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Friday, June 17, 2016

No. 4 Uselton brings his best

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Joy Absalon

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Energy and enthusiasm were already oozing out of the recently-turned 18-year-old outfield prospect from Oklahoma City late Thursday afternoon, and he had barely gotten his feet wet at the 16th annual Perfect Game National Showcase.

The place was jetBlue Park, the day’s schedule had been altered by lightning and rain delays, and Conner Uselton was only about a half-hour into his PG National experience. He ran a very solid 6.67-second 60-yard dash (a top-30 effort at the event) with a 1.47-second 10-yard split (tied 7th), and then delivered a very impressive 95 mph throw from the outfield, an effort that was tied for fourth-best with two of the National’s three workout sessions in the books.

After delivering that pin-point throw from right field to home plate, Uselton bounded into the third base dugout at jetBlue, grabbed a quick drink of water and pinned his emotions on his sleeve.

“It just really feels great to be out here,” Uselton said, flashing a smile that proved just how great it really did feel. “It’s always fun coming and competing against the best competition in the country at all these events, and it’s really fun to get out here and see what I’ve got compared to the best guys out there. This is the best of the best; you see what you’ve really got out here.”

An athletic 6-foot-3, 185-pound incoming senior at Southmoore High School in Moore, Okla., Uselton came into the PG National occupying the No. 4 position overall (No. 1 Oklahoma) in PG’s class of 2017 national prospect rankings. He is one of eight 2017 prospects ranked in the top-10 that will be here at some point during the event’s six-day run that concludes Monday, and one of 17 that sits in the top-20.

It is oft-repeated that rankings should be considered in the same manner as an intoxicated person uses a streetlamp post -- more for support than illumination – and Uselton chooses to use his No. 4 ranking as a tool to elevate his game.

“I am aware of it, but I try not to get too focused on stuff like that and I just try to go out there and focus on getting better,” he said, before adding with a laugh: “It’s a little motivation, too, because you always want to be up there in the top spot, you know? I’m always working to get up there. I have been pleased (with my development) but there’s always room for improvement. I’m looking to improve and get better every day.”

Uselton made the trip to Southwest Florida with his dad, Steve Uselton, an industrial engineer technician back in Oklahoma City. Conner said his dad has had a big impact on his career simply by always pushing him to get better and also with the support he’s shown his son every step of the way.

Steve Uselton first sensed that Conner might have an affinity for the game as soon as his son started playing T-ball. There was something special there, a God-given talent that Steve just didn’t see in many of the other boys Conner’s age.

Even with that, the dad has a hard time wrapping his mind around just how far his son’s game has progressed for him to reach a platform like the one provided at the PG National. “Obviously, we’re proud of him for all the hard work he’s put in so he can come to great events like this,” Steve said.

“There’s been a lot of excitement, a lot of fun,” he continued, speaking of Conner’s entire PG experience. “He’s got kids that he’s friends with from all over the country, and it’s been fun and exciting just to be able to do the things that he’s been to go do, and have the success that he’s had.”

Uselton has made a habit out of playing his best every time he’s plopped down on one of PG’s most high-profile stages. He’s played in four PG WWBA tournaments with four different teams – the 2014 16u National Championship, the 2015 16u National Championship, the 2015 17u National Championship and the 2015 World Championship – and was named to the all-tournament team at all four.

He’s been at two major PG showcase events – the 2015 Junior National and the 2015 Underclass All-American Games – and claimed a spot on the Top Prospect List at both.

Uselton played with Sandlot-Fuel at the 2014 16u WWBA and with Thunder Academy at the 2015 16u WWBA; with Midwest Elite at the 2015 17u WWBA and with the Sandlot Scout Team at the 2015 WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla. This summer he has signed-on to play with Jered Goodwin and the powerhouse FTB Tucci program based in Kissimmee, Fla.

“I’m really excited about that, getting to play with all those guys,” Uselton said of a FTB Tucci team that has at least 15 prospects at the PG National, including No. 15-ranked right-hander/shortstop Tanner Burns, No. 22 outfielder/first baseman Oraj Anu and No. 23 left-hander/outfielder Jake Elder; Goodwin also serves as one of the event’s coaches. “It’s the best (program) in the country, with all the best guys just getting together and playing.”

Baseball took a bit of a hiatus in Uselton’s life between the end of his junior season at Southmoore HS and his appearance here at the PG National. He was at his best for Southmoore this spring, helping the SaberCats to a school-record 28 wins while playing in Oklahoma Class 6A, which includes all of the state’s largest enrollment schools.

In 40 games, Uselton posted a slash-line of .514/.615/.934, with 23 of his 55 hits going for extra bases (9 HRs, 4 3Bs, 10 2Bs); he drove in 39 runs and scored 41, and stole 11 bases. All of those numbers were team-highs.

The athletic Uselton was the starting quarterback for the Southmoore HS football team both his freshman and sophomore years, but he had no aspirations of playing college football so he left the sport heading into his junior year to concentrate on baseball. “I love everything about (baseball). It’s the greatest game in the world,” he said.

Unlike the vast majority of the prospects in attendance here, Uselton has yet to commit to a college. The fact that he’s still looking for the right college fit combined with the 2017 MLB First-Year Player Draft being 11 months away makes the summer of 2016 a very important one, strictly from a scouting and recruiting standpoint.

“Right now I’m just focused on playing baseball and committing to a college,” he said. “If the draft does (become a reality) that’s something that I’ll look at it at that time, as of right now I’m just focused on playing baseball and getting better every day.”

His dad agreed with him completely: “We’ve been trying to instill in him to just go out there and have fun, do what you do,” Steve Uselton said. “The college recruiting process has been enjoyable even though I gave him my timeline and he just blew right past it.

“He kind of beats his own drum and he handles all those (recruiters) and, hey, more power to him. I think he’s getting closer to making a decision. A lot of it, I think, is he’s built a relationship with these guys and he doesn’t want to tell anyone no, but sooner or later you’ve got to do it.”

The rain and the lightning returned to jetBlue Park early Friday morning, shutdown briefly, and returned again early Friday afternoon, messing with the PG National schedule once again. Uselton’s PG Grey team’s opening game was delayed, meaning all that energy and enthusiasm he has building inside of him had to wait several hours before being released.

This game action is important to Uselton because despite being ranked No. 4 nationally, he still needs to perform at a high enough level to warrant an invitation to the Perfect Game All-American Classic in San Diego in mid-August. Playing in the Classic has long been one of his goals – even Steve Uselton spoke of it – and Uselton is treating his three scheduled PG National games as a sort of audition.

“This is a great opportunity for me to show what I’ve got and continue to get better,” he said. “I’m really trying to take in the whole experience, just being here with all these guys. It’s a fun thing to get to do and this is the last time I get to do it, so I’m trying to enjoy it all while I can.”

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