Leo’s Journey from Little League to College Baseball (Middle School Tryout)

This is part 4 (Age 13, 7th grade) of an ongoing series following a young player’s baseball career from Little League to College Baseball. In order to get the most out of this series, be sure to start at the beginning.

Image courtesy Akadema

A couple months after Leo turned 13, he went to the December tryout for the middle school team, as a 7th grader. At 35 degrees, it was cold!

The middle school baseball coach ran the tryouts using a serious high school approach. Of the 26 kids who tried out for the team, 14 were immediately cut. In Wayne’s words (post 424):

My how time goes by. My boy is now 13, and yesterday they had tryouts for his school baseball team. It was a brutal tryout. I think about 26 kids showed up to try out for the 7th grade team. Some of the kids I knew from playing around here and others I had never seen before.

The brutal part was this, at the end of the two hours the coaches cut 14 kids. One of the kids that was cut was one of the best players I had ever seen at one time. I was shocked that he was cut, but he looked pretty bad. I’m not sure what happened to him. He is an incredible football player though, and I think he can play football at a high level someday. He has the size and speed.

One of the drills they did was to throw a ball from deep right field to second base. My boy and one other boy were the only kids out of all 26 that made the throw. I was shocked at the lack of arm strength by the other kids. It wasn’t that hard of a throw, but few of the other kids even got close. My boy told me that he barely threw the ball because he didn’t think he was warm enough.

Anyway, he will be playing school ball now. All the years of travel ball and playing little league and Ripken has come to this. I’m really excited for him and anxious to see how he does at this level.

I know when we were having tryouts I heard one of the dads say “who in the world is that little kid? My God he can’t throw a ball that far as small as he is.” Still, during travel ball I’ve seen some of the better pitchers that are his age and although my boy has an above average arm I’ve seen many boys his age who are just as good.

Anyway, I’m excited that baseball is coming up. It looks like school ball starts at the middle of January and I think games will begin in early Feb.

BTW: 13 year olds are weird. For some reason my boy thinks I’m the stupidest person who ever lived and he knows everything. Go figure……

The most shocking part of the tryout was seeing a friend of Leo’s cut. This friend had been a top player that Leo had played with and against over the years, though he hadn’t played any baseball over the past year. This was the first time that Leo and Wayne had seen a baseball player drop out of the game who seemed like a great player at one time. But, as Leo and Wayne were to find out over the next few years, it was just the beginning. The talent funneling process had begun.

click to skip explanation box and resume the story

The Talent Funnel

So what is this funnel? It's a commonly used phrase to describe what occurs in every competitive sport. At some point, in order to keep making progress in the sport, you'll need to do well enough in a tryout to make the roster. For some, that first time might be as a high school freshman. But for most, it comes earlier. It might be trying out for a middle school team as a 6th or 7th grader. It might be for a travel ball team, sometimes as early as the age of 7.

It's not really a big deal at an early age to miss making a travel ball team because recreation leagues accept all players and expectations are low at that age. Middle school tryouts mean more and are therefore where many kids are going to experience that funneling effect for the first time. Sure, players who don't make the middle school team can choose to play travel ball. However, if they don't have the combination of talent, skill, and dedication to make the middle school team, then they also aren't likely to be selected for one of the better travel ball teams around.

But it's not just about a single tryout. It's a combination of talent, work ethic, and coaching. A very talented male athlete who doesn't work hard may miss making the cut for one or more tryouts. But as soon as he starts working hard at his game, he will become good enough to make it onto a team. Conversely, a very hardworking player may make several teams at an early age, and may even make the high school team. But in high school he may ride the bench into obscurity because his talent level isn't high enough.

A hardworking and well coached player may perform a few notches higher than you might expect based on talent. Also, the talented but lazy player may be able to coast for a few years. But as the level of competition increases, the funnel narrows. The only players who remain will be those with sufficient talent and work ethic to reach that part of the funnel.

Leo was not only still in the game, he was easily one of the stronger players around. For now.

All kids who made the middle school and high school baseball teams were invited to attend a pre-season camp put on by two baseball coaches from Notre Dame a few weeks later. It was a huge eye opener for Wayne, who didn’t know what college baseball entailed. The biggest shock?

Grades matter. A lot.

At Notre Dame, applicants with a high school GPA below 3.6 (out of 4.0) are not even considered, regardless of athletic talent. While not all schools are this selective, and not all sports are so tough on students, baseball players in particular are expected to have such a demanding college baseball schedule that their grades will necessarily be lower than what they achieved in high school, often by as much as a full point.

Baseball players with poor high school grades need not apply to Notre Dame or other schools with a similarly strong academic reputation.

Leo was not taking school very seriously in 7th grade. This was going to have to change. As Wayne noted (post 446),

It didn’t matter how good of a player you were. You had to have that GPA or they couldn’t take you.

I wish I could hammer that into my boy’s head. He’s at that age that he doesn’t think grades are important. He thinks that all he has to do is pass. I’m not sure how I’m going to get through to him that he must work as hard or harder on his grades than he does in sports. I tell you, this thing of raising kids isn’t easy.

Wayne also learned how the NCAA scholarship system works for baseball. In short, hardly anyone gets a full baseball scholarship to 4-year universities.

click to skip explanation box and resume the story

College Baseball Scholarships

The scholarships 4-year NCAA universities are permitted to divide up among 27 players are:

  * Division I: 11.7 scholarships per school
  * Division II: 9.0 scholarships per school
  * Division III: no scholarships permitted

The roster size is usually 30-35 players but no more than 27 players receive scholarships at Division I and Division II schools. A typical award size is 25% of tuition, which is the minimum permitted by NCAA rules.

Actually, it's worse. Scholarships must be renewed each year.

Bad injury? Academic troubles? Behavioral issues? Chances are not good that the scholarship will be renewed for the following year if anything goes wrong.

Academic scholarships are a much better deal than baseball scholarships, as they will continue for all 4 years if academic performance is reasonable.

For many baseball athletes, the only way to afford a 4-year university education is to get both academic and athletic scholarships. The academic scholarship is typically a greater amount and much more likely to be renewed.

For men, football and basketball are a completely different (and much better) story. But for male athletes outside these two sports, it's best considered a labor of love . . .

Note that it's different for 2-year community and junior college programs which can award more than 11.7 scholarships and have an unlimited roster size (as opposed to 35 maximum at NCAA schools). For details on how scholarships work at all the different kinds of post-secondary institutions, see this complete list of baseball scholarships by institution.

While Wayne absorbed this message, it didn’t seem like Leo had. He hadn’t historically applied himself in class, and it didn’t appear as if he was about to change. Passing grades tended to be the extent of his academic goals.

Leo’s baseball skills were probably strong enough to get him through high school to varsity. But Wayne began to doubt whether Leo had what it took to make it onto a college baseball team. Leo would have to boost his grades.

Practices started in January. This was the first time Leo had played on the big field, with the larger 90′ base distance, and a mound 60′ 6″ from the plate. This is the same size used for high school, college, and major league baseball. It’s quite common for players to take a while to adjust to the larger field size. Some players never make the adjustment and soon drop out.

Wayne and Leo found out that the school decided to combine 7th and 8th grades this year onto one team. So instead of being on a team of 12 7th graders, Leo was on a team of 26 players (12 7th and 14 8th) where he was the smallest player at 5′ 2″ and 105 Lbs.

The news of the teams combining was very disappointing. It meant that most 7th grade players would get very little playing time. The size of the team soon dwindled to 22 players as several 7th graders with little hope of playing time dropped out. Wayne wondered how this would impact Leo (post 481):

They were having the first day of infield yesterday and they put my boy at SS. The coach told him that he was doing great and if he kept doing well the starting SS position was his. I’m pretty sure he meant for the 7th graders though. The SS for the 8th graders is pretty good and has 40 pounds and a good 5 inches on my boy. Nevertheless they both did SS at the same time and I thought my boy did just as good as the other boy…I wouldn’t say better but he held his own. He made all the throws and didn’t make any errors.

Remember, they are going to 90ft bases this year so the throws are much further than my boy is used to. Still, as far as I could tell he made every throw and didn’t make a bad throw the entire practice. I think one ball got by him but the other boy had three or four get by him. You never know how a ball bounced though….

For the first time my boy has a fight on his hands to get playing time (in baseball). I’m anxious to see if he has the character to fight for it. That might be the most important lesson he can learn.

The coach’s approach to playing time was fair and meritocratic. Players had to earn playing time at their desired positions by good results and, for those who earned their positions, continued good results were required if they wanted to keep them. Of course, this put the less physically developed 7th graders at a disadvantage.

Leo got little playing time at first, but as he improved and got used to the big field, his playing time increased. He also proved to be one of the better hitters on the team. The head coach praised him for pitching very well for a 7th grader.

The coach liked what he saw. By the end of Leo’s 7th grade baseball season, it was clear that he was going to be a key player in the 8th grade, and it was looking like the team had great potential . . .

Part 5 of Leo’s story: Great Team (age 14, 8th grade)


Author: Joe Golton

I’m a dad with a son who loves baseball. Professionally, I’ve been a software developer, investor, controller, and logistics manager. I now make my living from this blog, supplemented with occasional consulting gigs.

One thought on “Leo’s Journey from Little League to College Baseball (Middle School Tryout)”

  1. I’m not going to be posting Part 5 today (Thursday). I just went through a disruptive office move over the past few days, and today is my first full day at work. I am continuing my work on the series and plan to publish Part 5 no later than next Thursday (March 30), and possibly as early as next Monday.

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