MARIETTA, Ga. - In the middle of Marucci Elite's opening pool-play game at the 17u/18u Perfect Game-East Cobb Invitational Wednesday afternoon, manager and head coach Chad Raley sent someone in the Marucci traveling party to the Atlanta airport to pick up standout right-hander Trevor Clifton.
Clifton, the nation's No. 18-ranked prospect in the class of 2013 out of Maryville, Tenn., was greeted warmly once he reached the field at Southern Poly State University where Marucci Elite was playing its tournament opener.
"Right when he walked into the dugout, everybody just lit up," Raley related Thursday morning from the East Cobb Baseball Complex. "Everyone was like, 'Trevor, what's up man!' and they were hugging and everything because they hadn't seen each other for quite awhile. So I think our team chemistry is really good ... and they're relaxed now because they know each other so well."
The 2012 core of Marucci Elite's premier squad is starting to reacquaint themselves with one another after a winter and spring spent in their respective hometowns and high schools. And the teammates brought together here this weekend not only know how to win, they know how to win together.
This is essentially the same team that won the 2011 PG WWBA Underclass World Championship in early October in Fort Myers, Fla., and three of the elite 2013s on this year's team also played on the Marucci Elite squad that won the 2011 PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., in late October.
Marucci hosted a 50-team, rain-plagued tournament in New Orleans last weekend, but the team Raley trotted out for that event consisted mostly of 16u position players. This week's 17u/18u PG-EC Invite marks the first time he has about 80 percent of his roster playing together. Elite won its first two pool-play games here on Wednesday and Thursday by a combined score of 26-5.
"Some of our guys probably won't even be with us until July because they have the (Perfect Game) National (Showcase) next weekend and then a lot of the guys are doing the Tournament of Stars the following week," Raley said. "Once we get up here for the 17u (2012 PG WWBA 2013 Grads or 17u National Championship) we'll be full strength for the rest of the summer."
"Star-studded" is very much an overused term, but it seems appropriate in Marucci's case. The three prospects who played for both the 2011 WWBA Underclass World and WWBA World championship teams that are back this year are shortstop Oscar Mercado, shortstop/right-hander Blake Hennessey and catcher/right-hander Andrew Dunlop.
Mercado is the country's No. 3-ranked prospect in the 2013 class, Hennessey is No. 25 and Dunlop No. 109. Among the prospects who played for the 2011 PG WWBA Underclass World title team who return this year are No. 18-ranked Clifton, No. 52 outfielder Jarret Dehart, No. 92 right-hander Trey Cobb and No. 146 righty Andy Honiotes.
That list doesn't even include No. 4-ranked top prospect Justin Williams, an outfielder from Houma, La., who didn't play in either of October's tournaments because he was playing football at the time.
"We asked the majority of those guys back and, of course, they wanted to play," Raley said. "We've really only got a handful of new guys, and some of them were with us last summer but were football guys in the fall. The majority of the guys know each other; we've got a chance of this being kind of a special summer for us."
With that kind of talent on board, Raley expects this team to compete for championships in every event it enters this summer and fall. Those tournaments include the PG WWBA 17u National Championship July 6-13 in Marietta; the 17u PG BCS Finals July 14-20 in Fort Myers, Fla.; the first 17u Perfect Game World Series July 24-28 in Peoria, Ariz., and the PG WWBA World Championship Oct. 25-29 in Jupiter.
Raley is especially excited about the 17u PG World Series, an event already gaining a head of steam that will include only 16 of the elite 17u teams in the country. The buzz is surrounding the event is beginning to build.
"I think we've got the pieces to win it," he said. "We've got really good pitching this year and we're going to be a really offensive club. I like our pitching just because we've got a mix of guys that may not throw the hardest and may not be the household names, but they know how to command the baseball and throw multiple pitches for strikes.
"I don't necessarily have to have a guy that throws 100 mph and doesn't know where it's going; I want a guy that knows where it's going ... and can execute a pitch."
Those pitchers include - in addition to Clifton, Cobb, Honiotes and Hennessey - right-handers Lawson Vassar and Alden Cartwright, and lefties Hunter Green and Glenn Irby.
"With this pitching staff, I could put them all in a box, shake 'em up and just pull one out," Raley said. "They all bring something different to the table, but they all have confidence and I could just run them out against any team and feel like we've got a chance to win."
Eighteen of the 24 players on last year's Marucci Elite premier roster were drafted earlier this week, including left-hander Colin Rodgers, who the Kansas City Royals selected in the third round. Raley said that pick was especially gratifying because he scouts part-time for the Royals and had really pushed for Rodgers' selection.
"I've been working with that kid since he was 13 so it was special for me to see one of the guys I've been working with so much get picked so high," Raley said.
With so many of his former players getting drafted and so many of his current players so highly ranked and expected to be high draft picks next June, it might be easy to make the assumption Raley is left with dealing a roster full of egomaniacs. After speaking with Raley, however, it's just as easy to see that wouldn't be tolerated.
"I think we've kind of done a good job with the kids we select because none of them have egos," he said. "Oscar Mercado and Justin Williams are two of the top players (in the country) and those kids don't even know it. They've got no clue (about rankings). Justin is just a big kid, and he don't care about rankings; all he wants to do is win a ring. ...Oscar is just a humble kid that wants to play in the big leagues one day, and I think he will."
Based on the pair of World championships Marucci Elite won in October, Raley's final statement during his conversation with PG Thursday morning is the one that should make opposing coaches take pause. When asked if he was looking forward to the summer and fall of 2012, Raley didn't mince words:
"This is probably the most excited I've been about a team just because we had that success in the two tournaments in the fall," he said. "The kids got a little taste of winning championships and winning some big tournaments and they're still hungry. I want to keep building the Marucci name and keep growing our organization. ... This will be the best team that I've ever had, and this is probably the most excited I've been to see some of these guys and be around them."