going to use his style and use the things that he’s doing well, to the best that he can, while making sure he’s doing things as mechanically correct as possible.”
Raines added that it can be difficult to make every pitcher always pitch the same way, even after long training and trainers at Pro Player realize all pitchers are different.
“You’re trying to [reveal] what that kid brings to the table, what his strongest attributes are, and let him use those while teaching him,” he said.
These offseason trainers believe there are several things in pitching and hitting that baseball players must do, including executing drills for improving hitters’ swing and vision at the plate.
Pro Player uses a four-paneled, “colored ball” toss drill for hitters in the cage.
“You do some soft-toss flip drills and try to get them to identify which color of the ball they made contact with,” Raines said. “Sometimes you use the colored ball to see spin and direction of the ball.”
Training Pays Off
Chase Matheson is entering his senior season at McHenry High School West. The shortstop will go on to play ball at Northern Illinois University this fall. Last year, Matheson hit .385 for McHenry. The winter training has helped him hit the ground running for spring games.
“You come out of here [after training] and some people are so rusty from not practicing – and you are in midseason form,” Matheson says.
His training at Pro Player has been a catalyst for maintaining his high batting average. Matheson also receives the personal attention needed with a hitting coach.
“I’m working on hitting the ball more to all fields, and staying more balanced as a hitter – quicker hands,” he said. “[My batting coach] stands five or 10 feet away from me, whips the balls in as hard as he can, so it works on quickness of hands.”
Shortstops need cat-like reflexes and the range to snatch frozen ropes hit their way. Pro Player has an open-area turf infield so infielders can work on their footwork any season.
“I always have someone [trainers] here making sure my feet are moving,” Matheson said. “I have people hitting me ground balls, and my feet are moving or else, because at short you never want to stand still.”
He added that he can train his consistent momentum to first base on throws. Matheson believes his training will help him make the all-state team and help McHenry capture a conference title.
The players say there’s always plenty of space at this facility. Athletes can run all-out sprints, work on their core strengthening and lift weights to help strengthen key muscles used while playing games. You’ll find these players working on forearm curls, squats, dead lifts, flexibility and with medicine balls.
“Now I’m just really trying to work on getting stronger with my legs and core and my MPH up now,” said Pat Murphy, a senior pitcher at McHenry High School West, who’s going on to play at St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind. Murphy struck out 65 batters last year.
“I’m big into the squats, trying to explode [with a pitch off the mound toward home] with my legs,” Murphy explained. “Squat jumps like that are all explosion with the lower half.”
Murphy takes pitching and hitting lessons at Pro Player once a week, but also comes in a couple more days since he is on the Pro Player team. His self-awareness to improve through training is evident.
“With being a pitcher, you don’t want to do too much upper body,” he said. “Instead of benching with the bar, I do dumbbells for stability. Before I pitch I make sure I’m really stretched out and warmed up so I’m not pulling anything. With working out – after I stretch for a while – I make sure the muscles don’t constrict and get tired the next time I pitch.”
Murphy has been working out for years, and recommends the offseason training to all players. “I want to have a good year,” he said. “Hopefully my stats will show that I’ve worked hard. These guys have taught me a lot about the game and have been here for guidance.”
Ohio State University is getting a stronger pitching staff with the addition of one of the hardest trainers in Cary-Grove High School’s Matt Panek. The senior has committed to the Buckeyes; that goal was achieved through natural talent, listening attentively to the trainers and coaches and a consistent, offseason workout regiment.
“Everybody at Pro Player has helped me out,” Panek said glowingly. “Anything that they’ve told me to do has been great advice; it’s all been the better for me.”
Panek lifts four days a week, alternating every session between upper and lower body. He also throws a couple times a week or more, and hits at Pro Player regularly.
“They’ve got me working harder than anybody’s ever got me working before,” Panek said.
The players come from different local schools to train. Some may think that may lead to players telling their coaches about the others’ weaknesses or verbal spats, but McHenry’s Murphy says that it’s all “friendly” trash talking, if any.
Regional Sports Center in Crystal Lake incorporates speed and agility drills, resistance training, sport-specific training, age-appropriate exercises with and without weight training. The facility works with a medical sports combine group to identify deficiencies or weaknesses with players to prevent present and future injuries.
General Manager Ben Curcio believes that training can also be vital in keeping a player injury-free.
“[Training] gives a kid an edge, but it’s also preventative maintenance on your body,” Curcio said. “When you’re working your body out in the offseason, you’re keeping yourself in shape.”
He said athletes are also more likely to pull muscles on the first day of the season if they don’t train because they haven’t worked on them in months.
He added the motivation for training can come from players or the parents. “They want them to be in the starting lineup or work toward that,” he said. “That gives [players] the extra edge to keep their spot on the starting lineup once they get there.”
Curcio’s 11-year-old son plays baseball, and they both understand the importance of training early, in addition to games and practice. “You can’t just play the sport anymore – those days are over,” Curcio said. “It’s the additional training; that’s why you’re seeing athletes that are bigger, stronger and faster.”
For athletes training in the Woodstock area, there is no better place than SportsCity Academy. In fact, SportsCity is the indoor workout facility for McHenry County College (MCC) Scots College Team.
“The facility and layout is first class,” said Kim “Hoss” Johnson, MCC baseball coach. “Our team gets a terrific workout and most importantly SportsCity contributes to our preparation for the season. SportsCity is a great facility and great partner.”
SportsCity encompasses 16,000 square feet of state-of-the-art training facilities for baseball, softball, basketball, volleyball, soccer, football, lacrosse and other sports.
For baseball training, it offers a large indoor training field, configuration options with movable nets, full live hitting, superior lighting, training equipment (L-screens, bases and tees) and discounted Iron Mike hitting machines with team field rentals.
What’s more, former Major League pitcher Juan Acevedo has joined SportsCity as a pitching instructor, bringing pitching knowledge and experience, and a passion for pitching instruction. He provides individual lessons, camps and clinic instruction, and team training at SportsCity.
A Solid Foundation
At Player’s Choice Academy in Huntley, coach and academy director Matt Sibigtroth said he’s had many baseball standouts train at his facility. Connor Sadzeck, who is pitching for the University of Oklahoma, started coming into Players Choice when he was 13 years old.
The baseball and football trainers there include former coaches, former college baseball players, pro scouts, and former pro players, including ex-Chicago Bear Marcus Robinson. The experience of their trainers is a testament to the success of those like Sadzeck.
Camps run six weeks with an hour-and-a-half training and lessons. Their attention to all age groups is spurring an early interest of training in athletes.
Sibigtroth said workouts are adapted to each player’s ability. There is a separate game plan for players with advanced skills where basics are also always drilled.
“When we see a player, the first thing we make sure is they’re balanced and their foundation is stable,” he said.
Sibigtroth has seen an increase of baseball players training. “There’s a lot of teams out there, so everybody’s trying to one-up the next guy,” Sibigtroth said. “So, they’ve got to get their kids in and get them in training, and training the right way. It’s one thing to do repetitions, but if you’re not doing them the right way, you’re not building good muscle memory.”
Where to Train
Regional Sports Center – 1310 Ridgefield Rd. in Crystal Lake, 815-455-6634, www.regionalsportscenter.com.
SportsCity Academy – 1269 Cobblestone Way in Woodstock, 815-334-1900, www.sportscityacademy.com.
Pro Player Consultants – 5112 Prime Parkway in McHenry, 815-385-2255, www.proplayerconsultants.com.
Player’s Choice Academy – 12060 Raymond Ct. in Huntley, 847-659-1818; 9210 Trinity Dr. in Lake In the Hills, 847-854-0022, www.playerschoiceacademy.com.