For a local traveling baseball program that started with just one team back in 2014, the Kewanee A’s have seen a tremendous amount of growth over its half-decade of existence.
This year the A’s have a total of seven teams, ranging from 8U up through 13U.
“It’s been pretty insane. We started it with the intent for an outlet to more competitive baseball,” said A’s vice president and 11U coach Nick Welgat. “Jon (Hornback) first proposed the idea to start all of this and it snowballed from there.”
Hornback had been coaching in tee ball and coach pitch and wanted to find an opportunity to see how the kids would do against teams around the area, and that’s when the Kewanee A’s were born.
“It’s really cool the way this has developed,” said Hornback, who serves as the organization’s president, as well as a 10U and 12U coach. “To see the amount of kids in Kewanee that want to play baseball and to see the growth and success they’ve had is awesome.”
The growth of the organization since its inception in 2014 has been bigger than what Welgat and Hornback expected, and next season, the A’s potentially could enter the 14U ranks.
“I don’t think we ever foresaw it getting this big,” stated Welgat.
“We didn’t expect it to get this big this soon,” Hornback said.
The travel baseball season runs from March through early July, with a majority of the games and tournaments held between mid-April and Independence Day. This season saw the A’s compile an orginization-wide win-loss record of 149-119-3, including the 10U blue and 11U teams each winning 30 games.
“It’s very competitive in the travel baseball world. Anytime you can get to 30 wins in a travel baseball season, that’s a pretty big number to hit,” Welgat stated.
Named after Kewanee’s former minor league baseball team, the A’s compete in tournaments ranging from Jacksonville to Chicago to the Quad Cities, and even in the Wisconsin Dells. The BettPlex complex in Bettendorf and the Louisville Slugger Complex in Peoria host numerous tournaments and are two of the better complexes around, according to Welgat.
“Lucky for us, the BettPlex and Louisville Slugger complex are two of the top complexes in the Midwest and are both within an hour of Kewanee,” he said. “So a lot of the teams from Chicago and St. Louis actually come closer to us for a lot of these tournaments.”
Last season, the board of directors decided to implement a pitch count rule across all levels of the organization. After talking with area high school coaches, Hornback’s biggest takeaway is that there’s not enough pitching depth at the high school level.
“I talked to local coaches and the biggest thing is pitching. They lack arms and don’t have enough pitchers for two to three days in a row,” he said. “So we decided, as a board, to implement the pitch count. Now the teams have numerous pitchers and they’re learning to pitch.”
The aforementioned pitch count rule was adopted on par with the Illinois Elementary School Association pitch count regulations. If a kid throws between 66 and 90 pitches, he is ineligible to pitch for four full days. If a player throws between 51 and 65 pitches, three days of rest is required and it declines from there.
“It’s gonna protect the young arms so they don’t get overused,” added Welgat. “Looking at the statistics, arm injuries and Tommy John surgeries for children under 18 is up dramatically over the last 10 years.”
The overall goal of the program is to eventually help the area high school baseball programs see improvement, with an estimated 95 percent of the players in the A’s organization from the tri-county area, and a majority of them from Kewanee.
“We decided we wanted to form our travel organization to help make more competitive baseball for both school districts in town,” Welgat said.
With the original A’s 8U team having just completed its time in the 12U division, it will only be a matter of time before A’s start becoming Boilermakers and Titans.