There are many baseball clubs that claim to be baseball programs. Some can make that claim, while others might be just a "travel" team that plays games, but really doesn't have any structure or emphasis on player development. As the summer gets started, and high school sports come to an close, the summer baseball season heats up. In the Cleveland area, there are many baseball programs, ones that focus on player development, that seem to be churning out better players year after year.
In the first of what will be features on each of the top programs in the area, we will start with one program that while still quite young, has more than proven their worth with not only developing baseball players, but developing young men. The Solon Stampede
The Solon Stampede was re-started in 2006 by Solon resident Brett McCann. Though fresh out of high school, McCann had a vision about how to develop baseball players:
I wanted to start a program that would develop kids at a young age, with the goal of getting them prepared to play varsity high school baseball....Brett McCann, Solon Stampede
That just so happens to be what the Solon Stampede mission statement is all about. It was also, maybe just by coincidence, that Brett's younger brother Ryan was eight years old at the time, and the opportunity to coach him may have been pulling at him.
The development process has to start at that age. The quicker you can teach them HOW to play, the quicker they will develop. In this generation, starting at 10 or 11 years old already puts them a couple years behind.... Brett McCann, Solon Stampede
What makes the Solon Stampede different from other baseball programs around the Cleveland area is that they only draw kids from Solon and the Solon school district, compared to other programs that can recruit kids from anywhere and everywhere.
With our goal of getting kids ready to play varsity baseball, we thought it was only right to keep just Solon kids. We wanted the teams to build relationships, be close-knit, and create a family type atmosphere.... Brett McCann
What started out as one team that drew from a couple of other teams in Solon that were dissolving has turned into one of the better baseball programs in the Cleveland area, now in its third year of being a full fledged baseball organization. Teams range from 8U to 15U, with some teams playing in both leagues and tournaments, while others are tournament only, with the decision being made by which option will give them the best competition. Before we get into the "meat and potatoes" of the program, it is important to know that Solon Stampede puts just as much emphasis on developing young men as it does developing players.
Ed Bubonics, head coach of both the 9U and 13U teams, whose sons Joe (15U), Sammy (13U), and Charlie (9U) all play in the Stampede program, gives the philosophy on why this plays such an important role:
We really emphasize the balance of being good players and being good people. We try to expose them to things that are going to be important in their lives at an early age, so they will know they are important as they grow older.... Ed Bubonics, Solon Stampede
Examples of this "balance" with off the baseball field activities include:
Littlest Heroes Charity Tournament.... All Stampede teams play in this tournament every year, with the proceeds going to the funding of cancer research. Stampede also then donates money above and beyond the normal proceeds of the tournament. They were recently a part of a fundraiser at Classic Park in Eastlake where some Stampede team members went as far as shaving their own heads to raise money
Solon Food Drive.... As the Stampede program has grown, so has its annual food drive for the needy. When the food drive first started, it covered only one housing development in Solon. It now covers the vast majority of the city. The best part? The players themselves are the ones that have become "engaged" in this event and in the process. Here is how it works: During the winter, Stampede players go door to door handing out flyers promoting the food drive. The flyer tells people to put canned food or other boxed food and items in a bag on their curbside at a certain date and time. The players (yes, the players) pick up those bags and take them to Solon's Church of the Resurrection, where it is given out to needy families through the use of the church's free food pantry. Come the winter, it will be their 10th year of the food drive. This year, they are hoping to provide food for over 200 families in the Solon area.
Solon Stampede Golf Outing.... Rolling into its third year this summer,the Solon Stampede Golf Outing also involves the whole program. Every team can contribute through donations, hole sponsorship, or raffle. Proceeds from the outing go towards the funding of the 12U team trip to Cooperstown, New York and its "Field of Dreams" tournament. It's a matter of the other Stampede teams helping another Stampede team.
Speaking of Cooperstown....
The Cooperstown Field of Dreams tournament is simply the best 12U tournament in the country. For nine straight weeks of the summer, 104 different teams from all over the country go each week to the home of Major League Baseball's Hall of Fame. The teams play six round robin games during the week, followed by a single elimination tournament. It's baseball nirvana for any 12 year old. It even impresses some of the coaches too:
It's Disneyland for baseball. I was in awe the first time I went. It's an amazing experience. It's sportsmanship at its finest. On a personal note, we want each of our players to at least have one "moment" while they are there.... Ed Bubonics, Solon Stampede
About those "moments".... Mission Accomplished. Just last year at Cooperstown, two Stampede players had moments they will never forget. Nolan McNamara hit for the home run cycle (solo HR, 2-run HR, 3-run HR and grand slam HR), in a game where he had 10 RBI. Jimmy Casamento was down to his final strike in a game where Stampede was trailing, only to hit a walk-off grand slam. Can you imagine having a moment like that? Now imagine having it on the biggest stage of youth baseball.
The best part of Stampede going to Cooperstown? The fact that they have achieved "grandfather" status to the event. What that means is while teams from all over the country apply and try and get in the tournament every year, and get denied, Stampede has an invitation every year. THAT is quite a perk.
One of the areas that the Stampede programs really excels in, is adapting the players to the rule changes that occur as they move into older age groups. One of the biggest adjustments comes between 8U coach pitch, and 9U kid pitch:
It's a huge adjustment. Kids are used to seeing their coach lob the ball to a place where they can hit it. Now with the kids pitching, the biggest thing to tell them is not to be afraid of the ball.... Ed Bubonics, Solon Stampede
How are these 9U players adjusting to kid pitch? They are undefeated in their league so far.
How is the Stampede program able to get these kids to be so successful so quickly? It's all in the way they teach the game. A concept called Process Based Learning
The "process" is teaching kids how to PLAY, not how to WIN. Stressing pitching and defense, having solid fundamentals, moving runners, having a "do your job" type mentality, and buying into a team concept. Buying into the process will eventually LEAD to winning.
I would almost rather see a player fail from time to time trying to do the right things than get lucky and succeeding doing something the wrong way. Follow the process, and the winning will come.... Brett McCann, Solon Stampede
You see, once the players have bought into the process, you can give them more knowledge, like the mental aspect of the game:
We started teaching a mental approach to the game to our older groups, and got such a good response and buy-in, that we are now doing it with some of our younger groups.... Brett McCann, Solon Stampede
What better way to test this theory than to play against the best competition possible. One of the ways the Stampede program does this, in addition to its already loaded tournament schedule, is to try and find teams outside the Cleveland area to play against. Last weekend was the 2nd annual Solon-Olentangy Showdown. It is a partnership with the city of Olentangy and its youth baseball program, which just so happens to be one of the best programs in the state. Each Stampede team will play between 2-4 games against the Olentangy team, or teams, from that same age group. The venues change each season, giving the kids and players a great bonding experience with an out of town trip.
Has it worked? Well, the 12U team won its first tournament of the year, outscoring their opponents 55-4 along the way. The 12U tournament win this season just adds to the LOADS of tournament wins and finals appearances since the program re-started in 2006. Among those wins is a STATE CHAMPIONSHIP by the 13U team in 2012. They may be on to something here
Which takes us back to the original team formed back in 2006. These players now make up the bulk of the 15U team this summer. What a summer they are going to have. Coached by Brett McCann, the team will play tournaments in Ann Arbor, Michigan, South Bend, Indiana, and Wheeling, West Virginia. They started their season last weekend with a runner up finish in the 16U Division of the GLBL Memorial Day Tournament. Matter of fact, most tournaments they will play in this summer will be in the 16U age group. Why?
We always like to be a year ahead. We don't want to give the kids that they SAW during their school season, we want to give them what they are GOING to see next school season.... Brett McCann, Solon Stampede
These kids will certainly be tested. Along with the already challenging tournament schedule, the 15U group will play independent games against other Cleveland area powerhouse programs. Three games against the highly competitive Midwest Pelicans, and games against Captains Baseball Academy, and Lake Erie Storm should more than test these kids.
Playing against great competition year after year will certainly make players better, and the proof is in the 15U roster. As freshmen and sophomores, Stampede had six varsity starters for Solon this spring. Not six players, six STARTERS. They had one JV player, and four players on the Solon freshmen team. The proof for what the Stampede is doing is in the pudding
Eight years in the program for these kids. That is numerous Littlest Heroes Tournaments, eight food drives, and going on 3 golf outings. Throw in a trip to Cooperstown, and these kids seem pretty well rounded to me.
Solon Stampede has done EXACTLY what they have set out to do from Day One. This original group of kids have turned out not only to be great players, but also great young men.
That is why the Solon Stampede is one of the best and most respected programs in the Cleveland area.