In the two or three years Mike Brooks has been bringing teams from the Great Northwest to the most prestigious Perfect Game national championship tournaments under the Team Northwest banner, he has always had the same mission.
“Like I’ve always tried to do, we want to present the best of the Northwest at these (Perfect Game) events and this is about the best of the Northwest right here,” Brooks said a couple of days before Team Northwest won the title at the 18u Perfect Game MLK Championship in Glendale, Ariz., in mid-January. “Just about everybody that the scouts are really looking at and that the college coaches like (from the PG Northwest Region) are here.”
Brooks knew what he had brought to the Arizona desert even before Team Northwest won its PG MLK title. He calls Puyallup, Wash., home and is intimately familiar with the talent that has come through Puyallup High School dating back decades.
Marc Wiese is beginning his 19th season as head coach at Puyallup High this spring and oversees a program that has been among the strongest in the PG Northwest Region (Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Wyoming and Washington) for nearly 40 years.
The Vikings have qualified for the Washington Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) state playoffs six straight years, nine times since 2001, 12 times since 1996 and 19 times in the last 39 years, dating back to the 1974 season. They have also won six straight South Puget Sound League (SPSL)-South titles and have compiled a 124-27 record during that run.
Puyallup High has been known as the proverbial “football school” throughout its existence and counts former NFL players Billy Joe Hobert, Brock and Damon Huard and Dane Looker among its most notable gridiron alumni. It also has had six players selected in the MLB amateur draft since 1967, although none reached the majors.
“I’m pretty proud of the success we’ve had,” Wiese said in a recent telephone conversation with PG. “This has always been kind of a football school … but we’re kind of known as a baseball school in the state of Washington. We’ve had a lot of success and we’re really excited about the future.”
The Vikings are coming off a season in which they finished 22-3 after a first-round loss in the WIAA Class 4A state playoffs. They graduated only four seniors off that team, including right-handed pitchers Ryan Harris, Jacob Howard and Gabe Ihrig, who were a combined 10-1 with a 1.24 ERA in 78 2/3 innings pitched.
But eleven top-notch players that played in at least 23 of the Vikings’ 25 games in 2013 and helped them compile a team batting average approaching .360 are back in the fold. With all that firepower returning, Puyallup High is ranked No. 48 in the most recent PG National High School Top-50 Rankings, the only school from the PG Northwest Region to earn a spot in the rankings.
Puyallup’s top prospect is junior catcher/right-hander Brendan Illies, a 6-foot-1, 185-pound standout two-way player from Edgewood, Wash., who has committed to powerhouse North Carolina a country away in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Illies is the No. 1-ranked prospect in Washington’s class of 2015 and is ranked No. 57 nationally. He has attended six Perfect Game events, including last summer’s PG Junior National Showcase in Minneapolis. He played in the 2013 PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., with Marucci Elite and was named to the all-tournament team at the 2013 17u Perfect Game World Series in Goodyear, Ariz., while playing with Team Northeast.
His 2013 high school season was a mixed bag: He hit .333 (25-for-75) with a home run and 25 RBI and was 7-2 with a 1.92 ERA and 56 strikeouts in 54 2/3 innings as the Vikings’ No. 1 guy in the rotation.
“Brendan is a tremendous athlete and a tremendous competitor,” Wiese said of Illies, who has been playing varsity at PHS since his freshman year. “I think last year as a sophomore he put a lot of pressure on himself and probably didn’t have the offensive year that he wanted to have.
“I think he expected to hit .450 and dominate on the mound and that didn’t happen for him, but I think some kids need to go through that to take that next step.”
Illies is also a standout football quarterback, but he has committed to North Carolina to play baseball only. He really enjoys pitching and he’s very good at it – his fastball has reached 89 mph at PG events – and could project as a two-way player at the collegiate level.
“I really like his upside behind the plate,” Wiese said. “That, to me, is where I really see him flourishing at the next level.”
The Vikings other top returnees include Washington State signee Tyler McDowell, a senior outfielder/left-hander who hit .343 (24-for70) with two home runs and 22 RBI and was 3-0 with a 0.98 ERA and 23 strikeouts in 21 1/3 innings as a junior. Coach Wiese will also have the services of junior left-hander Luke Heimlich this spring, a 6-foot-1, 175-pound Oregon State commit who sat out last season after transferring in from another school.
Among the top hitters returning are senior Darian Clemens (.462, 7 2Bs, 2 3Bs, 20 RBI), senior Quinn Rawson (.438, team-highs 3 HRs, 9 2Bs, 29 RBI) and senior Levi Jordan (.404, 8 2Bs, 2 3Bs, 20 RBI). Like Illies, Rawson, Jordan and McDowell have spent time playing for Team Northwest.
“We have a really strong junior class along with a really strong senior class,” Wiese said. “I feel like we could roll 13 or 14 kids out there that should be starting day-in and day-out, so that’s going to be my tough job. The biggest thing for me is (for the kids) being committed to the game and being committed to themselves to be the best players that they can be.
“One thing that our players do is they work hard throughout the year and they work hard in our strength and conditioning program and I think that’s been a huge benefit.”
The talent level and the draftability possessed by the players coming out of state of Washington high schools over the last 10 or 15 years was documented in this Perfect Game article last year and the trend shows no sign of slowing. Wiese, like Team Northwest’s Brooks, has watched it from a front-row seat.
“I think it’s really improved in the past 10 or 12 years,” Wiese said. “We have a lot of indoor facilities and the kids are playing a lot of baseball; they’re getting more training. Unfortunately with the weather, it can be pretty tough here. Obviously, in the wintertime it’s very difficult to get outside but I feel baseball has really taken a big step forward.”
And in an improbable Catch-22, Wiese thinks the weather conditions may also make the young Northwest prospects better players in the long run.
“Playing up here and being in the Northwest, you have to be pretty tough – you’re playing in the drizzle and all kinds of different things,” he said. “Scouts, I think they see a kind of upside potential in our players … and we play very good baseball.”
Travel ball organizations like Brooks’ Team Northwest and others in the region, along with Perfect Game tournaments and showcases, have been of great benefit to the Northwest Region’s high school prospects.
In last year’s MLB June amateur draft catcher Reese McGuire out of Kent, Wash., and right-hander Dustin Driver from Wenatchee, Wash. – a pair of 2012 PG All-Americans – were drafted in the first and seventh rounds by the Pittsburgh Pirates and Oakland A’s, respectively. The PG All-American Classic was just one of dozens of PG events the two attended.
“The kids getting those experiences and getting that exposure – that’s another big reason why kids in the Northwest are better in general in baseball because those kids are getting those opportunities to compete against kids from California and Florida,” Wiese said. “It’s huge.”
For the next two months, the players from Puyallup High School will do what they do best: compete against other Washington high school players and usually come out on top. There is a sticking point here, however.
Remember those six straight WIAA Class 4A playoff appearances since 2008, the nine since 2001, the 12 since 1996 and the 19 since 1974? Well, despite all those appearances, Puyallup High School has never won a state championship. It made it to the championship game in both 2009 and 2012 but lost both times, including a 4-1 setback to McGuire’s Kentwood High School team in 2012.
“We have one job to do and that’s to win a state championship, and anything less that would be a disappointment, no question, “Wiese said. “We ended (the 2013 season) with a little bit of a sour taste in our mouth and we’re going to go out and play with a little chip on our shoulder and accomplish this thing.”