Area players bond, improve with Independent travel team
A Youngstown-area Applebee’s served as an important location for the Independent Players baseball this team this summer.
The Independent Players gathered there last weekend after competing in a highly scouted tournament, and beyond “eatin’ good in the neighborhood,” they got a chance to relax and mingle.
Given the players hail from 10 schools, it provided a pretty valuable get-to-know-you session.
“I think as a team we just got to know each other off the baseball field, messed around a little bit,” said Tyler Mock, a rising senior at Burrell.
The Independent Players, a travel organization founded by Valley coach Jim Basilone, is aiming to build that kind of camaraderie while also providing potential college opportunities for its players as they compete in the Pittsburgh Prospect Baseball League and at heavily scouted tournaments such as last weekend’s Bob Cene Memorial Wood Bat Invitational Tournament in Youngstown and the Beast of the East next month in Wheeling, W.Va.
Between Basilone’s Independent Players 1 team and the Independent Players 2 squad coached by Valley assistant Justin Johnson, more than two dozen players are competing, ranging from incoming freshmen to just-graduated seniors. An under-15 team also serves as a feeder program for the two under-18 teams.
“We’re trying to get more from the Allegheny-Kiski Valley area because where we go and play, there’s a lot of colleges that come and watch us play,” Basilone said. “If I can help any kid from any high school get into college by the people I know at the colleges, I’m willing to do that. It’s all about helping kids.”
The two teams include players from Burrell, Deer Lakes, Leechburg, North Allegheny, Obama Academy, Pine-Richland, Seneca Valley, St. Joseph and Valley.
Mock joined Independent Players after competing against Basilone’s Valley teams the past two springs in Section 1-3A.
“It’s kind of weird because you want to beat some of these kids pretty badly (because) you’re rivals in high school and stuff like that,” said Mock, who recently visited Washington & Jefferson, an opportunity Basilone helped set up. “And then to come in and try to play together, really you might not have wanted to play with them at all and then you meet them and it’s like, ‘Oh, all right, these kids are good. They’re cool kids.’
“It’s a good experience, I think, and I think it’s a good way to get better and make everybody else better.”
And, as Basilone and Johnson said, that’s the purpose of the organization, more than winning the Prospect League or the tournaments in which the teams compete.
“The kids are doing really well,” Johnson said. “Every single one of them hustles. Every single one of them tries, and really that’s all I’m looking for in this team. The first thing I told these kids at the beginning is there is no trophy at the end of this. This is all about honing your skills, focusing on you and making you guys better players. Every single one of them has taken it to heart.”
After a slow start to the season as the teams developed on-field chemistry — “The league starts so early that a lot of (high school) teams are in the playoffs, so you don’t get everybody and you take your lumps in the beginning,” Basilone said — they’re finding their footing. The Independent Players 1 team advanced to the quarterfinals of last weekend’s Cene tournament.
“I loved it,” said Cayden Quinn, a rising sophomore at Valley and member of Independent Players 1. “The fields were perfect. It was just a good atmosphere. We should have a lot of confidence rolling into this week playing and the rest of this summer.
“I think I can improve because there’s really good pitching we play against. Hitting, I can improve, and if I pitch, I pitch against really good hitters. So all my skills are improved for next year.”
After the Prospect League playoffs next month, Basilone will reform the Independent Players in the fall for players on his Valley team and others who don’t play for their high school teams.
“I think summer baseball is the best time to get better,” Mock said. “(I can) work on my craft for the spring season. I think it’s the best time for colleges to come see you play and talk to as many colleges as you can because they’re not playing. So I think summer baseball is just as important, if not more important, than high school baseball.”