By: Ryan Zimmerman
After joining the Midwest Collegiate League last season, the Crestwood Panthers look to improve upon their performance in 2018. As the oldest summer baseball team in the Chicagoland area, the Panthers will look to add to their already rich history by claiming an MCL title.
Isaac Valdez will take over this season as the manager of the Panthers. He worked previously as the Director of Player Development for White Sox Amateur Sports and since 2010 operates Around the Horn Baseball/Fastpitch Academy. Valdez enters his first season in Crestwood with a vast knowledge of the game and many years of experience in player development, which will help him manage a roster mostly comprised of young collegiates. Despite the young average age of the team, Valdez expects them to be competitive and challenge for the MCL title at season’s end.
“Regardless of age and experience, I think we have a lot of top-level talent on this team,” Valdez said. “I could not be happier with the team’s level of talent. We’ve got a lot of great players from winning programs who aren’t afraid to work hard. These kids are hungry and I know they’re really excited to play. I’m looking forward to a fun summer with them.”
While the players on the team play on competitive programs ranging from Division I to Junior College, the two that stand out the most to Valdez are catcher Blake Soria and pitcher J.P. Massey.
“Having these two guys on the team is a testament to how much talent we have on this roster,” said Valdez. “J.P. is playing at a Top 15 DI program in Minnesota next season and Blake catches for a perennial national championship contender at Mesa Community College. These guys have what it takes to compete at the highest level, and I’m expecting them to step up right away and play a major role on this team.
Currently serving as the hitting coach and recruiting coordinator for nearby Harper College, Valdez’s background in junior college baseball gives him familiarity with a compacted schedule of 50 games in 63 days.
“As a junior college coach, when we play, we play doubleheaders and rarely do we ever have single games, so I am accustomed to keeping guys fresh over the course of a long season,” he said. “When it comes to our position players, I think our schedule is a blessing in disguise. We have a lot of outfielders and a lot of moving parts in the infield, as well as catchers who can play other positions. We also have two-way guys who can pitch and play in the field, so I’m looking to use players in different positions and mix up the lineup to keep everybody fresh as the season goes on.”
On the diamond, Valdez expects to play an aggressive and exciting style of baseball. His philosophy is based on taking the extra base and applying pressure on the opposing defense and pitcher.
“I want my guys to play free and easy, confident and really be aggressive on both sides of the baseball,” he said. “I want my hitters to be comfortable swinging the bat in hitters’ counts. On the basepaths, I always want my guys thinking about taking the extra base. If they’re on first base, the goal should be to meet me at third. If they’re at second base and there’s a hit, they should look to score.”
Joining Valdez in the dugout is assistant coach Rich Ruffolo. Ruffolo is the co-founder of The Future Elite Baseball Program, a highly-competitive travel team in the area. He has managed the team since its inception in 2004. Ruffolo brings with him a wealth of player development knowledge. During his time with The Future, he has accrued over 700 wins, won 11 major tournaments and developed five All-Americans. Although this MCL season will be Ruffolo’s first time working with college-aged players, Valdez is thrilled to have him on board and to see everything he brings to the table.
The Panthers will play their home games this summer at Howie Minas Field in Midlothian, Illinois. Their season begins at home against the Northwest Indiana Oilmen on Monday, May 28 at 7 p.m.
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