Tournaments : : Story
Saturday, May 27, 2017

Sandlot/Gators' terrific trio

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

GOODYEAR, Ariz. – It’s only a matter of weeks before elite national and Arizona prep prospects Nolan Gorman, Matthew Liberatore and Conner Thurman pack their bags, leave the comfort of their families’ homes in the Valley of the Sun and head east for yet another summer spent playing ball on the other side of the country.

This weekend, however, the three highly touted University of Arizona commits are playing in their own backyards with Wilson Sandlot AZ at the 18u Perfect Game WWBA West Memorial Day Classic. It’s a nice way for these seniors-to-be at three separate Valley high schools to ease into the summer of 2017, a period of great promise for aspiring young ballplayers in the high school class of 2018.

A lot of eyes will be on these three, not only over the summer months but also next fall, and continuing into the spring of 2018. Gorman, a 6-foot-1, 200-pound left-handed swinging and power hitting infielder from Glendale (Sandra Day O’Connor HS) is ranked No. 8 nationally; Liberatore, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound left-handed pitcher from Peoria (Mountain Ridge HS) is at No. 84; Thurman, a 6-foot-1, 185-pound infielder/outfielder/right-hander from Mesa comes in at No. 177.

“This will be a fun tournament, kind of a warm-up for what happens the rest of the summer,” Gorman told PG Friday. “This team (Sandlot AZ), I’ve played with all these guys throughout high school. Some of them are opponents (during the high school season) but this is a great group of guys. It’s definitely fun to be with them and they make it a lot of fun to be out here; this is a great tournament.”

Added Thurman: “I’ve always liked kicking off the summer here in my home state, especially playing with Nolan and Libby before we go off for Florida.”

This will mark the third straight year Gorman and Liberatore – and the second straight year Thurman – have spent the summer and fall playing for general manager/manager Joe Mercadante and the Altamonte Springs, Fla.-based Central Florida Gators.

The 18u PG WWBA West Memorial Day Classic kicks off what could be a life-changing summer every top 2018 prep prospect in the country, even those that have already made their college commitments.

In addition to playing in elite PG WWBA tournaments with the Gators, Gorman, Liberatore and Thurman are also expected to do a lot more individual showcase events this summer. It’s likely each of them will attend the prestigious PG National Showcase in at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Fla., June 16-21, before diving into the tournament season.

“It’s a super important summer for a lot of these guys,” Sandlot AZ manager Kurt Vesecky told PG. “We have (eight) D-I commits on our team, which means we have 14 or 15 guys that have yet to commit. The mantra that I’m kind of going with this summer is, ‘Let’s play for those guys. Let’s play as a team, let’s play for the name on the front of our jersey and not the one on our back, and do everything in our power to help these other guys get to the next level.’”

Liberatore got the start for Sandlot AZ in its tournament-opener Friday, and he was rested and ready. He had last pitched in a live-game in Mountain Ridge HS’s final game of the season on May 5, so he’d had a quite a long layoff. Sandlot beat the Peoria-based AZ Pilots, 3-0, in that opener; a box score from the game was not immediately available.

“I have a long summer ahead so this is definitely nice to be able to come out here and get a few innings of work in and kind of get warmed for the summer,” he told PG during a pregame conversation. “In terms of the team, I think winning a championship is important. But for me this weekend, I haven’t thrown in a while so it gives me a chance to get some work in.

“I’m on a 45 to 50 pitch-count limit, so for me it’s hard to help the team win a championship when I can only contribute so much, but obviously it would be nice to win it all.”

Vesecky has been involved in Phoenix-area youth and amateur baseball for years, most recently with the Stetson Hills Stealth organization and now with Wilson Sandlot AZ; Gorman and Liberatore have played for Vesecky managed teams since they were 9 years old.

Gorman, Liberatore and Thurman were welcomed on to this team this weekend to join a host of talented local guys that they’ve played with and against most of their young lives, including three other 2018s that have committed to NCAA D-I schools: Colton Cassinelli (San Tan Valley, Washington commit); Calvin Schapira (Pinnacle, Southern Cal) and Jacob Vesecky (Phoenix, Evansville); 2018s George Arias (Tucson, Arizona) and Jake Dukart (Lake Oswego, Ore., Arizona State) are also on the roster.

“They all work extremely hard off the field; they all do their work outside of playing baseball games,” Vesecky said. “They’re all in the gym, they’re all doing their speed-training and things of that nature, as well, so they’re doing the things you need to do off the field to prepare to do the things they need to do on the field.”

It will be right around the middle of June when Gorman, Liberatore and Thurman head east to renew their relationships with Mercadante and their Central Florida Gators’ teammates who call Florida and other points east their home. They’ve enjoyed a tremendous amount of both team and individual success with the Gators, especially during very magical 2016 summer and fall campaigns. The CF Gators finished 2016 as the No. 1-ranked team in PG’s 16u National Travel Team Rankings.

They were part of Gators’ teams that won championships at the 16u PG World Series and the PG WWBA Florida Qualifier; reached the quarterfinal-round of the playoffs at the prestigious PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla. – technically an upper-class event – and at the 16u PG WWBA National Championship at PG Park South-LakePoint in Emerson, Ga.

They also advanced to the third-round of bracket-play at the 17u PG WWBA National Championship and the first-round at the PG WWBA Underclass World Championship. The run to the quarterfinals in Jupiter was the highlight of the fall season.

“It was kind of storybook,” Thurman said. “We had to work our way into that tournament so we came out with a vengeance. It was definitely a fun tournament, with us being (one of) the youngest teams there and almost making it to the (final four). This next year, we have our sights set on making it all the way.”

Liberatore was named to five PG all-tournament teams in 2016, Gorman and Thurman to four each; Liberatore and Thurman were all-tourney in Jupiter. But their association with the Central Florida Gators has provided benefits that extend beyond victories on the field.

To hear Liberatore tell it, he wouldn’t even have received his offer from Arizona without an assist from Mercadante. His first summer playing with the program (2015), he told Mercadante he was interested in one day playing college baseball and the former college recruiting coordinator asked him where he wanted to go. He replied, “The U of A” and Mercadante made a quick phone call. That phone call led to another phone call and soon the offer was on the table.

“Just his connections with other coaches and colleges has been absolutely amazing and it’s really helped me a lot,” Liberatore said.

“Coach Joe is a top-notch guy and he’s helped me so much with all this recruiting stuff; I can’t thank him enough,” Thurman was quick to add. “The relationship I have with the guy is (second) to none.”

Thurman agrees that the upcoming summer and fall travel ball seasons will be the most important of his life in terms of garnering coveted exposure in front of the MLB scouting community. With continued development, all three could find their names being mentioned in 2018 MLB June Amateur Draft conversations, but there’s a lot of work to be done over the next 12 months for that to happen.

“Obviously, I’m looking forward to college but if the (MLB) draft becomes a possibility, then this is definitely a big summer for me,” Liberatore said. “Even just getting better and improving and getting ready for college after my senior year (in high school) is huge.”

The trio of commitments to head coach Jay Johnson and his Arizona Wildcats’ program wasn’t necessarily done by design. Gorman made his commitment first and Thurman soon followed, with Liberatore coming on board after the Gators’ Mercadante made that memorable phone call.

With an important summer filled with showcases and tournaments rapidly approaching, it would be easy for these talented guys to put a little too much pressure on themselves. But that’s not the case with Gorman, who is considered by at least one PG scout to be the best pure hitter in the national high school class of 2018.

‘This is just going to be a fun summer overall; I’m not stressing too much about it at all,” he said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun and I’m looking forward to it.”

On this Memorial Day Weekend, Gorman, Liberatore and Thurman are spending at least one more weekend playing at home with their respective hometown friends. This is about as relaxing as it’s going to get for a while.

“These are all the guys that I’ve grown up with and played locally with since I was 7 or 8 years old,” Liberatore said. “Whenever I get a chance to come out here and play with the guys I’ve grown up with, it’s always fun.”

Of course, winning a championship at the 18u PG WWBA West Memorial Day Classic would be a nice way for this trio of winners to launch their summers. And there’s no reason to think it can’t be done.

“You’re not going to be here if you don’t want to win; that’s our mindset,” Thurman said. “We’ve been working hard all fall and all spring to come out here and showoff our skills, and we want to win. That’s our number-one goal, is to win.”

First-round playoffs games at the 18u (Goodyear Ballpark), 16u (Camelback Ranch) and 14u (Camelback Ranch) PG WWBA West Memorial Day Classics are scheduled to begin Sunday afternoon.

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