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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

3 for the road at PG National

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Three of the top prospects that performed at a very high level at the 17th Annual Perfect Game National Showcase at jetBlue Park over the last several days shared more in common than just being grouped together on the Black Team’s roster.

These elite 2018s – right-handed pitchers Kumar Rocker and Ethan Hankins, and catcher Will Banfield – have known each other for about two years, and the roads they’ve chosen to traverse haven’t – and most likely will not – diverged from one another since they were high school freshmen

All three of these highly regarded and highly ranked prospects – Rocker is No. 1 overall, Hankins No. 5 and Banfield No. 6 in the 2018 class – play their summer travel ball with Winder, Ga.-based Team Elite Baseball; all three have committed to Vanderbilt University; all three are projected to be selected early in the first round of the of the 2018 MLB June Amateur Draft.

And, all three are top Georgia prep prospects from an area just north and east of the Atlanta Metropolitan Area. In fact, if a fan of Georgia high school baseball were to hop in his car in Watkinsville, Ga., and drive west for about 40 miles, he’d likely wind up in the town Lawrenceville, Ga. From there, he could head northeast another 25 miles and find himself in the small burg of Cumming, Ga.

Determined to end-up back where he started, the baseball nut would need to drive only another 60 miles southeast back to Watkinsville to complete the round trip, which on a map would look like some out of whacked-out triangle. But by doing so, the fan would have visited the hometowns of Rocker (Watkinsville), Hankins (Cumming) and Banfield (Lawrenceville) in just a couple of hours.

“Me and Kumar actually met when we were 14 – we go way back – and we usually have a little competition to see who can work the hardest and throw the hardest,” said Hankins, who turned 17 on May 23 and is obviously too young to fully understand what “way back” refers to. “Me and Will met two falls ago when he first came to Team Elite, and we got really close.

“When Kumar joined us in the summer we all kind of bonded and it was like we were the ‘twin towers’ and (Banfield), he was the support. He was like the ground, because he holds us up.”

Hankins and Rocker probably do look a little like “twin towers” to the 6-foot, 200-pound, powerfully built Banfield. Hankins checks in 6-foot-6, 200 pounds and Rocker – the son of Tracy Rocker, the 1988 Lombardi Award and Outland Trophy winner while playing at Auburn and an ex-NFL lineman – is listed at an imposing 6-foot-4, 240.

They can use their frames and their strength to put some gas behind their fastballs – Rocker was at 95-98 mph and Hankins at 92-95 mph during their respective outings at the PG National – and Banfield finds that nothing short of thrilling.

“It’s so enjoyable. They throw pretty hard and it’s pretty fun catching them,” he said. “Having them on my summer team makes it a little bit easier out here (at the National) because I’ve had experience with them and I’ve caught them before. It’s a lot of fun because they usually throw strikes and that makes it easy.”

As a trio, they have combined to attend more than 90 Perfect Game events and have secured 25 PG all-tournament team selections between them, all while playing for various Team Elite squads. And don’t forget that they still have another full summer and fall playing together with Team Elite.

They’re not wasting any time getting after it, either. All three were on the roster of the Team Elite 17u Prime outfit that won last week’s 17u PG WWBA National Championship Qualifier at PG Park South-LakePoint in Emerson, Ga.

… … …

WILL BANFIELD FELT LIKE THE PROVERBIAL KID IN A CANDY STORE the minute he stepped foot back on the jetBlue Park field – he was here for both the 2016 PG Junior National and PG National showcases – on Saturday afternoon.

“I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time now,” he said. “Perfect Game does a great job getting all these scouts here. We’re just blessed to be here and be able to show-off our talent and what we’ve got.”

This is the 32nd PG event Banfield has attended, and he has eight all-tournament team selections and three Top Prospect List inclusions to show for it. His TPL’s came at the 2014 PG Underclass Showcase-Main Event and the 2016 PG Junior National Showcase, both in Fort Myers, and at the 2016 PG Underclass All-American Games in San Diego.

An incoming senior at Brookwood High School in Snellville, Ga., Banfield has been considered one of the top national catching prospects in his class for three years now; PG ranks him No. 1 at the position. He was spot-on here this weekend, prompting a PG scout to write after his batting practice session:

“(Banfield) has shown his raw strength and quick hands many times in BP sessions in the past and did so convincingly again Saturday evening. He’s a rare catcher who has both the top-level defensive skills and offensive tools).”

“I love (pitching to him,” Hankins said of his summertime battery mate. “There’s not a better feeling in the world than having him make a pitch that’s not so much a strike, a strike. I love it, and it’s hard to imagine throwing to anybody else.”

Banfield became part of Brad Bouras’ Team Elite organization about a year-and-half ago, and honestly believes he wouldn’t be the same player that he is today had he not hitched his wagon to the program. He spoke specifically about Bouras and coaches Shane Hopper and Brock Bennett and how he’s benefitted from his association with them.

“They’ve just helped my game so much and helped my craft,” he said. “They kind of treat us like we’re college players and like the player that we need to be; they just help us so much.”

Even though Banfield greatly enjoyed having his pals Rocker and Hankins join him in the Black team dugout, he’s also in favor of expanding his horizons. One of the things he looks forward to the most when he comes to a national showcase event is meeting top prospects from other parts of the country – and other parts of the world, for that matter.

He specifically mentioned elite outfielder Jarred Kelenic from Waukesha, Wis., the No 3-ranked overall prospect in the 2018 class who has committed to Louisville. “This is the first time I’ve met him,” Banfield said of Kelenic. “It’s just really good to be able to meet everybody here; it’s a great time.”

Banfield gives credit to his coaches and especially his parents – dad William and mom Christy – for the development of his game and his development as a young man. “They’ve all done so much for me; I wouldn’t be the person or the man that I am today without them,” he said.

While Banfield acknowledges that this summer – the one preceding his senior year in high school – is an important one, he’s quick to contend that every summer has been important to him. He wants to continue to show those watching his every move exactly what he’s made of and what he has to offer both on and off the baseball field.

“This summer and fall, and this next spring before the draft if I have the opportunity to go into it, I’m just going to keep working hard because I need to get better in parts of my game. It’s definitely important and I’m excited about it,” he said. “I just want the scouts and everybody that has been watching to see what kind of player I am, and that I can live up to the hype that people have set for me.”

… … …

ETHAN HANKINS WILL BE A SENIOR AT FORSYTH COUNTY HIGH SCHOOL this fall, and it’s almost impossible to guess how many total PG events he will have attended by the time the 2017-18 school year starts – and there will be several more after it does.

The PG National Showcase is No. 37, and the national No. 2-ranked right-hander – only Rocker is ranked ahead of him – is showing no signs of slowing down. He was certainly excited after getting his two innings of work in at the PG National on Monday.

“It’s been a very good experience so far, just being able to be out here and play with the best players in the country, and for me to be selected as one of them is a blessing,” Hankins said. “Seeing all these names (in the rankings) and finally being able to put faces to names, and then getting to know these guys is pretty cool, too.”

Hankins has been named to nine PG all-tournament teams in his career, including at last year’s PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., when he was named the powerhouse tournament’s co-Most Valuable Pitcher; Team Elite Prime was the runner-up at the Jupiter, Fla., scouting extravaganza.

“(Team Elite) has really done a lot for all of us,” he said. “We love it there, and I really couldn’t see any of us three playing for any other travel team in the nation.”

Like his friends Kumar and Will, Hankins considers the summer of 2017 an important one, but he’s more intent on just going out and having fun for one more summer before this chapter – high school and travel ball – closes and the next chapter – college or the pros – opens. The lazy, crazy days of summer will take on a whole new intensity a year from now.

“If (the future) doesn’t go the way I expect it to go, I’m still out here having fun with some my best friends,” Hankins said. “I love playing baseball and I’ll just see where God takes me.”

Being in the dugout with Rocker and Banfield has made the PG National feel like home for Hankins. But he’s also enjoyed sitting back and watching other top 2018 prospects like Jarred Kelenic, Joe Gray Jr., Tristan Casas, Nolan Gorman, Austin Becker and Elijah Cabell take care of their business.

“It’s been a really good experience to be out here with everybody,” he said. “Watching some of these play, it’s pretty incredible, and taking away some of the stuff they do, that’s pretty awesome, too.”

… … …

KUMAR ROCKER HAS BEEN TO THE MOUNTAIN TOP as the No. 1-ranked player in his national class for more than a year now, but this special talent has never stopped learning the little things from these other top prospects that he continues to surround himself with. And that’s why, even though he’s been on some big stages already, he was especially appreciative of receiving the invitation to the PG National.

“It’s definitely a lot of fun to come out here and play with the best,” Rocker said. “It’s a great experience seeing all these guys out here and even seeing kids from different countries; just playing with the best guys around. There’s some real dudes out here.”

This is Rocker’s 24th PG event, and he’s received all-tournament recognition at eight tournaments, including the 2016 16u Perfect Game-East Cobb Invitational where he was named the Most Valuable Pitcher; he was named to the Top Prospect List at last year’s PG Jr. National Showcase.

“(Team Elite) really put me in the spotlight,” Rocker said. “I didn’t know much about Perfect Game until I was playing 15u (with Team Elite). And then (PG) ranked me and a lot of (attention) started coming in and everything’s worked out well.

“It’s a big-time program; everybody they bring in is going to be top-notch. We’ve got arm care, we’ve got everything – they treat us like college players.”

Rocker’s commitment to Vanderbilt didn’t come without a lot of consideration, but what sealed it for him in the end was the university’s established academic reputation. Rocker, a senior-to-be at North Oconee High School in Bogart, Ga., carries a 3.75 GPA and doesn’t take his school work lightly: “Academics have always been important to me. My mom (Lu) instilled that in me and that’s good,” he said.

… … …

WILL BANFIELD, ETHAN HANKINS AND KUMAR ROCKER have one more summer and fall to play together with Team Elite before they will go their separate ways. Based on the projections for the 2018 MLB June Amateur Draft, it seems unlikely any of them will enroll at Vanderbilt in the fall, but stranger things have happened with the MLB draft.

“(The draft is) coming up quick and I’m glad that I have some teammates that are going through the same thing, too,” Banfield said. “I’m glad that we get to talk to each other and have the same opportunities, and it’s good that we’re all on the same team and getting to go through all of this together.”

It’s an assessment shared by Rocker:

“Everything now is preparation for (the draft), and just trying to get better and try to develop before it gets here; it’s all a part of the process until then,” he said. “But I’m not looking that far ahead; I’ll see what happens when I get there. This is an important summer – it’s an important summer for all of (the 2018s) – and I’m going to take advantage of it.”

They’ll always have the memories, of course, many of which were just made at the PG National Showcase with many more to come over the next five months or so. These three Georgia school-boys ballplayers, these three top prospects who are likely to see some dreams come true on the first day of the 2018 MLB draft, can always look back and think about how they helped make each other better ballplayers only because they loved playing alongside each other so much.

“When those two are pitching, that showcases me, as well,” Banfield said. “I can handle their fastball or their curveball or their slider, so it’s pretty easy for me to catch them because (I’m familiar with them). It shows that I can handle somebody of that high of caliber.”

Trust us, Will, the feeling is mutual.

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