Tournaments | Story | 10/7/2016

Top-tier talent 'typical' at TE

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Georgia high school junior Kumar Rocker is fairly typical of the kind of prospect Team Elite Baseball includes on the roster of the premier team it sends to Southwest Florida to compete at the Perfect Game WWBA Underclass World Championship each October.

Rocker is an athletic 6-foot-4, 235-pound right-hander/first baseman who carries a 3.75 GPA at North Oconee High School in Bogart, Ga., who has graciously accepted a scholarship offer from academic and baseball powerhouse Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

Almost everything written above can be applied to Georgia high school junior Ethan Hankins, also a member of the Team Elite 17’s Prime squad playing at this weekend’s PG WWBA Underclass World Championship.

Hankins is an athletic 6-foot-6, 200-pound, right-handed pitcher who can also play the corner-infield positions when called upon. He carries a 3.3 grade-point average at Forsyth Central High School in Cumming, Ga., and he has also graciously accepted a scholarship offer from Vanderbilt.

Equally impressive, strictly from a baseball standpoint, is that Perfect Game ranks Rocker as the No. 1 national prospect in the 2018 class and slots Hankins in at No. 9.

It might be a stretch to call these two top prospects “typical” of what Team Elite brings here every year, but the TE 17’s Prime roster offers several other examples of what can only be described as “more of the same.” Eleven of the 2018s have committed to D-I schools, with Will Banfield, Ryder Green., Ethan Smith and Makenzie Stills set to join Rocker and Hankins at Vanderbilt.

“You always want to surround yourself with some of the best players in the nation, and being around guys like Kumar and all these other SEC and ACC (recruits), it’s just incredible,” Hankins said Friday afternoon before the TE 17’s Prime opened pool-play at the 15th annual PG WWBA Under World. “You always want to play up to their level, and we have competitions with each other. Surrounding yourself with that kind of talent is really, really amazing.”

Team Elite 17’s Prime head coach Romas Hicks maintains that it is unimportant how many players on a roster are committed or uncommitted because every young prospect can benefit from the PG WWBA Underclass World Championship experience regardless of their personal standing.

There are always going to be kids that are uncommitted on any underclass roster, so with the number of college recruiters and scouts – PG’s own and others – in attendance, the benefit to those kids is obvious. But what about the prospects who have already committed?

“With the number of baseball scouts that attend this event, it’s always good for kids to learn how to play in this type of environment where somebody’s always watching,” Hicks said Friday. “That’s one of the things we stress in this program, whether you’re committed or uncommitted, somebody’s always watching. … One of the great things about this event is with the number of scouts, (the players) learn that at the next level there are always going to be eyes on you.”

And another lesson they will learn is that once they slip on that Team Elite jersey sporting that almost Old English script, intertwined “TE” logo, they can expect to see everyone’s A-game: “It’s not just another baseball game,” Hicks said the Team Elite coaches tell their players. “You’re going to see everybody’s best at-bats, you’re going to see everybody’s best arms. … You’re competing not just against another team but you’re competing against that individual on the mound or that guy behind the plate.”

The Team Elite 17’s Prime stack up pretty well with anyone. In addition to Rocker’s and Hankins’ lofty positions in the PG 2018 national prospect rankings, Stills comes in at No. 51, Green at No. 64 and Louisville commit Tim Borden at No. 69.

The 17’s Prime beat the East Coast Clippers from White Plains, N.Y., and the Northeast Pride Select out of Hawley, Pa., by a combined 15-7 in their first two pool-play games Friday. The results spoke well of the team’s offensive capabilities – it scored those 15 runs on 16 hits, including a triple and six doubles – but may have raised flags about its pitching staff early on.

Rocker doubled twice and drove in four runs in the two wins; Borden had a pair of singles and drove in two; 2018 Shane Marshall (No. 369, Georgia) singled four times and drove in a pair; and 2018 Nick Fajardo (top-500, uncommitted) doubled, tripled and drove in two.

Hicks used six pitchers in the two games, and they combined to give up seven runs (six earned) in 14 innings (3.00 ERA) on seven hits with 13 strikeouts and eight walks. Hankins started the second game and allowed two earned runs in three innings of work (4.67 ERA) on three hits, with four strikeouts and two walks; his fastball was in the 92-95 mph range in the first inning.

This is the third time Hankins has attended this tournament. He was here in 2014 with the Team Elite 16’s Louisville Slugger and returned last year with the Team Elite Prime 16u; he earned all-tournament recognition after helping the team to a 4-1-0 record and a spot in the second-round of the playoffs.

“I pitched here last year, and it was this tournament that really put me on the map,” he said of an effort in which his fastball topped out at 90 mph. “I’m really excited to be back. This is something I look forward to every fall, coming down here and being in front of this many people and playing against some of the best competition in the nation.

“It’s such a huge event with great teams, and being able to be with one of the best organizations and the best teams in the tournament, it’s a really good feeling.”

Hicks enjoys the fact that this is a team that not only has great talent but also one where the players really do like and respect one another. They are friends on and off and the field, and that can be a big-time plus when it comes to making sure all of a team’s movable parts stay well-greased.

With so many young players that not only possess skills beyond their ages, but are also physically mature with the physiques of young men in their 20s, Hicks admits that he sometimes has to remind themselves that they are only 16 or 17 years old. These “kids” are talented, but they still have a lot to learn.

“One of the things that we pride ourselves on is constantly trying to explain the finer points of the game,” he said. “We want them to try to understand that they might be talented but there are still things we need to work on.”

Another major talking point Hicks and the other Team Elite coaches try to get across to the young players is that in today’s baseball world of cyber analytics with WAR and OPS taking the place of RBI and ERA, nobody is scared by a sheet of paper. Anything that is written and laid-out in readable form has to be backed up with actions on the field or it’s as worthless as sawdust.

“It’s both one of the perks and one of the disadvantages of having a very talented group,” Hicks said. “On a sheet of paper, we do have a talented roster, but at the same time that other teams sees that sheet of paper and they’re going to be coming out trying to prove a point. … We always remind our guys that they’re going to see everybody’s number-one (pitcher) and everybody’s going to try to get their quality at-bats against us.

“It’s a tough process and sometimes we have some battles with these guys – they get ahead of themselves – and we have to remind them of some things.”

The early returns seem to indicate this is a “typical” Team Elite group, at least in the sense of the make-up and their desire to achieve outstanding results on the field. It’s typical in that it seems built to withstand most challenges, even if the pitching proved to be anything but invincible on Saturday.

But with guys like Rocker and Hankins – Vanderbilt commits that seem destined to also be early round MLB draft picks in 2018 – there is plenty of reason to believe the Team Elite 17’s Prime will be playing on Monday, when the playoffs’ final eight teams are still standing. It should make for an interesting Saturday and Sunday of play here in Southwest Florida.

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