Evan, if we could just jump right in. Tell me the story of how you fell in love with the game of baseball.
Yeah, so I think just like a lot of players going out backyard and playing catch with my dad and just having that father son time and just loving to be outside competing. And my dad was a big baseball fan and he didn’t really play himself, but he loved the game and I think that he wanted to pass that love of the game along to me. And just going out back after dinner, playing catch, we played a game like ground balls, you move up to aa, AA major, and I just fell in love with that and the ability to then go out and play with my friends and going out there in little league and back then a long time ago and playing Little League Baseball and then kind of evolved into the travel ball stuff and the comradery with other players. The time in the car with my parents, I think it just is just something that brought people together and I think that that was something that really resonated with me and something that drew it to me is that, hey, we can share this with each other. Talk about it. Discussions about Major League Baseball. I grew up in Vancouver, Canada, which is very close to Seattle, so I spent a lot of time following the Mariners back in the nineties when they had Griffey a Rod and Randy Johnson and my dad taking me down to the kingdom. Back then, those were my childhood memories and this game has just been a big part of my life and I can’t imagine my life without it.
You got to see my favorite player, Jay Buhner play a lot then, huh?
The Bone that my
Guy, man, that was my guy. Big fan. Big fan. Absolutely.
So you talk about the relationship part of it, the rides in the car, and that time that you got to spend with family, with teammates. I think a lot of time in the travel ball world, it’s something that doesn’t get talked about enough and that yes, your goal is to play college baseball to move on to the next level, professional baseball, whatever that might be, but living in the moment. So tell me a little bit about within your program, within the Sticks program, do you guys make that an important part of what you guys are doing, that comradery that time together?
Yeah, I mean it’s about building a brotherhood and allowing these players to know that with our staff, that they can come to us with anything like, Hey, it doesn’t have to be baseball. We’re all in this together. We’ve been through it. There’s school stuff that goes on stuff at home stuff. Girls is a big one. All of that kind of stuff that young baseball players, whether it be at the youth age group or at the high school level, they’re growing up and we need to build well-rounded people. And I think that that’s what we stand for in our organization is that, hey, there’s going to be situations in life that are not always the greatest and let’s figure it out. Let’s give each other the tools to be able to overcome those things so that we can be successful adults one day. And I think that that’s kind of our whole thing is building well-rounded people so that they know how to compete in the world. And I think that that gets lost a lot with maybe education these days that hey, when you get to the real world, you’re going to be competing with everybody for jobs. And if you don’t know how to compete and you don’t know how to talk to people properly and present yourself properly, it’s a lot harder to compete in the real world. So I think we use baseball to build those real world tools that hey, we can go out there and be successful just on baseball, but basically successful in life.
Awesome. Tell me the history of the Iowa sticks, how long you guys been around for, how did it start and then where are you today? What does it look like? What does the program look like today?
Yeah, so the Iowa Sticks started as a youth program back in 2007 with Pat Ssni, who’s one of our owners. He obviously had kids that age and had come into our first building, sportsplex West, and it was a soccer building that Pat Ssni and then our other owner, Mike Mahoney came into and Mike was playing with the Cardinals at the time and made the investment in the building and was like, Hey, what do we got to do with this to be able to make this building work? And so they came up with Sticks as a travel baseball program and it started as youth and it went really well. And I think it went from the first year I had three teams to the next year I had nine teams and it just kept kind of snowballing. I came to Sportsplex West Iowa sticks in 2011, and that’s when we started the high school program.
So at that point they’d been rolling since 2007. Now those players were kind of aging out at 14 and we’re like, well, they were kind like, what do we do next? What happens in high school baseball? And we’re like, when I came and I came from travel baseball and understood it all you play in Canada. And I was just like, well, we can just do this travel and we can go to these tournaments, the perfect games, the PBRs, and give these kids exposure that they weren’t getting here in Iowa. So in 2011, Iowa was averaging I think maybe three D one players a year. Now we’re averaging the state overall, I think is averaging over 20 players a year. So that drastically increased when we started that travel ball circuit going to some of these tournaments in different states. So 2011 is when we started the high school program, started with two teams, then the next year it was six teams, and by year three we were at 18 teams.
So it was a quick process of picking up in the size of the program. And today we roughly average about 28 high school teams. Each fall we have about 12 to 14 spring league teams at the high school level. And then our youth program has got another 28 teams at the youth level. And then we also go down into, we want to have a full well-rounded program. So we go down into T-Ball and Coach pitch, and we’ve got about 200 players in our coach pitch and T-ball program. So we’re roughly about 650 players overall in our program. And it’s just really about building the atmosphere of, hey, this is a fun learning environment and giving the kids the best experience because I think when it comes down to everything that we do is creating these experiences for memories and players are going to remember the things that you did as a child, and we want to be a big part of that memory.
Hey, I played for the Iowa Sticks and hey, that’s the same organization that Carter Baumler played for, or some of the players that go on to do big things for us. I think that’s what we really wanted to accomplish as we really got into the high school stuff is, okay, let’s build a cradle to when they’re done. Our college guys come back and work out every off season. It’s great having them in the building. It’s just well-rounded and being good communicators and being realistic with players. Everybody is a division one baseball player. It’s actually probably the smallest percentage of baseball players are the D one baseball players. So we really take pride in catering to, Hey, you know what? There’s great experiences. There’s D two baseball, D three baseball and AI junior college myself, I never played division one baseball. I played division two, but I had a great experience and I was able to play a little bit beyond that and everybody develops a different race and we got players that are at 14 that, hey, there’s a long road ahead of them, but we’ve had great success stories.
So we’ve had a player at 14, Andrew Zimmerman was on our AA low level team and couldn’t feel the ground ball. He went on to South Dakota State, Anthony Watts, who’s the Sunday starter for Creighton right now when he was 14, I mean, I think that was going to be his last year of baseball, but he kept working and he loved the game and he put in the work over those four years and he went from not being the greatest baseball player in the world to Sunday starter at a good division one school. So those are the stories that really we take pride in that hey, these guys, we gave them the tools, we gave them the opportunities to be able to go and have great experiences. And I think that’s what it comes down to is creating the best experiences for the kids possible.
Yeah, I love it. And that’s an awesome story, and I think it’s really cool to hear when people do things, how much growth that they can have. And it’s not necessarily that you sought out to all of a sudden have this huge expansion, but you do things right. You do right by parents, do right by players, and you’re able to experience that huge growth in such a short period of time, which is really cool. I’ve got two questions for you that I think are really interesting and I’ve been looking forward to asking you. One, when we talk about travel baseball specifically, a lot of people’s mind goes to what the summer showcase circuit. And in Iowa, you guys are playing high school baseball during that time, right?
So one, I ask a lot of programs, what sets you apart? What makes you different? Here’s a really easy one. How do you guys manage that? What does it look like if I’m a high school baseball player in Iowa and am missing out on some of the major summer showcase circuits? You mentioned a spring league, your fall teams. How do you guys do it?
Yeah, so they play, the high school season is from about the end of May to the end of July. So we kind of miss out on that entire summer circuit of all the big tournaments out there, kind as playoff start teams start getting bounced around mid July, and we do pick up a couple of those tournaments at the end of July with some players that have been bounced out of the high school tournament. But the fall has kind always been the biggest thing that we do is our fall teams and being able to give the players the same experiences that the rest of the country do during the summer circuit and creating the fall circuit. There’s a lot of big tournaments out there during the fall, but not as many as there is in the summer. So we’ve done a lot of cool things like creating college days.
We’ll go to University of Iowa every year and work with their coaches and have our players interact with them and it’s good exposure. We do the same thing at Creighton Nebraska and then being able to host some of our own events and bring in some of our partners like Nebraska prospects. We’ve had tons of good battles with them over the years and everything that they’ve done with Raleigh and Darren and those guys and creating our own Midwest circuit with some different organizations, three Ts is another one that we can compete against and play against. And so it’s just being able to replicate what everybody else is getting during the summer and communicating with the college coaches is probably the biggest one, is like, Hey, we run an unsigned senior showcase at the end of every fall. And this year I think we had, at that time, I think we had 30 unsigned seniors and we had 40 college coaches show up, so there were more college coaches than players. So just doing the legwork of communicating with the college coaches and getting these kids the exposure they need to go along with the heart of our programs, which is the development and giving the players the tools to be able to go on and play at college.
You guys more than anybody, really have to think outside the box when it comes to recruiting and player placement. And it’s really neat to see the success stories that you guys have and how you do things. And one of those out of the box ideas is this thing that I mentioned at the top of the interview here is you’re the president of something called Specs National. So would you mind explaining what that is and what purpose it serves?
Yeah, so Specs National is what we consider to be our top end and a couple other programs top end. So Raleigh Kenny, the director of Nebraska Prospects, had this idea about four years back of, hey, the Arkansas prospects who are also part of it have the Jupiter bid. And a lot of their guys were playing football and they didn’t really think that they would have all of their dudes to really go to Jupiter and compete. So Andy Menard, the Arkansas Prospect director, had worked with Raleigh a lot over the years, was like, Hey, Raleigh, why don’t you send me some of your guys? And Raleigh’s like, yeah, the sticks have a lot of good guys too. Why don’t we get them involved and kind of create this kind of super team. And so I believe that was back in 2019 was the first year that we put just one team together for Jupiter, and it went really well.
I think we went three in one, just missed bracket play, but it was a great experience and the kids really jelled really well together and they thought it was the coolest thing that it was all D one commits and now all of a sudden each organization probably had four or five D one commits and well now you throw them together, they think it’s the coolest thing ever with 15, 16 guys, Hey, where are you going to school? We’re going to play against you. We’re in the same conference, all that brotherhood that goes into it. So the next year we brought on Minnesota Iceman and Gators Baseball Academy and out of St. Louis, and after that we brought on Prime out of Kansas City. So we got a really nice network of clubs that feed our national program, which is Specs National. So we’re drawing from St.
Louis, Kansas City, Omaha, Des Moines, pretty much all of Iowa with our different locations, Minneapolis with the Minnesota Iceman, and we’ve also got the Duluth or the Encompass Expos out of Duluth. So really good, really good programs that do really, really well regionally. And when you put us together now we can be a national program and go and compete. And I think back there in 2021, when we went to Jupiter, we finished six overall, which that’s a big thing for a second or third year program to have that sort of success at that tournament. So now we’re doing four tournaments a year, specs National, combining our guys and giving the experiences and then doing College Showcase campus together. And college coaches love it. Hey, I can bring the best guys from Omaha, Des Moines, Kansas City, St. Louis, all to one location. They’re like, all right, yeah, come on over. So
Being able to create that experience for kids, and there’s a trickle down effect because hey, I might have some guys that might want to go south and play down in Arkansas, and I call Handy up and say, Hey, I got a division three player that really wants to go south playing some more weather. Boom, we can make that connection. So our college coaches network has really grown. I think everybody’s got the connections with the Power five schools if you’re a big club, but then everybody’s got their regional schools for division two, division three. So with the specs national, it kind of expands the selection for all of the players that are in those clubs because it’s very easy to just call Seth down at GBA or Jared in Kansas City and then, oh yeah, I’ve got 10 junior colleges here and this player would really fit in there. So the connections that it makes and the overall reach that we have with Specs National has been really cool to see it grow. And we’ve got some big things planned for the future too. And I think as we keep growing that brand, I think it’s got some real legs nationally.
Yeah. Awesome. I love the idea. So let’s transition back to the Sticks program. Obviously you guys run a very professional outfit, been really impressed, obviously getting to know you over the last six months or so. And then obviously you guys joined the Diamond Allegiance. Who are some other guys on staff, whether it’s coaches ownership, that are really important to the Iowa Sticks program and the role and what are the roles that they play?
Yeah, so right off the top of the head, Jason Pearson, who pitched in the big leagues with the Padres and Cardinals, he’s beaten here longer than us or longer than me, sorry. And he’s our youth director and handles all of our players up to the age of 12. And to me, he is one of the best pitching coaches in the country. The stuff that he’s able to pick out on pitchers and make the adjustments. All of our top guys over the years have worked with Jason from Carter and Trevor Baumler, Justin Hackett, Jackson Wentworth, Anthony Watts, a lot of these big D one arms. I mean, they go through Jason and Jason’s just, he’s unbelievable at running the youth program, and he’s just such a good pitching coach that we always joke that we should have been called the Iowa Arms versus the Iowa Sticks because we always tend to have great pitching, and that really attributes to the top.
And Jason, what he does, JC Baxley is our head of player development and the time and effort that he puts in and research to make sure that we have state-of-the-art training. We’re following the trends like, Hey, this works, this doesn’t, and doing the actual research and being to implement it. I mean, he’s just awesome at that. And then of course, joining the diamond here and the Curve app, I mean, he’s in Candy Land now that he can send these kids home and the work continues and they can have access to JC Nonstop and his drills, and then all the other great coaches that are on the app. I think it’ll just allow JC to take that player development even further. Then we got Zach McCool, who has been around this game a long time. He was a Hawkeye big all Big 10 guy. He does just this fantastic job of game day coaching.
He runs our apparel. He just really caress for the kids and makes sure that, Hey, we got to make sure that everybody gets the same experience. And that’s something that we really stand for. It doesn’t matter if you’re a division one prospect or just fighting to get on jv, we’re going to give you the same tools to train and succeed at the highest level. So those three guys run the day-to-Day. We’ve got other guys like Taylor Zin Horse, Carter Ridge, Nolan Fredericks, we call him Weird Brain. He does most of our rosters. He can remember all 650 kids and tell you what they ate for breakfast. That’s Nolan.
Nolan is a big part of our program. And then it goes up to our ownership with, as I mentioned, pat Yassic, Mike Mahoney and Jake Chandry. They give us the tools and the resources that we need to succeed, and they worked really hard to get our new Norwalk complex built, and now we have our own turf fields, and it’s really going to help our players being able to get on turf fields, rain or shine early in the spring, late in the fall, and then have the indoor right there that we can go in and out from the indoor when the weather kind of starts to turn. So hats off to those guys and with the support that they’ve given the Iowa sticks over the years has just been tremendous.
Absolutely. So you’ve been doing this travel ball thing for a while now, right? Yep. We learn things as we get into things and we mature. So if there is one piece of advice that you could give yourself when you first started in travel ball that you’ve learned through the years, what would it be?
That it’s a drawn out process. You can’t expect everything to happen as snap of the fingers. I think the more you plan and the more you let kind of things marinate, I think the more success that you have. I think guys are always kind of quick to want to change things and it’s like, okay, well, are we just changing to change or are we changing to get better? And I think that the piece of advice I can say is really think through what you want your program to be and where it’s going, and then being able to adjust on the fly. But I think if you’re just going through the motions and don’t have a true plan, I think that if you’re not evolving, you’re going to get eaten up pretty quick. So I think being able to really think out change would be my biggest piece of advice.
Love it. Really good one. So you guys obviously started in oh seven, so my calculations, that would be what, 20 my math pad right now?
16 years. 16 years. Yep
16 years. So we’ve had essentially three five year iterations of the Iowa six. So in the fourth five years. So five years from now, where do you see yourself and what are your guys’ plans?
That’s a great question. I think it starts off with number one, making sure that the Iowa sticks are still giving their players the best tools for development. And we don’t lose sight of that. Hey, we are here to develop players and create good people. As far as where we go, I think that our high school program will continue to develop, and there are a lot of talks about high school baseball switching to the spring here.
So if that did happen, me crossing your fingers
Crossing my fingers, Iowa, hopefully you’ll see the Iowa sticks out on the summer circuit because I think that that would help out the players in Iowa tremendously. I mean, they do lose out on quite a bit not being on the summer circuit. And I think that that gets lost in the rest of the country is like, Hey, where’s all the Iowa guys? Well, they’re playing their high school season during the summer. So I think that that’s, hopefully that happens. But I mean, just spreading the game throughout the state. We’ve got Dubuque location, Iowa City location, our location here in Waukee, which is a Des Moines suburb, and then the new location down in Norwalk. And being able to just give more players, more opportunities to develop is kind of our goal and just grow the game of baseball.
Love it. Well, another cool thing, and I’d love, I know this isn’t necessarily baseball related, but your guys’ business is really unique and it’s something that’s really cool. So let’s spend a couple minutes talking about Grow the game of baseball, but what else are you guys doing for youth sports in the state of Iowa?
Yeah, so I mean, our company’s pretty dynamic across the board. You probably see a couple of the jerseys behind me. We’ve got our Iowa Battlers program, our Iowa Power Plex program, Iowa Power Plex is a volleyball program that we run close to 600 girls in that program ranked nationally. Just an unbelievable volleyball program ran by Tina and Chrissy, our directors of the volleyball program. They just do a tremendous job, keep growing the game of volleyball and our courts business. And then our Iowa Battlers, their seventh grade girls team has won the national championship the last two years. I think that eight girls in seventh grade have division one offers, which just blows my mind. That doesn’t happen in baseball, but there’s eight girls I think out there that have Division one offers in seventh grade from that one team. So Glenn Phillips is our basketball director and he does a tremendous job of our basketball program and getting the boys and girls in that program opportunities to play out of state and compete at the national level.
He’s done a great job of that. And then we have our leagues and tournaments business, Blake Marchin and Mike Bowell and Kai run that for us. And they do a tremendous job of, we work with PBR on some tournaments, we work with U Triples A, we’re open to working with anybody and just being able to produce the best tournaments and leagues out there. We run the Open Baseball League of West Des Moines for the city of West Des Moines. So we do a lot of partnerships with cities on their fields and being able to run leagues for them, get tournaments booked out for them. That’s a big part of us, and that’s kind of our sports managed solutions company that does a lot of consulting on facilities. How do you make facilities work? How do you make indoor facilities work? Because it’s hard to make an indoor facility work with just one sport.
If you want to go get into 40, 50,000 square feet, you’re going to need to be a bit dynamic across the board. And then of course, we have softball program to go along with the baseball. So our Barracuda ACEs program led by Nick McCool and Aaron and Katie Jackson, they do a great job of that and growing the softball game. And we do a lot of different other avenues too with, we’ve got AD one sports franchise inside of our walkie location, and they provide all of our speed training, strength training. So our players are getting the best of that world too, because what we want to do is we want to be a one-stop shop. Like, Hey, you can come here, you can get your physical therapy on site, you can get your strength and speed training, you get your baseball training done. If you play basketball, you can hop across the street, you can go over to our courts building or play volleyball.
We truly believe in the multi-sport athlete and giving all players an opportunity to excel in the sport that they love. So I think that going across different sports, which is not typical for the travel baseball world, we can pick things out of, oh, hey, they did this thing at this volleyball tournament. Why don’t we try that in baseball? So taking things from different sports, and a lot of our volleyball training came from our baseball training like, Hey, we have a middle infield class. Why don’t we do a spiking class or a serving class? Hey, we’ve got a bat speed program. Why don’t we do a velocity volleyball program? So just taking things from different sports and putting them into a different sports and sharing the training methods has, I think been a big key to our success across the board and all the different avenues that we’re in.
Yeah, it’s a really, really interesting business model. Obviously. First of all, you get so stuck in your own lane in your own sport, and you hear something like that. And I think one thing that even one of our advisory board members Eric Package says is even at the youth level, it’d be really cool if travel organizations did several sports and you could be on that same team, but you could go play basketball during the spring and then go play baseball during the summer and then go play black football during the fall before you get to that age where you do need to start to specialize as you get older. But you guys have that, right, which is pretty cool, right? It’s pretty cool.
Yeah, there’s a lot of battlers slash sticks players
Out there. Yeah
Exactly. Which is really cool because at the end of the day, that full sport athlete teaching those movement patterns, all those things are really, really important to whatever sport it is that you end up specializing in as you get older. But really cool that you guys have that programming. I’ve got two more for you. This one’s always one of my favorite ones. Again, you’ve been in this travel baseball world a long time, you’re doing really cool stuff, not only with the Sticks program and everything that you guys are doing at your different facilities, but with Specs National, you’ve got this really cool hat on where you kind see a lot of different things. So if you were that commissioner of travel baseball and you were in charge of everything, what’s the one thing that you would do differently? What’s one initiative that you would have and one thing you would change?
I think the continuity of it, of you don’t have to be enemies. You can work together. You can be like, we can play the scorpions and we can have a great conversation and share our training methods and Oh, hey, I heard there’s a really good tournament up the road in a month’s time. You guys should check it out. And just being more of a brotherhood and supporting, I think sometimes it gets so caught up in the wins and losses, which at end of the day, I couldn’t tell you what our record was four years ago.
So I don’t think that the competitive side shouldn’t spill off the field. I think sometimes that you kind of see that in some regions that, oh, I don’t want to talk to that guy. We’re all in this together. We’re here to better the game of baseball. So I really feel that building the continuity amongst these programs, and this part of the reason why we joined Diamond is it’s like-minded clubs that want to grow the game and do what’s best for the players and do what’s best for the game. And that’s why we love diamonds so much. And why we wanted to jump on board was like-minded clubs that want to bounce ideas off each other and keep growing the game.