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Posted by Guest (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 4/21/2013 5:25:56 PM

By Brian Jerzak
John’s Journal correspondent

Every successful high school program starts at the beginning. In the big picture, programs are no better than their foundation. A program with a weak foundation can hold up for a few good seasons, but long-term success can only come from a consistent flow of athletes to replace those who graduate. Most baseball programs have in-house and traveling teams that feed the junior varsity and varsity programs to keep them going strong.

The relationship between the youth programs and the varsity is critical to sustaining success over the long term. Recently, I went indoors to see how the defending state champion Eastview Lightning baseball coaching staff helps bridge the gap between youth and varsity.

Tom Strey has been the head coach at Eastview since nearly the beginning (the school opened in 1997) and has slowly built the Lightning into one of the stronger programs – top to bottom – in the state. Everyone’s hard work, from Strey on down, culminated in the school’s first baseball state championship last season. Part of the journey to the top started at the roots. One of the first challenges was connecting the youth program – which is run independently from the high school program – with the varsity.

“It was a slow process,” said Strey. “We try to get those two groups together at certain times during the year. The best way to do that is to do clinics.”

Strey knows a solid youth program is a big part of a successful program. (These photos are from last year's state championship game at Target Field.)

“It is very important,” said the former Apple Valley assistant. “We want our kids to be involved and to be successful. I think for a high school program it is important to have quality programs and a number of good teams that are progressing toward the varsity level. On the other hand, obviously not everyone in our youth program is going to be on the varsity team, but my goal is that kids have a good experience at the younger levels. Hopefully then they will continue to play and enjoy the game. Some will find other interests and do other things, but hopefully we can develop a core group once they get to the varsity level.”

The camp I was able to watch was for elementary kids. Due to the weather the coaching staff made use of a variety of rooms in the school. The gym, a small indoor running track and the wrestling room, complete with mats still down, were just a few of the areas the coaches were able to use to their advantage. Many of the camp’s coaches were current athletes on the varsity team.

“It benefits both programs,” said Strey. “The youth get to see the high school kids and see what they are all about. Even at a young age a lot of kids already have those kinds of goals and look up to those kids. Then it benefits our high school kids as well. They came up through the youth program so it is nice to give them a chance to give back a little bit.”

The high school kids and the youth seem to enjoy working together.

“Our kids really like baseball,” said Strey. “They really enjoy baseball and have a passion for it. I think that rubs off on the kids. It is a fun game to play and that enthusiasm rubs off on the other kids. Hopefully they enjoy their time with the older kids. It gives our high school kids an appreciation of the Eastview baseball program as a whole. It is important for kids that age to get that appreciation that they are a part of something bigger than themselves, that this is not just their team; it encompasses all of Eastview baseball. We want them to get that sense that they are part of something bigger than themselves.”

Strey stresses the importance of the kids having fun first and developing skills later.

“Our goal is they learn a little something. They have some fun. It is important, especially for the little kids, to get a little bit of instruction, have a little fun with it and keep progressing.”

The high school staff meets with the youth coaches occasionally. They give out suggestions and different ways to teach technique, but Strey doesn’t worry about kids coming up through the program who may have learned things a little bit differently than how the varsity coaches teach things. In fact, he kind of prefers it that way.

“I am a firm believer that you just can’t make cookie cutter models out of all the kids,” concluded Strey. “Even at the high school level we don’t try to teach everybody to hit the same way or to field the same way. There are some fundamental things that need to occur for them to be successful and for them to progress, but I don’t worry about it. I don’t want everybody to be the same.”

Teaching skills, having some fun and connecting young kids with veterans while avoiding cookie cutter baseball players – a combination that has helped Eastview High School build a state champion.


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