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In the Cougars' Den: Cougars recall prep stadium exposure

Published: Friday, May 23, 2014 11:43 p.m. CDT • Updated: Saturday, May 24, 2014 6:07 a.m. CDT
(Sandy Bressner file photo -
The Cougars call Fifth Third Bank Ballpark home for 70 games a season. When the venue hosts high school games during early-season road trips, prep athletes relish the chance to follow their lead for a night.

GENEVA – Fifth Third Bank Ballpark this week hosted the last of its usual haul of high school baseball games for the season.

Yorkville, hometown of Cougars general manager Curtis Haug, defeated Geneva, 4-1, on Wednesday. Two days earlier, Batavia met Kaneland on a night that will be remembered more for the cancer benefit between the teams than the Bulldogs’ 10-1, nonconference triumph.

The Cougars returned to their dugout Thursday with no signs of sunflower seeds or any other leftovers, although many had heard the House That Phil Elfstrom built had been populated during a three-game sojourn to Appleton, Wis.

Cue the reminiscences of players’ own high school stadium games. Or the (sort of) repressed feelings about playing in prep purgatory.

“Any time you can get into a stadium, it’s awesome,” catcher/third baseman Ben Carhart said.

Carhart played in his share growing up in Florida, mostly at big league teams’ spring training complexes. The back fields at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla,, spring home of the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins, were a routine stop for a wood bat tournament through Perfect Game USA.

Right-hander Tyler Skulina pitched on three Ohio state tournament teams for Walsh Jesuit, meaning he got to travel from his home outside Akron to Cooper Stadium, then the home of the Triple-A Columbus Clippers.

“Yeah, it’s a little weird at first, but then you kind of get used to it and you get the crowd into it a little more and it feels more like a game than anything,” Skulina said. “But it’s definitely fun.”

The progression continues just a few clubhouse stalls away. Infielder David Bote still beams about sharing the spotlight for the Colorado Rockies’ annual high school all-star game at Coors Field.

Bote was a senior at Faith Christian Academy in suburban Denver – the same school as Cubs pitching prospect and former Cougar Pierce Johnson – when he played in a game that now pits Colorado’s top seniors against its best underclassmen.

The group attended a Rockies weekend afternoon game, was recognized on the field, then got to enjoy the venue for themselves.

“It’s pretty cool to do,” Bote said. “I mean, you’re a senior in high school and you’re on a big league field.”

Manager Mark Johnson would have settled for much less 20 years ago. The White Sox first-round draft pick in 1994 played home games on a softball diamond with an all-dirt infield located behind the sheriff’s department in his native Warner Robins, Ga.

“It was like playing on the worst field, probably, in America,” Johnson said.

That doesn’t exactly sound like middle ground, which some Cougars shared before even knowing one another.

Jordan Hankins played some high school postseason games at T.R. Hughes Ballpark in O’Fallon, Mo,, where fellow infielder Danny Canela later roamed as a member of the independent River City Rascals.

“When we’d get an opportunity to play there, it was pretty much top-of-the-line, we thought, back in the day,” Hankins said.

Such memories make it easier for the Cougars to appreciate the digs they call home for 70 games each season.

As for Johnson, his high school legacy might even be more inspirational.

Playing in palaces isn’t a prerequisite for the majors or even organized ball, but those who get the opportunity clearly don’t forget.

Who's hot

Right-hander Paul Blackburn has allowed just two earned runs in his past three starts covering 18 innings. He is 5-1 with a 2.37 ERA overall.

Who's not

Outfielder Trey Martin entered Friday batting .114 (5 for 44 in May).

Star watch

If a baseball career doesn't pan out, Peoria outfielder Kenneth Peoples-Walls certainly has a name built for construction. A fourth-round pick of the parent St. Louis Cardinals as a high-schooler in 2011, Peoples-Walls was batting .263 with one home run and 18 RBIs before Friday. The Chiefs head to Fifth Third Bank Ballpark for a three-game series beginning Sunday.


The Cougars will play 16 of their next 19 games against Clinton and Peoria, the two clubs chasing them for the first-half Western Division title. "We've definitely got to find out their tendencies and get on the bat real quick against them and find out what they like to do so we can hold our own," catcher/third baseman Ben Carhart said. ... Manager Mark Johnson said the injury to right-hander Jen-Ho Tseng, initially listed as an upper extremity issue, is a sore pitching shoulder and "nothing serious." ... The Cougars were 19-5 at home this season entering Friday.

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