KOKOMO, Ind. — As a young boy, Riley Garczynski remembers standing outside the fence at Northwoods League baseball games, watching the players warming up, dreaming that someday he might play on those fields.
This summer, the Indiana University Kokomo senior is living the dream.
“It’s surreal,” he said. “It’s something that was always on my mind, that it would be cool to play on those fields in a professional baseball atmosphere. I used to be one of those kids standing at the fence asking for a ball, and now I’m on the inside.”
Garczynski, from Milwaukee, is one of four IU Kokomo baseball players on the Kokomo Jackrabbits roster this summer, playing in the collegiate summer wood bat league. His summer teammates include JT Holton, a sophomore from Kirklin; Luke Hanson, a sophomore from Yorkville, Illinois; and Ethan Leslie, a sophomore from Noblesville.
The four say the Northwoods League allows them to develop their skills playing against some of the top college athletes in the country and gives them a glimpse of what it’s like to be a professional baseball player.
“I think that’s the dream of everyone out there, to be a professional baseball player,” said Leslie. “I’d take that opportunity if it came along.”
Cougars baseball coach Drew Brantley is excited for his players to have this opportunity, noting this summer IU Kokomo has placed its largest number of players ever in the Northwoods League. In addition to the four Jackrabbits players, Kokomo residents Pat Mills and Ben Harris both play for the Battle Creek Bombers in Michigan.
“There aren’t many NAIA programs that put six players into a league like the Northwoods League,” Brantley said. “Our guys have to really perform during our season to have an opportunity like this. It speaks volumes for the work they did last year, and the processes they’ve developed.”
With more than 70 games during the summer season, the players get an opportunity to grow their skills and put what they’ve learned into practice immediately. Their growth benefits the IU Kokomo team when they return for the next season.
“They play just about every single day,” Brantley said. “It’s a lot more than they are used to. It’s a lot of baseball. It’s a good opportunity to see what it’s like to play every day and take care of yourself and stay in shape. They can refine everything we worked on during the school year.”
They are enjoying the professional baseball experience.
“It’s nerve-wracking to some extent,” Leslie said. “I haven’t been this nervous to play baseball in a while. It feels bigger than it is, but once you get on the field, you relax and go into game state.”
It also gives them a boost before the next season of Cougar baseball.
“It gives you confidence playing with guys from Power 5 schools, and knowing you can compete with the big dogs,” Garczynski said. As a hitter, he’s improving his batting by seeing pitches he doesn’t see during the year.
Holton said he’s learning new tips to improve as a player.
“Seeing some of the guys’ routines is something helpful,” he said. “Everyone seems to be willing to share. As a pitcher, I’m seeing how to go about attacking some of the better hitters, and some different pitch sequences.”
Leslie said having teammates from other schools encourages him that his IU Kokomo team is on the right track for success.
“Playing school ball and then coming out and playing with a lot of these guys, I’ve realized we’re not that far off from being a very good team,” he said. “The coolest part of being part of. IU Kokomo’s team has been we’re a newer team. We haven’t won a conference championship yet. We could be the first team to reach that milestone. I get excited thinking about it. Watch out for the Cougars next year.”