Tournaments | Story | 7/16/2016

Phenom out to ‘move the line’

Vincent Cervino        
Photo: Perfect Game

EMERSON, Ga. – Phenom Signature got off to a 2-0 start in pool play during the 15u WWBA National Championship after an 11-0 victory over ASBA Futures East on Friday night, their second game of the day to open the tournament. Offense has been the calling card for this team thus far in the tournament and the players and coaching staff seem to agree.

“Move the line,” said Mateo Gil, the No. 2 shortstop in the state of Texas for the class of 2018, on the team’s team motto.

This team is supremely confident in their abilities. Phenom has scored a combined 30 runs in their first two games of the tournament and believe that their top nine in the lineup can go head-to-head against any team.

“Everyone is looking to hit the ball hard,” said Gil. “Everyone throughout the lineup can hit the ball as well as anyone else here. We just want to ‘move the line’ as we say.”

“Say I go 0-for-3, I know the rest of my team is talented enough to get runs to pick me up,” said Jordan Keller, the No. 50 overall player for the class of 2019 and a San Diego State commit. “Or if someone makes an error. We know we’re still fine because of our talent. We always have each other.”

Phenom finished third in the 2015 15u WWBA National Championship and the team believes that they have enough talent to win the entire tournament. Thanks to a strong coaching philosophy and a collection of elite prospects, Phenom will be one team that most others won’t want to reckon with.

“There’s no pressure, but there’s a target on our back,” said Caden Miller, the No. 84 overall player for the class of 2019 and a San Diego State commit. “We usually succeed and hopefully we can keep doing so.”

“Our coaching staff keeps us strict,” continued Keller. “We’re kinda like a military, the coaches are on us, and we even have a curfew to keep us prepared.”

Manager and founder Joe Keller has been preparing his team to be able to compete at a high level in this tournament for some time now. They have spent the majority of their summer tournaments playing in higher age divisions and Keller believes that his team is in peak form to be able to bring a championship home.

“I think there’s disadvantages and advantages (to playing in 18u tournaments),” said Keller. “Now we’re seeing pitching that’s a lot slower than when we played up but this will be the last tournament that we play in the 15u. We’re going to play up in the 17’s to get these guys prepared for college and the 16’s next year. We’re going to do the Memorial Day and then this one for our age group and then everything else will be 17 or 18u just to prepare. But it’s been good, we saw some good teams and had some good battles so it’s helped out a lot.”

The main philosophy of the Phenom organization is to prepare kids for not only college baseball, but the futures of their lives. Since the program’s inception in 2009, Keller has emphasized the growth and development of its players as opposed to success determined by win-loss records.

“We started in 2009, we wanted to make a difference in kids’ lives,” said Keller. “We built this to get kids to college and to make sure that they understand the game of baseball and become great young men, not just baseball players. Since then we’ve had success, including championships, with Perfect Game, and it’s been great to see these kids over time, and, with that, see them get to the next level.”

With the amount of teams in a tournament of this caliber, it would be unwise to take any team for granted. Keller realizes the amount of elite talent that is being hosted in this year’s event and stresses the importance of focusing on one game at a time. While winning is important, Keller maintains that he wants to make sure that the players are enjoying the moment and realize that, at the end of the day, they’re playing the world’s greatest game.

“With these many teams you never know,” said Keller. “There’s so many great teams that could beat each other any day of the week. It’s fun to get down to the end and play that competition. We enjoy Perfect Game, they have great facilities and do it right. It’s an enjoyable event for us. But we want to have fun. The biggest thing is to have fun and let them be kids. We want them to enjoy the game and love it because this game is the most fun game in the world. These guys need to come out here – win, lose, or draw – and just enjoy it.

“Hanging out with Benji Gil, he’s an ex-big leaguer, and he’s great for the kids and Coach Phelps played professional ball. Those guys being around the kids has been a lifetime experience and it’s great to have those stories.”

Benji Gil, who is Mateo’s father, is one of the coaches on Phenom’s staff and a former MLB player who enjoyed eight years in the big leagues. Gil has been around baseball his entire life but one of the new baseball challenges he faces, one that Keller similarly faces, is the difficulty that can come with coaching your son.

“It’s difficult, especially for a lot of the kids,” said Gil. “Having played baseball for as long as I did, and obviously having the maturity of being an adult, it’s not as difficult for me to be able to separate the two. You just want the best for them and to be able to help with things you observe, as someone who has been around the game for a while. Sometimes it’s difficult to receive constructive criticism, much less if it’s your dad or a family friend. So there’s a challenge there, but in this particular case Mateo is getting better and understanding that there’s things he has to get better at and learn.

“This is his third week here and the experiences he’s had has helped with his maturity.”

Gil has seen a lot of baseball over his time and knows what major league talent looks like. He would not be surprised to see some of the kids playing in Perfect Game events end up in the big leagues one day and that just adds to the exciting experience.

“You see so much talent out here,” said Gil. “I’ve seen some games and players and it’s a very talented group. Honestly in the 16 and 17u we ran across some tough teams. You can see that there’s no doubt that over the last few weeks there’s at least 20, 30, 40 kids, and some who I didn’t get to see, who are going to get to the big leagues. There’s a lot of kids here who we will all be watching and becoming fans of.”

Phenom Signature has now won their first two games in the tournament by a combined score of 30-1 and looks to be peaking at the right time. Benji Gil noted the talent that is present at Perfect Game events, and, if two games are any indication, there may be some major league talent on his own team.

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