Chicago’s Simeon High School is famous for producing basketball stars such as Ben Wilson, Derrick Rose and former Duke star Jabari Parker, but Louisville junior outfielder Corey Ray is also helping the school’s reputation on the baseball diamond.
Ray, a standout for the U.S. Collegiate National Team, earned first-team All-ACC honors last year as a sophomore, posting team-highs in batting average (0.325), home runs (11) and RBIs (56). The 5-foot-11 speedster also stole 34 bases, but when asked if he ever used his speed against his former classmate Parker on the hardwood, Ray said he always tried to stay on the 6-foot-8 forward’s team.
“We had gym, and we would do some things, but I wouldn’t want to get embarrassed so I kind of stayed away from going against him – I was always on his team,” Ray said.
“We were cool, not the hang out outside of school type, but when I saw him, he spoke, when he saw me, we spoke. We had a few classes together – we would talk then. He was a cool, down-to-earth guy.”
Like Parker, a first-team All-American for Duke during the 2013-14 season and forward for the Milwaukee Bucks, Ray has used his versatility to become one of the top prospects in the country. The high school All-American ranked 11th nationally in stolen bases while still anchoring Louisville’s lineup with his 0.519 slugging percentage last season.
Friday night in the U.S.’ third of five games against Cuba, Ray went 1-for-4 with a double as Cuba knocked off the collegians 5-1 after being shut out in the first two games. The victory came after news surfaced that two Cuban players, third baseman Luis Yander La O and outfielder Yadiel Hernandez, have defected.
So far this summer for the U.S. Collegiate national team, Ray has recorded a hit in 11 of 12 games and leads the team with 10 stolen bases. He set a team record June 22 against the Holly Springs Salamanders of the Coastal Plain League when he swiped five bases in a game.
The scary thing for ACC opponents that will have to deal with Ray and ACC Freshman of the Year Brendan McKay is that the Chicago native is finding even more ways to improve playing with the best college players in the country.
“I’ve learned that it’s the small things,” Ray said. “Knowing who is on base and what type of runner he is, whether you have a shot to throw him out, when to steal and when not to steal, when to take the extra base and when not to take the extra base – sometimes you’ve got to be conservative and sometimes you’ve just got to go for it.”
Discipline running the bases and at the plate will continue to be a focus for Ray, who struck out 60 times last year, but the rising junior is capable of making game-changing plays because of his aggressive style. In April against Wake Forest, Ray manufactured one of the most memorable moments in the ACC this year when he stole home to score the walk-off run in a 6-5 comeback victory for the Cardinals.
But the season did not end the way Ray and his teammates wanted despite being ranked in the top five throughout the year. Louisville hosted Cal State Fullerton in the Super Regionals, but dropped game one of the three-game series 3-2 in 10 innings and lost the decisive third game 4-3 in 11 innings on a controversial home run that was reviewed for several minutes.
“We didn’t end the season the way we wanted to,” said McKay, who posted a 1.77 ERA as a starting pitcher and hit 0.308 as a first baseman. “We just need to come back with a fire.”
Ray noted that dropping the series in heartbreaking fashion at home gave the team all of the motivation it needed entering the offseason, but also that the Cardinals’ recent success means that anything short of a championship leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Louisville advanced to the College World Series in 2013 and 2014, the second and third berths, respectively, in program history.
“If you don’t win a national championship, it doesn’t matter how far you make it,” Ray said. “I’m pretty sure (national runner-up) Vanderbilt felt the same way we did even though they made it to the championship in Omaha. Losing and coming up short of your goal is just bad. Whenever you don’t win a national championship, it’s a bad season, and that’s how we look at it at Louisville.”
Ray is no stranger to starring for a growing program. In high school, he and his teammates made putting Simeon baseball on the map their goal in a community and school famous for its passion for basketball.
“My freshman year (of high school) we started four freshmen on varsity, and the freshmen’s goal was to make Simeon a baseball school,” Ray said. “We were tired of everyone saying ‘Oh, that’s a big basketball school.’ We wanted someone to finally say ‘Oh, that’s a good baseball school.’ We started the tradition of doing that and the guys there now are continuing the tradition.”
Although he fell in love with baseball from a young age and never considered basketball, Ray saw some of the country’s top players on the hardwood during his time at Simeon. Rival high school Whitney Young produced dominant center and Duke standout Jahlil Okafor.
Okafor led the Blue Devils to the national championship in April and was the No. 3 pick in last week’s NBA draft, but Ray remembers the outcome of Simeon’s matchups with Whitney Young more than Okafor’s skills in the post.
“We used to beat him every time we played him,” he said with a smile.