FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Development and improvement may have come gradually for top 2014 prospect Reese Cooley, one of the elite guys playing for the Orlando Scorpions 17u North squad at this week's 17u PG BCS Finals national championship tournament.
By his own admission, Cooley -- an outfielder from Orange Park, Fla., who will be a senior in the fall at Fleming Island High School in Orange Park -- struggled with his game right up through his sophomore year in high school. That was just a year after he decided to leave football and basketball behind and concentrate on what he called his favorite sport.
"My sophomore year I struggled a lot offensively and defensively," Cooley said on Monday from the Lee County Sports Complex before the Scorpions 17u North played the first of what would be two scheduled pool-play games. "I just told myself, 'Don't stop, just keep working hard.' I just kept working hard and I haven't looked back since."
The determination he showed to improve his work ethic and just flat-out get better seems to have paid off. The 6-foot-3, 195-pound Cooley came into the 17u PG BCS Finals as the No. 43-ranked overall national prospect in the high school class of 2014 (he's also the country's No. 13-ranked outfielder, and ranked Nos. 6-1 in the state of Florida) and eager to prove he belongs on the highest national stage.
The Orlando Scorpions 17u North are not the premier team in the Scorpion organization's owner Matt Gerber's extensive stable, but they've been competitive. Cooley is looking forward to spending the next five days in Southwest Florida after spending last week in the Atlanta area.
"It's always nice being in Fort Myers," he said, looking back to the most recent visit at the 18u PG WWBA East Memorial Day Classic at the end of May. It wasn't bad for the Scorpions 17u North in general -- they finished 3-1 and just missed the playoffs -- but Cooley struggled at the plate, batting just 1-for-11 (.083).
"We're always excited about playing in Perfect Game events, either up in Atlanta or down here in Fort Myers, just because of the competition; there's no riff-raff here," Scorpions 17u North head coach Scott Hennessey said. "You're going to see good arms and athletes and good competition, so any time you can get your kids to play against good competition you feel good about that."
And there's another important reason for being in attendance, Hennessey said: "That goes along with the college coaches being here. We've already been able to play in front of ACC, SEC, other Division I (schools) and pro scouts, and anytime you can do that it benefits the kids."
The Scorpions 17u North finished 4-1 at last week's rain-soaked 17u PG WWBA National Championship in the north Atlanta suburbs, but again fell short of the playoffs (the national championship tournament was won by Scorpions' family member the Orlando Scorpions-Prime).
Cooley was terrific in five games there, going 8-for-15 (.533) with four doubles, three RBI, four runs scored and a 1.388 on-base-plus-slugging percentage while battling long periods of downtime cause by non-stop rain.
"Just sitting around for three or four days, you get kind of bored, you know?" he said. "We were just ready to get on the field."
Hennessey said that Cooley played the infield his first two years in high school because of his athleticism but always believed he belonged in the outfield. Cooley is still learning the centerfield position but is making progress; he's always been able to hit.
"Now he's staying on the ball and using the middle of the field so much more with two strikes, and that's where he's made his biggest progress at the plate," Hennessey said.
As far as Cooley's progression into a top-50 prospect goes, it has been steady as she goes. PG scouts have always been aware of him, but he made his biggest impression at June's Perfect Game National Showcase at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. He ran a 6.63-second 60-yard dash and also threw 94 mph from the outfield, both impressive workout performances.
At the conclusion of the National Showcase, PG vice-president of player development David Rawnsley wrote of Cooley: A big strong athletic player, Cooley has outstanding potential. He ran a 6.6 and threw 94 from the outfield in the Metrodome, and he is a very good outfielder at all three positions. He can really swing the wood and has power potential and overall is a very good athlete with a strong baseball body.
Cooley simply loved the PG National experience.
"There was a lot of good competition and you get to meet a lot of good players from all around the country," he said Monday. "Perfect Game is the best at bringing in the best athletes to their tournaments and showcases and I was glad I got up there and got to meet some of those guys -- those are friends that I will have for the rest of my life. You know everyone is there working hard and you know everyone is there because they earned it, and it just makes it that much better."
Cooley was also at the 2012 PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., in October, playing with the elite Royals Scout Team. The PG WWBA World attracts nearly 1,000 scouts and college coaches every year, and Cooley was adequately impressed.
"When I showed up to the field, I was amazed; I'd never seen that many scouts before at a game," he said, his eyes widening at the memory. "I was one of the younger guys on the team and when I came up to bat I looked and saw the scouts up and down the foul lines, and I was like, 'Yeah this is what you live for right here, playing in front of the scouts because they want to see the best play.'"
Cooley certainly ranks among the best in the land right now in his graduating class. He is ranked as the No. 184 overall prospect (college, juco, high school) in the 2014 draft by PG national director of cross-checker Allan Simpson, a ranking that could certainly climb as the summer moves into the fall and ultimately the spring of 2014.
"Reese is a great kid who comes from a good family," the Scorpions' Hennessey said. "He's a hard-worker and off the field he's not in any trouble; he's going to succeed in whatever he does. I've know Reese since he was 6 years old and I've coached him a lot and just to see him develop and work and get stronger, it's fun to see. The upside that he has is that he's got a lot of upside."
The Orlando Scorpions 17u North got off to an inauspicious start at the 17u PG BCS Finals, losing both of its first two games on Sunday on Monday (a third pool-play game scheduled for Monday was postponed until Tuesday by rain). Cooley was just 1-for-5 in those first two games but came close to being the team's leading hitter: the Scorpions 17u North hit a miserable .093 (4-for-43) as a team with one double and one RBI in those first two games.
That shouldn't persist. While not boasting nearly as many college commitments as the Scorpions-Pride, the 17u North do have third baseman/right-hander and Florida recruit Hunter Alexander (2014, Green Grove Springs, Fla.); third baseman/catcher and Jacksonville commit David Boyle (2014, St. Augustine, Fla.); infielder and Army recruit Tyler Young (2014, Orlando, Fla.); and right-hander and North Florida commit Pearson McMahon (2014, Fernandina, Fla.) on its roster.
Alexander is ranked the country's No. 194 overall prospect in his class (No. 13 third baseman prospect in Florida). Cooley hasn't made a college commitment yet, saying he just want to wait it out a little longer at this point.
"We've got guys with good make-up, good families, and I think more than anything they think they have something to prove," Hennessey said. "A lot of are unsigned and they're good players, and I think some of these guys should be signed. They just feel that they have something to prove and we're just trying to teach them how to play the right way.
"These guys all know each other and they feel comfortable around each other," he continued, speaking of this team's place in the Scorpions' organization. "Sometimes when you go play for another team it takes you awhile to get use to that team or that coach. These guys all know each other and feel comfortable, so they've definitely found their niche."
Cooley will keep working to impress scouts and college coaches throughout the next 11 months before the 2014 MLB First-Year Player Draft gets under way. He's enjoyed the ride so far, or at least since got a handle on things heading into his junior year in high school.
"It's been real fun," he said. "Ever since that sophomore year when I was struggling I've been working on improvements and trying to get better. (The struggles) showed me how to work hard because I thought I was almost too good; baseball is a humbling sport and it showed me that it doesn't just come to you and have to work for it, and I like working hard for it now."