Tournaments : : Story
Saturday, January 13, 2018

Futures look bright at West MLK

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

GLENDALE, Ariz. – With two days in and three games under their belt at this weekend’s Perfect Game West MLK Championship-Underclass tournament, the world is as bright and sunny as the January desert sky for the Premier Baseball Futures.

The Cypress, Texas-based club – part of the well-respected and successful Premier Baseball of Texas organization – hit the leather off the ball and out-paced their first three pool-play opponents by a combined margin of 20-4 on Friday and Saturday, with one pool-play game left to play on Sunday.

Because the Futures (3-0-0) are playing in the tournament’s only six-team pool, and the top-two finishers from that pool advance to Monday’s six-team playoffs, they have put themselves in an excellent position to claim one of those spots in bracket-play.

The first two days of pool-play produced dominant performances from at least half of the 26-team field at the PG West MLK-Under, and Premier Baseball’s flashy showing was right up there with the best. It used 31 hits to beat Aggies Baseball Underclass (Watsonville, Calif.), the Placer Pilots (Rocklin, Calif.) and the Milwaukee Brewers Scout Team-Canada (White Rock, B.C.) by that combined 20-4 count; 14 of those hits came in the tournament opening 5-2 win over Aggies Baseball.

The close-knit team’s 17-man roster is totally Texan, with the players coming from cities and towns big and small, such as Houston, Cypress, Richmond, Spring, Magnolia, Waller and Bellaine. Seven high school juniors and 10 sophomores are rostered, and the success they’ve enjoyed to this point comes as no surprise to head coach Mark Nixon.

“This is a group that’s been playing together for quite some time; they’ve worked very hard preparing to come here,” Nixon told PG Saturday morning from the Dodgers’ side of the Camelback Ranch MLB spring training complex. “It’s a group that we’ve developed internally – guys that we’ve worked with within our area – and they’ve come together to come out here and try to compete.”

The difference in those first three wins was the bats, with 2019s Connor Phillips and Jared Lopez leading the way. Phillips, a Louisiana State commit ranked No. 314 in his class, went 5-for-9 (.556) with two doubles, a triple and two RBI; Lopez was also 5-for-9 with a triple and three RBI.

Top 2019 Reed Chumley went 4-for-7 (.571) with a triple, two RBI and three stolen bases; 2020 Josh Hill was 3-for-7 (.429) with a triple and two RBI; 2020 Colton Hitt 3-for-7 (.429) with two RBI and 2019 Zach Wall 3-for-9 (.333) with two doubles, and RBI and five stolen bases; the Futures stole 15 bases in the three wins.

“We’ve really been swinging the bat (well),” Lopez said Saturday. “It’s important that we score a lot of runs early because that way it takes some of the pressure off the pitchers. With the way we’ve played (so far) I really think we can (compete for a championship).”

Nixon used nine pitchers in the three games, and none of them worked more than three innings. Phillips, a right-hander, threw three, one-hit, shutout innings at the Brewers Scout Team-Canada, striking out nine and walking one. Another highly regarded pitcher on the team is 2019 left-hander Timothy Williamson, a top-500 national prospect who has committed to Rice.

The ultimate deal-maker for this team could end up being its pitching depth, which is vitally important at an event where the two teams playing for the championship on Monday might possibly be playing in their seventh game in four – or even three – days.

“We have eight players on this club that can throw, and their development has been very good” Nixon aid. “We have a real strong nucleus of pitching coaches back in Houston led by David Evans, and we’re just really looking forward to this team competing at a high level.”

Nixon identified Phillips and Lopez as the team’s two strongest leaders, but each of the juniors (2019s) on the roster are expected to contribute in that regard. And he was quick to point out that there are 10 sophomores (2020s) who are starting to emerge and show leadership qualities of their own.

Phillips has been a part of the Premier Baseball of Texas program for more than four years now and he gains more and more notice every time he steps on the field. He’s played up an age-group frequently in the past but has gotten to know quite a few of his age-group peers pretty well along the way, and he likes what he sees.

“We’re really upbeat and we like to have fun,” he said of the group as a whole. “But then when it comes right down to it, we want to win.”

Lopez started with Premier last season, assimilated seamlessly into the program and has become an important and valued teammate.

“I’ve gotten to know a lot of these guys and I’ve learned a lot from the coaches,” he said Saturday. “It’s good to get out here and play with these guys so I can get ready for my high school season.”

That provided a nice segue into a discussion of the event itself and its place on the calendar. The prospects that are here from warm-weather states are on the cusp of kicking off their high school spring seasons, and the PG West MLK Championships – Upperclass and Freshman tournaments are running simultaneously – can be a nice springboard into those campaigns if everyone handles things the right way.

The timing of the PG MLK Championship couldn’t be any better for these Houston-area prospects, most of whom will start working out with their high school teams on Jan. 26.

“They really look forward to coming out here,” Nixon said. “It’s great for us to get out after the holidays and get them ready for their high school seasons. … We’re looking for them to come out have good showings on the mound, and to show us what they’ve been doing during the offseason as far as hitting goes. We want them to come out here and compete at the highest level possible.”

Added Phillips: “This is a really good event. It gets you going for your spring (high school) season and your summer (travel ball) season, and there’s just really a lot of talent out here. Competition is a great thing, so it’s always good to have it.”

Nixon enjoys working with the underclass age-group, and appears to have a great rapport with his players. They’re at a stage in their very young careers where they like to listen, and they come in every day with high energy levels and strong work ethics.

Premier Baseball works closely with Lee Fiocchi and his Dynamic Sports Training organization in Houston, which provides a huge assist with the players’ development.

The players also benefit by having access to the Premier Baseball of Texas facility in Tomball. The whole organization gears its program toward getting the most out of each young prospect that comes through the door.

“We bring kids in that want to develop,” said Nixon, who carries the title of High School Program Director at Premier Baseball. “Our philosophy is to develop internally, bring kids in that want to work hard and get better, and who do it the right way.”

This event – one that is played-out ideal circumstances, both in terms of the weather and the playing fields – aids in that development, according to Nixon. The players can compete full speed ahead in a competitive atmosphere against kids from outside of Texas, and they can measure their own talent levels against the out-of-staters.

“This provides a way for them to measure their success by competing against other kids (from outside of Texas),” Nixon said. “They can see where their talent level is and see if they’re keeping up with everybody else from around the country.”

But the Premier Baseball Futures also want to win; they expect to win. The dominance they showed in winning those three games to open pool-play was noteworthy – winning rewards hard work, Nixon said. – but there’s more to these experiences than winning ballgames.

Everyone on the roster that is here this weekend, except for Phillips and Williamson, is still looking for a college to call home, and since they’re all still juniors and sophomores in high school they have plenty of time to make such an important decision. But it’s never too early to develop the good habits that will ultimately impact any offers they may receive in the future.

“I try to tell them that it’s as important for them to work just as hard in the classroom as they do on the baseball field,” Nixon concluded. “Education is even more important than what they do on the baseball side; the most important thing is finding them the right fit in college.”

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