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Tournaments | Story | 9/27/2014

Giving the Devils their due

Jeff Dahn     
Photo: Perfect Game

HOUSTON – With 54 of the 56 teams at the PG WWBA South Qualifier identifying Texas cities and towns as their bases of operation, and with the vast majority of the more than 1,000 prospects filling those rosters calling cities and towns in Texas their hometowns, the Texas Sun Devils stand apart.

Yes, “Texas” is in the organization’s name and it wears that Texas brand proudly. And, yes, its base of operation is Beaumont, Texas.

But the Texas Sun Devils and general manager/head coach Matt Thompson are able to enjoy a bit of diversity with Beaumont sitting just east of Houston on the Texas-Louisiana border. The roster Thompson deploys here includes 13 prospects from Texas, eight from Louisiana and one from Mississippi.

Even with that integration, Thompson believes that the PG WWBA South Qualifier taken as a whole is the perfect showcase tournament for high school talent in the Lone Star State.

“Anytime Perfect Game is in Texas we want to play in those events because they’re going to draw all the best teams from Texas,” he said Saturday morning before the Devils were slated to play their second pool-play game at the South Qualifier. “A lot of times the Dallas teams will stay up in Dallas and the Austin teams will stay over in Austin … but when Perfect Game comes to town everyone congregates.”

The Texas prospects, of course, love competing against one another while jockeying for state bragging rights for their particular region.

A player like the Sun Devils’ Ethan Valdez, a 2015 middle-infielder from San Antonio, not only enjoys the competition provided by his Texas peers, but he also likes getting know his teammates from Louisiana.

“I really do enjoy competing because I get know a lot more people and who I’m going to be playing against in high school; it’s more social and we all love it,” Valdez said Saturday. “I love it because it broadens my mind a little bit, like getting to know all these Louisiana guys – I had never heard anything about Cajun or anything.”

Ford Proctor, a 2015 middle-infielder from Beaumont who has committed to Rice University here in Houston, just enjoys the competition, enjoys getting out on comfortable late September day in the bayou to play baseball with his friends, whether they’re from Texas or Louisiana or wherever.

“This is a good time to get some extra work in during the fall and kind of get ahead a little bit for the spring,” he said Saturday. “We play hard anytime we get out on the field and we just like to go out there and have some fun.”

The Sun Devils played their first of two pool-play games Saturday at the University of Houston’s Cougar Field, a comfortable and cozy minor league-style stadium with seating for 3,500 and an all-FieldTurf playing field located on the school’s downtown campus.

They beat the Fort Bend Texans out of Sugar Land, Texas, 7-1 in their tournament opener Friday night but experienced a big hiccup Saturday morning when 2015 right-hander David Riojas from the Austin Baseball Club no-hit them in a 1-1 tie. While the tie made a ticket to Sunday’s playoffs a little more of an uphill climb it was not a deal-breaker.

A tournament like this is all about the exposure the prospects receive from the college coaches and in this case, the coaches from the Texas’ dozens of high profile universities, colleges and junior colleges. South Qualifier games are also being played at Rice University and San Jacinto College in Houston.

“I’m sure the colleges are loving it because they’ve got (all the top players) in our state right here,” Thompson said. “And all the young guys that last year really weren’t quite ready to play in the 17u – we have a couple of the young guys that are coming up and playing that I know are going to open some eyes this weekend.

“The younger guys are evolving and the older guys, for them this is their last go-around, their last World Championship. They’re going out the door and the younger guys are coming up through.”

This is the first tournament the Sun Devils had played this fall with their eyes focused intently on the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter in about three weeks. While some of the top guys played in the Area Code Games out in California in early August, it’s been since July that the Devils have been involved in a PG event.

The team that wins the PG WWBA South Qualifier championship earns a paid invitation to the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., Oct. 23-27.

“The biggest thing is getting the wood bat back in their hands,” Thompson said. “Even (Friday) night they were a little bit “reintroduced” to the power of the wood bat and how that really affects the game offensively and defensively.

“But this tournament, in and of itself, starts getting us used to be competitive again and to understand how to save pitching; the idea is to shake off some rust but also at the same time try to win (the tournament).”

There is that added incentive of getting your freight to Jupiter paid for if your team can leave the Houston area with a PG WWBA South Qualifier championship.

“I think initially, Friday and Saturday, it doesn’t come into play so much but once you get Sunday and get that first playoff game under your belt, then you realize it’s obtainable,” Thompson said. “Anytime you can save two-thousand, five-hundred dollars, that’s a good tournament.”

As for this Sun Devils team, Thompson likes the team’s depth, particularly on the mound. He pointed specifically to three of his starting pitchers: Parker Ford, Chase Shugart and Kale Breaux.

Ford is a 6-foot-3, 210-pound, 2015 right-hander from Lufkin, Texas, ranked No. 53 nationally who has committed to Mississippi State; Shugart is a 5-foot-11, 175-pound 2015 righty from Bridge City, Texas, ranked No. 186 nationally who has committed to Texas; Breaux is a 5-foot-11, 170-pound 2015 left-hander from Sulphur, La., and a top-500 prospect who most recently pitched for the Team USA 18u National Team and who has also committed to Mississippi State.

Thompson also mentioned 2017 left-hander Adam Goree from Lake Charles, La., who finished 12-0 with a 1.53 ERA as a freshman last spring, helping Barbe High School to a Louisiana Class 5A state championship and the 2014 Perfect Game High School National Championship. Goree pitched 4 1/3 innings of two-hit ball without allowing an earned run and striking out six in Saturday’s 1-1 tie.

“He’s one of those young guys coming up that no one knows about yet but he can beat anybody, so that’s exciting,” Thompson said. “Other than those three starters I have another four or five guys that I’m just as comfortable with.”

The keys to the offensive production – which was sorely lacking Saturday morning – are Proctor, Valdez, and Shane Selmon, a 2015 teammate of Goree’s at Barbe High in St. Charles, and a top-500 prospect who has committed to McNeese State. Thompson said Valdez, who recently committed to Nichols State, plays a huge role batting from the leadoff spot in the order.

“He’s the guy that sets the table and Ethan is a guy that no one really knew about coming into the summer,” Thompson said. “He’s as good of a leadoff hitter as I’ve had in a long time, and he’s just so easy going.”

Valdez played football for Brennan High School in San Antonio Friday night and then drove for 200 miles and three hours to play baseball with his Sun Devils’ teammates Saturday morning. “That’s how much he’s committed to baseball and, obviously, to the team,” Thompson said.

In all, 12 spots on the Sun Devils’ roster are filled with high school seniors (2015s) that have committed to NCAA Division I programs, including four to McNeese State University in Lake Charles, La.

Two each have committed to Mississippi State, Rice and Texas Christian University, and one each to Texas and Nichols State. It’s a talented group but there’s more to it than that. The TCU recruits are 2015 right-hander/infielder Devon Roedahl from Beaumont, ranked No. 253 nationally, and 2015 middle-infielder Braden Comeaux from Lake Charles, ranked No. 282.

“This is a tight group,” Thompson continued. “They get to kind of decide who they are as a unit and this summer they meshed really quickly with each other. They don’t get too high, they don’t get too low; they just play. They don’t get stressed by who’s in the stands watching them and they’re not stressed when they’re down by one run in the last inning.”

Added Proctor: “We all jell together really well and we play as a team,” Proctor said. “It’s not really one guy; we don’t have that one star player and we’re all really close; we kind of feed off each other.”

The Sun Devils won’t know their playoff fate until play in Pool C is completed Sunday morning. They would be excellent shape for a pool championship and subsequent playoff berth if they shutout Performance Baseball (0-0-1) from Longview, Texas, in their final pool-play game late Saturday afternoon. There is still a lot to play for.

“We always come in with high expectations because it’s getting us ready for Jupiter and that’s our ultimate goal,” Valdez said. “With these guys, we always go all-out and we always have fun; it’s all the same. Baseball is America’s pastime and we all have fun with it.

“We know when to turn it on and when we can turn it off. You can mess around and all that but we know when to stop and get the job done.”

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