Tournaments | Story | 7/22/2016

NorCal: 'It's time to go'

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

MESA, Ariz. – The MO for this weekend’s 17u Perfect Game World Series national championship is about as cut-and-dried as it gets. Invite 24 of the top 17-and-under travel ball teams from all across the country to the Cubs Park Riverview MLB spring training complex, place those clubs into four six-team pools, and then have each team play five pool games in four days, with the pool champions advancing to Monday’s final four.

Pretty simple, right? Take a look everyone, here are your pool mates, now go out and get after it. And if you think the task you’ve been assigned as far as the challenges associated with winning your pool championship appears particularly daunting, then take a look at the other three pools. No one, repeat, no one, has been issued a free pass into Monday’s semifinals.

NorCal Baseball head coach Tony Crivello certainly understands that is the nature of this beast, but he couldn’t help but feel a little bit overwhelmed the first time he saw the groupings.

NorCal opened play Thursday against the 2015 17u PGWS champion Orlando Scorpions Prime and then took on the challenge of playing a double-header against CBA Marucci and the 2014 17u PGWS champion Houston Banditos in 114-degree heat on Friday. It finishes with games against Baseball Northwest and the always salty Southern California Bombers on Saturday and Sunday.

“When the pools came out, we were kind of like, ‘Well, it’s time to go.’ We were going to come out hot at this tournament and we were going to find things out right away,” Crivello said Friday morning before sending his squad out to face CBA. “But that’s why we come here. We want to win every game we play but we would exchange wins just to be able to play those teams all the time. We want to be able to play those teams to measure our players. Win or lose, it makes us better.”

Crivello got everything he could ask for and more from top-500 2017 right-hander Darren Nelson in NorCal’s tournament-opening 3-0 win over the Scorpions Prime on Friday. Nelson, a Cal-Poly recruit, threw seven sparkling, three-hit, shutout innings, striking out nine and walking one.

It is mound efforts like that one that often lead to PG national championships. With a staff of 2017s featuring Nelson, No. 181-ranked right-hander Griffin McGarry (a Virginia commit), top-500 right-hander Cody Bolton (Michigan), top-500 righty Riley Lamb (Southern California) and top-500 lefty Chris Daniels (UCLA), Crivello just might have the number of quality arms usually required to get the job done.

“We have some pitchers … that are kind of big recruits but they know how to compete more than anything else,” he said. “At any level, I think good pitching shuts down good hitting, so if we can pitch and play good ‘D’ that’s going to give us a chance to win every game.”

Some of the other top 2017 prospects on the NorCal roster include top-500 outfielder Anthony Gaskins (uncommitted), top-500 catcher Troy Claunch (Oregon State) and top-500 first baseman Tate Soderstrom (Arizona).

“We mainly just want to go out and compete,” Bolton said before making his scheduled start Friday. “We need to maintain our confidence and just go out and play our game. Playing against all these other teams is what makes it fun, and it gives you a feel for where a lot of the talent is at.”

As much fun as it is to watch a top California team go head-to-head with a top club out Florida or Oregon-based Northwest Baseball face Illinois-based Elite Baseball Training/St. Louis Pirates, it can also be interesting watching a couple of top Cali teams do battle, which was the case with the NorCal-CBA matchup Friday morning. It’s intriguing because many of these kids have committed to the same colleges, schools like UCLA, Arizona and Southern California, and could very well up being teammates a couple of years down the road.

Many of the college commitments the NorCal prospects have made are to schools that make geographical sense: Oregon State, Fresno State, Sacramento State, Cal-Poly, UCLA, USC. But other players have committed to Michigan and Purdue from the Big Ten, Virginia from the ACC and Arizona from Pac-12 South.

Crivello noted that it shouldn’t be surprising that places like Michigan and Purdue are courting California kids because Michigan head coach Erik Bakich and Purdue head coach Mark Wasikowski are both West Coast guys; Bakich, in fact, was part of the NorCal program when he was an up-and-comer.

“We try to preach to our guys that baseball doesn’t begin or end on the West Coast or the East Coast or where ever, you’ve got to find the best fit for you,” Crivello said. “But as these guys are getting their coaching jobs, a lot of these West Coast guys are kind of keeping that tunnel from the West Coast open.”

Crivello reports the health of the NorCal Baseball program is excellent and it is able to field very talented and competitive age-group teams every step of the way; he called both the 2018 and 2019 classes “great.” The organization has also extended its footprint in the Sacramento and Fresno areas, but it isn’t growing just for the sake of growing. NorCal seeks out and signs-on only the top guys from those areas in an effort to assure the program’s reputation doesn’t take a hit.

Bolton’s start against CBA Marucci Friday morning didn’t go so well – he gave up four runs on six hits while striking out three and walking two in only 1 1/3 innings of work. CBA built a 6-0 lead through four innings before NorCal rallied for four runs in the top of the fifth – Kenny Lebeau’s two-run single was the big blow – but it still wasn’t quite enough in CBA’s 6-4 victory.

The staff and coaches at NorCal Baseball have always preached the concept of embracing the art of competition. When team members arrived in the East Valley for the 17u PG World Series earlier this week and really took time to dissect their pool-play schedule, they knew immediately they were in a different environment that would present challenges unique to what they are used to.

Initially, the players are going to feel a little out of their comfort zones, Crivello conceded, but he and the other coaches are quick to remind them they will become better players if they go out and compete as hard as they can over the course of the event’s five-day run – even if that means playing a double-header when the thermometer reads 114 degrees.

“We love playing in events like this because it gives us someone new to play against,” Crivello said. “We’re not going to be playing against the Orlando Scorpions anywhere except here; we’re not going to be playing against the Banditos anyplace but here. It gives us a new challenge, a new sense of something to do. We believe West Coast baseball is great but we do the play the same top five-to-eight teams every year so it’s nice to actually see some of these other teams from around the country. …

“We have the motto in our program that “Steel sharpens steel” and if we play teams that are as good or better than us, that makes us better.”

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