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Tournaments | Story | 7/4/2018

Future is now for NW Futures

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Tommy Brandenburg (Perfect Game)

FORT MYERS, Fla. – What could be better than celebrating the Fourth of July in a city that really couldn’t be any farther away from your hometown and still be in the continental United States? When baseball is involved, it really doesn’t get much better than this.

Players, coaches and family members associated with the NW Futures gathered at Terry Park bright and early Wednesday morning, probably 13 or 14 hours before the first fireworks would burst overhead in the air above the Gulf of Mexico.

The Futures, playing in this week’s Perfect Game 14u BCS National Championship, made a trip of close to 3,200 miles one-way from their base of operations in Vancouver, Wash., a distance that just barely tops the close to 3,100-mile trip made by the River Bandits out of Moses Lake, Wash. In any event, the NW Futures are here for a second year in a row and celebrating the holiday the best way they know how.

“We love it down here,” NW Futures head coach Nik Lubisich told PG on Wednesday. “For me, with young kids at this age – 14 years old – it’s kind of an opportunity to start their profiles in a nationally renowned program like Perfect Game. For these young kids to start this off before they hit their high school years I think is pretty important for their development and for their opportunities that may come in the next four years.”

Tommy Brandenburg, a 2021 right-handed pitcher/middle-infielder from Kalama, Wash., was all smiles before the Futures took the field to play their third pool-play game of the tournament, this one against Florida-based Elite Squad 14u Palm Beach.

“It’s always a great time down here,” he told PG. “This is my third Perfect Game event (in Fort Myers) and they’ve all just been a blast. I love the weather down here because up in the Northwest we sometimes don’t get the weather we need for baseball, but down here it’s a lot nicer.”

Making things even better is the fact that the NW Futures went 3-0-0 in their first set of three pool-play games, outscoring their three foes by a combined 26-4.

Twelve Futures posted on-base percentages of .400 or better in those three games, led by 2022 Ian Umlandt (.714), Brandenburg (.625), Joe Reitz (.600) and Ryan Orr (.556). Umlandt doubled in two official at-bats, walked four times and scored three runs; Brandenburg went 3-for-6 with two walks, two RBI, four runs scored and four stolen bases.

Lubisich used eight pitchers in the games, with Brandenburg being the only one of the eight to work as many as four innings.

“We’ve got just a whole bunch of different guys on this team,” Brandenburg said. “Small, big, power-hitters, average hitters, pitchers who can spot-up, pitchers who are power pitchers; I think we have a lot of good talent here.”

“We’ve been together for a while and we know each other,” added 2022 middle-infielder Cole Hubka. “We’ve got guys who can do everything, and I think that just helps.”

Lubisich, the president of NW Futures Baseball, started this program off by simply doing summer camps back in 2009 and it has evolved into an academy that serves the Portland Metropolitan area and on up into Vancouver, Wash. There are an outdoor complex and two large indoor facilities that serves players from the 8 and 9-year-old age groups all the way up to college prep teams at 18 years old.

The players on this 14u roster are all local kids, and while most of the guys are in the class of 2022 there are also four 2021s in uniform.

Many of the same NW Futures players here this week were with the team at last year’s PG 13u BCS National Championship; the Futures advanced to the quarterfinal round of the playoffs at that event and finished 5-2-0.

Nine of the players were named to the all-tournament team at its conclusion: 2021s Brandenburg, Jordan Head and Sawyer Parker, and 2022s Umlandt, Hubka, Nicholas Holm, Reece Walling, Zach Hauser and Colten Hesselman; other contributors on the roster include Camden Oram and Camden Christenson.

The core of the group has been with playing under Lubisich’s guidance since they were 10 years old, which means they are finishing up their fourth year together.

“That’s an enormous advantage for both of us,” he said. “There’s an evolution that takes place as a coach – you can’t coach a 10-year-old the way you coach a 14-year-old – so it’s been a lot of fun to grow with them. … The opportunities that these kids have to learn and to grow in the game are just incredible. It’s been very impressive to watch this growth in kids really all across the country at this age.”

Lubisich grew up in the greater Portland-Vancouver area, graduated from prep baseball power West Linn (Ore.) High School and went to play collegiately at Willamette University in Salem, Ore. The Chicago White Sox selected him in the 31st round of the 2001 MLB June Amateur Draft out of Willamette. A left-handed pitcher, Lubisich played seven minor league seasons (2001-07) and reached the Triple-A level.

“I learned a lot and I made a lot of good friends along the way, and I had a lot of good times,” he said. “It’s fun to pass some of those memories on to these kids from time to time but more importantly the knowledge that I gained from all those great coaches; I definitely try to make that a part of this program.”

Lubisich will be the first to tell you that he’s guilty of over-coaching, but then goes on to say that he doesn’t really care if these kids win or lose ballgames. It’s more important they know the game as well as they possibly can so that when the time comes for them to perform at their highest level – when they’re being evaluated by college recruiters or professional scouts – they’ll be prepared and at their best.

These kids are growing up in the Great Northwest, just like their head coach did, and unfortunately there remains a misinformed belief that the talent-level in the region lags behind that in the warm-weather states; its hogwash, to be sure.

But another reason Lubisich wanted to bring these players to Southwest Florida is that he wanted to show them that kids are kids and baseball is baseball and the playing field will be evened-out in the long-run.

“Yeah, they may be better at a younger age but if you keep doing what we’re doing, you’ll catch up and eventually the rare ones can compete right with them all the way through professional baseball,” he said.

Many of the players’ families make the trip down here, as well, and it might be easy to think that the team members and coaches treat this excursion to Southwest Florida as one big family vacation. That’s certainly the approach a lot of teams that come down from up north take, and it is how the NW Futures have approached it in the past.

Through experience, that has now changed. Lubisich said they now treat it more as a business trip, with certain rules like no swimming after 6 p.m. He wants his players out of the pool at a decent hour, eating a good evening meal and getting to bed early so they can be well-rested for the next day’s game.

“We were guilty of definitely treating it as a vacation at other national tournaments we’ve done and we realized it was taking a toll on our game play,” he said. “For us, it’s having fun, obviously – you’ve got to find time to make this all fun at a great event – but we also treat it like a business trip. We’re here to compete we’re here to play the best that we can.”

And, hey, they do find time to have a little fun, even if it is to be had at another baseball game.

“Last year we went to a Miracle game, and that was a lot of fun,” Brandenburg said of taking in a ballgame at Hammond Stadium where the Twins’ High-A affiliate, the Fort Myers Miracle, play. “And then we went out and watched some fireworks, and I’m assuming we’ll probably do that tonight, too. But yeah, it’s just really fun down here; I just love it.”

But this is a business trip first and foremost, and Lubisich is confident his young players understand that. It starts internally and is the product of the environment in which they were raised. Yes, most of the players on this roster haven’t played in their first high school game yet, but they’ve already shown their good ballplayers and, most importantly, good kids.

“This is a very committed group with committed families,” Lubisich said. “Anybody doing this type of work will tell you, to have success you’ve got to have the committed family piece and obviously the committed kids. It’s been fun having them for four years; a lot of talent in this group, for sure.”

Both Brandenburg and Hubka spoke of the high level of competition they’re seeing here this week: “There really isn’t anywhere I’d rather be … this is nice. I like all the (good) competition we see here and (the weather) is nicer down here,” Hubka said. As Jimmy Buffett once sang, “There’s no place like home when you’re this far away.”

The NW futures have two more days of pool-play in front of them and they’re certainly off to a good start on their way to securing a spot in the 12-team championship playoff bracket. This is a team that expects to compete for a championship, and Lubisich just wants to make sure they understand that they got on a plane, traveled thousands of miles on a business trip and they’ve been preparing for this moment their entire baseball lives.

“Should we do all these things that we’ve prepared for and by the grace of God have a little luck involved – we all need that every now and again – I think they’ll walk out of here with confidence … and the understanding that they can play with anybody in the country,” he concluded.

Happy Fourth of July from the Great Southeast to the Great Northwest …

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