Photo: Perfect Game

'Blizzard' warning at Kernels

Jeff Dahn

Published: Saturday, September 30, 2017



CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – On a simply gorgeous early fall day in Eastern Iowa, it would have bordered on preposterous to issue any kind of winter storm warning. But, then again, talking about an impending “Blizzard” might not be as nutty as the suggestion may have sounded at first-blush. The Minnesota (MN) Blizzard Blue 2018 blew back into Linn County on Saturday, returning to the scene of the Vadnais Heights-based program’s greatest triumph.

It was just 12 months ago that the MN Blizzard Blue arrived here for the 2016 Perfect Game WWBA Kernels Foundation Championship and returned home with not only a championship trophy but also with a coveted paid invitation to the exclusive PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla.; it was the Blizzard program’s first invitation to Jupiter and it was paid in full.

“When we came into the tournament last year that was our number-one goal, to come in and try to capture the crown and get a chance to go down to Jupiter and showcase our talent down there,” MN Blizzard Blue head coach Eddie Gerald said Saturday morning before his team played its 2017 PG WWBA Kernels Foundation Championship opener at Kennedy High School.

“We were fortunate enough to win the tournament and we got down there and (did just that),” he added. “That’s basically what it’s all about.”

Perfect Game All-American right-hander Seth Halvorsen, the ace of this MN Blizzard Blue 2018 pitching staff, has similar recollections:

“It was a lot of fun, just coming down here and winning it,” he said Saturday. “It was a great group of guys that had been playing with each other all summer and finished it off by winning a big tournament and being able to go to Jupiter. It was a great experience; we’re hoping to repeat that.”

And that really is the trick, doing it all over again. While this group of primarily class of 2018 Minnesota prospects is undoubtedly a very talented team, it is also a very different team in terms of personnel from the one that mined goal here one year ago.

Sixteen of the 18 players on this Blizzard Blue roster reside in the class of 2018, and that count includes the four prospects that were underclassmen on last year’s Kernels Foundation championship team:

Halvorsen (ranked No. 27 nationally, a Missouri commit), catcher/second baseman Nicholas Juaire (No. 471, Texas Christian), right-hander/outfielder Tommy Springer (top-500, Missouri), and outfielder/left-hander Brock Anderson (North Dakota State). That foursome provides Gerald with a battle-tested core from which to draw from.

“We’re carrying some momentum because we have those guys who are returning from last year, so they’ve already had a taste of what it’s like to be in this tournament,” Gerald said. “They need to reiterate that to their brothers and just say, ‘Hey, go out there and play hard and leave it on the field, and then we’ll be happy with the results.’”

And this time around, 2018 infielder Charlie Fischer (t-500, Southern Miss) and 2018 outfielder/right-hander Aidan Maldonado (t-500, Illinois), among others, have been added to the mix.

The versatile Springer was the story of last year’s 8-0, five-inning championship game victory over the Nebraska Prospects 2018-Kenny. All the then-high school junior did in the game was throw a five-inning one-hitter, while also delivering a pair of singles, driving in a run and scoring another one; he was named the Most Valuable Pitcher on his championship game outing alone.

The headliner for the MN Blizzard Blue 2018 at this year’s Kernels Championship just might be Halvorsen. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound, hard-throwing right-hander drew rave reviews at the PG All-American Classic in August when, pitching for Team West, he struck-out the side in the bottom of the ninth inning to nail down a 6-1 victory over Team East.

“I definitely saw the biggest jump in my baseball career this summer,” Halvorsen said Saturday morning. “I’m just excited to keep building on that and see what the future has in store for me.”

He was right back at it on Saturday in the Blizzard Blue 2018’s 5-2 victory over the Chicago White Sox ACE 2018 at Kennedy HS. Halvorsen threw five, two-hit innings without allowing an earned run while striking out five and walking two; his fastball sat 90-92 mph and topped out at 93 mph.

“Seth is just this raw, talented kid. If you put him in anything athletic, he will succeed; he’s just that type of kid,” Gerald said. “He’s even a better kid off the field because he’s a leader – he’s certainly one of the leaders of this group – and we rely on Seth; he’s a big part of what we do. … That kid is a special talent and something very, very special to watch.”

Many of Halvorsen’s teammates on this Blizzard Blue 2018 squad are pretty talented as well. There are potent bats and strong arms up and down the roster and Gerald is proud of the way the players carry themselves on an off the field.

The first thing the staff at the Minnesota Blizzard organization – and it starts with academy founder/owner Adam Barta – tells the players when they enter the program is that they need to leave their egos at the door.

The coaches strive to instill in the players the belief that if they play the game the correct way without cutting any convenient corners, their athleticism will ultimately take over. That, in turn, makes just about anything – all things, really – possible.

“All these guys are very athletic in all of these tournaments that we play in, so we’ve just got to teach these kids how to play the game the right way and not play for yourself,” Gerald said. “If you play for the guy next to you the numbers will show up at the end of the day.”

Gerald, who played in the minor leagues in the Royals, Cardinals and Twins organizations for parts of seven seasons and added parts of another 11 seasons in Indee ball, called the PG WWBA Kernels Foundation Championship “a very good test” and one the Blizzard players are eager to challenge themselves with.

There are dozens of highly ranked high school sophomores, juniors and, especially, seniors from across the Midwest in uniform this weekend, and the coach only wants his players to relax and have some fun while also playing some winning baseball.

There really isn’t any reason for this team to feel any pressure under the weight of returning as the defending tournament champion, of course. It could be argued that with the reward for a successful run being so high – the paid invite to the PG WWBA World Championship – all 42 teams in the field might feel some pressure, but at the end of the day these are just high school kids playing a game they love.

“My expectations as a coach is just to have these guys play hard and have fun. If you do that, I think we’ll be where we need to be,” Gerald said. “It’s about capturing it right at the hand. Do your job right (from the start) and don’t worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will get here soon enough and you can worry about that then. The number-one thing is to just come down here and have fun.”

The MN Blizzard Blue 2018 were forced to settle for a 4-4 tie in their second pool-play game Saturday, this one against the Iowa Select Royal 2018. But it’s important to remember that the Blizzard Blue also had to overcome a pool-play tie at last year’s Kernels tournament and managed to regroup and win the championship.

Halvorsen told PG before Saturday’s opener that this team could still generate some momentum from last year’s Kernels championship. He feels like it’s a team playing with a target on its back, which adds even more motivation, and it’s a team that can do some damage here and maybe even down in Jupiter next month.

“We definitely have a bulldog attitude,” he concluded, thinking back on Springer’s 2016 championship game effort. “When someone comes out and throws a one-hitter in the championship game, it just pumps everybody up; we’re trying to do that this year, too. We expect to win, for sure. We don’t want to lose, we want to win, and we’re excited.”

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