Tournaments | Story | 1/17/2016

No POs? NEB still interesting

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

GLENDALE, Ariz. – This just in: North East Baseball (NEB) – the Hudson, Mass.-based organization known for National Recruiting Coordinator Jeff Sullivan’s tireless efforts to assemble all-star teams of elite prospects to perform in many of Perfect Game’s most elite upperclass tournaments – will not win the championship at this weekend’s PG MLK West Upperclass Championship.

In an ironic twist of fate, the team that boasted one of the most formidable lineups, 1- though-10, in the entire 32-team field was held scoreless on three hits (two singles and a double) in a 5-0 loss to Aggies Baseball out of Watsonville, Calif., in a game played Sunday afternoon on the Dodgers’ side of the Camelback Ranch complex.

A pair of Aggies 2016 right-handers – Aldo Fernandez and Francisco Carmona, both uncommitted – combined on the three-hit shutout, striking out four and walking four in their seven innings of work.

Using the names of the colleges the NEB batters have committed to instead of their own names, the two Aggies’ righties mostly sent down in order time and again: Mississippi State, Connecticut, Texas Tech, Texas, Southern Cal, Northern Illinois, Grand Canyon, Arkansas (1), Arkansas (2) and Alabama.

Aggies Baseball (2-1-0) did exactly what it needed to do and won the Pool E championship over North East Baseball (2-1-0) and ASBA 2017 (2-1-0) out of Phoenix based on PG tournament tie-breaker criteria. Any way it was sliced, diced, cubed or fileted, North East Baseball was left out of Monday’s PG MLK West Upperclass Championship playoff field.

That fact, however stark, doesn’t mean it isn’t worth taking a look at the roster Sullivan and he rest of the staff at NEB assembled for this event. The exposure and sense of readiness the prospects on the North East Baseball roster left the West Valley of the Sun with on Monday in many ways trumps what winning a championship might have meant to the group. That is forgetting for a moment, however, that North East Baseball wanted very badly to win this championship.

There are 15 class of 2016 and 2017 prospects that played in North East’s three pool-play games who are ranked in the top-500 in their respective classes. Fourteen of the 15 have committed to NCAA Division I programs and the 15th to a prominent community college program.

Grant Little is a 2016 top-500 national prospect from Midland, Tex., who has signed with Texas Tech, and all he did during the three pool-play games was slash .444/.500/.889 with two doubles, a triple, five RBI and two runs scored.

“It’s nice to get down here and knock off the dust before the high school season starts,” he said Sunday. “It’s just really humbling to play with so many great players on one team. It’s a great experience just because you get to meet new kids every time you play with (North East Baseball). Sully does a great job of getting all these guys together and I’m just really thankful that he asked me to play with (them).”

The almost unspoken competition among he and his teammates is what drives Little.

“They want to try to be the best and they’re pushing you to be the best that you can be,” he said. “We kind of have this competition going on to see who can stand out among all the rest. You have to put all the egos aside and all the rankings aside in order to be successful.”

Little was the “Texas Tech” hitting No. 3 in the batting order against the Aggies, and he went 0-for-2 with a walk in the loss. The “Mississippi State” hitting leadoff was none other than top 2017 outfielder/first baseman Jacob Pearson out of West Monroe, La., the No. 26-ranked prospect in all the land in his age group. Pearson doubled in the loss and slashed .500/.667/.833 with two doubles and four runs scored in the three pool-play games.

“We started out with a bunch of guys who I’ve never played with before, but Sully messaged us on Twitter and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to put this game together,’” he said. “So we came down here … and this team has bonded pretty well; it’s a good group of guys. All these guys (on the North East Baseball roster) are great baseball players and they all have their own things that they do to prepare themselves to get better.

““You learn from each guy out here, just like when you watch MLB to learn from those guys. These guys all have things they do get better and the rest of us can learn from them.”

As highly ranked, regarded and respected as Pearson is, he is also smart enough to realize that over the past couple of days he has been keeping company with some of the top high school prospects in the land.

The UConn recruit hitting No. 2 in the order? That was 2017 No. 449-ranked catcher Christian Fedko from Gibsonia, Pa. 2017 No. 341-ranked outfielder Tristan Lutz from Arlington, Tex., was the Longhorn commit batting fourth.

2017 No. 192 third baseman Blake Diggle (Southern Cal) out of Mountain View, Calif., hit fifth, 2016 top-500 catcher/third baseman Jake Durham (Northern Illinois) from Plainfield, Ill., was in the six-hole, 2016 top-500 outfielder Quin Cotton (Grand Canyon) from Parker, Colo., batted seventh and 2017 No. 158 outfielder Evan Hooper (Arkansas 1) was in the No. 8 slot. Quite a lineup, indeed.

Sullivan is largely considered to be the the man behind assembling these rosters and once he has one put together he then takes over as field manager. By integrating his extensive roster-building skills with a little bit of trial and error, he has devised a plan of attack for when he puts a team on the field for the first time

“Once the schedule comes out, I always go with my best arm in game-one,” Sullivan said. “Even if we’re not facing the most talented team, it’s game-one and the kids don’t know each yet, and you have to win that game or you’re starting the whole tournament from behind.”

Sullivan always tries to start with his pitching staff when assembling a team from scratch, especially for a tournament being played in January. Not every high school arm is up to speed yet this early in the calendar year so it has been Sullivan’s experience that the position players have been the easiest to find and build with this time of the year.

Generally speaking, pitchers in warm-weather states usually start throwing at least bullpens again right after the first of the year after shutting down during November and December. The pitchers in cold-weather states might just now start dialing it up a notch because the start of their high school seasons is still weeks away.

“Obviously, we really keep their innings down – three, four innings max and they’re done,” Sullivan said. “This isn’t like the middle of the summer when they can come back a couple of days later.”

If there is a major challenge Sullivan faces when putting these all-star teams together it would seem to be dealing with young egos. Every kid he recruits to a North East Baseball team is more than likely the best player on his high school team and, as is the case with this group, been bestowed with a top-500 national ranking.

Sullivan actually said the most difficult task he faces with a team that is brought in without ever having played together as a cohesive group before is just getting it to jell at some point during pool-play so it can carry a little of that cohesiveness into bracket-play – if the team is fortunate enough to make it that far. Dealing with egos comes in a close second.

“The thing about Perfect Game is that it’s great with its rankings, and the kids come in knowing every single other kid’s ranking,” Sullivan said. “If the top-level kids are humble and play together, then the rest of the team is good with them. It starts at the top with the rankings and if you have the No. 10 in the country ranking attached to you, the kids will always (gravitate) toward that kid as the leader.”

Top prospects like Grant Little and Jacob Pearson certainly present themselves as level-headed young men who routinely check their egos at the door; Sullivan backed up that observation.

When the two spoke with Perfect Game Sunday afternoon, they both talked about how much fun it would be to a win championship at the PG MLK West Upperclass Championship but were also willing to view this exercise as nothing more than prep work for their upcoming high school seasons.

“All the good arms we’ve seen here are really going to get us ready for high school ball,” said Little, a senior at Midland (Tex.) Christian High School. “Just getting the extra reps before the actual high school season starts will hopefully put me ahead of everybody else, and that’s what I’m looking for.”

Pearson is a junior at West Monroe (La.)  High School, and even before North East Baseball was eliminated from the playoffs at the PG MLK West Upperclass Championship, he was looking at the big picture.

“It’s good to have these ‘preseason’ games, definitely,” Pearson said. “This year I’m going to go into the high school season with (some) games under my belt, and that’s definitely good. All of these guys are going to have games under their belts and they’re going to be ahead of the other high school players.

“We haven’t seen any live pitching in over three months and that’s probably the biggest obstacle everyone is facing,” he continued. “We’re all trying to get out timing down and whatnot, and it can get kind of frustrating at times but we all pick each other up.”

Sullivan probably summed-up the disappointment of not making the playoffs as succinctly as anyone could: “The goal is to win … but as long as they have fun, honestly, that’s just fine,” he concluded.

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