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Tournaments | Story | 1/18/2015

Blizzard stir up a desert storm

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

GOODYEAR, Ariz. – The younger, enthusiastic baseball academy owner/operator, travel ball head coach and MLB associate scout from Minnesota, and the older, somewhat beaten down, glassy-eyed scribe from Iowa couldn’t help but share a laugh late Sunday morning when they considered their good fortune.

The site was Desert Edge High School, right across the street from the Cleveland Indians’ and Cincinnati Reds’ Goodyear Ballpark Cactus League spring training complex, and a warm desert sun was busily heating the morning air from a chilly 45 degrees at 7 a.m. to nearly 70 degrees by noon.

Adam Barta, the general manager of the MN Blizzard organization based in Vadnais Heights, Minn. – and on this day the head coach of his MN Blizzard Blue squad – and a nosy PG reporter were chatting amicably before the Blizzard Blue played their third and final pool-play game at the 18u Perfect Game MLK Championship. It was then that the guy from Minnesota and the guy from Iowa realized just how lucky they were to be filling their respective spaces at that particular time.

“We’re a team from Minnesota playing in A-Z. I think last week (in Minnesota) it was zero degrees and you come down here and it’s 75,” Barta said, raising his face towards the sunshine. “There is not any suntan lotion in our dugout. These guys don’t mind coming back to the Midwest with a burn. They’re not going to be disappointed at all if they come back with a sunburn.”

A sunburn in January is a good thing, at least to northern types. So is traveling nearly 1,300 miles from the frozen north to the desert sunshine and winning some ballgames, which is exactly what the MN Blizzard Blue did over the past three days at the 18u PG MLK Championship.

The Blizzard Blue (3-0-0) made it through pool-play unbeaten at 3-0, outscoring their three opponents by a combined 26-7, including a six-inning, 10-2 win over War Eagle out of Mesa, Ariz., in what amounted to the pool championship game. The pool championship sent them into the six-team playoffs where they will play the Mountain Lions (3-0-0) from Glendale, Ariz., in Monday mornings’ first round at the Camelback Ranch Complex in Glendale

The other 18u PG MLK first-round matchup pits the AZ Prowlers out of Peoria, Ariz., against Battle Ground, Wash.-based Showtime Baseball. The playoffs’ top-two seeds – Dbacks Elite Scout Team from Phoenix and North East Baseball out of Ayer, Mass. – received first-round byes and are waiting in Monday afternoon’s semifinals. All four of those teams also came out of pool-play 3-0-0.

“Every tournament we come to we plan on making it to the final day and playing in the final game,” MN Blizzard Blue 2015 right-handed pitcher/corner-infielder Ben Suits told PG before the his team’s victory over War Eagle. “It’s pretty sweet that we’ve put ourselves in a position to do that here.”

IT’S A PRETTY SWEET STORY ALL THE WAY AROUND. Barta has been bringing MN Blizzard teams to the PG MLK Championships since the tournaments’ inception four years ago, and it’s really turned into a kind of working vacation for the guys from up north. Barta’s reasons for attending four straight years are pretty straight forward.

“There are three things, really: competition, development and exposure,” he said. “I’ve been running this program for 12 years and that’s sort of been our motto since the beginning. We want to compete against the best teams in the country, develop our players and help them become better ballplayers, and expose them to real good competition and, of course, college and pro scouts.

“These guys from Minnesota and the Midwest are looking to give themselves opportunities and earn opportunities, so you’ve got to go out there and get that done,” he continued. “Sometimes that’s in Minnesota, sometimes that’s in Iowa and sometimes that’s in Arizona and Florida; that’s why we come down.”

Jordan Kuznia, a 2015 left-hander from Plymouth, Minn., got the start and the win against War Eagle. He worked 5 2/3 innings, gave up two earned runs on three hits and six walks, but also struck out 13.

“Coming down from Minnesota where it’s really cold, it’s just nice to get here and play some ball,” Kuznia said. “The high school season is coming up and you’re getting ready for that, but also just getting exposure here with all the scouts that come here, it’s just great.”

Added Suits: “It’s a nice break from the nice cold up in Minnesota. We get to come down and play some ball against some really good teams. It’s a blast; I look forward to it every year.”

When asked what he looks forward to the most, Suits said: “Between just coming down here with the guys and playing baseball and hanging out at the hotel, and then also just getting in front of people and playing good teams, it’s kind of just a mixture of everything.”

The MN Blizzard organization has four teams in the desert for the 4th annual PG MLK Championships, two each in the 18u and 16u tournaments (the 14u PG MLK Championship also concludes tomorrow).

Blizzard teams are assembled every summer through tryouts, and those tryouts offer no guarantees of a player returning for another season. No matter what a prospect’s history might be within the organization, he has to earn his roster spot back year after year, and, of course, the good ones always seem to find a way back.

“In our program it’s a privilege to play the game and not necessarily a right,” Barta said. “When we have tryouts we look for the top players in Minnesota and in the Midwest, and players in Minnesota know this is the best (program) if you want to get recruited, if you want to compete, if you want to go win tournaments, you have to play for the Blizzard.”

An overwhelming majority of the players are Minnesotans and most, in fact, come from the Twin Cities area. Barta has welcomed players from Canada and Wisconsin in the past, and the four rosters carried by the teams here this weekend include players from South Dakota and Iowa.

“I’ve been playing with most them for quite a while and they’re all good guys,” Kuznia said. “We hang out a bunch and we mesh really well; it’s a great bunch of guys. It just works out because most of us are in Minnesota so we see each other once in a while away from baseball; we talk, we get together.”

THE MN BLIZZARD BLUE OPENED PLAY HERE WITH ITS CLOSEST SHAVE, a 6-5 win over the West Hills Vipers 18u from Bremerton, Wash. They followed that up with a five-inning, 10-0 win over Team California Baseball which set up the showdown with War Eagle. The Eagles were 1-0-1 coming in and would have claimed the pool championship with a win.

The Blizzard Blue hit a scorching .357 as a team in their three pool-play wins. Shortstop Ezequis Encarnacion (2016, Vadnais, Minn.) was 5-for-9 (.556) with three doubles, three RBI, four runs scored and two stolen bases.

Shortstop/right-hander Isaac Hormann (2015, Young America, Minn.) contributed five singles in eight at-bats (.625), and drove in three runs and scored two. Outfielder Sam Horner (2015, Woodbury, Minn.) was 3-for-6 (.500) with a triple, a team-high four RBI and two runs.

Suits, who stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 185-pounds, was 3-for-7 (.429) with two doubles, three RBI and three runs. He also pitched five innings and allowed three earned runs on five hits while striking out eight and walking one. Left-hander Henry Decaster (2015, Shoreview, Minn.) threw four innings without allowing a run on three hits and struck out four with two walks.

Another Blizzard Blue prospect that caught the eye of one PG scout is outfielder Jacob Rhinesmith (2015, Shakopee, Minn.), who the scout praised for his “fluid swing from the left side” and his ability to run the bases with “a combination of speed and intelligence.”

The one thing the Minnesota prospects really seem to enjoy is the opportunity to go up against their peers who live their everyday life in warm places like the Valley of the Sun – or Southern California or Florida or South Texas.

“It’s pretty cool to see all these guys that are playing all year long and then we come out after practicing indoors and we can come out and compete with these guys,” Suits said. “I don’t know, it just makes us feel good about what we’re doing up there even though we might not have the same opportunities. We kind of make up for it with how we play.

“At the same time, it’s kind of nice to measure yourself against some of those guys and see how we compare. It definitely elevates our game, too.”

The Blizzard, an organization Barta started in 2003, structures its calendar differently than most other programs. While most club and travel ball teams play throughout the summer, the Blizzard teams don’t being play until August. This squad, for instance was formed last August and is now playing in the final tournament of its season.

“I think what sets them apart is their hard work,” Barta said. “This team specifically, they’re special, because they work all winter. We hit, throw and take ground balls and work on first-and-thirds all inside. This is the weekend they work towards, really, because it’s the last tournament for a lot of them.”

That structure, of course, requires an indoor facility, and the Blizzard has one in Vadnais Heights, north of Saint Paul in the Twin Cities; Barta owns and operates the Minnesota Baseball Academy at that location. The Blizzard also have access to the Vadnais Sports Center, a dome that features two regulation-size hockey rinks and three fields that cover nearly 9,500 square yards.

THE HIGH SCHOOL BASEBALL SEASON IN MINNESOTA IS SHORT, but the state athletic association has stayed with a spring season, unlike Iowa which offers only a summer campaign. Barta describes a common scenario where games have to be played whenever the weather allows, and it never seems like it’s very long until the state tournament is being played and the players are getting ready for a summer of Legion Baseball.

The Blizzard does plan to field 18u and 16u travel ball teams this summer and will take teams to the PG WWBA tournaments in Emerson, Ga.

“We can compete with the big boys,” said Barta, who in addition to his other duties has been an associate scout for the Chicago White Sox since 2006. “Ten years ago, we saw everybody’s number-six pitcher because they figured they were playing a team from Minnesota and they’d take it to us. Now that we’ve won 43 national-level tournaments and now we’re seeing everybody’s number-one.”

There is no question that warm January sunshine – a completely foreign concept to those of us who call Midwestern states like Minnesota and Iowa home – is one of the PG MLK Championship tournament event’s greatest calling card. But there’s more to it, really, and Barta and his MN Blizzard organization realized that on their first trip to the Valley four years ago.

“I like to come down here and win; I like to compete. But my expectations are with their attitude and effort and they control that,” he said. “They can control their attitude, they can control their effort and that’s what I expect of them.

“I know that their expectations are to win every single game, and while that’s not necessarily an expectation of mine, I know that with our development that we’ve put them through, winning is going to happen but it’s not the end-all, be-all.”

The MN Blizzard Blue will get one more chance to stretch their legs under and turn their faces up toward that warm desert sun Monday morning while they play for a Perfect Game tournament championship. That might be the end-all, be-all after all.

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