La PORTE — ‘Wouldn’t it be great, awesome to turn on the TV and see a La Porte team playing in the Little League World Series?’ ‘What more of a selling point could you have than at some point to see a team from La Porte on TV at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania?’ ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to have a Legion representative from La Porte play in the National Legion Tournament on ESPN?’

“If we don’t give it a shot, we’ll never know,” said La Porte High School baseball head coach Scott Upp, who helped undertake the beginning of a program for local prep baseball players this summer. The program, called Maple City Baseball, has been in the works the last four to five years with the hope of it becoming an annual program in La Porte.

It’s eventually intended for little league through high school baseball, or 8U through 18U, in the town.

“The primary purpose is to try and keep everybody playing together in La Porte,” Upp said. “And honestly, to try and save people money, a little bit of money, a little bit of travel. I know travel ball is big, but I also think there are some benefits to staying with your peers and playing together. We did it this year. We basically kind of did like the old Bennett’s (Slicers’ summer team). The players really enjoyed playing with their buddies and we were playing very good competition. We were playing in the travel tournaments, the same tournaments these guys are playing big bucks to play in, we’re playing in the same tournaments with them.

“You just see maybe relationships amongst our team, camaraderie amongst our team developing as a result of it. Because they have time to relax a little moreso than in the high school baseball season, which is a little more intense.” 

In the last several years, Slicer high school baseball players have participated in summer travel programs throughout the area. As a result, Bennett’s, or La Porte’s summer team, dissolved. Maple City Baseball is aiming to change that and keep players local.

“It’s just a philosophy shift I guess is what it is to try and keep people on the same page,” Upp added. “Let’s play under one umbrella. Let’s forget all of what’s happened in the past, because that’s going to be brought up. Forget that. Let’s start new. Let’s start right now.” 

Upp mentioned that numerous successful Indiana prep baseball programs essentially have the same model that La Porte is trying to emulate, including Penn, Lake Central, Lafayette Harrison and McCutcheon high schools, adding Penn has a prep program, plus a little league program in Granger.

The cost to participate in Maple City Baseball was $750 a player this summer. Upp compared that with the cost of some travel teams, which range from about $1,500 to $2,500 a year.

“We’re going to keep it affordable,” he said. “We’re going to keep it realistic. I just hope our baseball community can buy in to what we’re trying to do. Because I think in the long run, they’re going to see it’s going to promote the game. It’s going to promote the kids knowing the game better. It’s going to save them some money. Kids would much rather be around their buddies because they’re much more comfortable around their buddies. It’s not going to happen over night. It’s going to be a five-, six-, seven-year process.”

While Upp knows that patience is key, he stressed affecting players in a positive manner.

“Everybody needs to put the kids first,” he added. “Not necessarily the parents’ egos. Put the kids first. And put them in a situation, where No. 1, they’re going to have fun. No. 2, they’re going to be developed. And No. 3, you’re not going to break the bank in playing baseball in the summer time.”

At the same time, Upp knows that this process is overarching and involves a plethora of people.

“I know the Park Department, Mark (Schreiber), Kyle (Upp), Andy (Miller) and all these other people are trying to put this thing back together,” Upp said. “Put it all together just like we are and it’s going to take a little bit of time. But what we have to have is buy-in from our baseball community, our families that are involved in playing baseball. We have to have that buy-in, to get this whole program going.”

La Porte has hosted travel tournaments over the last few summers.

As it continued to host those tournaments, it became more and more apparent that they would be able to provide a sense of balance. With the Bennett’s (team), where seniors would be dropped since they graduated, followed by trying to put together the following year’s varsity team.

That’s the plan for Maple City Baseball. La Porte had a Junior Division Legion baseball team, comprised of 17-year-old-and-under players, eight of whom played on La Porte High School’s JV team this spring. 

“What we want to do with that team is the same thing we’re doing with the Maple City team,” Upp said. “Take those kids who we don’t choose to play Maple City baseball, and that’s always a point of contention. It’s just like making cuts again. But it still gives that freshman, or that 14, 15 or 16-year-old an opportunity to continue to play, to continue to improve. And then eventually, maybe the following year be on the Maple City Baseball team.”

Upp has seen the impact of some travel baseball on players.

“I see kids today that have played on travel teams and they don’t know the game,” he added. “They don’t know the simple parts of the game. There are a lot of good travel organizations out there. I am definitely not knocking them. But I can tell you from a high school coaches’ perspective, they are coming up really not knowing the game like we did when we grew up.”

Even so, Upp realizes him and his coaching staff, among others, only have so much influence.

“We can’t control it,” Upp said. “Because parents are going to do what they want to do. If they feel that it’s best for their kids to play travel (baseball), there’s really nothing we can do about it. But I will say that this year, if you talk to our kids who played Maple City baseball, they had a good time. And we competed. We ended up .500, not that winning is our ultimate goal with this thing, it’s moreso development than it is anything else.”

All but two players who played for either La Porte High School’s JV or varsity teams this past season played for Maple City this summer. Upp said those two players already paid fees last year to be on another travel team this summer.

Players on the Maple City squad were Parker Hill, Nick Moser, Zane Eskridge, Matt Parrette, Carson Crass, Connor Stalbaum, Logan Schroeder, Grant Collins, Carson Stalbaum, Gavin Zolvinski, Jackson Mrozinski, Mason Schroeder, Jacob Pinkerton, Jack McGuire, and Collin Bergquist.

Maple City traveled to Fort Wayne, Western Michigan University and the University of Notre Dame, where it won a division of the tournament over the Fourth of July weekend.

In the end, Upp believes at least a good-faith effort to try and see the possible benefits of this program is justified. “In five or 10 years, if it doesn’t work, then fine, go back and do what it is you want to do,” he said. “But let’s give this a shot and see if it works and save yourself some money.”

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