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White Sox ACE program helps send players to college

Six soon-to-be students sign letters of intent during Nov. 18 ceremony

CHICAGO -- The website for Claflin University soon might be bookmarked within numerous computers throughout the White Sox offices at U.S. Cellular Field, with a special focus on the school's baseball program.

It's not that the club has especially famous alumni coming from Claflin. It's not that this academic institution has been a hotbed of First-Year Player Draft talent scouted by Chicago.

But starting with the 2015 school year, the White Sox will have one of their own in Torriun Towers enrolled at this South Carolina-based university. Towers' relation to the team comes from his involvement in its Amateur City Elite youth baseball program, which directly helped him receive athletic aid from Claflin and really get his baseball skills noticed.

Towers was one of six ACE players who gathered on the night of Nov. 18 at U.S. Cellular's Conference and Learning Center to officially sign collegiate letters of intent. White Sox executive vice president Ken Williams attended the ceremony, as did director of community relations Christine O'Reilly and director of youth baseball initiatives Kevin Coe, all looking like proud parents sitting alongside the actual proud parents and family members who contributed their own time and energy to facilitate the college dream.

"When you think about how the program has grown and how we have moved toward really developing kids on all aspects of academics and athletics, it's building to a crescendo, I guess," O'Reilly said.

"This is something that has been an ongoing effort starting with [White Sox chairman] Jerry Reinsdorf on down," Williams said. "It has evolved with our teachings and not just paying attention to the baseball side of things, but the character building side of things."

Williams invoked the "it takes a village" idea in talking about building the ACE program, crediting the entire organization coming together to create such a success. He gave extra praise to Nathan Durst, a national crosschecker for the White Sox, who helped sell this program to Reinsdorf with Williams and then committed to it.

Since the ACE inception in 2007, 85 athletes have received athletic aid and 14 have been chosen in the Draft. Two ACE alumni played in the '14 College World Series. The White Sox youth baseball commitment goes all the way back to their Inner-City youth baseball program in 1990, per O'Reilly, but it runs far deeper than simply giving these inner-city kids a chance for greater baseball challenges and exposure.

These kids get a chance to experience different aspects of life, where that opportunity might not have been before. Towers stands as a prime example of development in connection to the White Sox, playing in the organization's youth program since the age of 8.

At 14, Towers tried out for the White Sox RBI regional team and made it. Following that season, Towers agreed to play with ACE. Coe talked about Towers' tremendous growth as a player and a person, showing a tremendous work ethic. Towers, who lives with his family in the 39th and King area on the city's South Side, was thrilled to have an outlet provided by the White Sox.

"They helped me a lot. This really gave me the steps on the road to college," Towers said. "Baseball kept me busy all the time."

"Many of these kids are first generation college kids," O'Reilly said. "The fact that through the ACE program, some kids have been on a charter bus for the first time or on a plane for the first time ... . Their worlds have become so much bigger because of the program. Their experiences that they have had, the people that that they have met, the places they have gone, the self sufficiency they have needed to develop through the program I think is what's amazing."

Teams in the ACE program range from 12-and-Under up to 17-and-Under with close to 30 coaches assisting the young players. Robert Fletcher, who works with the 17-and-Under team, spoke about the mentoring process that goes hand and hand with the coaching.

"Getting them ready for college life, sports and to be productive citizens when they become adults," Fletcher said. "We talk about everything: life, girls, everything.

"Some of them, when they make mistakes, we don't act like we didn't make the same mistakes. It makes them feel like, 'Coach went through this too.' It makes them trust you a little more. We are not that old, so we can kind of relate to them. We reflect and tell them things we used to do."

An overriding message was delivered by Williams, Coe and O'Reilly as part of their comments on signing day, aside from the praise and celebration. Take advantage of the opportunity presented, but make sure to give back to the next generation of players.

One of these ACE players could someday reach the Majors, leaving tickets for those who helped him reach the pinnacle. Then again, there also will be lawyers and doctors developed through the White Sox youth baseball initiative.

"I feel like I can come back and help people too," Towers said.

"Go to college and get a good feel on what college has to offer," Coe said. "Reach out to next generation to let them know how important is to work to reach the goals you've reached."

"Our only hope is that it can expand beyond the city limits of Chicago," Williams said, "and give other kids around the country an opportunity as well."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for Read his blog, Merk's Works, and follow him on Twitter @scottmerkin.
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