GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The last time North County Padres' founder and head coach Jet Cook brought his underclass team to the west Phoenix suburbs, some nice things happened and some eyes were opened.
Playing at the Perfect Game/EvoShield National Championship (Underclass), the Padres surprised just about everyone by advancing to the semifinals during their first-ever PG national tournament experience. They bowed out in that round just short of the championship game with a fine 4-2 record.
"That was a great experience; we're still talking about it," Cook said last week during a telephone conversation with PG. "We had a nice barbecue when we got home, and we shared pictures and we shared experiences with all the parents. It was really something else and we really enjoyed how (PG) puts on their tournaments."
The young prospects from northern San Diego County will get another opportunity to sparkle in the desert sunshine when they return to the west Phoenix suburbs this weekend.
There are worse places to be than in the Valley of the Sun in the middle of January, and 44 age-group teams from nine states and close to 700 young prospects will enjoy that experience over four days beginning Friday.
The 2nd annual Perfect Game MLK Championships are scheduled for Friday through Monday (Jan. 18-21) in three age-groups with games to be played at the Camelback Ranch Complex, the state-of-the-art, 4-year-old Cactus League spring training home of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox. The three MLK Championships (the tournaments take place over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend) will be played in the 18u, 16u and 14u age divisions.
The AZ Sabercats won the inaugural 18u PG MLK Championship title in January, 2012; the AZ Pilots 16u White were the champions at the 2012 16u PG MLK Championship; and the So Cal National Travel Team won last year's PG MLK Championship title. No team playing under those names is back to defend this year.
The North County Padres organization Cook founded three years ago is based in Cardiff, Calif., a beach community officially known as Cardiff-by-the-Sea situated in northern San Diego County. Cook is bringing two Padres teams to Camelback Ranch this weekend, one each in the 14u and 16u PG MLK Championships.
The 16-team field for the 16u PG MLK Championship looks especially strong, with Pleasanton, Calif.-based NorCal Baseball entering a pair of teams (Black and Red) to join other stalwarts like Team CALIFORNIA Baseball (Carlsbad, Calif.), AZ Prowlers (Peoria, Ariz.), Garciaparra Baseball Group (Los Angeles) and San Diego Show (San Diego).
"I think we're going to be competitive," Cook said of his 16u group. "We're young on that end of it but so is everybody else in that age division. ... We're a little young (but) we have some good players in the mix and if we play well we'll be right there again, I'm sure."
Cook will fill three roster spots on his 12-man 16u team with players from the squad that advanced to the final four at the PG/EvoShield National Underclass: first baseman Kyle Casebier (2014, San Marcos, Calif.), left-hander/outfielder Gary Saggese (2014, Carlsbad, Calif.) and outfielder John Aiken (2015, Encinitas, Calif.).
Saggese hit .333 (4-for-12) with four RBI and also pitched 5 1/3 innings of four-hit ball, striking out four and compiling a 2.62 ERA at the PG/EvoShield Underclass; Casebier was 5-for-17 (.294) with a double, triple, three RBI and five runs scored. Cook said the experience his three returnees gained at that tournament is extremely valuable, pointing specifically to Casebier, who is considering some college offers.
The 12-team 18u PG MLK Championship field is intriguing in that there is only one team from Arizona and five from California. The others are coming in from Minnesota (two), Kentucky, Oregon, Colorado and Illinois.
One of those five California teams is particularly loaded, with three prospects on its roster that are arguably three of the most talented of any that will walk out on the Camelback playing fields over the tournament's four-day run.
2013 No. 2-ranked first baseman/outfielder and 2012 Perfect Game All-American Dominic Smith leads the talented trio, all of whom call Los Angeles home and all of whom will be suiting up for the So Cal Cavs. 2014 outfielders Marcus Wilson (ranked No. 56) and Denz'l Chapman (No. 72) will team with Smith to make the Cavs the odds-on favorite at the 18u Championship.
That's not meant to rule out the other nine teams' chances even before the first pitch is thrown. The Minnesota Blizzard Blue and Minnesota Blizzard Red boast rosters with several prospects that have college commitments, most at NCAA Division I schools.
The Blue's shortstop Matt Fielder (2013, Eugene, Minn.) has signed with the University of Minnesota, and their right-hander Travis Nuebeck (2013, Hugo, Minn.) has signed with the Air Force Academy. Both are top 500-ranked prospects. The Red's third baseman Daniel Busch (2013, Falcon Heights, Minn.) is a Butler University signee and shortstop Derek Feige (2013, Sioux Falls, S.D.) has signed with New Mexico State.
Garciaparra Baseball Group 18u has four D-I commits, including Arizona recruits Bobby Dalbec (2013, Parker, Colo.) and Eijah Skipps (2014, Cypress, Calif.).
The 16-team 14u field assembled also looks stacked. In addition to three So Cal teams (Cavs, Classics and Outlaws HSP), two Team CALIFORNIA Baseball units, another NorCal squad, Yak Baseball West and the North County Padres, the Daytona Beach, Fla.-based MBA Prospects will also be at the event.
The MBA (Melendez Baseball Academy) organization was formed by Alabama State head coach Mervyl Melendez four years ago, and the MBA Pride Elite won the 2012 13u PG BCS Finals national championship.
Melendez will bring nine prospects from that BCS Finals championship team to the 14u tournament this weekend, including shortstop Charlie "Kobe" Lopez (2016, Orlando, Fla.), catcher Mervyl "MJ" Melendez (2017, Montgomery, Ala.) and second baseman Alec Sanchez (2017, Jacksonville, Fla.). All three have already committed to Coach Melendez and Alabama State.
North County's Cook is the freshmen coach at Carlsbad (Calif.) High School, so he has plenty of experience dealing with 14-year-old players. He is bringing primarily kids from Carlsbad and has also included some eighth-graders (2017s) on the roster.
"This will be a great test for them, believe me," he said. "We're a very good, above average 14-year-old team, so we're going to test our luck over in Arizona and see how we match up."
Regardless of the outcome, Cook wants nothing more than for the N.C. Padres organization to establish itself as one to be contended with on the PG tournament circuit. After winning its quarterfinal game at the PG/EvoShield National Under in September, Cook made the following observation:
"That's why I brought them here. I said, 'If you respect the game of baseball, it will reward you,' and they came here knowing we were going to face some good competition and we came here ready to fight and play ball. All I wanted to do was come over here and compete and we're doing that, and all of this just seems to be a bonus."