CHICAGO -- Corey Ray joined the White Sox Amateur City Elite (ACE) program when he was 12 years old, part of the first group of junior high school students in the program.
Ray, now a senior at Simeon Career Academy, grew with the program -- both as a young man and a standout baseball player. On Thursday evening at U.S. Cellular Field, in front of family and members of the White Sox organization, Ray and 11 others signed their national letters of intent to play Division I baseball.
Since its inception in 2007, the ACE program has given rising inner-city baseball stars the opportunity to play in highly competitive games on a traveling team. Along with baseball tutelage, the players also receive academic direction in preparation for college.
Eighty ACE alumni have gone on to play collegiate baseball, with six being chosen in Major League Baseball's First-Year Player Draft. The program, Ray said, has meant "everything" to him.
"I wouldn't be the person that I am and I wouldn't be going to Louisville without the ACE program," he said after signing his national letter of intent to play for the Cardinals.
Along with Ray, 11 others signed letters of intent Thursday:
Matthew Cole, from Rich Central High School, committed to Alcorn State
Ronell Coleman, from Simeon Career Academy, committed to Vanderbilt
Elbert Dunnigan, from Simeon Career Academy, committed to Alcorn State
Robert Fletcher, from Simeon Career Academy, committed to Alcorn State
Jerry Houston, from Mount Carmel High School, committed to Oregon
Sanford Hunt, from Kenwood Academy, committed to Chicago State
Regynold Johnson, from Marian Catholic High School, committed to Missouri
Tyler Johnson, from Harlan Career Academy, committed to Texas Southern
Marcellus Sneed, from Morgan Park High School, committed to Alcorn State
Terrell Stewart, from Harlan Career Academy, committed to Chicago State
Marshawn Taylor, from Simeon Career Academy, committed to Eastern Illinois
Senior director of community relations Christine O'Reilly said she and others refer to Thursday as a "really big deal day," because of the program's impact, which continues to grow. The 12 national letters of intent signed Thursday were the most by a class in program history. And, with the Hot Stove season heating up, White Sox general manager Rick Hahn called Thursday, "one of the most fun days we have around here."
"We've seen this grow from its infancy to what it is now, where you're at least playing a role in giving multiple kids an opportunity to continue on with their career and, more importantly, continue on with their education," Hahn said. "It's really something that's special and warms the heart of everyone here."
White Sox crosschecking scout Nathan Durst, who helped implement the program and whose idea it was to allow 12-year-olds to take part, likened watching the growth of the youngsters as players and people to that of one's own kids.
"Just an incredible feeling, especially for this team, because this was our first younger team," Durst said. "With the schools they're going to -- [Pac-12], SEC, places like that -- it's a sense of accomplishment that we're heading in the right direction."
Others on hand included White Sox icon Frank Thomas and left-hander Hector Santiago, who flew in from Puerto Rico. Thomas, who earned a football scholarship at Auburn but knew all along he wanted to play baseball, told players to follow their dreams now and in the future.
"Being at a Major League park, signing this letter of intent, it's all about dreams," Thomas said. "I had that dream, telling my dad, 'Yeah, I'm going to sign this football scholarship, but I know I'm going to play baseball,' and it's OK to dream. Because my dream was made true here in Chicago for a very long time."
Ray and the rest of this year's ACE class also dreamed big. And on Thursday, their dreams became reality.
"We all knew that we had talent and we worked hard and everybody had a dream to play college ball," Ray said. "And now we're finally making it happen."