FORT MYERS, Fla. – A relatively small number of young prospects from around the Tallahassee, Fla., area are getting an opportunity to increase their exposure this summer by becoming involved with Next Level Baseball.
Next Level is in its first year of fielding a travel-ball team, and its only squad is here this week competing in the Perfect Game 18u BCS Finals. The tournament was in its second day Monday and concludes with two semifinals and a championship game Friday afternoon at City of Palms Park.
This week the team is being led by head coach Mike Harrison, a long-time coach of youth baseball teams in Tallahassee, and Jamey Shouppe, the former pitching coach and recruiting coordinator at Florida State University.
Although this is the first year the team has played under the Next Level banner, the core group of its roster has played together for two or three years and won a pair of Babe Ruth World Series titles while playing in younger age groups.
The organization has just a single objective, which makes it easy to understand why they have their have squad at the PG 18u BCS Finals this week and also had it at the PG WWBA 18u National Championship in Marietta, Ga., July 2-8.
“Our objective is for the players to be seen by as many scout and recruiters as possible,” Harrison said Monday afternoon at the Boston Red Sox Player Development 5-Plex before his team was to play its third and final game in the first round of pool play. “We’ve been lucky enough to gather a good group of kids who love to play the game hard and we’ve been lucky enough to have a great summer.”
The addition of Shouppe for this week’s tournament has provides new perspective for the players. He just left the FSU program at the conclusion of the 2011 season after 21 years at the Tallahassee school, and is working with Next Level on a volunteer basis while also getting a chance to watch his son, Jared Shouppe (class of 2012), play baseball.
“Jamey has been great to volunteer his time with us,” Harrison said. “Of course, his son is on the team, so it’s fun for him. This is the first summer that he’s really been able to watch his son play because he’s been off recruiting (in past years).”
Shouppe identified that aspect of his new “job” as among its most gratifying.
“It helps me kind of make up for all the time I was away when he was growing up,” Shouppe said. “Depending on what happens to me and the coaching profession or outside of baseball, I might get the opportunity to see him play more. I know for this summer it’s been fun following him around.”
Just having the opportunity to be around young players who continue to learn the game is something Shouppe welcomes while he seeks other opportunities in or out of baseball.
“Baseball is a great game, and to be able to hopefully share some of what I’ve learned over the years coaching at the Division I level, not only about the game of baseball but the recruiting process and all, is something that I enjoy doing,” he said.
While at FSU, Shouppe had the opportunity to attend at least dozens of Perfect Game tournaments and showcases through the years, and he was considered one of the top recruiters in college baseball. He feels like he can be a bug in a kid’s ear when they’re performing at PG events.
“I tell kids this all the time: If you can play, keep playing, because Perfect Game has certainly done a great job of increasing the exposure that these kids have,” Shouppe said. “If you can play, keep playing because somebody’s going to see you – there are no secrets in the recruiting world anymore.”
Shouppe is quick to tell the kids how important it is to be at the top of their game when they’re at a PG event. Missteps that may seem small to high school-aged players – like throwing to the wrong base or not backing up a throw – will be duly noted by the college coaches in attendance.
“You need to make sure you take advantage of every opportunity you can to not only play well, but to make sure you’re playing the game the right way,” he said. “You play the game the right way and the exposure is maximized because Perfect Game has done and continues to do such a good job making sure these coaches see those kids.”
Next Level played well in winning its first two games at the 18u BCS Finals, which it managed to squeeze in on Sunday when most teams had at least one game postponed by rain. NLB then clinched its first round pool championship with a 10-1 win over Mizuno Edge on Monday to seal a 3-0 start to the Finals. A second set of three pool games will be played Tuesday and Wednesday, after which the 16-team playoff field will be set.
Right-hander Sawyer Betts (2012) pitched a five-inning four-hitter in the win over Mizuno Edge. On Sunday, lefty Thomas Watson (2012) fired a six-hitter in a 5-1 upset of nationally ninth-ranked Team Mizuno-Puerto Rico.
Next Level won its pool at the WWBA 18u National Championship with a 5-0 record and won its first playoff game before being eliminated by the Homeplate Chilidogs in the round of 16.
Next Level’s entire roster is filled with players from the Tallahassee area, and it’s an impressive group. Seven of the players have either already signed with or committed to Florida State, one to The Citadel and three others to Tallahassee Community College.
Infielder Bobby Rice, a TCC signee, is the only one of that group that is with the team at the 18u BCS Finals, however.
“Unfortunately, during the summer sometimes those guys have to take summer school, so they couldn’t come with us this week,” Harrison said.
NLB plans on adding a 16u team to its stable next year as it attempts to continue to grow.
“There’s a great crop of young men coming through Tallahassee right now,” Harrison said. “We see ourselves growing in the next couple of years to where we have a whole tier of teams – 12u, 14u, 16u and 18u.”