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Friday, June 13, 2014

Rising above the crowd

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

FORT MYERS, Fla. – As a rising star at the shortstop position in the class of 2015, it would be easy to become just another face in the crowd at this year’s Perfect Game National Showcase at JetBlue Park; a wallflower on the mini Green Monster, waiting for the next dance; a jet airliner taking off from the nearby Southwest Florida International Airport, flying safely under the radar.

Logan “L.T.” Tolbert is not another face in the crowd; knows nothing of being a wallflower; has never flown under the radar. He is the nation’s No. 22-ranked top overall prospect in the high school class of 2015 (No. 1 in South Carolina) and will fit in nicely while not taking a backseat to anyone.

“It’s an honor just to be invited down here and now to get to be around such high competition all around me, it’s going to be an awesome weekend,” Tolbert told PG on Thursday. “Being around everyone with the same drive and the same aspirations to play major league baseball, it’s awesome to be around those types of kids every day.”

And it just so happens that at this year’s PG National quite a few of those top guys are going to try to reach the big-league level at the shortstop position. While Tolbert – who prefers L.T. to Logan – is considered the No. 22 top prospect in all the land, he stands no higher than No. 6 among the nation’s top shortstop prospects.

And what about the five ranked in front of him? Brendan Rodgers (No. 2 overall, Longwood, Fla., Florida State commit); John Aiello (No. 3, Lansdale, Pa., Wake Forest); Nicholas Shumpert (No. 4, Lone Tree, Colo., Kentucky); Ryan Mountcastle (No. 12, Winter Springs, Fla., Central Florida) and Cadyn Greiner (No. 17, Henderson, Nev., Oregon State) are all here at the PG National, as well.

“I think I’ve gotten my skills to where they need to be as of right now,” Tolbert said. “There are still some things I want to work on like my speed and my strength, but to this point I’m really happy with where I’m at. I’m not going to settle; I’m just going to keep working hard every day.”

Tolbert is 6-foot-3, 180-pounds, and just finished his junior year at Wren High School in Piedmont, S.C. He has nothing but good things to say about his hometown of Piedmont, especially his friends and teammates at Wren High School.

“It is definitely a small community; it’s one of those ‘everybody knows everybody’ kind of towns,” he said. “It’s fun to be around there because whenever you’re doing something good and your team’s doing well, everybody knows about it. It’s kind of exciting to be around there during baseball season, but it is definitely a small town.”

Big change is coming soon. Tolbert has enrolled at prestigious IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., for his senior year of high school, where he hopes the structure – both in the classroom where he carried a 3.95 GPA at Wren HS and on the field – will help advance his goal of one day playing in the big leagues.

“I just wanted to get better facilities and better training, and I’ll be working with a personal trainer down there every day,” he said. “I think that’s going to really help me my senior year just to get me prepared, whether it’s college or the MLB draft. Just all the training I’m going to get down there is going to be huge. I’m really excited to get down there.”

Tolbert got a head start on meeting a few of his future teammates at IMG over the past two days when they were all teammates on the PG Orange at the PG National and, like him, they are top-of-the-line, elite prospects.

 Left-hander Logan Allen from Fletcher, N.C., like Tolbert a University of South Carolina commit, is the country’s No. 42-ranked overall prospect and No. 1 in North Carolina; outfielder Denny Blair, yet another Gamecocks commit from Bel Air, Md., is ranked No. 67 and No. 2 in Maryland, and outfielder Eric Feliz, a Notre Dame commit from Englewood Cliffs, N.J., is No. 72 nationally and No. 1 in New Jersey.

The familiarity among the PG Orange players doesn’t end there. Blair, left-hander Dylan Cyphert (Oil City, Pa., Penn State commit), middle-infielder Xavier LeGrant (Charlotte, N.C., North Carolina State) and right-hander Cody Morris (Laurel, Md., South Carolina) were all teammates of Tolbert’s on Team EvoShield at the PG WWBA World Championship in October. Allen was a member of the EvoShield Canes team that won the PG WWBA World Championship title.

“My whole (Orange) team I basically know because it’s like my travel team,” Tolbert said. “Some of the other kids I know just from playing against them, seeing them online, hearing about them – there’s a huge amount of huge-name players.”

This is the 13th Perfect Game event Tolbert has competed at since he was at the 2011 14u/15u Perfect Game-East Cobb Invitational with the Upstate Mavericks. Through 2012 and for one event in 2013 he played with the New York Grays and the EvoShield Canes, before settling in with the Canes for good early in the 2013 summer season.

He has been named to the all-tournament team at three events, including last year’s PG WWBA World Championship while playing with Team EvoShield, the organization’s underclass team at that event.

“Playing with EvoShield has been huge for me,” Tolbert said. “Not only helping me get to college, but all the exposure I get and the coaching I get. Jeff Petty and the rest of our coaches, they’re all great guys and I know they’ll do whatever they can to help me reach my dreams and goals.

“Just the way the coaches coach you, they’re not going to tear you down in the game,” he continued. “They’re just going to talk to you, kind of like a major league team would do, and you feel like you’re part of something big whenever you play with them.”

Tolbert credits his father, Curt, for having the most impact on his development, identifying Curt as his hitting coach, “all-around coach” and trainer his entire life. Curt Tolbert and L.T.’s mother, Kim Tolbert, played baseball and softball, respectively, at Faulkner State Community College in Bay Minette, Ala.

As far as a player Tolbert most admires, he points to the Yankees’ Derek Jeter: “He’s the most respected player in the game and he’s one of the best shortstops to ever play, so I can definitely look up to him,” he said.

Tolbert, who hits from the left side, committed to South Carolina before the start of his sophomore year in high school in the fall of 2012. The Gamecocks were coming off of back-to-back College World Series and NCAA national championship seasons in 2010 and 2011 and were welcoming new head coach Chad Holbrook when Tolbert committed.

“I like the way the coaches let you play the game; they don’t try to change up stuff,” Tolbert said. “They’ve obviously had success winning and they just seem like really laid-back team. They have great fans, they always have a great (game-day) atmosphere, and that’s hard to turn down in college baseball because that’s what you look for – a lot of people coming to your games and just real good coaches that are going coach you but they’re not going to completely change what you’ve been doing for 17 or 18 years.”

L.T. Tolbert is at the PG National Showcase this weekend because he’s not a face in the crowd, he’s not a wallflower and he doesn’t fly under the radar. He loves being surrounded by like-minded players, the guys who will push him to be the best he can be and stand out amongst the other top prospects, including those with which he shares a position. And it’s likely that his goals are set even higher than most.

“I definitely want to continue to improve every single day,” Tolbert said. “The No. 1 goal is to one day play major league baseball and my goal is to the No. 1 overall pick. If I fall short of that, well, I guess that’s what’s going to happen, but if you set that for your goal, there’s no telling what you can achieve, if you work with that kind of work ethic.”

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