Tournaments : : Story
Friday, January 18, 2019

Tri-State rolls into West MLKs

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Shea McGahan (Perfect Game)

GLENDALE, Ariz. – By Friday morning, Winter Storm Harper was well into its brutal march across the Upper Midwest, which made Phoenix’s West Valley an even nicer place to be in mid-January than usual, especially if you happened to hail from one of the states Harper was hammering.

It was sunny and the temperature had climbed into the upper 60s at the Camelback Ranch spring training complex by noon on Friday, just as play at the 2019 Perfect Game Upperclass, Underclass and Freshman West MLK Championships was hitting full-stride.

Count St. Louis residents Brock Daniels and Shea McGahan – teammates on the Tri-State Arsenal Scout Team underclass squad – as being more than impressed.

“It’s 9 degrees back home right now, so when I got off the plane (here) it just felt so good; it felt like baseball weather,” Daniels told PG Friday morning. “This is going to get you ready for the high school season; you always see great competition at Perfect Game.”

McGahan was right there on board: “Getting out of that St. Louis weather and coming down here and playing some baseball, there’s nothing better,” he added.

New Jersey-based Tri-State Baseball has a pair of Arsenal Scout Teams here for the extended holiday weekend, one each in the Underclass and Freshman divisions. Both teams are under the direction of head coach Ajay Vulimiri and both have some highly regarded prospects from the classes of 2020 and 2021 (Underclass) and 2022 (Freshman).

“Obviously, it’s early and we’re trying to keep the guys’ pitch-counts down,” Vulimiri told PG on Friday before his teams played back-to-back games at the same field on the Dodgers’ side of the complex. “A lot of these kids, especially with this freshman group, they haven’t seen a lot of at-bats so we’ll get those in because they won’t get those live at-bats until they go off to high school.”

The Tri-State Arsenal organization has been around for decades and through the years has earned a much-deserved reputation as one of the true anchor programs in the Northeast. New Jersey native Mike Trout played for Arsenal teams at PG WWBA tournaments in 2007-08.

The two Tri-State Arsenal rosters at this weekend’s MLK events are decidedly more national in scope, as the Scout Team designation indicates; both feature players from Michigan, Kansas, Missouri and Pennsylvania.

There are, in fact, eight Michigan prospects on the two rosters and the only New Jersey kid is 2022 catcher/infielder Sebastian Pisacreta, who was rostered with the freshmen but played for the underclass Friday morning.

“It started a couple of years ago with the ‘21s, and the 2022s got built off of their friends and it kind of grew from there,” Vulimiri said. “When you’re a top-notch organization like the Tri-State Arsenal, you have that name, that reputation, and people from across the country want to play (for you) because they want to get seen and exposed.”

The underclass Arsenal Scout Team features five class of 2021 top-500 prospects, including the Missourians Daniels and McGahan; the shortstop Daniels is an Oklahoma commit ranked No. 87 nationally, while the catcher McGahan is a Missouri commit ranked No. 222.

Other top 2021s include right-hander John Locker (No. 228) from Birmingham, Mich.; outfielder Coy Sarsfield (No. 275, Iowa) from Marion, Iowa, and shortstop Ty Gill (top-500, Purdue) out of Valparaiso, Ind.).

They used an eight-run second inning to beat-back Pacific Northwest Regional Baseball Underclass-Roy, 9-4, in both teams’ openers on Friday. The Arsenal needed only four hits coupled with seven walks to score their nine runs: Treylen White from Moore, S.C., doubled and drove in three runs, Sarsfield singled and drove in a run and Pisacreta also had an RBI.

The Tri-State Arsenal Scout Team freshman squad’s roster boasts four 2022s ranked in the top-100 nationally: right-hander Brock Porter (No. 58) from Milford, Mich.; right-hander Drew Lafferty (No. 70, Kentucky) from South Park, Pa., left-hander Dylan Dreiling (No. 73, Tennessee) out of Hays, Kan., and catcher Ike Irish (No. 100) from Hudsonville, Mich.

2022 right-handers Henry Smith from Athens, Ga., and Tommy Szczepanski from Essexville, Mich., combined on an 11-strikeout, one-walk no-hitter in the freshman TS Scout Team’s 3-0 win over Trosky National Black Friday afternoon. Splitting the innings, Smith struck out four without issuing a walk and Szczepanski had seven K’s and one walk.

The West MLK Championships’ place on the calendar actually made it necessary for Vulimiri to fill the rosters with players from northern states because players he had lined up from southern states are already getting started with their spring high school seasons.

The only concern Vulimiri has about the events’ timing comes with how to handle his pitchers. Most of them have been resting their arms through the late fall and early winter but caution must be used.

“That’s the toughest part, is the pitching,” he said, adding that he’ll probably bring a couple of his freshmen up to the underclass team just to eat up a few innings here and there. “Trying to keep them around that 40-45 (pitch-count) mark is not easy, and from that point on you’re just kind of running with it and rolling with it and going from there.”

This is the first time most of these Arsenal players have been together on the sane team, but even though they are still underclassmen, most have plenty of experience at PG events and have come to know each when sitting in opposing dugouts. And, as it turns out, getting them to play and work together as a successful unit isn’t all that daunting of a challenge.

“I basically just try to let them go out and do their thing,” Vulimiri said. “Social media helps a lot. They start talking amongst themselves and go the whole nine yards, and when they have those avenues they start talking and they become friends online.

“When you’re that kind of talented kid, all of these kids know who the good ones are across the board,” he added. “So, they’re at least aware of (each other) and talented kids like that can just kind of come up together and go.”

Daniels likes the arrangement: “I’ve played against them in the past so it’s fun to play with them now. It’s easy to play with them, really; they’re all nice guys.

The plusses of this trip the desert far outweigh the  minuses, however. Most of the guys spend their summers playing at PG tournaments in Florida and Georgia, and Vulimiri sees advantages in bringing his players west to mix it up with players from Arizona and California.

And as far as that goes, he can treat the trip as an educational one, as well. He looks at the prospect rankings, reads the scouting reports and now can put a face – or an arm – with the name. “It really makes a huge difference,” Vulimiri said.

“You see some California guys and I think I saw we’re playing some guys from Hawaii,” Daniels said. “It’s just a completely different atmosphere from St. Louis.”

Vulimiri, who pitched collegiately at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, recently attended the American Baseball Coaches Association (ABCA) Convention in Dallas and had the opportunity to sit down and pick the brains of several D-I coaches while there.

He specifically asked one of the coaches he spoke with what it was he should try to do while he was here with his young players this weekend. Should he, for instance, try to teach them technical, fundamental, detailed aspects of the game?

The coach he asked works at an SEC school and told him that the most important thing was to teach them to play the way college coaches want them to play. It’s the little things, really, like hustling on and off the field, communicating and learning how to field ground and fly balls and showing off their arms the right way.

“The message was to try to teach them that side of the game, which a lot of kids don’t know,” Vulimiri said. “It’s not more discipline, really, it’s just using it the right way. To play SEC, ACC, Power 5 baseball, there are certain standards you have to hold yourself to, and that kind of stuff makes a ton of difference.”

Neither Tri-State team came into its respective event with expectations in terms of winning and losing but, of course, deep down inside they expect to win; Friday’s results certainly speak to that. These are tournaments being played in January, weeks if not months before the start of these players’ high school seasons, and anything can happen in the dead of winter, even in the Arizona desert.

“When you haven’t seen live at-bats, 75 (mph) with a good breaking ball might beat you,” Vulimiri said, “and if your pitching doesn’t throw strikes early enough, it’s going to be tough.”

Win or lose, this is a respite, a chance to shake off the cobwebs. This is about getting away from home and into the sunshine, not having to worry about what the heck Winter Storm Harper is up to. Mostly, this is about showing improvement and  looking ahead to springtime.

“I like seeing how I (stand) as a player and seeing how I can get better,” McGahan said. “That’s pretty much why I’m down here, just to get some swings in and get ahead a little bit. I’ve got 32 days before (high school) practice starts.”

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