GLENDALE, Ariz. – It is not an overstatement to say that the Las Vegas Elite came into this weekend’s 3rd annual 16u Perfect Game MLK Championship as somewhat of an unknown, albeit not to the folks in the know in and around glitzy Las Vegas, Nev.
The Elite don’t travel during the summertime, since most of their players play American Legion ball. For most of the guys on the 11-man roster that are here this weekend, it’s their first Perfect Game tournament experience – or showcase experience, for that matter.
So, when Las Vegas Elite head coach Mike McHale was asked by a nosy inquisitor for some background on the Vegas Elite “program” McHale chuckled and asked for some confirmation from one of his players.
“We’re not an organization,” he said Sunday morning from the one of Chicago White Sox’s spring training practice fields at the Camelback Ranch Complex. “We’ve got one jersey, one hat. Right, Dakota? We run a little rec team here, don’t we? We’re like a little neighborhood rec team coming down here to play.”
The player McHale was speaking to was the most recognizable of any on the Elite’s roster: right-handed pitcher and corner-infielder Dakota Donovan from Washington, Utah, the No. 15-ranked national prospect in the high school class of 2016. And even Donovan chuckled at the “rec team” reference. After three days of play at the 16u PG MLK Championship, the Las Vegas Elite have proven to be anything but.
McHale was speaking with PG right before the Elite went out and beat Los Angeles-based CBA Marucci 2017, 4-2, to win their pool championship with a 3-0 record and advance to the eight-team playoffs that begin Monday morning. It was a must-win for Las Vegas, as a CBA win would have either given it the pool championship or forced a crazy tie-breaker scenario that would have also involved Team Northwest.
“It’s been a lot of fun and it’s good to see competition from the rest of the country,” Donovan said Sunday morning. “And with this group you always have the team unity, but I feel like I’m more like brothers with these guys since I’ve known them so long and I’ve played with them so long and I know them so well.”
This team has played under the Las Vegas Elite name for about the last five years. The roster here this weekend features three players from Utah: Donovan; 2016 right-hander Zach Brinkerhoff, a Brigham Young University commit from Cedar City; and 2016 second baseman Rykker Tom, a University of San Diego commit from Cedar City. The rest of the roster consists strictly of Las Vegas residents from the classes of 2015, 2016 and 2017.
McHale said nine of the 11 players he brought here have been playing together since they were around 10 years old, and have experience playing against the two “newcomers.”
“We’ve had some of these guys come to (Perfect Game events) before but most of them haven’t,” McHale said. “This is just like a regular travel team in terms of where these guys have grown up and we just wanted to come down and play in a tournament. We just wanted to come down and play some games and get away from high school ball before the high school season gets started.”
The familiarity and friendships the players enjoy enables them to come into a national-level tournament like the 16u PG MLK with a relaxed air about them. There was a lot riding on their game Sunday morning, but the players were loose and talkative in their dugout before the first pitch was thrown.
“There are situations when you should be tensed up and nervous, and these guys will make a joke or something and you just loosen up. It’s really pretty fun,” said Donovan, who has played in the past with the higher profile Utah Bucks and Utah Marshalls travel teams. “It’s more fun playing with your friends.”
The Las Vegas Elite got off a great start at this event on Friday with a 3-1 win over Team Northwest, the pool favorite coming in. They then put themselves in the driver’s seat for a pool title with a 4-1 win over the AGBC Wizards in play on Saturday, and came into Sunday’s game against CBA Marucci 2017 knowing they could compete with anyone.
“We’ve played against a lot of these teams before,” McHale said. “We’re missing a guy or two who couldn’t make it right at the end – a couple of pitchers – or I think we would have been one of the favorites to win. We only gave up four hits in the first two games; we’ve got some big arms.”
McHale used only five pitchers in the first three games but my, oh my, were they effective. The five allowed only four runs – none of them earned – in 21 innings, on seven hits with 32 strikeouts and six walks.
The workhorse of the bunch – and an effective workhorse, at that – was 2015 right-hander Larry Quaney III from Las Vegas. Quaney III appeared in all three games, gave up no earned runs on six hits in eight innings, and struck out 13 while walking none.
“Larry has the best control of any kid I’ve ever had,” McHale said. “I’ve had some real hard throwers and good pitchers but nobody throws strikes like him. (Saturday) was a bad day for him when he threw 15 strikes out of 18 pitches. In the last tournament we played he went five innings when we run-ruled a team … and he threw 55 pitches, 51 for strikes, with 12 strikeouts. He’s maybe 85 (mph) and he just paints.”
Brinkerhoff, the Utah right-hander, threw six shutout, hitless innings while striking out 10 and walking three; lefty Jake Wilson (2016, Las Vegas) fired four hitless, scoreless innings with three strikeouts and no walks. And there was Donovan, who threw two innings of relief Saturday (he gave up one hit, struck out six and walked two) and is expected to be used again on Monday.
Donovan’s only previous experience with Perfect Game came last June at the PG Junior National Showcase at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. It was there he first performed in front of Perfect Game’s scouting staff – not to mention a couple of hundred professional scouts and college coaches – and earned a perfect 10.0 PG Grade for his efforts. It also drove him up the 2016 national rankings to his current perch at No. 15.
The PG scouting report from the Junior National, while making mention of his 86 mph fastball, noted:
“(Donovan is) just scratching the surface of future velocity (with) good late life on his fastball in all directions … release point on off-speed (pitches) not consistent yet but mixes with maturity and confidence. … Right-handed hitter, long smooth swing, has some leverage and bat speed, shows power, good lower half in swing, and has some potential with the bat. This young man has a chance to be very, very good with normal development; all the young pieces are in place. Good student.”
“That was a pretty big thing and it was one of my first big showcases,” Donovan said of the Junior National experience. “It was pretty nerve-wracking at first but there were a lot of cool guys that made it a lot of fun. … It’s a lot of fun seeing other (standout) players and being able to see where you are compared to the rest of country.
That was also the first time Donovan had played in front such a large gathering of scouts and college recruiters, but he’s getting use to that now. “At first it made me real nervous, but I’ve gotten more comfortable with it,” he said.
Another couple of notable 2017s on the Las Vegas Elite roster are twins Parker and Ryan McHale, an outfielder and first baseman, respectively, who also happen to be the sons of Coach McHale. The coach seems to be enjoying himself coaching his sons again.
“I don’t coach them much anymore because now it’s mostly with their high school,” Coach McHale said. “In Vegas, the way it goes, once you start the high school (season) in the spring it rolls right into Legion and that goes all the way into August. The only time I ever coach them anymore is in the fall when we like to do a couple of tournaments for fun.”
The 2014 16u PG MLK Championship might have a little more riding on it than those tournaments that are done strictly for fun. But judging by their demeanor and their performance, this “rec team” from Las Vegas is having all the fun in the world this weekend here in the Valley of the Sun.