White Sox ACE program launches college baseball opportunities

More than 230 college scholarships have been earned by ACE graduates.

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Brooks’ Ryan Little (3) pitches against Lane in the CPS title game at Wrigley Field this season.

Brooks’ Ryan Little (3) pitches against Lane in the CPS title game at Wrigley Field this season.

Quinn Harris/For the Sun-Times

Getting a college baseball scholarship is harder than ever.

The increasing popularity of the transfer portal and the extra year of eligibility granted because of the pandemic led to longer college careers and fewer roster spots for incoming freshmen in baseball, just like other sports.

And the recruiting timeline has accelerated, making it harder for some players to be seen early enough to impress college coaches.

“Most of college recruiting used to come in the summer between junior and senior year,” Kenny Fullman said. “Now a lot of people are getting offers before they even play a high school baseball game.”

Out of that reality was born White Sox ACE, a travel baseball program launched in 2007 to help players from underserved communities prepare for college baseball and life.

Earlier this month, 16 college-bound members of the program were honored at Guaranteed Rate Field. They’re among around 150 players from 12 to 17 years old who are being mentored on and off the field by people like Fullman, the ACE program manager, and Robert Fletcher, its college recruiting coordinator.

Both have extensive college contacts from their time coaching in the Public League, Fullman at Harlan and Fletcher at Simeon.

It has paid off in the form of more than 230 college scholarships earned by ACE graduates from junior college to Power Five programs.

One of the latter is Oklahoma, which just won the Gainesville Regional with ACE grad Kendall Pettis, a redshirt sophomore outfielder from Brother Rice, earning tourney MVP honors.

Two more ACE players are joining the Sooners next season: Mount Carmel’s Brandon Rogers and Sacred Heart-Griffin’s RJ Jimerson, who grew up on the South Side before moving to Springfield as a high school freshman.

“[Oklahoma assistant] Clay Overcash used to be a scout with the White Sox,” Fullman said. “He sees a lot of talent [in Chicago] and he’s comfortable recruiting them.”

And Rogers, a two-sport standout who also played football for the Caravan, is comfortable with heading to Norman.

“Throughout my life I wanted to play football and baseball,” Rogers said. “It was the right choice for me and for my family.”

Five more ACE players are headed to Division I schools next season: Thornwood’s Kyree Alexander (Western Illinois) and Horacio Cabrales (Mississippi Valley State), Fenwick’s Drew Horne (Florida A&M), Brooks’ Ryan Little (Florida A&M), and Homewood-Flossmoor’s Shai Robinson (Illinois State).

Little had a chance to play in front of his future college coach on an ACE trip, one of the many benefits he’s received from being in the program.

“ACE has really taught me the professional side of baseball,” Little said. “A lot of the coaches have been where I want to go and done what I want to do. ... They’re going to put you in front of the people you need to be in front of.”

Rogers appreciates ACEs “family culture” and its focus on the person as well as the player.

“They do a fantastic job of encouraging us to keep playing as long as we can, gaining knowledge to make us successful in life and on the field,” Rogers said.

Over the program’s 15-year history, Fullman and the program’s other coaches have tried to stay current. One thing that’s changed is a heightened focus on strength and conditioning.

It’s all led to more opportunities for kids to play baseball and get an education.

“I can’t remember when we’ve had this many kids [from Chicago] playing college baseball,” Fullman said. “That’s a good thing.”

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