MARIETTA, Ga. - The Upstate Mavericks 17u were one of 16 teams that kicked-off play at the 2012 17u/18u Perfect Game-East Cobb Invitational at seven venues at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, and it was an appropriate beginning to the five-day tournament.
The Mavericks 17u had to go up against the traditionally strong East Cobb Braves 16u in the tournament-opener, and ultimately lost, 5-3. But in the years since Chris Nall established the Upstate Mavericks organization in 2006, it has grown into a force to be reckoned with and stacked with teams that can never be taken lightly.
Three 2012 Perfect Game-East Cobb Invitational tournaments - 17u/18u, 16u and 14u/15u - started their runs Wednesday morning here at the East Cobb Baseball Complex and as many as 21 other fields scattered across the northwest Atlanta suburbs. The semifinals and the championship games in all three all are scheduled for Sunday.
Nall brought four teams to the three tournaments, one each in the 14u/15u and 16u tournaments and two in the 17u/18u event. This would typically be Upstate's summer kickoff event, but it got a bit of an earlier start this year when Nall took one team to both the 18u and 16u WWBA East Memorial Day Classic in Fort Myers, Fla. The 18u Mavericks finished runner-up to FTB Pride and the 16u team finished in the top-15.
Nall has added Zach Brown to his staff this year as a new full-time assistant coach. Brown is a scout with the Boston Red Sox organization.
"We have really high expectations this year. We really do," Nall said before his team took the field against the East Cobb Braves 16u.. "Our 18s are really strong again and those guys always tend to compete every year. Zach has done a tremendous job helping me recruit players, and we're as deep as an organization as we've ever been.
"Our 18s are typically pretty good and our 16s and 17s have had their years, but this year I think we're really solid and our depth as a program has gotten better."
The Upstate Mavericks 18u squad features 20 players who have either signed with or committed to NCAA Division I schools, including catcher/right-hander Ray Murphy, a 2012 South Carolina recruit; infielder Kevin Brantley (2012, Hofstra); outfielder/first baseman Andrew Cox (2012, Clemson) and outfielder Steven Duggar (2013, Clemson).
There are at least three 2013s on the Upstate Mavericks 17u squad who have also committed to D-I schools: outfielder/right-hander Tray Roberts (South Carolina), first baseman/outfielder Corey Cremonese (Winthrop) and middle-infielder Brooks Borders (Campbell).
Nall feels like he has the horses - particularly on the 18u squad - to be factor this week.
"If we can get through the first couple of days - we're still missing some guys who are finishing up various school stuff and we have a few things going on early - we should compete to win this tournament," he said. "We've got some guys who are going to compete and really help us make a run at (a championship)."
It won't be easy, of course. The 64-team 17u/18u PG-EC Invitational field includes 19 squads with the words "East Cobb" preceding their nicknames, which speaks volumes about the level of competition. Included in that group is the powerhouse East Cobb Braves 17u, the reigning champion at the event.
Highly regarded Marucci Elite, Marucci Elite 17u and Marucci Elite 16u are at the 17u/18u PG-EC Invitational, as are three ABA (Atlanta Baseball Academy) squads and at least a dozen others that came here with the intention of playing into the weekend.
The Upstate Mavericks' ascension to the upper echelon of competitive travel-ball teams has actually been fairly rapid. Nall started the Upstate Mavericks organization only six years ago with just one team, and this year will put 12 teams on the field in all age groups from 12 to 18.
"We started with one team, went to two teams and then jumped to five or six," Nall said. "Just this past year we jumped into youth age-groups and have had some really good success. We're just getting deeper; the first couple of years there were a few teams we fielded that were more' local' teams but now we're getting to the point where all of our teams are kind of 'national' teams. We're really starting to compete in a wider array."
A quick glance at the two Upstate Mavericks' older teams' rosters (17u and 18u) tells a story of squads assembled with a dedicated South Carolina foundation but with hints of branching out. Prospects come from Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia and Florida, with one from New York.
"The majority of our kids still come from South Carolina but we do have a few kids from other states," Nall said.
This promises to be a busy summer for the Upstate Mavericks organization; Nall said he will have at least one team competing in every eastern Perfect Game tournament this summer. And when he says "competing" he means challenging for tournament championships.
"We got to the point where we're growing and we were working on that , we were hosting tournaments, so we were working on that," Nall said. "I'm content where we're at; we're deeper and our goal is to get even deeper. We don't really want to expand the number of teams-wise, we want to expand quality-wise. Our goal is not to get bigger; it's to get better."