Editor's note: ESPN is projecting Corey Ray as the No. 1 pick in the 2016 MLB Draft, saying "he can hit, he can run, he has some power."
CHICAGO — Corey Ray's journey to a second straight College World Series began as a 5-year-old boy running up a hill on Chicago's South Side.
Ray, a star sophomore outfielder at University of Louisville, was just a young boy when he began sprinting up and down the 40-foot-high hill at Robichaux Park, a few blocks from his family's Washington Heights home. Under the guidance of his father, also Corey, Ray headed to the hill to churn his legs and build up a good sweat.
He worked out at the hill — running to the top of it as many as 45-50 times in one session — as he became a baseball standout with the Chicago White Sox's Amateur City Elite travel program and eventually a standout player at Simeon High School.
Ray, 20, credits the years of hill work for his focus on baseball as a youth and at Louisville, which hosts Cal State Fullerton in a best-of-three Super Regional that begins Saturday. The winner advances to the College World Series, where Louisville also appeared during Ray's freshman season and the year before that.
Simeon High School graduate Corey Ray leads Louisville with a .327 batting average and 33 stolen bases. [All photos/Louisville Athletics]
"I did it until I graduated from high school," Ray said of the hill days. "I remember when all my friends would be sleeping, my dad would wake me up to make sure I got my workouts in."
Ray's father has driven snowplows and street sweepers for the City of Chicago for the last 18 years. He works a 6 a.m.-2:30 p.m. shift and usually starts his day around 4 a.m. He said his son shares his love of long days and hard work. His hill idea was a way for him to keep his son centered and away from the distractions of the city's South Side.
"Being in the city of Chicago, you can get detoured by any little incident," said Ray's father, a Lindblom high school graduate. "Running up the hill was a way from him to build up his stamina and strengthen all of his muscles. The older generations, they didn't have weights. They worked out with nature."
Said Ray's mother, Kathy: "What his dad did is set a foundation for Corey. At this point, he has that specific mindset and discipline and structure to do what he likes to do, which is to play baseball."
Justin Breen says Ray was drafted by the Mariners but chose college:
He's been playing quite well at the Division I level. He hit .325 with 17 RBIs and 11 runs scored as a freshman, and those numbers have ballooned this year to .327, 53 RBIs and 46 runs scored. Ray, who leads the team in batting average, also has 11 home runs, five triples, 14 doubles and a Louisville-best 33 stolen bases.
Ray insists he won't let the video game-like statistics go to his head.
"The joy of playing the game of baseball is you never quit trying to figure it out," Ray said. "There's just so much I can do to get better."
Kevin Coe, who runs the Sox's Amateur City Elite program — which has placed several inner-city players in Division I universities and professional organizations — said he's not surprised Ray has excelled in college.
"He has always outworked everyone in the weight room and in the batting cages," said Coe, of McKinley Park. "He has matured and shown tremendous growth at Louisville under the tutelage of their tremendous coaching staff. I can't wait to see what the future holds."
Ray, who was selected by the Mariners in the 33rd round of the 2013 MLB draft after an All-American career at Simeon, said he hasn't thought about his career past this season. He's gunning for another trip to Omaha, and capturing the ultimate prize is his only concern.
"If we go to Omaha and don't win a national championship, it's a bust," Ray said. "That's just the culture of our team. The only goal is to win a national championship."
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