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High School | General | 3/4/2021

HS Showdowns showcase very best

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Slate Alford (Perfect Game)

HOOVER, Ala. – For a ninth and eighth year in a row, the Perfect Game High School Showdown and the PG High School Showdown-Academies, respectively, will spread their wings and fly this week as the Hoover Met Complex in this bustling south-Birmingham suburb opens its doors for business.

It’s not necessarily business as usual this year, however, and don’t take that in the negative. A record 65 teams – 27 at the Showdown and 38 at the Showdown-Academies – will be on hand as they scramble to make up for a 2020 season lost to the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID hasn’t gone away, of course, not that any of us need to be reminded of that insidious fact. But what is worth noting is that the two PG HS Showdowns were contested and champions were crowned in 2020, wrapping up only about a week before the virus brought the people of this country to their knees. For some of the teams in attendance a year ago, the Showdown games were the last games they played in the truncated 2020 season.

It was a surreal experience for many of us. Personally, I remember seeing for the first time a handful of people wearing masks on my flights from Birmingham to Chicago and on to Cedar Rapids on March 9 and thinking, this isn’t good. It all hit home with the subtlety of a sledgehammer just days later.

But I digress, even if ever so slightly. Masks and social distancing are still the order of the day but games will be played and a total of four champions across the two events will take home handsome pieces of hardware. And they will have earned it.

The talent put on display this week for all to enjoy is simply breath-taking, and that’s not hyperbole. Many of the top prospects from the prep classes of 2021, 2022 and 2023 (with a smattering of 2024s) will be out on the fields at the Hoover Met, much like you see at elite PG national travel ball tournaments during the summer and fall.

That said, this is different. Players have told me repeatedly over the past decade-plus how special it is for them to slip on their high school team’s uniform and sprint out onto the field where they can perform alongside their buddies who may live next door or sit at the desk next to them during an algebra class, even if, these days, that desk is 6-feet away..

Take that on the word of Dylan Lesko, a junior at Buford (Ga.) High School who also happens to be the best right-handed pitcher in North America from the class of 2022. He cherishes the time he gets to spend with Guerry Baldwin and the East Cobb Astros during the summer and fall, but the time he spends with the Buford Wolves and Head Coach Stuart Chester is even more valuable.

“It’s really just like a big family,” he told PG in December. “It’s a tight-knit community and everyone has each other’s back so being able to play for Buford has really been one of my favorite things. You’re out there representing your city and it’s just great being able to have a community back you up whether you’re at home or away; anywhere you go they’re always behind you.”

So sit back and enjoy what’s about to unfold at the PG HS Showdown Thursday through Saturday and at the PG HS Showdown-Academies Friday through Sunday. You’re in for a real treat.

. . .

THE 27-TEAM PGHS SHOWDOWN FIELD IS DIVIDED INTO THREE NINE-TEAM BRACKETS (Blue, Red, White) with three, three-team pools in each bracket; the three pool winners and one wild card entry will advance to the four-team playoffs.

IMG Academy out of Bradenton, Fla., finished as runner-up to Loganville (Ala.) HS in the Red Bracket finals a year ago and returns this week as a favorite to win the whole shooting match this year. The academy is sanctioned by the Florida High School Athletics Association (FHSAA) but operates independently of the state governing body, so it is not eligible to compete for a Florida high school state championship.

PG does recognize the program as a legitimate high school competitor, however, and has the Ascenders sitting regaling in the No. 1 position in the PGHS Preseason Top 50 National Rankings. They are one of four ranked teams in the Showdown field, joined by No. 4 Buford, No. 26 Hoover (Ala.) and No. 40 Bob Jones (Madison, Ala.).

IMG comes into the Showdown fresh off a trip to Arlington, Texas, where it competed at the Globe Life Field High School Baseball Showcase, finishing 3-1 against four of the top prep programs from around the Dallas area; the Ascenders bring a 5-1 record into the Showdown.

“We try to make it competitive every year,” IMG Head Coach Kason Gabbard told me when asked about playing in these high-profile out-of-state tournaments. “A lot of teams reach out to us trying to play and we try to play different teams every year and some of the same good ones that are always competitive against us...We take those tournaments as our playoffs and as something to play for. We just try to grind every game.”

It’s no secret that this Ascenders lineup can grind with the best of them – maybe even some lower-level college teams – armed with a roster that boasts the talents of 2020 PG All-Americans in outfielder James Wood (No. 4-ranked ‘21, Mississippi St. signee), corner infielder Tommy White (No. 17, N.C. State), left-hander Mason Albright (No. 31, Virginia Tech) and outfielder/lefty Drew Gray (No. 38, Arkansas) from a loaded senior class.

As if that’s not enough, Gabbard can also get out his lineup card and pencil-in several of the most highly-regarded juniors in the country including outfielder Elijah Green, a Miami commit ranked the No. 1 overall prospect in all the land from the class of 2022.

Left-hander Jackson Ferris (No. 15, Ole Miss), corner infielder Blaydon Plain (No. 88, Florida) and right-hander Davion Hickson (No. 97, Florida St.) add more spice to the Ascenders’ saucy junior class jambalaya recipe.

What will make this weekend all the more intriguing is knowing that the other two teams that join IMGA in Red Pool A – the Chelsea Hornets and the Florence Falcons from right here in sweet home Alabama – won’t back down when facing the Ascenders; nor will anyone else.

If you doubt that statement for even a moment, ask any one of the 17 players who return for Loganville this year – including senior first baseman/outfielder Jonathan "Daniel" Braswell (t-500, Georgia) and junior left-hander/first baseman Dawson Coe (No. 339, Tennessee) – if they were the least bit intimidated before they went out and blasted IMGA, 13-1, in the Red Bracket championship game a year ago.

Or maybe you can ask Lesko, a Vanderbilt commit and the No. 2-ranked overall national prospect in the class of 2022 (behind Green), or any one of his highly-skilled teammates with the No. 4 Wolves how they feel about backing down to anyone.

Right-hander/utility Treyton Rank (No. 341, Florida St.), left-hander/first baseman Jackson Brockett (t-500, Nebraska) and infielder/right-hander Connor Sampers (t-500, Wofford) will tell you that ain’t happening.

Same goes for Lesko’s junior classmates, with outfielder/right-hander Riley Stanford (No. 17, Georgia Tech), infielder Brant Baughcum (No. 172, Georgia Tech), infielder/catcher Jackson Gaspard (No. 379, Georgia Tech) and outfielder Stan Zagrodnik (t-500, Wofford). Looks like Tech and Wofford have made pretty good inroads recruiting the town of Buford.

“We have a talented high school team and our coach (Chester) doesn’t take that lightly and tries to schedule the hardest games,” Lesko said when asked about the competition the Wolves face throughout the season. “(That) really gets us ready for when we get to the (Georgia state) playoffs and then the playoffs get you ready for the summer.”

The Bob Jones Patriots will do their patriotic duty led by the senior standouts catcher/outfielder Max Soliz (No. 139, Arkansas), corner infielder Slate Alford (No. 208, Mississippi St.) and right-hander/outfielder Thomas Ballard (t-500, UAB).

. . .

TWENTY-SIX OF THE 38 TEAMS THAT COMPRISE THE FIELD at the PGHS Showdown-Academies tournament come from nine states (including northern outposts like Indiana, Minnesota, New Jersey and New York) with the other 12 calling Puerto Rico home. The teams will compete in eight four-team pools and one six-team pool, with the pool champion in 1-8 and the top-two in Pool 9 reaching the playoffs, along with three wild cards.

To call this collection an eclectic group might not be doing it justice, as club or academy teams from prominent travel ball organizations like East Cobb Baseball (Georgia), G-Form Artillery (New Jersey), Prairie Gravel Baseball (Indiana) and Team Elite Baseball (Georgia) will all be in attendance as well. And, let it be said right up front, they expect to challenge for the championship.

As an example, Team Elite looked north to build a roster that includes seniors like Massachusetts outfielder/left-hander Jonathan Santucci (No. 42, Duke) and Michigan shortstop/righty Luke Leto (No. 84, LSU).

And they’ll team with prominent juniors in Michigan outfielder Nolan Schubart (No. 7, Michigan), Michigan right-hander David Lally (No. 80, Notre Dame) and Illinois right-hander/first baseman Ethan Patera (No. 235, Louisville).

The G-Form Artillery Upperclass roster is stocked with D-I commits largely from the Midwest and Northeast. They include seniors in New Jersey right-hander Sean Hard (No. 266, Boston College) and Minnesota infielder Alex Ritzer (No. 470, North Carolina), and Iowa neighbors in right-hander Owen Puk (t-500, FIU) and outfielder Coy Sarsfield (t-500, Iowa).

The East Cobb Academy-Lemons roster is led by senior Georgia shortstop Rob Gordon (No. 61,Vanderbilt), junior right-hander Josh Lanum (No. 489, Georgia State), and underclass infielders Jax Phillips (No. 68, Georgia) and Luke Orfi (No. 243, uncommitted). 

Any way you care to slice and dice this, the 2021 versions of the PG High School Showdowns promise to produce satisfactory outcomes at every level. OK, “satisfactory” definitely lacks heft.

Let’s just say there’s going to be more than enough talent on the fields at the Hoover Met to take care of all the heavy lifting while providing plenty of things to love and cherish, even while performing in the throes of a deadly pandemic. Let’s all take a deep breath and appreciate what’s out before us.

And yes, you can bet that at least one veteran (re: old) PG note-taker will be merrily wearing his mask every step of the way now that he knows exactly what this is all about.

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