As the program wraps up it’s second season, and prepares for 2019, we thought it would be a good idea to revisit why the Falls Aces baseball program was created, what it’s primary goals are, where it stands today, and what to look forward to in 2019 and beyond.
Below, the General Manager of the program – Aaron Lilach – answers a handful of questions about the Falls Aces.
Why was the Aces program created?
AL: “Back in 2014 I was privileged enough to coach an extremely talented group of young dudes in a Little League All Star tournament – and we got absolutely clobbered each game. All of those kids are in some sort of travel or select program today, so they had the raw talent, yet we were not even close to competing in the games we played. After that experience, I knew that changes had to be made to how we developed kids within the MFLL program and with the help and blessings of many other past and present MFLL Board members, we got the Aces program off the ground in late 2016.”
What was the first tryout experience like then, and how is it different as the Aces look at the 2019 teams?
AL: “Well, for starters, the first tryouts were in November and it was about 34° with intermittent flurries on one of the tryout days. On the bright side, we knew that if a kid showed up for baseball in that weather that they were “all in”.
“A couple other differences – first, we had 13 kids try out for that inaugural team, which we are truly grateful for, but obviously that isn’t exactly a huge turnout. However, as we are preparing for 2019 there are over 100 kids signed up already and we are still over a month away from tryouts.
“Also, we had a very traditional tryout experience the past two seasons, and that will change drastically for the 2019 teams. We really focus on a few key baseball metrics that indicate if players have the skill level that we feel we can develop – so we will be capturing that data during our tryouts this year. If the numbers are there, players will then come back on another day to compete in an organized scrimmage so coaches can see how they approach the game, move on the field, etc. in order to help them select their teams. It’s a unique way of trying out, but it’s also an efficient process that allows us to quickly gauge if a player has “it”.”
Sign up for 2019 Falls Aces tryouts by clicking here.
AL: “The first thing we look for in a prospect is what we call “want”. If a player wants to be on the Falls Aces, he or she will do everything in his ability to show that. After that, it comes down to baseball instincts and physical/mental skills. We really value a mentally strong player in our program, mainly because we tend to play teams that are at a higher level than we are. So if a young player is used to winning all the time and cannot handle losing games, or teammates making errors, or striking out, we try to identify and avoid those players – even if they are physically gifted.”
What are the goals and philosophies of the program?
AL: “We really focus on developing individual skills for each player. Our focus is never on winning, but we do challenge kids to compete against higher levels of play during tournaments. We ask the young dudes to challenge themselves to be a little better today than they were yesterday – whether that is mentally or physically stronger, or making little adjustments at the plate, in the field, or on the mound. And then I would say that another goal of the program is to prepare each player for the next level of play, so things like lead offs, pitch development and so on are worked on.
“From a philosophy standpoint, I’d say we want to be an aggressive team with aggressively minded players. We want to take the extra base whenever we can, we look for players who can hit the first pitch they see, and pitchers who can consistently throw strikes. Outfielders are instructed to catch everything that is in the air, no matter what they have to do to get it. Infielders should sacrifice their bodies to get dirty in order to keep a ball in the infield. Catchers need to aggressively attack balls in the dirt. You’ll often hear our Coaches commend a kid for great effort, even if they don’t make the play. Basically, Aces should never be afraid to fail.
“I’d also say that as a collective group of adults, we are all very interested in learning. None of us know everything about the game of baseball (if you hear someone that says they do, they’ve stopped learning a long time ago), so when new ideas spring up we all kind of look at them, evaluate if we can make that work for us, and then most of the time we implement some version of whatever we learned. For example, we use technology that even a lot of high schools don’t have access to, and learning how to use that to better develop players has been a very rewarding experience.”
If you are not focused on winning, then how can you expect kids to compete in tournament games?
AL: “A lot of people assume that if players don’t play together a lot that they cannot execute during games – especially high-pressure games like All Stars or high-level tournaments. That’s simply not true. Individual players make about 80% of the plays in a game by making individual plays – catching fly balls, fielding routine grounders, blocking pitches in the dirt, hitting the ball hard, throwing quality pitches, and so on. The other 20% of the plays during a game is up to team defense or offense – backing up plays, cut offs and relays, executing hit and runs, etc. Those areas are worked on in our practices, but we spend a great deal more time on building strong individual skills so we can make those “80%” plays.
“As an example, our U13 team is .500 this year, which is ideally where we want to be. We’ve competed in most games, including against multiple teams from other States and a national travel team ranked in the top 200 in the nation. A big part of that success is from focusing a lot on individual skills that allows our players to make those “80%” plays that they did not make last year. Our Winter Workouts were exclusively designed to build better hitters and fielders, and the kids have really, really improved in those areas. Our team is batting over .350 through 10 games, and our errors on those routine plays have dropped drastically from over 30 through 10 games last year to under 10 errors through 10 games this year.”
What is the status of the Falls Aces today?
AL: “I would say we are in growth mode at the moment. Obviously, growth has it’s high and low points. Growing now means sacrificing a little in on-field quality at times, but if we stay focused on the growth mindset we think those same teams are going to be super competitive down the road.
“When we organized teams for this year, we gambled a bit with 4 teams as one of those teams is almost 50% 11 year olds, who are really being challenged to compete against some very good U12 teams. At the same time, we felt it was important for them to start their development this year and not wait another season. For 2019, it looks less likely that we will have too many – if any – kids playing “up” an age while fielding one team at each age level from U9 through U14. Growth like this also means that we have to make tough decisions on player selections, which can end or postpone an Aces career. Those are the least enjoyable decisions we make, but we try to be upfront with players by advising them that they own their own destiny and that if they work hard it’s harder for us to make that decision.
“We’re also investing in our infrastructure of people and facilities. We’ve recently brought in a top-level Pitching Instructor to help us improve in that area, and secured a permanent indoor training facility that opens in September. Over Winter, some of us were trained by a National High School Coach of the Year and MLB Hitting Consultant, and the results have really shown up. A lot of kids who used to hit weak ground balls all the time, or even struggle to make contact are now driving the ball into the outfield with authority. It’s awesome to see the progress!”
Where do you see the Falls Aces in 2019 and beyond?
AL: “The program will continue to evolve as the community expects it to and opportunities continue to arise. The “business” of youth baseball is very competitive right now, but there are also a lot of red flags to be concerned with, too. Lots of programs are consolidating to try to keep up with the high talent programs, some are disappearing altogether, some are adding up to 5 teams at each age level, and then there are the programs taking their “A” teams hunting for tournament trophies at “B” or “C” tournaments or claiming they produce MLB draft picks and College players at a superficial rate. It’s kind of ridiculous, honestly. If more programs focused on the overall experience, and not hunting trophies or fleecing the pockets of parents, the youth sports world would be a better place in my opinion. I anticipate that within the next few years a lot of families will see through the smoke and stop supporting some of those programs.
“Back to us, you can probably expect that the Aces program looks internally at ways to improve the overall experience, and then externally to build a stronger “community of baseball” within Menomonee Falls. With the MFLL Complex and The Launch Pad available to the Aces, there is so much more that can be done there to help families limit travel in their hectic lives while enjoying a top-level experience.
“The Aces program is not bulletproof. We have many local programs to compete with for talent – both in terms of players and coaches. We’re never going to be the solution for everyone. We realize that some families just want to do something else, and we are OK with that. In fact, if families are upfront with us, we often offer to help them transition to other programs. We’re not trying to build animosity between programs or families, no matter the philosophical differences we may have.
“Our MFLL Board has really done a great job in listening to parents about concerns they have, and doing what they can to provide solutions. The plans that MFLL has for the future are also really exciting, and once those are closer to reality the announcements are really going to captivate the community.”