HOUSTON – Forced to ride-out a short rain delay Sunday morning, the players and coaches from the Banditos 17u Black gathered noisily but comfortably inside the covered batting cages at Rice University’s on-campus Reckling Park.
The cozy ballpark – with high-rise medical and office buildings and even a hotel towering beyond left field – had been hit by a brief thundershower (they would continue to be hit and miss into the afternoon) and the cages provided a logical working refuge. Casual banter and idle chatter exchanged among the ballplayers was interrupted only by the steady “thwack” of batting practice pitches meeting wood bats.
The Houston-based Banditos 17u Black were in their element, preparing for their last of three pool-play games at the PG WWBA South Qualifier, this one against Southern Select/Easton from Bossier City, La. Both teams came in 2-0; the winner advanced to Sunday afternoon’s playoffs and loser went home.
Jake Jarvis, a 2014 third baseman/outfielder/right-handed pitcher from nearby Spring, Texas, was among the many Banditos taking their whacks inside the Rice cages while waiting for the rain to stop Sunday morning.
The country’s No. 118-ranked prospect (No. 9 in the state of Texas), Jarvis is representative of the elite personnel Banditos founder and head coach Ray DeLeon has loaded this Banditos 17u Black roster with for the South Qualifier: He comes from the immediate Houston metropolitan area, he has committed to a prominent NCAA Division I program, he loves to win and he’s been a Bandito since about the time he entered elementary school.
“I’ve been coming to Ray ever since I was 7 (years old); ever since coach-pitch, really,” Jarvis said Sunday. “It’s prepared me and I wouldn’t be where I am today without (DeLeon); I wouldn’t be going to college or doing any of that without him. He’s taught me a lot and he’s got me ready for a lot and he’s a great guy to be around; he loves all of his kids.”
The Banditos 17u Black PG WWBA South Qualifier roster is filled with 10 top prospects that have committed to D-I schools. That surplus of elite talent made 17u Black a popular pre-tournament pick as the favorite to win the championship and receive the paid invitation to the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., Oct. 24-28.
DeLeon and Banditos don’t really need the paid invite. They have already secured an invitation to the World Championship and are using this tournament more as a tune-up for that season-ending really big show. Not that they’ll be satisfied with anything but a championship, of course, despite a continual upgrade in competition at the event.
“This South Qualifier, just in the last five years it’s gotten better every year,” DeLeon said from the batting cages Sunday. “There are a lot of great teams in this tournament now and you just try to put together the best team you can to go compete.
“We’re always trying to win; we’re always ring-chasing,” he added with a laugh. “But we’ve got our berth (to the PG WWBA World) already so we use this to try to get all the guys together; the pitchers that are starting to come back, get them some innings in. … But we’re trying to piece it together and win this championship.”
As DeLeon pointed out, rosters submitted for the fall Perfect Game tournaments can be dicey affairs. Many of the top pitchers shut down in September and well into October in anticipation of being healthy and rested for the PG WWBA World Championship; Friday night football games, homecoming festivities and other high school-related activities can also keep players at home.
“You just try to go with whatever you’ve got and go out there and try to play,” DeLeon said.
DeLeon has a lot, and it starts with a trio of talented 2014 prospects that have provided the backbone of this Houston Banditos 17u Black team throughout this summer, players that will finish their Banditos careers in Jupiter at the end of next month.
The point man is outfielder Stone Garrett, a 2013 Perfect Game All-American and Rice commit from Sugar Land, Texas, who is ranked No. 53 nationally in the 2014 class. This is the 13th PG event Garrett has attended since the 2011 PG National Underclass Showcase-Main Event in Fort Myers, Fla. That number includes his appearances at this summer’s PG National Showcase in Minneapolis and the PG All-American Classic in San Diego.
The South Qualifier, Garrett said Sunday, is more like a homecoming.
“I haven’t played with these guys since Arizona (the 17u PG World Series in late July), so it’s been a long time,” Garrett said. “I just like getting back together with them, talking about things and telling stories about what we’ve been through this summer. It’s been fun just catching up with them.”
As for playing with such talented teammates, Garrett said: “It keeps you working hard because you don’t want to (lag) behind those guys. If anything, you want to (rise) above their goals and everybody is trying for the same thing. It just keeps you in check.”
Garrett hit for the multi-game cycle during the three pool-play games here this weekend, with a single, double, triple and home run in eight at-bats; he knocked in two runs and scored four more. It was just more of the same of what he has come to expect from his Banditos experiences.
“I started playing with them last summer and I was playing with ‘up’, so I was playing with (Kacy) Clemens, (Nick) Buckner, Kohl Stewart and all those guys,” he said. “It’s been great because I started with those guys and I knew what to expect this year playing the same circuit. It’s been pretty fun playing for Ray – everybody knows about Ray’s character – and he gets me going and gets me ready for the games, so it’s been pretty fun.”
Shortstop Justin Twine provides yet another important segment in this three-prospect backbone. Twine, who was not in attendance Sunday but did play on Saturday, is a senior at Hemphill (Texas) High School who is ranked 65th nationally (No. 5 in Texas) and has committed to Texas Christian University (TCU) from the Big 12.
Twine has been to 11 PG events since the 2010 PG WWBA 14u National Championship in Marietta, Ga., and was also at the PG National Showcase in Minneapolis in June.
“Justin Twine is probably one of my favorite kids at heart because he comes from a little (Texas) 2A school and he hasn’t had the opportunities that most of these kids have,” DeLeon said. “By playing with the Banditos we’ve given him the opportunity to show his skills and now he’s regarded as maybe (being selected in) the top two or three rounds of the draft.”
The third major connector in the Banditos’ backbone is Jarvis. A senior at Klein Collins High School in Harris County, Texas, Jarvis has been involved with the Banditos program for more than a decade. He’s played in 14 PG tournaments with the Banditos and along the way made stops at the 2013 PG National Showcase; 2012 PG Junior National Showcase; 2011 PG Junior National Showcase and the 2010 PG National Games, an underclass showcase held annually in San Diego.
Like DeLeon and Garrett, Jarvis expects to be playing in the PG WWBA South Qualifier’s championship game Monday morning and walking away with a title, but there is another reason for being here this weekend.
“This is one of those times when we get together before Jupiter … and it’s good to get all the guys together and start to play again,” he said. “We haven’t played since the summer and we’re kind of rested a little a bit, so this is good.”
Jarvis has seen a lot of great talent come and go during his long association with the Banditos. He was one of the more talented guys – along with players like Garrett and Twine – who were promoted to play up an age-group or two.
“You’ve got guys like Nick Williams and (Courtney) Hawkins and Kohl Stewart and guys like that who are older, and me and Stone played ‘up’ on those teams and we got kind of close to those guys,” Jarvis said. “Those were our role models and now they got drafted and they’re in pro ball. We have those guys to look up to and those guys to call if we ever need anything.
“I’ve made some life-long friends, too. Me and Stone, we hit together, we hang out and he’s a great friend of mine.”
DeLeon has escorted some elite talent through the Banditos organization just in the last five or six years alone – early round MLB draft picks and others who graduated to become valuable contributors at prestigious NCAA Division I programs. When he speaks of Jarvis, Garrett and Twine, there is a reverential tone to his voice.
“They bring a lot of professionalism,” De Leon said. “These kids are professionals already at this age and they carry themselves off the field with tremendous grace. Stone Garrett, for example, is the kind of kid you want your daughter to date. These guys are just great kids with so much upside and they’re getting so much better.
“You give me nine Twines or nine Stone Garretts or nine Jarvises and I’ll beat your ass any day of the week. Trust me, I know,” he added with a smile. “Those kids just walk into your life and they touch you, and they’re very loyal. One thing that I’ve learned is that there is no loyalty in baseball; with all the free rides, these kids could come and go and do what they please, and I’m lucky to have kids that are loyal.”
The Banditos withstood a late rally to beat Southern Select/Easton 7-4 and advance to Sunday afternoon’s round-of-16 playoffs at the South Qualifier. They had beaten their first two pool-play opponents but a combined score of 11-0.
“These are the kind of games I like; I’d rather play three games like this than six pooh-pooh games,” DeLeon said. “This is what gets you ready for Jupiter.”
By mid-afternoon Sunday, a PG WWBA South Qualifier championship – which the Houston Banditos Black were awarded last year in a rain-shortened event – was still very much a reality for the Banditos 17u Black, while the players still kept the PG WWBA World Championship in the forefront of their minds.
“That’s exactly what this is: just a little warm-up for Jupiter,” Garrett said. “We want to get our timing back down and that’s what we use this tournament for.”
There is that, of course. And there’s also that opportunity to get re-acquainted with some old friends.