By Chet Greason
The International Canadian Academy of Sports Excellence (iCASE) has wrapped up their inaugural year, and organizers report the initiative has been a resounding success.
The idea behind iCASE is to mesh academic studies with rigorous baseball training. Students attend regular courses at Stratford Northwestern Secondary School, with their fifth period class devoted to baseball-related knowledge and skills.
This is followed up by extra-curricular training at iCASE’s 818 Erie Street training facility.
The course load, including the baseball quotient, goes towards an Ontario Secondary School diploma upon graduation, as well as coaching and umpiring certification.
iCASE students aren’t just learning to physically play the game, either. Their fifth-period course includes topics such as passing American college admission SATs, learning what scouts look for in a player, and information regarding performance enhancing drugs.
At an open house held on Wednesday, June 25, iCASE founder Tom Valcke seemed most proud of the exclusive opportunities his program offers students.
“We went across the border six times; had four U.S. college campus tours; we went to two Major League showcase events . . .” he lists off, adding his students also attended spring training in Florida and met the Toronto Blue Jays in Dunedin.
“Last year, we played against a university team. How many university teams would take a risk playing a high school team?” he asks, adding his organization’s connections, and the opportunities they provide, “are a real perk to the program.”
This year, iCASE offered fall and spring courses for Grade 11 students, and saw 15 total participants attend from across Ontario, with one international student from Mexico.
“The Ontario Secondary School diploma is one of the most sought after diplomas in the world,” said Northwestern principal Martin Ritsma, whose school board’s partnership makes the iCASE program possible. He adds the acquisition of an Ontario diploma will make iCASE a special draw for students from places where baseball is fairly popular, such as Japan, South Korea and South America.
In the coming years, organizers hope to expand their international program, as well as adding a girls program to the academy. They already plan to extend the courses beyond Grade 11 next year.
“Once kids are in high school, after Grade 9 and 10, they’ve built up an allegiance and peer base that is difficult to leave,” Ritsma says.
Both he and Valcke surmise that, by making iCASE a four-year program, students will want to walk through the entire program with their classmates, rather than leaving what’s familiar for an entire semester or two. After all, for a high school student, one semester can seem like a very long time.
Former Montreal Expos’ general manager and Hall of Famer Jim Fanning was present at last Wednesday’s open house. He says most kids aren’t planning to play in the Major Leagues in Grade 11.
“I don’t think kids think about that,” he said. “It’s far down the road. They’re thinking about making the high school teams, the all-star teams, or the town teams.”
Fanning says little has changed since he grew up playing baseball in a small town in Iowa. It’s still about improving your key skills -- running, throwing, fielding, hitting and power -- and then putting yourself in a position to be seen by scouts.
“It takes time to develop players, especially at this age,” he says, adding that’s why Valcke, who Fanning calls one of the best coaches in the country, and his program works so well.
“I think it’s a fantastic program,” he says.