Tournaments : : Story
Saturday, January 19, 2019

West MLK is Sticks' playground

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Braylon Bishop (Perfect Game)

BUCKEYE, Ariz. – The Sticks Baseball Academy travel ball organization built its foundation in Little Rock, Ark., three years ago, but it is here, in the west Phoenix suburbs, that the program established its identity.

The 8th annual Perfect Game Upperclass, Underclass and Freshman West MLK Championships reached the second day of their four-day runs on Saturday and the three Sticks BA teams played back-to-back-to-back games at Verrado High School, which sits on the very western edge of the Valley of the Sun. On this day and in this place, the Verrado HS field became the Sticks' personal playground.

It was, after all, at the West MLK Championships where Sticks Baseball Academy really cut its PG teeth, and a pinnacle of sorts was reached at last year’s event when the Sticks won the Underclass West MLK championship. Saturday's Sticks triple-header provided the organization with an opportunity to take a bow.

Boasting well-rounded rosters brimming with talent and confidence, all three SBA entries won Saturday and jumped to 2-0-0 starts in pool-play. No one should be surprised if at least one more West MLK championship trophy is carted back to Arkansas at the conclusion of this weekend’s play.

That perfect 6-0-0 record didn’t come easily as the upperclass Sticks needed to score four runs in the top of the seventh to escape with a 5-3 victory over California-based CCB Saturday afternoon.

“We had a (pre-tournament) meeting and it was unanimous that we were coming out here to try to win it again,” SBA owner and upperclass head coach Chase Brewster told PG Saturday morning before the first of the three game. “That might not happen but that’s definitely the plan and everybody’s on the same page to do whatever it takes.”

Brewster had no trouble filling the roster spots on the three teams he brought here this weekend. It seems as if just about every young prospect has heard of the success Sticks BA enjoys at the MLKs and want a seat on the bus. What started as a regional program is rapidly going national.

As a sign of the times, several players on the upperclass roster will be on MLB draft boards in June including PG All-American catcher/first baseman Hayden Travinski (No. 37-ranked, LSU commit) from Shreveport, La., right-hander Mason Auer (No. 174, Missouri State) out of Springfield, Mo., and catcher Kurtis Byrne (No. 56, Texas Christian) from Chesterfield, Mo.

Auer threw an inning in relief on Friday and ratcheted his fastball up to 95 mph. Travinski, it turns out, is on a visit to LSU this weekend and won’t be here until championship day on Monday if he’s here at all.

“I felt pretty good (on Friday),” Auer told PG Saturday afternoon. “This weather is amazing and it was really nice to get out there and put on a show.”

The plan is for all three Sticks teams to be playing on Monday, and if that works out for the upperclass team it’s going to be a difficult train to derail. The quarterfinal, semifinal and championship games will all be played that day, and on the upperclass side of things, Brewster seems set.

He will  have Auer, 2019 right-hander Colton McIntosh (No. 274, Arizona) and 2020 righties Ethan Long (No. 41, Arkansas) and Markevian Hence (No. 160, Arkansas) out of Gilbert, Ariz., and Pine Bluff, Ark., respectively, ready to go.

“They’re definitely coming out here for one more big hurrah before their high school season,” Brewster said of his top guns. “Yesterday Mason Auer runs it up to 95 … and that’s going to help him so much in the spring. … It’s just been such a blessing for these guys to have a platform to show their skills in January before the season gets rolling.”

There are plenty of MLB scouts in attendance checking out the action at the Upperclass West MLK, and it seems certain that Auer’s one-inning outing didn’t escape their attention (it certainly didn’t go unnoticed by PG scout). Auer was asked about the draft on Saturday and stuck to the script.

“(The draft) is on my mind a little bit but I’m here mostly to win this tournament and just help this team get another championship,” he said. “These guys are all really cool. I didn’t really know very many of them coming into it, but now that I’m getting to know some of them it’s a really good experience.”

As the Sticks Baseball Academy program’s reputation continues to solidify, more and more elite players from across the country want to be a part of it. It’s a “players first” program that treats the young prospects with respect, gets them involved in the best events playing against the best competition and surrounds them with top-notch coaches.

Among the coaches on staff at this event are former LSU standout and minor-leaguer Cedrick Harris, Cardinals area scout Dirk Kinney and Nashville (Ark.) High School head coach Kyle Slayton, recently named the ABCA High School Division II National Coach of the Year.

“We just try to get them good coaches and then we try to play in the big events,” Brewster said. “A lot of programs steer away from talking about the draft – they want to make it about it about the team. We make it about the team, too, but we try to let them know that, ‘Hey, your dreams are attainable and if everybody comes out here and does what they need to do individually, you can get drafted and you can get a college education.”

Several players rostered on the 2018 team that won the Under West MLK championship are with the upperclass team this weekend, including Most Valuable Player Cason Tollett (2019 No. 331, Arkansas) from Monticello, Ark.

“Last year was super fun and we had a really good squad,” Tollett told PG on Saturday. “I think our team is even better this year. We’re good enough to win it, we’ve just got to play good baseball. We’ve got the best coach in the country (Brewster) right there – he’s put a really good team together – and he holds us to a high standard; we’re going to give it our best shot.”

Thirteen 2019s on the upperclass roster are ranked in the top-500 nationally, a group headlined by the No. 56 Byrne. 2020 outfielder Nicholas Griffin (No. 34, Arkansas) from Monticello, Ark., and 2021 outfielder Braylon Bishop (No. 10, Arkansas) out of Texarkana, Ark., are playing with both the upperclass and underclass teams this weekend.

“It’s something I enjoy doing; I like playing the game,” Bishop told PG Saturday afternoon. “It’s a lot of fun playing with all the other commits and being around good players; the competition is so good.”

Having that much talent in the dugout can be difficult to manage at times, but Brewster has never had a problem with this group. The players are willing to learn and do what’s necessary to win, feeding off one another’s energy when they’re on the field.

“It’s kind of two-fold,” he said. “We batted 10 (on Friday) and everybody was trying to show that they’re the best player in the lineup and everybody has something personal to prove. But as a whole, nobody is afraid to bunt, or steal a bag, or hit behind the runner. The best way to play in front of pro scouts is to play as many games as you can; they can’t see you if you’re not playing.

“Not only are we trying to win a championship, we’re trying to play the maximum number of games that we can, just to get everybody more at-bats … and put together more stuff for PG to look at.”

The 2019 MLK Championships mark the beginning of the fourth year Sticks Baseball Academy has been in operation. Brewster said that in the first three years the program had 104 of its full-time players announce college commitments, including 22 to the Arkansas Razorbacks.

“It’s been a lot of fun with that pipeline because a lot of these Razorback guys want to get together and play together before they get to school,” he said. “The camaraderie and the chemistry they’re going to have when they get there is going to be a very good deal for them.”

The 2020 righty Ethan Long is one of those Razorbacks-to-be if an MLB team doesn’t first scoop him up in the 2020 June Amateur Draft. That’s a long way off, of course, and on Saturday he was just enjoying the here and now.

“When Brewster texted me about a month ago, I got really excited to play with all the kids from Arkansas and be a part of the program,” Long said Saturday. “Just being able to build that chemistry before we get on campus (in Fayetteville) and being able to have fun and compete with everybody is a great time.”

The Sticks players that spoke with PG on Saturday agreed that this is a special group, and even if they aren’t heading to Fayetteville in a year or two, everyone is happy to be here.

For instance, there was this from Byrne: “We have a lot of commits on this team and a lot of very good players. I’m starting to get to know all the guys – they’re all awesome – and we’re starting to really form a chemistry. I love all these guys, too.

“I’m not really used to playing in January but coming out here I feel like I have an advantage over the other players that are starting in February.”

And this from Tollett: “This is super special. Obviously, it’s always fun to play with a lot of really good players and we come in here expecting to win; we won this event last year. It’s just really exciting playing with a bunch of really good players.”

The Sticks BA underclass team won its first two games, downing both MN Millers 16u Blue and Power Alley Colorado by identical 9-1 counts. The official roster lists 13 2020s and 2021s ranked in the top-500 nationally, including the 2020 outfielder/left-hander Griffin (No. 34, Arkansas) and elite 2021s in the outfielder/left-hander Bishop (No. 10, Arkansas) and left-hander/first baseman Hunter Elliott (No. 33, Ole Miss).

The freshman Sticks jumped to a 2-0-0 start as well and are led by a pair of elite 2022s in Josh Pearson and Colton Sims. The outfielder/infielder Pearson is an LSU commit ranked No. 28 nationally and the infielder/outfielder Sims is an Arkansas recruit ranked No. 28.

Brewster said one of the highlights during opening day on Friday was watching the members of the freshman team stick around after their ballgame at Camelback Ranch (a 4-1 win over the San Diego Fury) to watch the upperclass Sticks play. Brewster told them they were free to go get something to eat for go play Top Golf or whatever, but the entire team stayed put.

“They were treating it like it was a spring training game in March,” Brewster said. “They don’t really know all these guys … but you could tell they were invested and cared, chasing foul balls and clapping. It was really cool just to see the younger guys look up to the older guys. Some guys watched all three games (on Friday) and it kind of talks about what kind of culture we have.”

Brewster mentioned “culture” frequently during Saturday’s conversation, and while he admitted it probably sounds “cliché” or like “lip service” to say it, but the program has never really have a kid stick around who didn’t fit into that culture.

That can be tricky as the rosters take on more of a “national” feel but Brewster swears the program will never forget where it came from or disregard its Arkansas roots. That’s pretty easy to do, he said, because there are so many good players in Arkansas to choose from.

“:We’re going to always play hard, we’re going to play right; that’s what we’re going to do,” he said. “So far, it’s worked out really well over the past three years and we’re going to keep it going.”

Brewster recalled that it was about five or six years ago that he first envisioned what the Sticks Baseball Academy program might one day become through its association with Perfect Game. The first couple of years were just a vision but the last three years it’s all come together and SBA now enjoys a pronounced presence on the national scene.

“It’s just unbelievable, even to sit here and play this tournament, it’s just been something that I never thought would happen the way that it has,” Brewster said. “It’s been surreal just to play in these events and to have these kind of kids want to come out every year. We do it for the kids and they all love it and  they love being a part of it; it’s been a lot of fun.”

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