That underlying theme ran throughout the White Sox Amateur City Elite's annual signing-day program Tuesday night at Guaranteed Rate Field. There were 20 players eligible in ACE's 2018 class, and all 20 signed letters of intent to play baseball at the collegiate level on this same day.
"Today was extra special," said Nathan Durst, the White Sox national crosschecker and one of the co-founders of ACE 10 years ago.
"Usually there are players that we get a little bit later, after the signing date," Durst added. "But to have everyone with a home for college on the national signing date was special for us."
Tuesday's 20 marked ACE's biggest class of commitments since the program's inception. This group raised the total number of student-athletes who will go on to higher education institutions to 168, per the White Sox. More than 70 ACE student-athletes have committed to compete at the Division I level, while 21 alumni have been selected in the MLB Draft.
As has become the tradition, each player was introduced Tuesday, then took his seat on the two-tier dais at the front of the Conference and Learning Center. Before they all signed their respective letters of intent, each player announced his name, school of choice and what the ACE program has meant to him.
Some were a little nervous. Others were emotional. They all thanked their parents, their coaches among the 14 on the ACE staff and talked about the brotherhood formed with other players.
"Yeah, all these dudes are my friends," said Alek Thomas, a student at Chicago's Mount Carmel High School who will be going to Texas Christian University. "We've bonded over the past four or five years. Just a perfect fit for me to be around these guys and to be around the ACE program. It really helped us."
"Since I got over here back in '14, I've learned a lot about it," said White Sox hitting coach Todd Steverson, who also spoke at Tuesday's ceremony. "A lot of our inner-city kids and people around the area have been given the opportunity to showcase themselves and have a shot at really getting seen by a lot of colleges that they may not have had in any other sector or any other venue."
Thomas, who is the son of White Sox director of conditioning Allen Thomas, was named the 2016-17 Gatorade Illinois Baseball Player of the Year. With that award, Alek received a $1,000 grant from the Gatorade "Play it Forward" program.
This grant money was then donated by Thomas to ACE, despite Thomas participating this past summer in numerous national showcases and not playing full-time with ACE.
"There's always room for improvement," Durst said. "If the player's ability dictates that he's a [Division II] player, hopefully we have the development ability within our program to get him to a Division I school. There's always room for improvement, especially on our side as far as our evaluations, our development and more importantly, really stressing to when we get the players in at [12 years and under], education."
White Sox ACE commitments
Samson Barboza, Olivet Nazarene Univ.
Robert Bluntson, Paine College
Jeremiah Canada, Westmont College
Christian Carr, Harper College
De'Shawnte Carraway, Harper College
Joshua Coe, Wisconsin Lutheran College
Julian Everett, Lewis University
Maurey Garrett, Heartland Community College
Jaylen Heard, Heartland Community College
Jamarion Loston, Indian Hills Community College
Jeff Massey, Univ. of Minnesota
Diego Munoz, Western Illinois Univ.
Myles Norman, Indian Hills Community College
Daniel Rodriguez, Harper College
Jordon Rogers, Univ. of Michigan
Tylon Ross, Purdue University
Kyle Salley, Duke University
Brandon Simon, Univ. of Arkansas at Pine Bluff
Alex Thomas, Texas Christian Univ.
Mark Williams, Lindenwood Univ.