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Tournaments | Story | 1/16/2016

Phenom 16u returns to PG MLK

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

GLENDALE, Ariz. – Two years ago, in January 2014, a 14-and-under team from Riverside, Calif., made quite an impression when its members walked single-file into the White Sox side of the Camelback Ranch MLB spring training complex just ahead of their opener at the Perfect Game 14u MLK Championship.

Dressed in crisp white uniforms with red trim, numerals and sporting the name “PHENOM” in all-caps across their chests, the team painted quite a picture. And then, for anyone in attendance who may have felt the whole display was the height of pretentiousness, Team Phenom proceeded to outscore its three pool-play opponents by a combined 25-2 and waltzed to the tournament championship with a 6-0 record.

Four months later, in May 2014, history basically repeated itself at the 14u PG WWBA West Memorial Day Classic, also played at Camelback. Team Phenom outscored three pool-play foes by a combined 24-1 and skated to the tournament title with a 6-0 record. Team Phenom with founder/head coach Joe Keller had certainly announced its arrival on the PG scene in no uncertain teams.

Keller is back at Camelback Ranch this weekend for the 2016 Perfect Game MLK Championships with at least one team in each of the Upperclass, Underclass and Freshman tournaments. That includes his premier Phenom Signature 16u squad which is competing in the 32-team PG MLK West Underclass division; it entered as the pre-tournament favorite.

“Perfect Game is always the place to be for us,” Keller said before opening tournament play Saturday morning. “It’s something that we look forward to and with the kids getting featured and playing the best players around, it’s exciting for them.”

The Phenom Baseball organization, still based in Riverside, has now expanded its operation to include professionally staffed academies in 19 states and boasts close to 3,000 teams in ages 7u through 18u.

The officially stated mission of Phenom Baseball “is to enable our participating youth the opportunity to receive and education at the institution of higher learning or become professionally drafted through the wonderful game of baseball.”

Phenom Signature is the organization’s high school-aged division with teams for players 14u through 18u. These elite teams, like this Phenom Signature 16u team, compile rosters that feature many of the top prospects from each of the Phenom Baseball academies although most of the teams stay centric to certain areas.

The majority of the players on the Phenom Signature 16u roster call California and Texas home, but there are also prospects from Pennsylvania, Arizona, Arkansas, Ohio, and Nevada included. There is a pretty even distribution of 2017s, 2018s, and 2019s, and 13 have made commitments to NCAA Division I colleges.

2018 left-hander/outfielder Patrick Wicklander calls San Jose, Calif., home and he is one of three prospects on the roster who has committed to Dallas Baptist University. Wicklander is at No. 72 in PG’s class of 2018 national prospect rankings, one of 10 from the three classes ranked in the top-200 nationally.

“I’m really looking forward to the competition; it’s always great competition coming out here,” he said. “It’s always great being around guys that are on the same mission as you because you all have the same mindset and you don’t have to worry about egos or stuff like that. I’m from Nor Cal, but getting to know all these guys from Pennsylvania, Arizona, Florida and Texas, it’s just great.”

Some of the top 2017s include No. 101 right-hander/first baseman Stephen Keller (Huffman, Tex., Louisiana State); No. 118 middle-infielder Spencer Torkelson (Petaluma, Calif., Arizona State) and No. 207 middle-infielder Trent Brown (Victoria, Tex., U. of Texas).

No. 16 outfielder/right-hander Nick O’Day (Coatsville, Pa., Texas Christian); No. 72 Wicklander; No. 81 catcher/shortstop Austin Wells (Henderson, Nev., Stanford) and No. 124 right-hander/third baseman Conner Thurman (Mesa, Ariz., uncommitted) are among the top 2018s; No. 34 third baseman/outfielder Jordan Keller (Moreno Valley, Calif., San Diego State) and No. 35 first baseman/left-hander Spencer Jones (Encinitas, Calif., uncommitted) are the top 2019.

“You might have a little bit of chemistry issues at first just because the guys don’t really know each other as much,” Keller said of the challenges associated with assembling such a diverse group. “A lot of people focus on the winning aspect but we’re focusing on getting these guys out there and getting them seen; it’s a big difference. A lot of people don’t believe that because we’ve won (so often) but at the end of the day that’s not why we’re here.”

The 5-foot-11, 180-pound O’Day is one of four Pennsylvania prospects on the roster and may enjoy the desert sunshine as much as anyone. “It’s great weather coming out here from the East Coast and I’m hoping to win some games and also get my rankings and my stats up a little bit; it’s just a lot of fun,” he said.

This event marks O’Day’s one-year anniversary with Phenom Baseball having debuted with the group at last year’s 16u PG MLK Championship; he immediately earned all-tournament recognition. He went on to play in 12 PG WWBA, PG BCS and PGSuper25 tournaments with various Phenom teams throughout 2015 and was named to six more all-tourney teams (Super25 tournaments do not name a-t teams).

“Being around everybody that’s just as good as you are makes you better,” O’Day said. “Plus, when you haven’t seen a lot of these guys for a while, you go home and you miss them, and it’s just good to see everybody’s faces again.”

O’Day was 2-for-4 with a run scored in Phenom Signature 16u’s 6-1 tournament-opening win over Chandler, Ariz.-based Wilson Sandlot Elite Saturday morning. Sean Guibe slugged a two-run homerun, Torkelson was 2-for-3 with a double, two RBI and a run and Stephen Keller doubled and drove in a run.

Wicklander, a 6-foot-2, 170-pound lefty, started and worked 5 2/3 innings, giving up one earned run on five hits with 11 strikeouts and five walks. 2017 right-hander Connor Hughes, a 6-foot-5 Dallas Baptist commit, worked the final 1 1/3 and allowed one hit while striking out three.

The wins are sure to come from a group with this much talent, but that’s not what Keller is after. The focus of the organization is getting the kids college scholarship and it’s something the group is obviously pretty good at. “When I get that phone call and I hear the excitement in the voices I know that we’ve completed our goal of what we wanted to accomplish by helping those kids get to college,” he said.

 “It’s something you can see in these guys is that they love the game and when they love it you want to make sure you give back to them,” Keller continued. “All of our coaches that are here from all over, we just want to make sure (the players) achieve their dreams. Those dreams to us are the most important thing go for these guys, to extend their careers and make sure they can play this game for many years to come.”

Wicklander talked about how he gets the sense that the Phenom coaches truly care about the players and put their interests first. He said being a part of Phenom Baseball also gives him a sense of what it must be like to be a part of an elite college program, like the one he has committed to at Dallas Baptist. O’Day agrees with all of that, but also enjoys the winning.

 “This is more about going out and having fun, but we do have some (high) expectations,” he said. “We have some new kids on the team and we’re getting to know everybody but we expect (to do well); we’ll see how it works out.”

No Phenom Baseball team won a PG tournament championship in 2015 but there were several podium finishes along the way that left a good taste in everyone’s mouth. An appearance in Monday’s PG MLK West Underclass Championship title game would be welcomed, of course, but it’s not an end-all.

“First of all, for us as a team, I hope they learn something this weekend,” Keller said. “I hope they can learn something about the game that makes them better prepared for the high school season this (spring), and that’s the main thing. And after that, we just want them to continue to grow in this game. These guys are still young and even though they’re 15, 16 (years old) they’re still young and they need to get better every day

“There are so many things … and there is nobody here ready to play college baseball, so at the end of the day we want to give them that avenue of success.”

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