Tournaments | Story | 10/22/2015

Top '16 catcher runs Reds MWST

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

JUPITER, Fla. – The Reds Midwest Scout Team, an elite travel ball squad based in Milwaukee that annually upsets the apple cart filled with favorites at the Perfect Game WWBA World Championship using an abundance of talented players from the Chicago area, is back at the Roger Dean Stadium Complex this weekend with one of its more formidable rosters ever.

Head coach/general manager/scout/overall standup guy Andy Stack has assembled a group featuring 22 players who have already committed to NCAA Division I colleges. Twenty prospects from the classes of 2016 and 2017 are ranked in the top-500 nationally, a total that counts 11 in the top-300, six in the top-200, two in the top 52 and one – just one – from the top-24.

Just a year removed from making his PG WWBA World Championship debut with the Reds Midwest Scout Team, 2016 top-tier catcher Cooper Johnson is back here as the team’s undisputed leader, arriving not only as the nation’s No. 24-ranked overall prospect in his class but also the No. 2-ranked catching prospect in all the land.

An Ole Miss recruit who is a senior at Carmel Catholic High School in the north Chicago suburb of Mundelein, Ill., Johnson is looking forward to meshing with his talented teammates while also turning scouts’ heads with his individual play at the elite 85-team WWBA World.

“Last year as an underclassman I felt I was ready, but I think I was a little overmatched,” he told PG during a conversation shared before the Midwest Scout Team dispatched the Texas Sun Devils, 10-0, in the pool-play opener for both teams Thursday afternoon.

“I didn’t get to catch as many games as I had planned (last year) but this year we came down with (fewer) catchers so I should be catching more games,” Johnson added. “I definitely feel more prepared and I’m coming in feeling very, very comfortable and confident.”

That could be read as bad news for the other four teams in Pool E, including pre-tournament favorite CBA Marucci from Temecula, Calif. PG National Scouting/Event Coordinator Brian Sakowski picked CBA to emerge as the pool champion but also identified the Reds Midwest Scout Team as the “dark horse” to grab the title. The other teams in the pool are Chet Lemon’s Juice, the Rays Scout Team and the Texas Sun Devils.

The Reds always seem to be in the mix at this important event. They advanced to the playoffs for the third time in four years in 2014 after reaching the semifinals in both 2011 and 2013. The performance of his players is something that Stack, an area scouting supervisor for the Cincinnati Reds, takes a great deal of pride in.

“We try to get the best guys we can and make it worthwhile for the other scouts and myself to come and see these guys on a regular basis,” he said Thursday. “We want (the scouts) to get to know them as people and as kids in the dugout and away from the game; that’s our goal, try to get the best kids.”

Johnson is among the “best kids” this year and it’s a talent laden group. The other top 2016s include switch-hitting third baseman Cal Coughlin from Lake Forest, Ill. (No. 162, Texas Christian); right-hander/outfielder Skylar Szynski from Granger, Ind. (No. 184, Indiana), and right-hander/outfielder Reid Schaller from Lebanon, Ind. (No. 196, Vanderbilt).

A couple of 2017s are also both highly ranked and highly regarded: outfielder Brad Czerniejewski from Lake Forest (No. 52, TCU) and right-hander/corner-infielder Jimmy Ramsey from Tonka Bay, Minn. (No. 132, Oregon). Stack loves showing these guys off at a prestigious nationally acclaimed event like the PG WWBA World Championship.

“I’m a Midwest guy and I know the uphill battle they fight in the scouting community and the weather they face in the spring,” he said. “I want to put the best Midwest kids out there and kind of show to the nation or whoever needs to know they’re just as good as some of the kids from Texas and Florida and everywhere else.”

Almost every kid on this Reds Midwest Scout Team roster is good enough to play for just about any other team in this tournament and show themselves quite well, thank you. But most of these guys come from Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota are proud to be wearing the bright red RMWST jersey; Johnson has taken his place at the front of the team’s table.

“Just by his play, the kids kind of gravitate toward him,” Stack said. “The first couple of weeks he was with us, all these kids were like, ‘OK, we see what (the talk) is all about.’ He backs everything up with his play.”

Johnson has played in several tournaments over the past two summers with Chicagoland-based Top Tier Baseball and then joins Stack and the Reds Midwest Scout Team in the fall, which included his participation at last year’s PG WWBA World Championship. It’s been a very mutually beneficial association.

“Up where I live, (the Reds Midwest Scout Team) has a pretty good reputation – it’s pretty prestigious – and I loved it last year; I love Andy and I love all the guys who are on the team,” he said. “The coaches are great, the guys on the team are great and everyone’s hungry to get better – you’re just surrounded by great players and great people.”

This is the fourth year Johnson has considered himself a primary catcher having previously pitched and played the infield (he continues to see some work in the infield at times). He loves catching because he quite fond of the idea of being involved in every one of his team’s defensive plays: “As odd as this sounds, I love having a lot of pressure on me. Being hands on with every play, that’s always appealed to me,” he said.

Johnson, listed at an athletic 6-foot, 200-pounds, has done a lot of work through the years at Slammers Baseball & Softball Academy in Lake Forest, Ill., working primarily with coaches Ed Tolzien and Gary Bennett.

He especially enjoys the offseason workouts – grinding it out in the weight room and in the batting cages while also working on the small things that come with becoming a better catcher – because, he said, he sees himself getting better with each additional workout.

“He’s a first-class kid, first and foremost; he’s a leader on the field and off,” Stack said of Johnson. “He’s super respectful and polite … and he’s mature beyond his years. From a baseball standpoint, if there’s a better defensive catcher in the country I haven’t seen him.

“He sees really well, he can throw, he controls the running game and he a good leader back there,” Stack continued, “and, his offense is starting to come; if he hits, he has a chance to be a real high (draft) pick.”

Johnson was born in Los Angeles but moved to Illinois at a young age and considers Chicago his home town. Despite thinking of himself as a Midwesterner, he has committed to the University of Mississippi and readily admits the allure of playing in the Southeastern Conference was too much to resist.

“I really wanted to play in the SEC; that was kind of my main thing,” he said. “I visited a bunch of schools in the schools from the SEC – I grew up watching them on TV during the College World Series – and it’s just always appealed to me. The culture (at Ole Miss) is great, the people are great and when I went down there I fell in love with it.”

Like so many other gifted prospects that have made commitments to prestigious D-I programs, there is a very good chance Johnson will never set foot in a classroom on Ole Miss’s historic campus in Oxford. His stock in the 2016 June Amateur First-Year Player Draft continues to rise and he may become a professional baseball player much sooner than later.

The draft is something he tries not to think about, even when he’s out on the field and performing in front of hundreds of pro scouts, which is unavoidable here this weekend. With maturity as come the realization that the more he just goes out and plays his game, everything else will take care of itself.

Enjoying a second straight year at this event is really no more than a continuation of what he did this summer, earning Top Prospect List recognition at the PG National Showcase in Fort Myers, Fla., in mid-June and also performing at the Area Code Games in Long Beach, Calif., in early August.

Those experiences alone gave him not just a taste but a mouthful of competition at its highest level and left him hungry for more in the weeks leading up the PG WWBA World Championship. He looks around the Roger Dean complex and sees a lot of the same ball players that were also at those high-profile events during the summer months, and is eager to reconnect with everyone.

“The main thing is being down here in beautiful Florida, playing against the best players in the country and seeing if I match up,” Johnson said. “You’re definitely still learning out here, especially during your at-bats facing such good pitching. I try to take something away from every game … and even though I’m use to the competition I think I definitely do still learn from the other guys I’m playing against.”

The Reds Midwest Scout Team scored 10 runs (eight earned) on 10 hits, nine walks and two hit batsmen – they left nine runners on base – and stole seven bases in the 10-0 win over the Texas Sun Devils Thursday afternoon. Three pitchers combined on a seven inning, four-hit shutout with 11 strikeouts and three walks; Szynski pitched three one-hit innings, striking out five without issuing a walk.

Alec Trela hit a home run and drove in three runs and Dominic Clemente tripled and drove in a pair. Johnson walked twice, was hit by a pitch, stole two bases and scored two runs in one official at-bat. It was a great start to what Stack hopes is another deep run into bracket-play, which begins Sunday.

“We’ve done well down here and I really don’t know what to attribute it to – the kids just seem to rise to the occasion,” he said. “Maybe you just need to thaw these Midwest kids out and get them in the hot sunshine and make people realize that baseball is the same everywhere. I love this tournament and I’m always excited to see what we’re going to do and how we’re going to perform.”

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