When Dave Whigham was developing the idea for a travel baseball and training program that would serve local youth baseball athletes, it was with the intention to give these players an environment that he was not afforded when he was coming through the ranks.
With training that helps prepare them for high school baseball, compete in the travel baseball circuit and assist in building the necessary connections on the next level, Whigham's Delmarva Aces program would help develop baseball players in Maryland and Delaware, and give them a shot at competing at the college level, and possibly professionally some day down the line.
Now, six years since their first showcase team in 2016, the Delmarva Aces have sent 150 local high school baseball players to college programs, creating a clearer path or pipeline to the next level of competition for local baseball players than what existed before.
"When I came through years ago, the opportunity for training wasn't the same, and more importantly the networking wasn't the same," said Whigham, who founded the Aces.
"For me, I'm always a big believer in the best fits for the kids to be able to go and play, and if you look across our commitments over the years you see, Division I, Division II, Division III, NAIA, Junior college, we've even put kids into post-secondary prep schools. I just wanted to provide an opportunity to give these kids a chance to play."
Smryna shortstop Connor Strauss, who recently committed to play college baseball at Division I Junior College Potomac State, was the 150th Delmarva Aces player to commit to play at the college level.
And according to the list of college commits on their website, he joins a group of over 20 Aces players in the Class of 2022 who are on their way to play college baseball.
Back when Whigham played, the number of players going to play college ball from each high school team was a lot smaller than what has become the norm, showing just how much the game has changed for young baseball prospects.
"When I came through, if you had one, maybe two kids on your high school team that went to play college baseball that was successful," Whigham said. "Nowadays, there are five to eight kids per team going on to play at the next level. That's the goal, to give these kids the avenue to move on to college and to be able to experience all the wonderful things that college brings."
While players and parents work with the Aces to help send their kids to the next level of competition, the emphasis is not only on whether they move on to, but also where they go and if it is the right fit for them as athletes and as students.
And Whigham feels the Aces program continues to get better at helping players and their families throughout the process, a process that can be daunting for a lot of people without the proper resources.
"If I can continue to have the parents buy in on the proper fits and the spots that their kid will flourish and look best on a college diploma, that is when we're doing our job 100% right," Whigham said.
"We've slowly gotten to that point, and every year it gets a little tiny bit better to where people realize that the proper fit is the number one thing. And while that school may not have been their number one school as an eighth grader, when they come out of college years later, that was the school that helped define them."
As the Aces continues to help send players to the college level, in comes the next generation that want in on that same type of career path, with hopes that the Aces program can also put them in position to be the baseball players that they wish to become.
And after putting 150 players in college programs within a five-year span, there will be plenty more Aces alumni filling the college ranks.
"When you walk into our facility, the first thing that you see on the left is a massive wall, almost spanning to the top of the ceiling, of plaques of every single kid that has committed to college," Whigham said.
"So when the young kids walk in, they see this massive college commit wall that we have and you see the kids just sitting there looking at it. And it's just like a goal when they're sitting there seeing that like, 'I want to be on that wall one day.'"
When players join the Aces' program, they are coached by some of the more experienced baseball minds in the area, with former and current players and coaches with experience on the college and professional levels teaching them the game and providing them with the first hand knowledge of high quality baseball that the players want to reach.
From the Aces alumni to the Aces staff, these young players have clear examples in front of them of what they can become when given the right training and tools.
And as some of the original players to come through the Aces program begin to wrap up their colleges careers, there may soon be some Aces alumni who start to populate the ranks of professional baseball as well.
And when the players that come through the program accomplish their goal of making it to the next level, their relationship with the Aces often times does not stop there.
Often they come back and train in the facilities, and also ask for career advice as they build toward becoming professional baseball players like Whigham once was. And for Whigham, seeing the players who have come through the program come back and help out younger players is one of the more gratifying parts of the experience.
"Travel baseball has turned into something very large, it can be corporate, money-driven and so many different things. And what we've used is the relationship portion of it," Whighamsaid.
"Every single kid that is on that wall, I've had a hand in and worked directly with all 150 kids. I've watched them as they've been through the recruiting process, as they've chosen their schools, and I've listened to them as they've gone through the process," he said.
"And that's the gratifying part for me, watching them make their decisions as a 17-year old kid in our academy, and they come back two years later and help out in the academies, talk to different kids that are in the program. Or just having the relationship with them and just saying 'I remember you when you were just 17-years old and it's so great to see how good you're doing now.'"
This article originally appeared on Salisbury Daily Times: Delmarva Aces continue college baseball pipeline with 150th commitment