GLENDALE, Ariz. – Team Phenom founder and field manager Joe Keller gazed out over one of the White Sox’s spring training practice fields at the Camelback Ranch Complex Friday morning with a look of satisfaction on face.
He brought his top team here this weekend for the 3rd annual 14u Perfect Game MLK Championship, a squad he first assembled about six years ago when the players were still in elementary school. The Phenom have since developed into one of the country’s top 14u teams and Keller couldn’t help but smile when he thought back on those early years.
“It’s way better now than it was when they were nine. When they were 9 years old I just about wanted to kill myself,” Keller said on the cool morning, a couple of hours before the bright desert sun could fully warm the crisp air to daytime highs well into the 70s.
“It’s definitely a great group and they’re getting mature now, and their dedication is another thing that just amazes me,” he said. “Some of the other teams we see back home, they’re not the same as these guys. These guys are just focused and all they care about is school, baseball, school, baseball. That’s why I think there are going to be a lot of prospects from this group, for college purposes, for sure.”
The 14u PG MLK Championship shared the stage Friday morning – and will continue to share the stage through the weekend and into Monday – with the 16u PG MLK Championship and 18u MLK Championship.
Pool-play continues through Sunday with the playoffs and championships games scheduled for Monday in all three tournaments. Twenty-four teams are competing for the 14u championship with 28 teams in both the 16u and 18u fields.
Team Phenom is based in Moreno Valley, Calif., a Southern California city of more than 190,000 residents that is part of the San Bernardino-Riverside Metropolitan area. Team Phenom’s roster includes players from across the region, as well as two players – 2018 catcher Austin Wells and 2018 shortstop Jacob Cruz –that call Las Vegas, Nev., home, and another from Florida.
The Team Phenom organization – it’s website refers to the program as Phenom Nation – has been around for six years and the core players on this team have been part of it since they were eight or nine years old. Through the years, and especially the last two or three years, the team has enjoyed phenomenal success with numerous USSSA national, regional and state championships.
“It’s one of those things where they compete at all times,” Keller said. “They compete and they want to win, but in baseball you just never know. Like I told the coaches, this is a tough tournament for us because you’ve got to win every single game in your pool so we’re going to have to throw some guys early that maybe we wouldn’t throw to have a chance of winning.”
Phenom Nation wasted little time planting its flag in the desert Friday morning with a 6-1 tournament-opening win over highly regarded Team Northwest out of Puyallup, Wash. 2017 left-hander Jacob Maze from La Habra, Calif., and 2018 both-hander Addison Barger from Thonotosassa, Fla., combined on a no-hitter while Brandon Rho (2018, Fullerton, Calif.) was 2-for-2 with three RBI.
“We’re here for the competition,” Keller said before the game. “Most of the better (14u) teams from the country are here and we just wanted to play in this tournament. We don’t usually play 14u – we usually play 16 back home – because I don’t really care about winning tournaments. I would rather my guys get better every day and just play the game the right way. Discipline is a big thing to me and how they play the game the right way is big, too.”
By facing Team Northwest in its opener, Team Phenom got a good indication of the high level of play it will have to maintain to win-out at the 14u PG MLK Championship. Keller can’t expect to get a no-hitter from his young arms every time out, but his players know what his expectations are going into every game.
“The biggest thing about the game of baseball that I love more than anything is when it’s played the right way,” he said. “The discipline, the structure – you want the kids to behave and appreciate the game; they’ve got to respect it and hustle on and off the field. You see these (other) kids, they’re throwing helmets, throwing bats. I’m not into that. I’m trying to get kids into college and not trying to make a mockery of the sport.”
Keller is involved with sports marketing for Nike and said he understands what it takes for a young player to move onto the collegiate level. He said every one of the players on this Team Phenom roster will easily qualify for college academically, which is certainly a great place to start. “I want to make sure these guys have that opportunity one way or another.”
Team Phenom plans on a playing a full spring and summer schedule that includes a high-profile presence at Perfect Game tournaments, especially those out here but even a couple out East. Where ever they go in the years to come, Keller is confident his players will always represent themselves well.
“They’re not going to beat themselves,” he said. “They’re going to make the right plays, they’re going to make the right cuts, they’re going to manage the game the right way; they know how to play it. We won’t be the biggest, we won’t be the smallest but we’ll see how the results are at the end. These guys can play and they love the game, and that’s the biggest thing. They love each other and they go out and they play the game.”