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Showcase | Story | 12/29/2015

Growth surges, rankings rise

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

FORT MYERS, Fla. – During the second week of July in 2012, a 14-year-old middle-infielder from Merritt Island, Fla., walked out onto the playing fields at Terry Park eager to compete at the 12u PG BCS Finals while wearing the uniform of the Hardcore Baseball organization.

Deep down inside, although he would never admit it today, young Brady McConnell was probably hoping a big gust of wind didn’t come blowing in off the nearby Caloosahatchee River, pick his skinny butt up and leave him standing alone at the Player Development 5-Plex some two or three miles away.

Listed at a diminutive 5-foot-3, 105-pounds in the summer of 2012, McConnell was anything but imposing. He's still no Hulk Hogan by any stretch or stitch, but at 6-foot-2, 175-pounds, the now 17-year-old McConnell certainly looks the part of the top-100 national shortstop prospect from the high school class of 2017 he has become.

In the 3½ years that have passed between the week McConnell played at the 2012 12u PG BCS Finals and when he arrived at the Jet Blue Park Player Development Complex on Monday for the PG National Underclass Showcase-Main Event, he has grown 11 inches and added 70 pounds to his now athletic frame. Any gust of wind blowing off the Caloosahatchee these days could nothing more than lift the cap off of his head.

“Walking in here (on Monday) I said to him, ‘Look around. How does it feel to be one of the taller kids here instead of one of the smallest kids here?” Brady’s father, Steve McConnell, told PG Monday afternoon.

Brady McConnell has grown into a prominent junior student-athlete at Merritt Island High School, which counts 1975 graduate and current Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle among its most prominent alumni. McConnell carries a 3.75 grade-point average alongside his No. 102 PG national prospect ranking (No. 23 overall in talent-rich Florida) and has made a college commitment to the University of Florida and head coach Kevin O’Sullivan.

“It was honestly a really easy decision; that’s been my dream school since I was about 8 (years old),” McConnell said of choosing the Gators. “So that was an easy decision for me because I always wanted to go there; it was a dream come true.”

McConnell has spent the winter months to date on a sure and steady course as he prepares for the Florida state high school preseason to begin next month. He took a couple of weeks off from baseball activities to concentrate on working out while continuing to add muscle to his frame, and just started hitting again in the cages in mid-December.

As far as his attendance at this week’s PG National Underclass-Main Event goes, that was as much of a no-brainer as his decision to head to Gainesville after he graduates from high school: “I like being out on the field no matter where it’s at; I just like to play baseball with all these guys,” McConnell said. “It’s nice to see some of the kids that I do know out here and also meet some new friends.”

He isn’t here with any extraordinary expectations, other than the usual hope of showing some upward movement with his throwing and running numbers, along with having a good practice session during the workouts. “You get to see what else is out there, you get to see how other guys do things,” McConnell said. “It’s just nice having a lot of other people around doing the same thing you’re doing.”

This is the 24th PG event McConnell has attended since his debut in July 2012 but it is only his second PG showcase. He was at the PG Underclass All-American Games in San Diego in mid-August and was named to the prestigious Top Prospect List at the event when listed at 6-foot-1, 160-pounds, quite a bump up from previous summers.

He played at 5-foott-7, 130-pounds throughout the summer of 2013 and was listed at 5-foot-9, 150-pounds during the summer and fall of 2014. That was when he first began playing for the powerhouse Sarasota-based Florida Burn organization and was named to the all-tournament team at the 2014 15u PG BCS Finals.

This past summer and fall McConnell broke out with all-tournament selections at four PG tournaments, including the 17u PG WWBA National Championship, the 16u PG World Series and the PG WWBA Florida Qualifier. He played with Florida Burn teams at both the PG WWBA Underclass World Championship in Fort Myers and at the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla.

“It is definitely the best organization out there; the coaches are top-notch no matter what,” McConnell said of the Burn and coaches Mark Guthrie and Craig Faulkner. “They play the game the right way for sure and I can’t say anything bad about them. They’ve most definitely helped with my development.”

His father concurred: “Brady has been lucky to play for some really good coaches at a young level,” Steve McConnell said. “Now, with the Florida Burn, they do things the right way. There are a lot of good baseball programs to play for and I don’t have anything negative to say about any of them … but I’m just really impressed with the way (the Burn) do things from the standpoint of doing the right things for the kids and the parents.”

Like so many other young men who have reached a high level early in their baseball careers, McConnell cites his dad as having the biggest impact on him. Steve has been there for his son from the beginning and knows Brady’s game better than anyone.

From his own perspective, Steve McConnell knows it’s important for Brady to be at an event like the PG National Underclass-Main Event if for no other reason than the interaction with other players, coaches and the PG scouting community it provides.

Because Brady has already made his college commitment, the McConnells don’t have to worry about the college recruiting side of things at this showcase. Instead, Brady can seek out and develop a special camaraderie with peers who are here from all across country, which is every bit as important. Steve McConnell, who played college football at Towson University, likes to sit back and take everything in.

“It’s not just watching (Brady) either, it’s watching all these other kids, too,” the elder McConnell said. “There is some amazing talent that you see year-in and year-out from the time they were younger and it’s just fun to watch.”

This year’s record-setting Main Event – there are 590 prospects in attendance – concludes Wednesday with 18 coach-pitch games that gives hitters like McConnell another opportunity to get their whacks in against live pitching – coach-pitch is not batting practice.

It’s likely that many of his fellow players McConnell met early in his PG career that are also here this week won’t recognize him these days – 11-inches and 70-pounds tend to alter a person’s appearance. Recognizable or not, there are always new people to meet and learn from and to have fun with, and that’s the most important thing.

“I hope he takes away from this just meeting some more baseball buddies and appreciating his love of the game,” Steve McConnell said. “I don’t have any crazy expectations other than to come down here and workout a little bit. I think he’s excited about his physical development; he’s excited to see how that plays out on the field.”

After giving it a second or two worth of thought, McConnell offered his own observation:

“The thing I really like about this is getting to meet new people,” he said, basically echoing his dad. “You see them again all summer up in Georgia or here in Fort Myers or where ever you go. And I really like to have (Perfect Game) see more of me because I haven’t been to many (showcases). I want to show (the PG scouts) my stuff.”

And, perhaps, he wants to show those same scouts how much he’s grown.

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