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Tournaments | Story | 1/16/2015

Desert sun suits Team Northwest

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

GLENDALE, Ariz. – The states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho boast some of the most breathtaking scenery in the entire United States, but when you’re a high school baseball prospect with aspirations of continuing your playing career at a higher level, nothing is more beautiful than the sight of the Arizona desert in mid-January.

“Being from Washington, this is a good time to come down here and see where you’re at and how you’re progressing,” standout Team Northwest 2015 catcher/right-handed pitcher Brendan lllies said Friday morning. “Especially playing with these guys, it gives you good competition to see where you’re at (with other high school players) because these are the best of the best from the Washington area.”

Illies was speaking from one of the practice fields on the Chicago White Sox side of the Camelback Ranch Complex, the spring training home of the White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers. He and his Team Northwest 2015 teammates were preparing to play their opener at the 18u Perfect Game MLK Championship, a tournament at which Team Northwest is the defending champion.

The 16u PG MLK Championship and 14u PG MLK Championship are being played simultaneously with the 18u PG MLK; all three championship games will be played Monday at Camelback Ranch.

The Team Northwest players do their winter training indoors when they’re back home, and the MLK event give them an opportunity to get outside and play the summertime game under warm, summerlike sunshine on beautifully manicured MLB spring training playing fields.

“To get down here right before the high school season starts really kind of gets them loose and gives them the opportunity to get some great reps against some really good teams,” Team Northwest 2015 head coach Rob Tomlinson said Friday morning. “(Team Northwest founder) Mike Brooks has been part of this Perfect Game thing since (Team Northwest’s) inception and we definitely enjoy bringing our team down here for this event; you’ve got some great teams down here.”

Team Northwest has both an upperclass (2015) and underclass (2016) team at the 18u PG MLK this year after bringing just a single team a year ago. There were only three 2015s on last year’s championship team – Illies, middle-infielder Ethan Paul and right-hander/first baseman Alex Livengood – and the organization wanted to get more kids involved this year.

“With that group we kind of catered to the guys that were draftable in June so a lot of the area scouts from the Northwest could come down and watch those guys specifically,” Tomlinson explained. “This year we kind of split things up, and that way the younger class can kind of get a feel for this tournament and then come back next year knowing what to expect.”

Paul, Illies and Livengood are back on the Team Northwest 2015 roster to help with the defense of the championship; the roster also includes PG All-American Parker Kelley.

Paul is a 5-foot-10, 175-pound Vanderbilt signee from Bellevue, Wash., ranked No. 184 nationally (No. 1 in Washington); Illies is a 6-0, 195-pound North Carolina signee from Puyallup, Wash., ranked No. 189 (No. 2 Washington), and Livengood a 6-foot-2, 175-pound uncommitted prospect from Seattle (No. 27 Washington). Kelly, an Oregon commit from Portland, is ranked No. 84 nationally (No. 1 Oregon).

Twelve of Team Northwest 2015’s roster spots are filled by Washington high school prospects; three are from Oregon and two from Idaho. Ten of those prospects – including Paul, Illies and Kelly – have signed letters-of-intent with NCAA Division I schools with top arms Sage Diehm (Nampa, Idaho, North Carolina) and Mark Finkelnburg (Portland, Ore., Loyola Marymount) also among them.

“I don’t really try to cater to the MLB guys; I really try to make sure that these guys take their skills and are able to use that at the college level,” Tomlinson said. “For me, it’s about education and these guys being able to use baseball as a tool to be better people and to advance on. I love these guys … and I get to watch them during the summer with their summer teams and then we do these national-level events with Perfect Game when they come on board with us.”

The Northwesterners have their work cut out for them as they fight for a title repeat over the next three days of pool-play. The 24-team 18u PG MLK field is absolutely stacked with dozens of prospects ranked in the top-150 nationally from the high school classes of 2015, 2016 and 2017 clogging the rosters of some of the more elite teams. And that is what makes the experience so enjoyable.

“The warm weather down here makes it a lot easier – for the Northwest guys, obviously – to get out and play,” Paul said Friday morning. “Rob (Tomlinson) and the (entire) Team Northwest organization always gets good guys to come down and play, and I think we showed that last year for the most part. We’ve got a good team this year, too, so we’ll see how it goes.”

“This year our pitching probably isn’t as dominant but our defense and our offense here is really good,” Tomlinson added. “I’m pretty excited and I really think we’re going to be one of the better teams at this tournament.”

A lot of the 2014s that played on that 18u PG MLK championship a year ago had developed great chemistry playing together at PG events in 2013, along with the 2013 Area Code Games. As one of only three underclassmen on the roster, Paul did his best to fit in and contribute and he did a good job – he was named to the event’s all-tournament team.

“As a younger guy, I just kind of jumped on board and got with it,” he said. “We had a lot of pitching and we were real aggressive at the plate and that kind of showed, but we were ready to go; we had a solid squad.”

Although there are some new faces on this Team Northwest 2015 roster, most of the players know one another either from high school competition or through their summer affiliations. Illies and Paul describe teammates that enjoy good chemistry and share the goal of competing at the highest levels.

“It’s easy to play with guys that you know, guys that are from the same area as you and they’ve been around the cold and they don’t take this warm weather for granted; it’s fun to come out here and play hard,” Paul said. “Just getting out and playing in front of scouts and in front of other guys and other great competition from around the country – it’s a lot of the same stuff you do all summer.”

Added Tomlinson: “I love watching these guys play. Some of these guys I’ve been around since they were 10 years old and I’ve been able to watch them grow and get better every year. It’s been pretty awesome.”

While competing for a second straight 18u PG MLK championship, the Team Northwest 2015 players are also using the event to gauge their own progression. Illies said while it does provide good preparation for the upcoming high school season – it starts in early March in Washington – it is more useful as a measuring stick.

“Looking back to October two years ago when I committed (to North Carolina), I can see where I was back then to where I’m at now and I feel like I’ve made great strides and a great leap to where I want to be in the future,” he said. “Whether I go to college or if I get drafted, it doesn’t matter to me as long as I’m making progress throughout it all, then I’m happy with it.”

Team Northwest 2015 won its tournament opener Friday morning, topping Phenom Florida, 9-3, in six innings. Uncommitted 2015 right-hander Elijah Hill from Olympia, Wash., pitched 4 1/3 hitless, scoreless innings with seven strikeouts and Bellevue Community College signee Tony Ortiz ripped a three-run triple in an eight-run first inning.

It was a satisfying beginning to a title defense, a game played under a cloudless desert sky while the desert sun warmed the desert air to nearly 70 degrees by game’s end. There really is nothing quite as beautiful as a neatly manicured ball field in the Arizona desert in the middle of January.

“You want to go out and enjoy the nature of baseball and just have fun, but at the same time we’re trying to uphold our standing from last year, so we’re going to try to be aggressive and just play as well as we can,” Paul said.

“You can’t go wrong with playing baseball and enjoying it every single day,” Illies added. “It’s just one of those things that if you go out there and play hard you’re going to have fun no matter what.”

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