MARIETTA, Ga. - Before the 2012 17u/18u Perfect Game-East Cobb Invitational got under way Wednesday morning, casual observers perusing the pool setups may have been stumped when asked to pick a favorite in Pool O. They shouldn't have been.
The Alabama Seminoles 17u were included in that pool with the DBAT Mustangs-Chapman out of Mansfield, Texas, and a couple of East Cobb outfits: the Indians 18u and the Padres 17u. The Indians 18u may have qualified as the pre-tournament favorite, simply because their roster is filled with 2012s and even some 2011s who already have a season of college baseball under their belts.
But in the minds of the Alabama Seminoles' coaches, players and families, there was only one favorite to emerge from Pool O and advance to the tournament's 16-team playoffs, which begin Saturday morning.
The Seminoles 17u, based in Prattville, Ala., began pool-play with a 5-0 win over the DBATS Mustangs-Chapman on Wednesday, and then reluctantly settled for a 2-2 tie with the East Cobb Indians 18u on Thursday. On Friday, they wrapped up the Pool O championship and a playoff berth with a 7-3 win over the East Cobb Padres.
Pretty much how they had it planned. OK, not exactly, but pretty close.
"We were a little disappointed in the way we played (Thursday); we really feel that we're probably one of the best teams in the country in our age group," Seminoles head coach Jerry Hendricks said after Friday's playoff-clinching win at the East Cobb Baseball Complex. "But we battled hard and did what we had to, and we tried to save as much pitching as possible so we're set up for the weekend with our 1-2-3-4 guys ready to go."
Most of this group of Seminoles has been playing together since they were 14-years-old and they've grown and improved enough that most are getting looks from NCAA Division I schools.
"Our organization has been around awhile and we really try to do it the right way," Hendricks said. "We've got a lot of rules on the way you've got to act and play if you play on this team, but we like to do it that way. We're trying to give them that college atmosphere and prepare them for what they're going to have to deal with at that level.
"These are kids that have been around for the last couple of years; hanging out with us, going in to play with us and playing on other teams," he continued. "But this team here, this will be our team for the next couple of years where there won't be many changes. This is what we'll go with."
The leader of this group is unquestionably Keegan Thompson, a 6-foot-2, 175-pound right-hander/shortstop/outfielder out of Cullman, Ala., who is ranked 19th nationally in the class of 2013 (No. 1 in the state of Alabama) and has committed to Auburn. This is his fifth Perfect Game tournament, all with the Alabama Seminoles.
In the Seminoles' first three games here this week, Thompson threw five shutout innings, allowing one hit and striking out nine, and was 6-for-8 (.750) at the plate with a home run, double, five RBI and three runs scored. After his pitching performance on Wednesday, a PG scouting blog reported:
"(Thompson) has a sound delivery with outstanding arm speed ... (and) he has a smooth delivery and lands online to the plate with consistency." His fastball that day sat at 88-91 mph, his slider at 77-85 and his curve at 72-78.
"He's a special kid. He's probably a top-five kid in the draft in 2013," Hendricks said.
Other top prospects on the Seminoles' roster include catcher/right-hander Blake Logan (Muscle Shoals, Ala.), another Auburn recruit; first baseman/right-hander Dylan Ingram (Pike Road, Ala.); shortstop/outfielder Peyton Williams (Beauregard, Ala.); and right-handers Jesse Nelson (Phenix City, Ala.) and Jake Smith (Laurel, Miss.). Smith and top infield/right-hander prospect Hunter Swilling from Columbus, Ga., are the only non-Alabama players on the roster.
But they're all talented.
"Really, all of our kids are Division I prospects," Hendricks said. "(Jake Smith), he runs it up there in the low-90s and he's really working hard, but he's probably our least recruited kid because he's never had the development that he needs; that's what we're trying to give to him now."
This is really just the start of the summer season for the Seminoles. They played in a tournament in Nashville last weekend and went 4-0, and with their 2-0-1 showing here so far, they are still unbeaten.
"We feel pretty good with where we're at and we feel pretty good about our team and our kids," Hendricks said. "And, again, going into the weekend we feel pretty good about our pitching and we feel like we should make a pretty good run at this thing.
"This is the best experience," he continued. "Perfect Game and East Cobb put on quality tournaments and that's what we want to play. We want to play the best competition that we can find; that's how we get better and that's how the other kids get better. Perfect Game puts on great events with great competition and lots of scouts, and to me they're probably the best tournaments in the country."
The playoff round in the 17u/18u PG-EC Invitational is not seeded and instead pits predetermined pool champions against one another. That part of the whole equation is of little consequence to the Seminoles, who came here with the belief they had the talent to play into Saturday ... and possibly even into the final four on Sunday. When they return for the PG WWBA 2013 grads or 17u National Championship next month, they'll come with the same set of goals.
"Our main goal was the final 16," Hendricks said. "You're going to have to win four ballgames now and, again, we're set up with our pitching and we like where we're at. But we expected to be in the final 16 here and when we come back for the WWBA 17u, we expect to be in the playoffs and we expect to get to the final 16 and then see what happens.
"Our expectations with our team, our kids, our coaches - we're trying to win a national championship and we're going to push real hard for it and try to make it happen."