Tournaments | Story | 9/11/2019

Sandlot Ready To Take On Phoenix

Blake Dowson        
Photo: Sandlot Baseball (Sandlot)
Sandlot baseball rolled into Georgia under the radar for the 2019 16u WWBA National Championship back in early July.

The crew based entirely out of Arizona had a long trip over to Atlanta, and pulls its talent from just one state – albeit one with a nice talent pool generally. People form their opinions on which teams stand a shot at winning those enormous tournaments each summer.

The feeling among the Sandlot crew was that not many people in Georgia believed in them to get it done. That didn’t really matter, head coach Bryan Rice said, because the right people believed.

“Our kids do [believe]. Nobody outside of our organization really does,” Rice said. “They really didn’t give us much of a chance. Our guys just go out and compete and throw strikes and it’s pretty fun to watch. We went in there and our main goal was to try to get into the playoffs because we knew how many top-tier teams would be there…Once we got in, we knew we had our pitching set up and we could make a run.”

Sandlot knifed through pool play with a perfect 7-0 record, outscoring its opponents 47-15 in that stretch. Three wins in bracket play advanced Sandlot all the way to the semifinals of the WWBA National Championship, where they eventually lost a one-run ball game to the eventual champions, Team Elite.

Tanner Smith, a catcher with the Sandlot team and an Oregon State commit, knew the team would fly under the radar a bit when they showed up in Georgia.

He said it was just fun to go over there and show everyone from around the country how he and his teammates play ball. It might not be flashy, but the wins speak for themselves.

“The Georgia tournament was one of the craziest tournaments of my life. It was the most fun tournament of my life,” Smith said. “I had so much fun with the guys. We went pretty deep and were successful and got to where we wanted to be…Our mindset was to just go in there and play how we play. Hard-nosed, blue-collar. Go out and have fun and win games.”

Sandlot wasn’t necessarily built to be a giant in the travel ball – at least not at first.

Pat Murphy, who was the head coach at Arizona State from 1994-2009 and is now the bench coach for the Milwaukee Brewers, started Sandlot in his backyard (hence the name). He built a field in his yard, and would have college guys come over and work out alongside his son, Kai, who is now a freshman playing at Oregon State.

The workouts eventually turned into a team, which eventually split into a couple teams, and here we are.

Murphy eventually handed the reigns over to Rob Gorrell, who is still the director of Sandlot. That’s how Rice got involved with coaching the 2021 group; he and Gorrell have coached high school baseball together in the past and continue to do so today.

In fact, a big emphasis is placed on each one of the player’s high school program. They don’t all play for the same high school – Sandlot brings together players from across the state of Arizona – but Rice said it’s important to heed to each player’s school program.

“We really don’t practice too much, because we want the kids to be with their high school programs, do everything their high school programs want them to do,” Rice said. “And we’ve got kids from all [Arizona] so it’s hard…A lot of these kids play against each other, so we kind of put this thing together two years ago.”

Rice said the most enjoyment he gets out of coaching is seeing his guys move on. Whether that’s to college ball or not, the next step in their lives is exciting for him.

But as far as the 18 guys he has on the 2021 team, he made it pretty clear there are 18 college ball players.

“We have five guys committed right now, but I honestly believe that every one of these kids is going to play college baseball,” he said. “Out of the 18 kids that we have, they’re all going to get an opportunity somewhere.

“The pleasure of seeing the kids move on, whether it’s a college kid or a pro kid, it’s all the same to me. You see the kids working hard, and there’s nothing better than seeing the kid get an opportunity to go on and play. Being able to follow along and talk to them, I talk to my kids on a regular basis, is awesome. My main goal is to help them in any way I can.”

The list of players to come out of the Sandlot program is already an impressive one.

Nolan Gorman and Matthew Liberatore are both alums of the program, and they were both first round draft picks in 2018. Jonathan Ornelas was right behind them in the third round.

Smith said it’s special to represent Sandlot as the next in line to produce at the next level, after guys like Gorman and Liberatore.

“It feels amazing, with all the past talent they’ve had and all the past success they’ve had,” Smith said. “It’s been a pleasure playing with these guys, and being able to show that I’m one of the next guys to come out of this program is surreal to think about.”

The five committed players that Rice mentioned are just the first five. There will be plenty more. But already it’s an impressive list — Smith to Oregon State, Wes Kath and Barrett Skaugrud to Arizona State, Ryan Campos to Arizona, and Braydon Rogers to Cal State Fullerton.

Rice knew the kind of guys he wanted to play for Sandlot. High-character, high-motor guys. Those same guys are now committing to big-time college programs and winning a lot of games on the travel circuit.

They won 10 games in Georgia, and now they are set up for another run this fall.

Sandlot will be playing in the PG Fall Upperclass National Championship Protected by G-Form this weekend in Phoenix, right in their own backyard.

Rice said they will take the same mentality into this weekend as they did to Georgia. Play hard and let the rest take care of itself.

“Our main motto with our kids is go out and compete,” Rice said. “We don’t really care who we’re facing. But there are some really good teams in this tournament. I know our kids will compete, I’m not sure how we’ll do wins and losses-wise. But that’s really not the most important thing anyway. It’s a matter of going out and competing.”

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