High School | General | 2/24/2021

Blue Valley rises in PG Great Plains

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Chase Jans (Perfect Game)

It’s never wise to underestimate the strength of a region within a region, if that makes any sense, and it most certainly does not when it comes to examining any one of the 10 Perfect Game High School regions that span the national map.

The Florida, Pacific, Southeast, Southwest and Texahoma regions share a lot of sunshine and, accordingly, occupy more than their fair share of spots in the PGHS Preseason Top 50 National Rankings each year. Some of the other regions – those that tilt decidedly toward the north – are often under-represented and that’s certainly understandable.

But in each one of those areas of the country there are pockets where top college-bound prospects prosper in elite-level programs. The schools may toil outside of the national spotlight, perhaps, but they also create environments that nurture success both on and off the field.

Such is the case at Blue Valley High School, with an address in Stilwell, Kan., near the communities of Overland Park, Leawood and Olathe in the Kansas City area. BVHS is a part of the PGHS Great Plains Region, an eight-state union that encompasses much of middle-America west of the Mississippi River.

The Blue Valley High Tigers are not ranked in the PGHS national Top 50 but they are the top-ranked team in the Great Plains, with their neighbors Blue Valley Southwest (No. 2), St. Thomas Aquinas (No. 8) and Blue Valley North (No. 18) also showing up in the regional rankings.

Head Coach Tony Scardino has elevated the program into the top-tier of the Kansas State High Schools Activities Association (KSHSAA) Class 6A (large school) baseball world. He has been the head coach at BVHS since the 2013 season and wasted little time energizing the community by winning the KSHSAA 6A state championship in 2014.

The school added back-to-back 6A titles in 2017-18 and Scardino received coach of the year honors from various in-state outlets at the conclusion of all three of those seasons.

“I think what we have here are kids that are accustomed to winning,” Scardino told PG during a telephone conversation this week. “It’s just kind of ingrained that we’re going to come in every year and we’re going to compete for a run at the state tournament; that’s just the expectation whoever the kids are. Fortunately this year we’re going to be blessed with great talent.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Blue Valley High School is currently operating under the hybrid model where half of the students are in class for in-person learning on certain days while the other half experiences virtual instruction. The plan is for everyone to return to the classroom at the end of spring break the third week in March.

The situation is a bit of a tricky one for Scardino and his veteran 2021 ball club, with tryouts scheduled to begin on Monday, March 1; 94 aspirants are expected to be in attendance.

The time the coaching staff has been able to spend with its players has been severely limited. In past years the coaches would run a full offseason conditioning program for anyone that wasn’t involved with other sports, but they weren’t able to do that this offseason because of COVID-19.

“I have great faith in our kids and know that they understand how competitive it is here,” Scardino said, indicating that he firmly believes his players have been getting the work in on their own. “If they want to play, they’ve got to be ready; they can’t just show up March 1.”

All of the top Tigers on this roster played at Perfect Game events during the summer once things got up and running in June. That helped lessen the impact of having the 2020 season cancelled but still left them eager to slip on their Blue Valley Tigers uniforms once again.

“A number of my seniors this year started as sophomores (in 2019),” Scardino said. “To not get their junior year, I think that they’re going to be really motivated to come out and want to compete and just have a great high school season.”

Once the gate swings open and Blue Valley High fans are allowed to watch this 2021 team run out onto the field, they’ll see a veteran group that features 14 seniors, seven of whom are expected to be starters.

Among them is the fearsome foursome of outfielder Chase Jans (No. 184-ranked, Kansas signee), right-hander/first baseman Carson Liggett (No. 292, Louisville), left-hander/first baseman Jack Tinberg (t-500, Louisville) and outfielder/left-hander Tate Gillen (t-500, Creighton), each of whom was a starter as sophomores; they are ranked the Nos. 4, 6, 7 and 13 top 2021s in Kansas. Jans is also an alumnus of the 2020 PG National Showcase held last June in Hoover, Ala., and was named to the Great Plains Region "Dream Team".

“That these four kids came in as sophomores and started was pretty amazing and it caused some tremendous ripples in our program, but it is what it is,” Scardino said with a chuckle. “They’re great players and we had confidence in them that they could compete at that level, and they did.”

Not to be overlooked is senior infielder Jackson Nicklaus (No. 256, Oklahoma), who moved into the Blue Valley district from Wichita last year with the intention of playing both his junior and senior seasons at BVHS.

That didn’t happen, of course, although Nicklaus – the No. 5-ranked overall prospect in the state – did earn all-tournament recognition at three PG WWBA tournaments last summer and was a Top Prospect List performer at the 2021 PG World Showcase in Fort Myers, Fla., in January.

“We didn’t have a chance to see him compete (last spring),” Scardino said of Nicklaus. “But obviously he’s highly-touted and we’re excited about what he’s going to bring to us as a program.”

Infielder/utilityman Jackson Hagen (HF, Pomona-Pitzer College) and right-hander/infielder Luke Johnson (HF) are among the other seniors who should play prominent roles this season; junior catcher/right-hander Sam McAleer (t-500 ’22) is also highly-regarded.

Blue Valley High is a member of the traditionally strong Eastern Kansas Baseball League (EKBL), a nine-team grouping that includes each of the other four Blue Valley schools: North, Northwest, Southwest and West.

Catholic schools St. Thomas Aquinas, St. James Academy and Bishop Miege round out the EKBL’s membership. Classifications change annually based on enrollment but the EKBL is predominantly a 6A-5A league.

BV Southwest won a KSHSAA 5A state championship in 2015 and now under the direction of third-year head coach Tyler Kincaid, it looks poised to challenge BV High for the EKBL championship this spring.

The Timberwolves boast the talents of right-hander Ben Kudrna (No. 65, LSU), infielder Carson Hornung (No. 108, uncommitted) and catcher/infielder Cal Kilgore (t-500, New Mexico State) in their senior class. They are joined by right-hander/first baseman Ben Bybee (No. 360, Arkansas) and infielder Cooper Kelly (t-500, Kansas) from the junior class.

“We all just go out there and beat each other up every game,” Scardino said of the teams in the league. “The conference is super competitive and the kids all kind of know each other, not just from high school ball but from summer ball, as well.

“The thing about Southwest is they do have a really talented club this year,” he added. “Their coach has done a really nice job over there bringing them along.”

Scardino first came to the Blue Valley school district in 2007 (he served as a varsity assistant at BV West from 2007-12) from Bishop Kelley High School in Tulsa, Okla., where he spent 12 years as a teacher and coach; he was the head baseball coach from 2001-07. The school won Oklahoma Class 5A state championships in ’04 and ’06, was a state runner-up in ‘05 and a semifinalist in ’07.

In past years, Scardino has taken his Blue Valley teams on a road-trip over to Oklahoma where they would play games against Bishop Kelley and other area schools, including traditionally strong Owasso HS; Scardino’s son, Jeff, is now the head coach at Bishop Kelley.

“There was a time, I think, when it seemed to be uneven; it seemed like there were just better kids in Oklahoma,” Scardino said. “With the advent of these academies and the availability of the year-round stuff that (the players) can do, I just think the brand of Kansas baseball is pretty doggone strong right now.”

Scardino has built the Blue Valley High program from its foundation up with a two-pronged approach every high school coach in the country also takes (or should take, anyway). Not only does he want great players but he wants great players with great character. Does he get that combination all the time? Most probably not.

But the players he does end up with will always possess a strong work ethic and they know that when they show up at practice they will be challenged. And they’ll also know that each practice will be organized and detail-oriented with the ultimate goal of having each player leave that practice feeling like he and his teammates are in a little better place than they were going in.

Just a few days ago, Scardino told PG he had a young man walk into his office and tell him that he wouldn’t be taking part in tryouts this year. Scardino didn’t question the player’s decision, and instead offered the kind of advice and encouragement that is expected from a parent and not necessarily a coach.

“I said, you know bud, that’s OK because everybody plays their last game at some point and you’ve got to do what makes you happy,” he told the player. “And that’s what I want for our kids. I want them to be happy with where they are.”

The veteran head coach with a veteran team doesn’t live under a rock, and he’s fully aware there is a lot of interest in his 2021 Tigers from outside the program, including outside the state. Scardino knows he’s going to have a good ball club, one that when it’s all said and done just might emerge as the top team in the PGHS Great Plains Region, right where it started the season; if that’s the case, a spot in the national top-50 is likely a given.

But with all the uncertainty surrounding this season because the threat presented by the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t been thwarted yet, he insists his players don’t allow themselves to be thinking too far ahead.

And that’s why when some well-meaning person in the community comes up to him and asks, “Are you ready to go to state?” he’ll tell them flat-out, no, we’re not ready to go to state. We’re getting ready to play our season-opener on March 17th and that’s it; that’s our focus.

Scardino has what he called a “what’s right in front of me kind of personality” so he’s not thinking about what May might bring. When it comes to this team he just wants to have the players prepared and ready to compete on March 17. You know, just trying to control the things that are in your power to control.

“My job is to keep us together and manage personalities and be a figure they can look to and rely on,” he said. “These kids are pretty sharp; they play a lot of baseball. So I just kind of have to make sure I don’t get in their way and let them play.”

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