News

The Next Great Rivalry

Jun 18, 2017 9:34 PM
Dan Napper, Correspondent

The beauty of competition is that it brings out the absolute best in the absolute best of any particular sport.  When an athlete is forced to channel the last ounce of energy that their body contains to pull their team to a victory.  It creates a rush of adrenaline and the hairs on the back of the neck begin to stand.  The crowd fades away and it comes down to just that moment in time.  The world around goes quiet and the focus becomes so adept that time itself seems to slow down.  The only thought running through your brain is the execution of what stands in front of you.

Unless you have been an athlete the previous probably did not make much sense.  The idea of competition and the competitive balance that exists between athletes is only understood by those who seek out competition.  Great athletes do that on a daily basis, they strive to find those around them who are talented and see how they measure up in comparison.  If on the previous day their competitor got the best of them they push themselves until they are better, so as to never come out on the wrong side of a game again.

That is the comparison between Jarred Kelenic and Alek Thomas.  Outside of your normal factors; male, seventeen years old, 2018 graduates, and both baseball players.

But, when you see the drive and work ethic that each one possess you recognize the innate truth that you very well might be looking at one of the best rivalries that could be in the spotlight one day.  Manning vs. Brady, Ali vs. Fraiser, Magic vs. Bird, Jordan vs everyone who wanted to be Jordan.

When you look at those names and you spend a few minutes talking to both young men you see a quality that is similar to all of those previous names: they want to be the best.  It is that simple and they will settle for nothing less.  But, all great athletes need to have someone nearby who pushes them to those limits, for without a foil, the athlete has nothing to drive them to be better than they were the day before.

So what stood out during that first meeting?

“The first time I met him I think was in 8th grade and one thing I noticed about him is that he was a little more developed than me at 14,” says Thomas with a laugh, Kelenic now stands at 5’11” and 185lbs of muscle.  Thomas is no physical slouch himself coming in a solid 175lbs of athlete, “But more than anything just a really good player, and I knew I would see him around.”Alek Thomas at the 2015 Underclass Area Code Games in Long Beach, California

Kelenic recalls a similar experience, “first time was at UIC and right away we started talking and clicked.  Found out he is a pretty relaxed kid and had a lot of pop in his bat.”

These two young men spend days working to hone their craft far beyond that of the average high school student.  There is a reason they stand out amongst their peers as two of the best high school players in the country and it has nothing to do with the generalities about being a high school junior.  It is nothing more than their desire to be great.  When you see the way they work, how focused they are at batting practice, how hard they run during every drill and how much they enjoy playing the game you realize the dedication they put towards themselves to be the absolute best.

Because they refuse to allow anyone to be better.

“The biggest thing for me is that ever since I was young I wanted to be the best at everything I ever did.  Checkers, a race down the street, whatever it is I’m going to beat you,” says Kelenic.

Jarred is up at 4:45 in the morning during the school year to get in his morning workout.  While other high school seniors have a late arrival period, or two, on their schedule.  Jarred is hitting the weights close to four hours before most are awake.

But, there is one other student awake…Alek Thomas is up at 5 to begin his workouts that are tailored by his dad, Allen Thomas, of the Chicago White Sox.  He is getting in his laps, working on his sprints, working on resistance bands, and getting in his weight work.

“You can always get better, someone will always be out there who has the same attributes, and you always keep working and you never settle,” says Thomas.

Jarred at the 2015 New Balance Underclass Area Code Games in Long Beach, CaliforniaWhen the quotes ring out and you listen to the passion that they speak about the game then you realize how the similarities between these two young men could be endless.  Their desire, dive, and passion does not have a lower gear and it never takes a day off.

But, the similarity that stands out the most between the two is the humility they have towards the game and the respect that they have for each other.  “Kids like Alek are hard to find, so when you find someone who has the talent, but also has the humble, passionate, 100% every play kind of mentality, it is fun to play against,” says Kelenic.

Thomas echoes the sentiment in a very simplistic way, “Seeing him do what he does motivates me to do more.”

Think of it like this, most seventeen year olds today cannot get out of bed on time without mom waking them up.  They struggle to deal with the difficulties of what someone posts on social media or they get frustrated because they want a better paying minimum wage job.  Here, you have two young men at the peak of the game, at their age, and they are able to recognize the ability of the other and be respectful without hesitation.  That characteristic right there is why they will be great; they are humble towards an opponent.

“I know he is not trying to be me and I’m not trying to be him,” said Thomas. “I see what he does and I’m sure he sees what I do too.”

Jarred certainly does see it too, “playing against him I know he is going to try 100% every time and I’m going to try 100% every time.  It is motivation for me because I know there is someone trying as hard as me and it makes you a better player.”

Speak to the adults who spend their days around Jarred and Alek and you realize that there is no overstatement regarding these two young men.  Most coaches do not heap praise lightly and they spend their days pushing their athletes to work harder and harder.  But, when they get a player like Alek and Jarred they know they can push a little bit more and get a response.  And, they recognize the desire within the play themselves.

If you ask RJ Fergus, head coach of the Hitters Baseball, he sums up Jarred brilliantly; “Jarred is built for any challenge.  His preparation and competitive toughness is why he performs on the big stage.  Jarred has a mindset that no stage is above him and he works harder than most to prepare for moments like these.”

Alek’s coach Kevin Coe sounds oddly familiar when speaking of Thomas; “Alek is extremely unique, if you meet him and talked to him you wouldn’t know how good he actually is.  He is driven by competition, but extremely humble.  He is a student of the game and defensively there is none better.  His knowledge of the game makes him a really good ballplayer, but he is an even better person.”

Coaches do not willingly hand out kind words too often.  Especially with young ballplayers who all want to be the next Jeter, Trout, or Harper.  But, when two different coaches speak in similar tones about two different young men you know you have something special to watch for the future.  After their senior seasons Jarred will head to Louisville and Alek to TCU where he will play baseball and football.  Both young men do not hide that their hard work is the reason why they have gotten where they are and hope that it will lead to a great moment come draft day 2018.

Ask Area Code coach John Sarna and you realize that the accolades are well earned and they have reason to be excited for 2018.  “Both guys are members of the Under Armor All-America game, both have a great shot to make the USA Baseball 18U team that will compete in the WBSC U-18 World Cup in Thunder Bay, Ontario this summer, and both are playing at big time college programs.”

Alek & Jarred at USA Baseball's Tournament of Stars in Cary, NCBut when you talk about the two young men actually on the field that is where coach Sarna sees the comparisons continue; “they are one in the same, highly competitive, watching what the other is doing, they won’t say it, but they are trying to one up each other.  They work extremely hard to set the bar for each other. I like it personally because I have coached both of them on the same team and they have similar tools, but are different players.  A lot of kids become good at a certain point and they stop developing and improving, but with these two they are always pushing each other.  I hope it continues in college and eventually into the pros and stays a healthy rivalry.”

What many do not realize is how close the two are in proximity.  Alek at Mt. Carmel in Chicago and Jarred out of Waukesha, Wisconsin just west of Milwaukee.  Both players spent time in the Chicago Scouts Association's I-94 Conference which allowed them to stay in the area and play against the best talent in the Midwest.  Those involved with the I-94 Conference have seen all the accolades mentioned throughout, now as the stage becomes bigger those of us on the outside are going to get to see what all the hype is about.

“Head and shoulders above everyone else,” if you ask Sarna, “and they have been since I saw them at the Silver and Black Series at Hampshire High School in 2014.”

There does not need to be a question in place as to why either of these young men would put themselves through so much extra work day in and day out.  The answer is simple, they want to be the best.  That is where our story begins to come full circle.  How do you become the best without anyone out there to compare yourself to?  How do you constantly strive to become better than the person next to you if you are always good?  How do you continually grow and improve if you do not see those around you getting better?  You look across the diamond and recognize the ability of those around you, but when the time comes, “you do you” as Alek previously told me.  Jarred seconds the statement, “in that moment, you really need to focus on what you need to do to get better and you don’t let other people’s talent get in the way.”  So yes, you look across the diamond and you see the talent, but you put in the hours necessary for you to become the best because that is all these two young men will settle for: be the best.  The answer is simple; they have lost, and the drive to avoid that feeling pushes them to go beyond what they think is the limit of their ability.  The game winning hit only feels great because a zero for the three day at the plate is what came previously and that desire to get better, to improve, to be the best, is what carried them to success during that at bat.

That success is only reached because of the relentless nature that the two of them bring to the field each and every day.  Truly it is the way they approach every aspect of their day.  That is why Alek is an AP student at the top of his class and Jarred sums it up perfectly; “I believe it has made me a better person, when I put the effort into the field, I learn to put that effort into something else, and it all transfers over into my daily life.”

So keep your eyes out for these two young men as the years continue to pass because the work ethic, desire, focus, and ability of Jarred Kelenic and Alek Thomas are one in the same.  But, watch as the humility and respect they have for one another helps carry them to the highest possible level, because simply, neither one will settle for anything less than their absolute best.  But, only time will tell who will be better.  Enjoy, as the debate begins.

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