Tournaments | Story | 1/16/2016

Pac NW eager Pac-12 provider

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

GLENDALE, Ariz. – Look ahead for one moment to May of 2019 when the Pacific-12 Conference has just wrapped up its regular-season and its postseason tournament. It is now the Pac-12’s awards season and the league has announced its All-Pac-12 North Division Team (assume for this extended moment there is such a team).

Curiously, there are three players each from just three of the six Pac-12 North schools on this honor squad, and baseball fans from the Great Northwest have become very familiar with these nine dudes.

They are, from the University of Oregon, juniors Morgan McCullough, Kenyan Yovan and Brady Whalen. From Oregon State, juniors Tristan Garnett and Jake Mullholland, and sophomore Michael Attalah are honored. And, finally, from the University of Washington, please recognize juniors Jacob Hirsch and Brendan Ecklebarger, along with sophomore Kenneth McCormick.

It’s interesting to contemplate, especially this weekend. All nine of those players are currently either seniors or juniors at an Oregon or Washington high school and all nine are on the roster of the Pacific Northwest Regional Baseball 2016s team that is competing at the 5th annual Perfect Game MLK West Upperclass Championship; most of the games are being played at the Camelback Ranch Complex.

Those Pac-12 signees/commits are not the only prospects on the Pac NW 2016s (PG’s abbreviation for this writing) roster that will be getting a little monetary help with their college tuition thanks to their baseball prowess. Other roster spots are filled with players that have signed with/committed to Gonzaga University (Wash.), the University of Seattle (Wash.) and Lane Community College (Ore.).

Longtime high school coach and overall Northwest Region baseball junkie Rob Tomlinson is the head coach of this team this weekend, and he worked closely with Northwest Elite Baseball owner/director Rhett Parker and dozens of MLB area scouts to put this team together.

Tomlinson said the official roster as posted on PG’s website is without a couple of players that weren’t able to be here for one reason or another, but he’s untroubled by that. “I’m pretty confident with these guys that we have here. We recruited pretty well to get some of the best guys down here so I’m pretty happy,” he said.

The prospects come from cities and towns in either Washington or Oregon and while most attend separate high schools, four of the top guys are seniors at Oregon prep baseball powerhouse Westview High School in Beaverton.

A lot of the other high schools are in close to proximity to one another and the players know one another from competing against each other rather than playing with each other. That familiarity has led to friendships and a lot of camaraderie.

2016 elite infielder Morgan McCullough from Seattle, the No. 108-ranked national prospect in the class of 2016 and one of those Oregon Ducks signees, could be the face of this team. If not McCullough, then possibly 2016 outfielder/right-hander Jacob Hirsch from Burien, Wash., a top-500 national prospect and one of those Washington Huskies signees. Hirsch and McCullough, both left-handed swingers, hit one-two at the top of Tomlinson’s Pac NW 2016s lineup and mesh in timeless fashion like those tiny gears inside an expensive wristwatch.

“This is almost like our own little mini spring training, getting ready for our high school season,” McCullough said when asked what his thoughts were about being down here with Hirsch and his other Pac NW 2016s teammates at the PG MLK West Upper. “A lot of us haven’t seen pitching since probably Jupiter (PG WWBA World Championship) and so it’s good to come out here and finally see some live pitching and get ready because the high school season is starting up soon.”

Hirsch said he’s played alongside a few of his Pac NW 2016s teammates before this weekend and has especially become close with fellow 2016 U. of Washington signee Brendan Ecklebarger and 2017 Huskies commit Kenneth McCormick. Ecklebarger is a left-hander/first baseman from Woodinville, Wash., and McCormick a catcher from Bellevue, Wash.

“I think this team is just a great team,” Hirsch said. “What they’re doing is a great thing for the Northwest players; it’s gets them a little bit of exposure.”

The Pac NW 2016s hit .380 as a team while besting the Illinois Indians (Des Plaines, Ill.) 12-0 and the Wilson Sandlot Elite (Chandler, Ariz.) 4-2 in their first two pool-play games Friday and Saturday. McCullough was 3-for-5 with a triple, two RBI and three runs scored; Hirsch went 2-for-6 with a triple, three RBI and a run; Troy Johnson – the Gonzaga recruit – doubled and drove in three runs, Brady Whalen singled and drove in three; Sam Leach was 3-for-5 with a double, an RBI and a run.

Five Pac NW 2016s pitchers combined to allow two earned runs on six hits over 11 innings (1.27 ERA), while striking out 10 and walking a troublesome 11. Still, it was two victories and they came under a gradually warming desert sun on a day when the high temperature barely reached 60. In other words, it was heaven.

“Right now back in Washington I’d be working indoors and doing a little bit of lifting so it’s great to finally get back out on the field, play a little ball and get back into the groove of things,” Hirsch said.

Despite the logic of geography and the pull of strong regional ties it does seem striking that in the day-and-age when an airline traveler can get from one coast to the other in less than 5 hours that so many of these prospects would chose to continue their baseball and academic careers at Pac-12 North schools.

“There a ton of facilities up in the Northwest that are grooming these guys,” Tomlinson said. “You see the fundamentals and some of the baseball talent starting to develop earlier, so when they get to this age the Pac-12 colleges up in the Northwest are seeing that.”

Many of the top prospects want to stay close to home where their parents can watch them play and others are simply attached to the only region of the country they have ever known. But, of course, there have been some top guys who left the nest in search of sights unseen, like Washington natives Stuart Fairchild and Nate Mondieu at Wake Forest and Ethan Paul at Vanderbilt.

“We’re being recruited by some of the SEC schools more often now and we have some guys out there, but I think for the most part these kids love the Pac-12 and the Northwest and kind of want to stay up in that area,” Tomlinson said.

2016 No. 132-ranked right-hander/third baseman Kenyon Yovan from Beaverton, Ore., and No. 169 shortstop Brady Whalen from Vancouver, Wash., join McCullough as U. of Oregon recruits. Those three and several others have experience on national stages but there are a lot of others on this roster who do not. Tomlinson wants the guys that haven’t been exposed to such high-level events to see, in his words, “Perfect Game (tournaments) are kind of where it’s at.”

He talked specifically about some of the summer events, like the 17u PG World Series, played annually the last week of July here in the West Valley. If players from the Northwest can be involved in an elite tournament like that – the 20 best 17u travel teams from across the country are invited – Tomlinson believes the benefits would be endless.

“If they could see that kind of talent level and see the best the rest of the country has to offer, and then see that we can compete with the rest of the country, it’s a real confident-booster for these guys,” he said.

McCullough is an example of a high school senior from the Northwest who has not only been on some of the country’s biggest stages but has thrived there. Last summer and fall alone, he played with the USA Baseball 18u National Team that won a gold medal, and was at the PG National Showcase and played in the Area Code Games. He was at both the 17u PG World Series and the 17u PG WWBA National Championship with Florida-based FTB Tucci.

The time he spent with FTB Tucci, in particular, gave him a first-hand look at some of the top high school talent from Florida in particular and the Southeast in general. He said the overall level of talent he sees on the high school level in Oregon is generally lagging behind its counterparts to the southeast, but also thinks the very top-tier in both regions is remarkably similar.

“It was really cool and it was a great experience to see guys from all over the country and see how they play and just different styles of play,” he said.

Yet despite those worldly experiences, McCullough decided to stay close to home for college. His final two choices in the higher education sweepstakes were Oregon and Mississippi State, and it’s difficult to imagine two more divergent university settings: Pacific Northwest, Deep South; Pacific-12, Southeastern Conference; smoked salmon, boiled crawfish.

“(Oregon) offered me my sophomore year, and I had a lot of other schools that were coming after me but they were giving me timelines and stuff like that,” he said. “I didn’t really appreciate that, but I did appreciate that Oregon stayed with me the whole time and they were there throughout the whole process. I had trust in them and what they were doing and that’s ultimately why I chose them. It wasn’t so much the Pac-12 or the conference difference, it was just that Oregon was a better fit for me.”

Hirsch adapted a different take while reaching basically the same conclusion:

“For us, being close to home is pretty important but also the Pac-12 is one of the most competitive conferences in the whole country,” he said. “It’s definitely been a goal of mine ever since I was a little kid, I’ve always wanted to play at Washington and I finally got the scholarship. I’m just glad I have the opportunity to do it now.”

As for that 2019 All-Pac-12 North Division team playfully mentioned at the beginning of this essay? It will never happen only because there are too many variables, like great players at other schools and the 2016 and 2017 MLB Amateur Drafts tipping the boat. In the meantime, those Pac-12 schools will still come looking for these prospects in their own backyard.

“The talent is there in the Northwest and we come to these Perfect Game events to expose them to other scouts, other coaches and other colleges out there,” Tomlinson said. “This team specifically is geared towards the MLB area scouts so they can come to one location and look at all the guys instead of having to go to Idaho or Oregon or Washington to catch their individual high school games.”

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